Olusegun Adeniyi’s tribute to Sen. Uche Chukwumerije

by Olusegun Adeniyi

 

Uche-Chukwumerije“His life is many volumes, which can only be told with care and time, of dedication and focus, integrity and discipline, and an unbroken love for the highest ideals of our shared humanity.”

In the statement announcing the death of Comrade Uche Chukwumerije last Sunday, the German-based Che said of his father: “His life is many volumes, which can only be told with care and time, of dedication and focus, integrity and discipline, and an unbroken love for the highest ideals of our shared humanity.” I subscribe entirely to that sentiment, given my relationship with Chukwumerije, spanning 22 years, though I feel sad that I was not aware of the health challenge that eventually claimed his life and what he might have gone through in the last couple of months.

I have in recent days reflected on my relationship with Chukwumerije which dates back to November 1993 when, as a State House correspondent, I spent considerable time at the villa, following the annulment of the June 12 presidential election by General Ibrahim Babangida. At that period, Chief Ernest Shonekan was heading the Interim National Government with the late General Sani Abacha as a member and Defence Secretary. Chukwumerije was also a member as Information Secretary.

Having then just self-published a book, “Fortress on Quicksand”, which essentially profiled the 23 presidential aspirants of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) disqualified a year earlier by Babangida (in the course of his long-winding transition to civil rule programme that ended as a bus ride to nowhere), I was giving out autographed copies to people in government and politicians.

However, on a particular day, I made the mistake of giving a copy to the current Governor of Jigawa State, Alhaji Sule Lamido, who was at that period the National Secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He had come to the Villa with his national chairman, Chief Tony Anenih, at a time the party had practically parted ways with its candidate and presumed winner of the election, Chief M.K.O Abiola. In anger, Lamido threw the book back at me with some rebuke. My offence: I was working for the ‘African Concord’ magazine owned by Abiola.

Colleagues who witnessed the drama started making a jest of me and it was at that point that Chukwumerije was passing by. Amid roaring laughter, my friend and then correspondent of ‘The Guardian’, Yinka Oduwole, said with a hint of mischief: “Segun, why don’t you give a copy of your book to Comrade and let us see how he will react”.

At that period, Chukwumerije was running a vicious media propaganda against Abiola so everybody knew why Yinka suggested his name. But without thinking, I walked to Chukwumerije and handed to him two signed copies of the book. He looked at the cover page, said “thank you” and accepted it. That emboldened me to also give him a copy of my earlier publication, “Before the Verdict”. All my colleagues who were expecting a drama felt disappointed even as I also felt relieved. Someone had actually predicted that Chukwumerije might slap me for having the effrontery as a Concord staff to approach him! We were young then, so we assumed a lot.

A few days later, following Abacha’s coup and Chukwumerije’s removal, I got to the Villa and I was handed an envelope which bore the inscription of the Federal Ministry of Information. It also contained a letter which I would later publish in my subsequent book, ‘POLITRICKS: National Assembly under Military Dictatorship.’

Dated 16 November 1993, (24 hours before Abacha toppled Shonekan) and personally signed by Chukwumerije, the letter reads: “Dear Olusegun, I thank you for the gift of two copies of your thought provoking book, ‘Fortress on Quicksand’. I appreciate the depth of your analysis and the candour of your approach, although I do not share some of your premises. It is however the tragedy of our society and its materialistic system that it has nothing to nurture sensitive tendrils like you. Do not be discouraged. Your first book which you kindly enclosed has further confirmed my earlier assessment that your writing talent is definitely above, far above, average. A measure of grit and guts will serve you. Never allow this society to frustrate you.”

Coming at a very low period in my life when the publication I was working for had been proscribed and I was practically jobless, Chukwumerije’s letter so lifted my spirit that I read it several times such that even today, I can recite the entire content off hand. And that marked the beginning of what became an enduring but sometimes difficult relationship with Chukwumerije. It was a complex relationship that was based on mutual respect as well as mutual suspicion because there was always a tension between us that bordered essentially on our ethnic differences.

Nothing perhaps demonstrated that tension better than the letter he wrote me on 28 November 1999 but it is important I provide the context. Earlier that year, Chukwumerije had invited me to Abuja where he told me he was writing a book. He said he would require my assistance by way of some further research work. He gave me a chapter titled “Advertising Industrial Complex”, which he said he wanted me to read for comments. He left me to go out and returned about three hours later.

