I demystified Arthur Nzeribe
Former Deputy Senate President, Alhaji Ibrahim Mantu most notable with the proverbial banana peel, is not a coward. He hits the nail by the head always and is never afraid of controversy or to take steps some people might consider too tough. In an interview he granted MALACHY UZENDU some months back, Mantu vividly captures how he frustrated former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Third Term bid and demystified Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe, among other issues. Excerpts:
From the Third Republic days till 1999, you played huge critical political roles. In every removal of Senate President, people said Mantu had a hand in it. Can you tell us the actual role you played during that time?
The Senate is not like the executive. All senators are equal and the leadership is only first among equals. that is why we hear some Senate Presidents calling senators my boss, my boss, my boss. He was there in the first place because of them, without the senators, he cannot be Senate President.
I was not responsible for anybody’s misfortune. On the contrary, I maintained very close relationship with all the three Senate Presidents I worked with. I worked with Senator Adolph Wabara, we were like twins; I worked with Senator Pius Anyim, we were like twins; I worked very closely with all of them.
But people said you were the arrow head in the plots that removed all the Senate Presidents?
In the case of Senator Evan Enwerem, I spear-headed his removal. He was brought in through the window. I made sure he went out through the window, with due respect to him because we don’t speak ill of the dead. Right from the beginning, I was the campaign manager for Senator Chuba Okadigbo to be Senate President. I went round the country, mobilising support for him and everybody was for Chuba.
It was like a foregone conclusion. But on the night preceding the election, they knocked on our doors, and offered us money saying Chuba is a mental case; he was going to slap Mr. President if we elect him and that they needed somebody that was calm and that it was Atiku Abubakar, then Vice President who wanted him so they could easily remove the President.
They also whipped sentiments on the AD members from the southwest, who didn’t vote for him. A lot of sentiments were brought in and that was why Chuba who was to be Senate President from the beginning lost to Enwerem.
But because majority of us, working on principle more than anything else, we refused to recognise Enwerem as our Senate President because, he was brought in through the window in the night and we wanted a daylight Senate President.
Sir, can you recall any particular incident that led to Enwerem’s impeachment?
With due respect, Enwerem was the only Senate President that did not enjoy one day of his Presidency. Those of us who are experienced politicians were on the other side; we were with Chuba. So, when he brings any issue, we will use our experience to drag that thing till the end of the day without achieving anything. He will go home very dejected that he has not been able to achieve anything on the Order Paper.
When we went home, we brainstormed and came back the next day with lots of political acrobatics and caused confusion again on the floor. That was how he got frustrated.
There was hardly anything he did that we applauded. He was unable to win our confidence that was why we gave him maximum of six months. Even for those six months, it was like a man going to hell.
But did you people not think you were going against the President, your leader?
But, until Obasanjo left from 1999 to 2007, nobody in the National Assembly liked him, apart from Mantu and a few. Even me, I became a later convert. I was among those who were against Obasanjo.
How did you become a convert?
After I became Deputy Senate President and we were working together, I could see the other side of him, which I did not know.
How then did he win the PDP Jos national convention that made him presidential flag bearer if people did not like him?
At that time, who knew Obasanjo in the political arena apart from that he was former Military Head of State. He was never a politician even for one day.
How then did he beat other people at that Jos convention?
He beat them because the government of the day interfered. It was a military government that organised that one.
They moved round. They said ‘if you don’t want the military to come back, if you go against their choice, they will not allow us last for three months. At that time, the politicians had become guinea pigs; they were using us to make experiments.
Therefore, politicians decided that we should not allow them come back by supporting the man they wanted so they can allow us run democratic government. So, there were lots of behind-the-scene moves which you didn’t know.
Otherwise, Dr. Alex Ekwueme would have won. But between choosing Ekwueme and after three months they come and say
we didn’t give them their choice. We said, look, let us give them the chance and then, we gradually transform the polity and that was what happened. It was wise to have allowed the military to have tele-guided us.
We learnt you brought CNN to cover the Police invasion of the Senate President’s Apo Mansion that eventually led to Chuba Okadigbo’s removal?
You know Obasanjo is a military strategist. Apart from what he did to Chuba, Obasanjo believes that if he wants to finish you, he brings you closer to him so that when he hits you, he cannot miss the target. By identifying with us; we were celebrating the mansion built for the Senate President and we had an all-night bash and Obasanjo joined to dance with us and even gave us some money to facilitate the celebration. Little did we know that it was the last night he expected Chuba to be Senate President.
That morning, after we left, some of us who were part and parcel of Chuba – people like Senator Ita Giwa and few others – we stayed in the house up till around 3.00 am. By the time we left, not quite long, then, the mansion was invaded.
Because we were staying in Apo then, and we heard shouts and shouts, I was the first person who rushed to the place. They wanted to take Chuba; we didn’t know where the Mobile Policemen were taking him to and those of us who were around blocked the road and said they should kill us together. We said until they killed all of us, they won’t be able to take Chuba away.
If they had taken Chuba away, the story would have been different. We don’t know where they were taking him to. Therefore, that plot didn’t work. We fought it. Some of us, including our families, were able to smuggle some journalists in car booths to the place. My wife smuggled CNN reporters in a car booth to the place that night. We had their numbers, we called them. That was why everything was captured live.
