In the days of the fierce SDP/NRC battle for the Edo governorship race, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, had this running advert on television that was both hilarious and didactic. A man with a bald pate and grey goatee would, after greeting the viewers, remove his cap and point at his goatee, enjoining the people to vote for wisdom and experience, which, he claimed, baldness and greyness symbolised.
His opponent then was the youthful, billionaire’s son, Lucky Nosakhare Igbinedion. While Odigie-Oyegun was 52, Igbinedion was in his early 30s. So, in a sense, the battle was made to look like that of old versus young; experience versus inexperience. The Edo people chose to vote for Odigie-Oyegun, the man who they thought had more experience than Igbinedion, having hit the pinnacle of his civil service career, as a federal permanent secretary at 36!
But Odigie-Oyegun’s tenure was short-lived. After 18 months or thereabout in office, General Sani Abacha’s coup sacked the civilian government of Chief Ernest Shonekan and the state governors, amongst whom was Odigie-Oyegun. So, the Edo people couldn’t see the full bloom of his administration, even as his admirers claimed he had begun to put in place the roadmap to a purposeful government while his critics maintained he had no clear direction and engaged mainly in rhetoric and sophistry!
Odigie-Oyegun subsequently teamed up with other progressives to found the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, which gave the military a hell of a time in its pursuit of Abiola’s stolen mandate and restoration of democracy in Nigeria. It didn’t achieve the first objective. However, it is to the eternal credit of NADECO and people like Odigie-Oyegun, who fought in the trenches, as members of NADECO abroad, that the military got harassed and harangued out of power. His role as a vocal member of NADECO was what put Odigie-Oyegun in the spotlight of national politics, rather than his brief stint, as first civilian governor of Edo State. He subsequently moved to the opposition ANPP, ran as vice-presidential candidate to Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau. Last Saturday, he emerged the first national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Nigeria’s main opposition party. With his new position, Odigie-Oyegun becomes a gold fish with no hiding place. He also carries the enormous burden of leading his party to victory (or loss) in the 2015 presidential election, against the ruling party, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. Can he? What are the challenges he must surmount to successfully lead his party to victory? What are the forces that would militate against his performance in office?
Before seeking to provide answers to the above posers, let me digress to my personal encounter with him. He was governor when I first met him in 1993. I had gone to his office to interview him for a column in the then Weekend Concord, ME AND MY MUM, where celebrities paid tribute to their mothers. From 9am to 6pm, I waited patiently to have a chat with the governor. But the stream of visitors was endless. Every 30 minutes or thereabout, Odigie-Oyegun would pop out of his office to assure me he would soon be with me. ‘My friend from Lagos, I will soon see you.’ I was struck by his humility. But he didn’t see me till 6pm, when he asked me to ride with him to his residence inside the Government House. We got home and met another set of visitors and political associates. He was again full of apologies, for the visitors, who interrupted our chat every now and then. Just when we were about to begin the interview proper, after we managed to get a sitting space tucked somewhere in the expansive residence, in walked Chief Tony Anenih, the then national chairman of the defunct Social Democratic Party, SDP.
“Now, this is it,” Odigie-Oyegun said, throwing his hands up. “My leader is here. We have to go for a meeting.” The chat was rescheduled for the next day in the office. Before 8am, I was there and the interview held by 10am. The interview turned out to be quite interesting and revealing. He told me the story of how his mother sold dry fish to train him in school; how he hawked all kinds of wares round the ancient city of Benin to survive and to assist his poor mother, who singlehandedly brought him up, after he lost his father. It was a moving story, which made up for the stress of pinning him down.
The last time I met Odigie-Oyegun again was at the late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi’s residence in Kano, where the progressive governors had a meeting in 1993 or thereabout, shortly after Abiola’s aborted mandate. Since then, I don’t believe I have seen or chatted with him, even though I have tried to follow him in the media, through his interviews.
