By Dickson Okafor
Johnny Ucheaga is the secretary, Police Equipment Foundation (PEF) and administrative secretary of the defunct National Centre Party of Nigeria (NCPN). In this exclusive interview, the Uturu, Abia State-born political strategist and legal professional called on the Federal Government to handle the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu with care.
He cautioned that for putting his life on the line, Kanu is enjoying the sympathy of the Igbo, adding that though most people from the Southeast are not in support of Biafra agitation, he expressed fear that if the matter is not properly handled it may plunge the nation into crisis.
Ucheaga urged the leadership of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, to initiate dialogue with the Federal Government to effect Kanu’s release.
He also made suggestions on how the presidency could be shifted to the South in 2023. Excerpt:
As we march towards another general election in 2023, would you say that Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu is a shadow of Abiola in his ambition to become president?
I disagree. I don’t think there is any need to compare Tinubu with Abiola. Tinubu just like Abiola is a good man, a politician, a businessman and an organizer, but he can’t be compared with Chief MKO Abiola. He is a very good politician, yet his politics has not transcended Southwest the way Abiola’s politics transcended the entire country. So, that is the difference between the two.
You mentioned that Tinubu has guts, can that gut earn him the presidency in 2023?
You are suggesting that he wants to run for the presidency in 2023. Are you not jumping the gun?
There is every indication that he will run for the presidency?
Anytime a leader stops giving the impression that he wants to do something bigger he becomes a lame duck. There are people who are around him today because they believe he wants to be president and any day he announces to them that he doesn’t want to be president, those people will start to look for who will be president. You become what they call a lame duck. But like I have said, Tinubu is only strong in the Southwest.
Nigeria seems more divided under the present administration with series of agitations by the IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho, what is your view?
Most Nigerians misunderstand President Muhammadu Buhari. I know him very well and because I know him, I make bold to say that Buhari is not a bad person, rather he is a principled person. My friend Kenny Martins and I went to his house way back in 1974 in his hometown, Daura, to solicit his assistance and he willingly did it for us.
What kind of assistance because there is insinuation that President Buhari does not give money?
We did not solicit monetary aggrandizement; rather we solicited him to help us to register our party then, the National Centre Party of Nigeria (NCPN). I was the national administrative secretary. So, he helped us after we had made our presentation to him. He simply said, okay I will tell Gen. Sani Abacha. It was Abacha then who was head of state and that was how National Centre Party of Nigeria was formed. Again, when he was appointed chairman of Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), my friend, Kenny Martins and I went to him for assistance and without hesitation he again granted our request. Buhari is kind, but like I said earlier, he is highly principled and he is a person I know too well. If he believes in something, unless you convince him otherwise, he won’t change his mind. But I laugh when I hear my people say he hates the Igbo or Christians. Those are mere perceptions, but not reality. Remember that it is not only Buhari that is running the country and that is why it is called presidency. Let me give you an example, in the 1950s, when the then President of America, Harry Truman was handing over Dwight Eisenhower “Ike” in 1953 as the 34th American President who was a General and statesman, but now assuming power as the civilian President. Truman told him, “Look poor Ike don’t think that the presidency is like the military base where you tell people to do something and they go and do it, but now when you tell people to do something they won’t do it.” I’m talking about an American President. So, in case of Buhari, he was a retired General and he was sick and he goes to the hospital, trying to survive and whatever is written as security, intelligent or administrative report that is what he is going to rely on and this may come in sixty volumes and he is asked to approve. That is the work of the president not because he is Buhari. Only few people may want to read every memo. People like my former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, but he was fainting in that office then (laugh). Some of his aids used to come and tell us to come and carry him because he wants to read everything. As a leader if you want to do everything, you may have problem. Let us focus on Buhari’s achievements, he has continued and completed projects left behind by his predecessors. There are a lot of infrastructural projects going on and those are the things that will benefit Nigerians. Again, Buhari is not a politician. When he was being elected, the people who threw their weight behind him knew that he was not a politician hence there are those who are politicians.
How do you rate the nation’s democracy from 1999 till date?
Our democracy is developing because some of the countries we compare ourselves with started democracy many years ago. Look at Greece, they started what is known as democracy today through the Spartans. See how long ago they have been doing it, yet they have problem. Only a few years ago they went bankrupt in their country. Democracy in Nigeria is evolving. Even the Romans who took over from the Greek, they had Senate a long time ago. Their leader Julius Caesar was assassinated at the floor of the Senate, yet they are still evolving even Britain and America.
But the country is more divided under this administration?
The country has always been divided because of the advent of social media, which was not there before. With the availability of social media, if somebody dies in Kano now you will hear and see it. That was not the case before. That does not mean that I’m coming from outer space because I feel the same concern as every Nigerian. Is National Assembly divided? Is the Supreme Court divided? Is the Nigerian Armed Forces divided? Is the presidency divided? We have no other country, but Nigeria. So, we must join hands to make our dreamland.
