BETWEEN THE OTTA FARMER AND AN OBIO-AKPOR REINCARNATE
By Tunde Olusunle
Mobile telephony was nonexistent at the time. Onyema Ugochukwu, my boss and senior colleague at the erstwhile Daily Times of Nigeria Plc, however, sent word to me to see him at his Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja, Lagos residence, October 1998. Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former military leader who had just been released from jail, was being drafted to contest the 1999 presidential election, by the military establishment. Ugochukwu had been co-opted into the project by his longtime friend, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, a former Coordinator of National Security and Chief of Army Staff, respectively. Ugochukwu wanted to set up a team to assist him with managing the image and public perception of Obasanjo, to smoother his not-too-savoury profile on the lips of the streets.
Obasanjo’s kinsmen in the South West wouldn’t buy him for half a *kobo,* for a plethora of reasons. He was believed to have betrayed his Yoruba kith during the 1979 elections which ended military rulership at the time and ushered in the Second Republic. The undisputed Yoruba leader of that era, Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, who contested the election on the platform of the Unity Party of Nigeria, (UPN), won the elections in all the states which made up the Old Western State, encompassing the present day states in the South West, stretching to contemporary Edo and Delta. They were then known by the acronym *LOOBO* states, meaning: Lagos, Oyo, Ondo, Bendel and Ogun states.
It was his opponent, Usman Shehu Shagari, however, who ran on the podium of the National Party of Nigeria, (NPN), who was declared winner. Shagari scored 25% in what was described by jurists in a long running legal battle after that election, as “twelve two thirds” of the existing 19 states, at the time. This meant that Shagari had more cross-national appeal. The Yorubas never forgave Obasanjo. The reasoning was that as the nation’s military Head of State under whose rulership the election was conducted, he could have brought his imprimatur to bear on the polls. They expressed their unhappiness with him when he vied in the 1999 presidential election. He lost by landslides in the entire six South West states.
So much fuss had also been made about Obasanjo’s disdain for the media. A particular signpost mounted within the premises of his famous farm in Otta, abutting Lagos State, was regularly alluded to, to buttress this argument. The said signpost had an inscription like: “Dogs, Snakes and Journalists Not Allowed.” Most media practitioners couldn’t be convinced that that caution sign, was all but a product of the old man’s profound sense of humour. Yet, many of Obasanjo’s best of friends were indeed journalists. You should have witnessed the 1998 “Christmas barbecue” arranged by Directorate of Publicity of the Obasanjo Campaign Organisation in Otta, which featured the “Who Was Who” in the Lagos-dominated Nigerian media. You should have seen Obasanjo in his natural, amiable, earthy self.
Ugochukwu and I defined my terms of reference on that ad hoc assignment: “Obasanjo is a retired Army General, who wants to transmute into a civilian President. You have worked with civilian and military governors during your various tours of duty in Kogi State. I want you to bring your experiences on these assignments to bear, in managing General Obasanjo.” Ugochukwu was correct. I served Abubakar Audu, the first democratically elected governor of Kogi State; his successor, Paul Uzoanya Ndimele Omeruo and Bzigu Lassa Afakirya, both army Colonels, respectively, in various capacities, between 1992 and 1998.
Obasanjo took spontaneous interest in me when Ugochukwu introduced me to him. As Ugochukwu reeled out bits and pieces of my curriculum vitae, Obasanjo looked at me through his metal-rimmed glasses, moved his gaze to Ugochukwu, giggled and said: “This your man will have to wear a tag to identify himself all through this electioneering process. He looks more like a bouncer than a journalist!” He laughed and threw a mild punch at me. Obasanjo and I, hit it up thereafter, as father and son. Till date, Ugochukwu’s favourite nickname for me is Omo Baba. I would then become an integral member of his core campaign team, which travelled across Nigeria with him in a turbo-prop Dornier 228 aircraft, which sat about 17 people. Obasanjo also consented to our proposal to have a photographer and videographer, accompany him in the same minuscule aircraft, as we moved around.
