Anthony Ani, Calabar Obong and palace democracy ~ by Olusegun Adeniyi
Celebrations at the palace of the Obong of Calabar, Édidem Ekpo Okon Abasi-Otu V, following his dethronement by the Supreme Court last Friday, caught the attention of curious Nigerians. Most are oblivious to the interesting subtext. The judgement was well received by a majority of Efiks and the people of Calabar but there is also broader relief that the 15-year legal battle for the Obong stool has finally been resolved on the side of commonsense and public good. At the end, the loser is Chief Anthony Ani, the controversial Minister of Finance under the late General Sani Abacha.
I watched the video of members of the Conclave of Etuboms, or more appropriately Etuboms Traditional Council (kingmakers of the Efiks), dancing to the private residence of the dethroned Obong in a colourful procession. Since they will soon sit to select a new Obong as directed by the apex court, the outcome is already predictable. But before I highlight the substance of this development and its lessons, I want to take readers back to what transpired a decade ago.
In June 2013, a ruling by the Court of Appeal affirmed nullification of the processes through which Abasi-Otu was crowned Obong of Calabar and disqualified Anthony Ani from the contest. Following the ruling, the Etuboms’ Traditional Council released a strongly worded statement, signed by council chairman, Okor Bassey Duke, asserting that being capped was a mandatory requirement for eligibility to contest for the post of Obong of Calabar. “Consequently, the entire Efik community and all well-meaning people welcome the decision of the court that Chief Anthony Ani is not traditionally qualified and eligible to contest to be the Obong of Calabar,” they stated.
The appeal court ruling, according to the Etuboms, had firmly put paid to “his (Ani’s) spurious and vexatious claims to the position that he knows he is not fit for. This simple truth is what we have been insisting on and we shall continue to maintain it till the end of time”. The Etuboms’ Council added that since Abasi-Otu was not excluded from participating in the re-ordered selection of Obong, the appeal court “vindicates our earlier stance and voting pattern where Anthony Ani with all his resources scored only one vote against the then Etubom Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu”. Without mentioning any name, the Etuboms ended their statement with this sledgehammer: “Those who have gotten access to tremendous wealth through dubious means should seek forgiveness of God by using such wealth charitably and not be tempted to use such wealth to destroy ancient traditions and culture”.
Now, the story. There are 12 ruling houses in Calabar, each headed by an Etubom who is eligible to be Obong, provided such a person has been ‘capped’ by a sitting Obong. This simple but rather significant ceremony involves the Obong in Council placing the traditional woven cap on the Etubom so chosen by a ruling house as a formal initiation. In November 2001, following the death of Edidem Boco Ene Nkpang Cobham, a problem arose. One of the Etuboms, the late Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey, a respected journalist and politician, announced that “A new Obong of Calabar has been installed. He is Edidem, Professor Nta Elijah Henshaw VI.”
Although eminently qualified for the throne on which five of his forebears (Henshaws) had sat, the emergence of the first West African Professor of Dentistry as the Obong went against the grain of rotation arrangement between Western and Central Calabar for the stool. With the deceased Obong Cobham from Central Calabar, expectation was that Western Calabar would produce his successor. Henshaw hailed from the Nsidung ruling house in Central Calabar. But as the then Governor of Cross River State, Mr Donald Duke explained to me at the weekend, Western Calabar at that time had no candidate to match the intimidating credentials of Henshaw, even though he (as Governor) supported their claim to the throne. Eventually, the crisis was resolved by Duke who secured a compromise that Henshaw would be allowed to retain the Obong throne but whenever the stool became vacant, it would rotate back to Western Calabar.
When Henshaw died in 2008, then Governor Liyel Imoke expressed no personal interest in the matter. So, the Etuboms decided to honour that agreement by ceding the position of Obong to candidates from Western Calabar. The most prominent personality from Western Calabar happened to be Ani, who had returned from self-exile abroad. While he coveted the Obong throne, there was a lacuna. Ani was not an Etubom. That was quickly resolved with the then Etubom of the Ikoneto ruling house relinquishing his position to Ani. But another problem arose: The process of ‘capping’ had to be done. Without that, Ani would never be qualified to become an Obong. Since there was no Obong alive to do that, Ani’s aspiration ‘had K—leg’ to borrow a famous expression by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Notwithstanding, Ani still put his hat into the ring since in Nigeria, there are a thousand ways to get to the market if you have the financial means.
