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He recounted vividly how his residence in Abuja was invaded by a contingent of the Nigeria Police in the heat of the crisis that ultimately led to the loss of his presidency of the Senate. His account of the event implied a foreknowledge of that incident by President Obasanjo and his advisers. When both the President and his adviser responded to an emergency phone call from him to them only at the second ring at 4:30 am, his suspicion of their complicity in the police action was virtually confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. He was finally able to defuse the tension of that fateful night by resorting to a mixture of cunning and bravado. The combination of his loud screams and emissaries sent out by his wife during the incident, alerted his fellow legislators resident nearby to rally to his rescue.
 

The scheduled get-together with former Nigerian Senate President took place in downtown Silver Spring in the Board Room of one of the hosts for the evening who is a Nigerian expatriate legal practitioner. The buffet-style dinner which preceded the session featured a variety of treats that encompassed dishes of African, American and Chinese blends. The handy crowd invited for the occasion slowly gravitated toward the seating area to begin the 4-hour rendezvous with Chuba, as most of his longtime friends in the area usually call him. The last time this writer met with him was in early 1983 during a political rally held in Igboukwu, Anambra State to welcome Dim C. O. Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi, shortly after his return from exile. My first impression of him during this recent encounter was that he looked awfully good for a 60 year-old man. Decked out in a double-breasted blue suit over his lean physique, the ex-Senate President still radiated ebullience that reminded one of the 70s when we shared societal life of Washington metropolis with gusto. The chat with Senator Chuba Okadigbo, the Oyi of Oyi, was arranged by the Center for African Development and Political Research (CADPRE), a Washington DC-based think tank with special focus on Nigeria. Though the majority of guests were from former Eastern Nigeria, invitees from the former Western and Northern regions were also present at the hastily convened event.

The co-host, who made the formal introduction of the special guest, recounted Dr. Okadigbo’s eventful political career which had its roots in his student days in Europe and America. Besides his academic accomplishments, he was presented to the guests as someone who went out of his way to fight for black activist causes during the tumultuous US civil rights struggles of the 60s and 70s. He still prides himself for partaking in the revolutionary black-power movement that was spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael, Ron Brown and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther’s catchy slogan of “Power to the People” inspired his earlier political career to the extent that he persuaded one of Nigeria’s Second Republic parties, the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), to adopt it during its formative stages in the late 70s. Dr. Okadigbo was invited to discuss aspects of national governance that included the role of the federal government viz a viz the state and local governments, recurrent violent communal clashes, Sharia controversy and the ongoing fracas with the new Electoral Bill. Comments and questions from guests were to follow the completion of Dr. Okadigbo’s initial presentation.

After the usual pleasantries, Dr. Okadigbo plunged head-on to address an issue that had severely rocked his political career to the extent that he lost his powerful position as the Senate President of Nigeria’s National Assembly as a consequence. He assured the sympathetic audience that his ouster was merely a political payback by those who saw his style as threatening. He dismissed the allegation that he authorized inappropriate expenses or stole public funds when he was the boss of the Upper House. He wondered why there has not been an equal expression of outrage after the revelation by the IMF and World Bank that the Presidency authorized an overexpenditure of tens of billions of naira during a contract award for building of the National Stadium in Abuja. He recounted vividly how his residence in Abuja was invaded by a contingent of the Nigeria Police in the heat of the crisis that ultimately led to the loss of his presidency of the Senate. His account of the event implied a foreknowledge of that incident by President Obasanjo and his advisers. When both the President and his adviser responded to an emergency phone call from him to them only at the second ring at 4:30 am, his suspicion of their complicity in the police action was virtually confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. He was finally able to defuse the tension of that fateful night by resorting to a mixture of cunning and bravado. The combination of his loud screams and emissaries sent out by his wife during the incident, alerted his fellow legislators resident nearby to rally to his rescue.

