The Orji Uzor Kalu you never knew — By Emeka Ugwuonye15 min read
I have been a keen observer of Nigerian politics since 1998, when as a staff of the World Bank, Washington, DC, my colleagues at the World Bank Institute requested informally that I give a personal opinion on whom I would consider the most suitable presidential candidate to emerge as the next leader of Nigeria in the 1999 elections. I gave my honest opinion. Yet, I have never publicly supported anyone aspiring for elective office within Nigerian politics. But today, I am ready to throw away that personal choice of ambivalence and neutrality in Nigerian politics. This is because on this occasion, there is a candidate I know well enough not only to vouch for his integrity, but also for his capacity, his humanity and his passion for the office he is aspiring for. That person is Senator Orji Uzor Kalu (OUK) as the next President of the Nigerian Senate.
My path and that of OUK crossed in the most astounding circumstance imaginable, and for nearly six months, the Senator and I spent two hours together every day. I studied him. I observed him. I listened to him. I spoke with him. I got to know him rather well. And I found much different from all I had read and heard about him before then. It was a rare privilege and profound experience for me. As someone who has been a lawyer for thirty years, a law graduate of a leading university in the world, a professional staff of leading organizations in the world, a lawyer for former heads of state, having the chance to interact with a Nigerian politician like OUK was a golden opportunity for me to study such a leader from an exceptional vantage point, and I did not lose that opportunity with OUK. Let me state upfront that my meeting and interaction with Senator Orji Uzor Kalu was because he allowed it. He was kind enough to allow it. It is in his nature to like to meet people like me. I will explain.
I will pause here to reveal the exceptional circumstances in which I met the Senator. I was an inmate of the Kuje Prison (now called Kuje Correctional Center) in December of 2019, having been detained without trial, the Nigerian style. On December 5th, 2019, the news broke that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu was convicted by a Federal High Court in Lagos. I had read up critical aspects of the case and I had formed my opinion that the conviction was wrongful. And for me, when a conviction is wrongful, it will also be unjust. That was just my opinion about a case and about a man I did not expect to meet anytime soon. But by coincidence, on 6th December, 2019, Senator Kalu was flown to Abuja and he was to start his sentence at Kuje Correctional Center. That night, the news went round the prison community that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu was with us in Kuje.
When a person of OUK’s standing arrives in Kuje, it is a significant event that affects everybody. So, both the prison officers and inmates of Kuje were aware that a big man had just arrived. OUK was not the only prominent person in Kuje at that time. There was Olisa Metuh. There was Abdulrasheed Maina. There was Governor Jolly Nyame. There was Senator Joshua Dariye. Yet, for me, I took special interest in OUK’s case. I just wanted an opportunity to tell him that I believed that his conviction would be quashed on appeal on the obvious grounds. Also, I was curious to see the man. But an inmate doesn’t just walk to the cell of another inmate, especially such a high profile inmate with so much official attention on him. So, I did not try immediately to meet OUK, though I knew it would happen.
However, as I later discovered, being a very effective person, OUK used his first few days in Kuje to study the institution – the prison community, the officers and all major events in the prison – in order to gain adequate situational awareness. That was how he got to hear about my case and why I was being detained in prison. One morning, around 11 o’clock, about one week after OUK got to Kuje, an official of the prison came to my cell and told me that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu sent for me. I dressed up and followed the official to OUK’s cell. He was seated at a desk in his cell. By the way, his cell had special amenities. Present with him in his cell on this occasion was Mr. Jones Udogu, his former aide who was convicted along with him.
After greetings, he gestured for me to sit down. The Senator told me he had heard about me and the story behind my being detained in prison. He said he wanted to know more from me. I explained my situation to him. He listened silently. I could see that he was instantly deeply moved. Then he inquired about the efforts of my lawyers and any challenges I was facing in that regard. I told him I needed to beef up my defense team, particularly to bring in a more senior lawyer with both a strong knowledge of the law and sufficient clout with the courts. I explained to him that my case was driven more by political forces than by merits. He seemed to understand. He then asked me what it would take for me to engage a senior lawyer. I told him it would involve a lot of money, which I couldn’t raise at the time. He asked me if I had a particular lawyer in mind. I told him yes. At that time, I already made up my mind on the particular lawyer to handle my cases in Nigeria. OUK told me not to worry about the cost, that I should tell any lawyer of my choosing to come and see him in Kuje.
