BY PETER DURU
Dr Samuel Ortom is the National Auditor of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, former secretary and later chairman of the PDP in Benue State. In this interview with Vanguard, he spoke on how the party would ensure free and fair polls, why Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo was compelled to resign, and President Goodluck Jonathan’s chances in the North at the forthcoming elections. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the just concluded congresses and primaries of the PDP?
I must first of all thank God for making me part of the team that achieved the success we have recorded thus far. The present members of the National Working Committee, NWC came in on March 8, 2008, and the major issue we were facing was what we inherited from our predecessors.
And that was dictatorship in the polity and militarization of the system we were operating. And as a democratic institution we needed to democratize the system; and the first thing we set out to do was to see how we could entrench internal democracy in our party. Because of the antecedents of the past most of our founding fathers and teeming supporters had left our party for other parties.
The first thing we did was to dust the Dr. Alex Ekwueme committee’s report which was set up to reconcile members of the PDP. We set up a committee to bring out a white paper from the report in order to implement it so that we bring our people together.
That was done and we started work to ensure that we entrenched internal democracy into the system. In my own assessment, this has culminated into a successful entrenchment of internal democracy in the PDP to a large extent. Though I cannot adjudge it to be 100% or perfect but I can give it a pass mark and also comfortably say that we have achieved over 70% of what we were looking for and with time we will be able to achieve the result.
This is the first time we were conducting primaries to produce candidates for our party towards a general election. What used to happen before, the issuance of automatic tickets to people in Abuja or Makurdi does not come to play again in our system. We are insisting that for one to become a candidate of our party you must pass through the system and you must be democratically elected by the people themselves through a properly constituted congress of our party.
We also put up guidelines in place and the procedure was made known to the aspirants and our teeming supporters, and we are ensuring that these guidelines are strictly followed. If you observe, we had cause to nullify primary elections where there were evidence that the rules, guidelines and the constitution of our party were breached.
We did a repeat in Akwa Ibom and other states and areas. Same for the Senate and House of Representatives and State Houses of Assembly all to ensure that the people who own the party have a say on whosoever become thei
If the congresses and primaries were free and fair as you said, why did the party record mass defections in Benue State, your state?
We have a conflict resolution mechanism in the PDP that resolves matters of conflicts arising from the primaries. We had envisaged this and that is why it was set in motion. Look at our guidelines, the procedure is there. For every aspect of the primaries there was an appeal panel and we had expected that all those who were aggrieved to visit the panels, because we wanted a transparent and democratic system to be entrenched in our primaries.
And so right from the screening when people were aggrieved there was a provision for them to make appeals. There was appeal panels and then the primaries itself at every stage there was an appeal panel. We expected people who were aggrieved to come out with their grievances and where they are not satisfied with the appeal panel’s resolutions they are free to go as far as the National Working Committee.
That is exactly what we are doing because people who came to us we were able to give them justice and fairness in whatever they brought before us and today it is either we ordered for a repeat, cancelled whatever results that came up or upturned the decision of the lower panel.
Some people who were screened out in some states and they had to go to appeal panels and the decisions of the appeal panels where upheld and they headed for the national secretariat and the National Working Committee reversed the decision of the appeal panels and panels. With this we were able to solve a lot of problems.
I am aware of the defection to other parties, but you see there must be casualties especially for a system that we have entrenched in the polity that there must be transparency and that everyone must be democratically elected. People were aggrieved, those who had cause to report to us we looked at the grievances but where they did not but decided to defect to other political parties, to me that is the beauty of democracy and that is why we have over 60 political parties.
But the truth of the matter is that the PDP is still very much intact. And we are still making appeals and we have also set up a machinery to ensure that even those who have defected are brought back into the fold because the umbrella is still very large to accommodate people of different shades of opinion.
So even those who have defected are still being wooed back because the PDP remains the only party and only hope to salvage Benue State and the entire nation. Benue State cannot afford to be in the minority class in this country. We are working hard to see that all those who left the fold are brought back into the party but in the event that they do not, PDP has the machinery and capacity to overwhelm all other political parties.
In less than one year the PDP has had two national chairmen. What impressions is the party creating in the minds of Nigerians with this frequent change of leadership?
Since the inception of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration which was when some of us came in as national officers of the party, we told the Nigerians that we are a party that respects rule of law and due process. The point is that what has been happening about the national leadership of the party is a clear indication that this party respects rule of law and due process.
We have also given an indication that no power is sacrosanct. And we must do the right thing, we are a political party with a constitution, we have rules that govern us. And so once you breach the rules or the constitution you are not a sacred cow that would be left. PDP respects rule of law and once you breach it no matter how highly placed you must face it that is what we have done exactly.
Instead of rule of law, how do you view comments that former chairmen, Vincent Ogbulafor and Nwodo, fell because of the clashes they had with the increasingly powerful governors?
I don’t want to believe that because what we have done is far from the assertion that the governors are too powerful or that they are controlling the party. I know that we are democratic. I know what led to the exit of Prince Ogbulafor, he was in court and the leadership felt that for someone who had a criminal case against him in court it was not good to have him at the helm of affairs of the party more so that we are talking about this government being vehemently against corruption.
Not that he was convicted but because he was in court and at the same time being at the helm of affairs in the PDP and having a criminal case lingering on him, it was wrong to have him as national chairman so he was asked to resign. But up till today he is still an active member and leader of the party. I am aware that he attends our BOT meetings, he attends our NEC meetings, he attends our caucus meetings and virtually all our meetings and make his contributions.