I considered the chapter a brilliant but controversial thesis on what he called, as many people also do, the “Lagos-Ibadan Press”. Having read it several times, I didn’t feel comfortable with his slant. Although I made my jottings, when he came back and asked for my view, I said I would prefer to do it in writing as I had reservations I might not be able to express to him in person. He agreed and when I got back to Lagos, I sent him a long letter, expressing my misgivings about some of his positions.

I did not hear from him again until several months later in November when I received in my office at THISDAY a parcel containing his hand-written letter and three chapters from the manuscript, including the one about his perspective on the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Below is what he wrote in his letter:

“My dear Segun, I must confess that I am sending three of the eleven chapters most reluctantly to you. I hope the rigour of objectivity strictly anchored on data will be your watchword. Your job is not to defend or accuse, please leave all the subjectivity to me. I have limited your help to the three chapters which rankle you most. Please be painstaking in researching for FACTS on the two sides of the coin.

“I am more interested in your researched facts, instances, historical data, aggregations, etc., than in your OPINION. Note also that this is not a Sunday Concord piece with a mortality of 24 hours. Facts and deductions that stand the test of time and place define the hallmark of a serious work. Your earlier position on ‘Advertising Industrial Complex’ can only qualify you for either a SAN in Yoruba court or a comrade-bashing medal.

“Lastly, be time perspective. As much as possible, I would like the time reference to end with 1995 since the manuscript has been ready since 1994. Post-1995 developments I’d summarise in the Introduction. Otherwise, feel free to gather and treat all materials as you deem fit. I intend to rewrite everything in my own style and mind-cast. Really, I’d do a rethink on certain aspects that could lower what otherwise is a serious work.

“Finally, and strictly confidential: A new ministry of June 12 Affairs has been created and I am reliably informed that you, as the most prolific writer and authority on this, have been penciled down as the Honourable Minister. Congrats. Give my regards to your wife. Poor woman! Let her brace up herself with this prophesy: A wife does not live by bread alone but by every word that floweth from the NADECO pen of Segun.”

That book was never published. For a man of letters who wrote extensively, and he gave me several of his unpublished works to read, it is such a shame. But knowing that some of his children are very intellectual, I am sure we have not heard the last of Chukwumerije. He could yet still speak, even from the grave.

Now, I am quite aware that for many people, once you mention the name Chukwumerije, all they remember is June 12 and it is so interesting because the role he actually played in the saga was limited to between June 23, 1993 when the result of the election was annulled and November 17, 1993 when he was removed along with others by Abacha. Effectively, we are talking about a period of less than five months. But as a master of the art of propaganda, Chukwumerije was all over the place in those five months.

The most memorable of his interventions came on the day Abiola left the country to lead an international campaign against the election annulment. Chukwumerije came to the Villa and called reporters so he could make his usual statement, always very short but sharp. He said: “In all the history books that I have read, I never came across the story of any Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland (Abiola’s title) who abandoned his troops and ran away from a self-declared battle.”

The question is: Why did Chukwumerije play the role he did on June 12? Although we never agreed on this, and it is a subject on which we argued a lot, my understanding is that he supported the annulment and defended it with so much enthusiasm for two reasons even though he always disagreed with the second. The first was that Chukwumerije is a socialist so he had nothing but disdain for people like Abiola because of what he considered his primitive accumulation of wealth. The second (which he disputed) was that Chukwumerije never forgot nor forgave whatever he believed the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo said and did against the Igbo aspirations before, during and after the civil war. And he took it out on Abiola, because he happened to be a Yoruba man.

Since Chukwumerije is dead, it is important for me to state that he never accepted this accusation from me but I also never minced words about the fact that he was an unrepentant Igbo irredentist, even as he always accused me of being an “Afenifere journalist”. In fact, something happened to illustrate our divergent position on June 12. In 2001, I wrote a piece on the anniversary of the annulled election which he found offensive. I had mentioned his role and recalled some of my personal interactions with him on the issue but I didn’t excuse him either.