I had been warned about Obasanjo’s impulsiveness and smoky temperament. I was not the least surprised therefore when one morning in Otta, I saw a glimpse of his fiery other side. I had walked into his living room oblivious of the fact he had been worked up by a self-appointed body of advisers. Apparently, they had told him that Alex Ekwueme, Nigeria’s former Vice President, who was also contesting the presidential ticket with him, was making a better showing in the media, than he was. As I made to serve him his file of dailies like I always did, Obasanjo collected the file from me and slammed it in my face, cursing me and my boss, Ugochukwu, of not doing enough to project him.
The publicity directorate did so well all through the consultations period and the campaigns, that Obasanjo acceded to assigning an aircraft to us. We could then go ahead of him to towns and cities where he was expected to make appearances. Akpo Esajere, Tokunbo Adedoja, Farouk Adejoh, who worked for The Guardian, Thisday and The Punch respectively, will remember these experiences. It was a memorable opportunity observing Obasanjo at close quarters. I came to see the humane, humorous side of him. Obasanjo can make a joke about everything and send you reeling in laughter, your eyes yielding to tear drops of excitement.
I have been following developments on the nation’s political turf with some keenness in recent weeks and months. I have noticed the daily lengthening list of pretender-aspirants to the nation’s topmost job, the position of president, in the major political parties, the All Progressives Congress, (APC) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (PDP). This is not discounting aspirants on the pedestal of the Social Democratic Party, (SDP). The African Democratic Congress, (ADC); the Peoples’ Redemption Party, (PRP); the New Nigeria Peoples’ Party, (NNPP); the All Peoples’ Grand Alliance, (APGA) and the Accord Party, (AP), are also aspiring for Aso Villa.
Long before the list of aspirants became so confusingly riotous, so historically unwieldy, edging towards the four dozen mark, popular journalist and public engager, Eniola Bello had made a very scathing remark on the development. Alluding to the pitiable, even despicable state of affairs in his home state of Kogi, Eni B as he is famously known, remarked that for a character like the incumbent governor of the entity to even be daydreaming about the nation’s presidency, is a clear manifestation of how low the present occupant of the position, Muhammadu Buhari, had dragged the office.
On account of the mileage garnered on the nation’s luminous political field, Rivers State governor, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, who is aspiring for the presidency on the rostrum of the PDP, seems light years ahead of other competitors in his party. Wike, by the way, cut his political dentition as Chairman of the very strategic Obio/Akpor local government area in Rivers State, beginning from 1999. After declaring his intention in Government House, Makurdi, Benue State, Sunday March 27, 2022, at a ceremony hosted by his colleague Samuel Ortom, which also featured the highly respected Donald Duke, regarded as the most visionary fourth republic governor of Cross River State, Wike has been on whirlwind waltz across the country.
Wike has been to the “twin hilltop shrines” in Minna, to administer propitiation at the homesteads of two of Nigeria’s iconic erstwhile military political leaders, who impacted variously on the nation’s sociopolitical trajectory. Ibrahim Babangida notoriously annulled the 1993 presidential election which produced Moshood Kasimawo Abiola as democratically elected president, throwing the nation into a very complex political conundrum. Abdulsalam Abubakar it was who restored popular governance in 1999, ending years of successive military rulership, and beginning the process of assuaging the pains of 1993, and the better not remembered downstream byproducts. As a mark of Wike’s growing acceptance among his colleagues, he was accompanied on that trip by his colleagues from Abia, Enugu and Oyo states, Okezie Ikpeazu, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Seyi Makinde respectively.
At a ceremony in Enugu last month, Ikpeazu and Ugwuanyi, and the National Secretary of the PDP, Sam Daddy Anyanwu, among other leaders, agreed to rally the South East caucus of the PDP across board in the zone, in support of Wike. This gave a hint about a possible lack of consensus by the party leadership in the South East, concerning the strident advocacy for an Igbo presidency. Wike has also met the PDP Caucus in the National Assembly, at a ceremony in Abuja, reputed to be have commanded the largest attendance of members in recent times. He has conferred with the Board of Trustees, (BOT), of the party, the topmost advisory body of the PDP, populated by eminent senior citizens. Wike has logged many states on the road, including: Adamawa, Anambra, Borno, Cross River, Edo, Gombe, Niger, Plateau, Taraba, Kano and Kaduna, among others, in the quest for the presidential ticket.
