From the deluge of dirges that has trailed his passing on August 2, attention seems focused largely on his politics. For his uncommon grace in the fleeting moments of authority, forbearance when tribulation came, he had deservedly earned the moniker “Mature”.
But outside the murky waters of politics, blood surely flowed in his vein like all mortals. Born of a woman, he was human after all. To miss out on his humility, humanism, humour, that echo of a patriarchal laughter, is to lose sight of perhaps the far more essential part of the enigma called Senator Evan Enwerem.
Our paths crossed long after he had lost the crown as senate president on November 18, 1999. A keen follower of Nigeria’s contemporary media industry, the grand patriarch of Imo politics kept a tab on the practitioners he considered outstanding. One of his favourites was Mr. Tunji Bello who, to him, wrote the most informed analysis on the nation’s political economy.
He also had a liking for the chatty texture of Segun Adeniyi’s writings. Following our first meeting at a public function, he would soon learn that Segun and I had worked under his beloved Bello in Concord in the 90s.
Thereafter, our acquaintanceship grew into intimate friendship. In a professional sense, he naturally joined my list of sources, affording me deep insights into Igbo’s political class of the fourth republic. In the context of the politics of his native Imo, Enwerem’s exit is surely significant indeed.
Cosmopolitan in disposition (he spoke impeccable Yoruba as well), not easily given to shifting loyalty for expediency, he would seem a misnomer in Imo province raven with so much clannishness, political harlotry and jobbery. Rather than call the proverbial cow a relation because of the promise of beef, he would rather let go.
This partly explains why he lost out in the race to return to the senate in 2003. Brash, ostentatious and mercantilistic, the younger Hope Uzodimma could be described as the arrow-head of the counter movement to the tendency Enwerem represented in Imo politics.
Not possessing a charismatic presence, much less an engaging speaker, the then governor, Achike Udenwa, wasn't equipped to rein in the rampaging buccaneers. Rather, he struck a pact of peaceful co-existence with the likes of Uzodimma. For Enwerem, the only option left was to cozy up to the new kids on the bloc. But he would rather keep his self-pride than kowtow to the spoilt political brats on the ascendancy in Owerri. The ticket was handed Iwuagwu Ama.
In the wider context of national politics, Enwerem was an Obasanjo loyalist. It is, for instance, common knowledge that Obasanjo influenced his election as senate president on June 4, 1999 at the expense of Chuba Okadigbo backed by Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
Fabulous stories have been told of how Okadigbo and Obasanjo fell out. The most popular of the accounts is over money. As PDP’s presidential candidate in 1999, the latter had reportedly expressed bitterness to close disciples that funds he personally handed Okadigbo for campaign in Anambra were “mismanaged”.
So confident was Atiku that Okadigbo (fellow member of the then influential Peoples Democratic Movement) would be sworn in that he could afford to travel abroad before the crucial election in the senate chamber. On the eve of the D-day, Obasanjo, typically, decided to unsheathe his own political dagger. Enter Enwerem.
Thereafter, it was only natural that Okadigbo camp retreated to the trenches against Enwerem. Soon, the Evan affair blew open. The anti-Enwerem never relented until he was humiliated out of office on November 18, 1999. Predictably, Okadigbo took over. But his own reign, though spectacular in many respects, was short-lived as he soon got enmeshed in contract scandal.
His predecessor only waited to exact his own pound of flesh when it became certain that Okadigbo’s Titanic won’t survive the storms. To spite his ancient traducer, “Mature” let words out that he was still interested in Okadigbo’s job. On the D-day, five senators were in the race (Ike Nwachukwu, Adolphus Wabara, Anyim Pius Anyim, Jim Nwobodo and Enwerem).
The Okadigbo loyalists had reached a resolution: anyone but Enwerem or Obasanjo’s surrogate. A master of political decoy, Enwerem kept his joker to his chest. Shortly before senators cast their lot, he stepped forward to announce his withdrawal, enjoining “my fellow older colleagues like Nwobodo and Nwachukwu to leave the race for the youth.” On his own preference, he declared: “Left for me, I think Wabara can do it.”
That was the only clue the Okadigbo forces needed to conclude that Wabara was truly Obasanjo’s anointed. En masse, they all voted for Anyim who indeed was Obasanjo’s favourite. Thanks to Enwerem’s master-stroke.
Till he succumbed August 2, it is common knowledge that Enwerem remained an Obasanjo loyalist. But what is unknown to many is how they had hit it off. “Mature” himself told yours sincerely the story. As governor of the old Imo in 1992, he had boarded a British Airways plane in Lagos en route London. After taking his seat in the First Class, he heard the cabin announcer paying the usual courtesies to two Excellencies on board.
