Ben Murray Bruce: Though I’m a Radical, I Can’t Put a Dog or Bird in a Cage… I Can’t Put a Fish in a Fish Bowl

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Senator Ben Murray Bruce tells Nduka Nwosu the story of his life, his family, politics, the men and women as well as the events that have helped to shape his worldview in the complex life of a politician and businessman

Christmas celebration worldwide is a re-union for many. That is when the Murray Bruce family returns home for celebration. Ben Murray Bruce with his family are heading for No. 17, Thurnbull Avenue, Yaba, to join others for thanksgiving surrounding the matriarch who at 92 still radiates good health and energy. An early visitor is the Catholic Reverend Father from St. Dominic’s Church where the family worships.

Ben hugs mum whom he calls his girlfriend and plants a peck. Mum smiles and asks a few questions on the state of the nation. When she is done receiving Guy and his family, the matriarch beams a huge smile at his visitor. “What are you up to, you and your friend Ben? That boy, do you want to hear about his many troubles growing up? Where do I start? Mama has everything to say about everybody including his stubborn son Ben.

Mrs. Margaret Mary Dolly Murray-Bruce cast her thoughts back into time and space. On a warm sunny day in a less turbulent time, 18th February 1956 to be specific, the seventh child of Pa William Murray Bruce and the fourth child of Madam Margaret Murray-Bruce was born. Nobody expects Ben to remember exactly all that happened when he was born in Yaba, Lagos at an Aje Street hospital by a renowned gynaecologist, Dr. Doherty. Of course, he was not the Abiku who had one leg walking in the land of the spirits and the other walking deceptively in the land of the living, knowing all things and all things knowing him. Was he also a bird capable of assuming numerous forms with no boundaries?

More than the imaginary and protean mind of the other Ben, the son of Okri, Ben as we must call him for now, realising that the subject in question has come a long way with popular acclaim and credibility, confesses: “I don’t know if my early beginning had a shape of what a person will end up becoming in life,” by which he means there was neither a shooting star in the firmament announcing his arrival nor some three wise men from the East with gifts for the newborn star. “I was at Our Lady of Apostle’s Primary School and my father worked with the UAC and every two years he was transferred to another city and that accounted for all of us being born in different cities.”

Ben admits he grew up under the tutelage of a conservative family. His father retired as a UAC manager in charge of Kingsway Stores, while his migrant grandfather was among the founders of UAC Nigeria. In one of his conversations with Pa Christopher Abebe, first Nigerian and former UAC chairman, he told him each time the Governor General went on leave, the UAC chairman acted as Governor General; that was pre-independence Nigeria. Much later Ernest Shonekan became Nigeria’s President and the same UAC provided Nigeria a First Lady-Stella Obasanjo-nee Abebe. Of course, when his father retired, he received as part of his pension, one or two stores belonging to UAC but was under-performing, and he grew the stores to what was later to be known as Domino Stores.

His greatest gift from his parents, he says, was the discipline bestowed on him. “I am the rebel in the family. I am not a conformist, I am very liberal, more to the left, conservative in some areas but more to the left but though I am a radical, I cannot put a dog or bird in a cage. I can’t put a fish in a fishbowl. I believe everybody should be free because I like freedom. I cannot restrict anyone yesterday or today. I once went on a hunting expedition with Ronald Chagoury in the South of France. My gun shot a bird and it fell. I put my gun down and vowed never again. Once I killed the bird and kept my gun down, I realised violence and killing people were not for me.”

What did her mummy tell her about his early beginnings? “She didn’t tell me much. I think you have to ask her all those questions. All I know is that as a young person, I was very out-going and I made a lot of friends I was hanging out with. I was a people’s person at a very early age.”

As a pupil at the primary school, Ben was a headache always playing outdoors. He formed a football club with a billboard that stated in bold relief: “Agama Boys Club: You can join if you want”. He would come back from school without doing his homework he would turn the large compound into a football field.

If Ben’s injurious legs had allowed him, he would have followed the path of his hero Haruna Ilerika who played the No. 9 jersey for Stationery Stores and the national team Green Eagles but he went into St. Gregory’s College and found himself leading the college as Senior Prefect. That was where his organisational skills shone like a thousand stars having been made the Harvest Committee chairman or Prefect, raising an amount that shattered previous projections. Father O’Connell who was the school chaplain was happy Ben has lived up to expectation. Well, don’t be disappointed. N400 in September 1973 was a fortune for a secondary school fundraising event. Ben Murray Bruce had shattered the records. No fundraising organised by the school attained such amount, the highest being N100. It called for celebration.

