By Mike Ebonugwo, Clifford Ndujihe, Gbenga Oke & Yinka Ajayi
NDIGBO TALKS TOUGH: Biafra becomes an inevitable answer if… •
PRESIDENT-GENERAL of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and two-time minister, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, does not want to witness another civil war in the country because of the nasty experience of the first one between 1967-1970. Consequently, he wants all sections of the country to truthfully air their grievances to enable Nigerians fashion a constitution themselves that will give rise to a true federation. Speaking for the Igbo, he said there is urgent need to address age-long maltreatment of the Igbo, which gave rise to agitation for Biafra Republic by Igbo youth, stressing that Nigeria’s unfairness to the Igbo is a ticking time bomb. He spoke to an editorial team of Vanguard in Lagos on Thursday.
One month after your election as President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, how has it been?
It has been humbling and this is because the result of the election was an overwhelming mandate. To be unanimously chosen by your people is a phenomenon and it has been challenging in terms of rising up to accepting the unanimous decision. The expectations are very high because I was elected at a time of extreme national concern for our national cohesion and very strong apprehensions.
So I have a work which is humbling and challenging and demands energy more than what a 65 year old man can offer. So I look up to God to find a balance and the energy to handle the job.
Concerning the expectations of your people, what are the takeaways from your ongoing consultations across the country?
Well, I won’t confine it to my people because I have been consulting beyond my people. I have been receiving calls, letters and congratulatory messages from across the length and breath of this country. Beginning with my constituency, there is an awakening of consciousness already in the existence of Ohanaeze. It will be too immodest to attribute it to myself but our people have an increased resort to Ohanaeze as an instrument for vocalizing their difficulties and in all my interactions, I have vocalized their frustrations with the Nigerian federation.
They have vocalized their expectations from our country. They have harped on the need for consciousness of its leadership to respond to their yearnings and aspirations. So they have set a benchmark for me. Among other Nigerians, it is very difficult to draw a common line. The northern Nigerian traditional rulers through the Sultan of Sokoto sent me a congratulatory letter and the Sultan personally called me. Several former heads of states, former vice presidents including Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, which I have met with, I have extended a hand of fellowship to a lot of these people. I am meeting with the Afenifere tomorrow (Friday), the Niger/Delta people have called me on the phone. My friends in the Middle Belt have also congratulated me. The South East caucus in the National Assembly has also congratulated me. Virtually all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria have called to congratulate me and various Igbo organisations that have affiliation with Ohanaeze Ndigbo have called to congratulate me.
I think all these calls were triggered off by the spontaneous response by the Presidency barely 48 hours after my election in which the President extended his hand of fellowship to me. I have responded to this hand of fellowship in my inaugural address and I presented our misgivings in the public domain. I regret the sickness of Mr. President and I pray to Almighty God for his speedy recovery. Whenever he comes back, I will explore the earliest opportunity to visit him and discuss with him our various problems.
When it comes to various national issues, we’ve discovered that there are several groups of people speaking and taking positions on behalf of the Igbo. How do you intend to deal with this cacophonous outpouring?
I believe that happens everywhere even among the Yoruba. Afenifere speaks for the Yoruba sometimes, the South-West governors speak, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu also speaks at times. At least, we all saw what happened in Ondo State, there were discordant voices. So it happens everywhere and it’s not peculiar to Ndigbo alone.
There is no doubt that Ohanaeze, today, is the voice of the Ndigbo and several other groups are affiliated to it. The governors in the South-East all belong to the Ohanaeze, all the National Assembly members belong to the Ohanaeze. Even traditional rulers belong to the Ohanaeze.
But Ohaneze is not John Nwodo’s personal opinion. If Ohanaeze makes a pronouncement on a major national issue, there are areas of consultation and it begins from the national executive to the council of elders and to the Ohanaeze general assembly. These are organs of Ohanaeze and by the time we crystalize the Igbo voice, as chief servant, it becomes my responsibility to orchestrate it. Whether it has not been well implemented in the past, it will be immodest for me to pass a judgment on my predecessors in office but this is the policy that I inherited from the founding fathers of this organisation and that is what I intend to uphold. You will agree with me that since I took over, what you characterised has not been happening in Igbo land.
One of the things that happened a day after your election was that somebody went to court to challenge your election. How are you weathering the storm?
Before I came to power, there had been internal wrangling and conflicts with some South-East governors trying to resolve them. About 10 days before our election, someone who wanted to be President of Ohanaeze realised he could not win the election, so he decided to approach the court to stop the election. He went to court and sought an injunction restraining the leadership of Ohanaeze from conducting the election on the ground that the former Ohaneze executive was not competent to conduct an election.
