Magnus Eze and Geoffrey Anyanwu, Enugu
Former National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Chief Victor Umeh turned 58 recently.
The former senator of Anambra Central Senatorial District shares his many political battles including relationship with Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu ojukwu, Peter Obi and the future of APGA.
He also speaks on the clamour for a president of Igbo extraction in 2023; describing it as key to peace in Nigeria.
You’ve fought many battles; won some, lost some; which of your battles gives you fulfilment?
There is no stage in life that is devoid of challenges because no matter how you run away from challenges, they keep coming.
I first got involved in the political process in 1998 with the death of Abacha when new political programme was announced by his successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. I became part of an association here in Enugu that later joined other associations nationwide that gave birth to PDP. We were aligned with the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the former Vice President. So, when the PDP was formed, we were all there particularly with the prospect of Dr. Alex Ekwueme contesting for the presidency of Nigeria. The first election we went for was the local government elections conducted nationwide by the Independent National Electoral Commission and we were able to deliver handsomely to the PDP in the South Eastern Nigeria.
Getting into the subsequent elections, a lot of disappointments came our way. In Jos, Alex Ekwueme could not get the presidential ticket which we had all worked for and hoped that he will get having played the major and pivotal role towards the formation of the PDP and having won the previous local government elections landslide in the South East zone. It is important at this point to note that the Alliance for Democracy (AD) swept the local government polls in the South West zone. So, we were disappointed in Jos as General Olusegun Obasanjo who was in prison when PDP was formed and who lost the local government election woefully in his zone, losing in his polling booth and ward to the rival AD was imposed as the presidential candidate of PDP through an intricate web of conspiracy. We saw it as a major setback to what we set out to do. With the transition completed, I emerged the State Treasurer of PDP in Anambra State and wasn’t happy with the government we had in Anambra State led by Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju. The performance was so abysmal and so low that we started looking for alternative actions. In 2001, I resigned from the PDP and joined another movement that formed the APGA which was eventually registered in June 2002. From there I got deeply involved in the activities of APGA particularly as the party had a lot of promises for the people of the South East Nigeria and beyond. From there we went into the first general elections in 2003 with Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu as our pillar because he was our presidential candidate in the 2003 general elections. We (APGA) did well in the elections in the South East and won most of the elections but our victory was stolen. So, my battle started from that point, one, because by then I had become the National Treasurer of APGA and I coordinated the electoral efforts of APGA in Anambra State in the main and in South East because I was also initially National Vice Chairman, South East of the party. So, I oversaw the activities of the party from the teething stages in the South East.
When we went to that election, we won and our victories were stolen by the PDP, driven by General Olusegun Obasanjo who was then the President of the country. I said it will be the greatest disservice to our people if we allowed those things to go unchallenged, so I took up my first battle and that was how to restore the mandate the people of Anambra State gave to APGA and our candidate, Mr. Peter Obi. At that time, the party had various degrees of promises of restoration of this mandate but it was highest in Anambra State because the victory was so glaring and we decided to fight to recover that mandate. To recover that gubernatorial victory of APGA in Anambra state was a sine qua non to the establishment of APGA as a political party in Nigeria, because if we didn’t recover that mandate, APGA would be gone forever or as it were, it will go into limbo. Without a government, a party has no means of surviving.
I was the State Collation Agent for the gubernatorial election; so, I saw first-hand how the election was rigged and I knew that we won. We had laid the foundation for going to the court; we prepared our agents to go all out on the 19th of April for polling unit results. On that day, they allowed the elections to take place at the polling units, results were entered into the polling unit result sheets and copies given to the agents and they went back as they did in the National Assembly election to change the results on top. So, we had told our agents to return the polling unit result sheets to a collation centre we established at our candidate Peter Obi’s residence. All our agents were struggling to get the polling unit results as they were being issued. By the time I was at INEC headquarters, through phone calls; results of all these units had been added and we won. When I left INEC, I went straight to our own collation centre, we had packed all those things in ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags, they were arranged and that evening they were taken to Fidelity Bank Onitsha for safe keeping and with that we were set to launch a legal assault to recover that mandate and it was a very tortuous battle, very challenging one too, with all the attempts to delay and frustrate the efforts.
