He walks fast, talks fast and acts fast. To keep pace with this nimble 49-year-old tycoon, his consorts and aides are literally on their toes round the clock.
But nestled in his ninth-floor presidential suite at Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, Abuja, last Wednesday, Arthur Eze, prince of Ukpo and millionaire-businessman, appeared shut off from the dust raised by his all-out campaign to persuade the head of state, General Sani Abacha, to run for the 1998 presidential election.
In the company of half-a-dozen personal staff, he looked so disarmingly simple. You wouldn’t know who is the boss here. But in this disguised atmosphere of leisure, the big boss was doing what he likes to do best: staying one step ahead of others.
Hitherto thought to be apolitical and hardly known for anything else except philanthropy, Eze, an American-trained engineer, sprang a surprise three weeks ago, when he arrived Aso Rock Villa, Nigeria’s seat of power, with a retinue of 150 paramount rulers, from the nine Eastern States of Nigeria, with a mission that astounded political observers. Be our next president please, they pleaded with the taciturn general.
This came at the time politicians and, indeed, the nation were trying hard to read the lips of Abacha just after the independence anniversary speech. A better part of the political class was livid. Others gasped helplessly in resignation. For many, one thing was certain: Eze’s move, backed up by the entire traditional institution of eastern Nigeria was yet the most serious and spirited attempt to draft the Head of State into a race that has been remarkable for lack of racers.
At an exclusive interview with Newswatch last week, Eze, a wrestling enthusiast, challenged politicians to come into the ring with Abacha if they are macho enough. “I have looked around, I have not seen any challenger. Have you seen any? Where are the presidential candidates? The fact is, we have no alternative to Abacha, we have to draft him. Other presidential candidates have abandoned us. He (Abacha) cannot abandon us now,” he said with mischievous determination in his tone.
For a man who hardly speaks to the press and holds no known view on any national issue, his emergence and the opinion he expressed in his interview with Newswatch last week might engage the political class and analysts for some months to come. “I don’t want another civil war. Any mistake now can lead to an unpalatable scenario like in Congo Brazzaville. So we must support Abacha. General Abacha has direction. He has (already) won peace for Nigeria. Without peace and security, I cannot be here and you cannot be here. Everything will crash,” he said.
According to Eze, all those talking about the presidency in southern Nigeria are confusionists. “Those talking about a president from the south are spoilers. They are faceless people. They don’t want to be president; they want to cause confusion. They will not succeed,” he added.
In addition, Eze pointed at Abacha’s achievements on the economic front and said Abacha must be given a chance to consolidate on them. “Even his enemies will agree with me that Abacha has succeeded in achieving stability in the exchange rate and a restoration of sanity to the banking sector through the failed banks tribunals. We have witnessed a reduction in the incidence of 419 and money laundering, elimination of fiscal indiscipline and enforcement of accountability in the management of public funds. These are gains we cannot allow some faceless politicians to come and squander,” he told Newswatch.
Only the previous day, Tuesday, October 28, a youth organization known as the National Association of Igbo Youths, NAIY, had appeared on network television at prime time to back Eze and Abacha. Said Chidi Okolo, national coordinator of NAIY: “We condemn in totality the clandestine activities of some faceless and self-acclaimed Igbo leaders called Ohaneze, who (are trying to) malign Prince Arthur Eze. We declare our support for Prince Arthur Eze and endorse the candidature of General Sani Abacha in next year’s presidential election.”
Another organization, known as Youth Earnestly Asked for Abacha, YEAA, headed by Daniel Kanu, son of the proprietor of Agura Hotel, Abuja, also took turn the same night on network news to re-echo and intensify the pro-Abacha campaign. Preceding YEAA and NAIY declarations, tension had descended on the nine eastern states, particularly the core east. In Enugu, capital of Enugu State, various socio-political organizations staged mass rallies in support of Eze and Abacha. One group known as “Concerned Igbos, CI, led by Alex Ezike, stormed the Enugu press centre, carrying placards that praised Eze and castigated Ohaneze, the pan-Igbo group led by egg heads of the core east.
The CI, which had representatives from Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Abia and the Ebonyi States later drove in a convoy to the Government House in Enugu, where Sule Ahman, a colonel and military administrator of Enugu State, promised to look into their complaint and advised them to avoid confrontation with opposing groups. “If democracy is to thrive in the country, nobody should persecute another because he holds a contrary opinion,” Ahman said. It was in the same vein Alozie Dike, an academic spoke: “He (Eze) has the right of choice and the right of association. Why should those who have exercised their right to oppose Abacha think Prince Eze has no right to support Abacha.”
All arrows seemed pointed at Ohaneze and possibly Igboezue Cultural Association, ICA, said to be controlled by Emeka Ojukwu, who is speculated to be quietly longing for Aso Rock. But neither the Ohaneze nor ICA, responded as a body last week. Instead, Ohaneze met behind closed doors in their Enugu GRA office and expressed shock over the activities of Eze, who they berated for using Igbo people to feather his business nest.
