Footprints of A Statesman: The Life And Times Of Chief Daniel Okumagba
Nigeria’s first experiment at military rule took the whole of 13 years, between 1966 and 1979. It produced four Heads of State in Generals Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed and Olusegun Obasanjo, in that order.
It also prosecuted a civil war and produced many unfulfilled promises that military rule would be an interregnum. The entry of the military into politics had been marked by bloodshed. In one fell swoop, the January 15, 1966 coup plotters killed some of the key politicians of the First Republic and sowed more seeds of discord.
The counter-coup of July 1966 led by some young officers of Northern extraction saw the killing of Head of State General Aguiyi-Ironsi and ricocheted in the civil war of 1967, which lasted till 1970. General Yakubu Gowon, who took over from General Ironsi was himself toppled in 1975, following his delay in organising a transition to civil rule.
By 1976, General Murtala Mohammed, the head of the military government that toppled General Yakubu Gowon, gave the clearest indication that his commitment to returning power to civilians was real when he inaugurated the Constitution Drafting Committee. After General Murtala Mohammed’s assassination in February of that year, his successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, seemed determined not to toe the path that cost General Gowon his job; he wanted a return to civil rule within the timeframe set by the Murtala regime, of which he was the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, the second-in-command.
Obasanjo seemed keen to keep the promise of his principal to hand over power to a democratically elected government. He went ahead in 1978 to inaugurate a constitutional conference to review the draft constitution prepared by the Constitution Drafting Committee, CDC.
The constitutional conference became the springboard for the building and rekindling of old political alliances such that when the ban on political activities was lifted on September 28, 1978 it seemed like the politicians never went to sleep. And they never did, as Dr Chuba Okadigbo, one of the actors of the Second Republic and a future Senate President, put it in the book,
The Mission of The NPN, published in 1981: “Nature abhors a vacuum. In spite of the military interregnum, Nigerians had been talking of Nigerian politics since 1966. They did so in clusters, clubs, drinking parlours, offices, homes, committees, circles, academic forums, etc.”
With the ban on politics lifted, politicians came out of their closets. In the intervening period, my father had gone fully into teaching and community activism, establishing himself as one of the leaders of Midwest State, since re-christened Bendel State by the Federal Military Government.
As the curtain raiser drew closer, our 15 Upper Erejuwa Street, Warri, home took on a new chemistry; it became the epicentre of political activities. From men in English suits, to those in traditional flowing gowns (Agbada) to associates in traditional Niger Delta attire complete with beads, cap and the walking stick, the associates came, first in trickles, later in droves, as alliances were welded.
As a child then, I took pleasure in watching the flourish with which these visitors carried themselves in their traditional attires, as their wrappers swept the space around them, the walking sticks more an accoutrement of style than a walking aid.
To complete the swagger is the hat, which can be anything from a locally designed hat (almost like the Fez hat) to the English hat, with a supple feather stuck to the side. For much of the people of the Edo-speaking part of Bendel State then, the agbada, a flowing gown often taking on the complexion of a parachute on a windy day, was the choice dress, except for traditional purists of Benin extraction who donned the white wrapper and top. The season of politics was at hand and my father was here to play a prominent role.
Some of those who frequented our Warri home included Prince Cousin Mosheshe, Chief (Barrister) James Akpojaro, Prince Shaka Momodu, Chief A.Y. Eke, Chief Wilson Odibo, General David Ejoor (rtd), Chief Daniel Obiomah, Dr Emmanuel Urhobo, Chief Vincent Egbarin, Chief (Barrister) Abel Akpedeye, Dr E.J. Sowho, Chief David Dafinone who became Senator in 1979, Chief (Dr) Frederick Esiri, Chief K.B. Omatseye, Chief S.Y. Mamamu, Chief (Dr) Mudiaga Odje, Chief J.A. Omagbemi, Chief Patrick Gbinije, Chief Augustine Ayomanor, Chief E.K. Clark, Chief B.B. Bakpa, Dr Christopher Okojie and far-flung associates who were to make up the National Party of Nigeria; many of them were old friends in the NCNC and the Midwest Democratic Front (MDF).
There were also Professor Emmanuel Osamor who later became Police Affairs Minister, Chief (Mrs) Alice Obahor, Chief Harrison Jefia, Chief P.M. Origho, Chief Joseph Orhorho, Chief Johnson Ukueku, Chief P.B. Djebah, Chief Sako Adogbeji, Mrs Ann Obi, Chief William Eradajaye, Chief Thomas Ogigbah, Chief Edward Esiso, Chief Patrick Bolokor and Chief F.U. Oroke, among several others.
