How I championed the scuttling of Obasanjo’s elongation plan – Senator Ben Obi
Several years after the 5th Senate aborted the “Third Term Agenda” of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the leadership has continued to receive accolades from Nigerians and beyond while the original masterminds go unrecognised.
In this interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, Senator Ben Obi, who represented Anambra Central then, countered Nnamani’s acclaimed role in the episode. He also gave reasons for championing the failure of the elongation plan.
To set the record straight on the scuttling of former President Obasanjo’s third term agenda, what role did you play?
I WON both my primary and general elections unopposed under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I was probably the only person who has gone through that since 1999. But some people had gone to poison the mind of President Obasanjo then that if I was allowed into the Senate, there was a possibility that Northern Senators were going to make me the Senate President. To that extent, President Obasanjo and some other characters hijacked my victory and gave it to a fellow called Ikechukwu Anya, who was not even a contestant for the Senate seat at the primary but a governorship aspirant. That was how I spent two years in courts. But before going to court, I told President Obasanjo that his actions were not fair – that I won both my primary and general elections unopposed. I told him I was going to fight the injustice and he said I should go ahead.
There were 33 rulings in three years and I won all of them. Nine judgments were also delivered unanimously in my favour. So, I was to be sworn in on February 1, 2005, as against June 1, 2003. But when I got into the Senate to be sworn in, another drama developed. The Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara refused to swear me in because I have been in courts for too long and he was not sure my Certificate of Return was issued by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). There was an uproar led by Senator Uche Chukwumerije. Senator Wabara insisted that “to be on a safe side, INEC Chairman should come and tell us.” So, INEC Chairman was invited the next day with all his men. When the Senate President asked him if he issued the Certificate of Return to me, Dr. Abel Guobadia answered: “I am 82 years old, Chief Ben Obi would have been in the Senate two years ago but let me not go into the politics of it. I issued this Certificate of Return. He has won his cases everywhere including the Court of Appeal which was the highest for the Senate,” The Senate President then directed I should be brought in and I was sworn in that February 2. Every Senator across party line shook my hands and Senator Chukwumerije thereafter accompanied me to my house.
Along the line, I asked Chukwumerije if there was a pressure group in the Senate and he said “no”, and that it was the reason he was waiting for me because there was nobody there he could trust. I told him I had identified some Senators that would be meeting with us the next day. So, we agreed to meet on February 3. The four Senators – Adeleke Olorunnimbe Mamora, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, Badamasi Maccido and Seidu M. Dansadau joined Chukwumerije and I. Then, I nominated nine others and called for a meeting in a week’s time in Chukwumerije’s guesthouse, and 15 of us met. Some of them were Senators Awaisu Kuta, Umaru Dahiru, Abiola Ajumobi and Bob Effiong. The meeting held on Friday.
On Monday, I was invited by the leadership of the Senate to come and clarify some issues. I went and the Senate Leader, Dalhatu Tafilda, who addressed me said I was invited because before I joined them, the Senate was peaceful but soon after I came, I started calling meetings to disrupt the smooth running of the Senate and some other plans which are probably hidden. Senator Udo Udoma got up and said, “Look, I did advise that you should not invite Senator Obi but since you have invited him, let him speak for himself.” I got up and thanked them for inviting me. I told them that no one was compelled to join the meeting and that if anybody wants to stop attending, he is welcome but if the answer they want to hear from me is that I will stop the meeting, they should forget it because I will not.
Don’t forget I came into the Senate from the executive and I was privileged to know so many things from the Presidency. And when I addressed the Press after my swearing-in, the caption of my interview was that the eagle has landed. They asked me what I meant and I replied that it would unfold very soon. So, when the issue of the third term started, they asked if that was my reason for saying that the eagle has landed, and I reiterated that I have privileged information. The pressure group, which we later christened ‘Movement against Third Term’ has Senators Chukwumerije as the chairman, Kuta as the Vice, Mamora as the Secretary and I as the coordinator. I was the one meeting and briefing all the governors that supported us as well as the former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. At a particular meeting, I told members that I would be briefing Senator Ken Nnamani, who has become the Senate President at that time since he was the one presiding but I was so thoroughly abused by my colleagues for allegedly being a traitor. They felt I was leaking the secrets of the group to Nnamani who was not one of us. But I told them I would not allow the person presiding over the Senate to be ignorant of what we are doing. I later met Nnamani and explained how the people reacted. I was the one actually interacting with Nnamani and there was no how he would have been attending the meeting as a presiding officer. I maintained my position.
