“I contested for the Senate, which I won, but was denied. I went to the court to challenge it… For me, it was a tortuous journey to the Senate.”
Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Victor Umeh is representing Anambra Central Senatorial District in the Eight National Assembly and the vice chairman, Senate Committee on Labour and Productivity. He is also the former chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
In this interview with Sunday Sun, the lawmaker, who has spent only 10 months in the Senate, spoke on a number of issues. He spoke on ongoing agitation in the Southeast, the alleged marginalisation of the Igbo and why President Muhammadu Buhari should sign the new Electoral Amendment Bill into law.
You have spent over 10 months in the Senate having been out of the chamber because of some legal battles, which lasted for more than two years. How has the experience been?
The experience has been wonderful. No doubt, my tenure at the National Assembly has been depleted through litigations. But I am happy that at last I was able to attain justice to get to the Senate. It was an election I won in 2015, but was denied which I had to go through the court to set aside the first election and through the litigation that ensued to clear the way for the re-run, which I eventually won. I have been here for 10 months and it has been a period of intense activities for me because I have worked very hard to recover the lost grounds that my constituency has suffered due to lack of representation for over two years. From my own assessment, I think I have been able to re-establish the presence of Anambra Central Senatorial District. Also I have participated actively in plenary and various committees. I was able to meet on good time the budgeting session for 2018. I was able to work very hard to attract meaningful projects to my constituency. Not only that, I have been able to sponsor some motions and bills within this short period and my people are very happy. Also they are hopeful that by the time we go through the next election and my mandate is renewed, they will certainly have worthy representation through me.
Looking back at what you went through to get here and the experience so far, will you say the trouble was worth it?
Yes, it is. The challenges of the 2015 election was to keep the record straight and to ensure that people are not allowed to short-circuit the process of getting into leadership through the back door. They must go through the process and follow the letters and spirits of our laws to emerge as lawmakers. Since my entry into politics about 19 years ago, I have been fighting against wrong governments and the political process. I also struggled to strengthen the foothold of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra State by fighting electoral frauds foisted against APGA by the big parties. APGA recorded its first governor through litigation. Our candidate, Mr Peter Obi who was our candidate in 2003, won the election and was denied which made us to go through the tribunal and got a pronouncement nearly three years after. Also when my tenure expired as APGA chairman, I contested for the Senate, which I won, but was denied. I went to the court to challenge it. By and large, I think that it’s worth it. For me, it was a tortuous journey to the Senate.
Why do you always face criticism when you make comments on the floor of the Senate?
When you have a strong voice against critical issues, which tend to convey injustice, you become a marked person. So, my political activities in Nigeria, if you have been following is somebody who is very strong-willed; if you cross the line, I insist that you go back. And we have been able to use that principle over a long time to put people aright through the judicial process. Also if you noticed, my entry to the Senate was difficult. Some people from Anambra State and beyond followed me to the Senate because they had followed my activities over the years in politics in the belief that I am somebody, if given the chance, will be effective.
Eighty per cent of the motions you have sponsored are centred on issues affecting the Igbo. I know that you are from a particular senatorial district, but as a formal chairman of APGA, why the special focus on your people instead of taking it beyond the Southeast?
A senatorial district cannot have issues affecting the people of that senatorial district when it can be solved through a representative. Anambra Central Senatorial District is in the Southeast, but my motions go beyond that political zone if you look at it critically. I have done three motions only and it can’t be 80 per cent Igbo. The motion I sponsored on the 30th of May, which is the illegal confinement of underage children in the same prison with adult inmates was widely celebrated in my area. It was a national motion, which affects children all over the country. The motion won an award as the best motion among other competing motion in 2018 at the Senate. Because of where I am coming, I look at issues that affect us as a people. I have also done a bill for the establishment of the Theatre Art Professional Practitioners’ Council of Nigeria, which is a national bill.
The National Defence Council (NDC) issue, which you raised recently generated so much controversy and was celebrated in the media. Although there was no position taken by the Senate, but it sent a signal that the Igbo need to be well represented. What informed that motion?
