Love him or hate him, Chief Tony Akhakon Anenih, the Iyasele (prime minister) of Esanland and two-time chairman of the Board of Trustees, BoT, of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, remains a political riddle that is difficult, if not impossible, to solve. His staying power, just when you think he is down and out politically, has confounded political pundits and opponents. Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, the retired police commissioner has since going into politics in 1979, seen the good, the bad and ugly sides of politics and has always managed to bounce back into reckoning at a time people seemed have written him off. How he manages to stay afloat in the murky and turbulent waters of Nigerian politics that would have, and had indeed sunken the political careers of some others, was indeed something to ponder on at the 80th birthday celebration, Sunday August 4, of this larger-than-life political figure who can aptly be described as the oracle of Nigerian politics. Though not a political scientist by certification, students and experts in the discipline have a lot to learn from Anenih’s political persona, strategy and dogma. Little wonder therefore speaker after speaker last Sunday at the reception to mark his 80th birthday at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital, tried to fathom what makes Anenih tick and what could possibly be the staying power of a man described by Godswill Obot Akpabio, Akwa Ibom State governor and chairman, PDP Governors’ Forum, as “an enigma in the Nigerian equation”. He believes the Uromi-born politician is “the only Nigerian we can regard as one of the greatest bridge-builders that have ever emerged in the politics of this nation”.
Since 1979, Anenih has traversed Nigeria’s political field like a colossus and has remained a constant and consistent actor and kingmaker in the polity. President Goodluck Jonathan wonders how he is able to make it “to be relevant for all this period, politically”. According to him, “it is not easy for a politician to stay on top for a long time”. He marvels that “in spite of the challenges of politics, the unpredictable environment of politics, you still continue to stand tall”. Indeed, Anenih has gone through the thick and thin of politics. Just as he had seen 80 winters and survived them all like the President said, he has similarly weathered many political storms and come out bruised but not battered. His resilience, political sagacity, humility and forthrightness were the life-jacket that had kept him afloat in the tempestuous waters of Nigerian politics so much so that today at 80, he has stamped his feet indelibly on the political landscape.
Going into politics in 1979 with the discipline of a regimented force – the Nigeria Police Force, he emerged two years later, the state chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in the then Bendel State, a position he held from 1981 to 1983. He proved his mettle as a goal-getter in 1983 when he successfully led his party to victory by flushing out the then ruling party, the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, from power. His party’s candidate, Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, a retired Brigadier-General, stepped into the office hitherto occupied by his kinsman, Ambrose Folorunsho Alli, a professor of morbid anatomy, now late. The joy of that resounding victory was however short-lived due to military intervention in the polity. In the ill-fated Third Republic, Anenih was appointed the National Campaign Director of Shehu Yar’Adua Presidential Campaign Organisation from 1990 to 1991 and in 1992, he was elected the National Chairman of the newly formed Social Democratic Party, SDP.
Again, Anenih proved that his first achievement in delivering Ogbemudia as the governor of old Bendel State was not a fluke or a game of chance. He repeated the same feat when he ensured the victory of John Odigie-Oyegun as the first civilian governor of Edo State in 1992 and went ahead to produce the president in the person of Moshood Kashimawo Abiola in an historic election described by political scientists as a watershed in Nigeria’s political history. Unfortunately, for yet unfathomable reason, that epochal election was annulled by the military regime of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. Anenih’s perceived role in that ill-fated election has remained a dark spot in his political career with many accusing him of trading away his party’s mandate. But his political associates argue that rather than being vilified, Anenih indeed deserved commendation for saving the country from disintegration. Friday Itulah, a member of the House of Representatives, believes that Anenih made it possible for Nigeria to continue to remain as one, asking rhetorically that “would it have been better for us to have been divided?” He opined: “there are times you do what is called cost-benefit analysis. You know when to run, you know when to stop…The man knows what he ought to do as a man who loves his nation so much”, adding that “sometimes, there are some decisions you really have to take that will be in the interest of the nation and you will not be able to see the advantage which it stands to accrue to the people; but on the long run, you realise that if this option was not taken, the result could have been something different”. He believed it was during his tenure as national chairman of the defunct SDP “that we can say discipline was a real part of part membership”.
That Anenih later worked with late head of state, General Sani Abacha, to actualise his transition programme could indeed be one of those actions taken by the political tactician for which he was largely misunderstood and venomously criticised. In 1995, he was appointed a member of the National Constitutional Conference to fashion a new constitution for the country, acting as one of the strident voices of the marginalised people of the southern minorities at the conference. The sudden death of Abacha however opened a new vista in the nation’s polity with the emergence of Abdusalami Abubakar, an army General, as the new head of state. The Peoples Democratic Party was formed and the party went ahead to win the presidential election with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired Army General and former military head of state, as the new president. Since then, Anenih has maintained high visibility in government as well as on the political landscape.
