From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, is an asset and embodiment of everything rolled into one. He is a quintessential public servant, an astute political party administrator, a political icon and many more.
Fielding questions from Sunday Sun in this no-hold-barred interview on the state of the nation held in Abuja, he touched virtually on every aspect of national life.
From the controversial zoning arrangement in the ruling party ahead of the 2023 presidential poll, the peace of the graveyard in the APC household in his home state, Edo, the kind of president he wants in 2023 to the worrisome, disturbing spate of insecurity in the country.
His straightforwardness, brazenness and courage in tackling the issues actually left no one in doubt that he is still a delight any day anytime. In fact, it is Chief Oyegun at his best.
Some people that were surprised when you attended the Edo APC dialogue meeting recently asked whether you are still a member of the APC?
This is the real deep problem we have in this country. It is a pity that people think that way especially that you cannot have a deep, but very sincere difference of opinion because you are on the same platform. We were not charging the APC, but only saying that the decision that was about to be taken was wrong. We only have a difference of opinion, but did not differ as to the quality of the APC and the desirability of the APC, no, not at all. We both wanted the APC to win in Edo State, but unfortunately some of us felt that it was taken wrongly. I have never at any point announced that I have left the APC because if I did, the media will know. I did not do that and I don’t intend to do that. While the issue that created the problem was resolved by the people, we just moved on. In this country, we must get used to misinterpreting difference of opinion to mean disloyalty. They are entirely two different things and if that is not allowed to happen, that is if you can’t have different opinions, then you cannot have people of principle in the party who will tell you things as they really are not as you want it. As for the meeting, when you do something based on principle, there will be no regret and I suppose the same thing happened on the other side. They also strongly believe that what they were doing was right. It was a simple difference in opinion and principle strongly felt and pursued to a logical conclusion. The people became the arbiters as to who was right and who was wrong. There was nothing personal attached to it at all. It was not a personal quarrel and once the struggle was over, we moved on.
Will it be right to conclude that the APC in Edo is now peacefully united under one umbrella?
Yes, it is under one united umbrella, but you cannot at any stage in any human organisation or grouping claim that there is total unanimity of opinions and direction. It is impossible for that to happen and that never happens. The reality, of course, will be that those who felt that they have lost something because of the way the election went will continue to feel residue of either regret for doing what they did or bitterness that somebody else, a third party, was the cause of their misfortune. That will always happen, but it is residual and will disappear over time. We have the future ahead of us and if we continue to live in the past, we will never arrive in the future. Yes, it is over and it is over, but that bitterness will naturally be there especially in a human organisation as I said earlier.
With what happened to Governor Obaseki, will you still say that this is the APC of your dream?
It could not have been the APC of my dream. The decision taken against Obaseki was not based on principle. There was too much of personal bitterness and that was the way it looked. You want a particular result at all costs and it is wrong to do politics like that. You must take your person out of it and deal with principle, deal with what is right and what is wrong not because somebody offended you or did not offend you that made you prefer something else. The truth is that we have a sitting governor and you must have a provable, incontrovertible disloyalty to the party before you treat a sitting governor in that manner, but there was no such thing on the table. As I said before, I hope the country and the whole political parties must have learnt from that experience, especially that the people are not as reverent as they used to be. We underestimate them to our own peril or detriment. They think, they know what is right and wrong and an individual or group should not force things willy-nilly down their throat. It can’t just work. You can see all over the place that the issue of godfatherism is creating problems for virtually every political party and we are hoping that the Edo experience will make lots of people learn that there are limits to the perceived or so-called exaggerated influence of godfathers. This relationship has failed in many cases unfortunately to the detriment of the people. You can have mentors, but when you have mentored somebody and he has become an adult, please allow him to make his own mistakes and learn. You cannot continue to carry him on your back because his weight will even be too much for you. If you mentor somebody, step back and let him make mistakes and if he does, give him advice, but don’t decapitate him because you mentored him.
Will it be right to say that the Edo saga kept the APC in its present condition of having a Caretaker Committee arrangement as its national leadership?
