Anenih, exit of a political impresario

Tony Anenih

On a working visit to Ondo State in 2001 as the Minister of Works and Housing inspecting federal projects, Chief Anthony Anenih, who died at the age of 85 last Sunday after bestriding Nigeria’s political landscape like a colossus, cut the picture of a taciturn politician, who communicates more with action than talking.

He had arrived in Akure the state capital after inspecting the failing Benin-Shagamu expressway with a team of reporters and senior officials of his ministry.

After the tour, which took the better part of the day, Anenih, then in his late 60s and wearing a complete jeans overall and white canvass shoes, refused to elaborate on his findings, even after much prodding from inquisitive journalists, preferring to cover the microphone with his hand when the team gathered at the conference room of the Akure Federal Secretariat.

Determined to squeeze water out of stone, one veteran journalist of almost Anenih’s age, asked what many thought was sensitive enough to break the shell. He asked, looking at the minister straight in the face, “Did you actually sell off the victory of your party in 1993?” referring to Anenih’s role as the national chairman of the victorious Social Democratic Party (SDP), who accepted to be a member of a constitutional conference set up by the military when the symbol of the victory, Chief M.K.O Abiola, was being hounded.

At that point in Nigeria’s history, sentiments for Abiola, who died barely four years earlier in government custody in controversial circumstances, still ran very high in the Southwest states, the major reason President Olusegun Obasanjo lost the region to a NADECO activist in the person of Chief Olu Falae.

A deafening silence fell on the crowded oval-shaped conference room and everybody, including high-ranking officials and members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state, who had come to welcome their chieftain, was looking at the minister with anxiety while the media officer in charge of the tour was shaking with fear.

But an unruffled Anenih, with a faint smile playing on his lips, looked at the veteran and calmly replied with a barely audible voice that was amplified by the microphone, “Nobody sold anything to anybody, it was all politics.”

It was not what he said, but his composure and the way he said it, which sent different meanings to all in the gathering that drew an abrupt curtain on the parley, creating a long-lasting impression of a man who knew far more than many about the topic under discussion.

Known for his political sagacity, which showed more in his problem-solving, (or problem-creating according to his critics) ability, earning him the sobriquet ‘Mr. Fix it’, Anenih was the brain behind the big political machine that the PDP grew to become during the Obasanjo years, when democratic tenets many times gave way to the dictatorial tendencies of the retired general.
His climb on the political ladder

After a tour of duty as an officer of the Nigeria Police, during which he served as the Orderly to Nigeria’s first and only ceremonial president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, retiring as a commissioner, Anenih started showing his prowess as a man with a magic wand in matters of politics when his emergence as the Bendel State Chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) paved way for the party’s victory in the 1983 elections.

With the loss of Bendel, Oyo and Ondo (later retrieved by the Judiciary) among the five LOOBO states of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) to the rampaging NPN, leaving only Lagos and Ogun, the political upheaval of the First Republic was reenacted in the Southwest leading to loss of hundreds of lives and consuming democracy itself when soldiers came calling at exactly three months to the new regimes.

Although the winning strategy that was adopted by those who took the UPN states to the mainstream could not be described as totally democratic, a message had been sent to the political players that if any political party had the problem of winning an opposition state, there were people who could be consulted to fix the problem and
among this lot, Anenih stood out, not only by his prowess but also by the kind of structure he was building for himself.

In his Edo State base, Anenih became a godfather that nurtured a large followership of politicians loyal to his cause and this was built over the years by his association with the late General Shehu Yar’Adua, the consummate politician whose emergence in 1992 as a presidential aspirant almost became the first experience of Nigeria with soldiers metamorphosing into civilian leaders.

Anenih had teamed up with Yar’Adua in the Peoples Front (PF) which later, after the creation of Ibrahim Babangida’s two-party structure, evolved into the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with like minds drawn mainly from politicians who professed to the ideal of leftist progressivism although the party was later peopled by birds of different plumage.

After the gap-toothed general’s maradonic displays of banning and unbanning of old politicians and creation of newbreed players that showed his insincerity about relinquishing political power, the SDP, at the Jos convention, picked Abiola as its presidential candidate and Yar’Adua, a strong pillar in the party, who had suffered immensely in the military’s deceptive transition, presented Anenih, a member of his PF camp, as the National Chairman. Many had argued that the alleged abandonment of the June 12 presidential election annulment struggle by the Anenih leadership was a reflection of the politics that was played within the SDP before Abiola’s emergence as the candidate.

But, if Anenih had been playing to the dictates of internal party politics by following and protecting the interests of his group as was seen in his handling of the post-June 12 politics in the SDP, he became a ‘leader’ in the real sense of the word at the commencement of the current democratic dispensation in 1999, when he emerged one of the party’s strongest pillars.

He was so strong in the party that after he left as the Minister of Works to assume a higher party responsibility of being the chairman of the Board of Trustees (BOT), the highest organ of the party, it was rumoured that the Ministry was reserved for him for whoever he wanted to be the minister.

It was as the BOT Chairman, that Anenih’s reputation as ‘Mr. Fix it’ came to the fore as he was said to be the brain behind whatever the PDP did at the period, for or against democracy, making him next only to Obasanjo as the most powerful man in the party. At his home state of Edo, his influence even traversed party boundaries as he was rumoured to have parted ways with his governor, Professor Osarhemien Osunbor therefore creating an enabling environment for the emergence of Adams Oshiomhole, the current National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as Edo helmsman.

Anenih’s influence, however, began to wane in the PDP at the twilight of the Obasanjo era when the president muscled his way to amend the party’s constitution to allow only former presidents to head the BOT, a decision that did not go down well with many members of the party who saw the retired general as only planning to pull the strings from his Ota farm.

But, reacting to Anenih’s death, Obasanjo described him as “an archetypal lesson in public service and leadership at its best,” adding, “he had to himself a life full of accomplishments and meritorious services to the local and national communities. He served the nation with devotion and diligence in his chosen profession. He was an epitome of humility and quiet dignity, both in service and retirement, even though he rose to the rank of Commissioner of Police before retirement.

“In the course of a lifetime of remarkable contributions to the political sector of our nation, he (Anenih) became a national icon and authentic role model; one of the outstanding leaders of our generation. His political contribution to the Fourth Republic, notably as the Honourable Minister of Works and Housing under my able leadership as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was stabilising.”

Indeed, since his demise after an undisclosed ailment, which may not be unconnected with losses of close family members at old age recently, the airwaves have been bustling with accolades from players on the political fields, friends and foes alike, who described him as a chapter in Nigeria’s political history.

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