By Sonala Olumhense
Mike Okhai Akhigbe
Someday, Namadi Sambo, at his appointed time just like everyone else, will die. Mr. Sambo is the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the country’s second most powerful job.
About 15 years ago, that position was held by a frontline naval chief known as Mike Akhigbe. Last week, he died in the United States of America. May his soul rest in peace.
Akhigbe was known to some as NNS Fearless. He was a tough-talking protégé of General Augustus Aikhomu, to whom he owed some of the accelerated political advancement he enjoyed at a relatively young age. He rose to the top of his profession as Vice Admiral, and rounded up public service as Chief of General Staff in the government of Abdussalam Abubakar.
As a former leader of Africa’s most contradictory country, he should never have died in America. People go to America to live, not to die. It is the land of immigrants where people fleeing persecution or hardship, or seeking new opportunities, go. It is somewhat ironic when someone, especially one or the relative of one who has had a chance to make America of his own country, goes there to die.
Some people say it is wrong to speak ill of the dead. But I believe it is considerably worse to do ill of the living, which is why some may find a few of the remarks in this essay to be offensive. I have no apologies.
No one knows the time of his death. Not Sambo. Not Akhigbe. Not me. That is how God created us. What we all know, however—what we always know when Time and Chance elevate us or tantalize us with images of invincibility—is when we hold in our hands something called authority.
Authority: The quality of being invested with power.
Akhigbe knew authority. As a journalist in the prime of my professional health, I witnessed his ascendancy in the mid-1980s to the post of Governor of Ondo, and then of Lagos State, presiding over the vast riches of Nigeria’s richest State.
He governed, but he neither enriched nor enhanced Lagos. As our leaders usually do, he disbursed the currency of power in a lukewarm and self-centred way. He traveled with the bluster and swagger of the military, like an end unto himself. Some people who knew him well in Lagos say that is exactly whom he was, and that he could serve himself with the best of them. I know a part of this story because once, he made me an incredibly lucrative offer. I humbly declined.
Anyone looking for proof of how much of a survivalist he was may look a statement by General Abdusalami Abubakar, who served as Head of State for 11 months from 1998 until the return of Obasanjo in May 1999.
Abubakar told NewsWatch that Abacha would have retired him from the army on June 8 1998. As it turned out, that was the day he died.
“There were indications that the Chief of Naval Staff and the Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ishaya Bamaiyi (and) Rear Admiral Mike Akhigbe and I were to be dismissed the Monday he (Abacha) died.”
Akhigbe went on to become the highest ranking naval officer at the time. When he died last week, some “top” Nigerians were falling all over themselves to pay tribute.
A former governor of Lagos State, Chief Bola Tinubu, who is richer than half of the country but has yet to build anything to serve the people, went further. “I call on the federal government to heavily invest in state-of-the-heart medical facilities…so that this disease can be early detected and treated before it becomes life-threatening. We owe that much to the memory of Akhigbe.”
Not only should Akhigbe never have died in America, he may not even have died last week, had his ailment been diagnosed early. He was in office as the nation’s Number 2 man, and he did not build or inspire any hospitals, let alone a state-of-the-art anything designed to benefit the Nigerian people.
I know he was in office for less than a year, but it is not the length of time; it is the heart that a leader invests in service. Regrettably, the heart that Akhigbe and Abubakar his boss invested in their 11 months is sad to recall.
I will list four measurements.
First: the Halliburton report of April 2010 in which Akhigbe was listed with former Nigerian leaders Ibrahim Bademasi Babangida, General Abubakar, General Abacha and Chief Ernest Shonekan among 80 Nigerians who allegedly collected inducements in exchange for contract favours on the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas project.
Second: his role in covering up the malfeasance that he and Abubakar said they uncovered on the part of Abacha and his aides. They took every opportunity to tell Nigerians of vast sums of money they had recovered from such people as Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, Abacha’s National Security Adviser; Chief Anthony Ani, his Minister of Finance; and Alhaji Bashir Dalhatu, who was the Minister of Power and Steel.
From Gwarzo alone they said they had recovered as much as $700, with a lot more being expected. They said the former NSA had admitted to owning at least 28 lavish properties in Abuja, and several more in such places as Zaria, Kano and Gwarzo. At that point, about three months after Abubakar and Akhigbe assumed office, their government said about N65 billion had been recovered from the Abacha family.
Later that year, Akhigbe declared that the government’s priority was not to jail the looters, but to recover the loot.
And then, early in May 1999, weeks before Obasanjo assumed power, Abubakar disclosed that $727 million had been recovered from the Abacha family, and that the incoming civilian administration would determine its disbursement.
Third: following the election of Obasanjo, and in the weeks leading to his swearing-in, Nigeria was abuzz with several large deals being cornered by the top military chiefs, including 11 oil exploration blocks and eight oil lifting contracts. Of the loot, The News magazine reported on May 10, 1999 that Akhigbe’s Ozeko Energy Resources received OPL 243. Neither he nor the government contradicted the report, despite still being in power.
Four: in September 1999, President Obasanjo revoked lands and properties that were improperly appropriated during the military regimes of Babangida, Abacha and Abubakar. Involved in the exercise were 26 prototype housing units at Gwarinmpa in Abuja, and 42 plots of land at the Osborne Phase II project in Lagos.
The Osborne stretch of land had a fascinating history. One greedy military regime after the other seized it and distributed it among its top members. After Abubakar, the new “winners” included Abubakar, Akhigbe, Gwarzo and Major Hamza Al-Mustapha.
The moral of this tale is that if you looked at the decade and a half that Akhigbe was at the height of his powers, he had every opportunity to provide or help provide the vision and inspiration and direction and dynamism that every society needs to fire up its development and empower its people.
Regrettably, he did not pen his name in the imagination of our people. Instead, he left behind images of greed and graft, which is partly why our leaders and their wives would rather die in a foreign country than live in theirs.
Yes, I knew NNS Fearless. He was a remarkable military officer.
But he was not a great man, let alone a statesman.