As the storm gathered by the struggle for who becomes the leader of the 10th Senate rises to fever-pitch on Tuesday next week, different gladiators and stakeholders in the business of the National Assembly and, indeed, political pundits are all positioned to see who takes home the golden trophy on that magical Tuesday, the 13th.While so much has been written and spoken on what will go down the annals of the nation’s political history as the fiercest leadership contest of the both Houses of the National Assembly in recent memory, it remains to be seen how much of their independence, institutional freedom and autonomy the two hallowed Chambers of Nigeria ‘s highest and truest bastions of democracy are, willingly, prepared to give away as a result of financial inducement, arm-twisting or cohesion by members of the Executive and their usual hirelings, some of whom are even among the legislators-elect!
While everyone, who understands democracy and the nature of Nigeria’s Presidentialism, in particular, has continued to wonder in the last few months since after the General Elections why there seems to be not only a kind of renewed consciousness, but a certain kind of deep in-fighting among members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), about who among the lawmakers-elect ought to assume the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives, some who have also been in the country in the last eight years of the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration are, equally, curiously wondering whether all the current and persistent deafening hue and cry about the choice slated for Tuesday next week at the National Assembly ever elicited the current amount of attention in those Buhari years. The answer is quite simple, Buhari was in-charge and today a new sheriff, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is in town!
As a result of the above, many have continued to ask what makes the current Assembly so different as to agitate the level of kinetic momentum that is seeking to burst the nation at its seams. It is merely a struggle for influence and to control others. It does also seem to many that another spate of general elections has followed so suddenly after the last one ended in March! Daily on television and other media spaces, we see former political juggernauts, gladiators and stalwarts whose very faces have been partially obliterated in our memories by the passage of years;we see groups, amorphous ones and those as parched-up as they come, all coming out in their numbers in order to vent their opinion on who among the lawmakers-elect should lead the next National Assembly as Presiding Officers!
To put it mildly, the entire National Assembly leadership quest scenario has never been any messier and the bulk, sadly, stops on the table of Mr President,his men and his Party. They have taken one wrong step too early and nothing seems to be aligning any more, yet I am surprised that they are sleeping well. The entire political system has been so charged it reeks of spent energy over nothing! And as a member of one or two groups that until lately attempted to be part of what has become the usual fray, an involvement through which, initially, we had thought that, with our institutional knowledge of the National Assembly, given our years of service therein, we possessed some kind of influence to wield in an election in which, according to our Constitution and the rule books of the National Assembly, only the 469 lawmakers-elect will participate. Disappointedly, we have since discovered that our presumed “influence” was one joke taken too far. But again, this is not to dismiss entirely our innocent-minded, albeit, naive advocacy or subtle agitations with a wave of the hand. What one is seeking to establish, however, remains the deep reality that lawmakers-elect alone remain the purveyors and architects of their own joy or sadness in this game of choosing their firsts among equals, Tinubu or no Tinubu. What they choose to do with the votes in their hands will either make or mar the ability, the capacity and the propensity of the 10th National Assembly to live up to the expectations of Nigerians, who brought them into those hallowed Chambers!
As we deeply continue to x-ray the different political figures and characters, whose names have been associated with different Presiding Officers’ positions of the 10th National Assembly in our different corners, our honest intentions must be to draw the attention of the lawmakers-elect, among whom are the very new ones in greater numbers, to the antecedents of certain individuals who, in our opinions,have used the positions they have held before now to enhance the course of national integration and to demonstrate leadership vision and capacity, especially, in an era where the unity and peaceful co-existence among the divergent cohabitants of our nation remain paramount.
While one has continued to follow developments in relation to all the big names that have been associated with one leadership position or another in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it is pertinent to situate certain individuals and their quests against the backdrop of some socio-political realities that will further or diminish the realisation of such quests. Again, while one may also wish to hastily add that the chief concern of this piece is the Senate, where the ambition of H.E. Sen. Dr.Orji Uzor Kalu, Senate current Chief Whip and erstwhile Governor of Abia State (1999-2007), has posed a serious concern to not just a few watchers of our national politics within and globally, this discourse will hardly add up without alluding, of course, to developments in the other chamber of the National Assembly, the House of Representatives in order to exhaustively achieve an equitable result.