To cut the story short, OUK was instrumental in ensuring that I had the best legal team Nigeria can boast of. It was striking to me that I had met OUK hoping to impress him with my opinions about his own case because I was convinced he was unjustly convicted, whereas he was just trying to help me because he was convinced that I was unjustly accused and detained.
Yes, it was natural to feel grateful to someone that was so ready to unconditionally intervene to help you out of a tight corner at great personal cost. However, that was not really what impressed me the most about OUK. First, I discovered that my case was not the only case OUK was intervening in. In fact, he had taken steps to help hundreds of inmates whom he believed deserved help. He would take out time and study each person’s case and determine to help. Through his mercy interventions, he hired lawyers for hundreds of inmates who could not afford lawyers. He paid for the bail of many inmates who were not able to meet their terms of bail. He paid the judgment fines of hundreds of inmates who were in prison because they could not afford the court-imposed fines. He changed the diet and feeding of entire inmate population. Before he arrived in prison, the inmates and staff had electricity only for 4 hours each day. OUK paid for solar power and for generators. And the inmates had 24-hour electricity, thanks to him. He did the same thing with water, and water was directly flowing to every cell and every office for the first time. In his intervention activities, OUK did not care about a person’s state of origin or his religion before he would intervene. Muslims, Christians, Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas; it did not matter to OUK where you came from. All he needed to know was that you deserved help.
Gradually, over the time, OUK developed liking for me and I liked him too, genuinely. I became used to his daily routine. He would have his exercise around 6:00am. He would go to the chapel around 8:30am to worship. (He is a devout Catholic). He would return to his cell around 10:00am. By 11:00am, I would visit him in this cell. (His cell is not ordinarily accessible to inmates. But he granted me automatic access). We would talk till 12:15pm when the Chief Warder would come to escort him to the office of the Officer-in-Charge where he received visitors each day. By 4:30pm, he would return to his cell. I would visit him again and talk with him till 5:30pm. He had his dinner, usually fruit salad, by 5:30pm. I was able to observe that many Nigerian politicians, Senators, House of Rep Members, serving and former Governors, past and present Government Ministers, Ambassadors and foreign officials trooped to Kuje Prision to see OUK, to express their support or to consult with him. I was also aware that many Nigerian leaders were suggesting to him that he should run for the presidency of Nigeria in 2023. Somehow, there was this unspoken consensus that OUK would not stay in prison for a long time. It was repeatedly suggested that he could be the APC Presidential Candidate in 2023.
I was aware of the mood and opinions of some of the leaders about OUK’s possibilities. He was wooed by many powerful people in Nigeria, who urged him to run. They all expressed strong confidence in his chances as a potential president of Nigeria. He seemed to be a perfect option from every pollical calculus available then. I felt that APC might be moved to choose their presidential candidate from the South East. That would make a lot of political sense for Nigeria. Such move would finally end the civil war, the present agitations and given the failures of past leadership, OUK would probably be the bridge between the old generation of leadership and the new. If APC were to put OUK forward as their candidate, and PDP also chose someone from the South East, OUK would be unbeatable. Note that at the time this calculation was being made, nobody had thought that Peter Obi would leave PDP and join Labor Party.
A remarkable thing about OUK was that while all these thoughts were being expressed around him, he did not seem to show any particular ambitious streak. I never saw any indication of him getting carried away by the attention and support he was receiving. He seemed perfectly satisfied with an ordinary approach to things. He also revealed himself as a man of deep faith in God. He was of the view that whatever God willed for each person would happen. I did not see him attaching any importance to any prophesies about his political future, and indeed there were many such prophesies from many men of God in the country.
