Transcript CNN International Interview with Nigeria's President Obasanjo and Publisher Chido Nwangwu on Democracy and Security Issues

Chuba: pragmatic idealist and political strategist


Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston and The Black Business Journal

For me, Chuba's distinctive contribution resides in the fact that he could think and
play politics. He managed to bring a solid base of ideas to his political action. Here then was a pragmatic idealist who was simultaneously a political strategist with a natural personal magnetism and charisma that likened him almost to the great founding fathers.

HE came embarrassingly late to dinner. But from the moment he strode into the house of our common friend in Victoria Island, the electricity of his humour and bon hommie lifted the fog of his lateness and placed the focus on the object of the dinner. An influential handful of Chuba's friends were gathered in a last ditch effort to salvage the publicity dimension of whatever was left of his Senate Presidency. As the night wore thin, we all came to the unsavoury conclusion that his tenure was over because the price on his head was too heavy and his adversaries too powerful and determined. Even before meeting with us, Chuba had put the job behind him and was just waiting for the charade in the National Assembly to play itself out. For him, the import of the evening was the opportunity to fellowship with friends. The rest is history.

By 1988/89, his prominence in the Second Republic meant that he could not expect to play any major public role with the military that toppled the government that he had so flamboyantly personified. Worse still, the military administration then had adopted a zero tolerance approach to the resurgence of politicians who had played active roles in the Second Republic. Chuba, though still a young and vibrant man, bristling with ideas and fresh political experience found himself banned as an 'old breed politician'.

He felt personally hurt by the ban mostly because it ran against the grain of all libertarian theories of politics and society that he was aware of. Yet his intellectual restiveness meant that he had to find a way of keeping busy and visible. You could take anything else from Chuba but to deny him an opportunity to be visible and to freely express his ideas would amount literally to a death sentence.

I had just ended a 12-month stint as Director of DFFRI in the old Imo State and also quit my formal occupation as a university teacher, having foreseen the rot that was on its way. The Guardian which had provided us with a sanctuary was in the throes of a major convulsion.

Stanley Macebuh was virtually on his way out as managing director of The Guardian. And for me, The Guardian without Stanley's leadership was, to put it mildly, an uninspiring proposition.

Chuba had come up with the idea of a forthnightly magazine of ideas, Platform. He got me interested in the idea. Stanley Macebuh reminded us that we had no choice since we were both jobless for the moment. It was a good way of holding insanity at bay while holding daily symposia with ourselves. There was hardly a business consideration since both Chuba and myself were not the most illustrious businessmen you could find around.

Therefore, our modest offices in Yaba became a classroom, seminar place, mini parliament, a vibrant laboratory of ideas. In my experience, ideas enjoy a freer reign when escorted by fine cognac, scotch and the occasional humidor. These were not in short supply in those days. While our editors and reporters busied themselves with the practical details of producing a magazine, we provided guidepost of ideas and spent the better part of each day discussing national and international issues. Once in a while a few friends would drop by - Ikemba Nnewi, George Obiozor, Dr. George Okadigbo (Chuba's brother), Pini Jason, Stanley Macebuh etc.

On a daily basis, we ran the gamut of Western political philosophy from Plato to Aristotle, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hobbes, Spinoza, Russell, Stuart Mill down to the best traditions of African traditional thought and socio-political organisation. While Chuba provided philosophical illumination, I provided literary antecedents in historical drama, telling him that he and his political colleagues of the Second Republic committed hubris and had to atone for it. I reminded him that in most of Shakespeare's historical drama, order was the first condition and that conflicts arose because order was disrupted. The only way to forge a resolution was to restore order so that harmony could return to society and nature.

But he would retort that the ban on them and the corrective measures were in themselves acts of hubris. You do not heal disorder with anarchy. I would take him back to Dante's Inferno with the conclusion that both politicians, their military detractors and indeed the larger society were prisoners long lost in a dark cave and therefore eager to embrace the slightest shade of light even if it was an illusion.

Chuba saw himself primarily as an intellectual in politics. He recalled to me how when he was appointed political Adviser to President Shehu Shagari, he had to quickly acquire and read the memoirs of major political and National Security Advisers of past US Presidents. He was, in particular, enamoured of the thoughts and careers of men like Zbigniev Brezinski and Henry Kissinger who brought to bear on their assignments their rich academic and intellectual exposures. That is perhaps how he came to the conclusion that the summary of his job as Political Adviser to the President was, in words, to 'multiply the president's options'.

