OBITUARY: Arthur Nzeribe, maverick who helped cancel June 12 elections, dies aged 83

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Arthur Nzeribe’s name elicits polarizing reactions depending on which part of Nigeria it is mentioned. While his legacy as a political maverick with a precocious business acumen is hailed in one region, others see him as an authoritarian instrument used by an autocratic regime to brood Nigerian democracy in its cradle. Yet none are wrong.

Family sources told TheCable that Nzeribe died in a UK hospital on May 5.

Nzeribe was a man of complicated qualities and contradictory acts. A selfish rebel to many and a selfless freedom fighter to others. He befriended and worked with pioneering Pan-Africanists and revered democrats like Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President, but conspired to derail the freest and fairest general elections ever in Nigeria. He was seen as a sympathetic philanthropist but was expelled from the Senate for nine months for alleged involvement in a N22 million fraud.

The Ogbuagu of Oguta, as he was nicknamed in his hometown, was a man whose image is almost antithetical, with several interpretations of his perceived stubbornness. Yet his impact on Nigeria’s history looms large as his “Heaven Of Peace” country home on the shores of Lake Oguta.

BECOME A YOUNG MILLIONAIRE

Nzeribe was born on November 2, 1938 to an influential family in Oguta, Imo State. However, he grew up in the care of Catholic priests after his mother died while he was still in primary school, and his father had gone to the UK to study law. He attended Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, and Holy Ghost College, Owerri before moving to Lagos State in 1957. He got employment with the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) as a student- engineer.

Eager and gifted to continue his education, Nzeribe won an NPA scholarship and went on to study marine engineering at Portsmouth College of Technology and Chesterfield College of Technology in England.

In the UK, Nzeribe first showed his business acumen by selling life insurance schemes to black immigrants in the country at age 22. And a year later he bought his first Jaguar.

WORKING FOR KWAME NKRUMAH

In 1960, while in the UK, Nzeribe met Kwame Nkrumah, who had led Ghana to independence three years previously. An amiable, well-dressed and persuasive Nzeribe won over Kwame and became his public relations manager, which led to a spell in Ghana.

Nzeribe rose to wealth and influence among the Ghanaian elite and became one of the country’s most influential immigrants.

REVOCATION OF JOSEPH ANKRAH AS HEAD OF STATE OF GHANA

A coup d’etat ousted Nkrumah on February 24, 1966, but the influence of the Nzeribe did not wane among the Ghanaian elite. He found favor with the newly enthroned National Liberation Council (NLC) and Joseph Ankrah, the Head of State.

However, on April 2, 1969, Ankrah admitted that he was involved in a corruption scandal which resulted in Nzeribe manipulating an opinion poll in the country. A commission of inquiry revealed that the Head of State had received C6,000.00 from Nzeribe, which could have influenced the results of the polls. As a result, Ankrah was forced to resign.

THE BETTER NIGERIA ASSOCIATION (ABN) AND THE JUNE 12 CANCELLATION

Nzeribe rose from scandal to establish himself as a prolific global businessman with connections across Europe and the Middle East. He also entered the political scene in Nigeria and became a Senator for Orlu Constituency in the 1983 elections.

But his most significant contribution to Nigerian politics came during the run-up to the June 12 presidential election in 1993. While the whole country wanted a change from the prolonged rule of successive military regimes, Nzeribe wanted the opposite. He established the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), a group of private citizens sponsoring a campaign calling on then-military head of state Ibrahim Babangida to remain in office for at least four years.

In a 1993 interview, Nzeribe said: “If Babangida leaves, the country will break into pieces. There will be another Bosnia.

The businessman claimed that the organization had collected petitions from over 25 million Nigerians who supported the cause.

On June 10, 1993, two days before the election, the organization obtained a High Court injunction against the holding of the poll on the basis of alleged corruption. Little credibility and attention was given to the injunction by Nigerians and politicians as the elections proceeded as planned. Moshood Abiola, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), established a significant lead in the poll.

On June 15, while vote collection was underway, ABN obtained another court injunction to stop the counting and verification. This time, however, the National Election Commission (NEC) accepted the injunction and announced on June 16 that it was suspending the announcement of the results, indicating a court ruling banning it.

Then eight days later, Babangida announced the cancellation of the election.

Although many Nigerians believed Nzeribe had been used by the military government to derail the elections, he has repeatedly denied his personal links to the junta.

SENATE SUSPENSION

After Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, Nzeribe contested the senatorial constituency of Orlu and won.

In November 2002, however, he was suspended indefinitely by Anyim Pius Anyim, then President of the Senate, for his alleged involvement in a N22 million fraud. Nzeribe would be exiled from the legislature for nine months until his re-election in 2003.

He eventually lost the seat in 2006 after losing to Osita Izunaso in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) primaries.

There began the decline of the political strongman from the limelight.

LIVING IN HOTELS FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES

When a photo of a sickly Nzeribe emerged on social media in 2017, Nigerians expressed mixed reactions to the businessman’s sad state.

A widely shared comment with the photo says: “Above, Authur Nzeribe lives as an invalid in his country house in Orlu, OMI State. At the height of his life, he lived in the Presidential Suite of the Nicon Hilton Hotel Abuja for over 20 years. The same goes for the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos.

Nzeribe was 83 years old.

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