Founder of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Chief Chekwas Okorie has warned that the country is sitting on a powder keg, warning that Nigeria could explode and collapse on all of us if no urgent action is taken to combat the many issues in the polity.
He also described as wicked, insinuations by the Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai that the Igbo want to get the 2023 presidency by threat. In an interview with VINCENT KALU, the elder statesman said Nigerians should not heap the blame over Nigeria’s current woes on President Buhari alone, noting that National Assembly members and the governors must have their fair share of the blame.
Nigeria seems to be hanging on a cliff. How did we get here and how do we come out of it?
I agree that Nigeria is actually hanging on a cliff, but we didn’t get there overnight. We got there over time, and the warning signals were there. People made suggestions, proposals to avoid a situation like this. That was the reason former President Jonathan, after years of pressure convoked a national conference. Many people thought that would be an opportunity to put Nigeria back on track, but unfortunately, he didn’t do anything about it after the report was submitted to him. It was an exercise that cost Nigeria treasury N7 billion, according to government figures. About 650 recommendations were made; even the ones he could have implemented administratively without having to go through constitutional amendment, he did nothing about it. A new government came, which he never anticipated and unfortunately that new government didn’t think much of that document and so things continue to deteriorate.
It got so bad that even the ruling party has to set up a committee headed by El-Rufai that advised on better structure of government. The committee did a good job, made its own recommendations that were not too different from some of the recommendations found in that 2014 document. Still, it is lying there. The ninth National Assembly is lackadaisical about those amendments that will make our country a better federation. Now, insecurity came in, the COVID-19, the economy that is dependent on one product cannot be said to be an economy that is on a sound footing. We have all this vast arable land everywhere and nobody found agriculture attractive enough. So, even when this government began to give some impetus to agriculture, the same government turned the other eye when herdsmen began to graze their cattle on the same crops some people used bank facilities to cultivate. Gradually, impunity came in within the security agencies. Those who were expected to protect the people turned them to victims of highhandedness – the SARS, etc. The military personnel found it attractive to set up roadblocks instead of fighting insecurity with the little strength we have in manpower. You find them all over the country, especially in the South; it became some industry of some sort. These things continue to get on the nerves of the people who are victims of certain levels of extortion. This is what has led us to where we are. The issue of Almajiri in the North is a major thing that has been badly mismanaged because when you have people at the age of three, four , six , seven roaming the streets; no education, no skill whatsoever and they are in their hundreds of thousands. Those kids will one day become teenagers and adults and by this time without any skill, you don’t expect them at that age to remain in the streets begging for alms. They will start looking for other means of surviving. This is what has now hit the North this badly and that has also provided recruitment ground for future bandits, insurgents, etc. Of course, in the South, almost the same thing, but in the case of the South, most of the people who are angry are educated; they went through all sorts of education, acquired skills but no jobs. They say, ‘an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’
Talking about the way to get out of it, like I said at the outset, the suggestions have been there, but what is lacking is the political will to implement it, which is the problem.
How do you reconcile this: Is it the political will to implement or the ‘I don’t want to implement’ mind-set, which seems to be the body language of the president?
The president is an individual, there is no doubt that statements he made off the cuff that if properly thought out would not have been made. If we go into all of those kinds of statements, you now reduce the gigantic problem of the country which has been there for decades, to one man’s problem; as if it is one person that caused it. As president, there is so much he could do which he hasn’t done, but we also have the National Assembly. The 17 Southern governors are now beginning to take positions, which they were not doing before, as they left cultural groups, unions, associations and NGOs to be complaining about these problems. Now that elected governors have taken this type of position that will make Nigeria a more united place, I think the president will listen. He made those comments, but it is the same party that went out to seek the opinions of Nigerians on how to restructure and that recommendation was not only sent to him and the party, but the party passed it on to the National Assembly for enactment into law and it is part of what is being considered in the ongoing constitutional amendment. But we rather waste all our energy and time trying to single out Buhari for blame as if he when leaves office in two years, these problems will disappear on their own. What we should be doing is to turn the pressure on NASS because even if you go to the constitution, the Executive arm of government is turned as number two, the first is the Legislative arm and the third is the Judiciary. The NASS has a critical role to play and it is not playing it.
