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THE OWERRI DEBACLE

By NBF News

The invitation of this column to readers to come to Owerri last Monday to participate in the forum being organized by Igbo political stakeholders turned out as an anti-climax, because not only was it aborted on the 'orders from above', the giver of that ominous order has so far remained incognito. Suffice it, however, to say that the amateurishness of whoever aborted that forum has remained pre-eminent because he ended up giving the forum the type of publicity that it could not have got, had it been allowed to go on normally, like others before it. Again, it has helped to unite more and more Ndigbo around whatever was perceived to have been the object of the meeting in the first instance.

Even though the story of the aborted forum has been copiously reported and analysed from different angles and by different participants, I still feel compelled to contribute my own account for the benefit of records and, to perhaps, contribute some insight which might have been missed in the other accounts. When I met Dr. Alex Ekwueme and other prominent Igbo leaders at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport at Abuja on Sunday en route Owerri, I knew that the occasion of the following day would be worth the money I was spending to attend it.

A few days earlier, I had been briefed on how the former vice president had invited the organizers of the Owerri forum to question them on the import of the proposed summit before accepting to chair it. In front of the Ohanaeze chairman, Ambassador Raph Uwechue and the eminent diplomat Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chief Simon Okeke had been grilled on the veracity (or the lack of it) that the Owerri summit was been staged to adopt Ibrahim Babangida as the preferred candidate of Ndigbo for the 2011 elections. Okeke was said to have shown incontrovertible evidence on the contrary, pointing out that it was, in fact, some suborned Igbo miscreants who were peddling the rumour, being afraid to confront a debate on the political future of Ndigbo, both on the short and long run. Being satisfied that the Owerri forum was being staged to afford Ndigbo of different persuasions and backgrounds an unfettered opportunity to come forward and debate their future, Ekwueme consented that he would attend and chair the occasion.

When we arrived at Owerri on the eve of the occasion, there was a heavy cloud of foreboding surrounding the whole place. The secretary of the organizing stakeholders, Chief Chyna Iwuanyanwu related to senior media people how he had been picked up on the previous Friday, dragged to the state headquarters of the SSS and detained for several hours for allegedly 'wanting to set Owerri on fire'. He also told us of how he and other prominent organizers had gone to confer with Governor Ikedi Ohakim who was ambivalent about the whole imbroglio, but who, had nevertheless begged the organizers to take the forum elsewhere and that he would be ready to refund all the expenses - a suggestion which the organizers had scoffed at.

Without saying so, it had become obvious to us that Ohakim was acting like a man who was under intense pressure from forces which he believed to be over and above him and which he could not disobey - which would be a great pity, because that would reveal a deeper dimension of the tragedy which is that an Igbo governor cannot control what happens in his own domain. Which also explains why an APGA governor, Peter Obi of Anambra State would be following the PDP governors of the South East around like a goat tethered on a leash, in their pro-Jonathan shenanigans. Peter Obi was even one of the governors who, in panic, travelled to Enugu on Sunday to 'adopt' Jonathan, a PDP candidate.

Our investigations learnt that on the previous Friday, an Igbo born senior adviser of the president, widely regarded as his Man Friday, had led two other Igbo PDP bootlickers to Owerri to impress on Gov. Ohakim that if the Monday event ever took place, he should kiss a goodbye to his second term hopes. From the PDP brand of 'democracy' it was obvious that the desperate Ohakim, who is currently struggling against diverse and self-inflicted injuries, was put on the spot. And to make matters even worse for him, the Federal Government later came out to deny him over the abortion of the meeting during which hundreds of his own Igbo people and their prominent leaders were locked out of the Imo Concorde Hotel, run by his government.

It was quite a spectacle to behold swarms of red caps of Igbo leaders led by the octogenarian Ekwueme frying under the sun because they had been locked out of the meeting venue which had been paid for, on the orders 'from above' and enthusiastically executed by Owerri. You could see eminent men and women sweating in the open - a thing that would have been unimaginable in any other part of the country. The rout was conceived to be very total. The Outside Broadcast (OB) van of the AIT which had been contracted to cover the event live at a whopping cost of N10 million was driven away by the security officials, working on the orders from above.

What was not generally reported was that in the anticipation of the lock-out eventuality, the organizers had also paid for a 500-seater hall at the nearby privately-owned All Seasons Hotel in the same Imo State capital, as a standby plan. That was not to be, as at the same time that the security officials locked up the Sam Mbakwe Hall at the Concorde, they also proceeded to the other hall and chained its entrance. Such was the desperate determination of some people that Ndigbo should not meet to discuss their lives.

An interesting angle to the entire imbroglio was the calmness and frustration on the faces of the police officials whose breast name plates showed to be mostly non-Igbo. Perhaps, the people who had deployed them would have thought that they would have very eagerly descended on Ndigbo were ferocious alacrity. However, the opposite was the case. Reporters who mingled with them could hear the officers whispering to their men in Hausa and English to express ultimate caution and not to harm anybody, hence the exemplary politeness and calmness with which the heavily armed police personnel executed their orders, even as most of them muttered curses at Aso Rock and Ohakim.

They eagerly collected the pamphlets and fliers distributed by the organizers and digested them avidly, while voicing their agreement with their contents.

It was to the glory of the Almighty and the perceptive wisdom of the security officials that they had restrained themselves from being high-handed. The story might have been different today, as the forum organizers and other Igbo leaders had gone to great lengths to restrain some hotheads who had fumed and begged to be allowed to defend the dignity of Igboland and all that it stands for.

While this lasts, it is important to remind all concerned, especially the Presidency, that Ndigbo and other Nigerians are aware that even though state governors are routinely described as chief security officers of their states, we understand who the police commissioners and SSS bosses in the states take their orders from. So, we are counting out teeth with our tongues, just as it is being wished that a similar incident does not repeat itself.

Let us, therefore, also hope that the incident at Abuja last Wednesday when the Ohanaeze FCT was locked out of the venue which it had paid for three weeks earlier, to celebrate its Igbo Day was a coincidence. The reason for the seizure of the venue from Ndigbo was that the First Lady was going to use it for a later scheduled event. Ndigbo had to secure a less fancied venue for their annual Igbo Day.

If it is believed that as we are all equal stakeholders in the unity and oneness of this nation, no one should unduly provoke any section of the country more than is necessary. It should also be realised that whenever an Igbo person takes off his or her shirt in a quarrel, he never puts it back on until he has thrown a punch. Please, do not allow him to take off his shirt!

One word, I expect, should be enough for the wise.