By Chuks Iloegbunam
An excerpt from The Promise of a New Era, a book by Chuks Iloegbunam out in August 2022.
UNTIL the run up to the 2003 general elections, I was unaware of Peter Obi’s existence. Our first meeting was in Asaba late in 2002, when Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu led an APGA delegation on a campaign trip to Delta State. I had travelled from Lagos to Asaba, to assist Prince Ned Nwoko, a friend from my London days, who was the APGA gubernatorial candidate for Delta State. Former Biafran Commando Colonel Joe “Air Raid” Achuzia led the Delta APGA reception team. With Ned exchanging pleasantries with some party supporters under a tree on the far side, I joined a handful of others who listened as Chief Achuzia stood by his car and delivered an impromptu lecture. This was happening on the grounds of the Grand Hotel, and while we waited for General Ojukwu’s team to arrive.
Achuzia spoke on the need for everyone to always be on the alert for his or her safety. “If I got found today wielding an automatic rifle,” he said, “that would be trifling. I’ve gone past that age. But any of you young ones here with a job and salary for six consecutive months without acquiring an AK-47 is foolish.” Looking back now, I wonder whether Achuzia spoke in that vein because he had foreseen the calamitous security situation that has now drowned Nigeria. Anyway, Ojukwu’s convoy soon swept into the Grand Hotel. With the visitors from Anambra State, we formed a sizeable crowd that soon plunged into a brightly lit hall.
With everyone seated and introductions concluded, Chief Ojukwu spoke on why APGA had become the “in thing, the party to belong to”. Deltans, he said, should elect Ned Nwoko their next governor. Ned took his turn at the microphone, and thanked the party for reposing confidence in him by giving him its gubernatorial ticket. He described his electoral chances as bright and asked for everyone’s support. Peter Obi, the APGA governorship candidate for Anambra State, also spoke. He disdained the way politicians were carrying on and promised that, if he emerged victorious in the Anambra ballot, he would give his home state a new lease of life. “Is Anambra cursed, or are we the cause?” he asked. It was his slogan.
After the speeches, handshakes, backslapping and snacks, I seized a good moment to approach Peter Obi, asking where he could be reached for an interview. “Onitsha!” I never saw him again until months after the governorship ballot. I played no role whatsoever in his campaigns. But when INEC declared Dr. Chris Nwabueze Ngige of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the elected Governor of Anambra State, I became involved. The Ngige verdict raised a furore across the Igbo country. People were incredulous. Peter Obi headed for the Election Tribunal. I travelled East and interrogated the people’s misgivings. I returned to Lagos convinced that Mr. Obi had indeed won the election, only for his mandate to be stolen.
Indignant, I plunged into the fray, writing nearly 50 articles on the topic over the three years it took for the courts to restore Peter Obi’s electoral mandate. People approached me then from all over, pleading that I “die the matter” because Dr. Ngige was, after all, my brother. “Both of you are from Idemili North Local Government Area, and his hometown of Alor shares a common boundary with Abatete, your hometown.” I didn’t want to know. Job offers and the promises of a glorious payday were thrown around but I remained steadfast with my pro-Peter Obi opinions in my Perspectives column in the Vanguard. All appeals for me to ditch my conviction amounted to hitting on a deer’s horns. My position was the same as I took in the matter of Chief M. K. O Abiola, whose June 12, 1993 mandate was criminally annulled. As far as I was concerned, if someone won a properly contested election, his victory had to be upheld.
Thanks to Uncle Sam Amuka, the Chairman of Vanguard newspapers. And thanks also to Mr. Gbenga Adefaye, the newspaper’s editor. Not once did they impede the use of my weekly column for the advancement of Mr. Obi’s cause. After about three months of my continual articles on the Anambra election, Peter Obi invited me for a meeting. Only after Obi had become Governor did I learn the impetus for the invitation. Damian, Peter’s immediate elder brother, revealed that he was the one who advised his brother to meet with “this Chuks who, week in and week out, was championing our cause in the Vanguard.”
