*Alex Ekwueme threw away presidential ticket

*Why I did not dump Ekwueme for Obasanjo

His sense of humility is unmistakable. But he was quick to attribute that to his father’s strictness. Okwesileze Nwodo, a medical doctor, fist executive governor of Enugu State and founding National Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, radiates this look which could be mistaken for the smiley face of a baby. But make no mistake, beneath that sometimes demur demeanour lies a heart made of steel.

Most politicians may not remember him so much for his stewardship as the Enugu State governor but more for his role during the PDP presidential primaries in Jos Plateau State where, against all entreaties, he refused to support Olusegun Obasanjo for the party’s ticket.  In this first part, Nwodo discloses all the intrigues leading up to the emergence of Obasanjo as the PDP candidate.

Next week, Nnamani reveals how his relationship with Obasanjo became very robust, only to turn sour when the issue of Third Term crept in as early as Year 2000


What does the name, Okwesileze mean?

Okwesileze is a very prophetic name. It means, “you are fit to be king”. It was not a name manufactured for me. It was a name that belonged to my father’s eldest brother. My father had a tradition of naming his children after his brothers.   My elder brother and my younger brother were named after my father’s brothers too.

There is this impression out there that the Nwodo’s have a vice-grip hold on the polity in Enugu State.  Why is this so?
One thing that my father did for us, was to give us very sound education. All my siblings, I don’t think any of us went below a first degree. Everybody went to do a Masters and PhD.  He was such a strict disciplinarian. Anytime he gave orders, there was no argument.

But, we also enjoyed discussions with him. He would want everybody to contribute. And then he gave us sound moral training. If we approached any of our seniors without being polite, my father would not take that kindly. As long as he was your senior, you must approach him in a civilised manner. And I think I got so much of it.

Because when I got to Government College Umuahia, if you want to talk to your senior, you must add the word “senior” at the end of every sentence. So we got this culture of discipline and respect. Something my father also had was his humility. The way my father related to his staff, and to ordinary people, some thought he was descending too low. I think these are some of the issues that have shaped us to excel in public offices either in political position or in the Civil Service.

You can celebrate it today but I’m sure when you were growing up you did not find it funny.
When we were growing up, I thought that my father was too strict. And my mother complimented it. Sometimes I wish they had written a book, on how to train their children, because they had ten of us.

10 from one woman?
Yes, from my mum. Eight of us survived to adulthood. Out of the eight of us that survived to adulthood, all of us became graduates. All of us are independent. And we grew together. We did things together and were each others’ keeper. I have some friends and the way they quarrel with their siblings; the way they are argue over petty and irrelevant things. That is not in my family. If one person comes 1st in my family, then everybody comes 1st.

Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo
Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo

And we don’t do things without consultation. We would sit down and talk about it, and within a minute we take a position. In spite of the fact that my eldest sister is married – like all my sisters – till tomorrow, in spite of the fact that I have been Governor, my brother has been Minister, my brother has been a Presidential aspirant, my sister was made the counselor of the family by my father and she remains so.

When you make a statement like the one you just made – doing things together, sharing things together and when one comes 1st all others are first –could actually be interpreted to mean that when you were governor and your brother minister, your siblings ran the affairs of state with you people?
When I was governor, I remember one article, I’ve forgotten which newspaper. They had my picture, my eldest brother’s picture, my younger brother’s picture, they just got different pictures of us and composed them together and it was in the front page of the newspaper.  And in the story, they were saying that Enugu had five Governors (laughter).

Yes, you have a point but that is the negative aspect of it.
Many believe that when any of us is up there, that the rest are behind, and that their advise is taken on board, and seriously too. They so believe that because the person is an achiever, they think he is asserting so much influence over governance.

If you went to my senior sister, she was a Director General (DG) under my government it was like you were talking to the Governor. My junior brother was going for the governorship, before he was disqualified. And if you were talking to him, you were talking to the Governor of Enugu State. My younger brother was also a former Minister. And if he were not disqualified, he would have been the governor.

These people do not know that every person who has excelled in what he is doing, can still assert himself in what ever any of us was doing, irrespective of whether he is governor or not. It is an added advantage that I can take from the experience of these people.

Your party, the PDP, you served as its first secretary and chief Solomon Lar served as its first chairman.  It’s a very large family now but how did all that come about, the arrangement of zoning offices, without elections?
When we were coming to form the PDP, we had a steering committee. That committee was chaired by Alex Ekwueme and Jerry Gana was our secretary. And as you know this was as a result of the G-18 which later became G-34 and so on.
And when we wanted to put it together as a political party, and register it, our biggest problem at the time, was that we wanted to find a way of shifting power to the south.