Pini Jason, newspaper columnist and vocal Igboman condemned Eze and his mission with Eastern traditional rulers as foolhardy, disgraceful and ridiculous. Said Jason: “Between Prince Arthur Eze and the garishly plumed traditional rulers, I can see a common ground. They are all traders. For Arthur Eze, this project is another contract.” Jason argued that Easterners need no traditional rulers to make a choice between the boat and the shark. “Those who purport to speak for the Igbo, when they know they don’t, must stop sending the wrong signals to other Nigerians,” he said.
The signal sent by the visit of Eastern traditional rulers was received with anger elsewhere. Felix Oboagwina, a public affairs commentator described the traditional rulers as spineless fellows. “What is incomprehensible is the unwholesome posturing to stampede General Abacha into believing that Nigerians earnestly wanted him, when it is obvious that the odds of sustainable democracy are against him,” Oboagwina said.
Sanya Anayoade, a political analyst raised questions about the credibility and acceptability of the traditional rulers in their domains. “It may be necessary to find out in this calculus who the traditional rulers who made the trip to Abuja were representing. Who did they consult? Who were they speaking for? It is pretty certain that they were speaking for traditional rulers, not the overwhelming majority of the eastern people,” Anayoade said. He said he was convinced that northern traditional rulers and their western counterparts could not be drafted to join what he called “the dirty campaign.”
Prominent Igbo leaders Newswatch spoke to, refused to speak on the record for fear of being seen to be opposing the Head of State. Said one Igbo leader in Lagos last week: “This is a matter of great embarrassment to us. Ohaneze has to do something fast about it and publicly.”
Coincidentally, documents on Eze’s contracts with the Enugu State government began to make the rounds last week in Enugu after the Ohaneze meeting. Believed to be circulated by Ohaneze, the documents centred around alleged $796,774.95 paid to Triax Group in 1991, for the supply and installation of Harry transmitters for which, Eze’s opponent allege, the contract was not performed. They insisted that what Eze’s company did was to supply Enugu State Broadcasting Service, ESBS, with part of the items contracted for by old Anambra Broadcasting Service, ABS. They also allege shady deals in the multi-million dollar African Development Bank, ADB – assisted project.
But Eze dismissed the allegations last week as “lies by faceless politicians.” Said Eze to Newswatch: “Go and find out from Enugu State government. They are still owing me $1.3 million dollars on the ESBS job. And on the ADB project, the government is owing me $17 million. But those faceless politicians will never tell you the truth.”
Indeed some politicians, in the east are clearly agitated about Eze’s adventure into politics. If not anything else, the way he has deployed money to ensure the victory of his candidates has left his opponents flat on their backs. They spoke about what they call “massive corruption and blatant trade of votes sponsored by this money man.” This, according to his opponents, has led to “unpopular and dubious characters stealing their way to the office.” It has also notched the political temperature several degrees near boiling point.
But Eze told Newswatch he is surprised about such accusations because he is not a politician, neither does he harbour sympathy for any political party. He, however, said young people who approach him for assistance whether in politics or business often smile back home, because he is on the side of the younger generation. “Some old politicians wanted to keep themselves permanently in office. I said no, you must allow young people to survive” he said.
According to Eze, it is against the same backdrop that he patronizes the Ndigbo Progressive Forum, NPF, seen as the archrival of Ohaneze. “Ohaneze is made up of old people, we told them please hand over the baton to us so that we can supplement what you are doing. But they want to take oxygen from us.”
Similarly, the Eastern Business Forum, EBF, funded by Eze vis-a-vis the Enugu Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, ECCIMA, is said to have the same undertone. What has become a visible trait in all organizations sponsored by Eze is the zeal with which these organizations are pursuing the pro-Abacha campaign.
Last week some political observers began to sketch a meeting-point between Arthur Nzeribe’s campaign to transform former President Ibrahim Babangida to a civilian president and (Arthur) Eze’s replay of his kinsman’s script. “From Arthur to Arthur, what a curious coincidence,” one editor said in a discussion with his colleagues.
Highly endowed with money both Arthurs are engineers, hail from the same ethnic group and are in their own rights gems in political cybernetics, controversy and generosity. Worth millions in pounds sterling, with investments across the world, Nzeribe, literally held Nigerians, hostage, after the June 12 elections with his Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, which dominated Nigeria’s political theatre in the last days of the Babangida regime. Said Nzeribe then: “The Third Republic would witness gross instability if IBB is not returned as a civilian leader.”
If Nzeribe is a chief, Eze is a prince. His late father was one of the longest-serving paramount rulers in Igboland, having become the royal father of Ukpo, Dunukofia LGA, Anambra State, at the age of 20. At his death, Eze’s elder brother Robert, a German-trained doctor succeeded him. Eze himself studied mechanical engineering in California US. On his return from the US in 1979, he set up the Triax Group of Companies which has now become a business empire comprising Triax Airlines, Orient Bank, Telecommunication and Broadcasting Company, construction and engineering concerns. He also has substantial investments in breweries. He owns more than 90 per cent share in Premier Breweries, Onitsha.