To start this way, the constant allusion to our diversity as a people has become rather a trite reality, such that to repeat it here is stating the obvious. Generally speaking, it remains a given that this diversity exists and must always require some kind of balancing to assuage real or perceived feelings of marginalisation by ethnic nationalities or religions. This diversity is two-pronged or even three-pronged, some would argue. For the proponents of the former, there are issues of ethnicity and religion; while for those of the latter, there are issues of religion, region and ethnicity. Whichever side anyone stands or chooses to align with on this, to me, amounts to the difference between six and half-a-dozen!
Following the February 25th Presidential and National Assembly elections that took place this year, Sen. Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Sen. Kashim Shettima of the APC were both returned elected by the Election Management body, INEC.Of Nigeria’s 6-geo-political structure Tinubu hails from the Southwest and Shettima from the Northeast Zone.It was, therefore, considered elementary political knowledge that the National Assembly, using its numerical and highly representative capacity, would attempt to make for balancing and inclusion of the other four remaining geo-political zones of the nation, especially in the face of the sharp polarisation the issue of the highly-criticised Muslim-Muslim Presidential/Vice Presidential ticket of the ruling APC had foisted on the nation during the general elections, a seemingly deep cut from which a section of the Christian community across the country has not even started to heal.
But, in a rash of ill-advised decisions allegedly muted by the then President-Elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and promoted by the National Working Committee of the ruling APC, that leadership hierarchy of the Party had stood reason on its head! They had not only zoned the two Presiding Officers’ positions and their Deputies to just three Zones (South-South 1, North West 2 and South East 1), but had totally refused to concede any of the positions to the North Central, while micro-zoning the positions to various individuals that fitted their fancy, among whom were Sen. Akpabio and Barau for Senate President and Deputy Senate President respectively, and Rep. Abass Tajuddeen with Rep. Ben Kalu for Speaker and Deputy Speaker, respectively. If that action from the APC high command had been seen as vexatious to not just the sensibilities of the lawmakers-elect, the haughty silence that has followed it is even more disconcerting and condemnable. Yet, in the face of it all, against the wish of a majority of the lawmakers-elect, the Executive, in cahoots with the ruling Party,is still bent on determining who get elected as Presiding Officers of the National Assembly.
As it is, what may be baffling to many watchers of Nigerian politics may not even be the strong impunity with which members of the Executive are interfering in the activities of another independent arm of government, the Legislature, but the overtly obsessive knacks to exclude the Southeast Zone (a region of over 80 million Nigerians that has been crying of marginalisation in the past five decades, whose economic fortunes have dipped considerably under the Buhari Administration and the infamous secessionist agitations promoted by some of its highly irascible youth inspired by the detained Nnamdi Kanu!) from every accruing democratic dividend. Proponents of this evil agenda,among whom are, curiously of the Southwest stock, have, against all known political traditions held in reverence in past dispensations,argued that the Southeast had failed to give the President and the APC the votes to consider the region for any serious political patronage, even when realities on ground have proven that, despite having a major candidate for President in the 2023 Presidential election, H.E. Mr Peter Obi, the Southeast Zone had returned 6 of its 15 Senators (40%) to the ruling APC and maintains another majority in the number of States governed by the Party, which is 2 out of 5 States (another 40%).
Conversely, in relation to the above, and, indeed, in comparison to the South South Zone, where the President Tinubu-inspired mindset has committed the ruling APC to micro-zoning the Senate Presidency to a high-baggage carrier called Akpabio of the Anang stock whose indigenes can hardly compare with any scarcely-populated Igbo town in numerical strength ,the region has 18 Senators-Elect out of which 7 are of the APC (This represents 38.88%, which is a shed lower than the Southeast Zone’s figure). The case is even more dismal in the North West, from where the immediate past President, Muhammadu Buhari, hails. In that Zone, the returns for the Senate fall short of every expectation, yet all that is being forced down our throats by the APC apologists seeking to sell the Akpabio/Barau ticket is the stale argument that electoral votes, and no longer size and other demographic realities, now determine the order of importance and patronage with political offices for all ethnic nationalities!
Truly speaking, one is wont to wonder at the very funny extents to which the current argument for a Southeast Senator to head the National Assembly is being dragged and distilled. A former Governor of one of the South South States has even introduced a rather curiously queer and funny dimension to the argument against the Southeast in that quest. The former Governor, a lawyer for that matter, has continued to tell everyone who cares to listen that the Southeast has produced 5 Senate Presidents, while their region has had only one! He goes further to mention Evan(s) Enwerem, Adolphus Wabara,Chuba Okadigbo and later Anyim Pius Anyim and Ken Nnamani, all of whom had served under the strong executive interferences of President Obasanjo in the 1999-2007 democratic dispensation, as having qualified to be considered a term each.