I have met many powerful people over the past thirty years. I was counsel to the former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar for seven years. I was counsel at the World Bank under Ibrahim Shihata as General Counsel. At Harvard Institute, I worked directly under Professor Jeffrey Sachs. Between 1995 and 1998, I was in the Harvard team of experts that advised the Governments of President Arap Moi of Kenya, Chiluba of Zambia, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Rawlings of Ghana, Deputy President Mbeki of South Africa, etc. So, I have been exposed to political leaders in African and other parts of the world. It is inevitable that if I were to spend a considerable amount of time with a Nigerian politician, I would compare his leadership qualities, his abilities, his intelligence and knowledge level, his capacity and effectiveness with what I know about other leaders I have dealt with or studied. So, it should be taken as a basic that when I found myself spending time with Orji Uzor Kalu, I had to constantly assess him as a leader in comparison with other leaders of the world that I had met over the years, and those I have studied from a distance.
Measured by standards of leaders worldwide, OUK is extremely intelligent. He knows a lot about the world, about human nature and how to bring people together. He is deeply compassionate and feels genuinely about the suffering of others. We discussed various events in Nigeria and the world. He was able to see first-hand, through his own experience, the flaws in our criminal justice system. We talked extensively about this. I used every opportunity I had to discuss with him such things as the fact that 80% of the people in prisons in Nigeria are only awaiting trial, (and are hence innocent), that an average criminal case in Nigeria lasts six years in court before conclusion of trial. He became quite interested in seeking changes and reform in the administration of criminal justice. When it became obvious that he would leave the prison in matter of weeks and I would be leaving soon afterward, he specifically asked me to prepare for him as soon as possible a list of the areas of the law where reforms most urgently needed. He made it clear that he would dedicate time to change the Nigerian justice system to reflect justice the more.
OUK displayed incredible courage. He was aware, as most people were, that he was unjustly convicted. He understood the maneuvers that resulted in his wrongful conviction. But never, not even once, did he show an iota of bitterness toward the people and the system behind his wrongful conviction. Not even once did he lament his conviction. Not even once did he try to say “hey, I am innocent”. He knew he was help in prison unjustly, but never did he display impatience or press to leave the prison sooner than in the normal course of the law. He would dismiss any hostile sentiment toward the judge or people that engineered his wrongful conviction. He would not want to hear you blame anybody for his detention.
Consistently, OUK showed himself as a person of peace with a heart as large as the mountain. He deeply believes in one Nigeria. Yet, he cares profoundly about the plight of his people in Abia State. He is a consensus builder. Even though he knew that many had suggested to him that he could be the next presidential candidate of his party, when OUK realized that the position was not going to be zoned to the South East, he easily supported a candidate he trusted and knew had a better chance. That candidate was Senator Ahmad Lawan. Again, to show his credentials as a consensus builder, when Senator Tinubu defeated Lawan to become the candidate for his party, OUK did not hesitate to align himself with Tinubu as his party’s candidate irrespective of the fact that he had supported Lawan against Tinubu at the primaries. In each instance, OUK showed that he is a man with a deep sense of institutional order.
Finally, before I end, there is one thing that has surprised many about OUK lately, but it did not surprise me. There has been a remarkable transformation of the public image of OUK after he left Kuje prison. Despite the initial hostile social media misinformation, OUK became the most loved and the most effective Senator in the South East. He sponsored many projects that were at the heart of the people. He sponsored the passage of a number bills that reformed administration of justice. He was actually the only APC Senator that was returned by the voters of his state. These things are not a surprise for someone that knows OUK the way I got to know him. His time in prison had its impact, ironically a positive impact. His prison experience was actually the only thing remaining for him to be transformed from an ordinary leader to transcendental leader. Indeed, suffering an unjust imprisonment turned the man into a myth and a child of destiny. People adore him. Nigerians are just getting to know the man. For a critical-minded person like me, who would normally dismiss our political leaders as unserious opportunists, it meant a lot for me to look at OUK and call him my Leader. It was kind of funny because I am not a politician and I am not a member of any political party. But I was comfortable calling him my Leader.