Though the rich prince is publicly staking his enormous wealth for the first time in politics, he has been a pal of virtually all Nigerian government in nearly two decades. He told Newswatch he hit his first jumbo contract during the Shagari administration when three governors, Sam Mbakwe of Imo state, Solomon Lar of Plateau State and Abubakar Rimi of Kano State, awarded him contracts to build their radio and television stations.
During the Babangida regime, he was very prominent in military circles and was believed to have made a lot of money in the process. In one of his numerous philanthropic acts, he built and equipped a hospital at Wushishi, Niger State and named it Iyaniwura Hospital, in memory of Babangida’s mother. Similarly, he attended and donated generously at all Better Life Programmes, the pet programme of Babangida’s wife, Maryam, that invitation was sent to him. He has extended a similar gesture to Family Support Programme, championed by incumbent first lady, Mariam Abacha.
With an accountant wife, Victoria and five children, Eze has managed for years to steer clear of public glare. Now in the affray, there seem to be many questions on the lips of his friends and foes alike. Can Eze weather the storm and walk the slippery terrain of Nigerian politics? Will this Arthur succeed where another Arthur failed? Asked last week by Newswatch what he would do if Abacha declined today to contest for the presidency. “If he says today that he is not contesting I will leave Nigeria tomorrow,” he said.
ABACHA FOR PRESIDENT ‘98
1. Saleh Hassan, National chairman, Democratic Party of Nigeria, DPN.
2. Maman Nasir, Chairman, Transition Implementation Committee, TIC
3. David Attah, Chief Press Secretary to the Head of State.
4. Abdulrahman Okene, chairman, Northern Elders Forum.
5. Lamidi Adebibu, Ibadan politician
6. Mariam Abacha, First Lady
7. Arthur Eze, businessman
8. Okwesilieze Nwodo, former governor of Enugu State.
9. Mike Okoye,, a constitutional lawyer.
10. Samuel Ogbemudia, retired brigadier-general and former minister.
11. Bode Olajumoke, deputy national chairman, United Nigeria Congress Party, UNCP.
12. Jerry Useni, a lieutenant-general and federal capital territory minister.
13. Abdulkarim Adisa, a major-general and minister for works and housing.
14. Tom Ikimi, foreign affairs minister
15. Dan Etete, petroleum resources minister
16. Anthony Ani, finance minister.
17. Mohammed Gambo Jimeta, agricultural and natural resources minister
18. Wole Oyelese, special duties minister
19. Laz Unaogu, special duties minister
20. Abimbola Davies, former director of organization of the Association for Better Nigeria, ABN.
21. Eastern States Traditional Rulers Council, led by Igwe Emeka Nnaji, chairman, Enugu State Council of Chiefs.
22. Association of Polytechnic Staff for Abacha ‘98
23. Movement for Abacha for President led by Orji Kalu.
24. National Mobilization and Persuasion Committee, led by Godwin Daboh-Adzuana.
25. Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha ’98, led by Daniel Kanu.
26. National Movement for Peace and Stability, led by Najeem Alarape.
27. National Council for Women Societies, led by Esther Sambo
28. National Association for Sani Abacha for President, headed by Tony Anyanwu.
29. General Sani Abacha for Peaceful Transition, headed by Yomi Tokoya.
30. National Mass Movement for Nigeria headed by Bukar Mandara.
31. States Military Administrators.
32. Prominent members of the five registered political parties.
33. “Group 2000,” led by Obi Enwenwa.
34. Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, publisher of Champion newspaper
1. Joseph Garba, retired major-general and former Nigeria representative at the UN.
2. Sunday Mbang, prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria.
3. Nze Mark Odu, estate surveyor.
4. Matthew Hassan Kukah, a reverend father and secretary, Christian Association of Nigeria.
5. BIC Ijomah, member, Transition Implementation Committee.
6. Sarah Jibril, former presidential aspirant.
7. Gani Fawehinmi, lawyer and human rights activist.
8. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Politician.
9. Mamman Dan Musa, former deputy senate president.
10. David Jemibewon, retired major-general.
11. Mohammed Arzika, Sokoto politician.
12. Lawal Kaita, former governor of Kaduna State.
13. Abubakar Halide, former minister of agriculture and water Resources.
14. Tunji Braitwaite, lawyer and former presidential aspirant.
15. Jubril Aminu, former petroleum minister.
16. Mohammed Haruna, chief executive officer, Citizen Magazine.
17. Sam Amuka, publisher.
18. Sule Lamido, former governorship aspirant, Jigawa State.
19. Akin Osuntokjun, newspaper columnist.
20. Femi Falana, lawyer and human rights activist.
21. Yohanna Madaki, retired colonel, and former governor of Benue State.
22. National Democratic Coalition, NADECO.
23. United Action for Democracy.
24. Pan-Igbo Cultural Foundation.
25. Movement for Socio-Economy and Justice headed by Kayode Oladele.
26. Human Rights Monitor led by Fabian Okoye.
27. Federated Council of Igbo Youths led by Ugoji Nwabueze.
28. Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO.
29. Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN.
30. Constitutional Rights Project, CRP.
31. National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS.
33. United States