Demola Olarewaju: The life of the great fixer, Tony Anenih

by Demola Olarewaju

When in July 2016 I met Chief Tony Anenih briefly at his residence in Abuja, I expressed to the facilitator of the meeting that I hoped one day to be able to sit down with him and hear from him the full details of 1993 especially the primaries that produced Chief MKO Abiola as winner ahead of Babagana Kingibe and Abubakar Atiku. A few months afterwards, I was privileged to be a guest at the launch of his book – one which in my opinion is long overdue but surely deserves a sequel for me and others interested in the politics of Nigeria. I say “long overdue” because while one can easily know what happened as far back as the Jos convention of the Action Group in 1962 which was dubbed “Night of Long Knives”, it is not always easy to understand what happened in the politics of a party like PDP as many of its leaders do not document these things and make them public. The added bonus of Tony Anenih’s “MY LIFE AND NIGERIAN POLITICS” is that it not only sheds a bit of light on the politics of PDP but also explains some things about the SDP of the aborted Third Republic and even the NPN of the Second Republic.

The book ironically opens in the Acknowledgements section with the sudden clamp into detention of the author by the government of General Muhammadu Buhari on February the 4th of 1984 for no reason other than being the chairman of the National Party of Nigeria in the then Bendel State (modern Edo and Delta states). In that state and now in Edo State was and is the town of Uromi, famous for being the birthplace of two Anthonys – Enahoro and Anenih. Tony’s autobiography paints the picture of the serenity of life growing up in one of the villages close to Uromi in poverty, such that he had to go and live with a teacher to be able to go to school. Despite passing the entrance exams into St. Thomas’ Teachers’ Training College in Ibuza, he was unable to attend the college because his father was unable to come up with the mandatory fee of £5. Tony then went to live with Lance Corporal Alfred Omeben (father of Rtd. DIG of Police Christopher Omeben) in order to partake in the rubber trade. It was this Alfred Omeben who suggested his joining the police force and a series of fortuitous events conspired to get him accepted into the Police College on July 1st, 1951.

A glaring instance of ethnic prejudice in how some northern police escorts were readmitted into the Force after Anenih had dismissed them saw to his exit from the organisation on January 14th, 1976 with a sterling record of diligence, integrity and hard work. His sojourn afterwards took him into business where he had a chain of ventures that ran successfully until the 1983 coup of Buhari which found him in London negotiating a deal with the German Bergedorf Beer Brewers to establish a brewery in Uromi. Anenih had been a sympathiser and financier of the NPN since 1980 but in 1982, President Shehu Shagari sent Alhaji Uba Ahmed with an airforce plane to Benin to invite him to Sokoto for a discussion. Bendel was then under the control of the UPN and Ambrose Alli but Dr Samuel Ogbemudia was willing to be the NPN candidate, only if Tony Anenih would lead the party. This was the proposition of Shehu Shagari and Anenih accepted his first political assignment and thus began his journey as Nigeria’s most renowned political strategist. Anenih delivered the results but Ogbemudia’s tenure was truncated by the Buhari coup and Anenih was detained.

He was kept in detention until August 1985 and the book details several experiences in prison life. One narration that I have read before is the one that occurred at Kirikiri prisons when the author, Lateef Jakande and other political detainees were transferred there. Jakande had as Governor signed the death warrants of some criminals in this prison and when they sighted Jakande among the political detainees arriving Kirikiri which included Anenih also, they broke loose and tried to break into the place where the political prisoners were kept. In the riot that ensued, several prisoners escaped and some were killed. In detention across Kirikiri, Ikoyi prison and Kano, Anenih kept company with the likes of Abubakar Saraki (father of the present Senate President Bukola Saraki), Ebenezer Babatope, Abubakar Rimi, Olabisi Onabanjo, Ambrose Alli (father of @afalli), Bola Ige, Solomon Lar Alex Ekwueme and so many others. Playing Ludo became their favourite pastime until they were released when Buhari was ousted.

Anenih’s political journey further saw him producing John Odigie-Oyegun (present APC chairman) as Governor under the banner of SDP over Lucky Igbinedion who flew the banner of NRC. He would later go on to make a governor of Lucky under the banner of PDP in 1999. In the book’s no holds barred style, Anenih describes both of them as “conditional loyalists” but is full of praise for the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua whom he was loyal to until the man died and whom Anenih describes as “a master strategist and an inimitable tactician”. The strategy and tactics that helped Anenih to success at this period are documented in chapter four of this book.

Chapter Five recounts the events that surrounded the June 12 elections especially the costly mistake made by Chief MKO Abiola which some also have before now publicly hinted at and I have also heard those stories. That Abiola was close to the military hierarchy was not a secret but that he supported the palace coup of Sani Abacha against the Ernest Shonekan led Interim National Government is a truth many may not hitherto have known. Abiola’s display of naiveté is a shocking and sadly fatal lesson to those who do not understand politics. Anenih carefully details how Abiola trusted Babangida to keep on being his friend despite signs to the contrary such as being starved of funds during the campaign, avoiding him as rumours of annulment started to come up and finally, the shock of Abiola watching IBB  announce the annulment on television as well as fresh elections.

