Late Col. Tanko Zubairu Was In Imo From August 23, 1996 – May 29, 1999, And Witnessed The Otokoto Mayhem, Imo NUJ Crises, 1999 Election, Etal.

By: Sam Onwuemeodo

The sad news of the death of Col. Tanko Zubairu came to most people in Imo as a shock. He died at the age of 74, at the Military Hospital in Kaduna. A very fine officer. That was on Monday, October 11, 2021. But that’s not the crux of this essay.

Rather, the reported death had elicited the enthusiasm or the interest to write on the coming of Zubairu to Imo State, as Military Administrator.

After a Naval Captain, James Nwabueze Aneke, had held sway from December 13, 1993 to August 21, 1996. In other words, Zubairu succeeded Aneke. I am going to cut the long story short.

The story that Col. Zubairu was a Christian from Kaduna State had excited a lot of Imo people. He was not only seen as a Christian, but as a “born-again Christian”. That was the story. The interesting tale.

Zubairu arrived the State on August 21, 1996 and left on May 29, 1999. And to the writer, his coming and stay in Imo as a MILAD witnessed three major incidents, among others. Historical incidents. Incidents that had become parts and parcels of the State’s story. The coming, the stay and departure of Col. Tanko Zubairi as Military Administrator.

Zubairu was barely one month in the State, when the Otokoto Crisis broke out on September 24, 1996. Imo people, especially the youths had stormed the streets against those they had seen as 419ners and kidnappers. Obviously, Col. Zubairu played along as long as the protest had lasted. The Security agencies in the State also played along. The rest is history.

However, Zubairu had set up the Judicial Panel of inquiry headed by Justice Paul Onumajuru. And also set up the Armed robbery and firearms tribunal headed by Justice Nnodum. The outcome of these Panels or tribunals will be stories for another day.

Zubairu, also had set up a Task Force on Recovery of Government Funds and Property, headed by Major Chris Ilouga. On March 10, 1997, the task force declared the former Secretary to the State Government, Chief Christian Obasi Irechukwu wanted, over Adapalm Cases. And Prince Amobi Ugochukwu over N16M contract for the production of security Identity Cards for pupils and students in the State.

On January 23, 1997, Col. Zubairu launched “Operation Storm”, a Security Outfit to chase the “remaining criminals” out of the State. So, the Otokoto Saga was one major incident that had made Zubairu’s stay in Imo unforgettable. As long as the Otokoto episode remains key part of the State’s story or history, Col. Zubairu would continue to be remembered, whether dead or alive.

Zubairu had chosen to describe those that led to the Otokoto Crisis, as the “Nouveau Riche who lived above the law”. The protesters had had a field day. That also made some people to accuse Zubairu of supporting the rampage.

The scenario was so charged and demanding that even Zubairu’s Predecessor, Navy Captain Aneke had to appear before Justice Onumajuru’s Commission of Inquiry to defend himself over the allegations against him and his administration. At least, he was accused of giving the “Nouveau riche” the freedom to be “lawless”. His administration was also accused of selling some State owned properties including Amaraku Power Station.

Aneke appeared before Onumajuru panel on Thursday, November 21, 1996. He took the whole day. And Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN), was his lawyer. The rest remains history. Aneke not only appeared, but submitted a 15-page written document which he described as “Memorandum”.

Aneke’s closing remarks stated, “I thank this Panel for giving me the opportunity to at least present my side of the story. I may not have reacted to everything that has been said because I was not in the position to know them all. I urge the people of Imo State to Judge me on facts and not on sentiments. I pray to God Almighty to visit this Panel with the Spirit of Courage and truth that they may do Justice to all in their findings of facts. May God’s Will prevail. Thank you”. The rest is equally part of our history.

Zubairu also witnessed the 1999 governorship election in the State, Conducted on Saturday, January 9, 1999. Prof. Engr. Chuka O.G Obah, the then Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, FUTO, was the Returning Officer in that election.

The election was between Dr. Ezekiel Izuogu of All Peoples Party, APP, Chief Achike Udenwa of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and Nze Mark Odu of Alliance for Democracy, AD. Both Udenwa and Izuogu were from Orlu Zone, while Odu was from Owerri Zone.

To most people in the State, Zubairu had sympathy for Izuogu of the APP. He wanted Izuogu to win. Like I had earlier stated, the general feeling or impression in the State was that Zubairu was a born-again Christian, not of Igbo extraction but of Northern extraction. Most Imo people loved him for that. And he wanted to add fibre to that general impression by supporting another said “born-again Christian” Izuogu, to win the election. But there was no empirical evidence or proof to show between Izuogu and Udenwa who was more “born-again”, than the other. But the impression, perhaps erroneous, was that Izuogu was more Christian than Udenwa. At least, in the eyes of some men and women. But obviously, not in the eyes of God who searches the hearts of all men and women.

So, after the election, the reports from the Local Governments were that Udenwa had defeated Izuogu. But several hours after the results of the election had been tabulated at INEC office in Owerri, Obah was delaying the announcement of the results.

The story had gone round that Zubairu had equally wanted Obah to tamper with the results in favour of Izuogu, even when there was no visible proof of the allegation. But Udenwa and his team didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. They went ahead to release the results of the election, local government by local government. Izuogu reacted and told Imo people to disregard the results in circulation.