Do you see the Southern governors carrying out most of the things they mentioned, like the ban on open grazing, for instance?
I don’t see that. The situation now is scary. If we don’t put our house in order, it is going to fall on everyone. The fact that these angry youth are armed with sophisticated weapons, and there is no place too sacred for them to penetrate is enough warning signal. They can decide to invade a Government House. If these people are up to 100 armed with AK- 47, what do you have that will make them not to surround it and bring it down before daybreak, including people who are inside it? The situation has put the fear of God in all of us, including those who have political authority to protect us. This is not like the previous grandstanding that we have heard. Don’t forget the Southern governors have not met in recent time, but now they have been compelled to jettison any partisan consideration and considered the issues facing us. Their taking it further to NASS shows seriousness. I see them implementing it. Even if they don’t go out all to implement it, having pronounced it, I can assure you if there is anywhere cattle are moving along the road, the ordinary citizens will not wait for police to come and arrest them; they will say that the governor has given an order and they will make life miserable for the herders. This is one of the implications. If they don’t implement it, people who have taken the order very seriously will begin to implement it themselves and that will be more chaotic. Even, the herders are human beings and they have leaders and they must have heard that this is not the same as what has happened before. And it is not going to be like the Benue situation where they are still fighting to occupy land. It is a different ball game that has started. I expect that the government itself, even as we speak must be meeting now without much fanfare to read between the line what is emanating from the South and try to address some of them in order to douse tension.
Tension is high and there is flashpoint everywhere. If we say we are hanging on a cliff, it means that we are sitting on a keg of gun powder; a kind of tinderbox and nobody will want to see it explode because that explosion will not save anybody and I don’t see Nigeria surviving such explosion because of the tension that is already in the air. Some individuals have already taken positions and they want to cash in on it, not to talk of international gunrunners and those whose business thrive in crisis situation. They are waiting to see anything they can do to make sure Nigeria is destabilized so that they can do their business. We have to pray and work hard and say things we can do and do things we say.
Talking about insecurity, the National Security Council met earlier in the week and announced measures to combat insecurity in the South-East and South-South. But there was no one there from the South-East…
All of us who have seen Nigeria move from quasi federalism to what you now have as centric government feel very worried. An Igbo man in particular feel excluded in the scheme of things. There used to be three major ethnic groups in this country and up till today, Igbo people have made the most contribution to the development of Nigeria. No ethnic group can compare itself with Igbo contributions to Nigeria’s economic development and building bridges across the country. There is no state where our investments will not rank very high. It is only people who believe in a country as large as Nigeria that can invest the way we have invested and yet such people are excluded in the commanding height of bureaucracy, the commanding height of the security; the commanding height of the Executive arm. It is not fair and it cannot breed patriotism. It has gotten so bad that non Igbo people across the country are not voicing out sympathy opinions for Ndigbo. Some people must listen, it is very odd that a race like Igbo will be here and some people will sit and take decision on the security situation in Igbo land and not a single soul who is there that would even make suggestion being an indigene of the area on how best to go about such policy and achieve the best result.
There are also talks about the people manning the security in the South-East – GOC, Brigade Commanders DSS directors etc, that none of them is an indigene…
They are absolutely right. In fact, it has given our people the impression that our area is an occupied territory. That one should not give anybody comfort, those who sat down somewhere and plotted such occupation should feel that they have really achieved much because if there is crisis of unmanageable proportion, how can those people they put there be of any use? I just pray that Nigeria does not really blow up because you will discover that you don’t even have a Nigeria Army. Who will put his rifle and be shooting his own people? How many soldiers do you have in the barracks in the South-East that will confront the millions of young men and women whose lives have been made useless and they would say, ‘what is there to protect anymore; nothing more to lose’ and they will confront them even if they have catapult, not to talk of when most people have access to weapons of violence. This is not the time to continue to do things that will be very provocative. This is a public knowledge, Ohanaeze has made a bold statement, and the entire Igbo leadership feels this is the time to speak out for it to be addressed; that keeping quiet when it gets out of control, see the people you have positioned there will all run away. Let nobody feel any sense of comfort that we have occupied their territory. You have occupied nothing. What they have done is to make the people feel that they are under siege; their area is occupied and at any point in time what they will be thinking of is self defence, it is not how a country can grow.