On the whole, I felt that my piece was as fair to Chukwumerije as I could possibly make it but he saw it differently. Rather than write me a letter as he would normally do, he called on phone to lambast me. He was really very angry and didn’t even allow me to explain before he banged the phone on me. Since he had never reacted like that to me before, I felt bad after the conversation so I sent him a letter of apology, explaining that he misunderstood me, and that I appreciated all that he had done to support my career. This was his reply:

“Dear Segun, in your letter, you sounded more serious than my mild protest should suggest. Please, always remember two aspects of me—very blunt and ready to forget/forgive once I’ve spoken my mind. My point is simple: You seem to be writing for exclusively Yoruba (not all–Nigerian) audience. Pandering to the predilections and convictions of your audience, you portrayed me as the devil incarnate who—surprise of all surprises—is now reaching out to woo his ‘enemies’ by welcoming you. It is this aspect that I find most embarrassing because my life owes no apologies to anyone except my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

“However, I appreciate your stand. You did not understand that part of your writing in that light. In a way, you are right too. Let’s forget it, please. You are still my younger brother, and I mean it. Let me emphasise a few things. I love criticisms. Do not in future shy away from criticizing me or I will be bored with you. You can’t light such a bright candle and hide it under a table.”

Looking back, what saddens me about Chukwumerije’s death is that we seem to have drifted apart in recent years as he pursued his political career and I also advanced in my chosen field. But we communicated on phone once in a while though I was not aware of his illness. In the last couple of days, I have had to read again the several letters he wrote me over a long period; some on scrap papers, some on notepads, some on foolscap papers but all handwritten. I will forever cherish them.

Chukwumerije was a highly disciplined man who had no time for frivolity and he was also very humorous and deeply spiritual. I remember the times he would drag me to the Mountain of Fire and Miracles (MFM) prayer meetings in Abuja in the nineties. He was also a very cerebral man who loved to engage and I had the privilege of arguing with him on sundry issues, sometimes for hours. But above all, he was a wonderful father to his children, all of who took after him the love for taekwondo. Indeed, there are few fathers who would commit as much time, attention, energy and resources to the development of their children as I saw Chukwumerije do. Even though he had the façade of a hard man, I also saw an emotional Chukwumerije on the day Azuka, his only daughter, wedded in his village about a decade ago. On that day, I saw Chukwumerije cry!

On a listserv where some people were commenting on the passage of Chukwumerije on Monday, a friend wrote: “He was chair of the Senate Committee on Inter-Parliamentary Affairs. In the course of my work, I had some meetings with him and others. He came across as a very decent and committed parliamentarian, which means a lot. But I also had this feeling that he walked around with a sad halo. I might be wrong.”

I don’t think my friend is wrong because, given my relationship with Chukwumerije, I came to understand some personal issues even though we never discussed them. But beyond that, I became also aware that many members of Chukwumerije’s generation of Igbo were deeply scarred by the experience of the civil war. Some, of course, could deal with the unpleasant memories better than the others.

It is in that context that I remember what has now turned out to be my last encounter with Chukwumerije. It was after the publication of the late Prof. Chinua Achebe’s book, “There Was a Country”. Quite naturally, Chukwumerije celebrated the book but as we argued over it, I could see the emotion and passion with which he defended Achebe’s thesis. In the course of our argument, I could also detect this unspoken “you are not Igbo so you can never understand” nuance in his position. On that day, I concluded rather sadly that Chukwumerije took the hurt of the Biafran tragedy very personal and it would never heal.

For some inexplicable reasons, many of my close friends are Igbo so I am quite aware that the shrapnel lodged in their ancestral memories as a result of the war are still there. People like Achebe and Chukwumerije could for instance not avoid the views they held given that they were active participants in the ill-fated Biafran pursuit. But the bigger challenge is that most of our people have not taken pains to understand the subliminal impulses that inform the actions and reactions of Igbos to contemporary Nigeria. The feeling of collective hurt remains very strong among the people.

It is perhaps for that reason that I will advise the president-elect, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) to be sensitive in dealing with the issues that his election have thrown up. Anybody with a little understanding of Nigeria cannot but know why Buhari performed so dismally in the South-east at the polls. But as he seeks to reposition Nigeria for peace and prosperity, Buhari must try as much as possible to heal all the wounds of the past, especially that of Biafra.

