Mrs. Obioma Imoke is 50 years old and I wish her well, just as I wish all the fellow citizens who marked their golden anniversary on earth that same day. Mrs. Imoke is the wife of the governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, formerly a senator. The whole world knows about her birthday because half of the eighteen local governments in her state bought full-page adverts in a national daily on Saturday, 5 January 2013, to congratulate her. I bought only two papers on that day, so I don’t know if the odes to vanity appeared in other dailies. They did not appear in The Chronicle, the state-owned newspaper, for the simple reason that it has long been run aground. Not that it would be all right if the adverts had been placed in the state newspaper. Nor if they were to congratulate the governor himself, or some other high public office holder, on the occasion of a birthday or other purported achievement. And I should add that I am writing about Mrs Imoke by pure happenstance: the culture of squandering tax-payers’ — sorry, oil money — on our public servants and spouses is not new.
The nine local governments that lavished praise and prayers on Mrs Imoke paid top money to appear in colour. To make it all official, each advert was embossed with the official coat of arms and the portrait of its chairman: Barrister (Mrs) Josephine Effiom, chairman (sic), Akpabuyo LGA; Hon. Linus Obe Ede (Bekwarra); Hon. Jonas Obi Otu (Boki); Dr Ekpo Ekpo Bassey (Bakassi); Hon. Ekeng Nsa Henshaw (Calabar South); Rt. Hon. (Ntufam) Eta Mbora, Mayor (Calabar Municipal); Hon. Denis Nkiri (Akamkpa); Hon. Dr. Emil Inyang (Biase) and Hon. Francis Ettah (Abi).
It is obvious that they meant to honour themselves as well, hence the insistence on displaying their portraits below the celebrant’s. It is also why they were careful to include every honorific title they could claim — note how there is no simple Mr or Mrs among them and how everyone is a Barrister, Doctor, Right Honourable or Honourable. If the governor’s wife was marking the incredible and astonishing achievement of attaining 50 years of age, the local government top-dogs were celebrating the power of office, of unaccountability, for which our country is deservedly famous.
But not so much as to lose all sense of proportion, thus the praise poetry of non-achievement. Here is Hon. Ettah’s poem (in its derogatory sense of vaporous nonsense), penned and self-published at the cost of over N560,000, the going rate of a full-page colour advert. “You’ve reached such a milestone in your life. Reaching 50 years is really a huge deal. Take this time to recount all the blessings you have received in life. And at the same time the chances for you to look forward to the next years ahead. Happy birthday!”
Or take this other poem: “They say that 50th celebrations are the ‘Golden Boys/Girls’ (sic). Well, that certainly is true because, like gold, you are a real precious treasure to us. Keep spreading your warm spirit to everyone around you (sic), and may you have more birthdays to come. Happy 50th Birthday!” Hon. Henshaw could hardly believe his luck of breathing the same air as the governor’s wife, so this short lyric: “We hope that in your 50 years of existence, you will realize how awesome a person you are and how thankful we are for having you in our lives.” She will, of course, have to relive each of those years in order to do so, but no matter! The only regret that Henshaw, purporting to speak for all of the people of his Calabar South LGA, has is that the governor’s wife is just too modest. So he pleads, “Appreciate yourself more!” Yes, please do, Your Excellency, for God’s sake, do!
I will not trouble you with the six other praise poems. I could abide such poetry of sycophancy if only their authors could claim to have mastered their medium, English in this instance, but I suppose poor grammar is a necessary complement of atrocious ethics and governance.
But to the bigger issue. The nine full-page congratulatory adverts, at about N560,000 each, come to a whopping N5 million. But that is beer money in a country where government speaks only in billions and trillions. I don’t know what a local government chairman in this age of reckless and unaccountable government can do with half a million naira. If in the position of any of these nine birthday poets, however, I would think of a primary school in need of a few more desks and books; or a community health centre that can serve as a proper dispensary and ante-natal clinic; or street and neighbourhood improvement. I would think of any number of things to do with the money in a country where more than half the population and nearly seventy percent of the youth are unemployed, where the minimum wage is N18,000. Anything but buying a half-million-naira birthday card for a governor’s spouse who does not need the fawning adulation. Unless, of course, she does. For who supplied those private photos of “Her Excellency” in various poses?
I think that all nine chair-persons of the local governments that squandered the people’s money on advertisements for themselves in tribute to ego and sycophancy should be compelled to replenish the public purse.