I was the first prosecution witness and stood in the box day to day for four weeks. Despite the delays made by PDP and then Governor Ngige who had been sworn in, to frustrate us, I stood my ground. There were temptations and offers of money for me to undermine that process, I refused.
With time, of course, crisis crept into our party because when I couldn’t be used to sabotage the tribunal proceedings, they infected our party with discordant actions that were aimed at frustrating the victory of the party in the court. We stood our ground. Along the line, it became imperative that APGA needed to change its headship to be able to stay on course at the election tribunal. Myself, Mr. Peter Obi, the National Secretary of the party, Mike Adams, and few other persons, we met and held our hands together and resolved to resist that sabotage of the case at the tribunal. We resolved to effect a change in the leadership of the party because every effort was being made by the then National Chairman to support Ngige against his own party. We went to a scheduled meeting and suspended the chairman and his two deputies. Myself being the National Treasurer of the party and the highest ranking officer from the South East in the party from where the chairman came, the mantle fell on me to lead the party at that time. So, it was a very difficult battle.
Finally, in August 2005, we got judgment at the tribunal that APGA won the election and Peter Obi was declared winner of the election. From there, Ngige and his party; PDP went on appeal and on 15th of March 2006, their appeal was dismissed for lacking in merit and APGA and Obi’s victory at the tribunal was affirmed by the Court of Appeal in Enugu paving the way for Mr. Peter Obi to be sworn in as Governor of Anambra State on the 17th of March, 2006. It will be good to point out that our former National Chairman also filed a lot of legal suits challenging his removal from office. These legal battles were on at the same time with the tribunal matter.
With that battle, we were able to for the first time in Nigeria, remove a sitting governor through the tribunal proceedings. No battle is even lighter than the other but I consider that one the biggest battle I fought, reason being that, that victory and recovery of that mandate is responsible for APGA being in existence up to this moment.
You said that APGA in 2003 had a lot of promises; as one who has seen it all in the party, what went wrong?
It has to do with stages of development; you don’t expect the same result in any organization when you have changes in leadership. From 2005 to 2015, I was in charge of the party and I was desperate while running this party because I knew the purpose for registering the party. You won’t expect it to be the same thing when leadership changes hands, people will have their own priorities. APGA has had its own dose of challenges like other parties do have and because we had to change the drivers at a certain stage because of effusion of time; you will expect that those who will take over may not be properly attuned to the history of the party and the affairs of the party. They may have their own programmes to run. That is why things are always stated in relation to time, between this and this, you can get this, you can have peak, come down and go back again, so it’s normal in life. I am happy that APGA is still standing, we still have a state government in Nigeria since 2006, by 2022; APGA would have been in charge of Anambra State for 16 years. It is not a small feat. If not for the tragedy in Imo State where Rochas Okorocha took our victory and went away after we laboured so much to put him in office, APGA would have continued in Imo State till date.
With all the problems surrounding APGA today, will you still boast of the party winning next year’s governorship seat in Anambra?
We didn’t do well in 2018 when we had our primaries. There was a clear departure from the foundation I laid in the party by the people who succeeded me. The outcries that followed the primaries were deafening and I cannot play ostrich to it because even as a party stakeholder and party leader, I had also made my views known sometime last year. Having said that, it is expected that it is part of the challenges of growth; we will not allow that to be the end of APGA. That is why I have busied myself with all efforts towards giving hope to members of the party. I have not allowed some of these issues to escalate, I’ve been trying to talk to very important critical stakeholders in the party to focus on the need to keep APGA alive at all cost, as we were enjoined by Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu before he left us. So, in his memory, I am totally determined to continue to stay the course of APGA despite the challenges. You have to bear the pains of wanting to repair something that was not done well, but there are limitations to what you can do.