Having observed this ill-meditated gang-up against a Southeast-led National Assembly at this time, an idea whose time has come, would it not be true to conclude that a section of the country is not comfortable with the shining credentials of returning Senators of the Southeast stock, particularly, H.E. Sen.Orji Uzor Kalu, who, from past areas of service to fatherland and a record participation in building successful businesses across the globe has evolved into a political enigma of some sort these past decades? Again, the question keeps re-echoing in even greater intensity: Who is intimidated by the ever- growing profile and persona of the former Abia Governor and international business figure?
While the answer to the above question may pale into the realms of rhetorics for the time being, it has also become an issue of compelling importance, for the benefit of those who scarcely know the Abia-born political dynamo and highly celebrated businessman and manufacturer, for us to take a look into the profile of H.E. Distinguished Sen. Orji Uzor Kalu, simply known as OUK, whose giant feet have in over the past forty odd years bestriden the political and business landscape of Nigeria and beyond as the proverbial colossus.
Born about 63 years ago into the family of Mr Johnson Uzor Nesiegbe Kalu and Chief (Mrs) Eunice Kalu, OUK, as he is fondly called by admirers, associates and family members, has always been one who, by dint of vision and hard work, has maintained a place among the stars of this world. He had early in life understood that whatever he wished for, he must work hard to get. He attended both the Government College, Umuahia and the Barewa College, Zaria, two prominent institutions of learning that have produced some of the best heads in our nation, including Presidents and Governors.
Bubbling with the desire to make impact in life, the young OUK enrolled at the prestigious University of Maiduguri in the Department of Political Science. Those were the early and golden years of that foremost citadel of higher learning,whose prowess rang high decibels not only in Northern Nigeria of Orji’s day, but across the country and beyond the shores of the nation. Unfortunately, following a participation of the young student activist, which he had become, OUK’s stay at the University of Maiduguri was cut short for his active involvement in the “Ali Must Go” student riots of that time. He would later graduate from the Abia State University and later Harvard University, United States, where he read Business Administration. He is a member of many professional bodies and associations, including Institute of Directors (IoD).
Following his rustication from the University of Maiduguri, the young OUK had ventured into the business of red oil, which he bought from the Southeast towns of Aba and Umuahia and took up north to resell at good profits in Maiduguri. With a N5000 loan he had taken from his mother, OUK also ventured into the business of making furniture in Aba and taking the pieces of furniture to Maiduguri and other Northern Nigeria cities. It was at this point that luck smiled at him in the early 1980s when he won a contract to supply arms and ammunition to the Nigerian military. The gains of this big break in life birthed SLOK Holdings as a West African conglomerate that would grow to maintain vast interests in Shipping, Banking, Oil Trading and later Publishing, among other concerns.
Today, OUK has chains of Companies to his name in Lagos State, Abia State, Ogun State and other parts of Nigeria, where he engages in Manufacturing, Processing and Publishing of the popular Nigerian titles, the Daily Sun and the New Telegraph Newspapers. He also owns SLOK Nigeria Limited; SLOK United States, Inc; SLOK United Kingdom Ltd; SLOK Ghana Ltd,that of Togo, Benin Republic, Guinea, South Africa; Botswana,Korea,among others.There are also SLOK Vegetable Oil, Adamawa Publishers Limited, SLOK Paper Factory, Aba; SLOK Airlines and First International Bank. Till this very day, SLOK Holdings remains a member of various high-profile institutions, including the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and that of Nigeria-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry,that of America and the Philippines, among others.
OUK cut his political teeth at a relatively young age. He became a Member of the House of Representatives in 1991/2. He went on to become one of the youngest Governors in Nigeria in 1999 at the age of 39 and, alongside the past Governors of the Class of 1999-2007, which include Abdullahi Adamu,George Akume, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and others who are playing diverse roles in today’s Nigeria, he completed his second tenure in office before he ran one of the most elaborate campaigns for the Office of President, starting from the PDP to the Progressive Peoples Party(PPA), a record, we understand, continues to humble and intimidate some of his most vociferous traducers, who think that OUK must not be given an opportunity to come near the Presidency or else he might take over the reins of national governance! Such traducers with this kind of mindset seem to forget that the Abia-born leader is a real party man and a team player, who has staked his reputation and life among his people to promote and project the candidature of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu in the South East Zone even when some of those who today position themselves as leaders of the Party in the Zone could not mention APC in front of their homes at a point in time. Needless to say, but for OUK’s grassroots appeal, his open support for the Tinubu Presidential bid and the Party nearly cost him his on very ambition!
