By Okey Ndiribe,Â Asst. Political Editor
One time governor of Edo State, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun is a journalistâ€™sÂ delight any day for he hardly shies away from questions no matter how controversial they may be.
As a former member of the defunct National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) which fought the military junta of the late Gen. Sani Abacha to standstill during the crisis that followed the annulment of theÂ June 12 1993Â presidential election,Â he is not afraid of stirring the hornetâ€™s nest as it pertains to national issues.
He granted a no-holds barred telephone interview to Vanguard penultimate Friday. Excerpts:
What is your opinion concerning what has been happening in the presidencyÂ since the purported return of President UmaruÂ Musa Yarâ€™Adua two weeks ago?
Quite frankly, one canâ€™t find words to describe what has been happening at the seat of power. It is almost like naughty children playing pranks. But in this case they are toying with the life of a whole nation. They are toying with a very serious situation; a life and death situation. It is beyond a rational explanation; nothing that is happening is rational. What I mean is that I have tried to put myself in their position and tried to understand what these people stand to gain. I cannot find a single rational excuse for the painsÂ they are putting the nation through.
How do you return a President to the country the way they did? How do you explain a situation where the whole government of NigeriaÂ sent an official team to go and see the President in Saudi Arabia, while some people were arranging to return that same President to the country?Â How do you explain that the Acting President was not even aware that his boss was returning back to the country?Â How do you explain that up till now he has not seen his boss?
How do you explain theÂ deployment of troops on the night of his arrival without the knowledge of the Acting President and the various Service Chiefs of the armed forces? How do you explain the fact that the Acting President would go to consult with the Presidentâ€™s wife to get information about his boss and this has been misinterpreted to mean that he wasÂ goingÂ to take directives from her?Â That is not the issue; the Acting PresidentÂ is the first person that ought to have been briefed about the condition of the President.
My feeling is that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine the Nigerian nation For me that is the nearest thing to treason that I can think of. It cannot be otherwise; nobody can play this kind of game and get away with it; it is a very expensive game.
What they have done now is that they have insulted and humiliated the entire nation; they have insulted and humiliated the National Assembly; they have insulted and humiliated the Acting President.Â Honestly, I donâ€™t know how else you can define treason other than to undermine the well-beingÂ and security ofÂ a state.
What do you have to say about a recent allegation by some South-South leaders that there was an attempt to invite the military to take over once again?
Nothing can be a surprise to me anymore. This is because nothing has made sense in allÂ that haveÂ happened in the lastÂ 110 days that the President has not been seen; especially from the period when members ofÂ the two chambers of the National Assembly were involved in an argument over which chamber should be the venue for the presentation of the 2010 Federal Budget. This was something that had been fixed by usage; all of a sudden an argument arose. Since then nothing that has happened in Abuja that had made any sense at all. So I would not be surprised if somebody somewhere is doing these things as a precursor to a military intervention in our politics.
Based on the fact that not even the Acting President has been allowed to see President Yarâ€™Adua since his return was announcedÂ two weeks ago do you believe he is back?
The only thing I can say is that nothing has made sense for several weeks now. I cannot even say with certainty that the man is back. There was a great show of his purportedÂ arrival.Â But even if the President arrivedÂ the country in the dead of the night,Â why switch off the light at the airport? There is so much mystery that I am not ready to swearÂ that he is back. Nothing makes sense in this country anymore. Until we see him one cannot say he is back.
What can you say aboutÂ media reports that President Yarâ€™Adua is still in coma and was left inside the ambulance that brought him from the airportÂ within the premises of the Presidential villa for days?
Anything is possibleÂ like I have said before. But I donâ€™t know why they didnâ€™t put him inside one of the rooms in the presidential villa. Maybe theyÂ left him inside the ambulance because there wasÂ no arrangement for a life-support facility inside the presidential villa probably because they hurriedly brought him back.
We cannot yet discern what their intentions are. This was because they brought him backÂ in a hurry. Otherwise, why wonâ€™t they notify the people of this country. He remains the President and we are entitled to know everything about his welfare. They are treating us as if we are worse than conquered subjects.
Given the situation on ground what do you expect to happen next?
I donâ€™t know what would happen next but one thing is as clear as daylight; that the President is not yet fitÂ to perform his duty. The people around him would not go to this extreme of deception if Mr President was on his two feet; even if he was wobbling.Â And it is equally clear that this is a nation of 150 million people who canâ€™t continue to wait for one man; it is not right and it is not proper. Also, the ball is in the lap of the Federal Executive Council and the National Assembly.
