By Daniel Kanu
Chief Chekwas Okorie has been in the political space for a long time and can pass as a moving encyclopedia of sort. He is, perhaps, the longest-standing opposition politician from the Southeast.
Chief Okorie was the pioneer national chairman of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA). He later founded the United Progressive Party (UPP) and was the national chairman of the party, as well as the party’s presidential candidate in the 2015 elections.
He is today a chieftain of APGA, a party he founded 20 years ago.
In this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun, he speaks on the presidential campaigns and the 2023 elections, odds against Igbo presidency, and security challenges in the Southeast, among other national issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of political campaigns so far and how satisfied are you with the conversations raised in terms of issue-based?
The quality of the campaigns so far has been very substandard, they have not really marshaled issues that touched on the major things that border Nigeria and Nigerians. The earlier part of the campaign started with a lot of verbal attacks, abuses on each other, derogatory statements, and sometimes threat, and that introduced so much trepidation in the polity, creating the impression that the days ahead will even degenerate into some violence. Thank God that hasn’t happened. What we are witnessing is the usual Nigerian charade we call campaign when people just gather in different venues at political rallies and they expect to hear profound statements at such rallies, but the much you hear is the same thing that they have rehearsed and keep repeating here and there. And the next thing you see them bringing artists, a popular musician to come and perform and display their art. That is precisely what the audience will take away from those rallies, those performances. If you ask them what the presidential candidate or the candidates whether presidential, governorship, senatorial etc, said they will tell you they didn’t hear anything except that they know that the artist on stage performed very well and lived up to their billing. The whole idea for them was to go and watch political displays. That is the kind of campaign that we are witnessing and then for those who have gone on television because that is where sometimes they try to make some points based on the questions asked by the journalists during the interview. There are things they don’t have answers to, for instance, somebody saying he will devolve power down to the local governments, in other words, introduce true federalism, but he will never tell you how he is going to do it. One of them, one of the foremost candidates even said he will work hand in hand with the National Assembly to bring that about when it is obvious to all Nigerians that the present constitution we have does not provide for that type of seamless amendment of the critical issues in our constitution to bring about the devolution of power they are talking about. Another one said that when they get to power, they will speak with Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and Igboho and all those kinds of persons. But they have not told us how to go about such dialogue. Will you engage in dialogue with somebody who is under lock and key? If you are dialoguing with somebody who is under lock and key, who is brought from the prison to meet you at a place and went back after the dialogue. What that means is that you are discussing with him under duress. I thought they would have said once they get into power the first thing, they will do is to give unconditional release and then come up with dialogue, so that the person comes into the dialogue with you as a free man. But they are not saying this because they are afraid to say they will release them so that they don’t offend those who locked them up who are still in power. So, when you see incoming political leaders not showing sufficient courage, trying to play around with critical and sensitive issues, it calls for worry. So, you discover there is no seriousness really in what is happening. This is my own personal assessment of the quality of the campaign that is going on now.
You have always been an advocate of getting a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, but it does not appear as we speak that your party, All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) is making any serious impact with its candidate, if not spoiling the chances of Peter Obi of LP, at the forefront in the race…?
(Cuts in) Honestly, I had looked up to 2023 with so much expectations that it will provide the Southeast an opportunity of a lifetime to produce the president, but up till as we speak now, APGA that would have been driving that initiative and engaging other political blocs to make it happen because for it to really succeed other political blocs must key into the project. But that same APGA has remained in leadership crises 18 years out of the 20 years of its existence, it has remained in crisis and until now we are still looking up to the Supreme Court to resolve it finally, and perhaps, APGA will have a few weeks to see what it can do. But I think it’s very sad really, but I must say that Peter Obi has done very well for himself, he has been able to mobilise very impressive support across the board beyond anybody’s immediate expectation and I am sure even beyond his own expectation when he went on board, that is the way of destiny and things sometimes. But a number of factors are still weighing heavily against the realization of that objective. You will discover that other than the fact that APGA is a separate political party from the Labour Party, that is why you are getting the type of reaction you are getting from Governor Soludo. You have the whole of the Southeast belonging to different political parties and any person going into such a major adventure without a solid base usually creates a lot of problems. Anywhere in the world whether in America or in any democracy each party has its own base. The democratic party has the states they call the Blue states, the Republican has those they call the Red states before they now come to the battleground where they now call the Yellow state. When even President Buhari started he consolidated his strong base and everybody knows it and then extended hands to the Southwest and to other areas to be able to make it. Outside of the euphoria that is going on for any objective assessor of what is playing out the question is: Which of the 36 states will the LP boast of controlling? This is important. For instance, APGA still remains the number three in spite of its problem and why is it number three? Because in the categorization of the strength of parties in Nigeria, APGA is the third party that has a state it controls. So, whatever APGA is building is to improve on that their number three position to a higher position or to improve from one state to more states. So, as you look at the LP now, unfortunately, there is no state it has absolute control of, so when people think that the issue of structure is mere political talk they are talking out of total ignorance. Political structure is real, just like they say AIDS is real. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it, no amount of sentiment or emotion that will manufacture it. This is because you have to have people campaign for you at the grassroots who are campaigning for themselves at the same time. For instance, somebody who is going for the state Assembly is campaigning for himself and his party likewise those running for other positions like the House of Representatives or the Senate. If you don’t have people who are so committed to themselves and then extend it to the party and you are just like an independent candidate, it’s a tall order.
