Friday, June 29, 2018 4:41 pm
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
Approaching the Enugu home of Professor Humphrey Nwosu, former czar of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), who presided over the 12 June 1993 election that was annulled by the military president, Ibrahim Babaginda, one could not but be curious. It was the same anticipation exhibited by many young men when Nelson Mandela, the immediate past South African leader, was about to be released from the apartheid jail after 27 years. How would Mandela look? What a lot of young Africans were used to were photographs of the anti-apartheid fighter, with chubby cheeks, parted hair, infectious smile and the occasional cigarette dangling between his lips. It was a sharp contrast to the man who walked out of prison with a halo of grey.
Nwosu was, unlike Mandela, not in the slammer, but he kept himself out of public glare and rarely granted media interviews or delivered public speeches for years after the election he presided over was cancelled. How would the professor of political science look? Had he grown fatter or older? Had he jettisoned his penchant for theatrics, a usual feature on television where, as NEC Boss, he trenchantly explained his commission’s policies?
Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor, leader of our interview team had, a day earlier, booked an appointment with Nwosu and we were naturally excited at the opportunity to speak with the former NEC boss. As the the group alighted from their vehicle, a gardener materialized between the building’s black gate that was crying for a fresh coat of paint. That gate actually shielded the neatness, fine architecture and horticulture of Nwosu’s compound. Outside, a palm tree swayed over a row of flowers, a portion of carpet grass, a bough of an orange tree that rests from inside the fence and a metal plate warning intruders: “Danger! Wires Electrified.” The American barbed wires in their big spirals rested on the perimeter wall seemingly harmless but dangerous.
The gardener collected Ajibade’s complimentary card and disappeared inside. About three minutes later, the gate eased open and the man ushered in the team. The guests walked past a small roundabout where the roots of a mango tree had cracked the asphalted forecourt. In the distance is another palm tree, swaying over the sea of grass, an almost stunted orange tree and creepers. To the left is a bungalow with a surfeit of burnt brick decoration and an extended garage where a flat boot Mercedes car was parked. In the front of this small house, the first structure on the big compound built by Nwosu, there is a row of what looks like a car park with locked red metal doors. To the right is the big house where Nwosu holds court; a combination of four burnt brick-decorated structures, the chief of which is a semi circular architectural piece, with a red conical roof, facing the main (compound) road.
We were soon ushered into a large living room with three sets of sitting areas. The first was a set of grey settees-four single and one triple. On the low brown centre table was a pink synthetic flower and miniature porcelain images of angels, and the Virgin Mary. On the wall was an oil-on canvass portrait of a boy carrying a kid on his back. The second sitting arena was elevated and decorated with imported deep grey rococo furniture over which was a giant chandelier. A standing fan, a black television set, busts of historical figures and another wooden carving of a man whose hands are behind his back, complement this part of the big hall.
Then a “cot-cot” sound approached from the staircase. A man dressed in green guinea brocade and a black Mahatma Gandhi cap walked past the dining area where a set of six rococo chairs was arranged beside a long table. “Who is Kunle Ajibade?” the man asked as he pumped the hands of his guests. With his average height, stature, deep accent and broad smile that could light up a dark tunnel, Professor Nwosu has not changed much over the years. “I attribute my youthfulness to the fact that I have a happy marriage, “Nwosu later told the journalists. He led his guest to the third sitting area, about three steps below the first, second and the dinning, separated with black metal works. It was here that Nwosu fielded questions on his tenure as NEC chairman and the elections he presided over, which culminated in the presidential one which was annulled by IBB.
Nwosu’s sack on 26 June 1993 was preceded by the annulment of the 12 June Presidential election of 1993, adjudged to be the fairest and freest conducted in the country. Aside this, one striking feature of that year’s election was that for the first time, a Yoruba, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, won the election. Abiola, with his running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, rode on the back of the then Social Democratic Party (SDP), to trounce Alhaji Bashir Tofa and Chief Sylvester Ugoh of the National Republic Convention (NRC). There were booby traps set by the military and their civilian collaborators to scuttle the transition programme. One of such groups was the infamous Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, led by the controversial Arthur Nzeribe, which had gone to court to stop the election from holding. Two days to the poll, precisely on 10 June, an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice Bassey Ikpeme, now deceased, granted interlocutory injunction to the ABN suit.
Nwosu disobeyed the injunction. He cited Section 19 (1) of Decree No 3 governing the presidential election for his action. The decree states: “Notwithstanding the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 17) as amended, or any other law, no interim or interlocutory order or ruling, judgement or decision made by any court or tribunal before or after the commencement of this decree….”
Though the election took place, almost mid-way through the announcement of results, another judge, Justice Mohammed Dahiru Saleh, granted a relief preventing NEC from announcing the remaining results and declaring the winner of the polls. This time, the former university teacher compromised, a development that fueled speculations that he was either bribed or never believed in the tortuous course he was steering. Nwosu, however, fired back: “Absolute nonsense and lie. No one gave me anything. I challenge any person to come out with proof. There were dud cheques circulating and all that kind of nonsense. I never flirted with either of the contestants because it was an open, transparent election.”