Even before becoming Governor, OUK, as one who understands how the democratic system operates, and how to maintain a network of loyal friends and colleagues, became the Chairman, Borno Water Board at a relatively young age of 25. He was also Chairman of the Imo State Marketing and Supply Agency a few months later before proceeding at the age of 27 in 1987 to become Chairman, Cooperative and Commercial Bank Limited, a position that afforded him real opportunity to learn firsthand the rudiments of corporate governance.
It was no wonder, therefore, that he was awarded the National Merit Award by the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida Administration in 1986.
As a philanthropist of the highest order, OUK many years ago set up the Orji Uzor Kalu Foundation through which he has continued to provide scholarship opportunities to thousands of Nigerian students across the country and beyond. In the bid to stem the high prevalence of malaria and the high fatalities that result from the disease, the OUK Foundation has also for many years provided free-of-charge treatment and insecticide-treated nets to thousands of individuals and homes across the country. For the above, the international business mogul and investor has many years after leaving the Abia Government House continued to be on the lips of the people and their wards.
As Governor in a State with high incidence of flooding, erosion and general poor waste management/control, OUK was immediately after his election in 1999 confronted with the challenges of both infrastructure and human development of a population that was largely young and restive. He started by building a whole lot of roads, complete with deeply buried underground channels that brought to an end the perennial flooding in parts of the Abia commercial city of Aba called “town”. He ensured a systematic disposal of waste in the commercial city and revived the moribund water-bearing infrastructure that had laid comatose since the years of Chief Sam Mbakwe as Governor of old Imo State. He replicated his Aba Miracle in Umuahia and, through a good grip on security in the State, flushed out all criminal elements that refused to surrender to train under his massive skill acquisition programmes across Abia State.
In all of these, Governor Orji Uzor Kalu empowered the youths and people of Abia State so much that the call for him to run for President was clear and loud across the country. He aligned with progressives and opposed the third- term agenda and other near-draconian leadership style of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. To put a cap on the level of the influence and popularity OUK enjoyed in Abia State of his day, he worked hard to ensure that his erstwhile Chief of Staff and predecessor, Chief T. A. Orji, got elected into office as Governor on the platform of his new Party, the PPA, even while in EFCC’s custody.
In conclusion, as we look back to the very distinct and noble roles OUK has played across the country and beyond as a builder of men, a consummate investor and leader, and one who has used his talent,time and treasure to impact humanity, it is only proper to urge lawmakers-elect, starting with all the Southeast Zone Senators-elect, to close ranks and rally round the man who is known to have built bridges of unity across Nigerian tongues and creeds,who has taken titles, done business and shared lasting friendships in all parts of the country and one who is generally popular and acceptable to a greater majority of the Senators- elect. This is Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, who, apart from being competent, charismatic and accessible has also promised to do everything within his powers to unite the highly fractionalized ranks of the lawmakers-elect and to engender a general feeling of conviviality among colleagues. He will avail himself during the vote for the President of the Senate and, expectedly, alongside Sen. Abdulaziz Abubakar Yari, with whom there seems to be a close working relationship. Lawmakers-elect must prepare themselves adequately and confidently to step out on Tuesday and take the right decision that will ensure the independence of the National Assembly, equity for all parts of Nigeria and a balancing in the subscription to different nuances of our belief systems across Nigeria. Whatever decision the Senate takes as the first voting of the day goes by will, surely, and automatically, align the expectations of Nigerians at the House of Representatives. We can take that to the bank! The House will vote according to the outcome of the Senate’s action. And as a good partyman, OUK will collaborate with the members of the Executive and take decisions for the interest of Nigeria and will hesitate to acquisce to any decisions or plans that will bring harm, poverty or redicule to the Nigerian masses and people. If the Party can trust the current National Chairman, Abdullahi Adamu to lead it alright, the current Secretary to the Government of the Federation, George Akume to be the engine-room of the Tinubu Administration and the Nigerian nation could elect President Tinubu as our leader, this is the time to vote H.E. Distinguished Sen. Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu as President of the Nigerian Senate. All of these men, as we saw earlier, belonged to the Class of 1999-2007 Governors in Nigeria with Sen. Orji Uzo Kalu and what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.
*Nkem Anyata-Lafia* , Journalist,Teacher and Political Development Scholar, wrote in from Lafia, Nasarawa State.