By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
A founding father of the All Progressives Congress, APC, who later dumped the party owing to what he describes as impunity, Sen. Annie Okonkwo, in this interview, warns against the consequences that may arise if power remains in the North beyond 2023. Okonkwo, a former Deputy National Chairman of APC, among other issues, explains why the presidency should be micro-zoned to the South-East.
As a prominent politician of Igbo extraction, how do you feel over the debate on whether the South-East should produce the next President of Nigeria?
People like us believe that there would be an opportunity for someone of Igbo extraction to be the next President of this country. The Igbo narrowly lost in 1999 when the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme lost the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, presidential ticket because General Olusegun Obasanjo came into the scene. Since then, this country has not been the same again. There was a law that said before someone could be eligible to be President, he must either win in his home state or ward but Obasanjo lost and still became President.
That was where trouble started. It has come to a stage where people from the South-East should be considered by the major political parties. It is not about resources but equity. People believe that the South-East deserves it in the spirit of fairness. This is what all the major political parties should consider ahead of 2023.
After Obasanjo’s tenure, power moved to the North when he brought out Umaru Yar’Adua despite the presence of people from other zones who wanted the position. Peter Odili, who is from South-South, was even the frontrunner in the race but Obasanjo brought a northerner. Goodluck Jonathan became President by default and that settled the minority question. Power is back to the North after Jonathan. The time has come for the South-East to produce the President.
President Buhari and every other person should ensure that power returns to the South since the presidency has always been a North and South affair. In the South, it should be micro-zoned to the South-East because the South-West and South-South have ruled for eight years and six years respectively.
All Nigerians should support the South-East not minding what some people call the weakness of the zone in terms of population. It would do a lot for equity and strengthen Nigeria’s unity. We can’t move forward without carrying all the diverse nationalities along. The voices against power shift are mainly from the ruling party and they argued that zoning is unconstitutional. Their stance seems tenable but not in sync with Nigeria’s diversity.
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As a former lawmaker, would you suggest that rotational presidency is considered in future constitutional amendment as a response to this kind of debate?
In more established democracies, the President can come from anywhere. Where the President comes from does not matter but our country has a lot of peculiarities that should be considered in determining where the President comes from. We are a group of different people whose aspirations and diversities should be considered.
That is why the Federal Character Principle was enshrined in our Constitution. It is to make sure that all zones are carried along. That is why some zones that may not be doing well in certain areas get equal representation in such areas. The issue of giving another zone the opportunity of producing the leadership of the country is very necessary this time. If people continue to insist that power must remain in the North because the President comes from the North, they may have their way, but their action would divide Nigeria the more. The country is highly divided at the moment and allowing power to remain in the North in 2023 would divide it the more. If you are a President, the best thing to do is to embrace those ideas that would unite the country, not to divide it. If we have a united country, it would benefit everyone. The benefits of uniting the country outweigh the gains to be derived from insisting that power remains in the North because you have the capacity. People opposing power shift should have a rethink.
The impression among many is that even if the Igbo are allowed to present a consensus candidate, the choice of who to present might be a difficult task given the zone’s predilection for infighting. What do you make of that?
Those saying that are enemies of progress. The capacity and intelligence of the people of the South-East can never be doubted. Families disagree. The truth is that what is good for the goose should also be good for the gander.
We are excelling in many fields. We have intelligent people of the South-East extraction who can put this country on track. We should start thinking about people with the capacity to move this country forward. Yes, people may disagree politically, that should not stop any zone from having the opportunity others had.
It is like a situation where a child is crying for something and the parent refused to provide what the child needs. The child would continue to distract the parent until what he needs is provided. We have come to a point as a country where we must quit those practices that divide us. That is why I believe the recommendations of the National Conference should be adopted.
The absence of equity is responsible for the problems we have now as a country. No one should tell me that the country is making progress. We are not progressing because things are getting worse in Nigeria. Sadly, other nations in the world are progressing while we are retrogressing. Ghana is an example of a nation that is progressing while things are getting worse here. No meaningful progress can be made in a system that is not fair to all.
