By Chuks Iloegbunam
From Friday, the piece continues, today, the narrative of the drama that unfolded following news of the impeachment of Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State
AS Channels Television showed a few weeks later, the House reconvened in Awka under heavy security cover and the Speaker, Mike Balonwu, moved the motion. In one sentence he said: “Those in favour of the impeachment say Aye and those against say Nay.” But even before his colleagues had a chance to affirm their convictions, he brought his gavel down on his desk with a thud: “The Ayes have it.” Peter Obi stood impeached.
Peter left office, parked out of the Government Lodge, and moved to Agulu, his hometown, which was only 25 minutes away. Dame Virgy Etiaba was sworn-in as the Governor. I retained my position as Chief of Staff. Most of the functionaries remained in place and Governor Etiaba ran the State until the courts overturned Peter’s impeachment.
Those were momentous days. On February 8, 2007, I got summoned to report in the Governor’s office. With pen and paper in hand, as I was wont to do, I hurried to see Governor Etiaba. I had known her since before the civil war, when we lived in Kano, and I attended the Ibo Union Primary School. Their compound, the home of the Ejimbes, which was symptomatic of upper middleclass, sat next to one of the goal posts of the pitch on which we played football at school.
If thirsty, we entered the Ejimbe compound and drank to our fill. They had pipe borne water right inside it. For “ordinary level” people like us, my siblings and I routinely went to the famous Ibo Road to fetch water from pumps at street corners. Sometimes one of our errant balls would fly into the compound and we would race in to retrieve it. I often saw her in those days, an adolescent, but not once did we exchange more than greetings.
When she became Deputy Governor, I told her how we used to come drink water in their compound and how, at other times, I accompanied my mother as she attended meetings hosted by Mrs. Ejimbe. While the women deliberated, I and any other kids I found around the school’s pitch played soccer with the kind of ball we called “olumpik.” She remembered those days but could not recollect my face, which was not surprising for we used to invade the place in battalions.
Today, however, the mission was stark different. When I entered the Governor’s office, there were about seven others inside it, all of them seated, some clutching files, none of them of the Government House personnel. I greeted them. Mrs. Etiaba, a fair- minded but no-nonsense woman, went straight to the point. “Mr. Iloegbunam,” she began.
Unlike Peter Obi who addressed me as Oga Chuks or Uncle Chuks, the Dame settled for Mr. Iloegbunam. Standing there, I listened attentively. She said those in her office were members of the panel she had set up to investigate the matter of unlawful encroachment on government property in Onitsha. Of course, I knew the story. Near one of the markets, Onitsha is all markets, anyway, some traders were found digging up the outsides of the market.
Asked by metropolitan officials what was going on, they lied that it all had to do with drainages. But, within a week, brand new buildings had been erected there, ready to be used as stalls and shops. The panel, having investigated the matter, concluded that the structures were illegally erected. They would impede free movement of people and goods. The builders deserved to be prosecuted.
Governor Etiaba was indignant about the impunity. “Mr. Iloegbunam,” she said. “Get adequate security and have the structures pulled down tomorrow.”
A Governor’s word was law. I contacted Mr. Haruna John, the Anambra State Police Commissioner, on the score. A fine gentleman, I had a great rapport with him. Unfortunately, he died in a helicopter crash in Jos on March 14, 2012. He had, at that time, risen to the position of Deputy Inspector General of Police (Operations). We agreed that the demolition exercise would take place in the afternoon.
The next morning, I sat in the office doing routine work and looking at the watch. When, before noon, I looked out of my window, I saw a limousine as long as those often seen in Nollywood movies parked just in front of the Governor’s office. I couldn’t believe it. I wondered who permitted the affront. Visitors’ cars were normally parked outside. Even if important visitors were driven right up to the entrance of the Governor’s office, their chauffeurs invariably drove the cars outside until it was time to return and pick their employers.
Governor Etiaba was not in the office; she was out on scheduled inspection of road projects. So, who had come in? I asked Mr. Ayo, the Civil Defence man attached to my office, to go find out. Standing in my front he told me it was Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu that came in the car. I thought he wouldn’t come unannounced and that he would invariably be told when the governor would be in the office.