The court gave him a return date which is 11th of January while the election was slated for the 10th of January. He did not object to the date and I am very sure he did not know the date of the election; but his return date was after the election. On his return date, his prayer for an injunction on account of which the judge sought Ohanaeze to be joined, so that it will not be an exparte order, it will be an order given after notice and hearing on both sides. There was no application sought because the election had already been concluded, so the court asked him to bring his substantive case and we are waiting to hear the case. But the person in question has personally called to congratulate me and some of his accomplices as well. I wonder whether he would like to continue with the case. Since the matter is subjudice, I will say we should hold on and watch to see his next move. The case is in court and it is my responsibility as the Chief Executive of Ohanaeze to protect the group as a corporate body. Igbo within and outside this country and Nigerians have all accepted this election.
What have you done to ensure that the two warring South-East governors – Rochas Okorocha of Imo and Willie Obiano of Anambra – sheathe their swords?
What happened between Governor Okorocha and Governor Obiano is just a storm in a tea cup and it has been accentuated by your colleagues in the way they addressed it. They had a principled disagreement about a representation of which number of governors was crossing from one party to the other. One made an assertion and the other made a denial. The rebuttals were taken over by their press aides and put in such unpalatable light that embarrassed their superiors. When it happened, I called Governor Okorocha but he was in South Africa. He was not even in Nigeria at the time the rebuttals were issued instantaneously and replied and claimed not to have seen the rebuttals before their publication.
Governor Obiano, on the other hand, was totally embarrassed. He said to me, this is not my language. I could not have gone this far. I was prepared to discipline my staff until they presented a defence of the Imo governor’s writing but they did not bother to contact me before writing those things. They felt they were doing me a favour. He said how could I discuss my colleague in that manner and two wrongs don’t make a right. So, in the circumstance, he made a phone call to Governor Okorocha and they both discussed and put it behind them. And they have both respected my plea for an injunction that this matter should not go ahead and that has happened. We are planning to have a meeting of all the South-East governors soonest where we will all meet and discuss the basis of how we will move forward.
How will you react to former President Olusegun Obasanjo calling for an Igbo man to be President in 2019?
I do not belong to any party and I am not a card carrying member of any party. Truly, I am the President General of Ohanaeze and as President of such organisation you do not have to belong to any political party. It is not my duty to canvass for various nominees in any of the parties.
Igbos are in all the parties in Nigeria, they know the minimum requirement of the Igbo people in the political arena for effective representation. Presently, we cannot be talking of representation when the incumbent President has not finished his term in office, so I do not see the topicality of this issue. It is not ripe for discussion at this stage. I think discussing this issue is like counting your chickens before they are hatched.
What is your view on the IPOB agitation for Biafra Republic, Fulani herdsmen attacks in the South-East and the response of the security agencies?
If you read my inaugural speech, you will find answers to all these questions. My views are in the public domain. The law enforcement agencies should not dramatize to the nation that their headship confers immunity on some criminals from a section of a country and they give a high handed approach to those who do not come from that part of the country. The selective prosecution of criminals in our country and the exertion of brute force on certain areas of the country even when they are not criminals destroy the very foundation on which this federation is founded. There is an increased ethnic consciousness across the length and breadth of this country and fired separatist interests, and at no time since the end of the civil war has the basis of our unity been eccentric as it is today.
Regarding the IPOB, I don’t know what else you want me to say that will be different from what I have said in the past. Where I come from and where I represent, the people of the South-East feel they are second class citizens in this country. They feel there is an unspoken understanding between the other parts of the country to punish them for the civil war, to exclude them from the commanding heights of the economy and from sensitive positions in the federation and even the way our politicians have been treated is nothing to write home about.
Ever since the war ended, the state of federal roads in the South-East remains the same. The mineral resources still remain the same till today. Of recent, an Igbo was Minister of Petroleum, and for the first time in the history of Nigeria, the financial activities of NNPC were available by a click of the mouse to anyone in and out of Nigeria. You could see how much is being spent in a month. It was the first time NNPC posted profit.
He was rewarded with a demotion from minister to a directorship on NNPC’s board. I had been minister twice. All parastatals under a ministry report to the minister. Former President Goodluck Jonathan once appointed me to the governing council of a university. I tore the letter of appointment. I saw it as an insult. Not because of lack of humility but because he did not appreciate what I represented.
It’s not me as a person, but imagine an Igbo man who has been appointed a minister twice and former presidential candidate to be reduced to the level of governing council member in a university in Igbo land. This is a man from South-South but he treated us the same way that the Buhari administration is treating us.
I don’t desire any appointment by this administration, I have served my turn but these are clear examples of how Igbo are treated. I don’t think there are up to four Igbo commissioners of police in this administration in a place where you have not less than 40 commissioners of police. We have been found to be politically incompetent to handle security matters in Nigeria. But we have been found to be physically competent to be foot soldiers in the war front, especially the Boko Haram war where the level of mortality is high. This is not a true federation.
In Lagos, we have Igbo who have built house approved by the government but had not been given certificate of occupancy by the government for more than 15 years. There are Igbo representatives in the Lagos State House of Assembly can’t we have at least one Igbo at the executive council?
