OBITUARY: Obadiah Mailafia, the foremost economist who saw politics as ‘call of destiny’

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There is a popular African proverb that says “death is like a robe everyone has to wear”. But its inevitability and unpredictability mean that as humans, we might never know the exact second, minute, hour, and day we will have to don the robe. On Sunday, Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), put on the robe at the National Hospital Abuja. The news came as a surprise to many Nigerians, in fact, it sent shock waves across the country.

FROM RANDA TO OXFORD

Mailafia was born on December 24, 1956 in Randa, Sanga LGA, Kaduna state. After attending Musha Sudan United Mission School for his primary education between 1964 and 1969, he proceeded to Mada Hills Secondary School, Akwanga, from 1970 to 1975.

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He obtained a university education at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria from 1974 to 1978. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, getting the highest grade of the graduating class. Mailafia was posted to Akoko Anglican Grammar School, Arigidi-Ikare in Ondo state for his national service where he taught government and economics. After the conclusion of his national service, he returned to ABU to take up the role of a research assistant.

Mailafia later won a French foreign ministry scholarship which took him to France from 1984 to 1986 to study international economics at ENA-IIAP.

In 1995, he completed his doctoral studies and was awarded Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford in England with a specialty in international economics and political economy.

Mailafia served as a resident tutor and lecturer at Plater College, Oxford, and later became an assistant professor at New England College, Arundel. He also taught international finance at Richmond Business School, the American International University in London.

In 1998, he became the pioneer head of the International Business Department of Regents Business School, London.

Between 2001 and 2005, Mailafia served as a chief economist in the strategic planning and budgeting department of the African Development Bank (AfDB), after which he was appointed deputy governor of the CBN.

ECONOMIST TURNED PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE

In Hebrew, Obadiah means “servant of the Most High” while the Hausa meaning of Mailafia is “the one who brings peace”, hence it was only fitting for the technocrat to have a desire to serve his people.

And so, after excelling in his professional career, Mailafia threw his hat in the ring for the 2019 presidential elections on the platform of the African Democratic Congress (ADC).

Heading into the elections, Mailafia described his ambition as a “call of destiny”.

During an interview on Arise TV in November 2018, he said: “I want to be a servant leader who brings peace to the people of this country who have suffered so much violence, trauma, and disorder.”

Speaking on what he will do if elected president, the former CBN deputy governor promised to introduce measures that will transform the country into a $1 trillion economy. He also promised to give autonomy to the apex bank in order to enhance financial stability and ensure economic growth.

“The Central Bank of Nigeria is without vision, purpose or sense of direction because they have no autonomy,” he had said.

But when the results of the election came in, he placed fourth overall and polled 97,874 votes as President Muhammadu Buhari earned a second term in office.

VOCAL CRITIC OF BUHARI ADMINISTRATION

After the 2019 elections, Mailafia became increasingly vocal on political, security, and economy-related issues. He was particularly critical of the Buhari administration. In one of his blunt interviews, Malafia said the northern part of the country would not relinquish power to the south any time soon.

He argued that the Buhari-led administration was unable to provide the right leadership for Nigeria, alleging that some of the ministers in the president’s cabinet had stolen public funds.

Mailafia also advised Bola Tinubu, chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to align with the middle belt and the south if he wishes to become president in 2023.

“In the name of friendship, they will hand over to you a colourful long rope and you will happily go to the gallows singing their praise! Tinubu has, of course, a legitimate right to aspire to the high magistracy of our federal republic,” he had said.

“He has paid his dues. But his best bet is to realign with the middle belt and the south. The north will not relinquish power any time soon.”

THE BIG CLAIM: NORTHERN GOVERNOR HEADS BOKO HARAM

On August 11, 2020, Mailafia stirred controversy in many quarters when he claimed that a northern governor is the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group.

He alleged that during the COVID-19 lockdown, the insurgents were freely moving and distributing arms and ammunition across the country.

“We have met with some of their high commanders, they have sat down with us not once, not twice,” he had said.

“They told us that one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the bandits are one and the same.

“During this lockdown, their planes were moving up and down as if there was no lockdown.”

His comments did not go down well with many stakeholders, including the Department of State Services (DSS). Amid the controversy, the DSS invited him for questioning at its Plateau state command.

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) also fined Nigeria Info, the radio station where he granted the interview.

‘READY TO LAY DOWN MY LIFE LIKE MANDELA’

After his release from the custody of the secret police, Mailafia remained undeterred and said he was ready to lay down his life for Nigeria like Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.

Mailafia also refused to take back the allegations he made during the radio programme.

“The most elementary duty of government is to protect its citizens. When a government fails to protect its citizens, to protect little children, that is a serious matter. Any innocent boy or girl that is killed is my own child,” he had said.

“I love Nigeria. Like Mandela, let me say if need be, I am prepared to give my life for Nigeria.”

One month after he made the controversial comment, Mailafia admitted that he had no proof to back his claim.

He also disclosed that ever since he made the comment, he had received life-threatening calls, adding that he once jumped the fence of his residence when he saw “strange people” at his gate.

“I have indicated that I have reason to believe that my life has been in danger. I have no conclusive proof but I get threats, I get calls. I saw some strange people at the gate trying to break in. I jumped the fence and escaped because I don’t know who they are,” he had said.

VOCAL TILL THE END

Despite his experience with the security agency and allegations of death threats, Mailafia never lost his voice nor did he relent on his criticism of the ruling class.

Speaking during an online conversation on August 15, 2021, the foremost economist accused elites of promoting civil strife in Nigeria.

He said the “ordinary people” in the country do not have issues with each other, adding that despite the challenges, citizens still find ways to remain united.

“It is elites who are fanning, firing these embers of war and civil strife. So, if we can look beyond these and gather a coalition of well-meaning Nigerians to put forward a new agenda and new national project, let’s give it a try,” he had said.

The comment, as fate would have it, would mark his parting shot to a country he believed he was destined to serve.

The Cable

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