So we debated this power shift for a long time. And the night we agreed, it was in Jerry Gana’s house and Jerry Gana at that time, like I said was the secretary.  And based on the new realities that we wanted to put in place, we had to zone the chairmanship of the party to the North and the Secretary’s slot to the South.

The North was to produce the Chairman so that we can have a southern President, and the Secretary also from the South. Alex Ekwueme had to relinquish being chairman.  The North Central zone where the chairman was to come from picked Solomon.

The Secretary came to the South, and Jerry Gana had to relinquish his secretary’s post. And then it was zoned to the South East and that was how I became the chairman. This was how we zoned all the other post.That was what happened at that time. But you know that immediately after the states convention, and the governorship elections, we now had our national convention.

Before that convention and while you people were into this your zoning arrangement, the story we heard was that the military had made up its mind on what to do and where the Presidency would go, and that whatever the civilians were doing was just a dramatization of a script which the military had written.

When we agreed on that zoning arrangement,  Lawal Kaita, former Governor of Kaduna State, got up and said, “this zoning is going to be capped.  We are zoning the presidential ticket of this party to Alex Ekwueme”.

But Alex Ekwueme in his characteristic humility, got up and said, “no!, this zoning is not about Alex Ekwueme, anybody from southern Nigeria is fit to run”.

He wanted everybody from Southern Nigeria to participate and have a sense of belonging because he believed that we could not say we want to build a democratic nation and build it on such award of candidacy.

The issue of the military deciding on our behalf, which you mentioned is very important.
That was not what happened.  Let me be honest with you and you can go anywhere and find this out.

What happened was that we were fighting the Abacha regime. And Abacha still wanted to succeed himself as a civilian President. Most of us were not happy.

It got so bad that all the political parties endorsed Abacha as the single presidential candidate
But you were in one of the political parties at that time?

Yes, I was in UNCP but it was being run from the Villa. I fizzled out of it because we could not agree on anything, except the directive came from the Villa. Jeremiah Useni was the anchor man – we couldn’t actualise our democratic dream.  So we started engineering this other movement and we agreed that Solomon Lar should go and deliver our message to Abacha that we wanted an end to military rule.

We had started to engineer things, not tele-guided by any military establishment.
We now put ourselves together to form a political party after Abacha’s death and Abdulsami started.  It was quite unfortunate then, but it was very clear to us that Nigeria had two political parties – the military and the politicians.
And we the politicians didn’t want anything to do with the military. We went on our own.

Dr. Nwodo
Dr. Nwodo

Some wanted the transition delayed so that certain things could come first but…
(Cuts in)
The issue was that we wanted a change and there was no need saying the military should stay and the tendencies which wanted the military to go cut across all political groupings  It was a mixed bag.  That was why you could have the Solomon Lars of this world holding talks with the Ekwuemes, the Rimis and they were rubbing shoulders with people from NPN.  That was what we did. We just came together to save democracy in Nigeria. And we had certain other fundamentals that were burring in our minds then.

We had the issue of infrastructure, the health care delivery system, the economy, agriculture and we felt it was high time we began to manage the resources of the country well and that if we did that successfully, no Nigerian is going to get hungry. We had enough resources. Because there were so many loopholes that drain our resources, and we wanted to block these loopholes.

So we would grow the economy and try to manage it properly. Then we also believed that the education that our people were getting was too much dependent on paper qualification. And people had nothing to do, other than to show certificates. And we wanted people to go to school and come out and become self reliant.

These were the things burning in our minds at that time and there was no military interference or the fact of anybody teleguiding our affairs.

So, it was when the elections came, my friend, Ibrahim Babangida in particular.

Which of the elections: There was a pre-qualification local government election of December 1998, followed by the governorship elections of early 1999; which one?
It was the presidential primaries in Jos I’m talking about.

