The Days of the ‘Cabal’…(I)

On the night of 16th December, 2006, I got a call from Alhaji Aliko Dangote who sought to know whether I was in Abuja. When I answered in the affirmative, he requested that I joined him and a few other people he would not name at the residence of Senator Andy Uba; then a Senior Special Assistant on Domestic Affairs to President Olusegun Obasanjo. This was on the day the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was holding its National Convention to pick the presidential candidate for the April 2007 general elections.

When I arrived the residence, I met Dangote and Uba as well as four others: then EFCC Chairman, Mr. Nuhu Ribadu; former Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori; his Kwara State counterpart, Dr Bukola Saraki; and Zenon Oil Chairman, Mr. Femi Otedola. Since my arrival did not change the tone of discussion, it was easy for me to keep abreast of what the issue was: then Rivers State governor, Dr. Peter Odili, had been selected by President Olusegun Obasanjo as running mate to his anointed PDP presidential candidate, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Odili’s name had even been written into the acceptance speech to be read by Yar’Adua after what would have been no more than a hollow ritual at the Eagle Square. The essence of the gathering was to stop Odili from becoming Yar’Adua’s running mate on grounds of alleged corruption.

When I asked why I was invited to the meeting, they said they had an “exclusive story” for THISDAY which would highlight allegations of corruption against Odili but with a caveat: it had to be published in next morning’s edition of the newspaper. The evidence was to be supplied by Ribadu who held a file containing the documents. While I considered the proposition somewhat ridiculous, I also wondered how a THISDAY publication could affect the decision to make Odili the running mate. It was then they explained what was going on.

Earlier that day, they had held a meeting with Obasanjo about their misgivings on the choice of Odili but he had dismissed the allegations against the Rivers State governor whom he insisted would be Yar’Adua’s running mate. What they therefore resolved was that since the primaries was likely to run till next morning, and given that THISDAY comes out early in Abuja by virtue of simultaneous printing, if the newspaper ran the story and Obasanjo’s attention was drawn to it, he would have no choice but to stop Odili from being Yar’Adua’s running mate.

Knowing what I was expected to do, I pointed out why it could not be done. First, I explained that what was being asked of me was not journalism but politics because there was no way I could publish such a story without getting Odili’s response which, given the circumstances of that night, was impossible. I also explained that my powers as editor of THISDAY were highly exaggerated in that even if I had all the facts, including Odili’s response, such a politically sensitive story could not go without the approval of my chairman and editor-in-chief, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, who I noted was a friend to all of them gathered in the room. I told Dangote to call Obaigbena and he did. They took turns to speak with Obaigbena who afterwards sent me a text message asking me to call him after leaving the meeting. When I did, he was displeased that I could bring him into such a discussion when, as editor, I should know the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, I advised the gathering it was better Ribadu confronted Obasanjo with the allegations against Odili. They all laughed, saying that was what they had spent all day doing. They were obviously very frustrated. Eventually it was agreed that Ribadu should make a last ditch effort so he called Obasanjo’s ADC, Col. Chris Jemitola, that he needed to see the president urgently and alone. Within five minutes, the ADC got back to Ribadu that the president would meet him at a secure location within the Eagle Square. Armed with what all of them at the meeting described as a ‘bombshell’ from the diplomatic mission of a Western country in Nigeria, it was Ribadu who got Obasanjo to knock Odili’s name out of Yar’Adua’s speech and ultimately from the ticket. A few months later, President Yar’Adua himself would confirm most of what I already knew when he recounted the dramatic story of how Odili lost out as his running mate. But from his tone, by wielding such enormous political powers, Ribadu’s days in office as EFCC Chairman were clearly numbered.

Back to the meeting in Uba’s house that fateful December 2006 night: Out of curiousity, I asked them who they had in mind as a likely replacement for Odili in the event that their plan succeeded. Two names came up in an instant: Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and Lt. General Andrew Azazi. It was easy to rationalize Jonathan’s choice being at that time the governor of Bayelsa State; but Azazi was not a politician. He was at that period the Chief of Army Staff. Why Azazi, I quipped and someone responded: He is Ijaw. From the discussion, it was evident they had explored all options and had already taken certain decisions. If the idea was to pick a running mate from Niger Delta, I asked, “why not Donald Duke?”

Andy Uba responded: “That is one name Baba (President Obasanjo) does not want to hear.” Having always assumed that Obasanjo and then Cross River State Governor were very close, this was shocking to me, but coming from Uba I couldn’t doubt it. I also sought to know what Yar’Adua felt about the choice of Odili and why he couldn’t tell Obasanjo about his misgivings if he had any. It was Andy Uba again who responded: “Yar’Adua tell baba he doesn’t want Odili?”, he asked laughing.

This was very worrying for me. The impression I got from the interactions was that we were going to have a puppet president who would not only be manipulated to power but would be at the mercy of his scheming predecessor as well. It was therefore quite natural that the events of that night would resonate in my mind on April 24, 2007 when, a few days after the presidential election, my guardian and then Communications Minister, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, called that he had been contacted to approach me to be spokesman to Yar’Adua. He said he had 24 hours to report back whether I was interested or not. It didn’t take me that long to turn down the offer.

Apart from the fact that public office held no attraction for me as I was enjoying my job as THISDAY editor and commentator on public affairs, I also had my doubts about whether Yar’Adua, given the circumstances of his accession, would ever find his own voice. I found out much later that after Yar’Adua had decided he wanted me to be his spokesman, it was Dr. Aliyu Modibbo who suggested that the offer be made through my guardian who was his colleague in the Obasanjo cabinet. Modibbo, who had for long been a big brother, later invited me to Abuja to see whether he could persuade me to change my mind but when he realized my resolve on the matter, he asked that I nominate some credible senior journalists and I actually suggested some names. But as it turned out, that was not the end of the story.

At the instance of Obaigbena, I spent three days in Katsina in the first week of May 2007 observing and chatting with president-elect Yar’Adua for a cover story that I would later write for a THISDAY special edition. But at that period, I no longer thought about the offer, which I assumed must have been made to someone else. Incidentally, Yar’Adua also did not broach the issue throughout my encounter with him in Katsina. Unknown to me, however, Obaigbena, who initially expressed anger that attempts were made to “poach” his editor without his clearance, had been discussing with Yar’Adua and had given a condition on which he would make me accept the offer: only if the office was elevated to cabinet rank in which case I would be a Special Adviser and not Senior Special Assistant as my predecessors were. I had no inkling about all these until much later.

When Yar’Adua therefore assumed office on 29th May, 2007 without announcing a spokesman, I assumed that he was still searching until the afternoon of May 30 – a day after inauguration – when I got a call from Obaigbena who was in Abuja. He began with a preamble that bordered on how he would never do anything against my interest and that if what he was going to tell me was not good for me, he would not have ventured. Even though he had always related to me more like a brother than a boss, and I was considered one of his favourite editors, I found his sermon somewhat unusual before he now added: “The president still wants you to be his spokesman and I told him that the editor of THISDAY cannot accept any job that is not of cabinet level. He has agreed to elevate the office to Special Adviser on Communication and I have accepted the offer on your behalf. Now wait for the president.”

Before I could say anything, Obaigbena had given the phone to Yar’Adua who also pleaded with me to see the offer as a call to national service. Although I was a bit dumbfounded, I knew at that point that my resistance was over. I said: “Mr. President, at this point, it is no longer a request, it is a command.”

• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 9th June, 2011

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