Restless Politics of Mantu

By Mahmud Jega

Plump, light-skinned, outwardly jovial and extremely dynamic, Ibrahim Nasir Mantu first exploded on the national political scene in July 1990. My first major assignment as a reporter for Citizen magazine was the first national convention that month of the newly registered, military-government sponsored, “a little to the right” National Republican Convention [NRC] at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. A day earlier, the “a little to the left” Social Democratic Party [SDP] ended its convention at the same venue with Ambassador Babagana Kingibe emerging as National Chairman.

At the SDP convention, the struggle was between PSP [Peoples Solidarity Party] i.e. the Second Republic UPN, which sponsored Alhaji Muhammadu Arzika, and Major General Shehu Yar’adua’s Peoples Front [PF], which backed Kingibe. In NRC however, the Northern bloc, coordinated by Alhaji Ahmadu Kurfi, was determined to push the national chairmanship to the South so that it could get the presidential ticket. It surreptitiously allied with military Vice President Augustus Aikhomu to sponsor Chief Tom Ikimi for the post.

Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, who was determined to get NRC’s presidential ticket, was intent on pushing the national chairmanship to the North, so he sponsored Ibrahim Mantu for the post. Among Northern delegates, therefore, Mantu was seen as a sort of Quisling. He lost to Ikimi.

Before the Babangida regime forced two dozen unregistered political associations to coalesce into NRC and SDP in 1989, Mantu was a member of the Liberal Convention, led by Alhaji Bashir Tofa. Mantu’s big break in politics came three years later, during the “Option A4” presidential primaries when he was director-general of Bashir Tofa’s successful campaign for the NRC ticket at the Port Harcourt convention. I was there too and saw how the operation unfolded like clockwork, with Tofa garnering more than 4,000 votes from about 5,000 delegates.

The campaign leading to the June 12, 1993, presidential election was however full of problems in both NRC and SDP. I did a major story for Citizen on the NRC campaign, for which I interviewed a dozen party insiders. Directing Tofa’s campaign was Mantu, who was ensconced in a Hilton Hotel room. Hard though I tried, I couldn’t reach him for an interview but as I walked down the Hilton hotel corridors late one night, Mantu suddenly opened a door, peeped and then rapidly ducked back in before I could speak to him.

The NRC chieftains I interviewed didn’t have nice things to say about him. They alleged that Mantu and Tofa relied on their LC friends and sidelined other NRC elements, including the national chairman, Dr. Hameed Kusamotu. Mantu was indefatigable, they all said, and he barely slept, though he sometimes took quick naps during meetings. Mantu was also “slippery as a fish,” one party leader said. Tofa lost the election to Chief MKO Abiola before the military regime annulled it. Within NRC, many people blamed Mantu’s overbearing style for the loss.

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During the tortuously pre-programmed Abacha transition of the 1990s, Mantu again became a prominent figure in UNCP, known to be covertly sponsored by FCT Minister Lt General Jeremiah Useni. Mantu and Useni both hailed from Plateau State. In April 1998, when I was editor of the New Nigerian Weekly, we did a cover story on Mantu titled “Man Tu Watch!”, which pleased him greatly.

The following year, 1999, Mantu was elected senator for Plateau Central on PDP’s platform. It was no mean achievement for a Muslim, given the poisoned inter-religious relations in the state, but Mantu’s politics was trans-religious. He emerged as chairman of the Senate Committee on Information. Two years later, he succeeded Nasarawa Senator Haruna Abubakar as Deputy Senate President, and that was when I had an unpleasant encounter with Mantu.

New Nigerian Newspaper’s management was lobbying to be inserted into the federal budget. President Obasanjo was agreeable but National Assembly support was needed, so I went with our Managing Director, Dr. Omar Faruk Ibrahim, to do some lobbying.
We were told that the best person to help us was Mantu. Trouble was, two years earlier, he had asked our MD for “job for his boys” and did not get it. Mantu exploded when we entered his office and explained our mission. Pointing a finger at Dr. Faruk, he said, “You this chap? You have the temerity to come to me looking for a favour?”

Two senators from Gombe State were present at the scene and to my shock, they knelt down and began pleading with Mantu to help New Nigerian. My MD also knelt down, so I followed suit. Finally, Mantu calmed down and promised to help, but it didn’t materialize until 2004, when Speaker Aminu Bello Masari intervened directly with Obasanjo and overnight secured N100million for New Nigerian.

By then Mantu had run into serious political trouble. As Obasanjo began his second term in 2003, new FCT Minister Nasiru el-Rufa’i told newsmen that during his ministerial screening, Senators Mantu and Jonathan Zwingina took him aside and offered to ram his confirmation through the Senate— for a fee. Both men strenuously denied the charge and el-Rufa’i had no documentary or digital proof, but the damage to the two men’s public image was done. Some newspapers alleged at the time that Vice President Atiku Abubakar paid money to senators to get El-Rufa’i cleared.

Mantu was very close to President Obasanjo. After the 2004 National Political Reform Conference which the president convened ended inconclusively, Mantu took center stage in the rumoured secret agenda. As DSP, he was Chairman of the Joint National Assembly Constitution Review Committee. The media openly alleged that this committee was the stalking horse for Obasanjo’s rumoured Third Term ambition, which the Political Reform Conference failed to achieve. Indeed, after a “retreat” in Port Harcourt in March 2006, Mantu’s committee recommended a constitutional amendment to remove the two-term limit for president and governors. I was Editor of New Nigerian at the time and my story on the Mantu report the next day earned me an instant sack.

Even though the Third Term project was defeated in the Senate, Mantu maintained his close support for Obasanjo. At a PDP national executive committee meeting in 2007, Mantu moved a motion that Obasanjo be declared “Founder, Father and Leader of Modern Nigeria,” which sparked controversy in the media.

Mantu did not return to the Senate after 2007 and since then he was in somewhat of political wilderness. He still played important roles behind the scenes, though. Although he was a PDP chieftain, Mantu was known to have registered a small political party, Accord, with which he hedged his bets. At least one Accord chieftain found his way into Umaru Yar’adua’s cabinet.

Ibrahim Nasir Mantu, who had been in politics since 1978, had a pleasant disposition on the social scene. He was also rigorously practical. In 2014 when the presidential race between PDP and APC candidates was heating up, Mantu asked a political friend that they should go together to a Goodluck Support Group meeting organized by Political Adviser Ahmed Gulak, to which they were invited. The friend was reluctant; he said he preferred to attend an APC meeting. Mantu then said, “Did APC invite you? How can you go to a place where you were not invited? You said you prefer APC to PDP. Who told you that I prefer PDP to APC? But in politics, it is where you are invited that you go to.”

Ibrahim Mantu found very little rest during his 5-decade sojourn in Nigerian politics. Now that he has gone to the Hereafter, may Allah grant him very peaceful rest in Aljannat.

TRIBUTE in 21st Century Chronicle, Tuesday, August 17, 2021.
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