You are now a member of APC. Some Nigerians have described the party as the worst thing that has happened to the country. What’s your take on that?
Anybody saying that is definitely being uncharitable. First of all, when the entire UPP joined APC; collapsed all our nationwide structures into it, both Igbo and non Igbo. We gave our reasons. The first was that we would like to support Buhari to complete his eight years in office so that it would be the turn of Igbo people to go for this position that has been eluding them. The other one is that since the beginning of this political dispensation in 1999, it is only now we are seeing federal presence in Igbo land. I have challenged PDP people, nobody up till today has shown me a single federal presence even a cottage industry built anywhere in the South-East in the 16 years of PDP reign. Those appointments people continue to raise only benefited the nuclear families of beneficiaries of those positions. If you ask me between federal presence, infrastructural developments and appointments, I will tell you to keep the appointments and give me federal presence because a good road will be there for the big and the small to use. The Ariaria market in Aba is enjoying close to 24 hours electricity. By 2018, when Buhari went to campaign for his re-election, he commissioned that project. Driving from Enugu to Aba has improved tremendously and work is still ongoing; the same from Enugu to Onitsha.
The Second Niger Bridge, which PDP is trying to claim, was started all over using the National Sovereign Investment Fund to implement, unlike the private public project that PDP started which would never have ended in the next 100 years. This one, the government is funding it; it is not being delayed by the problem of budgetary allocation and the deadline is 2022 for everybody to ride on that bridge. Any person going there will see the enormous job being done. To that extent, I feel justified that we made the right decision. But that cannot be said to rationalise the lopsidedness in appointments. Yes, you win here, you lose here. In terms of federal presence, what we never saw in 16 years, we have seen it in six years, and in the next two years, most of them will be commissioned.
What you claim as achievements in the South-East are not up to what Governor Ganduje claimed Buhari did in Kano alone. So why are we celebrating all that?
I will disagree with you completely because when something is not done for you at all, the little that is done is appreciated. By the way, Ganduje may mention whatever, but go and check the aggregate value of those investments. This Second Niger Bridge is the largest single federal government investment in any one project in Nigeria. We are talking about people who have never seen anything at all; it is just like a woman who has never had the fruit of the womb for years and God blesses her with a baby, the way she will celebrate it, you wonder what of those who have eight or ten children. Will you because of it say, God why will I thank You? After all, You gave others ten and you have just given me one. If Ganduje was not celebrating, why did he reel out those things? The governor of Ebonyi State has said that most of his accomplishments that people are praising him could not have been possible except for his friendship and relationship with Buhari right from when he was in PDP. We do know that a president has special presidential dispensation that can make him do certain things for some people without recourse to the NASS or to virement to budgetary allocation. The power of such interventions are already residing in him as the president. When you have that cordial relationship, you benefit from it. Imo governor is also talking of certain things he is able to do in the state within a year in office because of his cordial relationship with the president. Many people will tell you that Igbo people are not happy with this government, but you should note that we are coming from a position of five per cent contribution to the man’s victory. Now PDP and APC have shared two states each. This is a huge improvement in political terms. Anambra is there for a fresh contest and Igbo APC are doing everything that is in the books to win the state. Igbo people are not that irrational; as much as they are sentimental, they are also very rational beings. When you do something for an Igbo man, he is very appreciative of it, and that is what is making APC to grow. The party is growing both among Igbo in Igbo land and outside by leaps and bounds. By 2023, Buhari will not carry APC to Daura, he will leave office and another government will come. We are also looking beyond the Buhari era.
Are the Igbo in APC prepared to run for president? Do you intend to run? And what would you do differently?
