Happy birthday to Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, the most suitable next president of Nigeria, By Emeka Ugwuonye

Senate Chief Whip, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu

I chose the occasion of Senator Orji Uzor Kalu’s 62nd birthday to express my views on Nigeria’s desperate quest for the leadership that can pull the nation back from the precipice. In January of 2020, I had the rather unusual privilege of encountering the man that is simply known as OUK. It was a very defining encounter because of the circumstances and context. Yet, in a matter of a short period of time, I knew instinctively that OUK was the most likely candidate to become the next president of Nigeria unless he declined to make the requisite effort to actualize that. It is important to say that I reached this conclusion at a point when I did not consider myself a supporter of the man.

Before I say more about the reasons for this weighty impression of OUK, let me summarize my background and the observational premise from which I made my assessment. I am fifty-five years old and have been a professional for more than thirty years. In that period, I have served as a member of the Policy and Planning Committee of the then Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), as well as their regional coordinator for Africa. In the execution of the HIID programs in African countries, I directly advised top officials of governments (at presidential levels, to be precise) in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda on critical policy reforms of that era. Prior to my position at the HIID, I was an active part and participant in many policy studies and researches on the reforming and transitioning economies of Eastern Europe and China at Harvard University in the early 1990s. And post-HIID, I was a legal counsel to the World Bank in Washington, DC, assigned to the Europe and Central Asia region. Finally, to the extent considered relevant, after I moved into the private sector as an international lawyer, I played major roles in critical cases of the time, such as the case of MKO Abiola and others v. General Abdulsalami Abubakar in the United States. The above activities spanned the period of 1992 to 2012 (twenty years).

Within that experiential latitude, I have had a profound insight into the pace and range of global changes. I have also had the opportunity to observed intimately the trends of leadership in Africa. And finally, I occupied a sustained observational position regarding the events in Nigeria from Babangida’s failed transition, through the emergence of Abacha regime and the political transition presided over by General Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998. I witnessed the emergence of Obasanjo as a Presidential candidate after the primaries that Dr. Alex Ekwueme was expected to win. As counsel to Abdulsalami Abubakar in arguably the most significant Nigerian case in American courts, I was forced by the exigencies of my role to know too much about what transpired in the Nigerian power game of the last decade of the last century. In that controversy, my client, the former Head of State of Nigeria, was accused of killing Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of Presidential elections in 1993 and the matter was presented for the Americans to resolve. That case lasted seven years and went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Other than the civil war, there were two most defining sets of events in Nigerian history since Independence: The first set pertains to the events flowing from the 1966 January coup and the second set of events pertains to those surrounding the death of MKO Abiola. Therefore, to be a lawyer in the Abiola case for seven years in a jurisdiction as intense as the United States Federal Courts, one can safely be presumed to have acquired an extraordinary insight into Nigerian political development.

To crown it, I observed intimately the emergence of Obasanjo’s administration in 1999, the fledgling democracy that followed, the high hopes and the many failures and reversals in the process. In that return to democracy, I observed the key players, of which OUK was a 39-year old and relatively an unremarkable member, as the then Governor of Abia State.

When I met OUK in 2020, he was 60 years old and had been under my general observation for 21 years. I had a solid repertoire of experience and knowledge about world, regional and national leaders, against which I could assess and evaluate OUK. And without his knowledge, I did a lot of that. Reaching the conclusion that OUK is the most likely next President of Nigeria did not come easily or hastily. I took into consideration all the relevant factors such as real politics, unique Nigerian factors, elements of timing and the individual personality factors. Of all these sets of factors, the only one I would say was new to me was the personality factor – things I learned about OUK by spending average of four hours with him each day for six months in 2020. I saw in him a man so totally different from what the average informed person would know about him. I will share some of this here and you may see the real OUK that is much different from most of the things you may have read or heard about him.