He is of the opinion that President Obasanjo can be trifling and mean to those he perceives as his political enemies. To buttress this point, he recounted how one of the guests of the evening, Professor Bolaji Aluko, was refused a handshake in Abuja by the President after the former was introduced to the Head of State in the company of his father and younger-brother, Senator Aluko. He retorted that the President must have considered such humiliation of the activist professor as a befitting payback for the latter’s profuse uncomplimentary Internet publications on the goings-on of the present administration headed by him. Senator Okadigbo lamented on President Obasanjo’s penchant for withholding funds, which have been appropriated and allocated to various arms of government by the legislature, for no justifiable reasons. As the head of the executive arm of government, he used this tact quite often to effectively render the legislature impotent and functionally redundant in directing government expenditure as stipulated in the Constitution. To obviate this affront from the Presidency, the Senate has evolved a novel model for fund allocation that guarantees a given annual disbursement of 500 million naira to be spent in each of the 108 senatorial zones nationwide within each budgetary cycle. He promised that this sum will likely be doubled in the near future since it will still represent a small percentage of the entire annual budget outlay.

Senator Okadigbo gave an insider’s narrative of the procedural mix-up that precipitated the ongoing crisis between the national legislature and the Presidency over the new Electoral Bill. He faulted the process that made the President append his signature at 4:30 am to a secretly modified version of the Electoral Bill which was produced earlier by a joint conference committee of the two houses. This impropriety was instigated primarily by his successor, the incumbent Senate President and few other Senators who pressured the Clerk of the House to “smuggle” an altered version of the bill to the President’s desk for enactment. He assured that the houses of legislature must do its due diligence in the new future to rectify this unfortunate development. Even though the complicity of the incumbent Head of State in this legislative debacle is obvious to many, Senator Okadigbo was firm in his opposition of any moves to impeach the President for this and other related matters. He was reluctant to take part in any legislative showdown that will further complicate the problems of the moment. Besides, he does not wish to provide Nigeria’s military strongmen the excuse to scheme on shooting their way back into national governance again.

On the two sensitive issues that relate closely to the new Electoral Bill, oversea balloting in general elections and dual citizenship rights of expatriate Nigerians, Dr. Okadigbo’s positions were not entirely pleasing to some elements in the audience. While the wily Senator is firmly in support of unencumbered right of expatriate Nigerians with dual citizenship to contest for electoral positions in Nigeria, he rejected the idea of oversea balloting during general elections. He based his argument against oversea ballot on the fact that rigging has always been the bane of Nigerian elections. He wondered why Nigeria would wish to complicate an already bad situation by bringing in a foreign equation into electoral contests that are bugged by allegations of gross abuses. He entertained some fear that Nigeria’s overseas embassies could be converted into vote-rigging polling booths by those who have the power to appoint ambassadors and the personnel of our foreign missions. Senator Okadigbo regretted that there is hardly any visible lobby in Abuja that articulates and pushes interests of expatriate Nigerians amongst his colleagues at Aso Rock and state capitals across the country. He called for the establishment of a public relations office in Abuja to familiarize the various arms of government with legitimate needs and concerns of expatriate Nigerians in an ongoing basis. He was of the opinion that most of his colleagues in the legislature would be amenable to persuasion and prodding from their compatriots residing in the Diaspora.

On the subject of widespread communal violence across the country, Senator Okadigbo intimated the audience that the Senate has established a committee to conduct hearings nationwide and to seek legislative solutions to this chronic national problem. This committee has already visited the Northeast and shall, in due course, cover the other geopolitical zones. He identified the flash points in the North to include the Jukun/Tiv battles for the control of disputed border territory between Taraba and Benue states, Zagon Kataf imbroglio and the widespread violent attacks that have religious overtones. In some instances, violence has occurred between nomadic herdsmen and native farming communities because of increasing use of available arable land for pastoral purposes by the itinerant Fulanis. Hot spots in the South included the Ijaw/Urhobo rivalry for dominance in west Niger Delta, border disputes between Cross River, Abia and Akwa Ibom states, Umuleri/Aguleri warfare and the chronic bloodletting that has persisted between Ife and Modakeke communities in the Southwest. He was of the opinion that, while some of the crises had genuine historical basis, the majority of urban attacks, particularly in the North, were mostly due to greed by unemployed poor street people who would seize any opportunity of social disorder to loot, rape and plunder. The Senator believes that most of these acts of violence were instigated and sponsored by the political elite who saw them as veritable tools for manipulation and control of their domains.