Instinctively, he looked back, but could not find Obasanjo’s famous visage anywhere in the compartment. Out of curiosity, he got up and walked back to the Business Class. Where is General Obasanjo? Apparently carrying his low-profile catechism to a new high, the former head of state chose to fly Economy!
Standing over Obasanjo’s seat in the “popular side”, Enwerem then whispered his protest: “Your Excellency, sir, you cannot sit here while I’m sitting over there. You have to go and take my place while I take yours.”
According to “Mature”, the then former military head of state initially would not budge, insisting that he was okay. One after the other, fellow passengers soon began to look in the direction of the duo engaged in polite argument on the aisles. It took Enwerem’s persistence to get Obasanjo to finally move to First Class.
But once the plane had taken off and attained cruising attitude, Obasanjo walked back and bluntly told Enwerem to let him enjoy the flight in the “popular side”. Perhaps more out of the dread of drawing the un-approving eyes of others travelers to themselves again than the lure of the First Class, “Mature” decided to grant Obasanjo’s request...
So, when the political race opened in 1998, Enwerem and Obasanjo merely renewed their relationship from the 1992 encounter. And when the latter indicated interest in the race for the senate presidency in 1999, Obasanjo naturally gave him his blessings.
As host, “Mature” was ever generous in spirit and time. Over the abundance of food and drinks, he would regale you with endless yarns of the behind-the-scene foibles of Nigeria’s political class. From dusk, you won’t know when midnight slipped by. So, unless I was passing the night in Abuja, I never let the patriarch know I was in town, lest I be “detained” indefinitely.
As is customary with older folks, he was never in a hurry. Chatting - especially with a journalist young enough to be his last born - appeared to offer him some cathartic relief.
With the omniscient recall of a seasoned spook, he always seemed to have loads of classified information on every political figure of note in the country. His sense of humour was vigorous, his imagery graphic, complete with a presence of mind rare for his age. Whenever English language proved inadequate, he would switch to Yoruba (having realized I speak impeccable Yoruba as well).
To summon you to such interaction, he would normally say in Yoruba “Oro wa” (There’s a lot to discuss or “Tory dey” in pidgin).
Once, our conversation veered to an assessment of political actors and actresses from the east of Niger. Today, I still find most arresting his dramatization of the infernal smoking habit (some said of “hard drugs”) of a fellow politician from the South-east otherwise nationally regarded as a super-star. He simply put two fingers on his lips, cheeks puffed, eyes bulging.
I could not help bursting into laughter at such graphic illustration, affecting the mannerism of a schoolboy.As a matter of style, he was not given to granting formal interviews for publication.
He seemed media shy, especially after the trauma of the Evans saga. But once he struck a rapport with you, he dropped his guard. He preferred tete-a-tete to a formal interview during which he would make full disclosure on any inquiry, providing rare insights into how the vanities and failings of a few individuals in leadership positions had invariably changed the course of politics in Nigeria in the last three decades that he took part in active national service. In the second republic, he was a presidential liaison officer of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
Whatever was discussed, he expected you to use your discretion to know what was “safe” to publish and what should be stored in the mind. He believed youthful journalists (like yours sincerely) would make a better commentator only if they are well informed of the identifiable trajectories of the Nigeria narrative.
Of course, the ghost of the Evans saga constantly wandered near-by. While fending off poisoned arrows in the thick of the storm in 1999, “Mature” once famously broke down. He cried publicly.
He would have the nation believe that facts of a bitter past were being twisted cruelly by those hell-bent on dethroning him as senate president. He had argued that the Evans reportedly convicted decades earlier by the colonial authorities was his sibling. But tears could not save him.
Out of respect for his sensibilities, I chose never to ask him any question pertaining to the Evan(s) saga. I remember the first time I would visit his private residence in highbrow Asokoro, Abuja, years back.
“What a magnificent palace you have here, sir,” I had complimented him, after being ushered into the main lounge of the one-storey castle.
“Oh, thanks,” he responded as he shook my hands. His guttural voice, made even deeper by the controlled air of the hall we sat in, boomed with magisterial authority at each word he uttered. “I started to develop this place in the early 90s. I did it bit by bit.”
In a tone dripping of mischief, he added: “Well, your governor (Chief Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State) now happens to be my neighbour. If you go visit his own premises now, I’m sure you will come back and dismiss mine as mere boys’ quarters.”
Indeed, he was the master of subversive humour.
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