"Are we supposed to be sad today?" A minister asked his colleague during last Wednesday's Federal Executive Council meeting.
Considering the circumstances, it was difficult to tell if it was a question or a request. The atmosphere was palpably gloomy. Usually jovial cabinet members wore a grim face, signifying a very dark moment.
James E. Ocholi, SAN, the Honourable Minister of State for Labour and Productivity whose unmatched understanding of public policy had made him the newest political star in Kogi, passed on 4 days before in a tragic auto accident, leaving his relatives, colleagues and the entire country in grief. The March 9 edition of FEC meeting was the first since the unfortunate incident which also claimed his wife and son.
The opening of FEC meeting that is usually marked by cheerful gestures and rowdy exchanges amongst ministers and members of the State House Press Corps became lulled. In low volume, President Muhammadu Buhari, a long-time associate, recalled his political journey with Ocholi before praising him for his "substantial contributions" to national development before and within the short period he served as minister.
Prior to his demise, I had just about three out-of-the-way encounters with Ocholi and I didn't get to have the one-on-one interview my editor was trying to help me arrange with him. But I learnt from separate off-record interviews with 4 of his cabinet colleagues after the FEC meeting that Ocholi was a highly dedicated individual who not only had a good grasp of his portfolio but also helped others understand the need for unfettered collaboration amongst all ministers.
"If I tell you I'm going to miss Ocholi, it means I have kept a lot of the things I find too overwhelming to describe," said a minister from the Southeast. "On several occasions, the gentleman showed subservience to me despite being well older than me, he's just like that."
"I have known Ocholi for over 20 years because we practiced law together, I was highly elated when his name and mine came out as ministerial nominees last year," said another minister. "I think it will be extremely difficult for Mr. President to find his replacement."
The two other ministers also echoed similar sentiments.
According to his official citation, Ocholi was born in Idah but spent his formative years in Oguma. He studied law at the University of Jos and was subsequently called to bar, having completed law school. His legal career took him to different cities across the country.
For yours truly, the most memorable highlight of Ocholi's political career is definitely his appearance last year before the Senate. Throughout his screening, Ocholi displayed a deep knowledge of the most consequential issues facing contemporary Nigeria. A progressive who did not flinch from the label, Ocholi reminded lawmakers that “Plea bargain should be encouraged instead of being abolished.”
Ocholi's portfolio must have come as a shock to him more than anyone else for he said during his screening: “I make a vow; I will be honest, I will look at the issues and say the truthful legal advice to the President.”
As he reeled out pragmatic solutions to Nigeria's forlorn judicial system, Ocholi kept his pitch upbeat, eschewed vituperation and, more noticeably, worked hard to show the country that his nomination has distinct quality from others without apologising for his doggedness.
This much was attested to by the President who said Ocholi's "hard work and humility" prompted him to campaign for him in many local government areas across Kogi State, more than any other gubernatorial candidate on the platform of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, in 2011.
The President also acknowledged Ocholi's immense contribution to the formation of the ruling All Progressives Congress in 2013.
Ocholi was the newest APC star, perhaps not for any obvious reasons for many people. On policy, the late legal luminary blends in easily with the progressives crowd. Egalitarianism, check; qualitative education, check; economic liberalism, ditto. Also fascinating are his boyish good looks, enviable oratory skill and his formidable exploit in legal practice.
Alas, his death has reduced all these to devalued novelties. The Federal Executive Council, the people of Kogi State and the nation at large will miss his contribution.
The Ghost of Danish Security Breach
This week, the Department of State Services, DSS, which is the primary agency responsible for the full-time protection of the State House, tightened security around the exalted premises, following an embarrassing breach in which a Danish security official pulled the trigger of his pistol to prove that it wasn't loaded.
The incident occurred on February 23 when Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen visited Vice President Osinbajo at the Villa. After initial tensions, the two countries later played down the episode as "inconsequential." Well, the recent security measures around the Villa, especially inside the Council Chamber, suggest otherwise.
Prior to the incident, there were no signs warning people about gun possession and all those who have security clearance made their way effortlessly around the Villa, but now, there's a ubiquitous sign that reads: "Weapons Not Allowed Beyond This Point."
Perhaps after being convinced that that sign may not be sufficient for deterrence, the security officials have printed a new access manifest that reads: "Access Control List to Mr. President's Office Area." A similar manifest was usually signed by visitors to the Villa who have no permanent tag. But now everyone is forced to fill it, including top government officials. No such manifest is required to access the Vice President's office area.
This had prompted many to query if the ultra-high resolution security cameras are no longer perfect for the job of recording those who access the Chamber. But their opinion would've mattered if they were security experts. For me, the DSS can't be too vigilant, especially given the prevalent security situation in the country.
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