Wike has done a good job of marketing himself thus far. He has consistently harped on the worrying security situation in the country, which is threatening the corporate existence of the polity. He has serially asserted that given the opportunity to lead the country, he will prioritise the restoration of sanity to our troubled nation. Reversal of insecurity across the country was one of the cardinal promises of the Buhari administration, on which score the government has failed woefully. Wike on the other hand, has consistently toured the mangroves and marshlands, rivers and rivulets of his state, tracing and tracking economic saboteurs. He has confronted security and intelligence operatives, colluding with bunkerers and operators of illegal refineries.
Wike has been a bridge builder too. He has refused to be a “provincial champion,” content with nestling in his oil-rich South South zone. No. The governors and people of Sokoto, Benue, Abia, Adamawa, Enugu, Kaduna, Oyo, among others, have positive reminiscences of their engagements with Wike, over time, irrespective of their political inclinations. Suleiman Nazif, a senator in the last parliament from Bauchi State, who is one of the leaders of the Northern Progressives Elements, (NPE), which procured the nomination and expression of interest forms for Wike, is coordinating some of the aspirant’s campaign affairs.
Wike has also been very concerned about the gross mismanagement of the nation’s economy. He cannot understand how Nigeria’s boisterous socioeconomy under the Goodluck Jonathan administration in which he, (Wike), served as Minister, has been criminally brought on its fours, by a visionless and rudderless government. Wike bemoans mass hunger in the land, rising unemployment and spiralling inflationary trends. For him, a nation with Nigeria’s human resource capital and natural endowments should have absolutely no affinity with poverty.
Assessing Wike with the eyes of a writer, throws up some congruences between his style and Obasanjo’s. Wike is fearless, blunt, maybe reckless, when he speaks, which in some way, is like Obasanjo’s style. As one of Obasanjo’s media handlers, we had quite some “housekeeping” to do after some of his public engagements. Wike has no patience for verbal adornments when he speaks. He says it straight. He can be impulsive, bullish and brash too. I’m told some of his aides who probably lack self confidence, shy away from engaging him, never knowing what to expect next. Let’s hope this is exaggerated. Third parties like writers do not immediately have avenues to corroborate such assertions. Wike’s critics say he is loquacious and authoritarian, which may impact his support base amongst party faithful.
To the contrary, Makinde, Wike’s Oyo State counterpart, profers: “You may not like his style, but certain things are very clear. Is he committed to a united Nigeria? Does he have the intellectual capacity? Does he have the drive?” For Makinde, Wike ticks the boxes. This is because he has the requisite energy and resourcefulness to lead Nigeria to progress. Nigeria, he asserts, cannot afford another president, who spends his tenure in office, tending to old age symptoms and challenges, while the country is being repeatedly overrun by a myriad of complex problems, to which the sitting rulership cannot fathom solutions.
For all his famed toughness, Wike has an unmissable sense of humour, like Obasanjo, which attests to his human-ness, and soft other side, afterall. I still cannot forget his statement when he flagged off the construction of a road project, which had been avoided by previous governments, because of the intransigence of the landowners, the omo oniles. On that occasion, Wike said: “Those of you who go around building shrines on the government’s right of way, expecting monetary compensation from government, you may continue if you like. But you will never get a penny from me. Tell your juju to come and meet me in my office. I’m waiting!”
I equally enjoyed his robust exchange with Godswill Akpabio, Minister of the Niger Delta Ministry, who said that for all the good work Wike has done in the development of infrastructures in the state, he could not publicly serenade him, because he was in a wrong political party. Wike wouldn’t let that pass without a response. He posed the question to the audience at that ceremony: “In which party was Godswill Akpabio when he was labelled “Uncommon Governor?” The crowd answered “PDP.” Wike continued: “Now that he is a minister under an APC government, is he an uncommon performer?” The crowd chorused “No,” even as laughter enveloped the atmosphere. I have heard about Wike’s large-hearted generosity, to positive causes. That’s also made friends and associates for him, around and about. In the unfolding processes leading to the emergence of a candidate to fly the presidential flag of the PDP at the 2023 presidential polls, Nyesom Wike, is surely, one to watch.
*Tunde Olusunle, PhD, a senior aide to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE).
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