I understand that in deference to Ani, Abasi-Otu (who had in 2004 been capped and officially inducted into the Council of Etubom by Obong Henshaw) initially campaigned for the fellow of chartered accountant and former minister. But the more Abasi-Otu presented Ani’s case among the Etuboms, the more he was asked, “What stops you from becoming Obong? Why are you promoting a man who is not qualified for the throne?” Apart from the issue of capping, I understand that most of the Etuboms considered Ani too arrogant for the throne. With time, it became clear to Abasi-Otu that the Etuboms would rather have him as Obong and that he was selling a candidate who could not fly. That was how Ani’s promoter became the most preferred for the throne.
Notwithstanding, Ani entered the race, seeking a special dispensation by introducing the strange concept of ‘micro zoning’. His claim was that in Western Calabar, it was the turn of his Ikoneto homestead to produce the Obong hence he ought to be given right of first refusal. His request had no precedent and was turned down by the Etuboms who went on to elect Abasi-Otu as Obong. With that, Ani left the matter in the hands of his lawyer, one of the best in the country: Joe Agi, SAN.
In January 2012, Ani secured a judgement from the High Court in Calabar presided over by Justice Obojor Ogar which held that the selection process that led to Abasi-Otu’s enthronement in 2008 was flawed. The court therefore declared the stool of Obong of Calabar vacant and ordered that another selection process be instituted with Ani as one of the contestants. Dissatisfied, Abasi-Otu, joined by the Etuboms, took the matter to the appeal court. In his judgement on 4th June 2013, Justice Garba Lawal (now a Justice of the Supreme Court), ruled that Ani “who admittedly was not capped/inducted into the Etuboms’ Council of the Palace of the Obong by the Obong at the time of the selection process of the Obong of Calabar, was not traditionally qualified and eligible to vote and be voted for as the Obong of Calabar.” Justice Garba also declared the Obong throne vacant and ordered a fresh selection process.
With the Council of Etuboms united against him and in support of the dethroned Obong, Ani knew what would follow. So, his lawyer went back to the court of appeal to argue that if the judgement was not stayed, “the appellants/applicants right of Appeal against the said judgement will be paralysed (and) if the Appeal succeeds, it will create a situation of helplessness and make the judgement of the Appellate Court nugatory”. Ani’s main argument was that even though he had not been capped as Etubom, the fact that he was invited, screened, and allowed to contest by other Etuboms (the kingmakers) as a Western Calabar candidate meant that certain provisions of the constitution of the Etuboms’ Council had been waived in his favour. For effect, his lawyer argued some legalese about the “doctrine of Estoppel”, which meant nothing to the Etuboms. On 8th July 2013, they met again and announced that in compliance with the appeal court order, Etubom Abasi-Otu V had been re-elected the Obong of Calabar, “having been fully satisfied with the candidate’s qualification and eligibility, and there being no dissent whatsoever among the Kingmakers.” The statement was signed by its then chairman, Etubom Micah Archibong, and secretary, Etubom Okon Etim Okon Asuquo.
That action prompted Ani to approach the Supreme Court which has finally put paid to his ambition to be Obong of Calabar. Since Edidem Abasi-Otu V is allowed to participate in the new process and Ani is effectively barred, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. That explains the carnival-like atmosphere both within the palace and Calabar city because their beloved monarch is simply on holiday. “So far, so good. We are confident that the Obong of Calabar will remain, and peace will continually prevail in the kingdom,” chairman of the Etubom Traditional Council, Etubom Bassey Okor Duke declared last Friday.
For the Efiks, the most superior court in the land has laid down the constitutional/ cultural route to ascending the throne of Obong of Calabar. It is commendable that the Council of Etuboms stood firm on this matter. That is not usually the case when it comes to the selection of traditional rulers in most parts of the country today. It has too often become a game of the highest bidders, with all sorts of characters elevated to the position of ‘royal fathers’—including those who cannot even manage their own families. Sadly, this desecration of traditional institutions is increasingly more prevalent in the Southwest, where Obas were once revered as ‘Ekeji Orisa’ (second-in-command to the deity).
Meanwhile, there are many lessons to learn from the Obong tussle in Calabar. One, the process is as important as the outcome. Two, attempts to circumvent the rule of law and procedural approach to institutional offices have consequences. Ani knows that too well. The late Etubom Ekpo Bassey was part of this drama. He once proclaimed himself the Edidem (as Obongs are addressed) without the endorsement of other Etuboms. Many in Calabar still attribute his sudden death in 2010 to that unilateral declaration. Many also speculate that it is what accounted for Ani not heeding the counsel for self-initiation as Obong when goaded to do so in 2012.
