•’Why Buhari should set up Peace Committee ahead of 2019 polls’
By Jide Ajani
Senator Ben Obi, erstwhile Special Adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan on Inter-Party Affairs, was behind the peace agreement signed by the major contenders in the 2015 presidential poll.
In this interview, Obi speaks on how the agreement was brokered, stressing the need for a similar pact ahead of the 2019 polls. He also shares his perspectives on the state of the nation.
Your office midwifed the peace pact signed by leading presidential contenders in 2015. Do you think Nigeria needs such initiative in 2019?
The situation today is more disturbing than it was in 2015. If that is the case, the need for such a summit cannot be over-emphasized. When my office did the summit that gave birth to the Abuja Peace Accord, it succeeded for two major reasons. One, it succeeded because President Jonathan bought into it and approved it.
I, being the man behind the process, had the unique opportunity of having worked very closely with the leaders of the opposition at that time. It was important for me, as the person convening the summit, to have the buying-in of it by the leading opposition party which then was the APC. So, because of the good relationship that I personally had and still have with all of those leaders, they equally bought into it and officially participated.
Gen Muhammadu Buhari, as he then was , I went to him to convince him to attend . He said to me, ‘Look senator, for your sake because I know you and what you represent, I will attend’.Why I am saying this is that , for a summit of that nature to happen now, you need the commitment of Mr President . My office also worked hand in glove with INEC,IPAC and with the office of the National Security Adviser to enable us achieve the goal which we set out.
Are you saying that the current political atmosphere is different from what was in place in 2015?
What I am saying is that, first of all, the President does not have somebody who is advising him on Inter Party Affairs . And you need somebody who has a robust and versatile knowledge of the political terrain . More importantly, you need somebody that the political parties can have some degree of confidence in to play such a role . The person should not act in partisan manner, his conduct must depict that of a statesman . That is why we were able to succeed . I must also mention that I had the support of 22 Ambassadors and High Commissioners who had come to me at that time to intervene by calling the summit. You recall that the first All Party Summit I did was on June 12 ,2014, that one also involved all the political parties including the APC . When I did that summit, I went to see Chief Bisi Akande who was the interim National Chairman of APC. Fortunately , I met Asiwaju Bola Tinubu with him. They were in Lagos State Guest House, Asokoro . When I mentioned why I came they both agreed with me on the need for me to call a meeting . At that time the summit was specifically on the issue of Boko Haram that was being unduly politicized by political parties . I felt it was wrong to politicize a terrorist organisation , it was not in the best interest of the country . They told me to do a memo to their party, APC , so that it would be discussed at their NEC meeting . I did so . At their NEC meeting, it was unanimously accepted . Again, it was because of who was midwifing the summit. They participated in the summit.
I went to Gen.Buhari again and invited him personally. I met him with the elder statesman ,Alhaji Ishaku Ibrahim. He said, ‘Look, senator, I will come because I trust you , I have confidence in what you can do’. He attended the summit.
The Ambassadors and High Commissioners normally had regular meetings under the auspices of the European Union Ambassadors. They had invited me to brief them and they were in full support .
You can see the steps taken to achieve what we achieved . One must give credit to President Jonathan . For each of these summits, I wrote to him officially for his consent. In each one, he just said ‘approved’. It was like signing his death warrant . He bought into it, participated and kept faith with that Abuja Peace Accord agreement .
What I am saying in essence is that President Buhari will have to find somebody who will be acceptable or who can extend the hand of friendship across party lines . He too should be prepared and willing and ready to give his blessing to such move and agree to live with the outcome .
What informs your claim that the situation the nation is at the moment is more disturbing than what it was in 2015?
I say so because the country wasn’t as divided as it is today. The country was not as religiously divided as it is now . The various socio-political organizations in the country at that time were virtually on one side , they were not much of a threat to national unity . The security concern of the country was just only that of Boko Haram . Today you have Fulani herdsmen. People were not being killed in such great numbers as we have it today . You can see the threat of survival as a people has become very glaring and disturbing . That is why you can see an understanding between the South-South, South-West, South East now extending to Middle-Belt. The understanding has even extended to the Northern Elders Forum. All of them are speaking with one voice because there seem to be a threat to the unity of the country.
The political parties are hitting the roof top . Everyday you hear Lai Mohammed comes out with things like ‘this is hate speech, this is fake news’ etc . Gradually you hear the international community saying one negative thing or the other about the country . British Prime Minister, Theresa May who came to Nigeria on Wednesday, said, in South-Africa, that Nigeria has the greatest number of poverty stricken people in the world.
