Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State is increasingly becoming the Rochas Okorocha of the South West. With very little effort, he might surpass the latter, the self-acclaimed exponent of iberiberism (an Igbo slang which roughly translates as “the act or state of foolishness”). In a rare moment of lucidity, Okorocha, the accidental governor of Imo and its first and, hopefully, last emperor, said the political equivalent of ‘iberibe’ (the Igbo word for stupidity) and its most fitting literary description, is taking much from the people and, in return, taking them for a ride. It could be boreholes or a few lampstands for hundreds of millions of naira. Or, as it was in Okorocha’s case, lining the streets with statues worth hundreds of millions of naira instead of paying pension and salary arrears. And as we saw in one of the crudest manifestations of foolishness on the streets of Ibadan on Sunday, it could also be the deployment of bulldozers to level the property of citizens whenever their political loyalty is in doubt. That was what Ajimobi did with Fresh FM radio station in the early hours of Sunday, when the station refused to retract a story that offended the government – in this case a claim on a talk programme that Ajimobi’s company gets a cut from every cow slaughtered in Oyo State’s new abattoir.
The government framed the story differently. It said that in June, the radio station was notified – for the second time in a year – that its building was in contravention of town planning laws. It said the Fresh FM building was structurally defective and constituted a grave danger to the occupiers and the general public, citing at least three deadly accidents that were traceable to the location of the building. On the face of it, the Oyo State government appears to have a reasonable case. Not only were notices of contravention issued twice between August last year and June this year, it claimed that Fresh FM did not respond to any of the notices or present a new building plan to reflect the original approval as requested. The untold story, and obviously the last straw, was the “offending” broadcast. Beating Fresh FM over the head with claims of violation of physical planning laws appears to be just desserts; but the devil lies in two important details: 1) the public confession of Ajimobi that he had been under pressure to demolish the property because of its critical views, and 2) Ajimobi’s tendency to weaponise the law when it suits him. The governor had granted an interview to the same station earlier during which he confessed that he was under partisan pressure during his first term to crush Fresh FM. “I did not see any reason why I should demolish the studio,” he said. “If Ayefele is not for us today, he (will) support us later in future. Ayefele is beside me now and I pray the business will keep flourishing.” As surely as a finger that runs through the butt, however clean, never smells the same, Ajimobi is wielding the big stick not necessarily because he is suddenly aware of the contravention, but because Ayefele has refused to dance to his tune. Had Ayefele waxed an album for him as he did for his arch foe and predecessor, Alao Akala, the whole business of contravention of physical planning laws and the demolition of the property might never have arisen. And as one insider confided, “The governor would not have kept Ayefele’s wife begging on her knees for hours on Saturday night, agreeing to withhold action, only to send in the bulldozers the next morning.” I don’t believe we can continue to live in our present urban jungle and shed crocodile tears each time dozens of lives are lost in collapsed buildings.
Tough – even unpopular – decisions will have to be made sometimes. But there’s a minor, important detail in this case. Fresh FM had been sited in this very location three years before Ajimobi decided to expand the road in 2012; so, the road met the building. Also, the owners seemed ready to show evidence of substantial compliance in court. But if Fresh FM’s building was a clear and present danger to public health and safety and Ajimobi knew this all along but condoned it out of political expediency, he’s just as culpable in the accidents that have claimed lives as are the owners of the property. How many other hazardous properties are still standing because the owners are either in the governor’s good books today or might be in his good books tomorrow? And how many ventures have been crushed not for their benefits or otherwise, but because the governor thought them expendable for purely political reasons? And all of this from a governor that is supposed to have a long and distinguished private sector experience? If public sentiment is largely on Ayefele’s side, it’s not necessarily because people think it’s a good thing to build a property on the highway. It’s because in contrast to the
governor’s pointless obstinacy that has left virtually all tertiary institutions in the state in lockdown, for example, Ayefele’s story of rags-to-riches, especially after the horrific car accident in 1997 that left him wheelchair bound, inspires thousands of young people.
If sympathy is on his side, it’s not because everyone believes Ayefele’s N800 million valuation of Fresh FM, which to be honest, is just his word against that of a predatory state government. It’s because whether the cost is eight naira or N800 million, Ajimobi’s standard response whenever his attention is called to such matters is that it’s not his money. If push came to shove, government money would settle the bill. It’s also wrong to say, as casually and cruelly as the governor did in a BBC interview, that public sympathy is with Ayefele only because of his disability. It’s what Ayefele has done for society and himself, in spite of his disability, that matters. It will take a fool worse than the one in Agodi to believe that with what the musician has done in spite of his disability, he would be unable to find the resources to rebuild his demolished property. At the heart of public outrage and disgust over the demolition of Fresh FM is the scandalous impression created by the government that the demolition is not about breaking a law, but about political vendetta. The shambolic resort to legalism makes the government look even worse. On one side of town, the government’s lawyer was denying in court that the government had been properly served a notice about its intention to demolish Fresh FM, saying his clients did not know who demolished the property.
On the other side, the government was saying, while dancing on the ruins of Fresh FM and likening Ayefele to a thief, that it was responsible for the demolition, in spite of any court process that had been duly served. Which was not a surprise. It’s not the first time Ajimobi’s government would disobey and dare the court to do its worst. Last year, he circumvented an order of court and installed 21 Baales as kings in a gerrymandering that has deepened divisions in a largely conservative, tradition-bound community, making the Game of Thrones look like an amateur movie. During the local government elections in April, Ajimobi also circumvented a court order, fasttracking not only the election which was in dispute but also the swearing-in of the chairmen. But when it comes to a property that had been standing three years before his government decided to expand the road, Ajimobi the artful circumventer of the law suddenly became Ajimobi the law and Ajimobi the bulldozer rolled into one. He could not even wait for the law to take its course. As we move towards an election year, desperate politicians, especially “constituted authority”, will do increasingly foolish and outrageous things for political expediency, if we let them. Would we?