In matters of power and politics, his favourite philosophical sanctuary was Bertrand Russel and his concept of the major indices of power. His central lament was that Shagari had a hold on most of the major indices but lost sight of the most critical power: power over raw power, military power and that that was his undoing. In his seemingly endless stock of anecdotes, he retold the story of how Shagari failed to smell the coup that toppled him even when a good number of his lieutenants had seen it coming.


In bringing philosophical insight and analytical depth to bear on his approach to practical political problems and issues, he harked back, very nostalgically, to the founding fathers: Zik and Awolowo especially. His political method was ultimately informed by his basic academic training - for every action and reaction at the level of practical politics, there was a rich philosophical quarry of theories to resort to for explanations and guideposts.

Contrary to popular perception, there existed between Chuba and the late Zik a very cordial father and son relationship. For Chuba, Zik was a model of the quintessential modern African politician, enlightened, a man of ideas who nonetheless had an uncanny sense of political expediency, a nationalist and a humanist who lived life to the fullest. In his oratory and political costume, one could see a conscious effort to approximate the great Zik even if he lacked the historical advantage and larger than life mystique of the great original.

A major contradiction in Chuba's overall outlook was the fact that in spite of his very solid academic credentials and exposure to the best of Western culture and civilisation, he insisted on grounding his outlook on traditional African values. He adopted the tortoise as a personal totem, carried a fly whisk, poured libation to the ancestors and generally believed in the efficacy of the often less than obvious relationship between cause and effect in African cosmology.

But even then, Chuba was neither an African idealist or an unmediated traditionalist. He was at best a modern Africanist. The route to his Africaness led inexorably through the shrines of his Igbo ancestry. His commitment to the cause of the Igbos in modern Nigeria was deeply felt. He however, believed that the Igbos needed to get beyond their all too frequent timid cries of marginalisation to sagaciously stand up for their rights and assertively demand their rightful place in a Nigerian nation that they have given so much. This accounts for his sagacity and general assertiveness in matters that had to do with the plight of the Igbo nation in Nigeria. For instance, he stepped forward to advise the NPN under Shagari that the best way to reassure the Igbos and heal Nigeria was to pardon Chief Ojukwu and end his exile.

Yet, it was part of Chuba's political sophistication that he could never be mistaken for an ethnic bigot. Far from it. His friendships spanned the length and breadth of our country. Wherever he spotted political opportunities that coincided with his enlightened self-interest as a politician, he embraced it and pressed the advantage to national good hence his active engagements with men like Shehu Shagari, the late Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Abubakar Atiku, Abubakar Rimi and indeed Olusegun Obasanjo.

At a personal level, Chuba was not the one to harbour ill will. He forgave and forgot very readily. If anything, he approached life from the angle of play. His deep sense of family came across each time a telephone call came either from his mother or any of his children. As a free spirit, he wanted to be let loose and yet there was this deep hunger to belong, to be included and to be surrounded by family and friends.

Many have since celebrated Chuba's political sagacity, colour, oratory and drama as if those were his definitive import and legacy. For me, these are no doubt part of the externalities of Chuba's political legacy. They do not, however, begin to exhaust his essential contribution to Nigeria's political evolution and democratic transformation.

For me, Chuba's distinctive contribution resides in the fact that he could think and play politics. He managed to bring a solid base of ideas to his political action. Here then was a pragmatic idealist who was simultaneously a political strategist with a natural personal magnetism and charisma that likened him almost to the great founding fathers.

In the Senate as President, he combined the role of teacher of parliamentary procedure and political precedent with the practical expediency of political survival and effective leadership. In contemporary Nigerian politics, we have had a dearth of men and women who could simultaneously conceive a plot, write the script and act out the role. That, to my mind, is the decisive import of Chuba Okadigbo in our political evolution. In these rare combinations, Chuba stands heads and shoulders above his contemporaries. There also lay his principal liability: to have stubbornly held on to his intellectual apparel in a market full of what Ikenna Nzimiro used to describe as 'naked intellectual ordinary men'. When a great tree snaps, the inhabitants of the forest need no town crier to tell them story.
Dr. Amuta, former editor of Platform magazine and author of 3 books, is Chairman and Chief Executive of Wilson and Weitzmann Associates in Lagos.

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