There is something about Orji Uzo Kalu, (OUK), former governor of Abia state, which sticks to your face, making it almost impossible to ignore him, while at the same time alarming your instincts not to feel very comfortable with him, or even trust his moves. Recent reports that OUK had used an armada of police and court bailiffs to ‘shut down’ Thisday after winning a N500m libel suit against the newspaper, as well as his declaration of intent to run for the presidency in 2011 under the PPA , a party he founded and then abandoned, have set tongues wagging. What is OUK up to this time around?
Kalu’s antecedents are rooted in contradictions. Stories of how he came by his wealth and his rise to national prominence are laced with sublime lines of heroism and ‘cowboyism’. On the source of his wealth, for instance, story had it that while studying political science at the University of Maiduguri in the late 1970s, OUK got involved in the ‘Ali Must Go’ student riots of 1978, and was suspended from the university along with other student leaders. However while many of the student leaders chose to drag the university authorities to court, OUK sneaked into trading with N5, 000, which he got from his mother. From this small beginning, it was said, he moved into furniture trading and other businesses, such that when his suspension was eventually lifted, he was no longer interested in being a student.
Accounts of his rise to national prominence have even more cow-boyish elements. Story had it that in 1985 – before the introduction of the structural adjustment programme in 1986 – when our Naira was much stronger than the US dollar – OUK donated a whopping N500, 000 at a University of Maiduguri fundraising event. However when he was to redeem his pledge, the story had it that OUK sent cardboard boxes stuffed with used newspapers, with a few Naira notes spread on top to give the appearance that everything there was money.
The above type of narratives – bold and audacious embrace of heroic undertakings that mask a certain love for lucre and limelight – appear to be the defining characteristics of the Kalu enigma. Which is why OUK’s current twin projects of ‘shutting down’ the ‘almighty’ ThisDay newspaper, and his declaration of intent to run again for president under the PPA, is raising expected beer parlour hailing and sneering. What does OUK want this time around? Is he acting out any one’s script?
As Governor, OUK and Nduka Obaigbena, publisher of ThisDay, were said to be close pals. Why was it necessary for him to pounce on the paper same day as he got the huge libel award? Rumours are expectedly flying around. One version is that OUK felt incensed at the way the paper reported the death of a young Nigerian woman, Chinwe Masi, in his (Kalu’s) Maryland, United States’, residence on Thursday, August 19, 2010. Another version is that he was fronting for the presidency, which allegedly felt angry at the way the paper reported the Abuja bombing ( a rather surprising rumour given the widespread belief that the paper’s ‘trends analyses’, which suggest that President Jonathan would win the PDP’s primaries, were contrived to feed into the ‘moving train’ storyline of the Jonathan campaign). There is yet another rumour that he is fronting for IBB, believed to be his close pal, and who honoured him with the National Merit Award in 1986, when OUK was only 26 years old. Whatever may be the true motive for that audacious attempt to ‘ground’ ThisDay, there appears to be a consensus that no one will be surprised, if, a few weeks from now OUK and Obaigbena make up, with Kalu announcing that Obaigbena had been like a brother to him for years, and that the incident at ThisDay was a minor normal misunderstanding between ‘brothers’.
The same suspicion of motive has followed OUK’s declaration of intent to run for the presidency under PPA. The rhetoric that informed the intent is of course vintage Kalu. In an interview with the Tribune (online) of October 6, 2010, Kalu said he was going to run for President to “represent the oppressed people of Nigeria and the deprived and marginalised Igbo people living in Onitsha, Aba, Enugu, Ebonyi and all parts of Nigeria who were still feeling that the civil war had not formally ended going by their alienation in the national scheme of things.”. OUK, a founding member of the PDP, declared himself a good apostle of the PDP zoning, which immediately beggars the question of why he should be contesting for president rather than lend his voice to the pro-zoning forces, which is widely thought to be the best opportunity of producing a President of Igbo extraction by 2015. Will OUK’s decision to run, though under a different party platform, not negate his own position on zoning?
Some years ago OUK was widely seen as one of the most promising political super stars from the South East. When he became Governor of Abia State in 1999, he waxed populist, publishing accounts of the government’s expenditures in newspapers in a unique demonstration of transparency. He embarked on massive road works but critics allege they were the usual the more-you-look-the-less-you-see manoeuvres that underpin the OUK persona. His critics claim that he rented moribund bulldozers and positioned them in strategic locations in the state to create the impression of massive road work in-progress, but that only few roads were actually constructed, and even those were built with poor quality materials that were easily exposed by the rains.
There are things that must be conceded to OUK. He took on both Obasanjo and Tony Anenih at a time no one dared look those two in the eyes. He made success of Enyimba Football Club of Aba, promising even to float the club on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. His airline, Slok, and newspaper, The Sun, are generally considered very successful. A party he formed, the PPA, surprised everyone by winning two Governorship and one Senatorial seats in Igboland. Yet like everything about OUK, even these obvious successes are contested, with critics finding unethical manoeuvres to explain those successes.
The PPA that held much promise in Igboland in 2007 has since unravelled, with the party’s two Governors decamping to PDP, after accusing OUK of meddlesomeness. Kalu later disbanded the PPA and tried to re-join his former party, PDP, which he left in 2007 but some elements within the PDP in his Abia state opposed his attempted return to the party, forcing him to return to his vomit. A faction of the PPA has made it clear it won’t welcome OUK back into the party.
However this plays out, there appears to be a consensus that barring a major shift in current power configuration at the federal level, OUK may be entering the twilight of his political career.