Given the unfoldingÂ intrigues in the presidency,Â do you think the Federal Executive Council could still go ahead and declare him unfit even if the membersÂ are convincedÂ that is the truth?
It is the responsibility of the Federal Executive Council to set the ball rolling. After they have performed their own role, then the ball would pass to the National Assembly.Â That would be the irreducible minimum; we cannot continue like this. So, whatever that has to be done legally and otherwise should be done. Even if it means fast-tracking the constitutional amendment exercise to get us out of the mess into which we have been plunged as a nation.
But let me say this; if the FEC refuses to bite the bullet, then they are not fit to be members of that August assembly. This is because their loyalty should be to the nation; to the welfare and peace of mind ofÂ the 150 million citizens of this country. If the FEC refuses to do its duty, then the National Assembly should think of other ways ofÂ getting us out of this unnecessary mess.
If indeed, the President is unfit to continue in office andÂ the Federal Executive Council fails to performÂ its duty, is it correct to state thatÂ the onlyÂ option left for the National Assembly is impeachment?
That is why I have said the way to go about it may be through a constitutional amendment thatÂ should be implementableÂ straight away. The second option is that of impeachment. People have been impeached in this country in the past. In the interest of this nation,Â we must do everything possible so that we can short-circuit the process. Impeachment is an extreme measure; but if that becomes the only way so be it.
As a former Governor of Edo State what is your view aboutÂ recent events at theÂ State House of Assembly?
What happened in the House recentlyÂ was veryÂ unfortunate. One had to condemn that magnitude of violence within the hallowed chambers ofÂ the legislative arm of government; that people apparently went there armed. One had to condemn the fact that serious injuries were inflicted on honourable members. One also observed that all those who were physically injured were members of the same political party.Â I strongly condemn it because Edo State is supposed to be the heartbeat of this nation.
I am not surprised about what has happened.Â This is because losing power is not an easy thing. When you have been so powerful and all of a sudden you find that everything is slipping away, things like this can happen. But this does not mean that it was right; it was very unfortunate. It was very unbecoming. I think the issues are already being resolved.
This is because from what I heard, an appropriate majority has been established at the House of Assembly.Â I think the House wasÂ able to meet last Thursday(penultimate);
that does not mean that there is no longer tension. But I think the members have started working already. I have no doubt that in the next few days and couple of weeks, normalcy would have been restored to the operations of the House.
Edo State governor Comrade Adams Oshiomhole has been accused in some quartersÂ of been responsible for whatÂ happened in the State House of Assembly. Can you comment on this?
I donâ€™t know ofÂ Oshiomhole being a man of violence. You can say he is a man of strong principles and I totally agree with that; he is ready to fight for his principles. But I have not heard that he fought outside the law. When he was President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), he never told the workers to go on rampage.
We should not misinterpret his tenure as a leader of Nigerian workers who had to lead strikes and demonstrations as tantamount to breaking the law. If he advocated violence during his tenure as President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, the country would have been a totally different place. He was more often in court. Apart from that he did not have control of the state House of Assembly.
Even before the crisis in the House, the state chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) hadÂ accused the Action Congress ( AC) which is Oshiomholeâ€™s party of importing thugs during re-scheduled House of Assembly elections. Can you comment on these allegations?
No, no, no. I donâ€™t belong to the Action Congress ( AC); but I know what happens hereÂ because I live in the State and theÂ people look up to me. I know what theyÂ think, what they feel and what they want. The last re-scheduled House of Assembly election was a totally free and fair election. I belong to the All Nigeria Peoples Party ( ANPP); I know we lost fairly and there is no question about it.
I can tell you quite clearly that the party led by Oshiomhole as a person would have won up to 90 percent of the votes cast during that election. Edo people were totally fed up; the people wanted a change, any typeÂ change whatsoever. They had endured 10 solid years ofÂ lack of any type of development under the PDP.Â But things are changing now; it wonâ€™t be the same Edo State again.
The second ingredient was that the people were lucky that they had a champion in Oshiomhole who did not need to be advertised because he was already so visible, such that even campaigning was just a mere formality. Those two factors combined still dictate the politics of the state today. If there is a general electionÂ today, I can assure you it would be a landslide of unimaginable proportion for Oshiomhole. Believe me, I am here and I live hereÂ and I know what is going on here.Â I know how glad the people are to be finally freed politically.
How can you really assess Oshiomhole in the past one year and four months he has been in office as Governor ? There have been media reports that he increased taxes and school fees.
