By Simon Ebegbulem &Â Â Â Â Â Â Dapo Akinrefon
CHIEF Tom Ikimi is a former Foreign Affairs Minister inÂ lateÂ General Sani Abachaâ€™s regime. He is also a national leader of the Action Congress,AC and also a former National Chairman ofÂ defunct National Republican Convention, NRC.
In this interview with Vanguard, Ikimi gave details on the failure of the proposed mega party and why he refused to return to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. He also reacted to the recent return of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. He bares his mind on INEC, electoral reforms and the need to reduce the number of political parties in Nigeria. Excerpts:
YOUR party, the Action Congress, has been advocating for electoral reforms and at the same time, called for the removal of the INEC chairman, Prof Maurice Iwu. Will this move curb electoral malpractices in future elections?
For me, electoral reforms are now central to our struggle for sound democracy in Nigeria. If we have accepted democracy as the best form of government, as practiced in most civilized nations all over the world, it means that the people themselves must be the ones to choose who their representatives in Government should be. Our experience in Nigeria, particularly in the last 12 years, is that of wantonly rigged elections.
This was demonstrated in the most blatant manner in the General Elections of 2007, the process was so hugely abused that more than 90 percent of those who are in office today, from the Presidency down to Council Members were not elected by the people. We now live in a situation worse than that of a military coup. We need to reform the process of election urgently, in order to eliminate electoral malpractices to the barest minimum and ensure that all votes count on the basis of one man, one vote.
Talking about Maurice Iwu, yes, there is the clamour for his removal. A great anger pervades the land over the actions of INEC. This is because of the role INEC played in the disaster of 2007 elections; obviously we cannot put this at the door of one individual alone. But of course, the head of any organization must bear the brunt of what happens in that organization.
Every one is talking about Professor Mairice Iwu, they forget the very powerful people who put Iwu there and bound his hands; they forced the announcement of rigged election results in many locations ignoring the consent of INEC. If Iwu were to conduct the best elections today, there are many people who would still be skeptical about the outcome.
The present INEC has seriously lost credibility and must therefore be totally overhauled.Â I also think, and with all good intentions that the time has come for Professor Iwu to graciously bow out.
As former chairman of the defunct National Republican Convention party, NRC, how would you compare the SDP and NRC days to what is obtainableÂ now where we have a proliferation of political parties in Nigeria?
I recall my days as National Chairman of NRC and that was the time we had the experiment of a two party situation in Nigeria. The country had a balance choice of alternatives and in fact, the two parties were running neck to neck in the country; there were 30 states in the federation at that time. The NRC had Governorship in 16, while the SDP had 14 states.
For the National Assembly elections, the SDP had an edge over the NRC but in terms of National plurality of votes the NRC was leading. The system was balanced and there was no way one side could oppress the other. In spite of the fact that the NRC was perceived as a northern favoured party, but it was not, we were able to win the governorship of Lagos State.
Despite the fact that I was National Chairman of the NRC, I lost the Governorship of Edo State.Â I had no problem with that. Unfortunately, the beautiful experiment was brought to an end in October, 1992 when out of no where the Head of State at that time, General Babangida, dissolved the leadership of both parties from National level to Local Government level by an evening broadcast announcement. All these leaders had been properly elected.
Civil Servants were then drafted to run the parties. The Villa Hawks had struck! We are now experiencing another extreme, with over 50 political parties in the system having one of themÂ a dominant Party PDP financed from inception with huge State Funds.
It is well known that the pet project of General Obasanjo was to create a one party state in Nigeria over which he himself would preside.Â In fact, most of his friends in Africa when he was former head of state and later President including Eyadema of Togo, Bongo of Gabon, Musuveni of Uganda,Â Ghadaffi of Lybia, and Mubarak of EgyptÂ are all unrepentant dictators. He had left some of these in office in 1979 and they were still there when he came back in 1999.
So, he was determined to create a one party state in order to achieve a life Presidency for himself as his friends.
Indeed, I share the view with other well meaning Nigerians including some members of the Uwais panel that we must reverse the situation immediately.
There is no need for Nigeria to have 50 political parties, which even with all good intentions, would be absolutely impossible to manage by INEC.Â The present ballot paper for instance, produced by INEC used in recent elections, even the most educated can hardly identify his party on it and with such a ballot paper you can never have a proper vote.
