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Obadiah Mailafia: The great patriot and technocrat who died too soon

When I heard on Sunday, September 19, 2021, that Dr Obadiah Mailafia, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a prolific columnist, had died, I was shaken to my core, utterly downcast. How could it have happened? A week earlier, he gave a speech in Akure, Ondo State, and wrote a column on state failure, published in this newspaper, among others. So, how could he die suddenly? It was a death that came far too soon!

For many years, Dr Mailafia and I featured together on the back page of this newspaper every Monday. His writings were steeped in scholarship, reflecting the depth and breadth of his readings. A development economist and founder of the Centre for Policy and Economic Research (CEPER), Dr Mailafia enjoyed nothing more than sharing policy ideas about how Nigeria could achieve socio-economic progress, as well as on political and institutional reforms. He prided himself as a public intellectual; and, indeed, he was!

But he was dragged into a political struggle. The plights of his people in the Middle Belt and in southern Kaduna, who, as he put it, were “being killed by genocidal insurgents, murderous bandits and marauding herdsmen militias”, moved him too much that he couldn’t stay silent; he felt the need to stand up for the oppressed.

Then, there was what he and others, such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo, called the “Fulanisation” agenda, the plan by the Fulani ethnic group to spread across Nigeria and impose an ethnic hegemony over the country. Dr Mailafia talked about this a lot, and felt that President Muhammadu Buhari was a supporter of the Fulanisation agenda!

Inevitably, as a result of his activism and agitations on these issues, he offended the Buhari government and powerful people in the North. The situation reached a head in August last year when Dr Mailafia told a radio station that “one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram”. All hell was let loose! Given the United States’s threat to expose the Boko Haram sponsors and given the Buhari government’s statement that it had a list of Boko Haram sponsors, it wasn’t clear why what Dr Mailafia said was so controversial, especially as he did not mention any governor specifically. Yet, he was incarcerated and harassed by the security agents and, indeed, wished dead by his enemies!

Anyone who doubts that Dr Mailafia had the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head in the past few years until his death should read his article titled “Notes from the Underground” (Vanguard, September 14, 2020). In that article, penned after his third invitation by the Department of State Security Services, (DSS), Dr Mailafia wrote: “I have received serious warnings that my revelations have angered some members of the political class to the extent that they want me physically eliminated”, adding: “I know that killer squads have been paid undisclosed sums to hunt me down and to have me despatched to Elysium”.

Read Also: Mailafia: Truth never dies!

He went on: “The other day, shadowy creatures turned up at midnight at my hide-out. I had to scale the back fence and disappear”. Last week, Jonathan Asake, President of Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU) said that Mailafia had to take refuge in different places to avoid persistent harassment by the DSS, adding: “He did not die as a free man”!

Now, although the government’s inordinate silence on Dr Mailafia’s death is inexplicable, there is no evidence that the state or anyone sponsored his death. However, if the Middle Belt Forum’s accounts of how Dr Mailafia died are accurate, then the proximate cause of his death was medical negligence! The stories of how Mailafia, though seriously ill, was shabbily treated by different hospitals and doctors are shocking. He reportedly complained that he could not breathe and asked to be placed on a ventilator, but the doctors, allegedly, refused. They also, allegedly, frustrated a foreign consultant’s attempt to treat him, and refused to put him on life-support even though it appeared he was still alive!

Although the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital (UATH) has denied culpability in Dr Mailafia’s death, all the allegations of medical neglect should be fully and thoroughly investigated. If such allegations were made in any civilised country, they would be thoroughly investigated by the relevant authorities. And let us face it: the Federal Government should, without doubt, probe the circumstances of Dr Mailafia’s death.

Truth be told, with proper medical attention, Dr Mailafia should not have died from malaria, the reported cause of his illness. He obviously had no underlying health condition. In one article, he wrote: “My grandfather and my father lived beyond 100. It is in our DNA”. Unfortunately, due to the battles he fought, the powerful enemies he made, and circumstances beyond his control, he only lived 64, dying just three months before his 65th birthday on December 24!

But Dr Mailafia’s life did not have to end like this. All the more so because, as a world-class intellectual and technocrat, he could have chosen a quiet and peaceful life. After his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Mailafia obtained another master’s degree from one of France’s most famous universities, Institut International d’Administration Publique, and a PhD in Economics from Oxford University, one of the world’s best universities.

Armed with the academic laurels, Dr Mailafia taught briefly in London before joining the African Development Bank, AfDB, rising to become a chief economist. It was from AfDB that President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government brought him home to become Deputy Governor of the CBN in 2005.

At the CBN, Dr Mailafia joined Charles Soludo, the then Governor, to implement far-reaching reforms. In a 2009 interview for Princeton University’s “Innovations for successful societies” initiative, aimed at reform leaders, Dr Mailafia listed three key reform programmes he was deeply involved in at the CBN. The first was the banking reform and consolidation exercise; the second was the policy support instrument (PSI) programme, under which a package of reforms was introduced, including exchange rate, trade, and investment liberalisations, and reduction of public subsidies; the third was the debt relief.

Talking about the debt relief negotiations, Dr Mailafia said that Nigeria’s external debt at $38bn was not sustainable and the Obasanjo took a “political decision to free our country from that kind of debt peonage”. That triggered the debt relief negotiations, which, in the end, led to the reduction of Nigeria’s debt from $38bn to $13bn. Dr Mailafia recalled how he felt signing a cheque of $7.5bn as the first tranche of the remaining $13bn debt. “I caught a fever signing that cheque”, he said, adding: “I said, ‘Oh my God, I probably have sold my country’”. After leaving the CBN in 2007, Dr Mailafia became the Chief of Staff (Chef de Cabinet) to the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group of States based in Brussels.

With these wide-ranging and outstanding national and international experiences, when he returned to Nigeria from Brussels in 2015, Dr Mailafia could have gone into the private sector to make money or accepted the political or public appointments. He did neither! As he once said, “I love this country too dearly; every corner of it. Public service is my life-calling, but not at any price.” He rebuffed pressures to be co-opted or compromised.

For him, the plights of his oppressed people in the Middle Belt and southern Kaduna were too important to be ignored. So, too, were the Fulanisation agenda and the struggle for a restructured, inclusive, and just Nigeria. To all these battles, he committed his last years, ending one piece with the following words: “If I perish, I perish”!

Sadly, Dr Mailafia, a great patriot, died in the struggle. May his soul rest in peace!

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