And for Dr Nwodo, all of you who were privileged to watch the proceedings of the National Convention, saw how he came in and the leadership of the party felt that it was wrong because he was having an order against him barring him from parading himself as the national chairman of the party. But he came in during the convention and took over the proceedings of the convention as chairman.
We felt that as a party that professes due process and rule of law it was wrong. He brought the party into disrepute and embarrassed the party by his acts. It was an offence against the party and that was why he had to resign. And as a member of the party he has been sent to the disciplinary committee. I see nothing wrong in the actions of the party. It all shows that we are a democratic party and we want to maintain the rules of the game as far as our constitution and rules are concerned.
Still on the presidential primaries, could you comment on allegations that delegates were intimidated and induced to work for President Jonathan ?
We expected that from our detractors. We spent a lot of money to ensure that there was full coverage of the convention. I was in charge of venue and we ensured that NTA and the AIT carried live coverage of the entire proceedings of the convention to ensure that everyone who was not privileged to be at the venue both within and outside Nigeria watched the proceedings.
And we deliberately designed that every state had a box to vote and it was done in the open by secret ballot and it was transparent and everybody saw it. And talking about the inducement of delegates, I am not aware of people being induced. That the delegates were out there for people to lobby and whatever they did is not important. What is important is how voting was done.
Everyone was given the ballot to cast his vote as an individual. You had the option to write yourself or if an illiterate you had an option to invite someone with your consent to write on your behalf. It was open, everyone was free to write and cast and nobody was compelled. The ballot was not pre-written before coming to the venue, all ballots were blank and all the agents were there. I did not witness where people were compelled to vote for President Jonathan.
Don’t you think that a situation where agents of the candidates stood behind the delegates while they were writing the name of the candidate of their choice affected their decision? Why didn’t you use thumb print?
We didn’t think about that. Our system was that you write the name of the candidate of your choice. But it was clear that nobody was within the place they were supposed to write. I was the chairman of the venue committee and I constructed the boxes. The first step was to receive the ballot paper where you had the electoral panel officer and at that point the agents were also there. But where you went to write nobody was there with you except you invited someone where you are an illiterate and you invited someone to assist you.
I am not aware of any complaints from any of the aspirants that people were compelled to do that. If it were, we have not received any petition as the appeal panel because as a member of the National Working Committee we automatically constitute the appeal panel of the presidential election. No single appeal petition has come to us. So it is as good as everyone accepted the result.
What actually informed the idea of each state having its own box?
We wanted things to be done transparently. And we said the better way was for each state to have their own box. What actually informed the decision to do that was if there are problems or complaints in a particular state we can tackle the issue in that particular state. Just like it is done when it comes to the general elections, if there is a problem in a particular state you know what results you have there.
So we didn’t want a situation where you put all the ballot papers in one box and at the end you have a complaint and that will culminate into nullifying the whole results. But if you have a problem in state A you look at that and resolve to cancel the result of that state it will not even effect the entire result of the convention. These were part of the consideration that led to the decision of ensuring that every state had its own box.
What is your take that grievances arising from the PDP primaries could cost the party some states at the polls?
I have been in this game for over 30 years, there is nothing strange with people defecting to other parties. We have also had a lot of defections from other parties to our own party. Even now that people are moving others are coming into PDP. I’m not God and cannot say PDP will win in the 36 states and Abuja. And that too will not give us the beauty of democracy.
But I can tell you what I know in Benue State, we are quite solid. PDP is the only political party that has structures from the Federal to the ward levels in the 774 local government areas of this country. In fact we have structures in all the polling units in this country. And we are very firm on the ground. Our party has done very well in the last 12 years. We have been able to bring a lot of democracy dividends to the people. Rome was not built in a day and the country is moving forward.
We believe that the 2011 election is on course. We have told our people to ensure that every vote counts because our leader and President of this country has come to appeal to Nigerians that lets for once do the right thing. And the PDP as a party are carried along with him and want to ensure that every vote must count. We are not going to rig any elections. We have told our members that we are not interested because we will win without rigging because we are on ground.
What do you make of the petition from aspirant who lost in the Benue governorship primaries to the NWC claiming that the PDP would lose Benue State if it fields Gov Suswam as its candidate at the general election because of the alleged certificate forgery case against him?
It is laughable because I have been reading these allegations on the pages of newspapers. I have been a friend to Suswam before he became governor and I know when he graduated as a lawyer. I know when they are talking about the alleged forged certificate. That is what baffles me. Why do you need to forge a certificate when you have already graduated as a lawyer? What do you need school certificate for when you are already a lawyer?
So these are just cheap blackmail aimed at distracting someone from the challenge before him. I don’t advise Suswam to even look at that. But in any case, I have not seen any petition. I advise Suswam not to be distracted with this kind of allegation because it is only meant to pull him back and drag him away from the main issues and challenges before him and his campaign. We are not going to join issues with them, we are going on with our campaigns and there is no cause for alarm whatsoever.
A section of the North is not comfortable with the emergence of President Jonathan as the PDP candidate. What is the party doing to carry the North along?
This is politics. In politics, especially in a democratic country like ours, you allow people the freedom of expressing themselves, the freedom of choice, etc. The North, as you know I am also a northerner. Governor Suswam is a northerner, Governor Shema is a northerner. Governor of Kebbi, Governor of Bauchi, etc are northerners. These are key stakeholders of this country.
They are chief executives of their states and leaders in their own right within their own societies in their states. Most governors, ministers and House of Representatives members from the North are also supporting Jonathan from day one.