The vast majority of our people who are to vote reside in the rural areas. Most of them cannot read or write and so cannot find their way through this kind of ballot paper. Our constant experience in recent elections is that our party suffers up to 50 per cent of voided votes in some locations. I think we must take drastic steps right now to reduce the number of parties.
Many of them are not even worth the certificates they hold. They just register political parties in order to collect annual subventions from INEC. Only a handful of parties have won state governments and have any seats in the National or State Assemblies.
Talking about parties, we were shocked that the former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who Nigerians thought would form a mega party, which you were part of, suddenly returned to the PDP. What is your position on his return to PDP?
Atikuâ€™s move to the PDP was in my view too hasty and totally unnecessary. As a friend, I could only express to him my views as an opinion but I could not force these views on him. I hold a firm view that Nigeria needs a credible alternative to the PDP which has been facilitated with state funds to have such a strangle hold on Nigeria and for so long now.
I have just told you about my tenure as National Chairman of the NRC, one of two parties in the country at that time and how the two party set up provided Nigerians viable alternatives. I consider AtikuÂ a very good friendÂ and I enjoyed working with him in the Action Congress and in the opposition generally. When I was chairman of NRC, Atiku was in the SDP working then with his mentor, the late Maj General Shehu Musa Yarâ€™Adua. When the General passed on, Atiku inherited his powerful political machine, the PDM-Peoples Democratic Movement. I was not a member.
In 1998 when parties were formed, Atiku handed over that machine to Obasanjo and PDP as a nucleus of the new party. I believe the former Vice President Atiku is still very sentimental over the PDP, a party he helped nurture from scratch.
During the first four years of Atikuâ€™s Vice PresidencyÂ I was not close to him, but our paths met during his second tenure when he suffered vicious and unwarranted aggression from Obasanjo and when we too were working so hard to prevent Obasanjoâ€™s Third Term Agenda from being realized. Iâ€™ve come to find him (Atiku) as someone who was very useful to us in the opposition.
He frequently talked to me about the need for a viable opposition in Nigeria and I believed that he worked earnestly in that direction but the difficulties created by some of the leaders working with usÂ in the opposition group more or less was the last straw that drove him back to the PDP. He has arrived at the PDP to meet a terrible explosion there. I believe Atiku is a man destined for greatness in Nigeria and I wont be surprised to see him back with us to where he truly belongs sooner than later.
What would you say led to failure of the mega party?
I believe that the failure of the mega party had to do with the ambition of some of the leaders, they had hidden interests which they intended to promote and so they all came into the mega party with various baggage.
As you may have observed, we had Action Congress leaders in it, some of whom I believe had their own agenda; the General Buhari group came into the arrangement after they quit the ANPP- he had always haboured the ambition to be President; former Sokoto governor, Bafarawa brought in the DPP with obviously certain interests; Chief Olu Falaye led a group mainly from the South West with some fixed ideas.
Therefore the public talk that all previously held positions would be abandoned in the interest of the new arrangement virtually collapsed when General Buhari went on to register a new party of his own in the middle of the negotiations. In fact we had already progressed to a point where the Action Congress was unanimously chosen as the base party for the fusion of forces.
That was indeed an exciting development to all of us who had participated in the very difficult negotiations.
Why did you refuse to return to the PDP with Atiku?
Well, my 20 years in politics in Nigeria has not been for nothing, it has given to me a lot of experience. Iâ€™m able to see things farther than most others can see. I have had no doubt in mind for some time now that the PDP would sooner or later disintegrate. Of course, my haunch about the disintegration of PDP is becoming true now.
The recent explosion in that party is only a tip of the iceberg. In 2001, the leaders of the PDP in my state, Edo State, approached me and persuaded me to join the PDP in the interest of unity in our state. Bowing to the enormous pressure from friends and supporters here, I agreed to join the PDP but as it turned out I was only there for a short time. You may recall the efforts I made in January 2003 to dress up the PDP by conducting a very well organized primaries to select a presidential candidate.
I believe that is the only time the Party has ever held an internal party election where delegates actually cast a vote. When we won that election in 2003 some evil leaders of the party including a notorious one from my state started plotting a third term for Obasanjo with a dream to rule Nigeria forever. They decided to hijack every system in the party and to eliminate all those who they perceived would not toe their line.
They proceeded to deregister all those so identified and I was one of those who was asked to seek re-registration. I have never come across such a development in any organization any where in the world where all members of a party would be suddenly de-registered and asked to re- register again.