He was a member of the Presidential Policy Advisory Committee, PPAC, in 1999 and served as Minster of Works and Housing from 1999 to 2002. He was to voluntarily relinquish the position for a more challenging and crucial assignment of ensuring the return of his party and the president, Obasanjo, to power by working in the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation. His success in that assignment earned him the appointment by consensus, as the chairman, Board of Trustees of the party from March 2004 to June 2007. He was to return to that position in February 2013 and has been functioning in that capacity till date. He has repeated the same feat as Chairman of the Nigeria Ports Authority, NPA; a position he first occupied from 2009 to 2011 and then from 2012 till date.
A politician with inestimable and unquantifiable electoral value, Anenih’s famous “No Vacancy” campaign message to the opposition, has marked him out as the “Mr. Fix It” of Nigerian politics having successfully installed successive presidents and governors not only in his home state, Edo, but elsewhere in the country. His recent loss of Edo State rather than being seen as an indication that he has lost relevance, is indeed an indication that life is full of ups and downs and as a player on the vast political field of Nigeria, you don’t expect to win every game. Anenih’s political blues in his home state could equally be seen from the perspective that life is not a bed of roses. Indeed if it were so, it must be appreciated that even roses have thorns.
Besides, an orchestrated attempt to demonise a man who could be credited to have contributed to the political fortunes of those who have now turned against him in his home state is seen in some quarters as lending credence to the Biblical saying that a prophet is without honour in his own country. Osagie Jacobs, a chartered accountant and in-law to Anenih, regretted that he was being labelled a dictator by people he brought to political limelight in order to justify their defection to the ruling party in the state. According to him, “when PDP lost election, that is the time they knew he was a dictator. They left the funding of the party for him alone. And then, not everybody can be in a position at the same time and when he tells them ‘wait for your time’, they grumble. But now, time has proved Chief Anenih right. They are now regretting even though many of them are afraid to complain openly. Even the ACN (now APC) in Edo State today is split into two and people have now seen the kind of nature Anenih has. They have decamped; we wish them well. They’ve seen that what they did was just self-serving. But in their heart of hearts, they all know what they did was not fair to Anenih. History has judged him right”.
Indeed, history has judged Anenih right. If the idea of the deliberate policy to rubbish him and annihilate his party was to send a signal to the national secretariat of his party that he had been ignobly retired from politics and reduced to a political liability, that effort had proved to be in futility. This is because Anenih did not only take all the insults heaped on him with calm equanimity but rose from the ashes of the humiliating defeat to emerge the Chairman, Board of Trustees of his party for a second time, a feat that has not been achieved by anyone. Though not celebrated by his state, his 80th birthday celebration by his family and his party was an appreciation of his immense contribution to the project Nigeria as acknowledge by Abdusalami and Babangida in their tribute. The calibre of personalities who graced his birthday ceremony testified to Anenih’s general acceptability and how much he is respected and appreciated.
Akpabio believes the life of Anenih and his politics are worth studying by younger generation of politicians. In his words, “I think we need to study, the rest of us who are joining you in politics today, your staying power”. If one were to proffer an answer to that question, it would be his indomitable spirit. Some other politicians not made of sterner stuff would have thrown in the towel with the kind of bitter and virulent politics of opposition at home. Described by associates and friends as a man of many parts, Anenih was to show another part of him not known to many. In his remarks after the reception, he betrayed emotions and wept when he was acknowledging the presence of Binta, the widow of his political mentor “and great leader”, late General Shehu Yar’Adua. A tearful Anenih admitted to his guests that “the husband made me what I am today”. Anenih, whose not-so-cordial relationship with Obasanjo had been a subject of media discourse and political gossip, could not hide his feelings at the magnanimity of the former president in honouring his invitation, probably against all expectations.
Anenih confessed that “I was happy, and I want to say this, I was thrilled when I saw former President Obasanjo in the church today…That is the meaning of forgiveness which all of us must practice”. As the nationalist, the President described him to be, Anenih demonstrated this once the attributes of an elder statesman when he preached unity and peace, and made a birthday wish calling on all the former heads of state/president to put their hands behind Jonathan and by visiting him once in a while and offering genuine advice that could guide him in the onerous task of administering the country. According to him, “if all of us genuinely advise him, even the worst enemy we have today, the Boko Haram, will think twice”.
