Please give Yemi Kale his flowers – He deserves them!
Rumours are a fact of this job. “Gist” as we call it in this part of the world, is an inescapable foundation of a lot of what turns out to be excellent journalism. A single line of “gist” in a room somewhere very often turns out to be a factual strand of what becomes an important story. Said “gist” for example, was where the initial indications about a Taliban sympathizer in the federal cabinet came from. First, it is a rumour, then it becomes a persistent rumour, then it is fact-checked and suddenly it turns out that there is at least half a story there. Finally, it morphs into an important national story with breathless wall-to-wall coverage.
Unlike the story of Isa Pantami, the story of immediate past National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) boss Yemi Kale will probably never receive wall-to-wall coverage, which is a shame. Perhaps it is because the source of the “gist” where this story emanates from is far too credible for it to even be classified as a rumour. Perhaps it is because the good doctor has already made a valiant attempt to tell his story by himself. I suspect that the main reason is actually that unlike in Pantami’s case, this is not a story about a dangerous, terrible human being occupying an exalted office, but rather the story of a good man in public service who managed to become powerful enough to do his job well – what an awfully boring story that is.
Hurdles, obstacles, and sabotage
I cannot name the source of this “gist” of course, so the reader is free to believe or discountenance the things that I will reveal here. I pinky swear that they are all true, and that is really the best I can do given the circumstances. This source after all, had first name access to Kale while he dealt with scarcely believable instances of sabotage and interference while building the NBS into the institution it is today. Sabotage such as not being given access to the erstwhile NBS website for example.
Believe it or not, the prior occupant of that seat either did not deem it fit to hand over properly, or had lost access to the (then still active) nbs.gov.ng domain. Maybe even both, who knows? Kale’s first task in 2011, was to build a new website for the agency, which became nigerianstat.gov.ng we are familiar with today. His next job was to recruit a team of statisticians working under his supervision, but outside the payroll of the Nigerian government.
On one occasion, Kale intentionally sent out a monthly inflation report to media and multilateral partners a few hours earlier than usual because he was being called for an “urgent meeting”
By using staff of multilateral organisations such as the World Bank seconded to the NBS, Kale thus circumvented the possibility of the government meddling with the agency’s work. Following the start of his second 5-year term in 2016, Kale found himself increasingly under pressure from the Buhari government to falsify stats and massage data to make them look less bad. On one occasion, Kale intentionally sent out a monthly inflation report to media and multilateral partners a few hours earlier than usual because he was being called for an “urgent meeting” at Aso Rock where he knew he would be coerced into fiddling with the data.
There were several other incidents of attempted meddling and sabotage, sometimes involving things as mundane as facility management services for the Bureau’s physical office location. It was after I was made aware of this state of affairs that I wrote in this column two years ago that the Buhari government is determined to wage a war on data and make up its own facts. The headline I chose was “Nigeria and reality are in divorce court.” Now I suppose, the divorce is final.
The king is dead: Long live Harry Potter
Now we are in the Simon Harry era. Handpicked by Aso Rock for his “loyalty,” the new aptly-named Statistician-General of the Federation has already started draping invisibility cloaks around certain data that used to be publicly available. Foreign trade and inflation reports, which used to appear promptly on the NBS website every month have now disappeared, with only Reuters mysteriously having access to them. Harry has pointed his wand at the fearsome information infrastructure his predecessor built and quietly whispered “Evanesco.” We don’t know it yet, but we are now entering the Great Nigerian Data Famine. Over the next few years, we will once again find ourselves using World Bank estimates and Hail Mary guesswork. We have been spoiled by Kale.
Admittedly, if Kale had allowed himself to be used as an arm of Lai Mohammed’s Ministry of Truth or Buhari’s People’s Revolutionary Politburo, we would be talking about him in a very different way. Perhaps if he had resigned in a huff and jetted out into the sunset instead of being sabotaged while doing what effectively amounted to voluntary national service, we would talk about him as a temperamental hothead. At least we would be talking about him. Instead, he did neither of those things, so all he gets is a measly column dedicated to the quiet, drama-free, and principled statistician who refused to compromise the sanctity of numbers and data.
To coin a popular journalistic cliche, when a man bites a dog, it is time to roll out the cameras, but when a dog bites Yemi Kale?
What a boring story that is.