TRIBUTE: Samuel Ogbemudia: The man who gave his people swagger

Samuel Ogbemudia

Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who died on March 10, was buried on March 24 with fanfare in Benin City, capital of Edo State.

The burial ended a four-day ceremony organised by the governments of Edo and Delta, the two states which as Bendel, he governed twice, first as military governor from September 1967 to July 1975, and then as elected governor for three months from October to December 1983.

Mr. Ogbemudia served in the Nigerian Army for 27 years, rising to the rank of brigadier-general and holding high command posts and political office. His public career seemed to have all ended in ignominy, however, when he was dismissed from the Army alongside nine other military governors following the coup of July 29, 1975 that ended Yakubu Gowon’s nine-year reign as Nigeria’s second military head of state.

The new ruler, Murtala Muhammed, whose reign would end with his assassination in the abortive coup of February 13, 1976, had set up a probe panel that indicted the military governors of abuse of office. They were stripped of their ranks and made to forfeit asset believed to have been acquired corruptly.

But Mr. Ogbemudia bounced back several times later, but never to hit the height of his prime for which history will remember him.

The comeback began with his election as governor on the platform of the then ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN. And following the swift truncation of his four-year governorship tenure by the military putsch of 1983, he was appointed minister for labour and productivity by the Sani Abacha military dictatorship 10 years later. He had also served earlier as Chairman of the National Sports Commission under Ibrahim Babangida.

Clearly, it was his service in the old Bendel State that engraved Mr. Ogbemudia’s name on the hearts of the people he led so long ago and earned him the flood of encomiums that followed his remains to the grave on Friday.

Until their state was split into two in 1991, the diverse peoples of the two states used to stand proudly in brotherhood under the “Up Bendel” banner. Their tribes and tongues greatly differed, but their state’s pre-eminence in sports and other accomplishments had given them a swagger that stood them out on the national stage.

But it was not always like that. In fact, until the Midwestern Region was excised from the defunct Western Region in the political cauldron of the First Republic, becoming the first state to be created in Nigeria and the only one in that tempestuous dispensation, the people of the area were like the other minorities in Nigeria’s then two other regions, overshadowed and trampled on by the tripod on which Africa’s most populous nation was said to stand.

The Midwest was renamed Midwest State in 1967 when Mr. Gowon broke up the country into 12 states, ostensibly to address the marginalisation of the minorities by the dominant ethnic groups, but also as a masterstroke against the burgeoning Biafra secession campaign. The state was renamed Bendel by the brief military administration of Murtala Muhammed who upped the number of states in the country to 19.

But it was not until Mr. Ogbemudia became its governor that Up Bendel became a credible slogan.

He was named military administrator in September 1967 after the state had been overrun by the secessionist Biafran troops. The first military governor of the state, David Ejoor, had scurried to Lagos in the wake of the invasion; but his story of a great escape on a bicycle had apparently not impressed his commanders who asked Mr. Ogbemudia to take his place.

Ironically, Mr. Ogbemudia too had the year before arrived Benin, his hometown and capital of the then Midwest Region, in a jiffy after a great escape of his own, although not from secessionists. He had fled Kaduna, where he was the brigade-major at the First Infantry Brigade of the Nigerian Army.

One of his subordinates in Kaduna was a certain hothead named Bukar Sukar Dimka, a lieutenant, who was very prominent in the upheavals that culminated in the bloody counter coup of July 1966.

According to an account of the incident, Mr. Ogbemudia had had Mr. Dimka placed under house arrest for breaching an instruction against troop movements.

During the counter coup in which many southern officers were murdered by mutinous northern soldiers, Mr. Dimka saw the opportunity to settle scores permanently with his southerner boss. While making plans to gather soldiers to seize him, however, Mr. Ogbemudia was tipped off and advised to flee town pronto.

“A Landrover was immediately provided which Ogbemudia jumped into (armed with a sub-machine gun, SMG) and sped out of town (without bothering to pack) chased by a Landrover load of northern soldiers led by Mr. Dimka”, wrote Naiwu Osahon in one of the several recollections of the incident.

“Dimka’s group pursued him to Kontagora where he refuelled, barely eluding them at the fuel station. But they refused to give up, chasing him all the way to Jebba, crossing the Niger Bridge behind him, sometimes shooting. They followed him all the way to Owo in present day Ondo State where he ran out of fuel, abandoned his vehicle and scaled a six-foot fence into dense jungle. At that point they gave up and began their journey back to Kaduna.