Earlier at a thanksgiving church service held at the Our Lady of Nigeria Pro-Cathedral, Abuja, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, urged politicians in the country to be sensitive to the plight of the poor and imbibe the true virtue of selfless service in whatever position they occupy. Reading from the book of Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23, Onaiyekan noted that most Nigerians were currently amassing wealth which they did not really need, and reminded them that it was all vanity. According to him, “it is foolish to store up treasure for one to be rich in the sight of man. Greed and avarice are the same as worshipping other gods. Those who pursue political power with the intention of honouring God and improving the lives of others are doing His will. As we celebrate Anenih at 80, let us also make our other brothers and sisters to see reasons and cause to celebrate”.
For Anenih, giving others reasons to celebrate had been a way of life. His birthday celebration started with visits to the less privileged – orphanages, old peoples’ home and school for the physically challenged where he donated cash and various items. At the City off Refuge Orphanaage, Abuja, Anenih said, “at the age of 80, what one should be thinking about is how to encourage those who are challenged and to appreciate them and to encourage them”. Augustine Akubeze, Archbishop of Benin Diocese of the Catholic Church also bore testimony to the fact that the octogenarian politician had been a great philanthropist and pillar of support to the church, particularly at Uromi where he served as bishop for five years. He said the celebrant remains “the greatest single donor to any project we have in Uromi Diocese today”, adding that “all the buildings in all the churches had something from him”. Apart from the church, other organisations have benefitted from the quiet benevolence of a man fondly referred to as “the Leader”. These include the University of Benin, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Igbinedion University, Okadaa and the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, among all others.
His most recent act of philanthropy was last year when probably preparatory to his attaining the status of a grand old man, he endowed a multi-million naira Geriartric Centre at the University College Hospital, UCH, Ibadan, a prototype in Africa, for the benefit of the aged and senior citizens who are hardly taken into account in the scheme of things. For a man who has touched the lives of many in positive ways, it was not surprising that he was able to pull such a mammoth crowd of well-wishers to his birthday. Indeed, Nigeria literally stood still for the man whose political relevance cannot be wished away by the antics of self-serving individuals who believe that politics is about winning all the time. From various Nigerians, it had all been showers of encomiums, eulogies and praises.
Edwin Clark, Ijaw national leader and elder statesman sees him as “a man who struts Nigeria’s political horizon like a comet”, while Danjuma eulogised him as “a man of many parts, articulate statesman, uncommon philanthropist and dependable friend”. Delta State governor, Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, described him as “a great and patriotic Nigerian and elder statesman” and prayed that God would continue to bless and keep him “to the greater glory of our nation”. Senate president, David Mark, noted with pride his “immeasurable contributions to the development of our country, Nigeria”, adding that “you have remained a strong and dependable pillar for our people”. Pauline Igbanor, the Zonal General Manager of the NTA Benin Network Centre described him as a father to all. According to her, “he has a large heart. He’s benevolent; he is forgiving. He’s somebody who does not bear grudges”. Kenneth Imansuagbon, educationist and former governorship aspirant in Edo State, described him as “a great Nigerian and an icon; a tactician, a strategist and lover of the poor. Helper of the Nigerian children, a unifier of the Nigerian nation; we cannot forget his love and sacrifice for our country”. Itulah noted that “as minister for works, he was able to make a lot of impact in the road sector and what he has done is yet to be surpassed by anybody up to the present time. He has nurtured us to be able to weather the storm”. Adams Oshimohole, Edo State governor, who many were surprised to see at the church service, told curious journalists that “politics aside, he is our elder. At 80, he is a father to all of us. It does not matter that we disagree on some issues. Some of us may not believe in his party, but after politics, there is life. In our culture, we respect our elders. I wish him well”. In his congratulatory message, Oshiomhole noted that at 80, “there is no doubt yours has been a remarkable life”. He said “in that trajectory is unquestionably a commitment to service on a national scale. First as a police officer, later as a political mobiliser with uncommon energy”, adding that “by that alone, you illustrate vividly one essential part of the Edo spirit: industry and resilience”.
His immediate family also acknowledged what a wonderful husband and father he had been. His first wife, Dame Patricia Anenih described him as “my ever dependable partner in this journey called life”, while Justice Maryann Ekpe Anenih, the younger wife, eulogised him as “a man amongst men, a husband amongst husbands, a father amongst fathers, a leader amongst leaders”. On behalf of the children, Tony Anenih (Jr) described their father as “indeed a gift to us from God Almighty and we could never have asked for a more loving, kind, caring, dependable and generous father”.
Highlights of the birthday celebration were cutting of a huge birthday cake, presentation of a birthday card by members of the BoT led by former vice president, Alex Ekwueme, scintillating performance by children of Pace Setters School, Abuja, and the celebrant’s dance with members of his family, including his grand-children who flocked round him. For many who were privileged to witness the event, it was one celebration that would be talked about for a long time because of what it portend for the unity and political its undercurrent.