Father O’Connell and Ben invested the money in school band equipment, purchasing all the needed instruments for the St. Greg’s College Band. It paid off hugely. A junior student Melvin Ukachi had approached Ben and asked if he could do some practice with the band. Ben responded in the affirmative. Ukachi and his group later known as Ofege used the school band to wax their first album which sold over one million copies. Ofege produced by Odion Iruoje, a famous music producer of the time became an instant hit and ruled the airwaves right into the end of the1970s. But Murray Bruce is sad because the management of the group was poor. Besides the parents of the students were not happy these boys had become famous at the expense of their studies. He came out of that experience to produce Dizzy K Falola, and Xtasy-Roy and Joy Murray Bruce.

While also attributing the success of the group to the influence of the Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Murray Bruce was positioned by the culture of talent discovery, of which St. Greg’s had become renowned, Much later in life after his sojourn to the US, Bruce returned home to be a major talent hunter, music promoter and publisher of an entertainment magazine known as Silverbird magazine.

How did the US exposure as a student act as a catalyst for his political development? His response: “You have no idea how what you do as a kid will turn out, how it will affect you later in life. It comes as if you had a plan all your life whereas it was an expression. My actions were an expression of my mind. I like to express myself. The way I expressed myself as a five-year-old is the same way I’ll express myself when I am 100. I love to think. I can wake up at three in the morning thinking of deregulation or minimum wage issues, anything that has to do with the progress of the nation and humanity; I think when I am sleeping on how to fix the economy.

Back in college he joined the Black Movement and was admitted to the Black House on campus. “I arrived the US in 1975. Kennedy had been killed in 1962 and Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968. The Cultural Revolution was gathering momentum and Woodstock, a musical event, was the rallying force for the promotion of peace and free love. I saw Gerald Ford campaigning in my campus and he lost to Jimmy Carter. The people wanted to move forward. I was trying to understand how America could be integrated economically, not politically because Johnson had given blacks or African Americans the right to vote. That was not economic empowerment but there was a transition from the right to vote to economic empowerment. All these developments taught me a lot and how we can improve and bring the best to Nigeria.”

Murray Bruce remembers the events that shaped his venture into the entertainment industry. He met Louis Smallwood who taught on set young men and women who could not attend a regular school and he exposed him to such artistes as Janet Jackson, Gary Coleman, the cast of the television show from Good Times, Todd Bridges, Carter and Different Strokes, “because American law says that anyone under 16 had to go to school  and these young entertainers shot and practiced their shows all day long and could not go to a regular school, they were taught on the set and my friend Louis Smallwood was teaching them on the set. I often visited him and from there the interest grew and that was how I got into show business.”

Many wondered why Ben Bruce could not bring Michael Jackson to the country at the height of his entertainment business. A friend of his had taken him to meet Joe Jackson, Michael’s father at the Motown and they spoke at length but the proposal he made to him made no economic sense. He asked for too much money. He decided to see Dick Griffith who knew Joe very well and he said: “if Joe could not get Michael to cross the street, they’re not in good terms,” These were happening in the 1980s. He adds:  “Don’t forget about now Michael released ‘Off the Wall,’ which made a monumental success, then he came out with ‘Thriller’ and that was the last time he had a performance powered by Don King. I became a concert promoter in 1980 and by December 31st, 1980 when Major General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew President Shagari and he became President, concert promotions in Nigeria collapsed and that ended my career and for two years during which Fela was jailed my career ended. Then I was in Philadelphia with Michael, his brothers and Dick Griffith attending their show.”

His meeting with Jesse Jackson was a turning point joining him much later to do a tour of the Frontline States. He explains how he met him and later Andy Young: “I knew Andy Young, who became famous because of his civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jnr and became Mayor of Atlanta, through Obasanjo who was a big fan of Andy. I met Jesse Jackson in 1983 in Los Angeles, with Dick Griffith; they came to my office. There was a meeting of Black American Promoters Association of America in 1983. He was the only African in that meeting that held in the premises of Solar Records. They were talking about Cool Jazz Festival taking place with black artistes and white promoters.”

According to Ben, the black promoters came to Jesse requesting the show be brought to a halt. Reason? They wanted to be part of the business their talent and creativity was driving. They were asking for economic reciprocity.

The idea was to destroy the brand and in 24 hours they negotiated to handover 50 per cent of the business to black promoters thus breaking white monopoly over black artistes and promoters. That was also how Murray Bruce met Mohammed Ali. “Jesse is one of the most gifted black orators of all time. These were the legends of American music and politics and I was excited to be in their midst.”

