Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
Rising from the just concluded Southeast All Progressives Congress (APC) Consultative Meeting in Owerri, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, has said there is nothing wrong with having a president of Igbo extraction in 2023.
Onyeama who was one of the Southeast APC top notch that attended the meeting in Owerri, told Sunday Sun exclusively in Abuja that the meeting was called on the need to have the Southeast better aligned with the party at the centre.
Aside internal politics, Onyeama, a member of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, also opened up on the foreign scene regarding the evacuation of Nigerians stranded abroad, the search for COVID-19 cure, including the aspiration of the former Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for the position of the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. Excerpts:
Igbo leaders were in Owerri for the first time in many years and we saw top Igbo politicians coming to forge a common front. How was it possible to move under one umbrella because people believe the Igbo can’t come together to forge a common front?
Well, I don’t know if people believe that and who in particular believes that. But I think it was just a case of the current situation where you have a Caretaker Committee at the national level, with the dissolution of the National Working Committee (NWC). So, it was really a case of the Southeast, which of course, is one of the geopolitical zones represented, coming together to have a common position going forward on how the reconstitution of the party will impact on the Southeast. In other words, to have the Southeast better aligned with the party at the national level.
Why the choice of Imo State for the meeting?
The choice of Imo for the meeting was because that is the only state that the party in the Southeast has a governor. And he has just been appointed, so he was quite keen to host it and it was also a way to inaugurate him as it were.
That kind of meeting, is it something that is going to be regular or a one-off thing?
I don’t know what you mean by that kind of meeting. The meeting was consultative because one of the people there, was Senator Ken Nnamani, who is also the representative of the Southeast in the Caretaker Committee. So, we were discussing and brainstorming on the way forward and clearly, there will be an expanded group going forward so that it will be as inclusive as possible, and with the aim as I said, of having greater cohesion within the party and in the Southeast.
How was the delegation chosen because I noticed that Senators Orji Uzor Kalu and Rochas Okorocha were not present at the meeting? What happened? Were they not informed?
They were informed. In fact, Senator Okorocha was at the meeting where it was decided and agreed to go to Imo. Something came up and he was not able to make it at the last minute and the same with Senator Uzor Kalu. In fact, they were both amongst the people who arranged and organised the meeting.
President of Igbo extraction, how do you see the clamour because some people are saying it doesn’t matter where the president comes from, considering the challenges we are facing in the country?
In an ideal situation, I think that what you always want is the best person to lead the country. It is like if you are going into a plane, you want the most competent pilot that will get you to your destination. And you don’t ask to know where the pilot comes from or anything like this. But, of course, politics is a bit different. There is a lot of symbolism also involved and when you look at the history of the country, you also realise that we still need to do a lot of work to stabilise the polity and to have a sense of inclusion and nationhood in the country. So, these things, clearly, mean a lot for people still, where your leaders come from and it is like a litmus test for the common man, of the acceptability or otherwise of groups or their ethnic group, or religious group or whatever. So, we have seen that where presidents and holders of other positions come from, is something that matters greatly. I think that we should take into account, those things that matter to the Nigerian people and if those things matter to Nigerians and it is a test for many people of the inclusivity of the Nigerian project, then I think we also have to arrange it in such a way that the people do feel that whatever it is that matters to them is being addressed. So, if it is the sense of Igbo that they still feel that more needs to be done to reassure them that they are fully part of the Nigerian project and that is the way they feel at the moment, this moment in time, and that is the best way to show it or that is the good, symbolic way of showing it, then by all means, I think that it is something that the rest of Nigerians should be mindful of. And I think we have seen this before. After June 12, there was a sense that a certain part of the country felt somewhat aggrieved and deprived as it were and this was taken into account in moving forward. And so, I feel if the same principle is extended to the Southeast, for instance, then we could all say that okay, here we are, this is clear proof and evidence that there is real inclusivity in the Nigerian project.
Considering the fact that the region has not really integrated itself into the ruling party, do you see this happening in 2023 to the Igbo?
Well, I don’t know. I always wonder about what it really means to be integrated into a party per se and whether a whole group can be tagged with that. Clearly, in the APC, we see many among the leadership are people of Southeast extraction and a lot of them have also been longtime supporters of the president and many were amongst the founders of the APC. So, I think that it wouldn’t be totally correct to say that the Igbo of the Southeast have not really integrated as such into the APC. Yes, it might be the case that the APC didn’t receive as many votes in the Southeast as in other states, but I think we have to also look beyond that and we have to see that nation-building in Nigeria is still a work in progress and for that reason, we have to take into account various things that might not be necessary if that were not the case in deciding on the presidency.
But the new spirit of coming together which we have seen in the region, will it work considering what happened in the Southeast in 2015 and 2019 when the Igbo flatly refused to accept the APC?
Yes, I think so. As we can see, in 2015, of course, the PDP was the party in power and incumbency has clear advantages when you go into elections. And elections after that, when the APC was now in power, showed also an increase in the votes for APC and then, after two victorious elections, I think there is every possibility that the APC would do much much better in 2023 in the Southeast.
Will the exit of President Buhari in 2023 not going to affect the fortunes of the APC, particularly the Southeast, as people believe in Buhari than the party?