The Nigerian Customs charges Igbo twice the cost of clearing his goods through the sea ports. They pay at the ports and are waylaid on the roads and extorted.
Our people are displeased and this has compounded anger in our youths and they have passed a vote of no confidence in us their fathers as not presenting their disgust and, so, have taken their destiny in their hands.
They say they do not want to be part of this federation anymore.
In our constitution, there are freedoms of expression and association and their own way of dramatising these is to ask for the state of Biafra. If the Nigerian state does not respond to the active state of maginalisation of some people in our federation and restructure it, Biafra becomes an inevitable answer for every Igbo man.
The way these boys are treated by the law enforcement agencies, discriminately, is unconstitutional. Now in the social media, the Oduduwa Republic has been declared. The Odua People’s Congress, OPC, carries on like a military force in South-West Nigeria and their leadership goes around in convoy saluted by police at checkpoints. Boko Haram is an armed organisation fighting the sovereignty of Nigeria. In areas where they captured territories, they depose traditional rulers, install new ones, install local administrations and mounted flags. Not one of them is in a law court in Nigeria. Government negotiated with them, spent large sums of money with phoney negotiators. Those of them who decide to change, married Chibok girls and came back to Nigeria were hosted in the Presidential villa.
But the young man with a placard in the street of Aba or Port Harcourt on Biafra is either maimed to death or thrown into a river or slaughtered and the allegation of 21 of them missing has not been investigated by the police. If you are a Nigerian son being treated wickedly by your government how will you feel?
If I didn’t mean well for the resolution of these problems, why did I not encourage these boys to foment more trouble?
I have asked the government, the boys accused you of killing 11 of them in Port-Harcourt, but you denied saying only one died.
Last Monday, people demonstrated against this government in Lagos, Abuja and Ijebu-Ode and other places, the police were walking side by side with them. Why would that of Igbo be different? Because they cannot be heard here they are taking their case to the Pope, Africa Union and the United Nations. In the social media, you find lots of abuses on this administration and nobody has accused anybody of treasonable felony. With all due respect, the Nigerian federation has been unfair to the Igbo and I call it a ticking time bomb.
What is the way out?
Nigerian government must respond to the injustice done to the Igbo. I have never seen anywhere in the world where a federation is being practiced like this except in Nigeria. The headship of the federation deals with common services like defence, customs. Since the First Republic of Nigeria, Nigerians have never participated in re-writing our constitution. The only thing our people designed was a regional government. Since the military coup, we have never had a constitutional conference except in a military dispensation.
I served in a military government that wrote a constitution, the General Abubakar’s administration. The constitution was adulterated by the armed forces ruling council. As the minister of information I had a right of attendance not a right of speech. When the military began to shout at themselves, they walked us civilians out of the place. That constitution was not read to Nigerians before swearing in because it was in print at the time of swearing in.
Let’s be frank, the sovereignty of Nigeria cannot be built on falsehood. It is crying everyday for the authentic voice of the people in writing a constitution for their fatherland. There are four estates of the realm, the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and the mass media. Our existence as a nation is useless, if we cannot freely talk about our misgivings and the veracity of our convictions. I challenge the Nigerian polity to begin to discuss issues as they are. Let’s stop respecting personalities that offer no new ideas on the table because a time of recession is a time of repentance
Don’t you think that the reports of the 2005 and 2014 National Conferences address some the challenges you have highlighted so far?
The foundation of both conferences by Obasanjo in 2005 and that of Jonathan in 2014 were undemocratic. Nobody elected those delegates to represent them. They were handpicked by the government and many saw it as selecting people you already know their point of view and who were going to produce something you want.
Also, former President Jonathan did not show leadership in this regard. If he (Jonathan) really meant well, all Nigerians require is just a constitutional amendment. All that is required was for PDP members in the Senate to initiate it. And the PDP then had much majority to embark on it and the opposition would have agreed with them on many areas. But the political will was not there! When the report was produced what did he do with the report?
It is like the problem of the Igbo. Why didn’t he build the second Niger Bridge? Why is the Enugu-Makurdi road the same way? Why is the Enugu-Port-Harcourt road the same way? Why is coal totally forgotten since the end of First Republic? Why are teaching hospitals in South-eastern Nigeria in comatose situation? The point is, you have to have the political will to change or initiate a constitutional conference.
In all my life, I have never played sectional politics. Now, my primary responsibility is to Igbo. My election as the president of Ohanaeze compels me to represent the Igbo interest undiluted and I go round to exchange ideas with other sections of the country so that we can seek a solution to these problems. I strongly believe in diplomacy, having seen a war in Nigeria, bringing about another war is the greatest disservice we can do to our children and I will become a saboteur if there is one because I do not pray to see another war in my lifetime again. Let’s war in words and diplomacy. No matter how people are abusing themselves let the truth be said. If we don’t sit together, we can never talk and if we don’t talk, we can never resolve our differences.