When Buhari seized power in 1983, was it his fault that Silverbird closed shop? Expectedly Murray Bruce answers in the affirmative and stunned his visitor with a larger than life revelation of being accused of a coup plot. “Yes, it was his fault however my alliance or membership in PDP transcends such interpretation. When Mr. Buhari became the Head of State in 1983, he re-introduced the Foreign Currency Regulations and things like that and you could not access dollars anymore and that meant you could not promote groups anymore. It became a problem. It was worse for me because I was made the Executive Director of Black Music Association with Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and the top brass in the music industry around me. I was supposed to promote a music festival in Nigeria with the Jacksons, with Shade Adu, with New Edition and the biggest stars in the world to raise money, just like what Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie did with ‘We are the World’, to raise money. I still have the fliers.

“Two things happened to kill that. Stevie Wonder sent a message to me that after the concert they would love to see the President. Of course, Buhari was at Dodan Barracks and I wrote a letter requesting a meeting with these artistes when they arrived in the country. As soon as they got the letter they set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee. They all met, luckily for me a friend of mine was in that meeting and I was accused of coup plotting and I was to be investigated. Two, Fela got jailed for having 1,600 Pounds in his pocket when he was leaving the airport.

“Those two events were significant to the promotion that was to take place. I got calls from Washington. One said if you can jail the most famous musician in Africa in your country why should I come and visit you? The most famous product, the greatest ambassador from Africa was

Fela at the time and the Buhari junta put him in prison for five years because he was carrying one thousand six hundred Pounds.

“So who was coming to perform in Nigeria for me? Nobody, instead I became a suspect under investigation for coup plotting.” That sounds like the first tragedy before the cancellation of the Miss World Beauty pageant anchored by Silverbird in Abuja. So obviously, this jinx started somewhere and only had a replay many years after.

“Did it make sense?  It didn’t have to make sense for a Gestapo government in power. That was how my business came to a halt in the 1980s. I became a suspect being investigated for plotting a coup. That was what happened, so I quit.”

What about his lowest moment? Murray Bruce remembers nothing brought his soul to its lowest ebb as the cancellation of the Miss World Beauty pageant in Abuja after 16 years of working towards it from 1986 when Silverbird hosted its first Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria

Beauty Pageant (MBGN) to 2000 when Agbani Darego emerged as the first black Miss World. At least over 400 journalists were accredited for the event. For one month Nigeria was in the news with a rating that surpassed the Commonwealth Conference of Heads of State that held in Abuja six months after. According to Murray Bruce, “I was heartbroken for myself and Nigeria. I hate to fail and worse I hate when Nigeria is embarrassed internationally.”

Before the cancellation of the event which first bidding was in 2001 and later shifted to South Africa, Murray Bruce recalls how the international media campaigned against giving Nigeria the hosting right when Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by Islamic Sharia law. The campaign was virulent but Silverbird got the franchise and committed millions of dollars to the event. Then a newspaper report on Mohammed added to the fury. The event was cancelled and moved to London. For a man and an organisation that had committed so much to the event, nothing could be more heart-rending. It was his lowest moment.

Well, in a family, don’t expect all the children to move in the same direction. Some would love business, others would go into politics. Some could be outspoken while others would be taciturn going about their normal business unperturbed by activities of any government in power.

For Murray Bruce, he has made a good venture of the two divides and he explains: “I am a free thinker, I am a free spirit and so I like to think. I am always thinking of how we can fix the political problems in Nigeria, the problems affecting the geo-political zones of the country as well as the religious problems. I want to function with the speed of thought. I have no time for politics in the traditional style such as when politicians say when I complete my tenure I will hand over to the South-east or South-west. That is the dumbest way to run a campaign, playing on the sentiments of people and not to think of what you can do as a politician. You tell them you will give them power.

“Do you really think I care if the Nigerian President is a Chinese and we have the entire country lit with electricity, or the country has a good road network, kids come out from school and have jobs and can access good education; will I care if the doctor is Moslem, Christian, heathen, Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa? Does it matter if the students’ Mathematics teacher is Chinese if he teaches well? Campaigns anchored on deceit are detrimental to the well-being of Nigerians. Question is what have you done with the power we gave you when you are deceitfully asking people for votes because you will give power to the East or West? You are assuming we are all stupid? I cannot get involved in such politics, in a nation where the illiterate rule the literate, running an illiterate campaign. I cannot run a campaign anchored on tribal sentiments.