It was not just an Edo experience. There were lots of other issues, but I don’t want to go into that because I am somebody who looks at the future not the past in the hope that we have learnt from the past and will not be repeating the mistakes later in the future. Inasmuch as I don’t want to go back to what happened, you know very well that there were lots of issues from all sides before the situation became untenable and what happened happened. It was very unfortunate, but I don’t think going into the past will help matters.
Will you encourage Governor Obaseki to return to the APC?
Obaseki was chased out of the party and if he decides to come back, what is surprising in that. I don’t know if he wants to come back and I am not telling you he wants to come back. But, if he decides to, there is nothing wrong with it. How many people have gone to one party and come back. It is a daily occurrence. When we formed the party, how many governors came from the PDP, there were lots of them, but today many have returned to the PDP. If he decides of his own accord to come back, I am very sure he will be well received very warmly.
Do you share the apprehension in many quarters that the APC is facing a bleak future ahead of 2023 with the divisions within the party?
Tell me the political party who does not have disagreement within its fold now. We all have disagreements, but if what you are saying is that the nation under the governing party is going through difficult times, there is no question about that. We are certainly going through difficult and challenging times. We must find answers to the security problem in the country because things cannot just continue the way they are. It is obvious, but the solution does not rest in condemning. The solution to this difficulty must be found because the people are unhappy and hungry and APC as the party in power must find the solution to all of these.
Will you say that the APC government has failed Nigerians?
Of course, the party has not failed Nigerians. Yes, there are issues and they must find answers to those issues, yes things are difficult and lots of nations go through difficulties, but that does not automatically become a failure or total failure. Yes, we made some promises but you should remember what the economists use to say, that all things being equal and things cannot be equal because the world economy tumbled, oil price tumbled and lots of things happened totally outside the control of the party. Yes, I totally agree that we probably could have handled things better and I am not going to be the one who will say that everything is going on well 100 per cent, but to say that the APC government has failed is an unfair judgment. Yes, we would have done better but we still have time to correct it. God help us if we don’t succeed in correcting or ameliorating the situation then we will have a bit of trouble.
Judging by the situation now, will it be a mission possible for the APC to retain the power beyond 2023?
How will I know, we don’t know who the candidate will be. He could turn out to be a charismatic person. Anything can happen and we should not start playing God between now and 2023. Let us leave judgmental politics of 2023 for now and concentrate on the future of this country and how we are going to get out of our present predicaments.
Can you re-emphasis your stand on the ragging issue of restructuring?
Well, we have made our submission and recommendations on restructuring. It is very clear and has been accepted as APC policy, but I am not in the system directly now and may not be able to tell you what is holding it back. Restructuring is part of the APC until it is rescinded and it has not been rescinded to the best of my knowledge. We have a booklet on restructuring which deals with every single aspect of it. It defines restructuring from confederation to devolution of powers to the state and people, even wanting the geopolitical zones to become the confederating units. So, we decided to define what restructuring meant to the APC and went on to make recommendations how it can be handled. It is clear there. The report was approved by the NEC of the party and it is just the implementation that we are looking for. We will continue to wait hoping that one day it will have to be implemented. We can’t run away from it.
What do you advise the APC Caretaker Committee on the controversy in conducting the national convention?
What is the controversy in conducting a national convention when they are preparing to do it? They have said they are proposing a committee of 70 members to conduct the convention. As far as I am concerned, there is no controversy in organising the convention. They will do it.
How best can the government handle the spate of secessionist agitations across the country?
It is something that must be brought under control otherwise all sorts of characters and interests will start exploiting the situation from their own end. And the different groups have different objections whether it is Boko Haram, IPOB or the rest. The fact that there is relative instability is giving that urge to exploit the situation. It is something that the government must have to bring under control. And the earlier we do that the better for the country. One point I must make is the horror with which I view the seeming methodical attacks on our national police. It is becoming something of worry and it is an institution that must be defended. It needs lots of reorganising, but it should not become targets of attack for all and sundry. That totally is not in the national interest, it is not acceptable and whatever needs to be done to protect the Nigerian police must be done with all the issues and problems that they have. This is because without the police, we will have anarchy. So, they must be protected and preserved.
