From Fred Itua, Abuja
Chief Chuka Odom is a former Minister of Environment, Housing and Urban Development and also former Minister for State, Federal Capital Territory, FCT.
In 1999, Odom was appointed Special Adviser (Special Duties) to Governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia state and was elevated to Deputy Chief of Staff in 2002. Between 2003 and 2007, he served as Commissioner for Lands, Survey and Urban Planning as well as Commissioner for Special Duties in Abia. In 2007, Odom vied for the Ikeduru Federal Constituency, Imo state, on the platform of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA).
He speaks on the state of the economy, the marginalisation of the South-East zone, and the detention of Nnamdi Kanu, among other issues.
Looking back after about two years, would you say that Nigerians made a mistake by voting for President Muhammadu Buhari?
I think that is a fair question and it also depends on who you ask. You also need to consider the parameters to use in assessing the issue of governance. I believe that democracy is a process. It is a process of governance and growth. Any government that comes tries to meet what it considers the challenges facing the people. They do their best and move on. I was one of the individuals who hailed the election of President Buhari in 2015. One of the reasons I welcomed the change was because I believed the hallmark of democracy is change of leadership. That is what grows democracy. Where that is not made possible through the ballot box, the consequences are always severe.
As far I am concerned, this administration is still grappling with the promises they made to Nigerians. Recently, Mallam El-Rufai’s letter to the President was made public. I think the contents of that letter are a fair assessment of the performance of this administration. On the war against corruption, I think that the President as an individual has been honest in his desire to reduce corrupt practices. How the war has been prosecuted is a different matter all together. The challenges of leadership have come into play here.
I think the National Assembly has been the biggest obstacle to the fight against corruption; this is because of the circumstances through which it emerged and the cloud of corruption that has surrounded the leadership. I think this has made it impossible for them to support the President’s war against corruption through legislations aimed at institutional reforms. Instead, they have become the focus in the fight against corruption.
The National Assembly is a critical arm of government. The fight against corruption should go beyond the discovery of stolen and hidden currencies. The National Assembly should step in to plug the holes in the legislative framework establishing institutions of government, which makes it possible for such huge sums of money to be stolen in the first place. I am surprised that despite the calls for review or outright abolition of the practice of security votes, which is one of the main conduits of corruption in Nigeria, no bill is pending before the National Assembly on this issue. Instead, the National Assembly is engaged in legislations that would shield them from investigating their own corrupt practices; that makes our war against corruption a laughing stock before the international community.
Do you think President Buhari has handled the rift between the Senate and the Presidency well?
At the beginning, President Buhari appeared determined to fight corruption top-down. He looked like he was ready to fight all the elements in the system including his own party. At some point, he lost it. The reality of governance started to sink in. He had to get a number of things done through the National Assembly. In a situation like that, the uncooperative attitude of the National Assembly slowed down his pace and the alleged involvement of his own appointees in corrupt practices effectively diminished the war against corruption.
There is an argument that the anti-corruption war of President Buhari is one-sided. Do you share that view?
That has been the way corruption is fought in Nigeria. It is not right. I am surprised that some people are making it an issue. The PDP did the same thing when they were there. They were shielding corrupt people and were fighting the opposition. Everybody knows how President Obasanjo fought his anti-corruption war. He targeted his political enemies. The thing here is that, there appears to be a consensus that ‘you fight those not on your platform when you get political power using the anti-corruption platform. ‘And there appears to be an understanding that when you lose power, you face the music by those who you fought when they were in your position. That is the way we roll here.
My take is that, all these factors have diminished the war against corruption. That is not to say that the war is not ongoing. The government of President Buhari will go down in history as one of those serious about fighting corruption but was derailed by its internal contradictions. Whether he succeeds or not, he has brought a new impetus to the fight against corruption. Leadership does not exist in a moral vacuum. A critical component of leadership is moral authority, which I believe President Buhari still enjoys but I think good intentions are not enough. Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The ethnic dynamics of politics in Nigeria makes it impossible for anybody to fight corruption from all fronts. When you do that, there are so many people that will work against you. As a President, you may eventually not have a base to work from. It is only reasonable and fair for the President to close his eyes to certain people so that he can have legitimacy to start the fight somewhere. This is my own interpretation.