To know a man, look not only at the big monuments he built, but also at the little gestures of his daily life. To know the kind of person Orji Uzor Kalu is, you shall look not at the street lights he recently built in Abia State or the many projects he has sponsored as a Senator or the bills he initiated and sponsored through passage in the Senate. I invite you to see an aspect of him that is not in public view. And I have a few illustrations of some little things that OUK did that define him as a man of great impact. When I arrived in Kuje prison, there three mango trees, in front of the prison clinic. Those trees produced not only sweet mangoes, but also a great shade where the inmates and the staff alike would occasionally sit to hide from the hot sun. Just by coincidence, I discovered that the mango trees were planted seventeen years ago by one man who was detained in that Kuje prison for one week about seventeen years ago. That man was actually OUK. When he left office as Governor in 2007, he and two other former Governors, including Governor Jolly Nyame, were charged by the EFCC and were remanded in Kuje for a few days. OUK planted those mango trees. Only a few days in Kuje prison in 2007 and he planted three trees that nourished lives for years. That is OUK for you.
There is another incident that tells you something about the man. While in prison waiting for the law to take its course, OUK was a humble man. From the way he treated people – big and high – you would never realize this was a powerful political figure in this country. Humble, nice, gentle and always straight to the point. However, there was an instance when it was very clear to me that OUK was clearly aware of his place in the country. The day before his release from prison, the court had signed his release warrant in Lagos by 4:00pm. The order and the warrant in their original copies were moved that night from Lagos to Abuja by road. We knew that once the order and warrant arrived in Abuja, OUK would be released immediately. The order got to Abuja around 4:00am. By 5:00am, Kuje prison was surrounded by DSS operatives, police officers, Civil Defense officers, EFCC operatives, and soldiers. There was panic outside. The prison community was apprehensive. Rumors began to trickle in that OUK would be re-arrested once released. I was worried too. Even the Officer-in-Charge of the prison, knowing how close I was to OUK, called me and told me that there was a big problem, that my friend might be rearrested, judging by the huge presence of the security personnel and the police. The Officer-in-Charge was scared. He did not want to be the one that broke the news to OUK. So, he called me and told me, knowing that I would pass the information to OUK. I went to OUK’s cell to inform him to be ready for some unpleasant surprises. He was calm throughout. I noticed he was not worried. I tried again and again to get his to say something about the tension building up outside the prison gates. He turned to me and said quietly: “I am the Chief Whip of the Senate of the Federal Republic if Nigeria. The security personnel outside the prison are here for my protection and safe departure from the prison”. I smiled. That is the man. He never lost sight of whom or what he was. He just waited for the right time for everything. Throughout the time he stayed in Kuje, he never addressed himself as the Chief Whip while there was legal uncertainty over his head. However, when the coast was clear and Supreme Court gave him judgment, he did not hesitate to reveal himself.
There are countless events and gestures I can narrate to you to get you to know what a great person OUK is. These gestures reveal his humanity, his compassion, his energy, his intelligence, etc. I am happy that with time, Nigerians are getting to know him better.
When I heard that OUK was running for the President of the Senate, I was relieved. I was happy that Nigerians would hopefully enjoy the benefits of what OUK is capable of contributing to the country at this critical time. Our country is going through moments of great tension and disquiet reminiscent of the turmoil of the 1960s. Our country needs a lot of healing. We need a hand that is trusted. We are in a state of transition. We need a consensus builder. We need a man who can build bridges to reconnect our fractured nation. We need a man that will care about the ordinary people. We need a man who is powerful and yet who had experienced suffering and injustice personally, so he can truly dedicate his time to restoring the much needed justice in our country. Nigeria needs a man who understands business and the economy, a man who has friends in every local government in Nigeria and who will feel at home wherever he goes in this country. I know that Orji Uzor Kalu is the man for this task. I witnessed it. I studied him. I know him. I can vouch for him.
Emeka Ugwuonye is the Founder and CEO of DPA International.