What is your take on the controversial issue of zoning of the 2023 presidential ticket in the APC?
It is the media that are making zoning a serious issue and problem. First and foremost, one thing clear is that it is the responsibility of the person interested in an office to make his intention very clear and work towards it because nobody is going to bring that office on a platter to say congratulations, it is your turn. The person must struggle for it. Otherwise, zoning is not an issue because it happens in everyday life all over the world. It comes with various names like balancing, gender equality or anything, targeted at giving a sense of belonging to disadvantaged areas or persons. In USA, they call it the industrial, agricultural, urban or rural bed. In choosing people, they take votes from these areas into consideration. In Nigeria, it is an existential problem. The situation is such that you must make everybody feel a sense of belonging, sense of participation, sense of equal access even up to ward level. In my ward, we have large rural areas. You cannot take all the representatives from Benin City because it is where the elite and knowledgeable people are. It is simple common sense and I don’t understand why we make all these noise over zoning when it is part of our everyday life. As for the APC arrangement, zoning does not have to be in the constitution even though it is there with all the balancing and federal character. It is only a very stupid party that will continuously take its candidate from a particular zone. Any party that wishes itself out of existence can say that there is no zoning. We will continue arguing over it and the media will continue feasting on it. When they want extremists to make a statement that will shake the whole place they will go to them. But at the end of the day, the parties are not stupid and they don’t wish themselves out of existence. They will still do the balancing required to convince the nation of the need to stay together and tell people that they belong and have equal access. It is inevitable.
Is it possible for the youths to constitute themselves into a third force and take over power from your generation?
It must happen. The youths must take over whether my generation likes it or not because if we don’t leave, nature will send us away. Of course, we will not live forever. But who do you call youths? List all the serving governors and tell me their ages. Are they old men? No. Go to the National Assembly and tell me how many of the lawmakers are moving with walking sticks. It is the samething at the State Assembly and local government areas, the youths are there. They can take over everywhere but they have to work for it just like I said about zoning. There is no alternative to that. There is no way the elders at 80 or 70 years will voluntarily handover the mantle of leadership to the youths and move away. It does not work that way. Nature arranges it. But, it is how well the youths present themselves to even the voters, not just the leaders of the nation, at that material time that matters.
Is it over for you in any elective position?
It is very, very much over for me. We just talked about the youths taking over and I am no longer a youth by any stretch of imagination. I am on extra time now. You amuse me when you say what if Nigerians clamour for me to contest for president. Nobody will do that because at my age it is totally and completely out of the question.
What are those things you will consider your unfulfilled dreams?
That should be a question for another day. There are so many and very difficult to list them and I will rather say what I was hoping will be my situation today and that is that I will say, thank you Lord because our country is finally on the path to greatness, but I cannot say that now and that is one regret I have. So, I am thanking God for what I have been able to achieve personally rather than where our nation is currently. As far as personal achievements are concerned, I am fulfilled. I only went into politics because I want to do my bit to help place Nigeria squarely by the time I am on my deathbed. I will have that complete conviction that we are now on the path to greatness. We are the largest black nation in the world. I am not thinking of my personal achievements because God has been absolutely kind to me and I have absolutely no reason to complain about that. The sole motivation for being in politics and public service is to see Nigeria on the path to greatness. I joined politics reluctantly. It is a mission not a job.
What is your advice to the electorate and candidates ahead of 2023?
I don’t have any advice for them until I know who and who that are coming out to aspire to lead us. I cannot even advise myself now until I know who and who wants to lead us. We need a very strong candidate, a candidate of character, who understands governance and who can deliver on the hopes of the people of the country.
What is your dream president for Nigeria in 2023?
I kept telling people that the next Nigeria president must be slightly crazy because Nigeria is a difficult country.
Did it surprise you hearing the PDP governors describe the APC government as incompetent and rudderless?
Well, that is PDP and they are the opposition and I didn’t expect them to do anything differently. This is what we did to them to get them out of office and they are just paying us in our own coins. They are opposition party and it is when we have such reactions within the party that such issues will be of any concern.