As for Chukwumerije, he has played his part and has now gone to rest. May God grant his family the fortitude to bear his passage.

Jonathan, Buhari and May 28

At a recent media briefing after a Federal Executive Council meeting in Abuja, Minister of Information, Mrs Patricia Akwashiki, disclosed that President Goodluck Jonathan will hand over power to the President-elect, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.), on May 28.  “By May 28, the President intends to have the formal handover done at a dinner so that we can reserve May 29 for the incoming government. By May 28, we are expected to have concluded our own government and we are welcoming the incoming government”, Akwashiki said.

As it would happen, that simple gesture of goodwill on the part of President Jonathan has become a subject of some unfortunate interpretations and interpolations. From my understanding of what President Jonathan is trying to do, since the dinner being organised in honour of his successor would not end until the early hour of May 29, he could as well submit his prepared hand-over notes before the swearing-in ceremony some hours later. And if he chooses not to attend the ceremony, then there should be no big deal about it. But some people seem to be under the impression that Jonathan is compelled to be physically present at the ceremony on May 29 to “hand over” to Buhari. He does not have to.

May 29 is Buhari’s day at a time Jonathan would have become, to borrow the words of his spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, another yesterday’s man! But my point is that whether or not he attends the inauguration of Buhari is entirely left to him to decide. Since our presidential system of government is patterned after that of the United States, then we should also draw a lesson from there. Four American presidents who were alive at the time power was being transferred to their successors, did not witness their inauguration ceremonies, for different reasons.

In 1869, President Andrew Johnson refused to attend the inauguration of President U. S. Grant because he was apparently angry, having spent considerable time in office fighting the Republican Party whose lawmakers overrode several of his vetoes and nearly removed him from office. A Democrat who ran as running mate to Republican President Abraham Lincoln, Johnson became President in 1865 following Lincoln’s assassination. He could not seek re-election because he lost the Democratic presidential primaries.

However, for much of his tenure, Johnson was in conflict with the Republican Congress. So acrimonious was the relationship that Johnson was, at a point, impeached by the House of Representatives and only survived at the Senate by just one vote. Perhaps because of all that, and despite appeals from many people, Johnson stayed away from President Grant’s inauguration, choosing instead to drive himself to the house of a friend while the ceremony was going on. But Johnson was not the first president to snub the inauguration of his successor, that record belongs to President John Adams, the second president and the first vice president (to George Washington).

The story began in 1800 when Adams was defeated for re-election by his number two man, Thomas Jefferson, becoming the first American president to fail re-election. He took the defeat so badly that on the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, he left Washington very early at a time there was no precedent in dealing with such situation. But the ceremony went on nonetheless. It was President Adams who most memorably described the office of Vice President as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”

29 years later, President Adams’ son, President John Quincy Adams also deliberately refused to attend the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson who had been his bitter political rival thus creating a record of “like father, like son”. But then, perhaps there were justifications for his action.

At the 1824 election where the candidates fought dirty (one calling the other’s wife an adulteress), Jackson won majority of the popular votes and more electoral votes but he could not be declared winner because he was short by 32 electoral votes. Acting under the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives met to select the President and rather curiously, it was Adams (who came second in both popular and electoral votes) that prevailed in a dramatic session. With a tie, the Speaker (with whom Adams reportedly had a deal and who would later be appointed Secretary of State) cast the decisive ballot for Adams who became the president.

Feeling betrayed by the lawmakers and angered by what he considered a corrupt process, Jackson resigned from the Senate and started his campaign to unseat the president and four years later, he defeated Adams by a landslide. Because of the political enmity between the two, Jackson, as president-elect, refused to pay President Adams the customary courtesy call at the White House before inauguration and the latter also stayed away from his successor’s inauguration.

While President Richard Nixon who resigned following Watergate scandal in 1974 could be excused for not attending the inauguration of his vice president and successor, Gerald Ford, what the foregoing suggests is that a president is not compelled to witness the inauguration of his successor and if President Jonathan decides to leave for Otuoke on the morning of May 29, there is nothing anybody can do about it. But I believe that it would further advance the course of our democracy, if President Jonathan attends Buhari’s inauguration. I will strongly advocate for him to attend.

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