It appears the focus on anti-corruption war has allowed the economy to suffer. Do you think this approach is right?
Fighting corruption and running the economy are not mutually exclusive. Fighting corruption is not really an agenda; it should be a way of life of government. Every government in the world fights corruption. This is done through institutional mechanisms. It is not a physical combat. The starting point for fighting corruption in Nigeria will be a total reform of our institutions. Those processes that make it possible for people to access huge sums of money from the government confers without alarm bells going off, should be blocked. For me, what Buhari has done is to open the eyes of Nigerians to the huge corruption in the country. The fight will probably start after him when people who are not sponsored by corrupt politicians take over. They are the ones that will have the leverage to fight corruption. They will have to do it in collaboration with a National Assembly that is not tinted by corruption. They would need institutional framework. As of now, it is impossible for members of the National Assembly to pass laws that will be used to convict them.
What we are doing in Nigeria is a haphazard attempt at exposing what is going on. Naming and shaming people is one aspect, blocking those loopholes is a different matter. Making the blocking of those loopholes sustainable is the actual fight against corruption.
Away from corruption war, do you think President Buhari has been fair to the South-East in terms of political patronage and appointments?
Let me be fair to the President, the marginalisation of the South-East zone did not start with him. It has always been the story since the end of the Civil War. The only thing is that, it assumed another dimension under President Buhari. While others pretended to be in love with the South-East, President Buhari has no such pretentions. He announced from the beginning that those who voted for him would benefit more from his government; he put us on notice that he would not do anything for us. This is one of the reasons there is tension in the South-East. Not that we have been accommodated in the past and President Buhari came and reversed it. It’s just that Buhari made it clear that we will not get anything from him. He did not pretend about it. That is why I believe that the President needs to consider if the current policies have worked. He also needs to check if his policies have served the long-term political interest of his people. These are questions that should be answered by the President and the people close to him.
For me, I think the policies have been counter-productive. They have not worked. They have generated unnecessary tension in the South-East. The Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon is as a result of the policies of the Federal Government towards the Igbo. These policies will continue to create tensions. It will continue to cause national discord. We need national cohesion to align and work with the same vision. The President needs to carry everybody along.
I think that the continuous detention of Kanu is counter-productive. It is in nobody’s advantage. I was seven years old when the Civil War broke out. I was 10 years when it ended. Even as a child, I saw the destruction. I know what war is all about. Those agitating for Biafra have never seen war before. The concept of Biafra as a distinct Republic from Nigeria is a dream. No Igbo man should buy into it. Even Odimegwu Ojukwu who led the Biafran War, said before he died that the Igbo will not secede again. Those agitating are using Ojukwu’s name.
With the protests in the South-East assuming a different dimension, do you think the problem can be amicably resolved?
The government can amicably resolve the problem. It is not in the interest of the Igbo or the larger Nigerian project to have the Igbo marginalised. I think that the new impetus of the agitation is as a result of the posture of this current administration. They need to diffuse the tension. The only way they can do that is to release Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu is a citizen of Nigeria. He should be released unconditionally. The moment you release him, all these agitations will stop. Those keeping him are the ones giving him the status of a martyr. They are creating more followers for him. I share in the sentiments of young Igbo people. It is easy to recruit these people just like they recruited young people into Boko Haram group. This kind of ideology festers in an environment where the people are abandoned.
