- Category: Opinions/Interviews
- Published on Monday, 30 July 2012 14:22
- Written by Admin
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The father of a Labour frontbencher who is tipped as a future party leader died in a mysterious car crash that friends fear was a political assassination.
Bennett Umunna, whose son Chuka is Labour’s business spokesman and MP for Streatham, was killed in Nigeria shortly after standing for state governor.
Although Mr Umunna – a wealthy London businessman who was a director of Crystal Palace football club – was tipped to win the post, his supporters claim he lost the vote after refusing to pay bribes during the campaign.
Now close friend Ron Noades, who was chairman of Crystal Palace at the time, has spoken for the first time about his belief that the car crash 20 years ago was no accident.
‘We always thought he was killed by someone, because he did things on the night of his death that he never did in Nigeria,’ he said.
‘He was travelling at night and, secondly, he got into a car with a driver who was not his regular. We always thought he was killed by someone who may have seen him as a threat.’
Mr. Noades, 75, who lives in Purley, South London, also claimed that Mr Umunna had withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank account shortly before his death. Although Chuka Umunna, 33, has spoken of his father’s death in the past, he has remained vague about the details.
In a recent interview, he said: ‘There was a lot of speculation in Nigeria. He was a well-known figure. I don’t really want to go into it, but things in Nigeria don’t operate like here.
‘It’s not like you’re going to get an official post mortem or a proper police investigation.’
Bennett Umunna, who became a successful businessman after arriving in Britain as a penniless immigrant in the Sixties, died after his car apparently crashed into a truck carrying logs on April 1, 1992.
Weeks earlier, Mr Umunna, 51, had stood to become governor of Anambra, about 270 miles south of the Nigerian capital Abuja.
He regularly travelled back to the country as the head of a thriving import-export firm doing business between Europe and West Africa. Mr Noades’s wife Novello, 54, also a close friend of the Umunna family, said: ‘From all the facts I heard at the time, I think Bennett was assassinated.
‘He was involved in the politics of the country. From what I heard, his car crashed into a vehicle that was carrying logs. That’s how he died. I don’t know whether the driver died as well.
‘I remember that day, when I found out about Ben’s death. We moved to our new house, and then I received a call from Ron.
‘He told me Ben had died in Nigeria. I remember crying all day in the bathroom. I was devastated.’
Mr Umunna’s death was registered on the British Consular and High Commission deaths abroad database.
A British death certificate states he was living in the city of Enugu in the neighbouring Enugu state, and died on the Onitsha-Owerri highway in Anambra state.
The document does not give his cause of death, but says a local death certificate was presented as ‘evidence of death’.
In Nigeria, the accident was widely covered in the media and it is believed some minutes of silence were observed in Enugu.
Mr Umunna, who is said to have been a tribal chief known as Ben Osi Umunna, was a well-known and popular businessman in the country, as well as the chairman of a Nigerian football club.
On one internet forum, he is described by a contributor as ‘the business mogul who came back from England and changed the face of Enugu in the late Eighties and also became the chairman of Rangers International.
‘He provided a lot of jobs and he became an instant hit. He helped [charitable cases, including] a group of widows, who were on his payroll until he died in a ghastly motor accident about ’90 or ’91.’
Mr Umunna travelled to England by boat in the mid-Sixties, arriving at Liverpool, to improve his prospects and made his way to London after a stranger gave him money for the train fare.
He performed a number of menial jobs, including cleaning cars, before building up his business. He became a director of Crystal Palace in the late Eighties after investing £50,000 in the club.
He married Patricia Milmo, a solicitor, in 1976, and the couple had two children – Chuka and his sister Chinwe, 31, who is also known as Chi Chi.
A spokesman for Chuka Umunna said: ‘Chuka’s father died more than 20 years ago in very tragic circumstances.
As Chuka has made it clear previously, the circumstances surrounding his father’s death are a private matter and not something he comments on, painful and upsetting as they are to Chuka and his family.’