I have a thousand reasons for declaring OUK the most likely and most suitable next president of Nigeria, but I will share just a few, as follows:

(1) Inevitably, Nigeria must take a bold and definitive step toward the unity of the country. This will require conceding or zoning the presidency to the South East come next election season. It is a gesture of profound importance, which will solve a million problems for Nigeria, including, but not limited to, the problem of distrust, loss of faith, and disunity which have denied Nigeria peace and prosperity. The exclusion of the people of the South East from Nigerian political leadership did not occur by accident. And naturally, to include them will require a deliberate action such as the zoning of the next presidency to the South East. It is inevitable, and 2023 is the best time. This assumption presupposes that the ruling political party of Nigeria will concede the presidency to the South East this time. The fact that this remains the dominant topic in Nigeria’s political discussions of the day is sufficient indicator that zoning the presidency to the South East is a legitimate expectation and in the interest of all Nigerias.

(2) If the ruling party concedes the presidential slot to the South East, that slot will go only to one of the leading members of that party from the SouthEast. Looking at the ruling party of the day, OUK is one of the top figures from the South East. The ruling party will not be searching for the best Igbo man to elect. Naturally, it will be asking for the best man among the Igbos currently established within their party. So, it will not be a general search for the best. It will be a simple selection of one out of OUK, Dave Umahi, Dr. Chris Ngige, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, and one or two more. That is the universal reality of all electoral politics – you select only from a short list of the prequalified.

(3) Then, there is the factor of the preponderance of the North. The idea behind zoning is based on the general understanding that without zoning, the preponderant political group, which is the Northern political elite would try to hold to power indefinitely and exclusively, as they have actually successfully done since 1966. Note that the presidency of Obasanjo was a deliberate act of zoning. General Abdulsalami Abubakar and his team decided that the president to emerge in 1999 would be a person from the South West in order to placate the people of that region for the frustration of MKO Abiola. (And they only intended for Obasanjo to be there for just one term of four years). Otherwise, the North could have held onto that office and there would not have been Obasanjo. It is okay for you to question the morality or merits of Northern political dominance, but you have to accept the reality of it so far. So, any Southeastern candidate to emerge as a president of Nigeria must be one that the Northern political elites are comfortable with and someone they view a genuine nationalist of Nnamdi Azikiwe tradition. If you consider the above two factors valid, then the selection process within the ruling party narrows down to the question of which one among OUK, Umahi, Ngige and Onu, etc., would the Northern elites feel most comfortable with as the President of Nigeria in 2023. (The choice of one of these Southeastern candidates in the South West will mirror that of the North this time).

(4) Nigerian history has shown that there could come a time when the Northern elites recognize that it is in their best interest to share power with their Southern colleagues, because failure to do so might derail all hopes of Nigeria unity. One such moment was when General Abdulsalami Abubakar set out with his transition program. He knew how dangerous it was not to choose a presidential candidate from the South West as his successor. With all that has happened in Nigeria in the past few years, it is clear to the Northern political elites that a moment has come again when it is imperative that the presidency be zoned to the South, especially the South East.

(5) In his 25 years in politics, OUK has gathered sufficient experience and muscle to earn both the envy and fear of some of his colleagues and the admiration and respect of others within the Nigerian political class, especially within the ruling party. OUK’s conviction in December of 2019 by a court that lacked jurisdiction to try him was a clear manipulation engineered by political forces out to stop him from becoming the next president of Nigeria. But his six months in unlawful imprisonment witnessed the greatest demonstration of the love, respect and admiration he enjoyed as a leader and a leadership material in Nigeria. I knew as a fact that in the period of six months OUK spent in Kuje prison, almost every Nigerian Senator (past and present), almost every Nigerian Governor (past and present), almost every other heavy weight in the Nigerian political scene went to Kuje prison to see OUK as if on a pilgrimage. So did many diplomats from many countries. Many basically begged him to run because they all knew that his conviction was a sham and that he would not stay long in prison.

(6) I have studied leaders far and wide and I have come to realize that some leaders, irrespective of relative obscurity in earlier in their careers or complications in their past lives may go through some crucible that ends up transforming them from ordinary leaders to heroes and transcendental figures. For OUK, his unlawful imprisonment for six months was that event that transformed him from a mere Nigerian politician to the inspirational and sublime leader he is about to become. In the Greek tragedy, what maketh a hero is not that he was born perfect or that he had lived a perfect life. The hero must have a fault or failing. However, he becomes a hero when he suffers more than deserved. To conspire with a judge and plot to convict a man in order to prevent him from running for the office of the presidency of his country and to end up detaining him in prison for six months will give you the picture of an ordinary man who emerges a hero and an awe-inspiring character in the end. That is the story of OUK.