From my interaction with him and reading him, Odigie-Oyegun comes across as a strong-willed man, who can’t be labelled, as greedy in the mould of the average Nigerian politician. He is not a saint but I don’t believe he is acquisitive by nature. His frugality and simplicity are qualities many who know him attest to. He is largely principled and like a true Bini man, would not shy from calling a spade by its name; a man who would not be anyone’s stooge. That is the picture of the Odigie-Oyegun I have always carried in my head.
But is it the same Odigie-Oyegun that became the national chairman of the APC early Saturday morning? I don’t know. I honestly can’t say. The reason is simple: The manner of his emergence. The ‘cult-like’ way he was foisted on his party’s leadership. The ambush of other candidates and the way they were asked to bury their ambitions for Odigie-Oyegun to emerge. In other words, what Odigie-Oyegun had was a ‘coronation’, not an election. The same thing we had always complained about and kicked the PDP for, reared its ugly head in APC! Why? Why did they force other candidates to step down for Odigie-Oyegun? Why did they not allow a contest for the best among them: Sylva, Ikimi and Jaja, to emerge?
Whose interest is Odigie-Oyegun expected to serve, by clearing all the hurdles on the way for him? And why should Odigie-Oyegun, a man of principle, equity and fairness, allow such unfairness in a democratic race? He could still have won, who knows. He had enviable democratic credentials. He is untainted. But they didn’t want to take chances, so they muzzled others out, a la PDP. What happened on Saturday was no democracy but a charade and a mockery of democracy. APC, a party with many progressive politicians, could have done better because we expect it to behave better, since it claims to be different. But it let us down at its first convention.
Odigie-Oyegun surely has his hands full with this untidy development in his party. His first task, as he has already pledged, is to mend broken fences with aggrieved party members, who are sorely angry over the way they were shunted out for him. The second task would be to assure party faithful and other Nigerians that there would be no further imposition of candidates in any of its elective offices now or in the future. Democracy is about free choice and free expression of it. This, I believe. That’s the reason I am not hiding my anger. Regular readers of this column can attest to the fact that I am anti-imposition, whether in PDP, APC, LP or wherever. I also believe in the application of the same yardstick for all parties and persons. If we abuse PDP for doing the wrong things, we must also not shy from upbraiding the APC when we see it doing the wrong thing.
I restate my views for the benefit of the new APC chairman, in case he missed out on it, on what the APC must do differently to convince us it is truly different. I wrote then under the headline: CAN THIS APC CURE OUR HEADACHE?
“First, the party must begin from the well-founded assumption that many Nigerians really do not see much difference between the operators of the two major parties in the country (PDP and APC). So, they have to work hard to sell their programmes to us, the electorate. How, for example, they hope to tackle corruption, unemployment and electricity problems? For now, not many are convinced that there are no corrupt elements in APC, like in PDP. Not many believe that APC governors are the saints while PDP governors are the devils incarnate. If they truly want to capture the minds of Nigerians, let APC elected officials, especially governors on its platform, begin to live like the people they desire to serve. Frugality, modesty and compassion are the key words. As at today, it is difficult to differentiate the lifestyle of the APC governor from his PDP counterpart. The change must start from within. Example, as the saying goes, is better than precept.
“Next is the culture of imposition. In its days of absolute control of the political space, PDP godfathers handpicked whoever they liked for positions. That bred resentment and then, rebellion. Rebellion led to people, migrating to other parties. Today, the party is still battling to entrench internal democracy. If the APC continues in the tradition of the defunct ACN, imposing candidates or swallowing everything that comes out of the mouth of the ‘ Lion of Bourdillion’, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, as we hear happens, or takes every word from the lips of Mai Gaskiya, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, that will prove disastrous for the party.”
Mr. Chairman, some food for thought, no doubt. You can make the difference if you will be your own man and not anyone’s lackey. If you will be defender of the powerless in your party; if you will uphold justice and fairness; if you will not be a tool in powerful hands. Best of luck, sir. You will need tonnes of it.