Today, no party is very fine, APC the other day was enmeshed in national leadership crisis and PDP is almost scattering in Anambra again. What we want to do is to heal the wounds in our own party and that’s what I am pursuing, getting the governor who is the leader of the party and particularly who is in charge in Anambra State to see the need to heal the wounds. If you gloss over the wounds of wrong actions done in any system, any efforts made to continue would continue to be retarded by forces of dissent within that system. We are doing our best to see that APGA goes ahead into the 2021 governorship election in Anambra and come out successful. The party has done well in the state, and in answer to your question, I am a custodian of the facts of sequence of events in Anambra State, I know where we met the state and I know where the state is today. So, APGA has done well for Anambra State, we may not have scored 100 per cent in all spheres, but we have done well to merit continuity in governance in the state. Next year’s election I admit will be difficult, it will be a tough election for the fact that APGA would have been there for 16 years and for you to continue you need extraordinary efforts to convince the people that you need to continue. Those who have been outside for 16 years would be saying that you have not done anything. When I led Governor Obiano’s campaign for second term, people were saying that Obiano had failed but I was able to document his achievements, I was on television everywhere and when I reeled out Governor Obiano’s achievements in his first tenure, we got 21 over 21 because they were things people can see. I know what is happening in the state but I can tell you that the election of next year is still there for APGA to win. But one important thing that must be done is for the governor to bring people together. Those who were offended in 2018 must be called and pacified and given hope.
So, with the bazaar that characterised the party’s primaries in last general election, you’re still hopeful?
In 2019, we had a better chance than in 2011 to win back Imo State but we mismanaged the opportunity. A party where many people have left in Imo and they are also leaving in Abia, I cannot as the former chairman of APGA pretend that all is well with the party. We need to reach out because when I was chairman of APGA, the party was very vibrant in Imo; winning the governorship election twice, 2007 and 2011, it was very vibrant in Abia, winning in 2015 but was denied. APGA contested election everywhere, in Ebonyi, Enugu, there was no election in Nigeria when I was chairman that APGA didn’t field candidates in all the states in Igbo land and many places outside Igbo land as we sometimes waved nomination fees in the states we are weak to encourage the aspirants, but in 2019 general elections, APGA had no candidate, not even one candidate in Ebonyi State, so, I appreciate the enormity of the problem. All these things will come back to put some avoidable pressures on the party in Anambra state in the next election. But because we are from Anambra State; we’ll do everything to get our people together and go to that election with our scorecard. There is no scorecard APGA has that can be compared with PDP scorecard in Anambra State at any time. We had Mbadinuju, we had Ngige who tried but he didn’t do as much as APGA has done under Peter Obi and under Obiano.
In 2021, we’ll go into the election, God help us and we will win. We will then re-launch the party in Imo State, Abia, Ebonyi; Enugu and beyond. What I am asking our people is to always be very conscious of the fact that they need this party called APGA.
What are the chances of the Igbo producing Nigerian president of Igbo origin in 2023?
I’ve been looking at debates going on about 2023, and just looking at it you will see where justice lies. The South East people have not produced president for Nigeria since independence. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a President but there was a Prime Minister who was Head of Government. So, on the basis of all the battles we have waged in Nigeria, Nigeria needs to show the Igbo people that they are part of Nigeria. We have the capacity to provide good governance, we have intellectuals, in fact; the South East is a bed of people who are ingenious, people who are highly educated, people who have the capacity to provide visionary leadership to Nigeria. If we continue because of accident of war and the fallout of the war and continue to exclude the South East from the leadership of the country, we will not be wishing ourselves well. So, that quest for a President of Nigeria from Igbo extraction is something that will be a healing balm to Nigeria. I’ve said it severally, when I was in the Senate, I never hid my dissatisfaction with the way our people were always marginalized in the scheme of affairs in Nigeria, yet we live everywhere in Nigeria contributing so much to the GDP of this country. If you remove the Igbo of Nigeria from Nigeria, Nigeria may remain but they will see hell, because we are all over the places helping to improve the lives of people, making things easier for everybody. We believe in Nigeria and it was because of this discriminatory attitude towards the Igbo as a result of the civil war which ended 50 years ago that they are still aggrieved. If they cannot be President in their own country, what hope do you have to claim citizenship right in your own country?
Power needs to be shared in a manner that we shall see ourselves as one people, so now that election 2023 is coming, I don’t know why somebody from the South West will be warming up to be President of Nigeria. Such a desire is insensitive and a clear injustice to a zone that has not produced President. I read in the papers that the South West wants to produce president again. Is it because of what?