I with a number of others left the Party and decided not to go back there again. That is why I played a central role in the registration of the Action Congress.Â For me it will be utter nonsense to now turn around at this time and return to the PDP in its present form. There are a number of us who left the party, who have vowed that we shall not go back to the party, but will continue in our endeavoursÂ to create an alternative platform for Nigeria.
I have heard and read all kinds of things alluding to me going back to the PDP. Itâ€™s all totally false! Some politicians need to be trusted and I wish to be counted among those. I cannot canvass strong opinions against the PDP, across our state for instance for which vast numbers have believed me and on the basis of which so many have left the PDP to join the Action Congress just to turn round and say I am now going back there. We have been able to take power from the PDP in my home state here in Edo State and we are immensely proud of our achievement. We must now do the same in many other States, jn our sub region and eventually Nigeria.
Despite the implosion in the PDP, you still find people moving to the party, what do make of this?
It is a typical Nigerian syndrome of a people that are unable to sustain a struggle. They have found out that only in the PDP, can they find free money, those in the PDP do no work, they are just in charge of the nationâ€™s treasury dishing out money to themselves and to their friends. Most Nigerians feel, why fight these people; perhaps it is better for us to join them.
Not many people would do what I and a few others have done. I left my lucrative Architectural practice to go into politics where I have been over the past 20 years.
I have been hugely oppressed by the PDP Government during the past twelve years but I have managed to stay away from them. Politics they say is a thankless job, others claim there are no friends or foes, but I know that when those trooping to the PDP today eventually find that our viable alternative is working, they will return before you blink. It is really a matter of leadership. If we manage to put together the right leadership and create the enabling environment, nobody will remain in PDP in Nigeria. The party is now a National embarrassment. We have proved in Edo State that an alternative can work.
We have politicians who will rather spend so much money in those who are government rather than in projects that will bring about developmental changes. This has been the bane of the nation for a very long time. How do you think these excesses can been put in check?
Well, if the priorities of government had been right, our country would have witnessed a phenomenal transformation by now, particularly during the period covering past 12 years when Obasanjo was in power and had so much resources. Our budget is now recorded in trillions of naira. This is an amount beyond the comprehension of an average Nigerian.
There are no words in any of the over four hundred Nigerian languages to describe the amount.
They can only refer to the amount as uncountable! I understand that the recent budget of over 4trillions, assented to by the Acting President is based on a 60 per cent recurrent expenditure and 40 per cent capital expenditure. I cannot see how our country can justify spending 60 per cent of trillions of naira in the interest of only 1.4 million people who benefit from the recurrent in a country of 150 million people. The majority of our people are poor and jobless.
I understand, also that the cost of running the National Assembly, consumes some 30 per cent of the nationâ€™s budget. This, to me is unacceptable. If it is true that each Senator earns around N250 million per annum, then, we have a fundamental problem in our hands. In fact, from calculations if you add allowances to that sum of N250million, it brings up the amount due to each Senator to a mind bungling figure of over N300 million per annum. The details of the House of Reps are similar.
This means that each Senator earns around N1million a day. One can see the reason why it has become such a do-or-die matter to make your way to the National Assembly. Nigeria does not require such big government and at such an alarming cost.Â Why should anyone be in doubt then why these privileged people in the National Assembly would prefer the status quo to remain They cannot reform the process that brought them illegally to office.
Looking at the scenario that played out during President Yarâ€™Aduaâ€™s medical trip abroad and the way it was handled by his family. The Acting President has maintained that he was not going to force his way to see the ailing president. How do you think it would have been handled?
I have utmost sympathies for President Yarâ€™Adua, particularly that it was not his own idea to become the President; it was an arrangement forced down on him by Obasanjo, whose intention it was to mess up things for Nigeria having failed to secure a third term for himself. In fact, President Yarâ€™Adua, when he was governor of Katsina State was hardly known in Nigeria; That he was ill was apparently common knowledge and I believe Obasanjo also knew he was ill too to be President.
I was really surprised at the recent public show staged by Obasanjo in Abuja where he declared that he was not aware of the Yarâ€™Adua situation and he asked for Godâ€™s punishment if he knew. He cursed himself. We in Edo State have good sentiments for President Yarâ€™Adua particularly for permitting the enabling atmosphere for the judiciary to dispense justice without which we here in Edo State, would have lost our mandate.