When we concluded the summit and had what everybody now refers to as the Abuja Peace Accord , the Secretary General of United Nations then, Banki Moon sent his West Africa representative , Amb. Chambers, to come and commend me for that initiative . He requested that I set up immediately a Peace Committee to follow up . It is important to recall that what my office did on January 14, 2015 that is now referred to as Abuja Peace Accord was that I brought in international statesmen and renowned diplomats – Dr Kofi Annan was the special guest of honour, Chief Emeka Anyaoku was the chairman , Amb. Ibrahim Gambari from UN was one of the speakers, Gen Isaac Obiako, first African Special Adviser on Security Matters to UN, was there and, of course, Attahiru Jega, then INEC Chairman . To give confidence to the political parties, I made sure I brought people they could not doubt their integrity . After the summit , Chief Anyaoku , Dr Annan and myself sat down and agreed that we needed a Peace Committee to do follow up . That was before Banki Moon sent Chambers . I asked Chief Anyaoku if he would like to chair the committee but he said no . We then invited Bishop Hassan Kukah . He and I met and decided that we should meet His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan . We met him and agreed that it is a thing worth doing . We were able to assemble 23 prominent Nigerians to drive the peace process. We assembled people who Nigerians could not doubt their credibility and integrity and who enjoyed respect when it comes to national issues.
We worked hand in glove with the UN and many other organizations to see to the success of the elections -pre and post issues that arose from the polls.
Now, a lot of the ambassadors have spoken to me again about it. The Peace Committee was domiciled at the Kukah Centre . He has been moving around with a few members of the committee brokering peace.
Only last week, Amina Mohammed, who used to be our Minister of Environment but is now Assistant Secretary at the UN, called upon me on how best I think we can kickstart or revive the Peace Committee. Some Ambassadors have been talking to me about it. But, like I always say, it depends on what President Buhari wants . That is the only way it can be successful. The body language of the President will definitely count in achieving success in that regard.
How do you situate the President’s position that the killings you lamented about are aided by politicians ?
My problem with such statement is: Why do you have the DSS, the National Security Adviser ? Their primary duty is internal security of the country. So if politicians are involved , how many of them have been arrested and prosecuted ? Like I said earlier, hundreds of people die everyday now . If you say politicians are the ones sponsoring the killings, go after such politicians. They must be on ground here . You must have some information to say so. The question now is: Why has your security apparatus not acted decisively on that? What is the NSA doing? What is DSS doing? What is the police doing ? It is their basic responsibility. It is easy to get up and pass the buck on daily basis but Nigerians want result , we want the killings stopped .
Do you not agree with government officials and supporters who feel that government is reacting better to the killings now than what used to be the case and that is why the scale is going down ?
People in the media are supposed to be reflecting the feelings of Nigerians , so journalists are in a better position to know the true state of things . They should know what it was like in 2015 before this government came and what it is like today . The media is the watchdog , they know better, they sample public opinion .
This is not talking politics, this is talking reality, facts.
There is so much fear about the ability of your party to survive the national convention where it is supposed to pick a presidential flag bearer. Is the fear misplaced ?
When the party was in crisis, some of us were called to come and take the mantle of leadership . I was not looking for job at the time I was invited to be the National Secretary. It was the fourth time that I would be the National Secretary of a political party in this country in my 40 years of politics. I wasn’t keen because I had been National Secretary three times in the past. But the issue simply was that there was need to rescue the party and put it back in shape . Sen Ahmed Markafi was appointed the Chairman of the seven-man Caretaker Committee . We knew the extent of that assignment and we had to talk to ourselves to make sure that we delivered on the expectations of the Nigerian people.
We turned the trajectory around completely. We rebranded, repositioned and reinvigorated the party . We put an end to issues of impunity and imposition and brought credibility, transparency, free and fair activities to the party.
But we also realized early in the day that there is no way you can have a 100 percent success . We knew it was possible to do at least 80 to 90 percent so that the question of people querying whatever activities that were done will be minimized and can be accommodated.
First and foremost, we said to ourselves that we were going to conduct a successful convention after we won the court case . Two months after that, precisely in October , we called for a non-elective convention which was like a carnival to bring us all together . It was very successful, everybody was happy . In December we conducted the elective convention where this new leadership emerged. Again, it was a successful convention . That does not mean there were no complaints . We had some but they were minimal . At the end of the day, those who lost congratulated the new Chairman and his team .
