“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee”. This famous quote from English Poet, John Donne’s Meditation XVII, speaks to the inevitability of mortality oft emphasized by the demise of anyone close or not. The recent passing of maverick politician, Arthur Nzeribe, Ogbuagu, Oshiji, Damanze Oyimba of Oguta, touched me beyond the kernel of Donne’s preachments. I was a direct beneficiary of the late former senator’s benevolence.
It’s a long story but I will make it short. Nigeria’s recent history is replete with facts and fiction on how the Oguta-born businessman stormed the country’s political scene in the Second Republic from his base in the UK. One thing was certain, though. He was a wealthy man. The other certainty was that he knew what he wanted. Corollary to these was the fact that he knew how to use his wealth to get what he wanted and he went about it without blinking. He flew around in private jets. He was even said to have provided a jet for the campaigns of the presidential candidate of the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), The Great Zik of Africa, Nnamdi Azikiwe. His public relations machine was on overdrive, for want of a better term, and his image soared within a short time.
At the time he arrived on the Nigerian political turf, Arthur was largely unknown, but his details later emerged as he built his personal brand and political career. He attended Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu and Holy Ghost College, Owerri. He attended Portsmouth College of Technology and Chesterfield College of Technology in England. He sold insurance in the UK and had brief work stints in Shell Petroleum and Gulf oil. He was also briefly a Naval Cadet. His fame and fortune was said to have come from his public relations firm, Jeafan, which he co-owned with two British and a Ghanaian partners. They reportedly worked for some African heads of state and even diversified into arms supply.
Arthur had some of the more memorable campaign adverts back then. One radio jingle was particularly interesting, an introductory piece, which he personally voiced: “I am Arthur…Arthur Nzeribe. Vote for me for Senate. I want to walk before I run”. As a young student with a keen interest in politics especially the communication aspect, I found the message particularly creative and strategic. In short, he told the voters straight up that he was coming into politics to stay and to make a mark. He obviously had bigger plans, to either become the governor of Imo state (after Chief Sam Onunaka Mbakwe) or the president of Nigeria. He made it abundantly clear he wasn’t joking and his style really captivated not a few. He eventually made it to the senate but only for three months before the Buhari-Idiagbon Coup truncated the 2nd Republic.Advertisement
Amongst other brilliant initiatives he embarked on as part of his political strategy, I believe, he established the highly publicised Arthur Nzeribe Foundation, which offered scholarships to students across Imo state and capital (or seed money) for women to start small businesses. And this was where our paths crossed, literally. Already enamoured of his peculiar rhetoric, boldness and flamboyance, a highly impressionable me decided to apply for a scholarship from his foundation. Many people actually dismissed the foundation as a political gimmick. It didn’t matter so much since I wasn’t required to make any payments before I could benefit from the scholarship. There was nothing much to lose. So, I applied. I also wanted to prove the skeptics wrong. One fine evening, while going through the day’s Statesman, the now-defunct daily publication of Imo Newspapers, I saw an advertorial publication of the beneficiaries and lo and behold, my name was on the list. I, or rather, Arthur proved the skeptics wrong!
That was 1986. I had just gained admission to study Mass Communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I remember in 1988 during my industrial attachment in Imo Newspapers, I tried to do a story on the foundation, but I couldn’t find anyone to speak to and after several fruitless visits to their Ikenegbu Housing Estate office I gave up. I also couldn’t find anyone to link me up with Nzeribe himself. So, I gave up and I never managed to meet him in person until his recent passing. I received the funds (N1,000 per annum at that time, which will be worth more than N1 million today) up to my sophomore year at UNN. I honestly didn’t bother when the funds didn’t show up again in my bank account after two years, but I remained ever thankful. Aside from the fact that he was not obliged to give anyone his money, it came at a most auspicious time, a huge relief for me and my parents, who were struggling at the time to meet up with the responsibilities of taking care of me and my nine siblings.
Arthur Nzeribe later became infamous for leading the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), which holds the dubious honour of being the mastermind of the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections won by the late MKO Abiola. I’m not sure he recovered from the damage that unfortunate action did to his reputation, but he later got elected to the senate in 1999. He was, however, forced into premature retirement from politics (after two terms, though) by a much younger, Ostia Izunaso, backed by the then Imo state governor, Chief Achike Udenwa, who never saw eye to eye with him.Advertisement
No one is perfect. Arthur Nzeribe was certainly not. Unfortunately for Arthur, the presbyter sang a song that says we will only be “remembered for what we have done”. His ABN shenanigans top the list of what he will be remembered for, but with all his human imperfections, I believe he deserves my appreciation for the help he rendered to me and my family with the scholarship. I dare say he also brought some pomp and panoply into politics and election campaigns. An audacious, even fearless, confident and self-made man, his life, in a way, taught me that one could be whatever one wanted to be if one prepares well and stay focused. From his fairly humble background, he was able to bulldoze his way through to the UK, for education and business and later into politics. He was reputed to have a vast network of contacts amongst the privilegentia, which cut across government leaders, diplomats, international businessmen, etc. I wish he wasn’t the brain behind ABN.
One thing is never in doubt: he was intentional and passionate about anything he committed to, good or bad. He was a generous man. And he was brilliant going by his public engagements. Sadly, he had a difficult ending. He languished in a terrible mix of poor health and political oblivion. Who are we to judge? Mercifully, he was down for a while and, hopefully, made peace with his Maker. And now, he rests. This is just to say a big thank you for his contribution to my education: Ogbuagu, imeela. Laa nke oma. Rest in peace, sir!
Oparah is a reputation management strategist