Chief Matthew Tawo Mbu
By Eddy Odivwri
For several decades, the home address of Matthew Tawo Mbu was somewhere within or around Government House. He was a “Government Man”, a man who served in various capacities and locations for a stretch of over five decades.
One of the most unparalleled accomplishments of Mbu was being the youngest minister and envoy ever appointed in Nigeria. He still held that record jealously till yesterday when he breathed his last.
He was 24 when he got appointed a minister in the then prime minister’s office in the mid-1950s and was shortly after appointed as ambassador to the United Kingdom in the Court of St. James at the tender age of 24. He was so young that late labour leader, Michael Imodu, use to tease him as Baby Minister.
He had appeared in a hurry to serve his country; so much that it was after he had been appointed High Commissioner to the UK that he found time and opportunity to go to the university. At the time, the Action Group-controlled media had ceaselessly riled Mbu as the “student ambassador”. But Mbu was not deterred.
He went ahead to study Law and graduated from Middle Temple and University College, London in 1959 where he received an LLB and LLM. He was subsequently called to the Middle Temple Bar.
Chief M.T. Mbu’s political career began with his membership of parliament from 1952 to 1955. He also served the country in various capacities as Federal Minister of Labour; High Commissioner to UK, 1955 to 1959; and Representative of Nigeria, Washington DC, in 1966.
Between 1960 and 1966, Chief Mbu returned to serve again in parliament. During the latter stint in parliament, he also doubled as Federal Minister of Defence for Naval Affairs.
It is a tribute to his integrity that in all his years in government, there was hardly any scandal or controversy associated with him. He lived a granite-plain life. He served selflessly. His honesty and humility was said to have endeared him most to late Tafawa Balewa, prime minister from 1960 to 1966.
The story was once told of how as Minister of Defence (Navy), the Federal Government had advertised for the purchase of a ship. As expected, quotations flew in from every corner, many of them quoting very high and unrealistic figures. Peeved by what he perceived were inflated quotations, Mbu was said to have travelled and contacted the ship manufacturers himself. He bought the ship from the manufacturers and saved the nation some six million pounds sterling, a character trait that endeared him to Tafawa Balewa all the more.
As a protégé of late Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbu commanded a lot of influence and authority in the politics of First Republic, despite his young age. He was first with the Azikiwe-led NPP and after the merger with the NCNC, Mbu remained in the mainstream of the nation’s politics at the time.
In the Second Republic, he was to later defect from the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) and joined the Shagari-led National Party of Nigeria (NPN). His political clout was strong. Not many men at the time had the education and self poise he had. Studying law in the United Kingdom, only helped to up his standing in the political arena at the time. That explains why government after government, he remained relevant and was trustworthy to serve the Nigerian government in various capacities for over 50 years.
Lamenting how leadership and service had been corrupted in the country, Mbu in an interview once said corruption was not the way of life for Nigerians. “In my days, corruption like it is today never existed. One could single out those who were found to be corrupt, since they were so few! Most of us were not corrupt, and we remained incorruptible, never taking a penny for ourselves. There was transparency, honesty and probity in public office.
“So I would not say that corruption has been with us; rather it has become institutionalised by successive military governments. The military brought corruption, promoting it to such a degree that it has become part of Nigerian governance,” he had said.
He believed in Nigeria, and explained that his devotion to the nation even at such an early age was borne out of his life’s philosophy: starting early.
Commenting on Mbu last night, Mr. Oma Djebah, Special Assistant to Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan on Foreign Relations, stated that “Mbu was not only a rare icon, and gift in the field of diplomacy and nationalism in Nigeria, but was also one of the global voices from the black race,” adding that “he always told me that it is good to be an early bird.” He was indeed an early bird.
Nationalistic as he was, he did not lose sight of his background. That is why he as the President of the South-South Peoples Assembly (SSPA), Mbu deployed his political stature and national network to lead a strident campaign for the emergence of a president from his native geo-political zone. Last April, that wish was comprehensively consummated with the election of President Goodluck Jonathan as the president of the country.
Even after he left government, Mbu remained very relevant, even in the business world. With interests spanning several sectors including shipping, banking and real estate, Mbu pioneered several ventures in Nigeria. He influenced the coming of Alraine Shipping Line to Nigeria, and was the chairman of the company for several years.
Yesterday, his service to humanity ended. But his good works will continue to echo and be remembered by many whose lives he touched. He remains a model, an icon, and one who is certainly going to rest in peace.