An encounter with Obasanjo over Anambra
The Punch, Tuesday, November 16, 2004
If thereís one subject that President Olusegun Obasanjo does not like to talk about, itís Anambra. On a few occasions when he had to talk about it, I got the feeling that the man was walking on nails. I was face-to-face with him on one of such occasions last year. PUNCH and New Nigerian Newspapers had gone to interview him. It wasnít one of those live or recorded interviews where one had to be constantly on oneís guard against a presidential eruption. Yet I had a foreboding that something would go wrong.
Obasanjo had met with four or five separate groups for long hours earlier in the day and our interview had to be shifted for nearly two hours. My hunch was that a man who had had such a full plate was bound to be edgy and irritable. Those who know him well speak of his crowded daily schedule. The man is running a tight race to fix Nigeria, and everything and everyone, it seems, must wait for him to decide the next move.
My fear that things would go wrong that day was proved right. In one of the smaller offices in the labyrinth of Aso Rock, just about the size of an average study, but exquisitely furnished all the same, five of us huddled together, with two presidential advisers in the background. It was supposed to be a no-holds-barred interview and everything had gone on quite well for nearly 45 minutes until Anambra came up.
The Deputy Editor-in-Chief of PUNCH, Gbemiga Ogunleye, had asked what I thought was a straightforward question, "Mr. President, who is Chris Uba?" Obasanjo shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. If you know him, itís the dress rehearsal before a bombshell. But somehow he was fighting it. "HmmmÖhmmÖ Uba is a young man who worked hard to help the PDP to win the last election in Anambra State." He cleared his throat again and shifted in his chair, exposing the presidential seal at the back of the green leather chair.
There was pin-drop silence. I was expecting to hear more. I was expecting him to say something about July 10. On that day, truckloads of riot policemen under the supervision of an assistant inspector general of police, one Raphael Ige, had invaded the Government House in Awka. They disarmed Governor Chris Ngigeís security guards and dragged the governor off by the scruff of his neck. They told him plainly that they were acting on orders from above.
While this was going on, a kangaroo session was going on in the State House of Assembly where the Speaker told the legislators that he had been notified that the governor had resigned. As movies go, it was the kind of operation that would make Sean Connery wish for a second professional life. Except that this was not a movie. It was a brazen real-life plot by the governorís political godfather, Chris Uba. On that July 10, the governorís deliverance came after he managed to make a phone call to Vice President Atiku Abubakar from a rat hole where he was held captive.
Ngige was let off, but he would never again truly regain his freedom or authority. Not that he was ever a free man, or even his own man, in the remotest sense. He could never be free after he sold his soul to the devil in a weird covenant with his godfather at a shrine before he came into office. A man who was said to have resigned as an aspirant, resigned as a candidate, and resigned again as governor, he was bound to remain three times a slave for the rest of his political life. A slave to his godfather who, among other things, demanded N3billion from him as ransom; a slave to the powers that be at Aso Rock, who ensured that his impotence was sealed by blocking every avenue of recourse, and withdrawing his personal security guards; and then a slave to a bloody covenant which he had freely entered into.
But who is Chris Uba? I expected the President to say more than that he was a young man who helped the party. Was he the only young party helper? I broke the silence. "Is that all you are going to tell us, Mr. President? Isnít this the man who was widely reported to have sponsored the abduction of a governor? IsnítÖ" "Stop! Stop there! I say stop there! What do you mean by that? What do you mean by abduction? You are saying something that you donít know anything about. Who abducted whom? I ask you, who abducted whom?" "Ubaís men abducted Ngige, Mr. President." "I donít want to hear that! I donít want to hear such nonsense!"
For the next minute or two, I was in the eye of the volcano. I couldnít understand why. I could see from scanning the room that others were dumbfounded too. When the heat had subsided, I tried to piece it all together. The President seemed to suggest that he knew something that I, and I believe, millions of Nigerians, didnít know. Maybe. But he failed to communicate it either for my personal benefit or for the public good. He spoke about a security report, which he said he was expecting before he could act. I recall that he even said something to the effect that if only people knew what was going on, they would think twice before talking Anambra. What is it he knows that we donít know?
The more the Presidency claims to know, the more helpless it seems to be to bring the situation under control. And the more intriguing its impotence or pretence or both. What hold do these fellows have over Obasanjo, the widely acclaimed warrior?
A few months after our Aso Rock encounter, the Court of Appeal in Enugu ruled that the Federal Government should restore Ngigeís security aides who had been withdrawn on the sloppy ruling of a High Court. The Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Akin Olujinmi, and the Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, defied the appellate court and instead, interpreted its ruling to suit the governmentís whims. And so, for nearly one year, Ngige was on his own, a fugitive from his Shylock godfather and never at peace with the powers that be.
The cold war continued until last week when preparations for the next local government elections in Anambra sparked off the shooting war. Ngige had, somehow, managed to muster enough power to ensure that if his men do not get into office, then neither will Ubaís. It was against this background of an impending local government election that the Igbo, who had justifiably complained of being marginalised, unleashed fresh mayhem upon themselves. The events of last week can only leave them further behind. For the first time since Abacha days, arsonists enjoyed police protection as they burned public buildings, including the offices of the Governor and the Deputy Governor in two straight days of madness.
This time, Obasanjoís response was not tongue-in-cheek. It was not even tongue. It was a resounding silence. Who will ask him that simple question again, Mr. President, who is Chris Uba?