However the constitution of Nigeria stands above personal interest. Irrespective of whatever imperfections may be inherent in the document we have no other alternative but to honour its current provisions. Therefore if the President is ill and has to go away or is not available for whatever other reason he has to hand over to the Vice President. With his present continuous absence for some 4 months now we can now appreciate what a mess the country would have been in if the Vice President was not given the authority to act.
The health of the President should be of interest to the entire people of Nigeria; we can all see what obtains in other similar National situations such as Fidel Castro in hospital in Cuba, Mubarak of Egypt in hospital, all constantly televised or all to see.
I therefore think it is wrong that the presidentâ€™s condition is being shrouded in such secrecy. Nigerians must know because it is not his fault that heâ€™s ill and I think the first person that should have access to the President in this circumstance is the Vice President. That the Vice President has no access to the president is totally unacceptable.
Mixed reactions greeted the dissolution of the Federal Executive Council by the Acting President and Nigerians are waiting to see if the new FEC will invoke the necessary section of the constitution to declare the president unfit to continue in office. Whatâ€™s your position on this?
By the time the National Assembly took the decision to hand over power to Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, the atmosphere in the Federal Executive Council was already bad; the members had polarized into various camps. It would have been very difficult for Jonathan to work with the council as it then was; in my view, I think it was the best decision to dissolve that council and constitute another one.
The tenure of Jonathan as Acting President is now very short and I think the time factor is a situation heÂ should bear in his mind as he makes immediate plans. He should therefore embark on a few clear objectives, and as he said: power generation, electoral reforms, Niger Delta Amnesty, National Security may be good immediate focus.
Now that he has a new team I believe these are achievable goals. The most important thing now is to lay a firm foundation for free and fair election to ensure a hitch free 2011 general elections and to install properlyÂ elected governments at all levels in Nigeria.
There are speculations that the Acting President may run for the 2011 presidential elections and considering the earlier agreement in the PDP that it has been zone to the north. Do you support zoning and would you advice the acting president to contest?
I believe every Nigerian is given the freedom under our current constitution to run for any office in the land that he may aspire to. The issue of zoning the presidency to north or south ofÂ Â Nigeria , is a PDP arrangement, which was borne out of sentiments at the time Obasanjo was being drafted in. The basis for those sentiments no longer exist. Goodluck Jonathan hails from the region referred to as the South-South geo-political zone.
Historically, the South-south zone has not had the good fortune to produce the President of Nigeria. While other zones are bound together by such factors as language, religion or cultural affinity, the South-south zone has a common trend of minority difficulties as their binding force.
Vast majority of the people of the region which produces Nigeriaâ€™s oil wealth and contends with the problems of the raging Niger Delta crisis, now view this period ofÂ Goodluck Jonathanâ€™s Acting Presidency as their best chance to claim the Presidency; therefore, the decision as to which way to go now rests with Goodluck Jonathan himself and to my mind, it is not an easy decision to make judging from the prevailing circumstances.
How will you compare the military rule then and what obtains presently in our democracy?
Military rule is unacceptable if you put it side by side the option of democracy. The only advantage you may have in a military government is that it is usually a small government and it takes fast decisions. They do not spend huge percentages of annual budgets for servicing their administration as we see today in our democratic government. Since they are not the peopleâ€™s choice, they do not have the peopleâ€™s mandate.Â In developing countries such as ours, Democratic Governments need to be small, inexpensive but efficient.
While you were Minister for Foreign Affairs trying to launder the image of the country abroad, it was alleged that so much was spent by the Abacha regime. How true is it?
As you know very well, the government in which I served was a government that existed in times of crisis and difficulties in Nigeria. I look back now and Iâ€™m satisfied with the role I was made to play in the interest of our nation. We must not always assess contribution that individuals make in government only at times of peace.
Peace time diplomacy is different from Crisis time diplomacy; that is why those who served our country as Minister for Foreign Affairs during the period of the Civil War and at the time following the annulment in 1993, must be given some credit for what they did to ensure that our nationâ€™s name was retained and sustained within the comity of nations.
During the time of Abacha, one barrel of oil was sold for $8, today, a barrel is sold for $86; during Obasanjoâ€™s regime, it went up beyond $100 per barrel. There can be no comparison whatsoever between the funds that was available to Abacha and the funds that is available to the present governments. Money earned by Nigeria between 1999 and 2007 is unprecedented in the history ofÂ our country. Where has it all gone?
