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Ten Years Without Chuba Okadigbo

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It is now ten years since Senator Chuba Okadigbo, the Oyi of Oyi, one of Nigeria's most colourful politicians, died in his home in Abuja on September 25, 2003.

Ten days before that day, I spent more than two hours alone with him discussing generally about Nigerian politics, especially his relations with the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

He told me then that Obasanjo was going to try to retain power somehow even after completing the constitutionally allowed eight years.

As a political scientist, he had studied Obasanjo's weird power game and knew that he was going to find a way of continuing to rule the country after 2007 and it manifested in former generals' failed third term bid.

The relationship between the former president and late Senate president was at best topsy-turvy. From day one, Obasanjo ensured that Evan Enwerem torpedoed Chuba's Senate presidency ambition but he successfully plotted Enwerem's downfall to claim the seat before the end of 1999, the first year of the arrival of democracy in Nigeria after close to 15 years of military dictatorship.

When he took over from Enwerem, Chuba found it difficult to run the Senate because the President starved the legislative branch of funds to run parliament, but a combination of Chuba and House of Representatives Speaker Umar Ghali Na'abba ensured that the President Obasanjo could not sleep with two eyes closed during his first term in office.

Obasanjo ensured that the 2003 elections shut out all those who opposed him and made sure he could not sleep during the first term and this resulted in hundreds of House and Senate members not getting the PDP ticket to return to their chambers.

Na'abba lost his seat as well as many of his House leadership. As for Okadigbo, he knew where he stood with the president and promptly joined the All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP, which offered him the Vice Presidency as part of the Buhari ticket.

As an advanced political strategist, Chuba had also worked to register the APGA political party using Chekwa's Okorie as the front. This is a fact that many of those who now masquerade as APGA chieftains including Chairman Victor Umeh and the Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, do not know.

Chuba told me that it was important that the Igbo had a fallback position at the end of the day and explained that it was necessary to form a party like APGA under which his people can find a home if things fell apart with the mainstream PDP, particularly with a leader like Obasanjo who had issues with politicians of Igbo stock to settle even though he used the Uba brothers to pretend otherwise.

During my last meeting with the former Senate president, I advised Chuba to forget about going to Kano for the ANPP rally where his principal, Muhammadu Buhari, was going to address a massive crowd of his supporters after failing to win the 2003 presidential elections.

As running mate to the former general, Chuba was adamant because he felt that if he did not go to the Kano rally, he would have sent a wrong signal that many of their supporters and party leaders would not understand.

I argued that he was not fully fit to travel and he could also call Buhari and explain things, but he was not going to budge. It was days later that I learnt that he insisted and went to Kano and took a barrage of tear gas canisters directed to his section of the crowded stadium during the rally, which did not go down well with his asthmatic condition.

He died a few days after attending the Kano rally.
On that 25th day of September 2003, Nigeria lost a political gem. His rise to political stardom was meteoric as he was highly regarded in the NPN where he belonged to the innermost circles of the power sanctum of the party.

He won a Senate seat during the Babangida era when he wrote one of his best books Transition to Transition, which chronicled the endless transition of the maradonic presidency of Ibrahim Babangida, the one and only military president of Nigeria.

Since then he was returned in two other elections as senator representing Onitsha North Senatorial District, which has now fallen to his lovely wife, Margery Okadigbo, leaving political analysts wondering about the beginning of an Okadigbo political dynasty in that senatorial district.

I do not think in any way that Dr. Okadigbo would be surprised that his wife Margery made it to the hallowed chambers of the Nigerian Senate, eight or nine short years after his death, because Chuba had prepared her to face the sometimes harsh political terrain in which he operated during his lifetime.

He also knew that she could achieve anything she put her mind to. I enjoyed a ringside seat in the political life of the family and knew that whatever Chuba or his wife wanted to attain politically, they would so achieve easily.

He was a great motivator and knows how to get the best out of people around him.