The principle that the movement had was that at no time will our number be less than 1/3. Our strength was actually the Northern Senators and whenever I noticed a Northern Senator wavering, I will go to the former Vice President, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Alhaji Isiaku Ibrahim, General Ibrahim Babangida or General Gusau, they will call the Senator, knock him and push him back. On May 16, 2006, when we were to take a position, when everybody was to speak about the third term, the caption of my statement was ‘Do the Right Thing.’ That morning, the first Senator to come into the Senate was Author Nzeribe. One incident happened a week before that May 16. Two Senators were given assignments to move two different motions. Senator Oserheimen Osunbo was to move a motion stopping live coverage of proceedings, and DAAR Communications was covering it live. Meanwhile, Raymond Dokpesi and Osunbo came from the same area. Senator Osunbo was preparing to be governor. So, it was a difficult assignment for him but the other side had programmed that he should move the motion. Then, the motion for clearing the gallery and prohibiting people from watching proceedings was to be moved by Nzeribe. When I got the information, I waited for Osunbo to come but he didn’t come.
I confronted Nzeribe with that information and asked him how he could plan such a thing without telling me, after all, we confided in each other. I told him that some young men were waiting outside to fight him. Senator Tunde Ogbeha who was sitting behind him said that I was blackmailing him. I looked at him and said that the battle line has been drawn. The shout from Ogbeha brought Kuta, who took on Ogbeha. Nzeribe asked me quietly if people were actually waiting for him outside. Immediately I answered in affirmative, he got up quietly and left. Some minutes after, his PA walked in and took his things. At the end of the day, both Osunbo and Nzeribe who were to move motions couldn’t do so.
On May 16, Senator Ibrahim Mantu walked up to me and said he wanted to see me. He was one of the major promoters of the third term at that time. When we got to the restroom, he said he said: “Today, we will join you people in bringing down this third term agenda.” I told him I cannot believe him but he went and brought Senator Tafida. I asked both of them to wait while I called Chukwumerije and before him, they repeated themselves but we were sceptical. If you recall, that was the reason, Ken Nnamdi, looking at Mantu and Tafida said: “I put this question before you”, and they were looking at him. He put the question, expecting that he would get an answer from these two people but he couldn’t believe what happened. Then he said: “Let me put the question the second time”, which he did but the people were just looking at him. Then, he hit the gavel. That was how we carried the day. So, the story of the third term was very clear; those who were in it and those who were not in it.
You said you were briefing Nnamani on the activities of your group. What was his body language like? Was it for or against the agenda?
He was not in support but he had to be very grateful. You know, when you are dealing with the people promoting the third term, you have to be very careful. They could be vicious. So, his body language was against it, no doubt, from my interaction with him but being a presiding officer, there was little or nothing he could do but I noticed that his body language did not support it.
Could you say he was only playing along with them?
They will call him to meetings and tell him what they want but he couldn’t do them because we had a very strong team and while we were speaking up openly, those of the supporting third time could not speak up openly. They were always going underground, calling meetings. But we went out openly and when we saw the private sector operators promoting the third term agenda, we addressed a press conference and took on all of them. We told Nigerians to back out of banks which management was supporting the plan. We exposed them.
So, when he put the questions repeatedly, expecting a positive response from perceived supporters, do you think he would have been happier getting a positive response from the supporters of the agenda?
I think the thing is that those who always invite him to meetings as the presiding officer have always told him that “these are our frontline promoters. So, when you look at their activities on the floor of the Senate, they will guide you to know what we are doing.” So, he then, as a presiding officer, was waiting for them to answer “Yeah” but they kept quiet.
So, he was rather surprised at the actions of the frontline supporters?
He was surprised. At that time, he has to hit the gavel because he has to do what the law says. In fact, in one of our meetings, we told ourselves that there is danger in going clause by clause, that the best thing is to end it once and for all, throw the baby and the bathwater away so that we can put an end to the nonsense and come back for a fresh start.
Those two proposed motions to be moved by Senators Osunbo and Nzeribe, were they part of the strategies towards the success of the third term?
Yes. With the people at the gallery, anything could have happened. And the live coverage too, anything would have happened because Nigerians were watching. So, it was a very difficult situation for the two of them. The day I told Nzeribe that some boys were waiting for him outside, he came to my house that evening to confirm the news. I told him that many people were very upset and he thanked me for telling him.
You appeared to have come to the Senate with the mindset of scuttling the agenda, wouldn’t it be right to say that you were privy to the issue before coming to the Senate?
I was the Special Adviser to the National Security Adviser (NSA). So, I knew what was happening and those scheming things. It started long before I joined the Senate. My ears were very much close to the ground. So, when I came in, I said the eagle has landed. There was no pressure that was not mounted. They promised me anything I wanted, they wanted me to just name it. But I said: “No way, we must fight this battle.”