I drove over to Peter’s office on Aerodrome Road in Apapa. The very large warehouse in the compound surprised me. How could this young man own this? I wondered. Our brief meeting marked my official enlistment in a cause I had been fighting on my own volition. I discovered that, like me, Peter lived in Festac Town. We discussed media strategy. From then and until he became Anambra’s Governor, we met regularly. Unless he or I was out of the country, or out of Lagos, we met practically every week. Otherwise, we chatted on the phone, discussing the progress of his case through the Election Tribunal and the Appeal Court, using such discussions to plot fresh manoeuvres for electoral justice.
I found myself touring media houses around Lagos, contacting editors, and features editors, and reporters, positing our points of view, writing rejoinders and rebuttals to stories coming out of our opponent’s camp. At around noon on March 14, 2006, I was at home taking things easy when my phone rang. It was Peter Obi. “Have you heard the news?” he asked. “What’s the news?” “We have won!” Before I could say “Congrats,” he continued: “Prepare to fly to Enugu tomorrow. Chief John Nnia Nwodo is waiting for you. You both are to write my inaugural address.”
In Enugu the following day, Chief Nwodo and I sat in the study of his GRA Enugu home and pounded out a draft of Mr. Obi’s inaugural address. Meantime, Peter Obi, Emeka Etiaba who since became an SAN, and Chief Victor Umeh, the APGA chairman, flew to Abuja to collect Mr. Obi’s INEC Certificate of Return. With all of us in Enugu on March 16, we put heads together and agreed the final text of the inaugural address.
March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, was inauguration day. From Enugu, we left early in the morning for Awka in a convoy of just three vehicles, with neither siren nor outriders. Peter Obi and I were in an SUV. The driver introduced himself as the Anambra Government House Chief Driver. As we approached Awka, I noticed that Peter was looking for something around the car’s panels. Not finding it, he asked the driver the button to wind down the window, saying it would be impolite for crowds to wave without his acknowledging their cheers.
“Sir, the windows are designed to be permanently shut. The vehicle is bullet-proof.” That week, we got a request from Ngige’s people asking to have the SUV and about four others back, they being the personal properties of Dr. Ngige. A cacophony of angry voices rose from all corners, saying the matter was unworthy even of discussion. If Governor Peter Obi had so desired, he could have kept the vehicles without the heavens crashing on any pates. Instead, he turned the matter over to Onyechi Ikpeazu SAN, who had successfully argued his governorship case. Dr. Ikpeazu studied all the papers and ruled that the vehicles rightly belonged to Ngige. They were turned over to Dr. Ngige who is alive and well, and who, without hesitation will confirm the veracity of this story.
There were a few Peugeot cars around. And those were the vehicles we started with. It made no difference to Peter because that was the brand of cars he had always used. But new vehicles had to be purchased. Commissioners would be appointed. And Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials too! None of them would be expected to be going about by “footwagen”. Governor Obi asked for quotes on the cost of Peugeot 406 cars from agents and from the Peugeot Automobile Nigeria, PAN, Limited in Kaduna. He ruled all submitted invoices outrageously high, especially as we were going to buy vehicles by the scores.
Closing from work one evening, Governor Obi mentioned that the French bosses at PAN would be in our office the following morning. He had invited them to a haggling match. “There is no reason I won’t yank a third off the price of each car we will be buying.” I grinned at his optimism. The men arrived as scheduled. In those early days, there were, apart from Mr. UcheUdedibia, the Permanent Secretary at Government House, and a handful of Civil Servants and members of our security detail, just four of us in the Governor’s Office. These were myself, the Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Mike Udah (Ojinnaka), Mr. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu Jnr., and Chief (Mrs.) Uju Okeke, a retired Civil Servant and APGA leader who was fondly called Mkpulunma because of her beauty. Her son and Peter Obi were mates at Nsukka. Valentine Obienyem soon joined us.
We played no role in the haggling,which lasted all morning, with the Governor engaging three white men. At some point, Emeka Jnr was asked into the conversation – but only as an interpreter, because he was perfectly bilingual in English and French. He went in when the Governor sensed that the fire of his pitch was being tamed by linguistic inexactitudes. By the time the match ended, I couldn’t swear that the PAN trio represented the happiest salesmen in the world. But Peter was beaming. “I told you I would do it.” At what cost? “They had me sign an undertaking that no other Governor would hear of the deal, lest they invade Kaduna asking for similar concessions.”
