By Chris Iwarah
They came around almost in the same era. From the North to the South, and across political dispensations, they bestrode the nation like mythical figures. Related in many important respects, they however bore individual uniqueness – from clothes to character – that conferred them with individual identities.
They were men and woman, who dressed and talked with a touch of charm. They were indeed a clan of colourful politicians and leaders. They held the entire landscape spell-bound with their charisma, oratorical prowess and deep political convictions. The nation took note, they ruled their space, and the world gave them their place.
Beyond an unmatchable zeal to serve, they carried themselves with such majestic dignity that made disciples of many who were ready to put down their lives to save their political idols. Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first ceremonial president, was a distinguished member of this distinguished tribe. Better addressed as “Zik of Africa”, he was cosmopolitan in outlook, essentially gifted in matters of the gab and pan-Nigerian in agenda. Wherever he lifted his foot, Zik commanded attention.
As a first-class nationalist, Zik was a tireless bridge builder and unity broker. He never demanded recognition; he earned it. He transcended national politics to be enthroned an icon. He was the father of post-independence Nigeria. A polyglot of the excellent stock, he was famous for his uncanny ability to speak Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. And then, faultless English. Yet he was from a humble background. He was a local boy transformed into a national figure.
He once was quoted as explaining his expansive view of Nigeria with these words: “One important feature of my early boyhood days which has had a decisive influence on my latter attitude towards human beings was the cosmopolitan nature of my neighbourhood and school atmosphere…The contacts made me to be more cosmopolitan and fraternal in human relations.” Rather than allowing the odds of his environment influence him, Zik decided to conquer his world and carve a niche for himself. In an article in the West African Pilot in 1938, Zik did a review of his affairs, submitting that he “always looked at most of my life’s problems as problems which confront a miler in a mile race.”
And till he breathed his last, he never departed from this path. Despite facing discouraging political setbacks, Azikiwe held on to his hope of Nigeria becoming a great country someday. For the sake of seeing this dream come to pass, he played politics, but stayed away from its divisive nature. All he cared about in power was satisfying himself that his contribution to the fight for freedom in Nigeria and Africa was not in vain.
“As a young man,” he once revealed, “I saw visions: visions of Nigeria becoming a great country in the emerging continent of Africa; visions of Nigeria offering freedom to those in bondage, and securing the democratic way of life to those who had been lulled into an illusion of security under colonial rule….I trust that I shall dream my dreams amid the peace and ever-increasing prosperity of the people of my native Nigeria.
The motto of the independent federation of Nigeria is ‘Unity and Faith’. I pray that we may guard our unity and keep our faith.” But he was not a lonely traveller on this side of life. He had people like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first Premier of the Western Region, to “keep our faith” with him. Though an undisguised believer in regionalism, the cerebral Yoruba leader fondly called Awo eternally believed in the eternal unity of Nigeria.
But to show that there was merit in his view that different parts of the country possessed certain peculiarities that could easily stand against a unitary strategy for the nation’s development, he devoted himself entirely to the path of developing his Western Region. Today, long after his transition, it is political capital in the South West to make claims to being a student of the sage’s socio-political school of thought.
While from the northern flank of the country, Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s first rule of political success was simplicity, Mallam Aminu Kano was the renowned champion of Talakawa politics (pro-poor agenda in politics). For Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto, politics was about colour, and huge following.
But, perhaps, nobody could speak the language of colour and flamboyance in the political turf of First Republic Nigeria better than the duo of Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh and Dr. Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe. While Okotie-Eboh was the unbeatable bearer of the flag of flamboyance with his trademark wrapper made to kiss the ground, Mbadiwe was clearly unchallengeable in his mastery of bombastic comments as a wordsmith par excellence.
Fondly called Omini Ejoh or Ejoh Bilela, Okotie-Eboh stood out with his flowing wrappers and bowler hat. When he was assassinated, on January 15, 1966, flamboyance in government was also killed and buried. Whether it was on a matter they both agreed on or had reason to engage in intellectual spar over, Okotie-Eboh and Mbadiwe just gave the nation’s political universe its radiance. But it was their disagreements that often made the nation’s day. One of such was when they disagreed over matters of finance.
The encounter was captured in Augustus Adebayo’s book, Power in Politics. “As minister”, the author had recounted, “he (Mbadiwe) had a battle with the flamboyant Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, over foreign loans for sundry industries. All the federal and regional ministers concerned went to meet Balewa who was on leave in his native Bauchi. Mbadiwe was explaining the implication of the proposal when Okotie-Eboh cut him short.
The Finance Minister described the Industry Minister as someone who knew nothing about finance. Mbadiwe replied that he studied Money and Finance in the United States, adding that he could lecture him on finance for five years without opening any textbook.” Okoti-Eboh, however, retorted: “We are talking about practical finance, he is talking of his outdated schoolboy textbooks. Ignorant man like you.” That tickled the fiery side of Mbadiwe, and he gave it back to Okotie-Eboh: “Mr. Prime Minister, but for my respect for you, I will not tolerate being insulted by illiterates (sic) who happen to stumble into wealth”.
A veteran of many political wars, Mbadiwe never fired any gun – he just cut down his opponents with his inimitable arms of words. At a “world press conference” (he was in love with this term), Mbadiwe informed the nation that he was marching against Zik, his former leader, and Awo, whose former party, Action Group (AG), supported his rebellion against Zik, when he formed the ill-fated Democratic Party of Nigeria and Camerouns.