I rose to go meet Ojukwu who was well known to me. Midway I saw a protocol officer who said Governor Obi’s impeachment had been overturned and that they were arranging the Executive Chambers for a handover of power back to him. Inside the Executive Chambers, the place was full of officials moving things about. Presently Mrs. Etiaba arrived, dressed in tracksuit, the kind of attire we often used for road inspections. She went into her office. Maybe a phone call had alerted her to the developments. Before long, a speech had been prepared in which the memorable phrase “right now I take the back seat again” was included. The Executive Chambers was full and people, some of whom had hurried in from outside Awka, spilled into the corridors and adjoining rooms.
Peter Obi was back in office as Governor, thanks to his proverbial “nine lives” and his indomitable spirit. While he survived, Justice Chuka Okoli was compulsorily retired on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council over the alleged questionable roles he played in the impeachment process. But more hurdles waited along the way. A few months after the impeachment saga, Peter Obi was again forced from office. This was in May 2007, following the swearing-in into office of Mr. Andy Uba as Governor of Anambra State. Peter Obi again went to court, arguing that he was sworn into office for a four-year tenure which hadn’t expired, and which fact meant that the INEC election that pronounced Mr. Uba Governor was invalid. The courts upheld his case and he returned to office again – until his second term of office expired on March 17, 2014.
It was not only in matters of the judiciary that Peter Obi proved his resilience. When his administration started, one of the things that bothered him to no end was the low receipts by the State Board of Internal Revenue. People devised ways of evading tax payments. Others paid far less than their incomes should guarantee. But what vexed him the most was the NARTO or National Association of Road Transport Owners. This body had all the motor parks in the Onitsha metropolis under its firm control, collecting revenue on a steady basis without ever paying a dime into the state coffers.
Governor Obi thought the situation was untenable. Upon contacting the NARTO officials, he got told that there was no point fishing in troubled waters. They had absolutely no intention of relinquishing their hold on the parks. The Governor invited them to a meeting in his office.
They obliged, their head who was called Ezeweruka or something, and two others. It was a strange meeting because there was hardly a discussion, just a monologue by the Ezeweruka guy. There were just the six of us in the Governor’s office, a small affair since we were still using the Deputy Governor’s office while the Governor’s office that was destroyed during the attempted abduction of Governor Ngige was being reconstructed. The NARTO leader looked the Governor in the eye and began, using his index finger to stab the air in all directions, emphasising their position:
“Mr. Governor,” he said in Igbo. “I must give it to you straight. No beating about the bush. You see Onitsha? E get as e be. (Onitsha is a peculiar place.) It may not be messed with. There have been governors before you. And there will be governors after you. So, my advice to you is this: steer clear of Onitsha. If there is a legacy you want to leave, focus on it squarely and depart when your time is up. You may want to build a hospital somewhere. It may be your wish to give some local government a new secondary school. Or a clinic! Whatever it pleases you to do for Ndi Anambra, go ahead and do it. But leave Onitsha well alone.”
I know Governors who would have been incensed by this kind of insolence, who would have risen and plastered the impertinent fellow’s face with hot slaps, without any repercussions whatsoever. But Peter Obi smiled. There was nothing else to say. He thanked the visitors for showing up. We all rose. The Governor walked the visitors the few steps to the door and bade them farewell.
He was wearing a smile but, knowing him, it was obvious that his bile had been stoked. Outside, the Governor’s security detail, including even his aide-de-camp, started hailing Ezeweruka, calling him Pawa ka pawa – the Power that surpasses power. They obviously knew him. Beaming, the super-powerful man dipped a hand into the pocket of his traditional jumper and out came a wad of mint-fresh bank notes, which he proceeded to spray on his cheerers.
Well-meaning people rallied to the government’s side. One of them was Mr. Sylvester Odife, Jnr. Following the footsteps of his father, Mr. Sylvester Odife, Snr, who had founded the Anambra State Amalgamated Traders Association (ASMATA) in 1956, he had been the Chairman of the Onitsha Main Market Association. He had known Peter Obi who was three years his junior at the CKC. And he was all for giving to Caesar his due and to God, His due as well. These guys were of immense assistance.