If you have to use this platform to respond to Senator Ken Nnamani on his claim that he scuttled the third term agenda, what will you say?
As I said, there was a movement against the third term. He (Nnamani) was not a member of the movement. Secondly, I told the movement that I would be briefing him so that he doesn’t feel that as a presiding officer of the Senate, we did not give him his due regard. I took it upon myself to do that, to let him know some of the things we were doing. It was clear that he didn’t like the idea of wanting to tamper with the Constitution; honestly, he never lost sight of that. One could see from all the conversations I had with him that he was not in support of tampering with the Constitution in that manner.
What motivated your group against the third term? Did you have anything personal against the sitting president then?
When I went into the Senate, I did so with enough information about the activities of the executive, having been there from 1999 to 2003, and you could see the impeachments – that of Bayelsa, Oyo, Plateau and Ekiti states. We started seeing signs of certain dictatorial tendencies and that was the reason when we wanted to hit hard on Ekiti, when we went into the meeting, the chairman, Comrade Chukwumerije stepped down. He said I should preside over the meeting since I have the diplomacy he doesn’t have. So, we decided to go to the Senate President and told him we were not going to accept it. He pleaded with us. Remember that all these impeachments were never done with the constitutional requirements. Six members will just go there and hit the gavel and say they have impeached the governor once they got the green light from the Villa. We said, this time, let it be in writing that no such impeachment will come to the Senate and we will approve it. That was what we agreed but I must tell you that when we reached that understanding, my very good friend and highly principled Senator, Maccido, who was one of the first six, came to me and said, “Senator Obi, I am not happy that you took this meal course.” He was of the opinion that we go against that impeachment and not go on a meal course. He left that Thursday afternoon and that was the last I saw of him. So, these tendencies were building up by the day. Former President Obasanjo then was using Nuhu Ribadu of the EFCC to attack whosoever was not in his good book. These were some of the reasons that made us say we must remain together so that whenever something is about to happen, the group will come out and speak openly. And they relied on me to give necessary information. We got vital information on what was happening in their camp.
After scuttling the third term agenda, was there any form of victimization against you from the executive?
Yes. After that May 16 incident, Governor Peter Obi invited National Assembly members from Anambra State including myself to Anambra Lodge, Asokoro, in July and told us that President Obasanjo was coming on a visit to Anambra State and that he would want us to be part of the visit. I asked him what he was coming to do since we were not commissioning any project. He said they were like father and son. I told him that both of us will pay dearly for that visit. I also told him that I will overcome mine but he may not overcome his.
So, on the day of the visit, I was the one to receive him in Awka and I did. Governor Obi was constructing the Awka bypass road. President Obasanjo came out of the vehicle, grabbed my hand in the presence of all the dignitaries. He collected the microphone from the MC and without pleasantries, he asked, “Who is the contractor here? When the contractor showed up, he asked him three consecutive times, how long it will take him to complete the project. The man said six months. Then he said: “You must complete this road in six months because I want to retire this man from politics.” When he said that, people started screaming “no, no” and out of anger, he flung the microphone back to the MC and pushed me away.
When we got to the State House of Assembly, I told Obi “You see, my own has come and gone. Let us wait for your own. I hope it comes and goes too”. We were all seated when the Speaker of Anambra State House of Assembly, in his speech during the visit, asked Obasanjo to tell Andy Uba, his S.A on Domestic Affairs to come and become the State Governor. He said before a sitting governor that the President has the power to make it happen. I have never seen anything so un-parliamentary. So, I just got up and left the meeting. The next day, they went to Asaba and impeached Peter Obi under a mango tree. That was how he was removed from office. Although, we fought the battle and he regained his seat.
When you look back at the role you played in the third term agenda, do you nurse any regret?
I have never slept and dreamt a single regret for the actions I took. If I have the opportunity to do it again, I will do it better and more effectively. I have never had any iota of regret. I have been in politics for 44 years, I have never answered a query, no single blemish on my name.
Supposing Senators Tafida and Mantu had answered the question put by the Senate President in the affirmative, do you think your group would have succeeded with its plan?
O yes. We have the numbers and I thank God that Tafida is alive, though Chukwumerije and Mantu are now of blessed memory. At least, there is someone who can confirm that all these happened. I joined politics in 1978 and I have a firm belief that politics is selfless service to the people. I never came into politics to amass wealth. It is difficult to find any person who will say that I denied my people the dividend of democracy. My duty is to resist anybody that wants to tamper with the Constitution. I take it as a duty to mobilise my colleagues to join me in resisting any attempt to tamper with the constitution.