This position was unacceptable to the SDP led by Anenih and he goes on in the book to explain the negotiations that led to the ING rather than fresh elections. It was Anenih himself who suggested that Ernest Shonekan should lead the ING and the plan was to continue the agitation for the June 12 mandate after the exit of the military but Abiola broke faith not only with his party the SDP but the NRC as well as both parties had laboured to push the IBB junta to the compromise of an ING rather than fresh elections. Abiola went on radio to call for Gen. Abacha to take over the reins of Government from the Shonekan ING and when Anenih called him for an explanation, Abiola told him “Mr Chairman, I am very happy to have worked with you. You are a very strong-willed man but you see, if you want to go to Kano by road and you later decided to go by air, as long as you get to Kano, there is nothing wrong with that”. Abiola had by this time even gone ahead to nominate people who serve with Abacha, under the assumption that Abacha would eventually hand over power to him. No sooner did Abacha take over than Abiola led a group of “friends” to show solidarity with him, thereby conferring a sort of legitimacy on the Abacha government. Only when Abacha refused to hand over power to Abiola did Abiola begin to raise alarm but by this time, some of his supporters were already serving in the Abacha government including his running mate Babagana Kingibe while others were upset that he relied more on Abacha than on his political associates. Abiola dared Abacha by declaring himself President and was subsequently jailed. All due to his naive approach to politics and power games as well as desperation.

These then become a historic lesson from the book: Anenih recommends ambition but that it must never become desperate, neither must it be played by betrayal. Those who seek power in 2019 would do well to read the book and read for themselves the mistakes that took Abiola from one point to the other as he went into prison and never came out alive. The naked lust for power and desperate ambition made him break faith with his party and other politicians as he abandoned a car which was on its slow but sure journey to Kano in favour of an aeroplane which quickly went “airborne, but no landing” as Anenih himself puts it in the book. The account of that sad but historical episode of Nigeria’s polity runs all the way till the end of Chapter 8 but Chapter 9 alone details the experiences in PDP, which is where I have a major problem with the book.

Anenih in this chapter recalls how Chief Olusegun Obasanjo called him to give him a similar mandate as Shagari had in 1982 but this time on a national level. Anenih takes single credit for proposing Atiku Abubakar to be Obasanjo’s running mate immediately after the PDP convention while Solomon Lar was pushing for Abubakar Rimi, Adamu Ciroma and Jerry Gana but more insistently for Rimi. My problem with this chapter is that perhaps Anenih assumes that being recent history, we all must be familiar with the details of the events of that period but that would be a mistake. I personally and many others I am sure, would have loved to be taken to the inside room of intrigues that saw Obasanjo emerge as a candidate despite the challenge from Alex Ekwueme who had been the de facto leader of the PDP ab initio. I would further want to know how it came to be that Shehu Musa Yar’Adua’s political machinery of 1992  called PDM, came to be more increasingly associated with Atiku rather than Anenih himself and how the likes of Lawal Kaita, Ango Abdullahi, Titi Ajanaku, Sunday Afolabi and Chuba Okadigbo who had all been the delegates of the PDM to one of the early PDP meetings in August 1998 seemed to go against Obasanjo, with Anenih being the only exception from that list.

Furthermore, in explaining his fallout with Atiku, Anenih only offers that it is simply because he stopped Atiku from emerging as a presidential candidate in 2003 – this saga still came up in personal discussions with one political elder recently for me – I would have loved to know what is true and what is not. Is it true for instance, as some say, that Atiku did not want to upstage Obasanjo in 2003 but that he felt uncomfortable with Anenih’s campaign vehicles which pushed only Obasanjo’s re-election, rather than a joint Obasanjo-Atiku ticket as the declaration of the second term organised by Anenih in April 2002 did not feature Atiku as running mate, while Obasanjo himself in an interview later that evening confirmed that he would only announce his running mate after the primaries. Is it true also as I have heard, that the rift was caused by Anenih reconciling Obasanjo and IBB without Atiku’s presence?

Perhaps like Abiola, I am being naive in expecting a strategist to reveal inner workings in a book but the PDP history falls grossly far short of what Anenih had delivered in previous chapters in detailing the workings of the NPN and the SDP.

This does not detract from the value of the book though as it may well be borne of my affiliation for PDP rather than anything else. Throughout the book, I see Anenih standing boldly in the limelight by himself for perhaps the first time – this is a strategist who is less known than the men he has served, stepping into the light and asking to be judged for what he is. It is unmistakably a definitive work – Anenih boldly claims responsibility for the making of Presidents and Governors, describing himself as a kingmaker rather than a king.

Anyone interested in politics as the art of the possible must purchase and read this book as it has now become an invaluable part of the documents of our polity. If I could have suggested a subtitle to the book, I would have proposed MY LIFE IS NIGERIAN POLITICS rather than MY LIFE AND NIGERIAN POLITICS as the life of Tony Anenih cannot be separated from the politics of this country at least from the second republic till date.

The book closes with an account of Anenih’s stewardship as Minister of Works under Obasanjo as well as his biggest charity work at UCH, Ibadan as the endower of the geriatrics section. The epilogue features the various tributes paid to him over the years by various political and non-political leaders.

The book is a worthy read, one to which I hope there will be a sequel and one that makes me even want to sit down with the man himself and ask one or two questions.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Demola Olarewaju is a Political Strategist and Analyst and tweets from @DemolaRewaju

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