By Prince Emeka Obasi
Recently, the news media was inundated with pictures and stories of a certain Senator, James Manager, kneeling before former Delta State governor, James Ibori in his home. The pictures sparked an understandable furor. Many people wondered why a whole Senator will kneel down like a small child before another man. I was amused by it all, even though I knew the answer to the poser; Power, simpliciter! Ibori is the ultimate power broker in the Senator’s neck of the woods. As much as some may not like it, that’s the fact of life. Indeed, what should interest students of power, is how a man who last held executive power more than 14 years ago and who has been subjected to withering attacks, including severe media lynching, like Ibori, can pack such ferocious political punch.
I was not always in his corner. My newspaper didn’t cut him any slack. Mind you, it wasn’t anything to do with me. I had among my staff some disgruntled ex-staffers of his former newspaper who used my platform to seek for a pound of flesh from him. Though he knew, somehow, he held me vicariously responsible. When I joined Government in Abia State, my principal, Orji UzorKalu, was his friend. Kalu called him The Sheik. He was the oil duke with Delta being the highest oil producer.
My views on him changed rather dramatically in the run up to the January 2003 PDP convention. A strong move to replace Olusegun Obasanjo with Dr. Alex Ekwueme had been hatched. Ibori was allegedly one of the architects.
Of course, the move failed mainly because South East political leaders were too scared to support it. Remarkably, Ibori stood by it to the end, perhaps for obvious reasons. He was not an Obasanjo man. He was with Atiku and respected Ekwueme greatly. Indeed, he formed part of the strong axis of support which VP Atiku enjoyed in the South South and South East. Former Rivers governor, Peter Odili was the only power player in the zone who supported Obasanjo to the hilt. And of course, I am an Odili protégée. It’s one of the abiding ironies of Nigeria’s perplexing politics that by the time he was leaving office, Odili, due to Obasanjo’s machinations, was now outside the loop while Ibori was deeply ensconced in the inner sanctum of the Aso Rock villa power base. Ibori is the ultimate power player. Sharp, shrewd, perceptive and far more intelligent than many know. He understands the logic and deep dynamics of power. He has been fingered by some inner players as part of the group who torpedoed the Obasanjo succession arrangement of pairing Odili with Yar’Adua. In one breathtaking maneuver, they produced Goodluck Jonathan as VP. It can therefore be argued correctly that Jonathan owed his ascension to high office to Ibori and his group.
So you wonder, why did Jonathan go after Ibori with such venom when he became president?
Perhaps unknown to many, it was that war against Ibori that laid the foundation for the collapse of the Jonathan presidency. And I will tell you why. By going after Ibori, Jonathan split the South-South and weakened his primary power base. Fighting your kinsmen is an unabashed display of weakness and pathetic naivety. Jonathan ought to have known better, sadly he didn’t. I felt sorry for him and called time on him. After his ‘roforofo’ with Ibori, I wrote an article in 2011 which uncannily predicted the fate of the Jonathan presidency. Part of the article is reproduced below:
“My deep worry and indeed anxiety, is that he would face severe challenges, many of them simulated in order to test his resilience. He lacks natural defence mechanisms given the disabilities of the Eastern region. So, if he relies on the natural goodness of the Nigerian people, he may have a rude awakening. The path of wisdom is for him to establish or facilitate the establishment of such structures among his South South and South East peoples, which will act as a bulwark in his defence and the promotion of his vision. I worry that in the run-up to 2015, the South West political elite and intelligentsia will forge an alliance with the North against Jonathan. The true nature of the new Yoruba political profile under the leadership of Ahmed Tinubu, has not been very well defined. My hot bet is that an alliance between Tinubu’s ACN and any number of Northern political parties, is a strong possibility. In order to prepare the grounds for that eventuality, I foresee heavy media attack on the Jonathan administration within a year into his presidency, profiling him as ineffectual, visionless and even incompetent. That will be relentlessly promoted in the public space as a national consensus and the administration will be inexorably tarred. Thus, we could have a Jimmy Carter scenario. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer and former Governor of Georgia, offered Americans a whiff of fresh air in his successful campaign for the presidency. But his presidency soon unravelled and he became something of a joke and he inevitably lost the presidential re-election to President Ronald Reagan in the biggest landslide in USA presidential election history.”
When Ibori was eventually released from prison in 2016 I had arrived London on a private visit and uppermost on my mind was to visit him and rejoice with him. I spoke to him and he wanted me to come right away otherwise it would be difficult to see him due to time pressure. In the event, I couldn’t see him.
In 2009, I had invited him to give our Hallmark Public Policy lecture. He willingly accepted. Unknown to him, I had a major crisis a few days to the event. The eminent Nigerian whom I relied on to chair it declined and made uncomplimentary remarks. I was rattled and scampered around for appropriate replacements. Luckily, Prof JubrilAminu and Dr. KaluIdikaKalu who stepped in, did more than justice to the occasion. In my introduction of the speaker, I had quoted these excerpts from the famous April 1910 speech by former American president, Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Citizenship in A Republic: The Man in the Arena:’
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms; the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.–“
The irony that’s often lost on Ibori’s traducers is that they themselves, their principals, and practically everyone else in our country, may not exactly be too different from him. So, why single him out?
He is merely a victim of the vicious Niger Delta and Nigeria power play. His audacious position on issues doesn’t sit well with some power brokers especially the sanctimonious Olusegun Obasanjo. His flowing influence during the Yar’Adua presidency and obvious indifference to the VP, didn’t help matters. There were strong speculations at the time beyond earshot that there may be a change of the No 2 position in the 2nd term of the administration. Apparently, Ibori fancied the position. So political punters were betting on heavy odds that he would get it. In the event, Yar’Adua took an early bow and Jonathan ascended apparently with a strong resolve to crush him. Eleven years on, it would appear that he failed. Ibori has been in the valley and returned. He may not really be at the peak of the mountain, but he is on solid ground. From the prison in far away United Kingdom, he decided on the line up for Delta State. Some of his choices conflicted with those of his state governor, his protégée, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. Unknown to many, by the last quarter of 2014, Uduaghan who had hitherto remained aloof, suddenly decided to run for Senate and in the process take out Senator Manager. There was widespread consternation. President Jonathan was exasperated. I remember him raising the matter with some of us one night during a private meeting with him in the villa. My information is that Ibori had to intervene to resolve the issue. So you want to ask, who is this man that can almost effortlessly command loyalty over a decade after leaving office? What really is it about him? I have some idea.
In 2012, I organized a lecture in Asaba which was delivered by Governor Uduaghan. In my vote of thanks, I expressed dismay that the ‘first Niger Delta President of Nigeria,’ was taking such a terrible roasting in the mass media, an industry whose key players from electronic to print media, is dominated by Niger Delta indigenes. As I stepped off the podium some people motioned me over and said, “we appreciate how you feel, however try and understand; we thought that this was a Niger Delta government, sadly it is not. It has turned out to be an Ijaw government!”
Indeed, I find the whole Ibori narratives annoying. I hate hypocrisy and we all are full of it!!
What is obvious is that many are clearly jealous of him. And everything considered, maybe they are right to be. After all, elite rivalry is the main feature of the Nigerian political establishment. How did this son of a nobody emerge as a power broker?
Indeed, the only reason why, unlike Senator Manager, I would not have knelt down for Ibori, is simply because I am not a politician. If I were, I would not have only knelt down, I would go down on all fours!