By Eric Teniola
When President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, submitted his list of Ministers to the Senate on July 23, the name of Chief Audu Innocent Ogbeh (72) was missing. He was one of the few Ministers who was not re-nominated by the President. And this led to a conclusion that perhaps the public service career of this colourful politician is over and that henceforth he will retire to his village in Efugu-Otukpa with his wife, Justina Obehi and take the back seat with a role as an Elder Statesman. If that should be, it is not too early to thank Chief Ogbeh for his contributions to Nigeria. No doubt Chief Audu Ogbeh now has a passport to join the league of Benue State greats including Chief Jacob Obade, the Minister of State in charge of the Nigerian Army in early sixties who recruited most military officers from that zone.
The name Audu Ogbeh caught National attention in 1979 when he was elected as deputy speaker of the Benue state House of Assembly. On October 18, 1979, President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari submitted 31 names to the Senate for ministerial confirmation. Benue state had two cabinet nominees, Chief Isaac Shaahu and Chief Paul Unongo.
Following the allegations against Chief Paul Unongo, President Shagari dropped him from the cabinet and appointed Chief Audu Ogbeh as Minister of Communication at the age of 33. President Shagari later moved him to the Ministry of Power and Steel. It was at this time that I knew Chief Audu Ogbeh who was introduced to me by his bosom friend, Chief Innocent Adikwu, who was then Editor of THE SUNDAY PUNCH. He was also introduced to me later by my colleague and friend, Mr Muyiwa Adetiba, a gifted writer, who was then a star in the Punch Newspaper who later became Editor of THE SUNDAY PUNCH. In his first term he was loyal to President Shagari and he did his job brilliantly.
On October 17, 1983 he was re-nominated by President Shagari as a Minister in his second term. Only seven of them were re-nominated. And they were Chief Eteng Okoi Obuli (Cross River), Mohammed Ibrahim Hassan (Bauchi), Alhaji Ali Baba (Gongola), Alhaji Umaru Abdurahman Dikko (Kaduna), Alhaji Adamu Ciroma (Borno) and Chief Audu Ogbeh (Benue) and Dr. Ishael Jikiri Igbani (Rivers). The rest were freshers.
On December 31, Major General Muhammadu Buhari toppled President Shehu Shagari. Chief Ogbeh went back to his farm in Benue State.
He returned to full time farming in December 1984. During the period, he set up a number of number of personal projects including Medium Scale Rice Mill, 14,000 Tree Cashew Plantation and a Poultry Farm.
He also consulted for several state governments and established a number of notable projects, including a large scale pineapple project for Cross River State and 2 rice mills – for the Family Economic Advancement Program in Abuja and for General Jeremiah.T. Useni in Langtang, Plateau State.
While in full time agriculture, he answered the call to serve and was appointed to the 19 member National Constitutional Conference Commission in 1993. He was later appointed sto the eight-man National Reconciliation Committee which was inaugurated on December 28, 1995 under the leadership of my former teacher, Chief Alexander Opeyemi Akinyele, the Loboshin of Ondo Kingdom. General Sani Abacha inaugurated the committee with a view towards full reconciliation among Nigerians. He later dissolved the committee.
In 1998, he directed the presidential campaign of Dr. Alex Ekwueme, under the PDP and became a full time member of the party; which won the elections in 1999.
He is also a member of Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships Incorporated, based in Philadelphia, United States of America. He has written five plays which include three published works. One of his plays, the Epitaph of Simon Kisulu was staged at Muson Center in 2002.
The brutal politics in Benue state almost took his life as he was attacked by hired assassins and was presumed dead after the attack in 1999.
On November 11, 2001, Chief Audu Ogbeh succeeded his Benue state colleague, Chief Bernabas Germade who in November 1999 defeated Chief Sunday Awoniyi as Chairman of the party. Chief Audu Ogbeh’s term as chairman was tumultuous. The puzzle I still don’t understand till now is why President Obasanjo picked on Chief Ogbeh to be the National chairman when in 1998 he was the campaign manager of Chief Alex Ekwueme in his Presidential bid at the Jos Convention.
Chief Ogbeh reorganized the party and ensured the party’s victory in the 2003 election. From day one we knew that the marriage between President Obasanjo and Chief Audu Ogbeh can’t work. One grew up in a military constituency where 100% total loyalty to your boss wrong or right is required while the other grew up in a rather free world of ideas where you can agree and disagree on principles. The gubernatorial election in Anambra state in 2003 and other crises exposed the division between the two men.
Shortly after the Presidential election in 2003 he was faced with a difficult decision either to support President Obasanjo’s third term bid or to abide by the constitution provision which allows any individual to serve only two terms. The decision he took became risky. Towards the end of his tenure and with his increasingly vocal denunciations against the excesses of the Obasanjo administration, he came into conflict with the president.
Chief Audu Ogbeh’s family was harassed and subjected humiliation and embarrassment. His wife, Justina Obehi Ogbeh from Ekpoma in Edo state and his five children were not spared in the ordeal.
Obasanjo’s response on December 12, 2004 was laced with bile even from the first paragraph where he wrote: “I am amused and not surprised by your letter of December 6, 2004 because after playing hide and seek games over a period of time, you have finally, at least in writing, decided to unmask and show your true colour.” Ogbeh refused pressures to resign from office and throughout the yuletide holidays of 2004 the nation was kept agape by the standoff between the party chairman and the president.
In early January, not even a reconciliatory lunch of pounded yam was enough to reconcile the two men and Ogbeh finally resigned following apprehensions about his life. The fact that the resignation was announced by President Obasanjo’s spokesperson, Mrs. Oluremi Oyo, gave credibility to the rumour that Chief Audu Ogbeh resigned under duress.
He claimed later that he resigned only to avoid conflict within the party, and due to a desire to return to farming. He handed to someone from President Obasanjo’s military constituency, Colonel (rtd.) Ahmadu Adah Ali (82) of the ALI MUST GO FAME, who was Minister of Education between 1978 and 1979 during the tenure of General Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State.
In December 2005, he formally resigned from the PDP. It was not until 2015 that he joined the All Progressives Congress (APC) as a pioneer member. In November 11, 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari appointed him Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.
In the last three and half years, his work in the Ministry of Agriculture has been commendable.
The political obituary of Chief Audu Ogbeh is yet to be written. Deputy Speaker, National Chairman of a ruling party, three-term Minister, these are notable achievements of a worthy public servant.
Teniola, a former Director at the Presidency, writes from Lagos