All through the years we fought to reclaim his mandate, I hadn’t any inkling that Mr. Obi was a past master in frugality. The Peugeot deal opened my eyes. More was to come. Not being an old capital, Anambra had neither guest houses nor enough living quarters for public officials. Some of us stayed in hotels for many months. When, one day, I told the Governor how much it would cost for us to move into Parktonia Hotel, which appeared more conducive, he said it couldn’t be true. He accompanied us to the place and out came his calculator. For many minutes he and the hotel’s manager kept hitting at the keys of their calculators. At a point, Peter asked for the hotel’s owner. Told that the man was away, Peter retorted that he obviously owned a cell phone. In the end the cost of our stay at Parktonia was cut by nearly a half.
Even on the international scene, his frugal disposition was always there, more acute, really, since expenditures abroad were mostly dollar denominated. I remember when we attended the World Igbo Congress convention in Detroit, Michigan, in 2007. It was an important convention with the theme of “Repositioning the Igbo Nation”, and all South-East Governors were to attend. I wasn’t in the Anambra delegation; Mr. Obi was always averse to outsized delegations. But I was in the US on vacation at the time. Governor Obi, Chief Victor Umeh, the APGA Chairman, and Valentine Obienyem arrived with a morning flight the day the event started. Whenever schedules allowed it, Governor Obi would get into a country in the morning, conduct his business quickly and leave by evening flight, thereby avoiding the expenses an overnight stay would incur. I received the Governor’s team at the lobby of the hotel where the meeting held. The opening ceremony was seven hours away. Governor Obi said he was not prepared to take a suite in the hotel when he won’t spend a night on American soil. But Chief Umeh argued that the sight of a State Governor sitting out hours in a hotel lobby would be unfortunate. Obi didn’t take a suite. Fortunately, he didn’t have to spend hours hanging around a hotel lobby!
Sometimes, Obi’s fastidious predilection to money matters score really big. We were in the office one day at around 9.00pm. The civil servants had long gone home. Only the security men and a few protocol officers and drivers remained. I was in my office with an eye on the window, to know exactly when the Governor called it a day. Instead he phoned me to come. I quickly strode across to his office. He was seated behind his desk a document in hand. Standing there, I waited for instructions. He waved me to a seat. “A banker is going to lose his job tonight,” he said. He handed me a document. It was a statement on funds wired into one of Anambra’s bank accounts. As I handed it back, he showed me a second document. He soon eased my raised eyebrows. A bank manager in Awka had an hour earlier presented to him the balance of Anambra’s account in his bank. Obi was sure that the amount shown to him was incorrect.He, therefore, asked the banker to return to his office and do a recheck of his books.
The Governor and I engaged in small talk while we waited for the banker’s return. The Governor’s ADC soon ushered him into our presence. He was decked out in a dark suit and striped tie. “Your Excellency, the original amount I submitted is correct.” He placed a sheaf of computer printouts on the Governor’s desk. Without casting a glance at the paperwork, the Governor reached for a drawer and pulled one of the documents he had earlier shown to me. He handed it to the man. “How come your papers have no entry on this payment?” The banker swallowed hard. “And this too.” He handed over the second document. The air conditioner was on. But the banker started to sweat profusely. I expected the Governor to start railing at him. Instead, he gently told the man to leave. As he trudged the short distance to the exit, the Governor delivered a one-liner:”I will shortly be in conversation with your Chairman and MD.”
With this story in view, consider the debacle in Abuja where, under the watch of a confirmed epitome of financial prudence, Ahmed Idris, the Accountant General of the Federation, made away with the gargantuan sum of N80 billion. If N80 billion is too hefty for people’s psyche to easily handle, they could recall only the N2 billion of Federal pensions fund plundered by Abdulrasheed Maina. It is because of the thieving spree promoted by derelict leadership that kleptocratic vultures are antipathetic to the idea of Peter Obi directing the affairs of this country.