Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Chief Obiora Okonkwo is a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He contested for Anambra Central senatorial seat on the party’s platform in 2015. He speaks on the country’s democratic journey so far.
By May 29, Nigeria’s democracy would have been 20 years. Do you think Nigerians have any reason to celebrate?
I think we have every reason to celebrate. In as much as I may accept that the growth has not been quite impressive, but in so many areas also, there is a lot to celebrate. The fact that we say it is uninterrupted for the last 20 years, that in itself is a major reason for celebration because if it has been uninterrupted for the last 20 years, there is the likelihood that democracy has come to stay. So, I am happy about that. I am particularly happy that we have a situation in two states of the federation, Zamfara and Rivers, which the electoral process excluded from contesting in the last governorship because of certain infractions on the law. Who would have imagined that that could happen in Nigeria, when we often think that if you are in power, you can have your way in everything? These little things, for me, matter a whole lot in assessing how far we have gone.
I know also that it is taken for granted that parties in power could win certain states. I have also seen, in the last election, where an incumbent governor could not win a senatorial seat. These things are good indications that there is hope that the future will continue to be better. Economically, I don’t think that we have remained where we were when we started. We all know the capacities of our financial institutions. Today, they are stronger. They can do bigger businesses. Some of them have gone international and are competing big time on the international stage. It is during this period that we produced billionaires in Africa. We have also seen certain sectors grow to become international leaders – the music industry and Nollywood readily come to mind.
The opposition, especially your party, believes that some of the strides that had been made democratically have also been eroded by the incumbent administration. Do you share that view?
I don’t have all the statistics to situate them within the time frame, but I looked at democracy holistically in the last 20 years. So, it’s a combination of what we have seen in the last four years and then the 16 years of PDP. But there is no doubt that there was less tension during the PDP days, especially during the Jonathan/Yar’Adua period, but, by and large, these things are all tenets of democracy. Obviously, the PDP stayed for 16 years and they played a big role in the good things we are enjoying today. APC has been there for four years. We are still watching to see what it would become at the end of it. With the new government coming in, who knows what will happen.
There is this conflict between those who believe in strong men as leaders and those who believe in building strong institutions to drive the democratic processes. Which would you subscribe to?
I look at two countries which I have been studying their developmental stages, and the leaders in those two countries – Singapore and Russia, and if I were to use these two countries as example, I will tell you with all sense of honesty that I will rather go for both the constitution and strong leader. But there must be a balance. I will only choose that where the strong leader has the right vision and honest mission, not for their own selfish interest. If it is out of patriotism and they are ready to work for common good and in the interest of the country, then we need a combination of both in this part of the world where certain things are still at their developmental stages.
Some still argue that if you combine both, you might blur the line between when the leader follows the process as constitutionally laid and when he begins to drive things based on his own mission. What do you think?
You are right but either of those work in line with the constitution because when you have a strong man, he need not downplay the constitution. He would rather use the constitution to help him to achieve his vision. Let’s say for instance, the Russian President is not in power today because he wanted to stay longer and then set aside the constitution. He worked within the framework of the constitution and was able to step down to become the Prime Minister and contested again to become the president because there is a constitution that allowed him to contest again. He’s a strong man with a vision and is able to have his way around all those things according to the constitution.
Obasanjo tried a third term. If the National Assembly had amended the constitution to allow for that, will you have accused him of not working with the constitution?
I don’t support it when you manipulate the constitution for personal purposes. If it is for the purpose of having extraordinary constitutional powers to enable you hasten the development process, engage in things that ordinarily will take a longer time for a shorter time, why not? It was only recently we heard in the United States of America that the president could use executive powers to correct some situations. Every country that wants to have a strong president who will push through his visions must have those allowances. The problem will be if you are unlucky to have a president who just wants those powers to actualise his own selfish personal agenda and also deal with his perceived opponents. That’s when it’s very dangerous. It is at such points that the general population rises to show that power actually belongs to the people, like we had recently in Sudan and Algeria.
Looking at Nigeria in the last 20 years, many believe that the state governors have not done what they should do and that only four or five states can stand on their own. What do you make of that?
It is really a very sad story talking about some governors. Their qualities and their performance have been very disappointing. I believe in a developmental process that is from bottom up. When I say bottom up, in this our constitutional system, I am talking about local governments and state governments, before you get to the federal. Today, there are certain realities in some states and we blame the Federal Government. There are certain situations that could be managed by the local government but we are sending SOS to the president and even blaming him. When you see such, you wonder why you have local authorities, local governments and state governments. The reason is simply about the quality of governors we have produced in some states within these 20 years. When governors are looking for deputies, they go for the very weak who cannot raise his head to give you any form of trouble or question your actions, when indeed it should be the opposite. You are supposed to select a very competent person who should understudy you, so that in your absence, he or she would continue with the vision you all share. That is why you have the situation where the deputy hardly succeeds the governor. This reality has not been particularly helpful in deepening democracy and managing situations.
Your home state, Anambra, seem to be different because it does appear that the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) leadership has done so well. What do you think?
It depends on the yardstick with which APGA is measuring its performance. It depends also on what APGA is comparing their self with. If you compare APGA with many low performing states that cannot pay salaries, then you may be right. But when you ask somebody like me if that is an achievement, I will tell you, no, in capital terms because it is the responsibility that you must execute. Paying salary cannot be an achievement. How does a governor boats that he is doing well because he paid workers’ salaries? If you can’t manage the resources of the state and the people to be able to pay salary, then you don’t even contest in the first place.
When you tell me that APGA has grown the size of the economy in Anambra State and what you point to is equating the economy in their kobo-kobo terms, and that their focus on Okada riders, Keke and motor parks as source of IGR, maybe they could be happy about it. But for somebody like me who knows the huge potentials of the state, I will say no in capital terms.
For me, the extent of your target depends on the objective you set for yourself. If you say at the end of a semester in the university, I must score 90 percent to have an A, if you have a C, you will be weeping, you will be unhappy. But in the same class, there are people who have gone to their pastors and churches to pray for them so that they make a P. Those ones will come back and give testimony and throw a party if they have a pass. While you are unhappy that you did not make an A, they are partying that they even made a P. I think that is what is happening in Anambra State with the APGA government.
Are you not saying this because you are in the PDP?
It is not about being a PDP state or being an APGA state. Any governor who has not been able in this present time, era and age, to take his state to the highest level, the higher altitude in line with the global yardstick of measurement, has nothing to celebrate, regardless of which political party he belongs. I say this as somebody who knows what is happening in Anambra, who knows what governance should be, not what it is in our own context. I have seen things happen in other parts of the world. I have seen transformation orchestrated by some individuals as a result of change in leadership. I am saying this as somebody who is exposed and an economist who understands economic indices and as a political scientist who understands political dynamics. I’m saying these things as a professional who knows what is happening around the world, who has a good grasp of worldview. So, my yardstick is looking at the world around me.
The dominant issue in Anambra State now is about zoning. Do you feel amused by that and what do you make of it?
Indeed, I do feel amused by that because it is only selfish politicians in Anambra State that will be canvassing for zoning of the position of governor, especially with the state of fatal paralysis we now have. Don’t get me wrong, zoning for me is okay where it is to create balance and equity. But that can be done only in non-consequential positions, not for governor. And by the way, what are you zoning in Anambra State. We should be talking about one state, one people, and one development. Anambra is a homogenous state. We speak the same dialect. We have the same faith – Christianity hundred percent. The territorial mass of Anambra State is just like a ranch in Texas. There not much that divides people in that state. We like the same food; we wear the same type of cloth.