The government was thoroughly embarrassed. The coup failed! It was a failed coup. It was wrong for the Police to do what they did.
In most democracies, the legislatures have their Police, purely just for the legislature because they don’t want anybody from the executive to come and mess up with them.
That was my idea. We were ready to die with Chuba. That type of commitment is no longer there. From that time, Obasanjo became my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner. As the chairman of the information committee, every day, if I don’t abuse him at breakfast, I am not happy. If I don’t abuse him at lunch, I am not happy. If I don’t abuse him at dinner, I am not satisfied.
Didn’t you fear for your life?
If you go to the war front and you think about death, you can’t do certain things at all. Certainly, I tell you frankly, there was a time I was praying they should take me to prison that it will make me a hero. But now, I can’t think that way.
When I became Deputy Senate President and as a principal officer, I had the opportunity to sit and discuss the future of the nation with Mr. President.
For the first four months, anything I said, Obasanjo would attack it in his summary and I was taking my notes. So, when it came to my turn, anything he said, I would attack it in turn. I was always looking at the negative aspect. The beauty of democracy is that you can’t lord it over people.
I told him: Mr. President, I voted for you, you didn’t vote for me. I determined your being my candidate, you didn’t determine for me. I can move a motion for your sack and I can mobilise sufficient people to impeach you, you cannot remove me as a senator. They tried to recall some of us; they couldn’t succeed. I was solid in my constituency. All the people they tried to recall, Senator Waku and co, they couldn’t succeed.
At what point did you then become friends?
After some time, you know Obasanjo does not forgive and he does not forget. One thing you must give to Obasanjo is that he is a true nationalist. He doesn’t joke with this country. Everything that has to do with this country, he must put it on the front burner.
So, when I began to see some of his policies, that they will transform this country. Obasanjo is not a tribalist. As long as he can use you and you can add value to what he is doing, he will take you as a member of his family; but to use you and dump you eventually.
I never saw anything good in him right from the beginning. I thought he was evil from beginning to the end. I did not understand he meant well in some areas. I taught he was totally bad, evil man and nothing more.
When I saw the patriotic aspect of him and how nationalistic he was in particular, and how he was not bothered about whether you were a Christian or Moslem or Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa or Fulani, those things they used in the last regime to take certain decisions. That was not with Obasanjo.
So, I started changing and started to appreciate Obasanjo better and started making some positive comments about him. He, too, was changing towards me gradually.
One day, he asked me to see him in his office after a meeting. He said to me: ‘Sit down” and I sat down. I was wondering what will happen because when we entered the office, he locked the door. And I was thinking. So, he asked me to sit down and I did. He said, “In my own part of the world, we respect age and authority. I am more elderly than you. I am the leader of the country. If you don’t like my face, you should respect my office. Tell me what happens in your own part of the world.” When he was talking to me, it was like some message was coming to me from heaven.
In my own part of the world, we respect elders too. In my own part of the world, we respect authority, So, I told him it is not different in my part of the world.
So, he asked me to say sorry to him and when I said sorry, he got up from his seat and held me, embraced me, very close to his chest for almost two minutes or three then, he let me go. He sat back and started writing: 090....; 090...; 090.... That time, there was no GSM, it was Turaya, this 090 series. And he said to me: My wife Stella does not have these. Anytime you have any issue, just tell me; don’t go to the press. Just call me and I will give you audience.
That very day, I tried the line around 10.00 pm and he picked the call and he asked me to come and I went and we started talking. I gave him some ideas and when we came to the meeting the next day, he adopted all my ideas. He got me closer and I became a completely changed person with different notion of him. I became a completely ‘born again’ and I adore him and changed into a pro-Obasanjo person and people were shocked.
Even my winning election as Deputy Senate President was because I hated Obasanjo with a passion and many of my colleagues that didn’t like Obasanjo said: Let’s get somebody who will deal with Obasanjo. So, to a large extent, it was hatred for him that made me win election and thereafter, hatred became love because I came to discover that there were some good virtues about him.
How did you people manage to wriggle out of Senator Arthur Nzeribe’s studs and bumps?
Arthur Nzeribe, even before he came to the Senate, was larger than life. Everybody feared him. Nobody wanted to step on his toes. I called Senator Pius Anyim and said: If we don’t demystify this man, he will deal with everybody. Arthur studied the Standing Order of the Senate very well and he used this to make trouble for everybody.
Anyim, being an Igbo man, understands the man’s antecedents. When I told him, you know Anyim was a young man and was very adventurous; so, he laughed and nodded and we started planning. What we did to Arthur Nzeribe was unconstitutional. You don’t suspend somebody for more than three months but we suspended him for the rest of his stay in the Senate and he never came back.
We dealt with him. I told him, “I am responsible for this; I said I will demystify you and I have done it”. He couldn’t understand because he could not believe that something like that could happen to him.
After that, did you reconcile?
Of course, yes. We are friends. When he came back, each time we met, he would say: Am I safe? After that first incident, after we demystified him, he became sober and we brought him to the level he never wanted to be. Since then, we became friends and after that, he didn’t make any more trouble.