Well, there have been increases in some taxes here and there. You know that in Lagos State the people are now being asked to pay for development. People are now being asked to demonstrate that they have a stake in the progress of their states. People are now being told the bare truth; that unlike the Federal Government, Edo State Government cannot printÂ money. So, it is what the people pay to the government that the governmentÂ would use in developing the state.
It is a tough lesson to get across; there would be resistance. It does not mean there arenâ€™t one or two cases where the taxes have been on the high side but as a citizen one can go and query why it is so high. But one has to perform his civic duty. It is normal for people to resist such new drive for revenue. But in terms of development you can begin to see what is happening. For instance, in the 10 years ofÂ PDP rule in this state, we have not seen the magnitude of development we have seen in the last 14 months.
I need to mention that one of the most important things a leader can do for his people, is to give them hope and give them reason to believe that tomorrow is definitely going to be better than today. Oshiomhole has succeeded in doing that and that is the greatest gift any leader can give to his people.
How do you think the 2011 general elections would be like considering the pass mark that was given INEC for the conduct last month Anambra gubernatorial poll?
All I can say is that such people are those who scheme on the surface. They look at things superficiallyÂ they swing from one extreme to the other with very little provocation based on very little rationale. The only good thingÂ that all rational people are celebrating about Anambra is that the PDP did not win. That is all. And those who think that is a great thing are ascribing it to INEC and praising the commission. The reality was that the election was as bad as any that had been held in the past.
The reality was that there ought to be millions of voters in Anambra. The reality was that out of these millions only 300,000 voted according to INEC. So what happened to at least 1.5 million voters? It is not a matter of voter turn-out.
The reality was thatÂ the basic document for the conduct of the AnambraÂ elections – that is the voters register- was a secret document. This is because if we have 1.8 million voters in the state and the winner was announced victorious based on 90,000 votes, it is abnormal. Have you heard of that kind of thing before?
And the documents were there only that the people could not find their names on the voters register.Â I am not even sure Governor Peter Obi voted. So how can anybody award pass marks to INEC for conducting that kind of election in just one out of theÂ 36 states in the country.
Again, INECÂ was supposed to have deployed its best in terms of personnel and materials,Â yet they did not arrive at the polling booths in time. It frightens me to think of what would happen when there would be a general election throughout the country.
There has been so much agitation for electoral reforms; do you think this is realizable before the conduct of the 2011 general elections?
Well, I donâ€™t knowÂ how far the National Assembly canÂ go in the area of electoral reforms. But there are at least four basic things that have to be done; and I donâ€™t think they are very difficult. The first one is that we must have a Modified Open-Secret Balloting System.Â If it is option A4 that would be fine; but I am just describing what we need. It should be such an arrangement whereby on polling day, all the voters first go for accreditation by 9am; then they return by 12 or 1 pm for voting.
Then after voting, everybody stays back until the votes are counted; the documentation is done and then everybody goes away. The advantage of that is thatÂ nobody wouldÂ haveÂ time to move thugs from one place to the other.
All the big men includingÂ ministers, commissioners and chairmen of local governments wonâ€™t have time to go from one polling booth to the other. This is because at that point in time, they too would be voting and by the time they finish voting, others would also be finishing and everything wouldÂ be clean and clear. At theÂ end of the day,Â we would have the result which would be mandatory.
The second thing that needs to be done is that an independent prosecutorâ€™s office needs to be set up. This body would handle the prosecution of all electoral offenders. What we have is that punishmentÂ does not follow crime.Â What has happened is that people kill and commit all sorts of crimes for the winning party during the election. After the election especially whenÂ the party thatÂ wonÂ the election is the party they worked for,Â all their sins are forgiven.
So such people now get away with this spirit of impunity. Their attitude is that we have won: if you are notÂ happy go to court. If we have an independent prosecutor, then anybody accused of committing an electoral offence including INEC officials would be prosecuted by such an Independent body without recourse to any federal or state attorney-general.Â Electoral crimes must attract punishment.
The third thing that needs to be done is to ensure that the onus and burden of proofÂ that an election has been free and fair must be shiftedÂ from the candidate to INEC. So, it should be compulsory for INEC to bring all necessary materials neededÂ to establish their case in court whenever there are electoral disputes before the judiciary.
They have to prove to the court that the election was conducted inÂ accordance withÂ the law and rules. For nowÂ what obtains is that after losing an election unfairly, a candidate would have the responsibility of not just going to court but also that of providingÂ electoralÂ materials as evidenceÂ despite the fact that access to them may not be easy.
A lot of injustices have gone without being rectified because at theÂ end of an election, a defeatedÂ candidate may have been too financially depletedÂ and may not have the ability to pursue a case at the Election Petition Tribunal.