What Nigeria needs is the truth and that truth will continue to be told. It is for people who are discerning enough to hear and help to make Nigeria a great country. Today, the country is completely divided, a very small rope is tying the country; it is a country that anything can happen there any moment. So, we’ll continue to pursue actions that will truly unite Nigeria and this is the time to demonstrate that the war has ended. But this idea of trying to take the prejudices of the war and hand it over to the younger generation and they grow with it that these people are this, these people are that, is postponing the doomsday. In answer, I don’t know how it would be achieved but I think that all the political parties in Nigeria should give their presidential tickets to somebody from the South East on the basis of equity and fairness. Once that happens, we will now have a new Nigeria. So, a presidency from the South East of Nigeria will be a presidency that will unite Nigeria and put an end to the prejudices of the past. 2023 is a time to show that really, we want Nigeria to be one country. It is not going to be done by force, it is going to be done by reasoning, for people coming to the realization that this is something that is worth doing and that once it is done there will be peace and concord in Nigeria, so I pray that it happens.
What will you say is your lowest point in the past 58 years?
My lowest point was Peter Obi’s betrayal of my relationship with him as my brother. It is a very sour point for me. Obi came to me in 2001 here in Enugu to solicit for my support; that he wanted to run for governor. I asked him critical questions, he told me that he will be fair to everybody and he will be tenacious in the struggle and he will never let me down. So, I took on him, everything about him becoming governor was driven by me, everybody in Nigeria knows that. It was Professor ABC Nwosu who referred him to come to meet me to lead the struggle for him. We had all kinds of difficulties; you have seen how he got into office in the first instance after three years in court driven by me. I had to become chairman of APGA not by my wish but to save his mandate. I fought with Professor Maurice Iwu when he wanted to deny him participation in the 2010 governorship election for the second term; I fought him in court and overwhelmed him. A truce was brokered because I had a court judgment which he was disobeying when the court had affirmed Chekwas Okorie’s expulsion from the party and he continued to recognize him to put another candidate against Peter Obi in APGA in 2010. I fought through, won at the Court of Appeal and I was able get Ojukwu’s support for him and we won the second term election for him.
I played a major role to get him back from impeachment, I was the one that saw the need to seek for interpretation of his tenure, I did and I drove it. There are too many things that cannot be contained in this interview, I did all that and he got a second term in office and tragically, he turned against me because I told him to conduct local government election so that our party people will get into those cadres for the party to have flesh. Because at that time it was Obi, Governor, House of Assembly 30, PDP, nobody in the local government, no caretaker, nothing. So, APGA was operating with only Governor, so myself and Ojukwu gave him that as a condition for his second term even when Ojukwu had revolted that he wasn’t going to support him again instead he preferred Emeka Etiaba-the son to the former Deputy Governor. I had to intervene to get my boss to see reason why we should continue with Peter. So, I saved him in all his travails and very tragically because Ojukwu died in 2011, he felt he can now muscle me. First when I got Rochas elected in Imo State, they formed APGA Governors’ Forum and gave me directive to dissolve the executive of APGA in Imo and Anambra States and put in place Caretaker Committees that they will give to me. They sent me letters, I have copies and I wrote them a reply after a meeting of the National Working Committee and we rejected their demand. They continued the fight, after Rochas buckled and returned to me, we continued. Tragically, Obi sponsored a useless suit to get me sacked by the then Chief Judge of Enugu State, late Justice Innocent Umezulike. While I was struggling to get the judgment set aside, Obi organized a midnight convention in Awka on April 7, 2013 to ambush the ruling of the Court of Appeal scheduled for the morning of April 8, 2013 which I won. Obi that I never slept for one day, all trying to fight and provide support for him, removed me as National Chairman of APGA. That was the lowest point in my life; it was the highest betrayal I can ever fathom. I had to go through the courts again in a very tough fight, thank God for some men of integrity in the Nigerian Judiciary, not all judges are bad; there are credible ones. It was a fight between David and Goliath because midway Rochas Okorocha left us and joined the merger parties; it was only me and Peter Obi. I was selling off my properties to sustain me when help wasn’t coming again from some of my allies. I did that and God who is the ultimate justifier saw me through and I defeated Obi finally at the Court of Appeal on the 15th of July 2013 and got rid of Maxi Okwu and his team, forcing him (Obi) to come back to me at the late hour of his tenure. It’s the worst thing anybody can do but I still thank God that I survived him, he’s still waging that war of attrition against me till this date but I can assure you that God will see me through all of them.