He explained that he was moving against them because they decided to form an alliance, the Progressive Parties Alliance (PPA), to fight Shagari in the 1983 presidential poll. When Anene Ugoani, the former City Editor of Daily Times, asked why he was marching against the two veteran politicians, the politician better known as “Man of Timber and Calibre” or simply K.O., thundered: “I am really counter-marching their earlier march.” Then, he dug into the belly of history, emerging with what he tagged the evidence of how “the political philosophies of Zik and Awo are as far apart as the North and South poles.” Suddenly, he broke into tears.
When he eventually wiped his face, he did with an ultimatum to Zik to “divorce Awo and return to base.” If Zik, the Owelle of Onitsha, dismissed his counsel, he threatened to deploy his “troops”, under the code name, “Operation Encirclement” to execute the order. He warned that the operation would be fierce and ruthless as to be able to destroy anything standing in their way. Then, he flowed in his best elements, declaring: “When the come comes to become, you will know the physicality of man.”
He was not done. He emphasised: “The issue of Zik and Awo political alignment carries with it a signal for alarm and having tried for five years silently to prevent Dr. Azikiwe from taking a course that will bring disaster to the country, there is no alternative for me than to alert the nation in the way of ultimatum”. Provoked by Mbadiwe’s comments, Otunba Theophilus Owolabi Shobowale Benson, better known as T.O.S. Benson, enlisted in the verbal war. Benson, an eminent lawyer and former Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Culture, described him as “a general without an army”.
Mbadiwe fired back, describing Benson as a “political mahogany”, a phrase the media at that time interpreted to mean a “paperweight politician.” Mbadiwe’s words could be politically venomous. His comments were always a puzzle. And he was never apologetic for them. When he contested the Orlu senatorial seat and lost to Dr. Emma Emeka, he claimed he did not know the person he lost to. But when he was named Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters to the President, he said in allusion to that political defeat: “I lost the tail and won the head. K.O is O.K.” Also, downplaying the significance of his loss of the vice presidential ticket of his party to Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Mbadiwe said: “What is the big thing in one being a repeater station to a major station?” Again, drawing a new chart for the Igbo nation to be more relevant in the political configuration of the country,
Mbadiwe insisted that there must be “handshake across the Niger.” In his tribute to Mbadiwe, following his death on August 29, 1990, the late Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a great man of speech himself, stated: “KO was grand, his actions grandiose, his speeches grandiloquent.” In the Second Republic, the contributions of Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim were simply fantastic. Were Mbadiwe to describe Ibrahim’s role in the era, he certainly would have said it was “operation fantastic”. Ibrahim was a devoted advocate of “politics without bitterness”. He was a candle that supplied the Second Republic light. Former Senate President, the Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, was a reincarnation of the flamboyance of Okotie-Eboh and the oratorical process of Mbadiwe in the politics of this era. Cerebral and urbane, the Oyi of Oyi was a superlative speechmaker.
His diction, dress sense and persona distinguished him. He was able to move into the Fourth Republic, where he became Senate President, with his charm intact. He brought elegance to the National Assembly. He occupied the seat of the Senate President with majestic presence – to the point that those who could not understand his make-up thought he was proud. Like Mbadiwe, he seized every occasion to prove his mettle in the coinage of words. Once describing the huge frame of former Senate President and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Pius Anyim, Okadigbo called him a “a mass of platoplasm”. Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, Second Republic governor of old Kano State, was another man of colour that walked the land and got national attention. A man of easygoing mien, Rimi created his own identity with his flowing agbada, proving he was a stickler for principles.
The late Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, was also a politician of special taste. He was famous for combining politics with charity. A man of deep purse, the huge campaign he mounted in his race for Aso Rock in 1993 is still a reference point in the annals of politics in the country. If there was anything he specially inherited from the late Chief Awolowo, it was the sage’s knack for constructing timeless wise sayings. These were the contributions that beautified Nigeria’s political past. But that could only be the past. Now, it is uncommon to see politicians capable of delivering “quotable quotes” and writing their names in the consciousness of the people indelibly.
By all standards, Balarabe Musa, Second Republic Governor of Kaduna State, is himself one of the few great politicians no one can afford to forget – or even ignore. A Marxist in orientation, when the Kaduna Polo Club invited Musa to come along with a mallet, he refused the invitation and gave the mallet to a servant, saying: “I don’t play polo … It is the game of the rich and powerful, of neo-colonialists.” But even as one who is eminently qualified to speak on the politics and politicians of Nigeria’s yesterday, he regrets that things are no longer what they used to be. Making a comparison of the nation’s political past and present, Musa aptly described the former as “a wonderful period of politics and certainly incomparable in all circumstances to what is obtainable now.”
Even before he passed on, Okadigbo himself did not hide the fact that he was displeased with the shallowness of the new-era politicians. Wherever he went, the Oyi of Oyi was full of complaints that politics in the country had become uninspiring and lacking in “profound pronouncements and quotable quotes.” Clearly, Okadigbo could not have been referring to people like Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, a giant in eloquence and glamour in his own right, Jim Nwobodo, who draw attention with his trademark French suits, Paul Unogo with his great hairstyle and good dress sense. Okadigbo was not talking to the Ogbonnaya Onus, the Tom Ikimis, the Maitama Sules, people who still hold their own wherever and whenever duty calls.
The Wole Soyinkas, the Ben Nwabuezes, the Itse Sagays, the Ekwuemes, among others, still stand like a colossus in their different areas of interest – and they keep compelling the world to pay attention. But they are all products of the old order. The challenge lies in kindling the fire that made the past glamorous and enjoyable in the new generation of politicians. But would the old era ever be re-enacted? Only time has the answer.