The border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroun in the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula has become a worrisome thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian state. Senator Okadigbo blamed the genesis of this conflict on the unwise deal brokered between General Yakubu Gowon and President Ahidjo of Cameroun during the Civil War era. Gowon, in his infinite wisdom or folly, conceded the disputed territory to Cameroun so as to deny the secessionist Biafran regime access to the sea via that corridor which was logistically difficult for federal troops to police during its blockade of breakaway former Eastern Nigeria. The Senator insisted that Bakassi peninsula is mostly inhabited by Nigerians even though the Camerounian gendarmes still control more than 80% of the disputed territory. He revealed that Camoroun has found it expedient to utilize the services of local mercenaries, most of whom are Nigerians, to combat Nigerian forces deployed to secure Bakassi. The “Bakassi Boys”, who now constitute themselves into a paramilitary security apparatus in some Southeast states, are veteran operatives in the Nigeria/Cameroun border wars. Dr. Okadigbo asserted that the Bakassi peninsula remains a bona fide Nigerian territory because whatever deal that General Gowon got into with Cameroun was illegitimate since it has never been ratified into a binding treaty by a properly constituted legislative body in Nigeria. He remarked that part of the agenda for the coup plot that overthrew the Gowon administration, was to initiate a military solution to end the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroun.

Dr. Okadigbo was taken to task for his disdainful comments about activities of strong advocates for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) of all the nationalities that comprise Nigeria. The Senator admitted the fact that there are hundreds of ethnic nationalities in the Nigerian state and asserted that he is for convening a national conference to talk about our relationship with each other. But he was firm in stating that such a conference can never have sovereign right over the government of the day which has been put together by a popular mandate bestowed on it through general elections. He queried the right of parochial groups like the Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndiigbo and the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) to demand that they should be allowed to nominate 80% of all those who will partake in the so-called national conference to decide Nigeria’s future. Dr. Okadigbo asserted that most of members of these parochial groups cannot win popular elections in their respective constituencies. He ridiculed the notion that these set of impostors could muster the arrogance to see themselves as the overlords of the polity, even within a functioning democratic dispensation.

During the question and answer session, the Oyi of Oyi got additional opportunity to bare his mind on controversial subjects like SNC, resource control and Nigeria’s geopolitical structure. He became more animated as he dismissed some political interest group’s calls for true federalism or confederation in national matters as insincere and hypocritical. He was quick to remind the audience that the Aburi Accord of 1967 was written with a conscious understanding that a confederal arrangement would have served Nigeria best at the time. That accord was abandoned as soon as the Lagos delegation arrived home from Ghana. For the Senator, the essence for a fair and equitable resource control formula based on derivation was outlined in the Aburi Accord. He wondered why it took more than 3 decades for some Nigerians to eventually see the utility of decentralization, which was negotiated and agreed upon in Aburi, Ghana as a means to defuse the tension that resulted in the Civil War. He declared that the Southeast has adopted a stance in support of decentralization but would not be at the vanguard of any crusade that could be misconstrued to imply an unleashing of another separatist agenda on the part of Ndiigbo. He accused former Igbo partners of untrustworthiness, duplicity and cowardice which forced them to renege on implementation of an understanding which could not only have saved Nigerians from the horrors of war but also helped us to avoid the path that has brought us to where we are today.

Fielding questions concerning plans for the physical upgrade of Enugu Airport to international status, Senator Okadigbo stated that since relevant approval for work at the site is already made, he expects to see some positive action before the end of this year. In his own judgment, it is unlikely that either the Onitsha or Owerri airports can be simultaneously upgraded to international status for obvious reasons. There will be a need to negotiate the status of the airports in the Southeast with the states of the Southsouth zone because of the concern that the Port Harcourt International Airport may lose regional sponsorship whenever another international airport opens in the former East. The limiting factor, of course, will be the decision of international carriers to route their fleet through these newly upgraded airports. For individuals and groups who are desirous to contribute in national development, he enjoined them to select a specified area of their maximal competence and aspire to make a visible difference there. With such accomplishment, one could earn the respect and recognition that can propel one along in other fields of endeavor. He highlighted the potential clout of expatriate Nigerians, especially those resident in the US and urged greater input from the audience toward shaping national affairs at home to the extent which will match the impressive financial contributions that they make in shoring up the domestic economy.