I need to make that point. If you do not understand the pains of those protesting, it will be very easy for you to wave aside what they are doing. They have been given no other choice in a country where they are citizens. They do not have jobs or the basic amenities of life. That was the kind of situation the Israelites found themselves in Egypt. The only difference is that Moses was divinely anointed to rescue the people. Kanu has not been anointed to pull the Igbo out of Nigeria. Kanu is a strong symbol of the disaffection of millions of young Igbo who feel marginalised in their own country. Will the agitation lead to the salvation for the Igbo? My opinion is that, it is not the right path. The Federal Government on its own has not done enough to temper this agitation. It has not reached out to the leaders.
When the South-South agitation started, there were hawks that told late Yar’Adua to ignore the people. But he knew that he had a problem in his hands. He quickly got the stakeholders in the region and had a discussion. Eventually, the amnesty programme was worked out. What is wrong with extending that same approach to the youths of the South-East? Instead, you are sending soldiers to go and kill them. Did they do that with the Niger Delta? This is where I do not agree with the Federal Government. As far as I am concerned, the Federal Government needs to find a solution. The solution is not in policing the South-East. The solution also does not lie with the continuous agitation for Biafra. The solution lies with constructive engagements that will involve the leaders of South-East. The Federal Government needs to be told that the continuous detention of Kanu is not the solution.
What is your take on the case filed against the Federal Government by Mr. Olisa Agbakoba over the marginalisation of the South-East?
I was glad when I read about the case. That is how to fight marginalisation in a lawful environment. Agbakoba has articulated the issues. That is what I expected Governors from the South-East region and Ohanaeze Ndigbo to have done. We need to go to court and know if what the Federal Government is doing is right. Even if the Federal Government will not implement the outcome, let us have it first. It is my expectation that the five states in Igbo land and other groups will join in the suit. If you feel that the outcome of the suit will affect you, you can join. The Federal Government should not see this litigation as an act of hostility. It should see it as a window for a new beginning. It should approach it with a mind frame to make things right. The Federal Government must look at the reliefs sought to know if they can implement some of them while the suit is still in court. It should be a springboard to reach out to the various agitating groups.
I expect the political leadership in the South-East to take up this case. I expect all the senior lawyers and all the Senior Advocates from the South-East to dust up their wigs and join Agbakoba. This is the first time such a well articulated suit is being filed.
Some Nigerians believe that the Igbo had their chance when ex-President Goodluck Jonathan was in power to push for the development of the South-East since they occupied key positions in that government. Do you share that view?
I have always said that appointing people from a certain geopolitical zone does not add value to that area. At best, they take care of themselves and their friends. That has been the cause of underdevelopment in Nigeria. In other countries where they have made significant progress, they do not appoint people based on where they come from, they appoint them based on their competence. Unfortunately, the political elites that have advanced this argument about appointing people from a zone are doing so because they are the sole beneficiaries. The role of the Igbo in Jonathan’s administration has shown to the whole world that appointing people from a geopolitical zone does not translate into the development of that zone. Otherwise, why will the second Niger Bridge not be completed in four years? Why were the bad roads not fixed? The truth is that, it is an elite conspiracy. If appointing people from a particular zone were an index for development, the whole of the north would have been developed by now. They have been in power for a long time. The masses must know the truth about this argument.
How would you rate the government of Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State?
I sometimes hate to criticize for the sake of it. If you ask an average person in Imo today about their take on the performance of the governor, what he will be remembered for is that, he dismantled the entire structure of governance. I do not care what he has achieved. There is a process through which governance is operated. You cannot collapse a system and make governance look like a provision store. I am not saying that he has not executed a number of projects. I have seen some projects he executed in Owerri. What I do not know is whether there will be a single file on those projects executed when Okorocha leaves office. What we need to do in Imo state is to restore accountability and governance to what it used to be. If you do not do that, it will be difficult to assess Okorocha. How do I know how much has accrued to the state in about six years? We cannot continue this voodoo practice. Okorocha defies understanding.
Are you running for any political office in 2019?
I am a politician. My job is to contribute my quota to the development of this country in any way I see possible. I am in politics, when I decide to run for any political office, I will put you in the know.