By Daniel Kanu
Chief Chekwas Okorie has been in the political space for a long time and can pass as a moving encyclopedia of a sort. He was pioneer National Chairman of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA. He later founded the United Progressive Party (UPP) and was the National Chairman, as well as the party’s presidential candidate in the 2015 elections.
He is today a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) following the de-registration of UPP by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) among other 73 political parties.
In this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun, he speaks on 2023 and Igbo presidency, security challenge, recession, and Ohanaeze Ndigbo leadership election, among other national issues. Excerpts:
Just as Nigerians are overcoming the massacre of 43 rice farmers in Borno State another tragedy occurred with the abduction of over 333 students in Katsina State. How will you interpret what is going on as regards the security challenge in the country?
Honestly, the security situation is very sad and I believe even the president is equally sad. Nobody can be happy with the deterioration of the security situation all over the country and more so in the North. The slaughtering of rice farmers, that shock is still fresh in the minds of people and now this abduction of several numbers of young students, I think the state government disclosed 333 and this is Katsina State, the home state of Mr. President, so it is really a very sad thing. This aspect of insecurity cannot be defended by anybody no matter how you love to defend the president and the government. It becomes pretty difficult to put up a very convincing defense on whether the security agencies are doing enough. If the government is providing the security agencies with all the logistic supports they require, funding, purchase of equipment, etc. But what I do not know is the efficacy of the strategy and tactics they are using to fight these people (Boko Haram and other bandits). We have seen insurgency being fought all over the world, the idea that we will always be reacting to attack instead of taking the battle to their doorsteps is what I have not been able to come to terms with. And this is something that has happened for a long time. We seem to attack and come back, we don’t occupy the ground because if we are attacking and occupying the ground, I do not see where already conquered territory will be overrun in such a manner. And these people are operating from the forest and these forests are not in the moon, they are in Nigeria, and the fact that we are not able to identify where they are hiding till they come out and cause damage is really a concern to worry about. I still will urge the National Assembly and the Presidency to work together on this one and come up with the enabling law to address the issue of our security architecture, especially with regards to state, local government, and community policing. This is what we have talked about for several years now. I in particular, as the political leader of defunct UPP, it was part of my 2015 campaign cardinal programme. That is the way you can take security to the doorstep of every citizen, you make every citizen feel part and parcel of the security system, become a stakeholder in the security of his own immediate environment. Every community knows their forest and who is who in their community. This is why I am unable to know why the government is reluctant to embark on this type of thing, afterall, we have seen, when the Boko Haram started initially under President Jonathan, it was the civilian JTF that was taking the battle to their doorstep because these were indigenes who also know those who are fighting them and it was surprising then that the Civilian JTF that didn’t have anything beyond Dane gun, sticks and knives could drive these people out of their hideouts. So, that goes to show how effective it can be if the local people are involved in keeping or policing the security of the environment. Look at the exploits of the Amotekun, the Southwest security network in Ondo State, for instance, which has just started. It is an indication of what the local police system can bring to bear for internal security. This will enable the soldiers to concentrate in fighting the wars that are in the Northeast and Northwest, while the police and the community police etc, will take care of internal security even these kidnappings and banditry can be taken care of if you involve the citizens in their security. You cannot know the environment better than the owner of that environment and when you involve them, you are likely going to get the best.
Most Nigerians have called for the sacking of the Service Chiefs …?
(Cuts in) I am not too enthused about that because you have a president who is Commander-in-Chief, he definitely knows much more than most of us know from the outside, including those who are calling for their sack. One thing that I know is that if you are a soldier, the issue of loyalty comes almost paramount every other consideration. And here we have a president who has had an experience of a coup. He has been a victim of a coup and it was his closest allies who staged the palace coup to throw him out and throw him into jail. That experience, I believe, as sad as it is has not left him, so if he has a few persons whose loyalty he can guarantee, he may not be quite quick to begin at this critical state to taste the waters in terms of the security of those who are heading the different security institutions. That is my personal assessment of the president’s attitude, so be that as it may, we could look at the main implementation of the strategy and tactics of fighting the war and not lay too much emphasis on the heads of Security Chiefs.
The country has relapsed into another recession giving impetus to the views of those that say the government is not in firm grip of Nigeria’s economic solution?