In the results released by Udenwa’s group, PDP had 388,686 votes, APP 379,485, while AD had 13,501.

However, late on Sunday, January 10, 1999, Prof. Obah announced the results of the governorship election, with slight differents from what Udenwa’s group circulated.

In the results announced by Obah, PDP had 388,680 votes, APP, 379, 491 and AD, 13, 605 Votes. Udenwa won in 14 local governments, including Nkwerre, Owerri Municipal, Oru West, Ahiazu Mbaise, Njaba, Owerri North, Ngor-Okpala, Isiala Mbano, Ehime Mbano, Orlu, Nwangele, Ezinihitte, Okigwe, and Oru East.

Izuogu won in Ikeduru, Onuimo, Isu, Orsu, Ihitte Uboma, Mbaitoli, Obowo, Ideato South, Oguta, Ohaji/Egbema, Aboh Mbaise, Owerri West and Ideato North. This also has become part of our history. Zubairu was here.

Few hours, after the declaration of the results, Udenwa released his thank-you message, captioned “THE GOOD PEOPLE OF IMO STATE”. It was a 3-Paragraph release. He accepted the election results. Thanked Imo people. And extended his hand of fellowship to those he described as “my friends who vied for the governorship with me”.

As a Military Administrator, Zubairu didn’t, to an extent, take it easy with journalists in the State. On July 31, 1997, he ordered the Government House Correspondent of National light Newspaper owned by the Anambra State Government, Mr. Nnamdi Chukwujindu, to leave the State “with immediate effect because of security and explicable reasons”. Macdonald Amadi, had signed the letter as the Acting Chief Press Secretary to Zubairu.

The letter read thus, “The Military Administrator of Imo State, Col. Tanko Zubairu has directed that you should with immediate effect, withdraw your service as Correspondent of National light in the State, because of Security and explicable reasons. You will, please, comply”.

The Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, Imo State Chapter, Mrs. Oby Eke-Agbai was beaten by Soldiers at the Government House. And the reason was that she had spoken critically against the administration at a Press luncheon at the Government House.

On October 3, 1997, the government was able to get Eke-Agbai’s Vice, Chief Val Okechukwu and other officers of the Union to Pass Vote of no Confidence on her and announced her removal as Chairman. In their release, they removed her based on 20 allegations and 24 of them signed, including some Chapel Chairmen and Secretaries.

The writer, yours Sincerely, as the State Editor of the Vanguard Newspaper mobilized the Correspondents in support of Mrs. Agbai. It was a tough media battle.

The 7th Biennial Delegates Conference of the NUJ held in Ibadan, from November 7 to 9, 1997. And the Administration had frustrated every legal step we had taken for the Court to quash the removal of Agbai as the NUJ Chairman to enable her lead the Imo delegates to the Conference. Our lawyer was the late Barr. Ndionyenma Nwankwo. The judge was Justice Orjiako.

The government gave Chief Okechukwu, the purported acting NUJ Chairman, one Coaster bus and all they needed to be at the Ibadan Conference.

Mrs. Agbai, myself, Jerry Ogu, Ndubuizu Ugorji, and few others, out of our pocket hired 18-seater bus that took us to Ibadan. Bonie Iwuoha was the National President of NUJ then.

Because we arrived Ibadan late, the Conference Committee had already cleared Val Okechukwu and his team and gave them tags as Imo delegates. But they were very unlucky.

On arrival at Ibadan, I briefed Kunle Arogundade, who was the Chairman of Lagos Chapter of NUJ then and a staff of Vanguard Newspaper. Briefed Comrade Joe Ajaero, from Imo State who was Chairman of Vanguard Chapel. Spoke to some of our Colleagues in Lagos.

Arogundade raised the motion on Imo matter which had had media hype. After he had eloquently narrated the Imo Case, he moved a motion that the Imo delegates that had already been cleared and given tags be stripped of the clearance and the tags given to them, withdrawn. While Mrs. Agbai would be given the tags for those she came with. And would also be allowed to address the delegates.

Accordingly, the tags were withdrawn from the Pro-government delegates and handed over to us. They came back to Imo highly demoralized and disappointed.

Agbai addressed the delegates and heaven was let loose. And in the Communiqué issued at the end of the Conference, the Case of Imo had paragraphs 8, 9, and 10. That was how she was reinstated as the Chairman of Imo NUJ.

Against the backdrop of this development, on December 5, 1997, the Management of Imo Newspapers Limited, where Mrs. Agbai was a staff, terminated her appointment. Mr. B.A. O Nnorom signed the termination letter on behalf of the General-Manager.

On April 9, 1998, Mrs. Agbai Conducted the Correspondents Chapel election and the writer won and became the Chairman, Churchill Umoren of the Punch Newspaper became the Vice-Chairman. Gerry Ogu of ThisDay, became Secretary. And so on.

Col. Zubairu called for peace. We agreed. We made peace. He commissioned us to write a book with the title, “Zubairu: The Restoration Years (1996 – 1999)”. Major Gen. O. Popoola, GOC, 82 Division then, wrote the forward. The rest would remain history, while We Shall Continue to Clap for Jesus. And may the soul of Col. Zubairu Continue to rest in peace. He had no dull moment in Imo. He did well to a large extent.

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