That is to be seen. I think that the party can still leverage on the goodwill of President Buhari even when he is not there. We’ve seen in Nigeria, in all parts of the country, the leadership at independence. They all had their parties then and for years after, those leaders were no longer there. But certain parties and tendencies were still identified with them. And that legacy of theirs still survived them. So, one will hope that it will be the same for the APC, that even after President Muhammadu Buhari is no longer there, that his principles and his vision will still be something that the party can still leverage on and still be identified by the electorate.
Your home state, Enugu, despite the calibre of people in the APC in the state, the party is yet to be entrenched and has not been able to win any political position. What is the problem? Have you reconciled the leadership crisis in the state?
Yes, we are reconciling. But as I said, there are different factors. I think in Nigeria, we still need to have a mechanism for true democracy where people’s votes actually do count. And I think that sometimes, there are still question marks about that. Yes, the party is moving towards greater solidarity in Enugu, and we are hoping that this would translate to the masses and that we would see a change in the next elections.
2023 is fast approaching. How are you working to ensure that APC takes over Enugu?
Well, that is part of what we started in Owerri, the discussion we started, to ensure that we have a single structure. I think that is really, really important and not to be factionalised. So, hopefully, we will have a single structure and really focussed leadership and everybody pulling in the same direction. And I believe that if we can achieve that, then APC has a very, very strong chance of winning.
Enugu is having issues with zoning regarding the governorship formula. People are saying the cycle has finished and it won’t return to Enugu East, and it can now fall anywhere. Enugu East has spent eight years; Enugu West, eight years and Enugu North is using its eight years. What is your position on this?
These things are always contentious. A lot of things you don’t anticipate and then, you don’t put them in constitutions and so forth. I believe in democracy. Very often, people are coming from the point of view when these issues are being discussed, of their personal agenda and their personal interest. And what I always believe is that people should try as much as possible, though it is not always easy, but to completely dissociate and distance themselves from their own personal interest when taking this kind of decision. So, I think that this kind of decision, the leadership can meet and dispassionately come to an agreement and people should just accept whatever is agreed.
The evacuation of Nigerians abroad, apart from reviewing bilateral air services agreement with other countries, what else will the government do to address the problems witnessed so far in the course of the evacuation?
I think we can bring those issues up, complain to the international regulatory bodies like the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) to protest and to have maybe new rules put in to the international regulatory framework for governing and regulating these things. I think that is clearly what we also need to focus on.
Was the case of Canada different from what took place in the United Kingdom?
A little different I think because the UK was relying on a particular permit, a Europe-wide permit, whereas Canada was sort of relying on lack of familiarity, I think, with the carrier. But we feel that ultimately, they are pretty much coming from the same place.
It has been alleged that the evacuation has not been so transparent, that advertisement is usually done when everything is almost concluded. Going forward, what machinery will the government put in place to ensure that no one is shut out?
No! That is not true. I don’t think the adverts are put in place at the last minute. A number of things have to be done. First of all, you have to get a carrier that is willing and able as we have seen with Air Peace, and is also able to come and take people because these are charter flights. You also have to convince the carrier that there are enough people, passengers that want to fly. So, your mission that is coordinating, would first of all need to find carriers, then together with the carriers, you need to test to see how many people want to travel and which carrier offers the best deal, what price the carriers are charging and whether the passengers are willing to pay that. But at the same time, you have to try and do it very quickly and you have to get a slot because you cannot just come to Nigeria anytime you want. To be able to come in, it has to be at a time that will enable all the necessary protocols, health protocols etc, to be in place. There are a lot of variables and you have to take all that into consideration to know when you can now tell people to start paying because you don’t want to get people paying and suddenly, like you saw again in London, the carrier will not be able to take them or they will not be able to land or come in when they thought they would come in. So, I think that it is unfair to suggest somehow that there are shenanigans going on. That is not the case at all.
Behind the scene, what is the Presidential Task Force doing about the COVID-19 cure? Is it making progress?
It is not the Presidential Task Force that will be charged with finding a cure. It is the medical research industry that will be responsible for looking for vaccines and other cures. And I think they are working in that direction. But what the PTF can do with the Ministry of Health leading is to engage with the foreign partners that are also doing research into getting new vaccines. It is very important that we key in and stay with that because what is clear is that any country that now comes up with the vaccine, it takes time to build up sufficient quantity of vaccines and so forth. So, the fear is that that country will use it just for itself and then, the question of access to vaccines becomes a problem for other countries. What the PTF could be engaged with is keep abreast of those research initiatives and engage with countries where research is being carried out on new vaccines, to make arrangements and ensure if a breakthrough is made, that we will also be beneficiaries.
The aspiration of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, there seems to be no consensus amongst the African countries under the African Union (AU). What is the problem? What is going on?
No, there is consensus because she has been invited for an interview by the African Union in the search for a single African candidate. Initially, it was felt that her nomination was out of time for African Union endorsement. But we made the argument to the AU that since there was already a Nigerian who was nominated within the timeframe, that Nigeria cannot be outside the deadline because all we were doing was substituting a candidate so that the country is not outside the deadline. And the African Union has accepted that argument. Now, the process was to select a single African candidate from the three in the field, namely Benin, Egypt and Nigeria. The Benin candidate or nominee dropped out for our candidate, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and there was now an Egyptian candidate left. It is likely that they are going to go to the AU Candidature’s Committee to maybe now decide. But since then, a Kenyan candidate has come into the race but the AU Candidatures Committee maybe today or tomorrow (July 14 or 15), might decide on a single candidate to endorse.