My father joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) because, as he explained, he saw it as the most national of all the 52 political associations that came up in the wake of the resumption of party politics. The party’s belief not in an emperor, as Dr Okadigbo put it, but in a communal sense of leadership and followership, was one that gave hope that it was prepared to run an inclusive government.
This it did with the national character principle, enabling a national spread of party offices. Explaining this principle in an interview published in New African magazine in May 1979, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who later became Nigeria’s first elected Executive President, said: “Nigerians are not used to dictatorship or a one-man show and they will not accept it. It is ideal in our circumstances to ensure that while we have one person at the apex as the leader and symbol of the unity of our nation, there are enough safeguards, both within the government and the party to check any excesses.” Alhaji Shagari’s statements were well supported by the ideals of the party as laid down in its constitution.
In The Mission of the NPN, Dr Okadigbo states: “As our motto, we chose, ‘One Nation, One Destiny’. We believe in the erection of one strong, virile, just, dynamic and progressive nation – the development of a single all-embracing nation in which all Nigerians feel equal and are treated equally”.
It was a theme that resonated with my father’s lifework of protecting his homeland and living in peace with our neighbours. Even more, it was a theme that agreed with his views that no section of any state, region or nation should be oppressed.
When the NPN was formed in 1978 my father was keen to encourage an all-inclusive platform and tapped Chief J.A. Omagbemi as the chairman of the Warri branch of the party. One other frequent visitor to our Warri home was a younger associate of my father from the NCNC days, Mr Alams Barovbe, later High Chief Lord Alams Barovbe.
I have vivid images of Chief Barovbe and recall him as one of my father’s valued associates. He would come into the house very early, wait through the meetings and soon after join him in the car beside the chauffeur as my father made the rounds to political associates and on the campaign trail.
Chief Barovbe was to play an important role in the campaigns and the aftermath of the elections, but the intellectual plank of my father’s campaign message rested with men like Drs Frederick Esiri and Mudiaga Odje.
In Lagos, Chief David O. Dafinone and other politicians were fleshing out the structure of a national party, along with people like Alhaji Uba Ahmed who later became its National Secretary and a senator. They reached out to those they considered critical to the new party.
In the then Bendel State, my father, Dr Frederick Esiri, Dr Christopher Okojie from Irrua, Mr Osaze Evbuomwan from Benin, Mr S.A Utomi and Chief Obi Onyia, a minister in Chief Denis Osadebey’s Midwest Regional government (1963 – 1966), were called to attend the inaugural meeting of the National Movement, the precursor to the NPN, in Lagos.
This was how my father became one of the founders of the NPN and played a role in drawing up its manifesto. Interestingly, many of the invitees had been political soul mates from the First Republic. At the inaugural national meeting of the political association, my father was elected joint Assistant National Publicity Secretary of the new political party, along with Dr Okadigbo.
As the meetings took place at the centre, meetings were also taking place in Bendel State with associates of my father from among the Bini, Urhobo, Anioma, Esan, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Isoko and other groups strategising on building the new party. It was a display of tremendous loyalty that many of these associates were to put at the party’s disposal their resources and contacts to campaign for the 1979 gubernatorial elections, which my father contested.
The new party was formed on September 24, 1978, three days after the Federal Military Government lifted the ban on party politics.
Its first protem National Chairman was Alhaji Aliyu Makaman Bida. My father was one of the founders of the party and he was naturally excited at the opportunity of fashioning a new political movement without the imprimatur of a godfather, whose word was law. He abhorred godfather politics and strove neither to be a beneficiary nor a victim.
Previously, in 1963, on account of the attempts by some people in the NCNC to play God, he dumped the party, of which he was a stalwart, to co-found the new Midwest Democratic Front.
Almost simultaneously, as the NPN was being established at the centre, the Bendel State branch was set up, with Dr Christopher Okojie as the protem Chairman of the party. My father took no state offices since he was already a national officer; he acted as one of the coordinators of the new party at the state level.
Soon after the announcement of the NPN’s formation and the establishment of the Bendel State wing, the party almost came to smithereens. The problem arose over the sharing of political offices. The new party members met in Dr Christopher Okojie’s home in Irrua to choose officers. One of those selected on the strength of my father’s recommendation was Barovbe.
The young politician, as he was then, had established himself as a planner and mobiliser. Barovbe also had some resources in the new party; he had established some relationship with people like Umaru Dikko, the protem administrative secretary of the National Movement, during the period of the interregnum when the military ruled.
It was the period of the underground and, while in the United Kingdom, Nigerian politicians met regularly at social occasions, keeping the flame burning for the return to politics. One of those at these social events was Barovbe, who had travelled abroad soon after the elections to the Midwestern House of Assembly.
Though Barovbe did not attend the political meetings at the Irrua home of Dr Christopher Okojie, my father nominated him for the position of Organizing Secretary, and it was approved.