My salary as Minister at the time, was around N7,000 per month and it is when you add other benefits that it gets up to around N12,000 per month. You can imagine how much the salaries of ministers are now. The records are there for any one to check.
I was not privy to what transpired in terms of fraud in that regime, which since leaving office I have constantly heard about.Â But I wish Abacha was alive to answer for himself, because what has protected others is that they are alive and they are able to either cover up what they have done and in some cases they are still around to continue to cause more trouble.
Every one knows, that General Obasanjo arrived from Yola prison with nothing in his pocket and his farm was in shambles with huge bank debts. Today, he is a billionaire. How did he make all these billions? Is it by becoming the President of Nigeria or is it through the running of Otta farm. Of course he can cover for himself now because he is alive, Abacha is dead and that is why every one is pointing fingers at Abacha.
How would assess the administration of Governor Adams Oshiomhole so far?
Edo State government under Comrade Adams Oshiomhole has virtually settled down now and any visitor to Benin City or to other parts of Edo State today will see that there is a lot of construction activities on going in the state. Roads are being constructed, hospitals are being built or renovated. Schools are being built or renovated. People now wonder why this is so because for 10 years that the PDP was in government in the state, not one new classroom, road or hospital was built. In fact, workers were hardly paid.
What Comrade Adams Oshiomhole and the AC government have demonstrated is that, indeed they are in touch with the people of our state and are addressing their concerns. I am a national leader of the Action Congress in the state and Iâ€™m well respected by the governor, leaders and rank and file members of the party in the state, but I donâ€™t throw myself around as the only person that must make every decision.
In fact, I bow to the decision of the party. Everyone has the opportunity of airing their opinion whenever we meet in order to arrive at decisions. We donâ€™t have a situation in which any one man owns the party. The issue of any one God Father said to have existed in Edo State has been eliminated.
Thereâ€™s this fear that when the local government election will be held later this year, that the AC might disintegrate like the PDP due to nomination due to alleged disagreement between the old and new members of the Action Congress. As a leader of the party, how do you intend to resolve this issue?
We have consistently said that it does not matter when you joined the AC in the state; whether a foundation member or new entrant, you have the same opportunity. We are not going to say like in the PDP, that you must be in the party for one or two years before you can contest any position, no.
Many people, who have just joined the party, have been made commissioners, many have been appointed into various boards; you would also see that we have been integrating new members into the structures of the party statewide. At this moment in time, the processes for the choice of candidates to run in any election in the state has not been released.
I cannot see how anyone would now say that some people have been given preferential treatment over others. I can confirm that all those who have come to the party, will have equal opportunity and as the party is now so popular in the state the competition may be quite keen.
When a party grows to become so big, fundamental difficulties associated with the struggle for power, will always creep in but it rest with the leadership of the party to ensure discipline in the system, that we have a free and fair process and that the internal democracy of the party is not compromised.
Recently you celebrated your 66 birthday, how has life been as a former minister and politician?
Well, I give thanks to God for permitting me to live peacefully and in good health over the past 66 years. Iâ€™ll like to thank my friends who recently put together a package for the celebration of my 66 birthday here in Benin City. I also thank all who came from various parts of Nigeria to felicitate with me on the occasion. For me, life has been interesting and indeed my life over the past half century, has some how been intertwined with changing conditions in the evolution of our country, Nigeria.
Iâ€™ve grown to witness Nigeria transit from a colonial people to an independent nation in 1960. As a school boy, I celebrated empire days and eventually, I celebrated Nigeriaâ€™s independence days.
I lived through theÂ tragedy of the civil war years here in Nigeria and I have witnessed a series of coup de tats, seen military governments come and go and appreciated the difficulties in our Nationâ€™sÂ attemptsÂ to regenerate civil rule in Nigeria; President Shagariâ€™s government in 1979,Â came to an end abruptly in 1983, then the failed attempt in 1993 to install a civil government by the General Babangida regime.
I have held high office in politics and in government. I painfully lived through the disaster of Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007 and from May 2007 to present day, we have been plodding along with the PDP government of Yarâ€™Adua.
Iâ€™m a qualified Architect and I practiced Architecture successfully out of Lagos for a number of years. It was my interest in student politics at the University that encouraged me into national politics. And so, for the past 20 years continuously, I have been deeply involved in Nigeriaâ€™s politics. My greatest challenge now after a lifetime of political struggle is that my desire of handing over to the next generation a sound and better country is not only still a dream but now virtually an illusion.