But looking at the way Nigerians have embraced the LP, perhaps they are united by hardship which cuts across ethnic and religious boundaries they will want to be their own structure, protecting their votes themselves at the polling booths, and with the BVAS they are confident their votes will count…?
(Cuts in) Yes, the introduction of technology in the process, especially the BVAS is something very salutary, everybody who loves democracy knows that for the first time, the votes of Nigerians will count more than any other time in the past, but remember that great majority of Nigerian voters are living in the rural areas and do not seem to be in contact with all of these things we read in the social media, many don’t even have access to television to even watch the news, or read twitter etc, to know what is trending. The Nigerian political democracy has not attained any form of sophistication to make people make a demarcation between individuals and the party, like people saying okay, for presidency let us vote for this person and for governorship we vote for the other person or party. Not even America has attained that level of sophistication, not to talk of a third world country like Nigeria. So, what I have predicted before and I have not seen anything to change it is that the 2023 election will be characterized mainly by considerations of religion, ethnicity and what I call sectionalism. The difference between sectionalism and ethnicity is that those who have sectional agenda like let’s say the Middle Belt, they have their own agenda for the Middle Belt, the issue we regard to as indigenous people and settlers. In pursuing that agenda politically those within that Middle Belt cut across religion, they cut across ethnicity, but they have a common agenda binding them together. But when you talk about ethnicity, you talk about Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Tiv, Kanuri etc, these are ethnic groups controlling even states. With what is playing out when you put all factors together there may not be an outright winner in the first ballot. So, INEC has been very proactive by planning ahead that there could be a run-off and if that run-off is coming to play, that will be good for Nigeria because if there is a run-off, it means that two parties will go for a second ballot and the other party that is strong will now align for a coalition arrangement and such coalition arrangement often result in more inclusive government than when you have a particular party control the National Assembly and the executive arm, then the issue of autocracy and high-handedness can play out. It will be an interesting outcome, I know that there will be upset here and there, but I don’t see any one party winning landslide, having 25 per cent of the votes in two/third of the states and then coming up with majority.
How worried are you about insecurity in your region, the Southeast, given what we are presently witnessing? Just few days ago, former Imo state governor, Ikedi Ohakim missed death by the whiskers?
Within hours of that sad issue breaking in the social media, I called Ohakim and thanked God, he was in a frame of mind to pick the call and we talked about it. I have always been very worried about insecurity in the Southeast. If it is quantified using economic yardstick the damage is mind-boggling in terms of social, economic and educational dislocation it has caused our young ones who can no longer go to school on Mondays. Normally, Christmas is a period that Igbo people come back home to share or show some of the things they were able to acquire over the years in the rural communities and so you experience a reasonable distribution of wealth during the festive period. Some people in the villages are even assisted to start their lives again by the kinsmen who are coming back. Community development projects are usually implemented during this festive period and those things help to develop the rural community. Insecurity in the Southeast is really worrisome. How many of us can afford a bulletproof car to protect ourselves? And this is what we are doing to ourselves, that is the most painful part of it. I don’t know how we landed where we are now that we have turned the barrel of the gun against ourselves as people who are cursed. It’s bad, it’s such a shame. I don’t know what else to say again, I have always proffered an approach that only state police and community policing, that enables every community take care of its own space that will checkmate insecurity because these people are not ghosts, they live among the people, some live in the bush. Some people own those spaces, we don’t have ungovernable spaces in the Southeast, like we have them, vast spaces in Niger State etc.
Going by the records this President Buhari-led APC government is going to leave behind humongous debt behind…?
(Cut’s in) I am not too worried about those debts and this is because the revenue we deny ourselves because of fuel subsidy, most of the debt that we have incurred were debt that were targeted at regenerative ventures that will yield revenue over time. In the years ahead we will begin to feel the benefits of all the investment in infrastructure in railway and in other areas. Like in Dangote now which the government is also giving a lot of impetus when it starts producing all will have a positive impact on the economy. The efforts being made now to check oil theft will make more revenue available. Any country that cannot borrow money is not a viable or solvent country, you must be viable, you must be credit worthy to attract loan. What matter is what you used the loan for. If it is used for genuine investment, of course, it is a matter of time, and you will see its positive effect in the economy.