“Ogbemudia later hiked back to Benin City, lying low for some time, moving from house to house until things cooled down”.

Paradoxically, Mr. Ogbemudia was deputy to Chukwuma Nzeogwu, (a leader of the first coup of January 1966) at the Nigerian Military Training College, Zaria until after the coup.

Although both were indigenes of Midwestern region, Mr. Nzeogwu did not take him into confidence and had in fact asked him to take a leave so as to get him out of station during the coup.

When later Mr. Ogbemudia became aware – reportedly at a road block – that a coup was in progress led by his boss, he considered moving against Mr. Nzeogwu but could not because his daughter was ill and he had to take her to hospital.

Mr. Ogbemudia’s experience with Mr. Dimka would ironically save his life ten years later after he was initially suspected, as a former governor under Mr. Gowon, of involvement in the abortive coup that killed Murtala Mohammed in 1976.

Mr. Dimka reportedly pointed out that he could not have plotted with a former boss he had made such a brazen attempt to kill earlier. And so the man who had wanted to kill him saved Mr. Ogbemudia from a firing squad.

Meanwhile, in August 1966, Mr. Ogbemudia was transferred to the Area Command, Benin City, fighting with government forces in the civil war.

He was appointed military administrator of Mid-West state in September of the year following the liberation of the state from the secessionist Biafran forces. A month later, precisely on October 26, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed military governor of the state.

The programme of reconstruction he undertook brought the state great improvements in the areas of sports, urban development, education, public transportation, housing and commerce.

His administration built the Ogbe Sports Stadium, now named the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, and in August 1973 he commissioned the three-story National Museum in Benin City.

Other projects in that era included the Agbede Mechanized Farm, Rural Electrification Board, Bendel Steel Structures, Bendel Pharmaceuticals, Bendel Boatyard, the University of Benin and the Bendel Line.

Legend also credited Mr. Ogbemudia with introducing a certain Tony Anenih into politics. Back then in the Second Republic, Mr. Anenih had just retired from the police. According to an account, when the power brokers in the NPN persuaded Mr. Ogbemudia, popularly called “Ogbe wonder” to be the joker they needed to seize Bendel State from the ruling Unity Party of Nigeria, he brought with him the former police officer as the party’s chairman in the state.

The controversial polls of 1983 presented Mr. Anenih the stage to launch a successful political career as Mr. Fix It. They seized the governorship stool from the UPN governor, Ambrose Alli.

After the death of Mr. Abacha whom he had served as a minister and the restoration of democracy in 1998/1999, Mr. Ogbemudia and his friend joined in founding the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in Edo State and he was named into the party’s Board of Trustees.

The two men would control the PDP in Edo State over the next decade, first working well together but later falling apart as Mr. Anenih’s skill elevated him to the godfather and forced everyone else under his shadow. Mr. Ogbemudia didn’t seem to like that very much.

In November 2007, the conflict between the two became public when Mr. Ogbemudia walked out at an enlarged meeting of the PDP at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin, in protest over a zoning arrangement of offices that Mr. Anenih had rammed through.

In 2008, the court later nullified the election of Governor Oserheimen Osunbor, the PDP candidate said to have been handpicked by Mr. Anenih, as Edo State governor and declared Adams Oshiomhole of the Action Congress as the winner.

Mr. Ogbemudia, in an interview in November that year, said as a member of the PDP Board of Trustees, he would have preferred a PDP governor but accepted the victory of Mr. Oshiomhole whom he described as a man of strong character.

Messrs. Ogbemudia and Anenih both remained in the PDP but led different factions the state. In October 2009, Mr. Ogbemudia refused to attend a unity rally of the party in the state organised by Mr. Anenih. Instead he seemed to be moving closer to Mr. Oshiomhole, whose accomplishments he would publicly praise on many occasions.

Last year, Mr. Ogbemudia endorsed Godwin Obaseki, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress who was eventually elected as successor to Mr. Oshiomhole. By then though, Mr. Ogbemudia had long beaten a retreat from active politics and his old friend later turned political foe had been stripped of the capacity to fix things at the state or federal level.

But for Mr. Ogbemudia, the footprints he left in his prime more than three decades before his death would for long continue to earn him reverence by the people of Edo and Delta states.

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