Today , we can beat our chest to say that we did our best. I am so proud of the current executive led by Prince Uche Secondus . They have done so very well in the last eight months . They have followed the same trajectory of conducting free, fair, transparent and credible congresses . Again, you cannot get 100 percent success.
So, if that is the way we are going , if you conduct a convention that is credible, I don’t see any reason to be afraid. We just discussed with our aspirants and all of them gave their word that they would have a code of conduct and that whoever emerges as the candidate of the party, they will rally round him . They will do so because they will be convinced that the process to the convention and the convention proper must have been free, fair, credible and transparent . But it is political to expect that every convention would come with its problems and protestations . And since we know that, we also know the answer which is what I said earlier . I do hope and I have confidence that this executive led by Uche Secondus will not do anything short of a credible convention.
A former governor of Sokoto State, Attahiru Bafarawa, on Wednesday, warned against a consensus arrangement. Is that a sign that somebody already is being favoured by the party leadership to pick the ticket?
All those allegations were completely debunked and Bafarawa himself was the first aspirant who spoke commending the effort of the National Working Committee led by Uche Secondus and gave assurance that, once the process is free and fair as the party leadership assured, whoever emerges, he will back such person. Other aspirants spoke in the same manner.
Secondus, at the meeting, debunked all the allegations . He said that the party, as it stands today, does not have any particular aspirant as its candidate . He also agreed that they would include names into the various committees to be their watch in all the committees and processes that will lead to the convention. The aspirants left the meeting very satisfied . A good number of them have been speaking with me , they are of the view that so far they are happy with what has been done.
I don’t have any fear . But politics being what it is, anything is expected . So far we are moving in the right direction.
Key members of your party like former governors of Akwa Ibom and Delta have moved to APC. Are you troubled by the development ?
It is unfortunate that some of them have moved out. What one can say is that politics, being what it is , you can’t hold anybody back . A lot of people believe that once you cross over to the APC, whatever your sins are will be forgiven . We have seen quite a good number of people like that.
To a large extent , that is why the mantra of the APC is not working . The mantra is the crusade against corruption, security and the economy. They once told us that they will make it possible for a Naira to exchange to a dollar . They met fuel pump price at N97 but today it is N143 , N145 and some places N200 . They met Boko Haram but today we have Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen . So if you put their report card on the table, there are so many questions that need to be answered .
But they believe they have done better than your party, PDP, in the area of infrastructure. Is that not a big achievement ?
They should tell us what infrastructure they are talking about . They talk about the railways that were done by the Jonathan administration . They were done almost 75 to 80 percent completed . In the two weeks or so they will be commissioning the airports virtually built by former Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, and followed up by Osita Chidoka.
I said that I am 40 years in politics; when a new candidate is running for election , he would come with his promises to the people . If he wins like the case of President Buhari who came with the promises of a triangular mantra that I talked about , when it comes to re-election, it is the scorecard of those promises that should be tabled before the people . The opposition will have a duty to put the scorecard bare before the same Nigerian people so that they can compare and contrast and know the difference . I do believe that the Nigerian people will be very willing to do that.
Whatever institutions we have today for the fight against corruption were established by the PDP – the EFCC, ICPC . They were never used to intimidate opposition . If any President has been thoroughly abused in his presidency, I think that President remains Jonathan . But not for once did you hear the security agencies going after anybody at that time. The rule of law remains rule of law , it does not have two faces . It has only one face-justice . That is why they put a blinded female structure there . So that when it is being implemented, it will not even know whether it is a son or the father , the daughter or the mother . Justice is justice.
Once you display any act of double standard, it becomes obvious that you are not upholding justice . Like they say, what is good for the goose must also be good for the gander . But that doesn’t seem to be the practice in our country today and that is unfortunate . People are expecting that things would be done rightly.
What do you make of the refusal of the President to assent to the PIGB passed by the National Assembly?
There has been back and forth on that bill . They said the last time I heard them that they would make a categorical statement on why he has not given assent to some of the bills. To me, as a former lawmaker, I like to act and discuss issues when reasons for a descent are properly expressed . I think they owe us a duty to tell us exactly what are his problems with regard to giving his assent to these bills When that explanation is done , one can give a full opinion on the PIGB and other bills that are yet to be assented to.
You should know that there is a particular time after which the National Assembly can veto. I pray things should not get to that stage . If the President wants amendment to the bill he should express his opinion in that regard and say exactly the areas that are of concern to him . That is the way I see it.