February 11, 2017

Ibori: A welcome like no other

By Tony Eluemunor

Saturday 4th  February 2017 morning; I was at the 12 Apostles Catholic Church, Central Business District, Abuja, for the First Saturday of the month Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mass, Holy Communion Adoration of the Eucharistic Jesus, Confession and Rosary in reparation for the sins of the whole world). As I stepped out of the church by 7.30 am my phone rang.

The conspiratorial tone that Mr. Solomon Udele, Chief James Onanefe Ibori’s ADC while he was Governor of Delta State (1999 – 2007), assumes while discussing serious issues was at the other end of the line. “Brother Knight, eh, eh, ah, mm, did you hear anything”?

“Like what”, I asked.

“Eh, em, has Oga (the boss) returned to Nigeria? I hear he is in Abuja right now. Please make some calls and get back to me”. He was breathing fast and hard, trying to hide his anxiety. Mr. Udele stopped working with Ibori 10 years ago, yet Ibori is still Oga to him. He was posted to the Aso Rock Villa in June 2007 after his duty as Ibori’s ADC. On his first day there, the ADC to the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan took him to be introduced to the then Chief of Staff, Gen. Abdulahi Mohammed (rtd). Mohammed did not bother to return Udele’s greeting but snarled: “I don’t want an Ibori man anywhere near the Villa, in fact I don’t want such a person near Abuja.” Taking his phone, Abdulahi called the Inspector General of Police and dished out an instruction: “I want Ibori’s former ADC to be posted out of Aso Rock and he must not be found in any state that shares a boundary with the Federal Capital Territory. So, the Police posted Udele to Awka, Anambra State; he resigned from the Police Force the very day he reported at Awka because he suspected his life might be in danger.

Then I called Ibori’s London number but he didn’t pick. I was parking my car on my return from the church when my phone rang and Ibori was laughing at the other end. “Tony, I beat you and your journalist colleagues to it. I’m in Abuja”. I confessed to him that he beat me thoroughly because I had been telling him that Nigeria would witness it’s largest gathering on the day of his return. I used to say that all I needed to do was to slip out the date and his supporters would converge on the mentioned Airport, even if it is in the middle of Sambisa Forest.

I phoned Mr. Onochie Anibeze, Editor of the Saturday Vanguard but couldn’t reach him. I called Vanguard’s Emma Azieken but also drew a blank. It was frustrating. Ibori’s return was the “payment” I had promised myself to give to Vanguard, especially Weekend Vanguard. Since December, I have been granted a page every Saturday to state the other side of the Ibori story, and I greased nobody’s palm. Send a story on Ibori to Mr. Eze Anaba, Vanguard newspaper Editor or Mr. Anibeze and it would be well-used. “I want to sell my paper and Ibori sells papers” Anibeze would say. Once, I even had to call the Vanguard Publisher, Mr. Sam Amuka, when I had challenges placing an obituary advert. Once I called my name a laughing “Uncle Sam” began to ask how I was doing, as though we were close friends. Baffled, I told him he must have mistaken me for another Tony. “No, I know you; the Ibori Man”. Once I mentioned my problem, he asked me to call the advert section and “just mention the date and it is done. Don’t worry”. Then I called Prof Kingsley Macebuh, the late Dr. Stanley Macebuh’s brother and he said that was Sam Amuka’s true nature – genial, easy going, without airs. I was astounded. “Tony, oh, have you never seen Uncle Sam? If only well-placed Nigerian elites could learn from him!” I told him I have never met the man, yet he treated me like a brother or an old friend.

Then I told Mr. Ikechukwu Amaechi of Ibori’s return. He went ecstatic; “Tony I’m posting it right away on Facebook”, and the rest is history. As I never had votes for PR, I would send my statements to Mr. Amaechi and Mr. Kingsley Ighomwenghian – both former Editors of Daily Independent – and they would send straight to their fellow newspaper Editors. Often too, Mr. Sunny Areh came to my rescue. Mr. Sheddy Ozoene did all he could. Mr. Magnus Onyibe took helped to contend with hack writers.

