National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, has said that President Muhammadu Buhari will get a reasonable percentage of votes in the South East unlike what happened in 2015. In this interview with WILLY EYA, he speaks on his reasons for supporting Buhari instead of the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar.
With the flag off of the campaign by the political parties ahead of next year’s general elections, how do you feel with regards to the turbulent politics of the country?
My initial thought is that the campaigns are going to be very robust and vibrant. We now have more candidates with capacity than ever before. The game started off as a battle between the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) but the likes of Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Muoghalu and a few others have added a lot of vibes to the campaigns. So, it is not going to be a two-way thing again as envisaged. I expect that the votes would be shared.
Your party, the UPP recently declared support for the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari and many were surprised because you are one of those who had been most critical of the present administration. What happened and why the turnaround?
Many people are surprised but let me say that our party took a long look at the politics of Nigeria. We considered the issue of rotational presidency by convention rather than by the rule. President Buhari won the election in 2015 and he is about completing four years and ahead of 2019, the PDP also zoned its presidency to the North. That shows that the mood in the country is that the presidency should be rotational among the geo-political zones. So, our own party considered that presenting a candidate which is a policy that should come from the party, would be like moving against the tide. We now said let us use this period between now and 2023 to strengthen our nationwide structures and build the necessary bridges and be prepared to present a candidate in 2023. But having said that, we are not going to stand by and watch others play the game. Therefore, we must choose among those who are running and for a number of reasons, we opted for President Buhari.
Though your reasons for supporting Buhari sound convincing but some people feel that you have been bought over by the power brokers in the APC; is there any truth in that perception?
Those who feel that I have been bought over are simply being mischievous because it is too late in the day for anybody to do that. So many years ago, I was offered unimaginable amount of money not to allow Ikemba Ojukwu become the presidential candidate of APGA but I turned it down. I was still a young man then and the founder and national chairman of APGA and despite all the odds, I made sure Ikemba emerged the presidential candidate of the party. Let it be known that after Ikemba, no Igbo man has picked APGA ticket to run for presidency ever again. I founded the UPP and I zoned the presidency to the South East with my colleague and no Igbo man came up until I emerged. People say all kinds of things that I was waiting to step down and collect money but I never stepped down and I ran to the end. They were talking about former President Jonathan but how many votes did the Igbo people give him in that election. I have carried more cross than any of those politicians who are talking. The truth is that the Igbo people are not cut out for the opposition. I am one Igbo man who has been in opposition politics for a very long time. If there is anybody who has been as consistent as myself in the opposition and in the defence of Igbo cause, let the person come out and say what he has done. Now, many people who benefitted from the PDP including two-term governors, former Senate president and so on, have all moved to the APC and became card carrying members and nobody said they were bought over. But here I am, not a member of the APC, still promoting the high ideals and core values of the UPP and the next thing is that I have been bought over. I pity those who make such statements because I gave reasons for my supporting Buhari. People should argue against the reasons I gave instead of making all kinds of allegations and insulting people’s personalities. I said that the PDP has never started and completed anything in Igbo land and I want somebody to come and say I am telling lies. When you say these things, some say you have been bought over but one thing nobody would say is that President Buhari can give anybody money.
What is your position on the impression among Ndigbo that Buhari does not like the South East and does not pretend about it? Those who hold this view base it on the lopsided appointments in his government and seeming neglect of the region in infrastructural development.
I would not agree that Buhari is anti-Igbo but the only thing I would say is that I have been more vehement than most people that are talking now in criticising Buhari over his lopsided appointments, lukewarm attitude to the herdsmen attacks and so on. But come to think of it, if it is about Buhari being anti-Igbo, I do not agree because this is a man who made Edwin Umezeoke and Chuba Okadigbo his vice when he earlier ran for presidency. I am aware that before he ran for presidency in 2015, he wrote to Ohanaeze Ndigbo twice and they never replied him. He wanted to present himself to Ohanaeze for them to ask him questions and get clarifications on some issues and they did not deem it fit to reply him. So, it should be the other way round than that Buhari is anti Igbo. Look at what is going on now; in spite of the fact that the Igbo did not vote for Buhari, all the projects that the PDP awarded to their contractors are ongoing now without revoking the contracts or even changing the contractors. The second Niger Bridge that the PDP awarded at whatever amount through Public/Private Partnership (PPP), the Buhari government is now working on it through direct funding. Now, the governors of the South East led by the Deputy Senate president led a delegation including the President General of Ohanaeze to thank him for what he has done for the people of the South East and presented a list of other things required and Buhari granted all of them. Former governor Sullivan Chime issued a statement that as a two-term governor of the PDP in Enugu State, they made similar visits to former president Goodluck Jonathan and they came back empty handed. I know a similar visit that was led by late former vice president, Dr Alex Ekwueme and Ohanaeze leaders to beg Jonathan for attention to the plight of the South East; he told them that he could not change the hands of the clock and that it would be after he is elected for a second tenure that h would address those problems. There was no second term for Jonathan. But Buhari did not tell them that you know that you did not vote for me last time and that when you vote for me now, I will attend to your issues, no. So, those who are saying that Buhari hates the Igbo people should be able to back it up with facts. I know that we are supposed to be part of the security council but we are not and it has pained me more than anyone else. I can tell you that our people do not know the power of constructive engagement. Look at the power configuration in the country today. The South South controls the machinery of government through the chairmen of the two major parties. By the zoning arrangement in Nigeria today, it is most likely that a Northerner would be elected the president of Nigeria in 2019. That Northerner would be a Muslim. How about that? Go to the South West. Almost everybody is divided into the two parties; in fact, even some families are divided into the two parties. That is how the two parties have positioned itself. But in the South East, we want to put our eggs in one basket and I want to say that Chekwas Okories would not be part of it. I know our people. Initially, some of them would be calling me all sorts of names but later they would see the reasons. Some are already coming behind me to say what should I do for you (Chekwas).
What is your impression about the Atiku/Obi ticket especially against the backdrop of speculations that why you are supporting Buhari is to get back at Obi because of his role in pushing you out of APGA that you founded?
I want to say this again that we are very happy for Obi’s emergence as running mate to Atiku. Obi will bring tremendous value to the Atiku ticket. There is no doubt about that but whether that value will remove Atiku’s political baggage is yet to be seen. Having said that too, I want us not to forget that we have had a vice president before in the person of late Dr Alex Ekwueme whose profile you cannot compare with that of Obi. We had such a person and we know the experience he had as vice president. Atiku himself lamented severally under Obasanjo that the position of the vice president was like a spare tyre. And if that was what Atiku saw, it becomes clear that with that position, you are only a spare tyre.
Objectively, how do you evaluate the chances of Atiku and Buhari ahead of the election?
As a matter of fact, Buhari has already won the election ahead of 2019. It will not be by any kind of manipulation but the margin will be very enormous. You know that it is the South West votes that were added in 2015 to what had been traditionally the support base of Buhari in the North and that won him the election. In the South South, they do not have their son as the president again and you can be sure that Buhari would have a substantial number of votes there. In the South East where talking of the APC in the past was like a taboo, the situation has since changed with the defection of many prominent people of the zone to the ruling party. Most of the people who made the PDP what it used to be are now in the APC and would rally round Buhari in 2019.Why the South East would vote for Buhari is that in the next four years, people of the zone would be in a position to vie for the presidency of this country.