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The Man Who Would Have Been President

29 Dec 2012

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Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili

The first thing that struck me on opening this 511-page book was that I attended the same primary school - Sacred Heart School, Odoakpu, Onitsha - as the former Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili. Incidentally, Dr. Odili was admitted into the next-door secondary school, the famous Christ the King College, (CKC) Onitsha, where I lived all my early life in the staff quarters with my uncle J.O Aginam who was a CKC teacher. So all the names Dr. Odili mentions in the book about his college life, like the legendary CKC principal, Rev. Fr N.C Tagbo, and the teacher Nwishienyi who gave the youthful Odili a slap that nearly led to a school riot, were personages who “brought me up by hand” as Charles Dickens put it in Great Expectations. On that familiar platform, Dr. Odili’s story happens to be my story too.

Dr. Odili would go on in the course of time to live a very public life in Nigeria as Rivers State Deputy Governor, then Governor and nearly capped it all up with becoming the Nigerian President but for some bewildering gang-up and plot that stopped him short at the eleventh hour. In the run-up to the 2007 presidential contest, Odili was without question the front-runner amongst the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) aspirants. The bystander that would eventually gain the PDP candidacy, to wit, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was not even in the contest, and the man who was shooed in into the vice-presidential slot, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, was equally not interested in throwing his hat into the ring.

Odili’s campaign drive, led by the irrepressible Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, was in full rev towards the end of 2006 until, as Dr. Odili writes in Conscience and History, “12th December, a spurious and anonymous petition was posted in the internet from a questionable ‘source’ alleging corrupt practices against the Rivers State Government under me. These allegations were converted into a petition by the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu’s hand, to the President same day.

On the 13th of December 2006 Mr President directed EFCC to investigate. On December 14, 2006, EFCC submitted a so-called ‘interim’ report to the then President who promptly minuted (sic) for my response on the same December 14, 2006, but forwarded to me on December15, 2006, a day to convention vide ref. PRES/44. I assembled what was left of my cabinet team, a few having been arrested and kept at the EFCC office in Lagos within these few days of urgent dramatic action.

We submitted our response on the 15th day of December, 2006 by which time it had become clear what the whole exercise was about – ‘Get Odili out of the race for the Presidency, at all cost.’ … This became lucidly clear with the instant release of my staff that were being detained in Lagos by the EFCC as soon as I voluntarily and wisely withdrew from the contest. There was jubilation at the EFCC office immediately the news of my withdrawal broke and all my staff were asked by EFCC to go home immediately.”

After withdrawal from the PDP presidential primaries Odili was then summoned to Aso Villa on the morning of December 16, the day of the PDP Convention, by then President Olusegun Obasanjo. The promise Odili got after the morning prayers at the Villa with Obasanjo was that he would be made the running mate of Umaru Yar’Adua. It happened that when Odili went to meet Yar’Adua he ominously discovered that conversation amongst the gathered party wigs such as Chief James Ibori, Chief Lucky Igbinedion, Dr. Bukola Saraki, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and Nassir El-Rufai immediately seized. Yar’Adua took Odili upstairs to introduce him to his wife Turai “and assured me of his happiness at the prospect of our working together”.

Then Yar’Adua and Odili went together to the Eagle Square, the venue of the Convention, and walked round the square. Odili was even privileged to see the typed copy of Yar’Adua’s prepared acceptance speech where “it was clearly stated that he had nominated Dr. Peter Odili as his running-mate for the Presidential race.” It was in the ungodly hour of around 3.30am that Odili was informed that some fresh information just received from the selfsame Nuhu Ribadu would lead to his dropping as the running mate.

In the end Yar’Adua read a handwritten acceptance speech that excluded Odili’s name, only adding that further consultations were being made on the vexed matter of his running mate. It was later in the evening of December 17, 2007 that Dr. Jonathan’s name manifested as the running mate of Yar’Adua.

Odili’s book Conscience and History is indeed momentous given the countrywide angst about governance in the country and the news flying fast and free that Obasanjo had fallen out with President Jonathan. The offering of Odili in Conscience and History is indeed an object lesson in political brinkmanship.

Even so, Odili’s autobiography transcends politics to encompass love in its natural flora and fauna. Born on August 15, 1948 in Ndoni of the now Ogba-Egbema-Ndoni LGA of present-day Rivers State, Odili showed leadership qualities from very early in life. He was the Senior Prefect and College Captain of the esteemed CKC Onitsha, where he had his secondary school education. According to Odili, “From cradle, through primary school, and admission into one of the best secondary schools of our time, I can say without any shred of doubt that the foundational impact of secondary school education is the fulcrum of anyone’s life later. That’s what CKC did for me. I won’t be who I am if I did not pass through the walls of CKC.”