In two weeks, Ezeweruka realised where the real power resided. With abundant detachment of Army troops and police officers, Anambra retrieved all of its parks from the parasites that had, for decades, captured and harvested resources therefrom. The Pawa ka pawa himself fled Anambra State and became an internal exile in Enugu State. It took close to six months before the fear of many things allowed him to step on Anambra soil again. And, when he returned, he left Onitsha parks well alone. E get as Onitsha be!
The point of these stories is that Peter Obi’s voice and gentle mien belie the steel in him. He meets an Igwe (traditional ruler) and bows to greet him, intoning Igweeeee! He meets a prelate and bows to salute them, kissing his ring. Once he thinks a man is older than him, he never forgets to add “Sir” in addressing the person.
On the first day I met him, he addressed me alternately as Uncle Chuks and Oga Chuks. Through the five years I was in his government and even up till next tomorrow, he still so addresses me. I thought it was incongruous for a Governor to be addressing his appointee as Oga but he didn’t want to know, so I put the matter in the back burner. But everything has an explanation, some of which may not be easily or comprehensively identified.
In the case of Peter Obi, placing a finger of the factors that encapsulate him calls into play the Igbo saying that, To find the hand that stabbed another to death, the smith that molded the knife must be identified. The true Peter Obi is straight out of his background. His parents were Mr. Josephat and Mrs. Agnes Obi from Agulu in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State.
In Hebrew, Josephat means, Yahweh will Add Another Son. Yahweh gave the couple seven sons. In fact, the couple scored just one short of a soccer team in procreation, all of them born in Onitsha where the Obis resided. In seniority, this is the order in which their children were born: (1) Dominic. (2) Bibiana (Mrs. Adani, deceased). (3) Iraneus (deceased). (4) Martina (Reverend Sister). (5) Damian. (6) Peter. (7) Fabian (Reverend Father). (8) Francis (US-based medical doctor). (9) Agnes – who was named after the mother, but is better known as Mama Chioma (Mrs. Okoye), and Ndibe (the boss of Next International).
Before the civil war the family lived at Nwosu Lane in Odoakpu, Onitsha. At the cessation of hostilities, they moved to No 98 Modebe Avenue where the family owned a supermarket. The house was a two-storey building. The ground floor had the NADO Supermarket. The first floor housed a restaurant. The top floor was the living quarters of the family where each of the children lived in a separate room.
Peter attended the Sancta Maria Primary School right inside the grounds of what is now the Holy Trinity Basilica. Damian was at the adjoining Holy Trinity Primary School. Each school day they walked some 15 minutes to school, Damian in his white shirt and brown shorts uniform, Peter also in white shirt but red shorts. After school, they mostly didn’t go home together. Damian played good football and will stay back with other soccer addicts to enjoy themselves. Peter wasn’t keen on the ball game. His main interest, even in that early stage of his life, was business, aspects of which will be discussed shortly.
Because both parents were traders, or businesspeople, as today’s fad dictates that people in their profession should be described, all the Obi children are also traders, including those that have taken the holy orders. This is because they were of a home where life revolved around the church, the school, and the shop. Apart from Martina, Fabian and Francis, all others are into business; none ever bothered to seek paid employment anywhere. But trading is ingrained in them all, including the nun, the priest, and the doctor, whether or not they advertise that trait.
Just as people describe Enugu as a Civil Service town, Onitsha is the Traders’ town. Another name for Onitsha is Market. Apart from the Main Market, which is the biggest market in West Africa, every Onitsha street is a market in its own right. The entire landscape is dotted with shops and stalls. In fact, almost every compound has shop or a marketer with wares on a table facing the street.
No one grew up in such an environment without knowing the ropes of entrepreneurship. Most of the kids brought up in Onitsha in those days were all traders first before anything else, even if they later turned out to train as forensic psychologists or became consultant anesthetists. The business texture of Onitsha is mainly thanks to the lordly River Niger and the entrepreneurial Igbo spirit.
Peter’s propensity for buying and selling manifested when he was at Christ the King College, Onitsha. When he collected his school fees, which he did on the first day of a new term, he didn’t pay it straight to the school but first used it as capital for trading, making gains before meeting his monetary obligation to the school. By the time he got to Form Three, he was already into inter-regional trade.