The Governors Forum after a recent meeting resolved to ban open grazing in their states and they want the presidency to move to the South in 2023, many have applauded this decision, what is your take?
Let me start with the question, has Buhari succeeded in reopening the grazing routes? That is a mere political statement by President Buhari. I told you that the President is not the king, but a political leader. Remember he is very popular among the lower class, the Talakawas. Here in the South, we talk down on our leaders, but it is not the same with the people from the North. It is what you do that matters and not what you say. President Buhari is a very humorous person, if you stay with him you will laugh until you get tired. If he wants to open grazing routes, he is the Commander-in-Chief, he can order the soldiers to enforce it, but did he do so? It is unfortunate that the herdsmen don’t have respect for any authority. They are difficult to control. Buhari and other northern leaders must say something to show that they have not betrayed their followers hence it is not what they say, but what they do. In terms of insecurity, we have been overwhelmed. These bandits are not Nigerians and I don’t know why it is taking us time to remove them from our territory. I’m a victim of kidnap, my cousin, a priest, Michael was kidnapped and killed in Kaduna. He was my grandson. His grandmother is my elder sister. So, I’m a victim.
Kanu is demanding that a referendum be conducted, isn’t that the right thing to do since people have right for self-determination?
Why haven’t Kanu conducted the referendum? Why asking government to conduct the referendum? Let them conduct it and under what law?
But referendum was conducted in Scotland?
Can we do what they did in England? The Scottish doesn’t want to be under the leadership of Queen of England, but are they not under the Queen of England? The Queen of England, her grandparent came from a man called William the conqueror, he was from Germany. A German that is Queen of England, her husband was a Greek and all British people swear to be loyal to her. Can we do that here? Can the Igbo swear to be under Obi of Onitsha and his descendant forever? You cannot take the British way of life and juxtapose with Nigeria. It may work for them, but may not work here. What you call referendum in Scotland is what we call local government election in Nigeria. You can say let us take Biafra now as a metaphor. I’m not saying that I don’t know what Nnamdi Kanu is talking about and it is as a result of the agitation that made the Southern governors to speak with one voice recently. Formerly do you see them come together to speak with one voice? Now, the governors are making collective demand and I support them. The struggle is worth it, some have sacrificed their lives and that is how it works.
You said you support the governors, which geo-political do you support the presidency should be zoned to for equity and justice?
As an Igbo man I want an Igbo president, but it is not one region that produces the president. You need the support of the other regions because president is not what you go to the supermarket to buy. When there was coup in 1966 though it was championed by an Igbo man in the present day Delta State, an Igbo became the first head of state. It was circumstances of decisions we took or did not take and the exigency of the time that led to cutting short General Aguiyi Ironsi’s tenure. The same thing happened to General Murtala Mohammed who also became head of state. We also had Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the ceremonial president, very educated man, but he knew what ceremonial president was, yet he took it even though there was constrains that forced him to take it. But now that we are working and speaking with one voice with our brothers and sisters in the entire South, if they can say, Igbo we are brothers, we back you, give us one person, the rest of Nigeria will support that candidate I assure you. But there are six geo-political zones, therefore, it should not be a matter of death or alive because if we don’t get it in 2023, we can get it in future. We have to do it with cooperation not while we are at daggersdrawn, people will be scared. The leader of the youths, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is still in custody. It will not be fair to talk about presidency; rather I will talk about how our leaders should come together and ensure nothing happen to Kanu. We have precedence, before him there was Adaka Boro, it was not as a result of agitation he died, but it was as result of war. We have Niger Delta militants who also took up arms against the government, but Kanu didn’t take up arms against the government. Therefore, those who are leaders should also know that in time past their actions led to the loss of lives. The way the Igbo are treated is not good and we are not trusted because we led only one unsuccessful coup and the rest of the coups have been done by the northerners. So, we cannot be stigmatized because one of us, who was a small boy and carried out one unsuccessful coup. They were boys then and didn’t understand what they were doing. Therefore, you cannot take because of that and say anybody who is Igbo cannot be trustworthy. If we say anybody who plots coup is not trustworthy, what about other northerners, including President Buhari who plotted coup, can we then say Buhari and General Ibrahim Babangida cannot be trustworthy also. The arrest of Kanu may bring a turnaround for Ndigbo because there are Igbo who are in position to discuss our affair, not Kanu. There are people who will talk for him such as Ohanaeze, which is composed of eminent people who will go quietly and discuss his release. Many will take advantage of the struggle to make personal gains hence in a family you may have those who are heady and those who are cool headed. He has put his life on the line and for that reason Kanu is no longer alone.