But even before the 1998 local government elections Olusegun Obasanjo was already being touted as the possible president and all the civilians were just filing behind the choice of the military?
In fact, let me tell you even until the time the governors emerged, there was no real military interference, although in some states, the people who were transiting as military governors may have helped some of their friends to succeed them but these were scattered cases here and there and these were cases of people who had links with the military

What I’m saying is that Obasanjo had started throwing money here and there as a PDP heavyweight contender…?
(Cuts in)
I’ll tell you how Obasanjo came about.
After his release from prison, Abdulsalami Abubakar’s regime granted Obasanjo amnesty and that amnesty was engineered by General Ibrahim Babangida.  It was Babangida’s own way of trying to put the June 12 debacle behind him because he believed that the South West had actually been pushed to the wall so much so that they were already singing their own Oodua anthem and were already hoisting their own flag in some places and he believed that Nigeria could not survive another secessionist war so the way he saw fit to placate them and carry them along was to cede the presidency to the South West.

He also figured that Obasanjo was the right man to do the job because Obasanjo was a man who, once he’s convinced about what he has set out to do he would do it without bothering about what Nigerians or the press would say about him and that Nigeria needed someone like that at that time – that was his own analysis of Obasanjo and why he believed that he was the best man at that time.

Did Babangida sit you down to tell you all these – when and where?
No! I got to know this long after it had happened.
I was in the plane one day travelling with late Sunday Awoniyi and at that time his story with Obasanjo was well known and I (laughing) told him that ‘Sunday, you people were the ones who brought this man called Obasanjo and he has ruined everything PDP stood for.

It was then he told me how he left us (that is those of us who were supporting Ekwueme) and the pressure brought on him by lobbying engineered by Babangida and that these were the reasons why they should support Obasanjo.

And, without prejudice to whatever happened after, these arguments sound convincing then?
Oh yes!  The arguments were very very persuasive then and you know Chief Sunday Awoniyi is not one to be swayed easily.

Most people in Nigeria then believed in the argument that the only person who could stop the west from going was Obasanjo because he had been President before, he had the military training and he was a very patriotic person and he had the will power to do that without caring about the consequences.  That Ekwueme would not be able to do that and that Ekwueme was angling at the last Constitutional Conference for regional armies and some people felt that that suggestion was fraught with the possibility of secession.

Okwesilieze Nwodo
Okwesilieze Nwodo

At that time too, Babangida started to move around to convince people on the need for an Obasanjo presidency, especially those who were rooting for Ekwueme.  He also convinced Abdulsalam Abubakar to throw the weight of government behind the Obasanjo agenda.  That was when the military came into the picture.

Now to your Jos Convention: What made to loyalty to Ekwueme very strong?
So many things and you know Dr. Ekwueme

NO, sorry, that question was wrongly put.  The first question should be why did you not go with the Awoniyi people when they were moving to support Obasanjo because we heard of some of the things which happened?

This was what happened.  I was seriously lobbied.  I think we can say this now and I don’t think anybody would be hurt.
Obasanjo actually sent Atiku Abubakar and Joe Igwe, the owner of Bolingo Hotel – where we were running our office – to come and talk to me to persuade me.
I told them it would not work and that I would not shift loyalty.
Number one, I told them, that I am a beneficiary of the zoning arrangement, that if we had not succeeded with the zoning, I may not have been national secretary.

I also told them that the will of the party at that time when we were doing the zoning arrangement was that Alex Ekwueme should be the sole candidate of the party but that if not for his nationalistic view and what can now be described as his political naivety, we would have been through with that since 1998.

So, I felt that turning my back on him at that time would be a sell out to our covenant irrespective of whatever appeared likely to happen at the convention and I saw all the gathering storm just before and during the convention.
I saw very strategic supporters, especially from the north, leaving Ekwueme’s campaign and moving to Obasanjo.
Secondly – and from a parochial point of view – I also felt that if Alex had engineered the formation of PDP and the South East, also was entitled to southern president, that my abandoning Ekwueme would be a sell out to the aspiration of my own people, so I thought that was not a wise thing to do at that time.

I was in Jos and I know that at some point some offers were made to you by the Obasanjo campaign group just so you can dump Ekwueme; what sort of offers were these?
I don’t think it is right for me to mention what the offers were but you’re right, there were offers – appointive offers, monetary offers.

Was it that you were sure that Ekwueme would win?
For me it wasn’t a matter of being sure or not that Ekwueme would win.
It was on principle.

My principle was that we started this party together, we had him in mind and it would not be fair to just abandon him.  It was just on principle.
Let me be honest with you, at a point during all these, I was convinced that Ekwueme was going to lose because of the way funds were being moved around and the way the delegates were being quartered in hotels and lobby them both with funds and other things before they came into the convention ground to cast their votes, I saw things moving in favour of Obasanjo at that time.

As national secretary organizing the convention, however a candidate conducts his campaign or how he lobbies delegates to vote is strictly his business.  My business is simply to conduct free and fair balloting and to count the ballots.