No, I don’t think that is a fair assessment of the situation. Managers of the economy, both the private and public sector, especially those who are formulating policies and implementing them, have come to reassure all of us that by the first quarter of next year, we will come out of this recession. Some countries are already in a depression, very strong economies have collapsed. We are not anywhere near depression. You watch the news coming out of Venezuela and some other places you will understand that strong economies are equally collapsing. Remember there was a time, not many people can forget that easily that we used to queue up to buy essential commodities, to buy sugar, buy milk, etc, it was long queues more than what we used to find in filling stations when petroleum products were scarce. We have had that experience in this country, but we have not yet degenerated to that and the economy is being managed in a manner that we may never degenerate to that, instead we are looking at coming out of the recession in the first quarter which will be a very good thing. Let me tell you, government intervention programmes to support entrepreneurs, young ones, farmers, people in small scale businesses, SMEs, access to credit facilities , etc, all of these measures are being thrown into the system to give the economy a breather. It will be uncharitable to say that the situation is helpless, it’s not, it’s being tackled and I am hopeful on that one. If you look at the massive infrastructural development going on you won’t believe that it is a country that is in a recession that is embarking on all of those construction going on all over the country, especially when you talk about the railway and the development of the seaports. In fact, I am so excited that the Eastern seaports are receiving the attention we have been crying for since the war ended in 1970, nobody ever looked at those seaports and because those seaports were deliberately allowed to rot, that is what is happening in Apapa, the backlash is what we are getting in Lagos, with its attendant setback in businesses, but now these things are being addressed in spite of the recession. The president and his government, I think, need to be given kudos in this regard. I give them kudos in this one.
The governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi has received a lot of criticisms for leaving the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the APC and there is this assumption that he has ruined his political career?
It’s only a a politically ignorant person that will say such. Look, let me tell you, I doff my cap for that young man; he has taken the bull by the horn. It is the type of courage that you expect an authentic, genuine Igbo leader to take. Let me tell you in 2015 as soon as the presidential election was over and the PDP lost that very year, just three months after the election result was announced and the then outgoing President Jonathan had conceded, what the PDP did promptly was to take up with the Ekweremadu committee to advise on zoning and within a couple of months, within the same 2015 the NEC of the PDP, zoned the presidency to the North, that is presidency for 2019. I have been critical of the docility of the Igbo Southeast political leaders in the PDP. I have said time without number that these leaders who are now saying that it is the turn of the Southeast to produce the president are merely grandstanding, if actually they are serious they should be able to have a Southeast caucus meeting of their party and take a definite decision to ask that the party do for the Southeast what it did for the North in 2015 by zoning it to the Southeast and giving them a timeline and after that, you sit back and review your commitment to the party and benefits so far in the PDP. I thought that such a strong position would have made the PDP not to take the Southeast for granted, but it was never done. And when Umahi could no longer endure that unfair treatment of the Southeast he made his exit. I have seen those who are attacking him, they said that he was unfair by leaving the party, that the PDP government in 16 years did so much for the Igbo people and when you listen to what they did, they will be telling you those they gave appointments. But I can tell you that there was no single infrastructural project that was started and completed by the PDP in the entire Southeast for 16 good years, not one project, no matter how small and I have not been countered on that. When you say, you appointed somebody this and that the difference is clear: what you did or gave to an Igbo man is never the same as what you did for Igbo people. Those who are criticizing Umahi have not been able to debunk Umahi’s claims by saying, look at the project we were able to start and completed in 16 years. Look at the second Niger Bridge being done by this APC government is the largest single project that is being executed by the Federal Government of Nigeria anywhere in Nigeria, anywhere and then we are now looking at the roads. Go and check the road from Enugu to Port Harcourt, Enugu to Onitsha, Onitsha to Owerri etc, you will see good construction going on there and the areas that they have covered are of high quality that you can beat your chest to say, at least, there is presence of government. There are so many other things going on, look at the issue of the railway going on. Our people are essentially commercial people, who are the ones who are going to be benefiting more from these railways either they are from Apapa to Kano or from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, 70 per cent of the users of those facilities are Igbo people.
But there is information going on that the Southeast zone was cut off from the rail project?
They did not. What they are doing in the Southeast is to start with what they call the narrow gauge by early next year and they will complete it before 2023. It’s a railway that runs from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, and it will be carrying tankers and it will be bringing down goods from the North. Do you know that 70 per cent of agric produce from the North are bought and sold by Igbo people, this is the statistics many people don’t have.
