BusinessDay

Life as the art of deal-making; the life and times of Arthur Nzeribe (1938-2022)

Sunday, June 12, 2022, was Democracy Day. It provided a fresh chance for Nigerians to reflect on the events surrounding June 12, 1993. It was also a time to reflect on the story of Nigeria since that red-letter day, and to think about what might have been, perhaps.

Nigeria as a nation, and Nigerians as a people, are not good at stock-taking. There is no agreed, common narrative concerning the past. This includes a bloody civil war in which more than one million souls perished. It also includes pogroms in which several citizens of a part of the country were mercilessly hewn down by citizens of another part of the country. It includes military coups, and IPOB and herdsmen, and warped events that have led the country to its present sad pass.

Nobody has agreed to any version of the story. Nobody has apologised for anything. The Oputa Panel, which was allegedly meant to be Nigeria’s equivalent of the Archbishop Tutu-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, did not go anywhere towards showing Nigerians embracing the spirit of Truth, not to speak of Reconciliation. The Nigerian nation itself, it seems, is founded on a fragile lie, and if the roots of the structure are scrutinised too closely, there is a realistic fear that the whole superstructure could crumble.

The Nigerian nation itself, it seems, is founded on a fragile lie, and if the roots of the structure are scrutinised too closely, there is a realistic fear that the whole superstructure could crumble

What is heard, regularly, is about the ‘unity’ and ‘indissolubility’ of the Nigerian entity. The first item is non-existent, and the second is clearly bogus as things stand.

June 12 is now being celebrated annually in Nigeria as ‘Democracy Day,’ with a public holiday and the ritual of public events celebrating the life of Bashorun MKO Abiola.

But to show the absurdity of Nigeria’s relationship with its history, even June 12 itself is unfinished business, almost 30 years after it happened. While some of the actors have since died, many of the principals are still very much alive. The man who is quoted publicly to have said he would shoot MKO Abiola if the power was handed over to him, later went on to become the president of the Nigerian Senate, and is still very much alive. The military ‘president’ who oversaw the whole charade ‘stepped aside’ and retired to his hilltop redoubt in Minna. There is no remorse, no apology, no contrition. So,what exactly is the nation celebrating?

A big fish among the villains of the piece, who may be dubbed ‘the contractor,’ for it would be stretching credibility to its elastic limits to pretend he was acting out of conviction, was a billionaire from Oguta who lived a colourful, controversial life, and died at the ripe old age of 84, barely one month ago. His name is Francis Arthur Nzeribe.

Nzeribe was born in Oguta, Imo State, on the 2nd of November 1938. He lost his mother while still a student in primary school. His father was away in the United Kingdom, studying for a law degree. Catholic priests close to the family took over his care, and on completing primary school, he attended Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, and later Holy Ghost College, Owerri. He moved to Lagos in 1957 and started work with Nigerian Port Authority. A year later, he obtained a scholarship to study Marine Engineering in England.

Within two years he was making money selling insurance policies to black people who had immigrated to the UK.

He returned to Nigeria in 1961. He did various jobs, including short stints with some oil companies.

But he was restless, and soon he was back in the UK. This time he opened a Public Relations firm known as JEAFAN with some friends. The firm worked with some African diplomatic missions. Arthur, who was always smartly dressed and perfectly groomed, wormed his way into the affections of some African leaders. He impressed Ghanaian leader, the Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, and started doing Public Relations work for him.

Those were heady days in nationalistic and pan-African circles in London and Accra.

But in a manner that showed the transactional nature of the man, he had no qualms about deploying his company to burnish the image of the government of General Joseph Ankrah, which came to power after Nkrumah was dethroned in a military coup.

After Ankrah himself was forced to resign from office, Nzeribe set up a company known as FANZ in London with a wide-ranging portfolio which included arms trading, oil brokerage, construction, publishing, and property. He had interests in the Middle East and the Gulf States. His wealth grew exponentially.

In Nigeria too, Nzeribe set up some companies. He also became involved in politics, to which he brought the same unemotional, Machiavellian attitude he had exhibited earlier. He was reputed to have spent several millions of pounds to win a senatorial seat in his home-state of Imo.

His lasting impact on Nigerian history was to set up a shadowy, quaintly named organisation known as the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN). The richly funded group claimed to have millions of followers and carried out all manner of activities in aid of General Babangida’s agenda to elongate his rule, the high-point of which was obtaining a midnight ruling from Justice Bassey Ikpeme’s High court in Abuja on June 10, 1993, designed to stop the election that would be won by Chief MKO Abiola. This, with other actions, would lead to the annulment of the election and the death of Abiola.

Nzeribe would go on later to serve two terms in the Senate and be appointed as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples’ Democratic Party of Nigeria.

But what he will be remembered for in years to come is the role he played in the sinister, high-stakes skullduggery that aborted the election of 1993 and, most ironically, resulted in the designation of June 12 as Democracy Day in Nigeria.

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