Dr. Okadigbo welcomed the decision of the houses of legislature to allow for the emergence of new political parties. He, however, saw the conditionalities for registration as too restrictive because it is not easy for upstart parties to secure 10% of votes in 15% of all local governments in the nation, which is the threshold stipulated by the new Electoral law. As far as 2003 elections are concerned, the senator doubts whether any new parties shall be able to participate in any meaningful way if the order of elections stays as stipulated in the electoral act already signed into law by President Obasanjo. He foresees a decline in the electoral fortunes of the ruling party, the PDP, if the disaffected faction loyal to PDM elects to break off and negotiate new alliances. The senator felt ill at ease with the tendency of Nigerian political leaders to live under the illusion that there may be shortcuts to establishing democracy outside the time-tested process of letting the system to evolve the natural way. He derided the erstwhile transitional program of former military strongman, General Babangida, who introduced “new breedism” into the Nigerian political lexicon for the sole purpose of excluding some Nigerians from the democratic process. Because of his long involvement in partisan politics, for example, Senator Okadigbo was categorized as an “old breed” while those who were much older than him were labeled “new breed” politicians since they were newcomers to organized politics.

The Oyi of Oyi was unprepared to go on his knees to apologize for the widely publicized sharp practices of some Nigerian fraudsters who are reputed to dupe foreigners of large sums of money under false pretences. He never denied that such activities occur in Nigeria as reported but he was of the view that the exaggerated reports on the matter could be a way of giving a dog a bad name in order to justify hanging it. He reminded the audience that no society is free of dubious characters of the sort that Nigeria is being pummeled for in the international media. He reminded the audience that the “criminal code 419”, from which the Nigerian advance-fee fraudsters derive their label, is an adaptation from the British Criminal Code. The art of fraud was invented and refined in the advanced economies of the West, he chided. He felt that what obtains inside Nigeria is miniscule compared to the magnitude of shady deals that are transacted regularly elsewhere around the world. He narrated an incident where he confronted a well-known Nigerian “419” kingpin on the subject and the senator was startled by what this individual had to say. The Oyi blamed the gullibility and greed of treasure hunters from the West who still entertain the notion that a Third World country like Nigeria is the ideal place to make quick money for doing little or nothing. He did not see the need for the hue and cry by people who lost out when they set out to reap where they did not sow. He joked that some of the expert “419” fraudsters actually consider themselves as Robin Hood characters since they specifically target aliens whose home countries have a long track record of exploiting the Nigerian people.

The ex-Senate President displayed a masterful skill in the comprehensive manner that he handled all aspects of national socioeconomic and political discourse. Reaching back into his stint with the academia, he quoted the works and statements of historical thinkers in the evolution of democratic governance to justify his views on the Nigerian situation. He came across as an astute politician who has somehow found the ways and means to successfully navigate the complex Nigerian political landscape. He carefully dodged discussing a question that implied that he may have joined the Nigerian style of politics to the detriment of his strong ideological convictions as a young political activist of the late 60s and 1970s. He conveyed pragmatism as a refined art in surviving the competitive political climate of Nigeria. For someone who recently lost a privileged post of Senate President due to intra-party political intrigue, he exhibited no overt bitterness toward his avowed enemies throughout the lengthy evening discourse. If he is scheming for any major political comeback in the near future, he did not provide any hint of such. But judging from legacy of Nigerian politicians before him, Dr. Okadigbo is likely not destined for a premature retirement from national politics. Relying on his formal training in the discipline and his lengthy engagement with Nigerian politics, the Oyi of Oyi will probably continue to be a towering figure on the Nigerian political scene for a long time to come.

OKENWA R. NWOSU, M.D.
Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
U.S.A.

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Okadigbo in Washington, 2001 - Courtesy of CADPRE
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The Survival Struggle for Ndiigbo

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