Nigerians wanted explanations from the Ajali-born politician but it did not come until Saturday 4 July, almost a month after the poll. Nwosu appeared on NTA to justify his continued silence and absence from public glare. He denied being detained and attributed his absence to “my preoccupation with other matters”. Not many Nigerians would believe him, especially in the face of a strong rumor that IBB’s goons beat him up and detained him for days. A day after his NTA appearance, Nwosu delivered an unusually brief valedictory speech to his former staff. And since that day, nobody heard about Nwosu until 2001 when he dragged a kinsman to an Abuja court for libel. He had alleged, that his former student, Dr. Fidelis Okoli in a pamphlet entitled, “What do you know about Akpu and Ajali in Orumba South and North Local Government Area respectively of Anambra State of Nigeria, “accused him of influencing the sitting of Orumba North Council headquarters in Ajali, his home town.” Before his appearance in court, Nwosu was at the burial of his former teacher and predecessor at NEC, Professor Eme Awa in Amaekpu-Ohafia in Abia State.
These visiting journalists began firing their questions. They were eager to know those behind the annulment of 12 June 1993 election. But Nwosu kept saying “Wait for my book,”… which will be launched … at the Ladi Kwali Conference Centre, Abuja Sheraton Hotel and Towers.
To reach a compromise, they asked Nwosu to reveal the names of the “annullers” even if he did not say in specific terms what they did. He clammed up, again urging TheNEWS to wait for his book. Then Ajibade adopted another approach. Could Nwosu give us a copy of the book before the launch date? No dice. The interview drifted on, with Nwosu evading questions, scratching over the head of others while going full blast on those that touched on how well he performed as NEC chairman. He even admitted that the late Chief M.K.O Abiola won the election.
As the interview wound to a close, Nwosu asked the journalists whether they read what Dr. Reuben Abati wrote about him in The Guardian recently. At that point, Nwosu remembered that he had not invited the columnist to the book lauch. He promised to give the journalists some invitation cards for Abati and other top journalists in Lagos.
Nwosu later excused himself and disappeared into one of his inner rooms. He returned with his chamberlain in tow, who carried two trays containing four glass cups, six cans of Star lager beer, two bottles of fruit juice, a bottle of brandy and a bottle of Coca-Cola. Tension in the room, thereafter, dissolved in gulped beer and soft drinks…
“Ajibade, how did you get my phone number?” Nwosu asked. He was apparently enjoying the drink or the new, tension-free drift of the conversation. Ajibade, with his penetrating look and ringing voice, replied: “I won’t tell you if you don’t reveal those who were responsible for the annulment of June 12 election.” Nwosu, with drink in hand, threw his head back and exploded with guffaw.
Interview completed, the guests rose to leave. As they waited outside, surveying the compound which Nwosu acquired when he was Commissioner for Agriculture and later, Local Government and chieftaincy Affairs in the old Anambra State in the 1980s, the professor again excused himself to bring the invitation cards for Dr. Reuben Abati and his friends. When Nwosu returned, Ajibade called Abati on phone to speak with Nwosu. The two men spoke with the latter asking the columnist to attend his book launch by all means.
However, the invitation cards which Nwosu handed over contained some information which unsettled the visiting journalists. Curiously, those who worked against June 12, especially Babaginda, the annuler-in-chief and the unsurper, Chief Ernest Shonekan, head of the interim National Government, were invited. In fact, while Shonekan would chair the occasion, Babaginda was to be the guest of honour.
Nwosu is expected to be fearless and honest in his revelations on the June 12 crisis. But the old scholar avoided inviting intellectuals who could shred his book. Col. Abubakar Umar (retd), one of Babangida’s boys, will be the reviewer! The question is: why not an Odia Ofeimun? These, as the journalists reasoned, pointed to two possibilities. One, it could be that Nwosu wanted to demonstrate broad-mindedness that is an essential ingredient to lasting reconciliation. Nwosu showed this when he referred his guests to the 1 March 1993 edition of TheNews with the cover story titled Dirty Humphrey. The report narrated a contract scandal to which the former NEC boss was linked. “There was actually a contract like that, but you people got many facts wrong in that story. But if I have not forgotten the past, I would not have granted this interview,” he quipped. But the speed with which he accepted the interview proposal, as Nwosu admitted, was to help promote his book.
On the other hand, there is another strong feeling about why Nwosu invited anti-democratic elements to launch his pro-democracy book. Will the much-expected publication exonerate Nwosu’s principal, IBB and blame the annulment on those who pushed the dictator out of power? It is also curious that Nwosu invited Shonekan.
If the book turns out so, the political science professor should expect flaks from the media, civil society, the academic community and the general public. If it is otherwise, then Nwosu might have contributed his quota in setting the records straight and charting a course for the future.
Born in 1941, Nwosu attended Saint Michael’s Primary School, Enugu and later Presbyterian School, Abakaliki for his primary education. He proceded to Macgregor College, Afikpo, and was later admitted to the University of Nigeria, Nuskka, to study Political Science.
He graduated in 1966 with a first class honours and one year later, he obtained a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the same discipline from the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Thereafter, he returned to his alma mater and in 1979, was made Associate Dean, Faculty of Political Science. Four years later, he was appointed Professor of Political Science at the age of 41.
Before he got the NEC job on 7 March 1989, Nwosu had, at various times, served as Commissioner for Local Government and chieftaincy Affairs of Old Anambra State; Chairman, Technical committee on the Application of Local Government Services in 1987 and member of the Local Government Review Committee in Nigeria in 1988.
• Originally entitled “Echoes From The Past,” this Preface to Cover” (Nwosu’s cover interview) was published in the 16 June 2008 edition of TheNEW.
Read Nwosu’s interview here: http://staging.thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2018/06/my-june-12-story-humphrey-nwosu/