The motion was a very simple motion that ought not to have generated any anxiety among any quarter. It was a motion which is in pursuant to the relevant portions of the constitution, like Section 40 which enshrines Federal Character on the way things ought to be done. The constitution stipulates the need for proper representation of all parts of the country’s organs of government. And if you constitute very important organs of government and some people are left out, it weakens the requirements of the principles of the Federal Character. My motion was on the need for government to appoint a representative from the Southeast geopolitical zone into the National Defence Council (NDC). If you read Section 153 of the constitution, you will see the composition of the NDC. The way it is presently constituted shows that there is nobody from the Southeast, specifically an Igbo man in NDC. So, I chose to use the word Southeast so that people will not misconstrue it for an ethnic motion. So, the motion was for inclusive participation. In order to attack me, somebody read out that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a member when he does not know anything about security. He is just a passive member of the Security Council. What necessitated the motion was the attitude that has held the country down; where people will know the truth and reject it because the status quo favours them. These are the same people that are impervious to change and restructuring. You can see the vehemence to which many parts of Nigeria are pushing for restructuring. But some people who are benefiting from it do not want to tamper with it. A country that wants to grow should be open to fairness and equity. Mind you, the motion has also reinforced the agitation of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
You are a critical voice in the Southeast and just recently, the leader of IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu resurfaced, making some statements although not as critical as before; and people from the region are asking what it portends ahead of 2019 elections. What is your take on it?
The Nigerian government is mismanaging the issue of MASSOB and IPOB. We are Igbo and we know what we want in this country, which is the inclusion and accommodation in all matters concerning the country. We want equitable attention so that anything that is available should go round to every geopolitical zone. We don’t want our people to be alienated from government programmes. Our people feel that they have been shortchanged for too long. The way to manage it is not to suppress it without doing anything. If the government starts building roads, employing them and appointing them where and when needed, the agitations will disappear. I don’t know what the resurfacing of Nnamdi Kanu has to do with the 2019 general elections. People are already giving it importance that he is speaking from Jerusalem. Government shouldn’t be afraid of such a situation. We are going to participate in the process. Remember the 2017 Anambra State governorship election, IPOB called for a boycott of the process and we came out discountenanced the order, appealing to our people to vote. In fact, I called IPOB members to vote because that is the only way to ensure credible leadership with the use of the Permanent Voters’ Card (PVCs). So, the boycott of election will not make Nigeria to stop moving on. Recall that when we had census in the past, MASSOB ordered people not to participate and some people obeyed out of ignorance, but it affected the population of the Southeast. If you don’t have an independent republic, then it means you are part of Nigeria and if you are part of the country then you should be ready to participate in the activities of the country. In synopsis, Southeast will participate in the 2019 elections.
People believe that Peter Obi’s emergence as vice presidential candidate is an Igbo project because it is one of the surest ways to get the long-awaited presidency. Do you share that sentiment?
It is the view of some people and they are entitled to it. The choice of Obi as vice presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is a welcome development. At least, he would be in contention to be the number two citizen of the country. But the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) has its own presidential candidate from Benue State, while its vice is from Imo State. We also have Prof. Kingsley Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) who is a presidential candidate from the Southeast. The more opportunity the people from the Southeast get to participate in the process, the better for all of us. Whoever succeeds is a plus for the zone. For now, what I do not subscribe to is for somebody to say it is a total Igbo project because most presidential candidates are from the Southeast. You cannot stop the operations of other political parties because somebody has emerged. They are people who will say Moghalu should be the president because he is well educated among others. So, it’s not correct for people to say other candidates must support Peter Obi. Those championing such cause are just emotional and sentimental. We wish him well. He is my brother, in fact, and in reality. I have been his political pillar all through his tenure as Anambra State governor for eight years. If at the end his party wins, I will be very happy. But that does not mean that I will close the activities in APGA to see that as an Igbo project. What we are praying for is to have a credible election. Remember that we nominated our presidential and vice presidential candidate on October 7, 2018. Then five days after, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar announced Peter Obi as his running mate. So, we were the first to nominate our presidential and vice presidential candidates. What we should be doing is to pray for God’s will to be done.
People are expressing doubt about the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) that the 2019 elections may not be credible. They are alleging that the ruling party may use brute force to change the will of the people. This is specifically coming from the PDP. Do you share in the doubt?
I don’t share that pessimism with PDP for now, if I may judge from my encounter with the present leadership of INEC. In my own case, there were all kinds of pressure on INEC not to conduct my re-run election that brought me to the Senate. INEC did everything, including appealing the obnoxious judgment forcing INEC to admit somebody who had been forbidden from taking part in the exercise. And when a Federal High Court ordered INEC to issue a certificate of return to another person when the election had been annulled by the highest court in the land, the body rejected it. So, I have not seen a more forthright leadership than this following the rule of law. I know that the PDP is saying this because of what happened in Osun and Ekiti states where the elections were hotly contested and the margin of victory was low particularly in Osun State. It is better to keep faith and participate with all determination. PDP is playing to pessimism that all may not be well. And if that gets into your psyche, it affects your preparation to participate in the process. We must give INEC the benefit of the doubt that they will do the right thing. We eagerly watch, particularly the Senate, which has passed the Electoral Amendment Bill for the third time taking into account all the reservations and comments made by Mr President. One thing that was enshrined in it is the use of the card reader. It is only when the president rejects the use of the card reader that is when I think there would be anxiety.