Ohanaeze Ndigbo leadership are warming up for the election of its President General. What is your random thought on it?
It is not unusual that the office of the President General has become so powerful and prestigious to attract great interest. The truth now is that it is the turn of Imo State and before you know it the politics is taking certain dimension, I am watching it with concern, the partisan interest has become very high and that is one of the areas we tried at the very beginning to steer Ohanaeze away from, but the more we tried the more difficult it is. We couldn’t escape it during the outgoing Nwodo Presidency; we saw the adoption of Atiku at the build up to the election. Such things were alien to Ohanaeze. But one thing I can assure you, just like the typical Igbo saying you start from your home till you get your recognition before you go outside. Imo people know their sons, those coming out are eminently qualified, all of them without exception, but the stakeholders who are Imo people and Ohanaeze chapter in Imo State have come together to make a choice and they have presented their choice to the state governor. If I were those people who are still angling they will know that the train had left them. Prof Obiozor is the incoming President General of Ohanaeze, forget about what every other person is saying. By the way, he is by far the person suited to lead Ndigbo at this critical time. That position requires a person of immense maturity, one whose pedigree is 99 per cent non-partisan, not a politician, yet he had this exposure as Ambassador in three different countries, including the United States of America and he discharged his duties very effectively. On Igbo matters, he has presented papers everywhere, I will recommend him anytime any day. My advice really is that the others who are interested, yes as qualified as they are, I urge them to step down and I say this based on my knowledge of Ohanaeze leadership. When we started this rotation of presidency of Ohanaeze it started with Abia State. In the case of Abia, Chief Bob Ogbuagu and Elder Emmanuel Adiele stepped down for Prof Irukwu. Irukwu went unopposed. In the case of Anambra, Ambassador Ralph Uwechue was presented and he was adopted, others perished their ambition. When we got to Ebonyi State, the person who put up small resistance couldn’t go far because the majority of the stakeholders in the state had already cast their lot with Igariweh and that was how he emerged. In the case of Enugu State, Senator Anyim came out and gave a very strong recommendation publicly in favour of Nnia Nwodo, at the end of the day, Rear Admiral Madueke who was interested stepped down, the other contender, a professor also stepped down. Nwodo coasted to victory. The case of Imo cannot be different and they have made their choice, a wonderful choice and that is what Ndigbo need at this time. Nobody said the others are not qualified, but it will be part of honour for them to step down, rally round Prof Obiozor to become our next President General.
Are you really optimistic that the Southeast can produce the next Nigerian president in 2023?
Why not? I have never been more optimistic. That is why I said history will be kind to Governor Umahi. The PDP has become very jittery and you can see it each passing day. You saw their equivocation on the issue of where to zone their presidency and they know that it will be a monumental disaster for PDP not to give it to the Southeast, the PDP will become a shadow of itself, they will know what the Southeast meant for PDP if they ever venture to make that mistake. Thanks to Governor Umahi that jolted everybody to reality. In APC, for those of us in the party, so much of lobbying and diplomacy is needed. The good thing is that most of the leaders in the APC, North, and South, including those who are not actually members of the party, but are opinion members are of the view that equity, justice, and fair play demand that after eight years of President Buhari’s presidency, that they should go to the South. Now, when it comes to the South, all we need to do is to raise our stake in the party and this is being done. Now, we have two governors and with belief that before 2021 we might have the whole of the Southeast because we are optimistic of winning Anambra in 2021. If by the end of 2021, the Southeast becomes 80 per cent APC, our stake would have been so high as to stand a good chance of laying claim to that ticket. That is why I said I have never been more optimistic because it is doable. Of course, yes, there is job to do and that job is synergy, to ensure we get our acts right. The chances are quite bright.
You are aware that former governor of Zamfara State, Yerima has indicated interest to run…?
(Cuts in) Those are not the ones to really worry anybody. I have said time without number that President Buhari, everybody knows that he has cult followership in the North, but in spite of that he did not become president with that kind of followership in tree attempts, so it was the 4th one that he now extended some kind of alliance or collaboration with other political blocks that yielded the position he now occupies as the president, not to talk of Yerima who doesn’t come close to that type of followership and Buhari’s cult followership is not transferable, it is not something another person can inherit. There will be a very strong alliance between major political blocks in Nigeria to produce another government and APC stands the chance of continuing at the centre, once the Southeast people are given that sense of belonging, that is the brightest chance of APC continuing to be in power.