(7) As I said earlier, for six months, I had the honor of spending hours each day with OUK. He didn’t have to see me; he just allowed me. The only other time I could remember sitting with a Nigerian leader and being free to ask him all kinds of questions was when I represented General Abdulsalami Abubakar. The General would let me sit with him and I would ask him questions about anything and any subject and he freely answered them and we would laugh sometimes, and sometimes we would get caught up in deep thoughts about the gravity of subject of discussion. OUK was not my client. But he gave me limitless opportunity to talk with him and to ask him things. In the end of the period, I discovered an extraordinarily intelligent, decisive and wise leader with infinite compassion for the poor and less privileged of this country.

(8) OUK has a thorough understanding of the problems of Nigeria. He understands that our country is in a very fragile condition and that the ship of the state is listing badly, and would sink if not rescued and steadied quickly. He understands the level of competency and leadership capacity it would take to get things right in this country. He understands the divisions, agitations and discontent within Nigeria. He understands that the next leader of Nigeria must be capable of healing a badly wounded nation. He understands that the next president of Nigeria must be the bridge that will link two eras – the old and the new Nigeria. Mentally, he has been well-prepared for that task. It is not in the posters you will see this. It is not in the public political pronouncements you will see this. It is not in the front of the media that you will see this. Rather, it is during moments of sober reflection and soul-searching, – no cameras, no possibility of anyone else knowing what was discussed, – and the leader asks: “How can we achieve peace in our country, in our generation? How can we help the poor? How can we make Nigeria a great nation among the nations of the world? How can the justice system be reformed, etc.”. He is not just asking these as questions for anyone else to answer. He is simply thinking aloud and developing a program of remedial action.

(9) Another quality that makes OUK most suitable for the job is his extraordinarily generous impulses. While in an wrongful detention at Kuje Prison, OUK never worried about his own travails. He was more concerned about the plight of others. Without wanting to take credit for it, he quietly directed the prison authority to provide the list of all inmates in need of lawyers or who could not meet their bail terms. Even as the list grew into hundreds, OUK did not spare money, time or effort to ensure that all those who needed help got help. Lawyers were provided for those who could not afford them. Resources, food, medicine, every conceivable help was given through him to inmates and warders. Even though special arrangement was made for him to ensure continuous power supply to his cell, he provided money so that all inmates could have 24-hour power supply instead of 4 hours each day. He provided money to ensure that water flowed to the custodies just to help the inmates. OUK did not care to know your tribe or your religion in order to help you. He only needed to know that you were in need of help.

(10) To know the real character of a leader, you should not focus at things he did when people were watching. Instead, look for things he did when no one was around to observe him. Look for the things he did without any expectations of reward or benefit. Look for the good things he did to smoothen up a path he did not expect to tread again. Look for the little gestures that ultimately define his true character. That is what maketh a leader. I will give you one example that even OUK himself may not recall. In 2007, right after he left office as Governor, the EFCC charged him along with some other ex-Governors. They were remanded in Kuje prison for a couple of weeks while perfecting their bails. In 2020, I noticed a lovely mango tree in front of the prison clinic at Kuje. A warder explained to me that the mango tree was planted by OUK in 2007 during the short period he was remanded there then. Of all the inmates – all the ex-Governors, all the ex-Ministers, all the ex-Senators, etc. who ever spent time in Kuje prison, it was only one of them that planted a tree that stands till today producing fruits that the inmates and staff of the prison enjoy. That man was OUK. This may be nothing to you, but it could mean a lot to millions of Nigerians. They need a President who will plant things that strangers and generation unborn will enjoy someday in the unknown future.

We face a most challenging time in Nigeria today. Our politics is naturally difficult and convoluted and twisted. It is very hard to speak with prescience about the future. The odds are too many. But I am confident in predicting not only that OUK is the likely next president of Nigeria, but also the best of the available. Personally, I miss seeing him and hearing from him. But I will be totally satisfied if Nigerians can hear from him as their next President. And I invite Nigerians to find in him what I found in him, a leader that keeps his words and a leader that learned from experience and who would put the people of this country first. Happy birthday to OUK.

● Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire, Founder of Due Process Advocates (DPA)

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