He will often take a bus that took him across the Niger Bridge into Asaba from where he travelled another 82 kilometres to Agbor. At Agbor, there was a farm where he purchased eggs by the crates and at bargain prices. Back in Onitsha, the eggs were delivered to a lady who ran an eatery close to the CKC.
Every morning, students and workers lined up and bought sandwiches or yam or plantain or potatoes and fried eggs. By mid-month when most were already broke, they bought their meals and their takeaways on credit. Peter had a large notebook in which every customer’s debt was recorded. Once the month ended, no debtor feigned surprise at seeing Peter in front of his door early in the morning to get paid what he was owed.
Before living secondary school, he had started travelling to the United Kingdom to buy wares, which he sold to students and through outlets in the markets. On one occasion, he went to London and returned with a TV set he installed in his room at Modebe Street. Friends visited him soon after, and as they watched a programme on the box, one of them professed love for the set.
Peter immediately offered it for sale, defeated its power supply and yanked off the mains’ wire. He put the TV back in the carton in which it had arrived. The friend left with the television, Peter pocketed his money, his profit. Within the month, he had done another trip to London and come home with many of the TV sets, one for his room, the others for sale. At that time, a Lagos-London-Lagos flight ticket cost no more than N150. The Naira enjoyed parity with the Pound Sterling.
When Peter gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, eyebrows were raised in quarters that didn’t fully understand. They thought it was a joke. They believed his rightful destination was the Main Market, or a supermarket of his own. They were wrong because they knew not the high degree of importance that Ndigbo attach to education.
It will surprise people to discover that a lot of the “rustic” Igbo traders seen all over the place rendering English with heavy accents are, in fact, university graduates. Peter stayed at Nsukka through four years to earn a degree in Philosophy. But he was more at home travelling overseas and importing goods that he sold.
That was how it came about that as an undergraduate, he owned a Peugeot 504 while many a student worried about where their next school fees would come from. The 504 then sold at less than N5,000. After his freshman year, Peter no longer saw the point in sharing dormitory spaces with fellow students inside the Zik’s Flats, and Awolowo Hall, and Azikiwe Hall etc., on the campus. He went into provincial Nsukka and rented himself a flat.
There is another trait of the Igbo trader that Peter readily imbibed early in life. The typical Igbo trader believes in the saying that, “The snail passes through thorns by the use of a sweet tongue.” If a customer came to your shop and severely underpriced your product, you would not get offended if you were Igbo. You would dobale for them. After the genuflection, you would ask if they wouldn’t use a soft drink seeing that the weather was rather hot. It may, in fact, be chilly.
You would ask about their wives and children even though a careful look already told you that the customer’s youthfulness suggested that he was unmarried. All these things you would do because you wanted the customer to part with his money and leave with the ware you were anxious to sell. That is all what the “Sirs” boil down to. I will give a god example of this attribute while discussing some of Governor Obi’s achievements.
Peter Obi carried his reverence of people into other areas. After I took a single honours degree in English from the University of Ife (now the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife), I came out convinced that I had “finished” the language. I had been taught by the titans – people like Professor Gerald Moore, Professor Bisi Afolayan, the semanticist, and Professor Biodun Jeyifo, the Marxist literary critic. There were others, of course. But when I became a foundation staff at The Guardian in Lagos, past masters in language use taught me that all I had was a B. A. for Begin Again.
People like Chinweizu, Dr. Stanley Macebuh, Professor Onwuchekwa Jemie, Professor Femi Osofisan and Eddie Iroh, the accomplished novelist and TV film producer, who at the time was not even a graduate taught me to place my feet on the ground. There was a big difference between what was learnt in the university and what struck the right chords in the minds of newspaper readers. I started paying especial attention to what in linguistics is known as Register.
When I became a political appointee, my language teacher became Peter Obi, of all people. Let me give a little background. While we were outside government, most of what I wrote for Peter passed. All through the years we argued his mandate in court, I wrote at least 95 percent of his official political communication. While I served in his government, I also wrote at least 95 percent of his speeches and his official letters. That is why when people who won’t recognise Peter even if he bumped into them write nonsense about him, I spend a good deal of time lamenting the pettiness of humankind.