That Saturday 4th  of February 2017 was special in Oghara, a town known nationally because of its famous son, Ibori. An unprecedented multitude began to blanket the Osubi Airstrip, Warri, Saturday morning to await Ibori’s return that afternoon, but he landed at the Benin Airport instead. By the time he arrived Oghara, all hell had been let loose; the throng of people that had “invaded” Osubi had re-located to Oghara. It took Ibori hours to make the two- kilometer journey from the Expressway to his compound. Each member of the ecstatic crowd wanted to touch him.

The people sang. Music blared from loud speakers. Dance groups staked out turfs. Men and women danced. A nameless carnival was in town. Photographers and sundry mercantilists did brisk business. It was magical; it was out of this world. Sunday; the crowd still remained, so at 5pm, Ibori ordered his gates to be flung open to everybody. People rushed into the compound.

Security men were alarmed. Ibori worked the crowd, chatting, joking, and receiving blessings and endless prayers. But by 10 pm, Ibori had been touched by everyone, including even the children who were also there in full force and a welcomed quietude enveloped the compound. But it was shattered somewhat on Monday when individuals and groups began to visit again.

On Tuesday, the toll was visible on Ibori. He had lost his voice. He announced he needed a rest and would see nobody on Wednesday…but he had to travel to Abuja that day to take that rest and returned on Thursday and began receiving visitors all day long. Groups would be shepherded into various parlous, while the top government visitors would go in through the back door and into his own personal quarters.

The visitors came from near and far. They included Ibori’s relatives from Oghara town and politicians from outside Delta State. Ibori’s well-known friends were there. So, too, his well-known erstwhile enemies. All enjoyed warm welcome. In fact the former enemies stayed longer with him and prayed harder for him. All sorts of religious songs resounded as every group began and ended its session with prayers. Only the Hausa Community in Oghara went into prayers without singing. Even the musicians such as Ras Kimono , Otis Wiliki and Rasta Daddy Tom were not left out.

By Friday, there was still a long list of groups to be given a date for their visits; they included the Local Government Chairmen, Traditional Rulers; Delta Central Elders, the PDP, PDP Ethiope West LGA, Archbishops, Bishops and other religious leaders, Yoruba Progressive Union led by Otumba Ayo Ola Fafowora, Ijomi Community, Non-Indigines of Delta State and even, yes including Ibori Primary School, Oghara.

The list is not inclusive of individuals. So the visitors were not just politicians. Gen. David Ejoor, visited Wednesday morning. He was Mid-West Regions Military Governor in 1966 when Ibori was eight years old. He was helped to walk from and back to his car. The remarkable inventor, Brig-Gen Otu Oviemo Ovadje (ret) a highly accredited Nigerian medical doctor who invented the Emergency Auto Transfusion System (EAT-SET) – an affordable, simpler and effective blood auto-transfusion system, visit on Friday. He came in as Dr. Austin Izagbo and his wife Ify were leaving.

On Sunday, Oghara sons and daughters will have a Freedom Thanksgiving service for Ibori’s return. Individuals contributed various sums to fund the event.

But Ibori’s friends and political associates are already planning their own special reception; a reunion of Ibori’s friends/ loyal supporters and those who left the Ibori fold …and even those who have been totally opposed to Ibori but who have come around now to his side.

This will task social scientists to explain: that Ibori has waxed stronger, on his return to Nigeria after seven year’s absence, than he was before he was forced to exit the country as a cabal in former President Jonathan’s administration wanted to kill him by roping him into a phantom coup plot.

Oh what happened when I first saw Ibori on Sunday? He gave me two bear hugs but still “mocked” me: “Tony, I beat you and all the journalists to it. You couldn’t catch me”. Suddenly, it was as if the “Odidigborigbo” had never been gone as Oghara, Delta State and the South-South were agog again – all because of one man who has said nary a word since he returned.