On October 28, 2018, the inimitable political strategist and tactician, whom steadfast loyalists and followers would gleefully describe as a political Iroko to the pains of those on the other side of the divide, Chief Anthony Akhakon Anenih, the Iyasele (Prime Minister) of Esanland, took the eternal bow and exited the worldly stage in a blaze of glory, defined by his great accomplishments in politics, a trade that brought him both fame and derision.
Anenih, who died at age 85, carved a revered niche for himself in the politics of Nigeria. His political participation straddled three republics-second third and fourth; and, significantly, had the privilege of leading from the front as chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the old Bendel State in the Second Republic, National Chairman of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the ill-fated Third Republic and Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the current Fourth Republic, at two different epochs.
He built solid political structures at the three different intersections of party administration and provided a leadership that accommodated and ministered to the individual needs and interests of loyalists and followers in the context of his overarching political interest(s). And, in recognition of his political legerdemain, his loyalty to leadership and followership alike, he was canonised as “the Leader” by the late Major General Musa Yar’Adua, who was the rallying point for political grandees in the Third Republic, who had converged on the People’s Front of Nigeria (PFN) under Yar’Adua’s commanding leadership. The PFN tendency would later play a defining and influential role in the political peregrinations of the SDP. It was at one of the meetings of Yar’Adua’s associates in the SDP hosted in Benin by Anenih in 1992 that he (Yar’Adua), seeing how Anenih was fixing emerging problems, referred to him (Anenih) as Leader and that moniker would stick on the Uromi-born politician like an old adhesive tape even in death.
Like Yar’Adua, Anenih was versed in assembling followers and loyalists as well as setting political targets for followers and providing funds to actualize them. Yar’Adua believed that no political goal was too difficult to accomplish. That would explain how and why he defeated his co-contestants for the presidential ticket of the SDP in their home states. He was in a pole position to win the presidential ticket of the SDP over and again were it not for the ban placed on him and other supposed “old breed” politicians by the General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida junta, which superintended the convoluted, ill-fated Third Republic.
Anenih operated smoothly in the vortex of the power game that characterized the intricate scramble for the presidency. How the transition programme ended up consuming and marking the denouements of many of those who played some leading roles in it is a fact of history. It was on the crest of his famed leadership of the SDP and significant recommendations, contoured by his past political fidelity that Anenih rode into strategic political accommodation, reckoning and leadership roles in the Fourth Republic.
His political odyssey is documented in his autobiography entitled: “My Life and Nigerian Politics”, a 257-page book, published by Mindex Publishing Company Limited, which benefitted from a scholarly review by a renowned Professor of Law, Epiphany Azinge (SAN) on the day of its public presentation on November 27, 2016 in Abuja. But beyond the documented history is the preservation of the political legacy that he left behind, particularly in his home state of Edo. This was what occupied my mind in the evening of October 28, 2018 when I received that shattering call from my brother, Barrister Peter Abulu (who was PA to Chief Anenih) to inform me of the passing of Leader, who was to us a father, indeed. As I drove to his Abuja residence to take charge of the crafting of the press statement by the family to formally announce his passing, my mind raced into the immediate future as a litany of questions popped up: who would step into Leader’s shoes? Will his political legacy be preserved? Will posterity be fair to him in the accommodation of his immediate and extended family in the conceptualization and pursuit of his Esan development/liberation agenda that always saw him empathize with any Esan man or woman? Will there be another political force like Anenih who will champion the cause of the emergence of an Esan governor in Edo after the ill-fated Professor Oserhiemen Osunbor governorship that lasted from May 29, 2007 to November 11, 2008?
These are the questions to which I will attempt to offer a summative answer as I solemnly remember Chief Anenih, four years after his passing. But before I do so, I would like to provide a relevant context to situate Anenih’s exemplar in reconciliation, forgiveness and accommodation in the light of current political developments in Edo PDP vis-a-viz the national PDP. In early 2018, I cannot remember the exact date, I went to the house to see him and he told me how a former governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, led a former Vice-president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, to see him after a long political disagreement between them, which was caused by the tension of goals and objectives. It was at the meeting that both made up after Atiku demonstrated his respect for Anenih by reportedly going down on his knees.
Without telling me the specific details of what the issues were, I did a quick recollection of their engagements from 1999 and I remember how Anenih stood in solid support of Obasanjo when Atiku, acting in concert with some 22 PDP governors in 2003, had wanted to upset Obasanjo’s presidential re-election applecart by expressing interest in contesting for the party’s ticket at the presidential primary election. It had taken the solid support by Anenih for Obasanjo who deployed other desperate strategies (among them, practically “kneeling” to beg Atiku, so claimed some political quarters, and a promise to retain him on the ticket as running mate, which was honoured) in getting the Adamawa-born politician to dismount from his horse of presidential ambition.
Having both come from the General Yar’Adua’s political family, Anenih and Atiku had continued to relate somewhat closely until the intersection where a meeting was scheduled for both to discuss the possibility of Atiku supporting Goodluck Jonathan’s second term and for him to work towards seamlessly succeeding Jonathan in some political deal, but which meeting, as learnt, he (Atiku) deliberately shunned to the chagrin of Anenih and thereafter moved to join in the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) where he contested the party’s ticket and lost to Muhammadu Buhari in 2014.
The 2018 meeting between both men, facilitated by Ibori, thus helped to thaw the ice in their frosty relationship. To demonstrate his commitment to Atiku’s presidential bid, even though he could not travel to Port Harcourt for the party’s presidential primary election where he emerged as candidate, Anenih dressed up in his full PDP attire and asked some of his children and aides to sit with him to watch the primary election that was being telecast live. It was while he stepped out to ease himself in the guest toilet adjoining his expansive living room that he had the fall that would later prove fatal. He was initially admitted into the hospital, where the injury he sustained in the head was checked without red flag. He had actually checked himself out of the hospital thereafter preparatory to receive Atiku at home as the party’s presidential candidate. His condition would later worsen. The rest as, they say, is history.
As the fourth anniversary of Anenih’s passing is being solemnly celebrated by his family members and unwavering loyalists who have remained committed to him even in death, it is quite evident how fair-weather associates and pretentious loyalists are sardonically or derisively remembering him. For instance, what could be more derisive than the manner Anenih’s son, Oseyili, who appeared more prepared than other aspirants, and was meritorious in his engagements with leaders and members of Esan Northeast/Esan Southeast federal constituency for the PDP ticket to represent them in the House of Representatives, was treated? Oseyili would later in the field be undercut by a political force nurtured and harboured by his late father. There is, however, room for redemption; there are immediate and future opportunities for Edo PDP to deliberately support the political engagements of Anenih’s children, as many of them as are interested, in reciprocal gestures to the late politician who gave them his shoulders to stand on. The same thing could be replicated at the national level. For instance, setting up a PDP Presidential Campaign Council without an Anenih being appointed into it, when there are at least three known politicians in the family, offends the legacy and memory of the late Chief Tony Anenih. It is, to say the least, sardonic.
To be sure, were Anenih to be alive, this is what he would have done for the significant others. The festering internal crisis in the PDP would have benefitted from his true, unselfish leadership intervention. His capacity to fix problems would have found anchorage in the present conflictual politicking that has shredded the bonds of brotherhood in the party. He would have been able to mediate in this conflict, just like he did several times in the past and particularly during the negotiations with the Niger Delta militants on behalf of the then President Umaru Yar’Adua. Unfortunately, his absence is not just a personal loss to his family, but it is also one that may affect the party he lived and died for.
● Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org