To continue with the narrative. Since I was Chief of Staff and there was a competent Press Secretary, and a competent speechwriter inherited from Dr. Ngige, I thought I had written the last for Mr. Obi. One morning I introduced the matter of Leo Nnoli to the Governor, mentioning that he had been speechwriter to both Governors Chinwoke Mbadinuju and Chris Ngige. I had in my hand samples of speeches he had written for the ex-Governors. Mr. Obi was not in the least interested. Not that he doubted Nnoli’s competence. But he argued that I had been with him for many years and, if he as much as winked, I would know what to put down on paper.
He asked why I wanted him to take on a new speechwriter who would spend valuable time trying to master his predilections. That ended the matter. The speechwriter was redeployed. A couple of years later, Dr. Nnoli transferred his services to the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, where he became a lecturer in History. He had an assistant, Ifeanyi Njelita, who had earned a degree in English from Unizik. Mr. Njelita requested that I post him to the Protocol Department. I obliged. He excelled there and rose in rank until his retirement in 2021.
I was back to taking tutorials on how to write. But a preliminary problem arose. Governor Obi was going to travel to the United Kingdom. He asked me to draft a letter informing President Obasanjo of the trip. I couldn’t understand.
“Sir, you don’t need to inform him that you are travelling.”
“Is there anywhere the Constitution so says?”?Since the Constitution said nothing of the sort, I did a draft as instructed. Once he sighted the draft, the Governor quarrelled with my opening sentence, which ran something like this: “Your Excellency, this is to inform you that I will be travelling…”
“That’s not how to address the President. Put ‘humbly’ there! Say, ‘This is to humbly inform you that…’” General Obasanjo is still alive and well and will confirm that he received letters regularly from Governor Obi that were replete with verbs like Please, Appeal, Plead. The President got told each time my Governor travelled. He got appealed to every time there was something Mr. Obi thought he should attend to.
It is the same politeness that Peter Obi is exhibiting in the run up to the 2023 presidential ballot. It is not affectation; it has been his style from time “imo river”! He has not abused any presidential candidate or anybody else for that matter. And he will not. When Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu went to campaign for Governor Adegboyega Oyetola of Osun State who was seeking reelection, he told his listeners that, “Some people call themselves Labour. They will be in labour to the death.”
A few days later, Peter Obi arrived Osogbo, the Osun State capital, to address the supporters of the Labour Party gubernatorial candidate, Mr. Lasun Yusuff. He found it necessary to respond to Tinubu’s death wish to Labour partisans. He said: “I listened to our chairman when he said that somebody said ‘they can labour till death’. When they show you hatred, Labour Party will show them love. There is dignity in labour.” He spoke without recrimination. He addressed Labour supporters with maturity. He acted like a lodestar for the movement of national politics.
Even when Atiku Abubakar emerged as the PDP presidential candidate, Mr. Obi didn’t behave as though a mortal enemy had sprung up to contend with him in the presidential ballot. He sent Atiku a congratulatory message from which a vital lesson in moderation could be learned. He tweeted: “On behalf of my family, I sincerely congratulate my leader and dear elder brother, H. E. @atiku, on his emergence as the 2023 presidential flag bearer of the @OfficialPDPNig. I pray that Almighty God who sees your goodness will continue to bless you now and always. – PO.” That was on May 29, 2022.
Even when Tinubu exhibited an unwarranted sense of entitlement by publicly declaring in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, that it was his turn to be the President of Nigeria – the controversial emi lo kan – Peter Obi responded to a TV interviewer’s question in the following vein: it is not the turn of anyone to become the President of Nigeria. Rather, it is the turn of Nigerians to reclaim their country from vast misrule and misery. It was because he desired to focus on the real issues that he appealed to his followers to leave him with the task of responding to any presidential candidate that referred to him or his viewpoints.
But Obi’s traducers will not let up. Recently it trended on the social media what their plan against Peter Obi was – to sell the lie that he was a liar, to sell the lie that he achieved nothing in Anambra State, to sell the lie that he was an IPOB leader, to sell every lie against an innocent man, both sellable and unsellable – all in the name of partisan politics. But the evil schemes have invariably come to grief. Oftentimes, the exposition of their lies lies embedded within the sentences of the traducers’ utterances.
Iloegbunam, an author, wrote via:[email protected]