Sometime in 2002, I was in my office as editor of the Sunday edition of THISDAY when some officials of the Abia State Government walked in with a photograph they said was exclusive to my paper.
It was then Governor Orji Uzor Kalu in a classroom among other students of Abia State University (ABSU). He was said to be sitting for an examination at the university. Even without the solicitation, I knew it was a remarkable photograph fit only for the front page because of its news value.
However, after my guests had left, I spent considerable time examining the photograph and ruminating over its real essence. After a while, I concluded that I would be doing the readers a disservice if I just put the photograph on the front page without a few lines. Then I began to write what turned out to be one of my most memorable back-page columns. The pertinent questions I interrogated were whether it was not incestuous that the Visitor to a university was also a student; whether Kalu could combine being a student with his stewardship as governor; whether any lecturer would dare to fail a governor who practically “owned” the school. Of course, the fact of the photograph itself amused me in that examination halls are not where you invite paparazzi to while I wondered what would happen if His Excellency were caught “giraffing” into the exam sheet of his student-colleague seated behind him. When I finished what turned out to be a rather hilarious piece, I chose a title which became popular in describing Kalu’s educational adventure at the time: Eze Goes to School!
While the Abia officials who brought the photograph did not take kindly to my piece, Kalu himself saw the lighter part of it such that up till today anytime he sees me, the first thing he would say is “Olusegun Adeniyi... Eze goes to school.” The title of course was not mine as most people know. I borrowed it from a book written by Onuora Nzekwu, a popular school text in the seventies and eighties. But it helped to put in perspective what I considered to be the absurdity of the whole drama.
On reflection, one could argue that Kalu, in his queer manner, was projecting the value of university education and that it is never too late to seek knowledge. So, whatever one may have felt at the time, Kalu’s degree, warts and all, does no damage to Abia State University. In any case, since the former governor is a man of considerable means (a status he attained even before public office), it is inconceivable that he wanted the Abia certificate to seek paid employment and the fact that he chose his local university to pursue his dream may even be a good advertisement for the brand. The challenge now is that while Eze may indeed have gone to school, the new powers-that-be in Abia State have decreed that the certificate he obtained would not be worth the paper on which it was written!
A public statement last Thursday by the spokesman to the current Abia State governor, Mr. Theodore Orji, had given hint of what was to come. According to Mr. Ugochukwu Emezue, there had been a petition against Kalu alleging that the former governor (under whom the current governor served for eight years as chief of staff) was not properly admitted into ABSU and that he merely arm-twisted the school authorities to get himself into the university at the time. Emezue said further that the findings from the investigations (he did not specify who conducted these investigations and how he came about the report) were that the transcript Kalu sent to ABSU from the University of Maiduguri did not bear the letter head of that institution and that he did not observe the mandatory matriculation, having dropped out from another university.
Deriving from the foregoing, Emezue declared with a tone of finality that Kalu is not a graduate of ABSU. Barely 24 hours later, the ABSU Registrar, Mr. O. E. Onuoha, gave a final seal of approval to what the governor had earlier decreed. He said Kalu’s degree had been revoked “on the strength of the findings and recommendations of an investigative panel into allegations of breach of the extant Academic Regulations of Abia State University”. He added that the decision was taken “by the Senate of Abia State University at its resumed 69th Extra-Ordinary meeting of Friday 1st March 2013 and by a vote of eighty-eight (88) against three (3) dissenting voices only, approved the cancellation and withdrawal of the degree result and certificate awarded to him.”
While it may be within the prerogative of a university to revoke a certificate of any graduate, there are three critical issues in the Kalu saga that are rather worrying. The first is that if indeed a petition was written against Kalu, there was no way a proper investigation could have been conducted without the former governor being invited to defend himself and the certificate he obtained. In this instance, nothing of sort was done which then suggests the so-called-panel, assuming there was one, already had a pre-determined end. The second flows from the first: the involvement of the Abia State government in what ordinarily should be an internal ABSU administrative matter demonstrates how our public officials leave substantive matters to chase shadows. Even if Kalu’s degree was dubious, how does all the drama and attention by the Abia authorities to invalidate it advance the cause of governance in the state? The third and most critical concern for me is that with so much petty politics in town, morality and public decency have also been thrown to the dogs.
I have in recent times heard and read tales about the relationship between the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and his political benefactor and predecessor, President Olusegun Obasanjo. But most of them are false. As it is usual between political godfather and godson in our climes, the relationship between Obasanjo and my late boss was an uneasy one but I can never forget the day, late in 2007 when he called me in the presence of other aides and said: “Segun, as long as you work for me, whenever people are attacking Baba (Obasanjo), please don’t join in the discussion except you want to defend him.”
So throughout my stint as Yar’Adua’s spokesman, I never joined issues with Obasanjo, not even when he made virulent comments about my boss and neither did any official of the Yar’Adua government to my recollection. The point here is that whatever the ill-feelings there were, Yar’Adua was always conscious of the fact that he became president through Obasanjo’s facilitation. There is a lesson here for Governor Orji.
I am aware of the overbearing nature of godfather-governors and in the case of Abia, there is the added complication of having to contend also with an all-powerful “Mother Excellency”. But the story of how Kalu pulled all the stops in 2007 to ensure Orji became governor against all odds and at a time he (Orji) was under detention is public knowledge. So if only for that reason, all the current attempts to humiliate his predecessor are for me clearly wrong-headed as they tell more about his (Orji’s) person than on Kalu. Whatever the subterfuge being weaved, any objective observer can see very clearly that the ABSU certificate saga was not designed to right a wrong or to instill accountability: it was orchestrated by Governor Orji to deal a decisive blow on Kalu in a manner which smells nothing but petty politics and abuse of power. To worsen matters, in the bid to get even with one man, the Abia State University has now been exposed as lacking in integrity with all the certificates it has ever issued questionable.
I know there are many readers out there who would wonder what the big deal is about revoking Kalu’s certificate which indeed may not have been properly obtained, even by my own previous writing on the issue. But they will miss the point if they look at it that way. The issue here is that the impulse which drives wielding power to settle personal scores is the same that fuels the might-is-right belief with which many of our public officials see nothing wrong in appropriating to themselves government funds at their disposal. The corollary is that any society that condones such naked abuse of power is clearly endangered. So to that extent, while I am cynical about the ABSU degree certificate obtained by Kalu, I strongly abhor the way it was revoked by Governor Orji’s sleight of hand. Because it is wrong.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 13th February 2013