By Okey Ndibe
Governor Peter Obi of Anambra is one of the luckiest politicians in Nigeria’s history. He’s in danger of turning himself into one of the most historically blind as well.
In 2003, Mr. Obi ran as the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). He won the election, his appeal buoyed by widespread disenchantment with the four-year banditry of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state. Chinwoke Mbadinuju, the PDP’s one-term governor, had come to epitomize wretched governance.
It was reported that a hectoring, ill-educated “godfather” named Emeka Offor had facilitated Mr. Mbadinuju’s emergence as governor. When both men fell apart, the then governor, a former newspaper administrator and lawyer, preoccupied himself with survival. Unable to discharge even the minimal obligations of the government, Mr. Mbadinuju adopted the clownish role of a pastor-in-chief. At one point, he owed pensioners and state workers as many as twelve months of unpaid pensions and salaries. Yet, week after week, the man seized the airwaves and importuned the hapless victims of his disastrous policies with indulgent sermons that quoted liberally from the Bible.
Mr. Mbadinuju, who was educated at Cornell University, proved that attendance at a grand academy was no inoculation against failure. The people of Anambra came to blame Mr. Mbadinuju’s wretched tenure as a consequence – in part, at least – of the war of attrition between him and forces allied with his erstwhile “godfather.”
That perception, and the residents’ determination to free themselves from the PDP’s vicious stranglehold, fueled the triumph of Mr. Obi, a then little known banker and businessman. When the PDP stole Obi’s mandate, installing Chris Ngige as governor, Mr. Obi went to court to redeem it. Some of us admired the tenacity with which he pursued the reclamation of that mandate. He rebuffed pleas to pack it in. He rejected the pleas of those who contended that Mr. Ngige was performing well – having dumped his own equally unlettered “godfather,” Chris Uba (as well as Mr. Uba’s enabler, then President Olusegun Obasanjo) – and deserved to be permitted to stay on. A believer in the principle that the people are sovereign, I lauded Mr. Obi’s fortitude and persistence. He was correct – I believed then and believe now – to insist that he was not at liberty to abandon the pursuit of an office that was bequeathed by the voters, but hijacked by the PDP.
Mr. Obi’s streak of luck continued in 2007. After Mr. Obasanjo, the PDP and former electoral commission chairman, Maurice Iwu, conspired to impose Emmanuel Nnamdi (Andy) Uba as Anambra governor, Mr. Obi returned to court. Facing formidable opponents and forbidding odds, he summoned that stubborn streak in him. He scratched his way, round after grueling round, to the Supreme Court – which then declared Mr. Uba an impostor, sacked him, and asked that Obi continue as governor till early 2010.
When Mr. Uba made relays to the Supreme Court and other courtrooms, seeking to snatch away the governorship, Mr. Obi stood firm and beat back his antagonist’s insidious schemes. In Anambra and all over Nigeria, Obi became a charmed and fascinating figure, a politician of considerable heroic stature. If he remained steadfast and governed with the same zeal and commitment that he brought to legal jousts, this governor could have made himself a compelling candidate for some exalted elective office in the near future.
Alas, Mr. Obi, the man of great luck, appears intent on betraying not only the people who stood behind him but also undermining the image he worked hard to earn. To admirers of Governor Obi, this must be the strangest of times. Is the man aware of the consequences of this act of self-miniaturization?
The word on the street is that Governor Obi is working assiduously to fold up APGA and hand over its remnants to the PDP. Here’s a man who had the opportunity to husband APGA into a strong political player, one capable of establishing itself as a colossus in the south-eastern part of Nigeria in much the same way that the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) has become an indomitable force in the south-west. But rather than work at realizing this prospect, Mr. Obi has chosen to make APGA a tool in the hands of some of the worst elements in the PDP.
Last January, APGA held its version of primaries in Anambra. It turned into a wholesale give-away of party tickets to PDP members who’d made last-minute (and highly suspicious) defections to APGA. One such element is Chuma Nzeribe, a man who’s managed to feature in one questionable role or another in the crises-prone politics of Anambra. One of the most embarrassing moments came when the party, with the apparent blessing of Governor Obi, gave its senatorial ticket for Anambra South to Mr. Nzeribe. How perfidious was that decision?
Let’s count (some of) the ways. Mr. Nzeribe was the chief security officer to former Governor Mbadinuju when the Bakassi Boys, a vigilante group, carried out some of its worst excesses, including extra-judicial killings that appeared politically motivated. The most gruesome of those murders, that of Barnabas Igwe and his wife, remains an open sore on the state. Mr. Igwe, a leader of the bar, was one of Mr. Mbadinuju’s fiercest critics.
Chuma Nzeribe was a member of the Chris Uba circle that ensured that Anambra remained ungovernable as part of a strategy to cow the intransigent Ngige into surrendering to the godfather he had the temerity to forsake. This cabal arranged the gangster-like abduction of Mr. Ngige by scores of police officers led by former Assistant Inspector-General of Police Ralph Ige, since deceased.
In November 2004, this clique sponsored the invasion of Anambra by truckloads of thugs. For three days, the hired wreckers swept through the state in an orgy of arson and destruction. Escorted by the police, the arsonists destroyed state-owned television and radio stations, a state-run hotel, the governor’s office and several other buildings as well as cars. The spree left the people of Anambra shocked and awed. It also burdened them, by some account, with damages in the range of thirty billion naira. At the height of the mayhem, a triumphant Chuma Nzeribe addressed the press and dared Mr. Ngige to appear in Awka, the Anambra State capital.
Nobody – not a single person – has been prosecuted for this act of impunity, shocking even for a country with Nigeria’s history of outrageous conduct. I have urged Governor Obi to pursue reparations on behalf of the people of Anambra. I happen to know that other people have also sought to nudge him into action – to no avail.
Governor’s Obi’s political romance of Chuma Nzeribe is simply bizarre and cruel, a puzzle embedded inside a riddle. It’s as cruel a way to repay the people of Anambra for their generous goodwill as possible. Even if Mr. Nzeribe were a bankable electoral asset, his selection as APGA’s senatorial candidate would still be traitorous. In the event, he is a certified underdog. In 2007, he was smuggled into the House of Representatives as a beneficiary of the ruling PDP’s do-or-die rigfest. In July 2009, a panel of the Court of Appeal sacked him from the legislature, declaring that he had usurped the place of a lawyer, Vitalis Okafor, who was the legitimate nominee. That judgment elicited widespread celebration in Anambra, including Ihiala, Chuma Nzeribe’s hometown.
Why, then, are Governor Obi and APGA in such haste to resurrect the political career of a man whose ethical and political deficits are so gargantuan? Why is APGA being remade, before our very eyes, in the image of the PDP, a party whose rejection by the people of Anambra led to Obi’s political ascendancy? How would Obi justify the historically absurd decision to align with the PDP, a party whose record in Anambra stinks?