There seems to be a growing disconnect between the political class in Igboland and the ordinary people. The attack on former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, was believed to have been a product of the mistrust. Where does that leave the zone’s quest for the presidency?
First, the attack on Ekweremadu is condemnable. It was an unfortunate incident. It was not about Ekweremadu but a manifestation of the agitations in the country. It is about the system, not just about Ekweremadu. Some of the Nigerians residing abroad wouldn’t have been there on a good day if we had a functional system that promotes a better life. If we had a peaceful country with equal opportunities, most of the people abroad would come back. Ekweremadu was just a victim of the system. It could happen to anybody. These are some of the things we should avoid. Those things giving room to agitations should be addressed because they are not good for our image. We should respect our leaders. I also expect our leaders to be exemplary by being forthright in whatever they are doing. Those elected to serve should be guided by the fact that people are watching whatever they are doing.
When the books would be written about the All Progressives Congress, APC, your name would prominently come up as one of its founding fathers. If you look at where the party started, where it is today and juxtapose them with the realities in the country, how do you feel?
What is going on today is very unfortunate. We were in the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and left because the party promoted impunity. The party even said that it was going to rule for 60 years. Some of us felt that it was better we got a credible political party. We left the PDP and formed the APC. I was the co-Chairman during the formation of APC. I was the first Deputy National Chairman of APC. From what is happening, it is obvious that the same impunity that made us leave the PDP is happening in APC. They are about spending eight years. I feel very bad because I fought with others to ensure that we formed APC.
If I say that I am satisfied with some of their decisions, I won’t be saying the truth. We have a respected President, unfortunately, the APC is not operating like the party we formed to replace the PDP. The time has come for the founding fathers of the party to come together and ensure that the original vision of the party is restored. The level of impunity in the APC makes one afraid.
Which of the policies of the party disturbs you more than others?
The border closure is one of the most embarrassing situations I have seen in this administration. If you want to stop smuggling, the closure of borders is a lazy way of going about it. Closing the border amounts to throwing away the baby with the bathwater. At the end of the day, it does not affect only Nigeria but the West African economy. A lot of Nigerians who are genuine business people are being punished. The government might think it is making money from the closure, but what it is doing is to get bigger while Nigerians are suffering.
The situation is even making some people richer. We learned that some neigbouring countries are not honouring some agreements. Nigeria should find a way of making them adhere to those agreements, not to close the borders. I am calling on government to open the borders as soon as possible to make things easy for Nigerians. Government should also put in place the mechanism that would stop smuggling. We have men of the Customs at the borders.
They should be able to do their job. Closing only the southern borders is divisive. Policies should not be formulated for just one section of the country. That is the problem we have in this country. The people making laws and executing them should not make them appear sectional. Leaving some borders open and closing others is very dangerous.
There is general collapse of basic infrastructure in the country. Many federal roads are in a state of decay and holistic solutions seem far in sight. To make matters worse, the 2020 capital budget was slashed. What do you think is the way out?
One of our biggest problems is corruption. This problem starts with our elections. Our people should stop electing people through questionable means. When people pay to be elected, when they use their money to buy votes, they end up doing whatever they like when they get to power.
The citizens who are collecting the money from them are the ones to suffer when they get to power because the elected officials would be preoccupied with how to recoup the money they spent on elections. That is why governance is always abandoned by the time politicians are elected. That is why contacts would be awarded and they would not be executed. That is why people go to any length to become ministers. The money that government uses to fix the roads is humongous but sometimes contractors are only given 50 percent of the money, after which they do substandard jobs. We have to change our attitude. It is not enough to call government all the time because we are part of the problem. The day we start knowing people we elect, the day we start electing people without collecting money, and the day we start electing accountable people, Nigerians will start having good governance.
A situation where a forensic audit is ordered into a 20-year organisation for the first time explains the kind of system we have. Is it not disastrous that Nigeria is struggling with basic things like power after spending billions on the power sector?
We can salvage the bad situation by refusing to sell our votes and start electing credible leaders. Since Nigerians have already sold their votes, they do not have the moral justification to demand credible leadership. The situation is so bad that government says it is broke all the time. Why won’t government be broke when half of the money budgeted, goes into the pockets of private individuals?