At the end, the most important lesson is one of good leadership. Edidem Abasi-Otu was a man of modest education and financial means in 2008. He was just a divisional manager in a little-known private company. Yet, his colleagues saw in him the attributes they needed in an Obong, preferring him to a wealthy and prominent national figure. And in the past 15 years, Abasi-Otu’s conduct has established his legitimacy. All the Efiks (regardless of their status) I know speak glowingly about the character of their monarch who is loved by his subjects. That is a lesson that will also serve our political leaders. Long may the Obong of Calabar, Édidem Ekpo Okon Abasi-Otu V, reign!
In his memoir, ‘Audacity on the Bound: A Diplomatic Odyssey’, the late Ambassador Olusola Sanu tells a compelling story of our country in the years preceding independence and the years after, from the perspective of a diplomat. He detailed the critical roles played by George Dove-Edwin, John Ukegbu, Sam Ifeagwu, Adedokun Haastrup, Isa Wali, Olu Adeniji, Emmanuel Odogwu, Akporode Clark, Emeka Anyaoku and others in the first set of what is now a vanishing generation. But I recall that in the eighties at the Department of International Relations, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Anyaoku was the reference point for many students given his visibility as one of the most notable Africans on the global stage at the time. Interestingly, I had just graduated in October 1989 when he became the Secretary General of the Commonwealth in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. In a remarkable election that pitched him against a former Australian Prime Minister, Malcom Fraser, the Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) voted overwhelmingly in Anyaoku’s favour. And in that role, he was central to the resolution of many crises in the last three decades of the 20th century.
For instance, Anyaoku was involved in the process that led to the release from prison of the late Nelson Mandela, the independence of Namibia and Zimbabwe and ultimately, the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Between 1 November 1991 and 17 November 1993, Anyaoku undertook eleven trips to South Africa in the efforts to break the deadlocks in the protracted negotiations that eventually culminated in majority rule. But even though he acted as Commonwealth Secretary General, his interest went beyond the call of duty.
As a junior officer in the Nigerian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Anyaoku had first met the late African National Congress (ANC) former president, Oliver Reginald Tambo in 1963. From that time, the duo became close friends. Tambo would later introduce Anyaoku to his Personal Assistant, Thabo Mbeki who succeeded Mandela as South African President. It is a testimony to how much Anyaoku was revered for the critical role he played that he was given the rare honour to address a joint session of the South African National Assembly in 1998 by then sitting President Mandela who remarkably wrote the foreword to Anyaoku’s personal memoir and another foreword to Anyaoku’s authorized biography by a Canadian journalist, Phyllis Johnson.
In the first to Anyaoku’s memoir, ‘The Inside Story of the Modern Commonwealth’, Mandela wrote: “I am well aware of the need to avoid exaggerating the role of the individual in history. On the other hand, history is replete with examples of individuals intervening in situations and making all the difference. Emeka Anayoku’s intervention in South Africa’s transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy was a decisive contribution which history, if properly nursed, will come to acknowledge.”
Before I get to Mandela’s second and more personal reflection on Anyaoku, let me also acknowledge that I have had the privilege of close interactions with the highly revered diplomat who treats me like a son. Since he returned to Nigeria almost two decades ago, I have benefitted from his intellect and generosity of spirit. In his strict adherence to discipline, Anyaoku was one of the first to arrive the venue (before the slated 10am) when I presented my book, ‘Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Africa’ in Lagos in April 2017. And he stayed till the end. Three weeks ago, he called to inform me about his birthday and that he would be hosting a select audience for lunch to mark the occasion. He said he would appreciate my presence. He followed up by sending, through courier, a non-transferable invitation card to me in Abuja. Regrettably, I could not make yesterday’s lunch date in Lagos, but I sent him a congratulatory message.
I cannot say more for Anyaoku than what his friend, the late Mandela wrote in Phyllis Johnson’s ‘Eye of Fire’, after recalling how they first met at Pollsmoor prison in May 1986 at a period Anyaoku was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General and had visited South Africa as a member of the Eminent Group. “In what has grown to be a warm personal friendship, two qualities of the Chief have consistently struck me: his unwavering commitment to democracy and justice; and his quiet personal style for achieving these objectives. Never seeking the limelight for himself, Emeka Anyaoku’s most enduring strength is his ability to win the trust of different peoples, at different times, and in different places” Mandela wrote. “Master of quiet diplomacy, the Chief also brings to the international arena that great African tradition of consensus building that has positioned him in a key role as a builder of bridges across peoples and nations.”
We are fortunate in Nigeria to be blessed with remarkable human capital of Anyaoku’s stature. While he and a few others in his class may have helped to shape our past, we need them even more desperately now that we are literally challenged to reinvent our nation through the process of democratic renewal. I wish the Ichie Adazie of Obosi happy birthday, long life, and good health as he joins the elite Nonagenarian Club.
Olusegun Adeniyi; you can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdictand on www.olusegunadeniyi.com