Ben Murray-Bruce – Charlatan Or Charmer? By Tunde Fagbenle

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The first time he came to my notice strong enough for me to comment upon was in May 2015 when he and another senator, Melaye, formed the title of my then column in Sunday Punch (now abruptly rested, in Nigerian parlance, “due to circumstances beyond my control”) of 10/05/15 titled ‘Bruce and Melaye: Right Tune’ with their public statements that was populist.

This was the opening paragraph of that column:

“In the event you missed it, you now have it here: Senators-elect Ben Bruce (PDP, Bayelsa East) and Dino Melaye (APC, Kogi West) have both, at separate interviews, vowed to champion the cause for drastic reduction in the salaries and allowances that our lawmakers at the National Assembly (NA) make hitherto. We must remember that in a recently well-circulated global comparative analysis, the Nigerian legislator earns (they don’t ‘earn’ it, they rob the country of it) virtually the highest of any other country in the world!”

The column went on further:

“…Ben Bruce described as unjustifiable the fact that the National Assembly consumes 3% of the national budget. “If a company’s management spends 88% of its income to run the organization, it will collapse. So, government in Nigeria at the moment is inefficient. It is now time to talk about how to reduce the cost of running the government,” he said.

“What Bruce will be recommending through the sponsorship of appropriate bills will be more far-reaching. It will seek to bring down-to-earth the classes flown in airlines by government officials and of the hotels lodged when abroad. Bruce said if leadership is by example and leaders live a humble lifestyle, billions of dollars saved would go to improve the lives of the masses.”

I was charmed!

It was apparently no fly-by-night outing. Since then Ben has steadied himself into a solo “intervention force” taking full advantage of the global media technology, i.e. the Internet, setting up his blog, all with the Facebook, Twitter, etc. handles, to dish out regular populist blasts upon which the traditional media (print, radio, TV) have been feeding with delight!

His latest in a number of releases he has churned out since then is his intervention on how to shore up the much-debased naira. Like every other of his critical interventions, it resonated well with a public lost in the buffeting array of suffering and imponderables – from a runaway inflation that has taken bread away from many tables, to the sudden reversal of earlier hopes of improved power supply. Even the elements have been conspiratorial and unsparing; the heat is unbearable in the day and the night is airless and suffocating.

“Buy Naija to Grow the Naira!” the banner headline proclaims. Then goes on:

“Many Nigerians are complaining about the constant fall in the value of the naira and they blame the government. But is the government really to blame? In truth, our insatiable appetite for all things foreign is to blame. No nation can become great if it is clothed, serviced and fed by other nations. It just will not happen.”

Listening to Ben Bruce one has to pinch oneself to know if one hears right. Ben all of a sudden is talking “like one of us.” The irony. Senator Ben Bruce is far from being one of the “masses.” And reminded of who is talking – one born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth – irks the common man. Isn’t this the same Ben whose Silverbird Plazas reek of foreignness? Isn’t this the same Ben whose tailor-made Italian suits blazon like a sword? Ben, with his socially highly visible brothers, has been around for so long. Everything about him indicates he is “not one of us”: his half-oyinbo looks and diction, his family businesses and wealth, the companies he keeps, ay, even the political party, PDP, he belongs to is that of the bourgeoisie!

So, to the poor masses: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flies like a duck, (like hell) it is a duck.” Consequently, Ben must be a charlatan trying to talk like he belongs to the poor class like the rest of us.

But that would be most unfair to a young (well, young in my reckoning) man who may be genuinely miffed by the degeneracy of the country he claims and loves. It is unfair to hold his rich parentage against him, as it is unfair to class all PDP members as bourgeois and unqualified to speak for the “common man.” It will be missing the lessons of history – from Karl Marx to Che Guevera and sundry other philosophers and revolutionaries – to imagine that the rescue of the masses would come led one of the masses.

And so we have the message and the messenger, and we must help ourselves to separate one from the other. In this his latest cry for Nigeria, Ben is galvanizing Nigerians to take pride in their own products and patronize their own peoples and services if the Naira is to be strengthened and the country is to develop. He likened patronizing foreign products whilst leaving ours to Nigeria playing football against another country and Nigerians keep supporting the other team. “This is the self-inflicted injury we have inflicted on our dear naira and instead of blaming ourselves we are blaming government,” he says. Not a great analogy but it would serve.

And to demonstrate that he is “putting his money where his mouth is” Mr. Ben Bruce tells us that he would rather fly Arik Air than any foreign airline unless Arik does not fly the route. “Arik’s planes are brand new and are more comfortable than British Airways,” Ben assures. Good advert for Arik, sounds like. But I am quick to endorse that statement. I fly Arik too and I’m impressed so far.

Ben Bruce goes further to list a number of other ways he has been opting to “buy Nigeria” than foreign goods; from Nasco cornflakes rather than Kellogs, to pap instead of Quaker Oats, etc. and even Ben now buys “made-in-Nigeria(?) Innoson vehicles – haha! He says, “Can you imagine how far Innoson would go if we spent the N30 billion we use in buying cars for our elected and appointed officials at the federal, state and local government levels on Innoson vehicles? We must make hard choices if we want Nigeria to be better and spending borrowed money on convoys for elected officials is not a priority. It is a luxury that Nigeria cannot afford at this time in her history. If we buy Naija We Will Grow the Naira.”

A good aburo of mine, Henry Adigun, in Abuja would rather hang our distaste or disassociation with made-in-Nigeria goods on the poor quality of our products, urging that the focus should be on Nigerians working hard for their products to compete qualitatively to survive against foreign ones. Wrong, Henry, I pitch my tent with Mr. Bruce.

Checking Ben Murray-Bruce out on the Internet, it helped to know that born in 1956 of a mother from Akassa, Balyesa State, Ben is thoroughly homegrown with both primary (Lady of Apostles, Yaba) and secondary (St. Gregory’s College, Obalende) education in Nigeria.

In Part 2 of this article, we shall look at Ben’s other “Interventions”, to borrow Prof. Wole Soyinka’s characterization of some of his own social-political commentary snippets, in order to determine whether our Ben Murray Bruce is a charlatan dressed in borrowed robes of a charming revolutionary – a luta continua!

And that’s saying it the way it is!

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