If you look at my manifesto, which I espoused at the debate with Jonathan and others at the presidential debate, all these issues we are talking about now are contained in it. I have always done things not based on my personal ambition. That is why I became the first Nigerian to found a political party without using it to run for election when we started having multiple parties. When APGA was founded, I took it to Ohanaeze and asked them to give me somebody. The Ohanaeze President General, Justice Eze Ozobu, told Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu at the Ohanaeze general meeting at Asaba to go and join APGA, so that our people will know that this is our party. It was in an open hall. Six months after, Ojukwu joined. I was already 49 years old at that time and so was eminently qualified to run for president. I didn’t take advantage of that.
If I wanted, nobody would challenge me because, it’s a party I founded. Even now, what I’m doing is not focused on whether Chekwas Okorie will run. I also believe that it is God that gives power. I’m praying to be alive to see an Igbo man sworn in as president of Nigeria. If that happens, I’m sure I may probably not control my emotion, the same way Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Young could not control theirs when Obama was making his acceptance speech that a Black man has been elected into the White House. My struggle all along has never been for me and that is the record that is there for me in the open.
How will the Igbo go about this 2023 to actualize what they have been clamouring?
Let me first start with PDP before I come to the party where I belong. I have said publicly to Igbo leaders in PDP who are foundation members that they were there when all the rotations happened and they should be able to insist that if the party denies the Igbo that ticket at this time, that all of them will come back and review their continued stay in PDP. Most of them are on the pages of newspapers shouting, ‘it is our turn’, but they have to do something about it. In the case of APC, we are increasing our stake in the party, from position of five per cent contribution in 2015 to contributing much more. For instance, in 2019, Abia State contributed about 29 per cent; Imo about 30 per cent; Ebonyi about 30 per cent; Enugu, 18 per cent. It is only Anambra, maybe because of Peter Obi that contributed six per cent. So, from five per cent to these numbers and from one state to two and going to third state, our stake is increasing by the day and we are lobbying. I was not a member of APC, but I am now and I have friends all over the country and I’m reaching out to them to think of Igbo, not about Chekwas Okorie. There are many people like me who are reaching out, sometimes in a concerted manner, sometimes on individual basis. Some of these things will begin to crystallise after the Anambra election. Once the campaign proper starts, every well meaning Igbo in APC desirous of making a strong demand to the party leadership for what we are clamouring will relocate to Anambra to deliver the state to APC. If you look at the body language of APC, those who are clamouring for the national chairmanship of APC for the next convention are all from the North. That shows you without making it official, the body language of the party is in favour of going down South. If it’s going down South, you don’t expect it to be micro zoned, so we have to slug it out with others in the South who may have interest or we appeal to them to collaborate with us instead of slugging it out.
In the event that an Igbo man couldn’t get any of the two tickets, what will they do?
We will not commit mass suicide. We will return to the drawing table because this country will outlive all of us by the grace of God. As a matter of fact, if we have a restructured Nigeria, the clamour for president will be reduced to little or nothing. The average Igbo person wants a level playing field so that his enterprise will grow; so that he will feel a sense of belonging. How many people in American states care much about who is in Washington? We want to go there to enable us facilitate the deepening of the Nigeria federalism and that is what will make Nigeria great. But we will do everything to win it; I never think in the negative term. We are going to work hard and we will rely on the collaboration and cooperation of others to win it. I want to seize this opportunity to advise Governor El-Rufai, whom I respect a great deal to be mindful of his utterances that the Igbo want to get the presidency by threat. It is a very wicked insinuation. There is nowhere Igbo have said that heavens will fall if they don’t get the presidency. I have just said that we will not commit mass suicide if we don’t get it.
That is the attitude of the average Igbo person, but for somebody like El-Rufai to make that type of insinuation to the public in the quest of our legitimate desire to present the leadership of Nigeria at the highest level was very unkind of him and he shouldn’t be the one sowing this type of seed of discord. I want to seize this opportunity to really caution him. Some of his utterances are below the level of a governor.