He suffered as a refugee during the civil war and had to submit to being recruited as a soldier. He took top position in the army course and was deployed as an instructor in the school of infantry instead of being sent to the warfront. After the war he began schoolwork as an indigent medical student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A driven lad, he embarked on the holiday trade of travelling abroad to earn some money which immediately turned him into a campus big boy.

It was fateful afternoon, about 1.30pm, in 1972 that Odili espied the beautiful Mary who became the love and anchor of his life. Three girls had entered a lecture in the bid to “colonise” some seats when the young Peter saw the dashing damsel. When the girls left Peter opened one of the books of the girl of his adoration and saw her name: Mary Nzenwa. He had to wait all of three years before an old CKC friend Papp Alumona fortuitously brought Mary into the young Peter’s world through a birthday party. Peter and Mary got married on August 26, 1977 at Oredo Local Government Council Registry, Benin, whist he was a house officer and Mary was in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme. Odili’s father-in-law, the great HRH Eze (Barr) BSC Nzenwa, who played pivotal roles in the founding of Rangers Football Club of Enugu and Spartans of Owerri, generously waived the expensive Mbaise marriage for a later date which the couple undertook in grand style in 1982. Blessed with four children and five grandchildren, Dr Peter and Justice Mary Odili are the one example of a marriage made in heaven.

Odili founded PAMO Clinics and Hospitals in Port Harcourt in 1982, growing it in leaps and bounds as the very best in Rivers State despite the sabotage of a trusted associate named Idigo. A Catholic to the core, Odili is a Knight of St. John International and Knight Commander of St. Gregory the Great (Supreme Papal Knighthood).

Odili’s exploits in politics, notably as Deputy Governor of the old Rivers State in 1992/93; leader of the Rivers State Delegates to the Constitutional Conference 1994/95; Rivers State Governor from 1999 to 2007 etc. stood in him good stead to stand for the coveted Presidency of the country in 2007 which was thwarted through underhand means. He then headed to the courts to clear his name. He won justice against the EFCC through a thorough court trial as documented in Conscience and History as opposed to the “perpetual injunction” against his trial as peddled by his traducers.

In an uncanny twist of fate, Odili became estranged from his protégé Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi who emerged as Rivers State Governor through a landmark Supreme Court ruling. Governor Amaechi set up the Kayode Eso Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Odili saw as “clearly conceived, designed and programmed to permanently indict and incarcerate Dr Odili.” Once again, Dr Odili went to court and got deserved justice.

Ambassador Dr. M. T. Mbu in an August 11, 2008 letter to Dr. Odili reproduced at the back of Conscience and History quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” and states: “Nigeria at the moment is operating laws that are equivalent to the laws of the jungle. Nemesis will catch up with evil doers. The just in the end will be vindicated.”

Through the efforts of High Chief Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, Dr. Odili and Governor Amaechi were reconciled on Good Friday, April 22, 2011. This way, Odili and his beloved wife Justice Mary made a grand appearance at the May 29, 2011 inauguration of Governor Amaechi for his second tenure. Of course the family celebrated the promotion of Justice Mary Odili to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Dr Odili has shown the good example that Nigerian leaders ought to document their lives and doings for the benefit of posterity. Going through the words and pictures of Dr. Odili’s achievements in the power sector, education, labour, agriculture, sports etc. helps to put into context the works of his successor and the accomplishments of other governors elsewhere. The more than a hundred pages of pictorial testimonials are lasting joys to behold.

There are a few editing errors in the book such as the misspelling of “Achievements” as “Achivements” in the Table of Contents page and the putting of Prof Wole Soyinka’s name in the index as appearing on page 475 without the Nobel Laureate’s name or face appearing on that page. I wholeheartedly volunteer to do the re-editing for a second edition free-of-charge since Dr. Odili and this poet attended the same primary school, to wit, Sacred Heart School, Odoakpu, Onitsha!

Be that as it may, Dr. Odili has written a very insightful book in Conscience and History. He bears epochal testimony to Uthman Dan Fodio’s saying: “Conscience is an open wound; only truth can heal it.” Principal characters such as Obasanjo and Nuhu Ribadu who played paramount roles towards the forging of Nigeria as we have it today should step forward with their own books. Dr. Odili’s Conscience and History is a well-packaged rendition of our recent history, which ought to lead to other writings and sundry publishing.

Tags: Arts and Review, Peter Odili

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