I maintained a close relationship with Chuba during his lifetime from the time he was Political Adviser to President Shehu Shagari.

When I returned to Nigeria from a long sojourn in the United Kingdom, Chuba helped me with research on my first book -The Making of the PDP and we worked harmoniously in the Publicity Committee of the PDP from 1998 and later when he became the Senate President where he asked me to compile bills, motions, reports, and various petitions presented to the Senate during and after his Senate presidency, working directly with the Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business and later Leader of the Senate ,Senator Dalhatu Serki Tafida, now the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

During the crossfire between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dr. Okadigbo over the 'ranting of an ant' fiasco in the 1981-82 as political adviser to Shagari, I met Chuba at his London residence in Finchley where I urged him to apologise to Zik because of the wrong signal the issue was causing especially as Zik admired and saw him as a political son. It was an advice he took and settled the political row.

One of the political achievements of Dr. Okadigbo during that Shagari administration was getting that government to resolve the Ojukwu saga by granting him amnesty and ensuring that the long lost Igbo statesman, Emeka Ojukwu, was given a heroic welcome from his Ivorian exile.

Three or four years before the return of General Ojukwu from exile as masterminded by Okadigbo, I had the privilege of becoming the first Nigerian journalist to interview the ex-Biafran war lord in exile in then Ivory Coast, now Cote De'Voire, for the radical magazine Newbreed in 1977.

It was one of the trickiest journalistic adventures I had ever undertaken, from getting permission to see Ojukwu from French gendarmes working for the Houphet Boigny regime in Cocody Presidential Mansion in Abidjan to negotiating with General Ojukwu himself in his seaside resort in Bingerville, some 40 minutes off the capital Abidjan, before the old Nigeria Security Organisation came into the picture to be fully debriefed after my audacious escapade to the then most wanted Nigerian.

Dr. Okadigbo advocated a National Assembly that was independent of executive interference of its affairs, and rigidly followed the concept of political party supremacy and the theory of separation of powers. In my book – Power and Politics in the Senate (2005) on the power struggle in the Red Chamber, I wrote that “Angered by the humiliation of Enwerem by an overwhelming number of his (Chuba) colleagues, the presidency became drawn deeper into the Senate power struggle, which seemed now to be going for a long haul. The president called to congratulate the new Senate president Okadigbo, but an air of suspicion between the number one and number three citizens was imminent.

The complete lack of trust of each other meant that the Upper House under Okadigbo was going to go through difficulties in its relations with the Executive branch.

“Chuba was determined to invigorate the Senate after nearly six months in a slumber.

The uncharismatic Enwerem could not inspire his colleagues throughout his short tenure, so when Okadigbo was enthusiastically installed by a huge majority, there was high expectations that the Senate would now bubble and give the new democracy some tinge of excitement in the Three Arms Zone. Most Nigerians were in tune with the leadership change at the Senate, increasing the belief that a stronger National Assembly would emerge, judging by the strong radical combination of Chuba and Na'Abba.

However, that combination got the alarm bells ringing endlessly in Aso Rock.

“President Obasanjo has had to show in the past his disdain of the young Turks at the House and would not live with an independent minded leadership at the Senate as well.

He thus gave the marching orders to his strategists to ensure that a leadership that the president could work amicably with emerged at both chambers of the National Assembly”.

With presidential support, the anti-Okadigbo group emerged in the Senate within a few months of Okadigbo's ascendancy to the seat of power and Chuba promptly described them as senators who “genuflect before Executive tables for mere pittance” and soon the impeachment battles began and within barely one year of becoming the Senate President, Okadigbo was relegated to the scrap heap and impeached.

But he defiantly moved on and remained a pain on the president's neck from his Senate seat.

Although one must say that the longest serving and present Senate president, David Mark, has piloted the affairs of the Senate very well by taking in all shades of senators into the fold, causing no ripples in executive, legislative relations, yet there is something very difficult to pinpoint in the hallowed Red Chamber ten years without Chuba Okadigbo.