The convention itself, some people still wonder how come it was that easy for Obasanjo to win because the counting and the pattern of voting left many in Jos township stadium that midnight through to the early hours of that Monday, bemused?  Obasanjo was number 7 and the chant of Number 7, Obasanjo was something else. Was there real voting because your party PDP has demonstrated that it is capable of anything?

Yes there was real voting.  The way we organized the voting process was such that once we started counting the votes in the boxes and we counted seven, it was very clear that the pattern would be the same all through – for instance if a state had 60 delegates, they would all cast their votes into the 20 ballot boxes and if that state was voting for a particular candidate, it would reflect exactly like that, like a pro-rata arrangement so every box was a replica of the others.

After the seventh box, I went to Dr. Ekwueme and told him that ‘I hope you know this pattern would continue’, he said ‘yes’.
I also told him that ‘I hope you understood what that meant’.
He again said he understood that it meant he would lose.
And I told him that whatever results we got from each box would not differ from the others.

How did he take it when you told him this?
He just took it in his usual philosophical calmness
That was around 4:30 am, Monday February 13 or 14.  People were already getting very tired?
Yes people were already very tired.
I then asked him another question.

Before the primaries that day, the party put together a screening committee which screened all the presidential aspirants and I prepared the files they were going to use for each aspirant and in that file I put the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as the constitution of our party.

It was about the section which stipulates qualification to be a candidate for the presidential elections and the same thin as stipulated in the party constitution.

We had had a meeting – the National Executive Committee, NEC – of our party in a motion was moved and seconded and carried that if you want to become a state governor on our party platform, you must deliver your local government and if you want to become the presidential candidate of our party, you must deliver your state to the party.

Could that have been targeted at Obasanjo or it was a co-incidence?
The motive of that motion was to ginger our candidates, that if you want to be a governor, the best you can do is to deliver your local government and if you can deliver more the better and we used it to screen governors and we had to use it to screen the presidential aspirants.

When we got to Jos I made it clear to them that Obasanjo did not qualify to be an aspirant, much more presidential candidate of our party and some people cried blue murder.

I was accused by the Obasanjo group of wanting to disqualify Obasanjo.
But what was in my records were clear.  They said I wanted to disqualify him.
A lot of fireworks came in from the government and from IBB and from other people who wanted Obasanjo and they put a lot of pressure on Solomon Lar.

Wasn’t Ekwueme aware of all these?
That was what I told him after the seventh ballot.
I said, ‘you still have a chance’.

He asked ‘what do you mean’?
And I said the national chairman, Solomon Lar, does not have any powers to reverse the position of NEC and that it was only the NEC that had powers to reverse itself or the national convention.
I said what the screening committee did in Abuja is there business but that was not NEC and Solomon Lar was not NEC.

What was his response?
He told me that I wanted to cause riots in Nigeria, that he was not ready for it.

In the midst of the counting that was the only thing he could say?
Right in the convention, I was asking him and he said I wanted to cause riots and that he wouldn’t want to be part of that and that that was not what he set out to achieve.

Didn’t anybody sitting close by eves drop on your conversation with Ekwueme?
I think that the other people, the Obasanjo people also sensed that this may create a problem at the end of the convention and they quickly swung into action.

They quickly arranged a meeting in the basement of the stadium, somewhere under the state box, for all the aspirants.  There was an office there, the candidates and the members of the board of trustees, all went into the office under the state box.
The trustees tried to lobby the aspirants, to accept whatever the outcome of the voting are.

Had counting been concluded then?
No, counting was still on but they sensed that anything could happen.
I’m sure they all observed that each time the votes in a particular box was counted, the pattern remained the same and they were also observant of the response of the crowd especially as regards the names of the aspirants as they were voted for.

The trustees thanked us for organizing what they described as a very successful convention, that voting was orderly and that they had never seen this kind of arrangement and they thanked the national secretariat and they wanted everybody to accept the verdict whenever it was announced.
Each aspirant spoke well and agreed to accept whatever the outcome was.

What was Obasanjo’s speech like?  Was he sincere as he spoke?
Obasanjo! You know Obasanjo is a man whose demeanour does not say exactly what is going on inside him.
He knew he was winning and he pretended that he too, would accept whatever the outcome was and would congratulate whoever won (Laughter)

And we all came back to our seat and the results were announced and they all embraced Obasanjo and they accepted and thereafter we tried to reconcile everybody..


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