By Azubuike Ishiekwene
Whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau mis-credited the words to Marie-Antionette in Confessions or not, Nigeria is happy to supply a modern-day princess who has earned the title of Her Royal Spite-tress without controversy.
And unlike Antionette reputed to have tossed the infamous pate, “Let them eat cake”, out her window when the mass of ordinary people in France were dying for breadcrumbs, her Nigerian cousin travelled thousands of miles to find her groove.
Ebele Obiano is the wife of Willie, governor of one of Nigeria’s five south eastern states, with a long list of grievances against the Federal Government.
Let’s be clear. Anambra is not one of the basket cases in the south east, even though it has a wretched reputation for nasty politics. In the last seven years, Governor Willie Obiano, building on the solid work of his predecessor, the legendarily stingy Peter Obi, has managed to raise the performance of the state in competitive public examination and agriculture.
But in less than two years, a second episode of extravagant indiscretion by the governor’s wife now casts a long shadow over the legacy of the state’s first family.
The commissioned and published video of the governor’s wife sitting in the “owner’s corner” of her jeep and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the US while coronavirus-related deaths are spiking back home makes Antionette look like a saint.
Ebele Obiano took care to ensure her jab was not just medical tourism at its ludicrous best. It was also a calculated fashion statement. There she was ensconced in her 4X4, in brown pants and a black-sequins blouse, with a reporter on the deck to capture the historic event for posterity. It was a Nollywood moment.
As the tape was rolling in faraway Houston, Texas, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was reporting more COVID-19 infections back home and the number of the dead was climbing. You would think that the wife of a public official who truly has the interest of her people at heart but could do nothing to improve their safety, would, at least, do nothing to compound their misery.
It’s hardly so with government officials and their families. It’s a global plague, but somehow, Nigerian officials always manage to squeeze themselves into notoriety’s reserved list. In October, thousands of angry mobs broke into warehouses across the country to help themselves to large amounts of foodstuff and staple which could have been distributed at the height of the government-imposed lockdown but were left to rot, while huge supplies were diverted or weaponised for politics.
Anambra, where Ebele Obiano’s husband is governor, was one of the worst hit states by the “palliatives riots”. Protesters estimated at 2,000 broke into a warehouse in the state capital and, in a moment of genius lacking in the French Revolution, helped themselves to bread, noodles, grains and whatever else they could find.
If there was a vaccine strongroom anywhere in the country today, after watching the video of Ebele Obiano’s designer vaccination, distraught citizens might be obliged to ask themselves why they shouldn’t breach the storage.
Ebele Obiano is not a stranger to controversy. She once spotted a pair of crystal-studded Gucci glasses estimated by some to be worth only $2,755 or the equivalent, at current prices, of three years’ minimum wage in the country.
To be fair, the governor’s wife was wearing something much plainer than Gucci – and perhaps cheaper – on the day she took vaccination in Houston.
But Gucci or fluffy, it’s difficult for her to see, from her high horse, what the people who elected her husband to office are seeing. It’s difficult for her to see that they need clean water (unavailable to the majority) to sanitise; that they need clear safety guidelines, and possibly face mask mandates; that they need more testing and information about signs to look out for in case of infection; and that they need where to find help, when necessary.
It’s stunning beyond belief that for all her elegance and the trouble of traveling over 10,000miles to be on record as the first publicly advertised wife of a public officer in the world to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she still couldn’t make out the type of vaccine she was getting, whether it was “Moderna,” or “Madonna” as she called it.
It’s not funny. And as the tape rolled and she fielded questions from the one-man interviewing crew, she wore her heart on sleeve, saying, “When there’s a war, you do not because of bullets catching you stop…or refuse to go to war. You have to go, you have to fight, you have to survive…”
That’s so easy to say, especially when you’re fighting the war thousands of miles away from home turf, in a place where you can have the best of what money can buy and at the expense of the public treasury. But she was not done yet.
She invoked God’s name half a dozen times for the protection of citizens back home, but knowing the length she travelled to get the jab, it was obvious that she did not believe in God deep enough to protect her from catching the virus back home. In the legend of that old trade, snake oil was always good enough for the buyer, but never so effective for the seller.
Ebele Obiano might reply that it’s not her job to provide more testing kits, mandate face masks, or provide vaccines. If the Nigerian government ever so famous for putting the cart before the horse is already talking about “ramping up oxygen production centres” when it is not even sure how many people are being tested daily, much less how many are infected or dying, why should the wife of a provincial governor be excoriated for looking after herself?
Nigeria does not know whether it is losing or winning the war on COVID-19. It’s a game of convenient guestimates. Yet, poorly collated infection figures are turning into names and names into friends and relatives dying or struggling with their lives. The NCDC which showed so much promise early on is almost now overwhelmed by poor execution and a lack of staying power – that ancient Nigerian disease.
The governor’s wife may have arranged a designer COVID-19 vaccination – even hinting in the video that her husband could be next on the Houston vax train – but she’s not the only public figure who has provided this shameless public entertainment.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, one of the most present faces in the presidential campaign circuit, also took his jab in Dubai. The man who was just a heartbeat away from the Presidency lavishly distributed photos of himself taking the jab long before Ebele Obiano boarded the flight to Houston.
Abubakar may argue that he is now a private citizen and can therefore spend his money the way he likes. That’s true. But if his roadmap to make Nigeria great again includes a prominent chapter on how to perpetuate medical tourism, then we’re back to square one. I’m sure there are hundreds of people – including public and private citizens – all over the world paying to get the jab and getting it quietly through different means, because they can afford it and cannot wait in line.
As vaccines rollout, the difference between rich and poor countries are showing, just as the distinction between rich and poor citizens of the same country is in stark evidence. Perhaps that’s inevitable. But to make that distinction the new face of medical tourism and to share the videos of such designer encounters to a desperate, hurting world is insensitive. Period.
I understand Ebele Obiano said she did it to dispel the prevalent notion in some circles back home that vaccination is evil. Well, except if she is taking the jab for the six million people in her state, the effect of her good intention is to say to the public, “Let them eat faith”.
Mr Ishiekwene, former Executive Director of The Punch and Leadership newspapers is presently the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview