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‘My encounters with Udenwa, Kalu, Egwu, Anyim, others’

By Olalekan Bilesanmi

Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, for eight years, making him the longest serving executive member of the party. Ozichukwu exited the office in 2008 when President Olusegun Obasanjo left office.

In this interview, he shares his view on the crisis bedeviling the party even as he shares his thoughts on some national issues.

You were at a time the longest serving NWC (Deputy National Chairman, South-East) of the PDP. For a very long time, you appeared to have taken the late Bola Ige’s ‘siddon look’ approach. Why the silence especially on national issues. Is it deliberate?

I wasn’t Deputy National Chairman but National Vice Chairman South-East. The PDP was guided by the fundamental principles of zoning and rotation.

In my days the position of Deputy National Chairman was zoned to the South-West.

I didn’t exit. I, by the grace of God and the goodwill of the good people of the South East, served out my full term of 8 years.

When people tell you that the Igbo cannot agree, please tell them that it’s not true.

We are positively republican. Be it as it may, we are very cohesive and have uncommon understanding in the midst of seeming chaos. Behind the obvious ambiguities are unity but not uniformity, cooperation and not dehumanizing compromise or thoughtless conformity, selfless service and not debilitating servitude. Authenticity is the distinguishing mark of the Igbo and primogeniture is our sacred governance feature in families and among kindred but not wealth or academic attainments. I have not been silent. I think it’s futile to speak only for its own sake, without meaning or contributing in shaping a debate or achieving a purpose.

Insecurity and dwindling economy are issues that appear to have defied solutions. What’s your approach to the issue of insecurity vis-a-vis banditry, kidnapping and the insurgency especially in the North-East.

I make bold to say that insecurity and dwindling economy have not defied solution. In my view, no informed and concerted approach has been done to proffer solutions. We need to do more beyond mere rhetoric, armchair criticisms, clay footed grandstanding and pedestrian seriousness.

Approach has to be collective, collaborative, cooperative and collegial. Banditry, kidnapping and insurgency have become synonymous with life in the South-East and the havoc wreaked on the society by the known and unknown gunmen is the consequence. In our circumstance, it’s even alleged that they are scripted, sponsored and handsomely rewarded by the least people expected in the society. Government at all levels has not taken the grassroots, communities and the people into confidence. The people know themselves more than anyone else and are more interested in their lives, welfare and well-being more than anyone else. Government must be seen to be doing better than confronting youths and killing them.

There are movements to balkanize Nigeria. Sunday Igboho is leading the fight to have Oduduwa nation while Nnamdi Kanu is fighting for Biafra. Both of them are presently guests of the Nigerian and Beninese authorities. Some have said their ideas may be noble but their actions are faulty abinitio. How true?

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi- religious and multi-cultural nation-state. The history of our amalgamation leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, there is a provision for review after 100 years. Unfortunately, the date has come and gone but the need echoes. The signs are ominous, the clock is ticking and government seems not bothered by the sensitivities and sensibilities of the governed. I use the words government and governed advisedly because the suffering is all over. The common people in the North, the Middle-Belt, and the South are suffering terribly. Government has to wake up and redeem itself from self destruction.

Neither Mazi Nnamdi Kalu nor Sunday Igboho is the problem. Government is pursuing symptoms rather than real causes and sources of the demands and movements. There can be no peace without justice. A sense of belonging and access to justice is core in the maintenance of sustainable peace. Government should coordinate security networks within and between communities including faith communities and government at all levels. Everyone loves Nigeria and everyone is pleading for justice, equity and fairness. I believe that these can be achieved without bloodshed.

Government, I am quite sure, knows what to do but reluctant to do them and let peace reign. No one is happy with the state of insecurity in Nigeria except maybe the government. The President needs to do more and offer the disenchanted people an olive branch. As you are aware, most of the people who voted for President Buhari did so in the hope that he was going to improve on security. Unfortunately, like Nikita Khrushchev once said: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river”.

Some PDP governors (Umahi of Ebonyi, Matawalle of Zamfara and Ayade of Cross River) have decamped to the ruling APC at the federal level. Umahi said he left so that the presidential ambition of the South-East would be achieved. Matawalle said he needed to align with the ruling party at the centre so that banditry/kidnapping can be wiped out in his state while Ayade said he decamped so he can support and encourage the President to do more for the country. Would you have accepted that during your days as the leader of the PDP in South-East?

Indeed I pity them all. Well they are all adults and privileged. It was Winston Churchill who said: “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.”

They should have learned from history.

OBJ (former President Obasanjo) left (PDP) because President Jonathan was alleged to have insulted him.  Waziri Atiku left earlier, same with Senator Bukola Saraki, Dr Achike Udenwa, Governor Tambuwal, Senator Chimaroke Nnamani and a few others only to come back with their hands on their heads swearing “NEVER AGAIN”.

Governors Umahi, Metawalle and Ayade are adults, greatly privileged and exceptionally favored by the PDP. The reasons for their crossing to the APC are beyond speculations and conjectures.

On the whole I seem to agree with Ambrose Bierce when he said: “Politics, noun. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

At the moment, the soul of the PDP, the BOT, has been relegated to the background. It appears the governors are the ones that determine the direction of the party as seen of recent in the party.

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Any attempts by the governors to run the party should be regarded as criminal contra-culture. It should not be allowed to happen. The governors should not be allowed to interpret the party’s Constitution to suit their conveniences. The supremacy of the party should not be toyed with. The faults however must be with the NWC( the engine house of the Party) and the BOT( the conscience of the Party). In our days, we encountered such a few times and checkmated them. Generally, government at all levels attempted to spillover their excesses into the fabrics of the party and we resisted them. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who captured it very well:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man, give him power.”

Fortunately, virtually all of them were very disciplined and showed uncommon respect and loyalty to the leadership of the party when challenged. We were firmly in control.

Does this include President Obasanjo during his presidency?

Yes. President Obasanjo was one of our most disciplined and exemplary public officers and most patriotic Nigerian, given his leadership trajectories. I don’t even remember anytime that Waziri Atiku interfered with the management of the party. President Obasanjo is quite passionate about Nigeria and maintained a dignified relationship with us. He believes in  hierarchy and boundaries management.

Let me give you instances. There was a day that two of his ministers came to the Wadata House to dictate with magisterial arrogance, how the party should be run. Of course, we ordered them out and forbade them from stepping into the premises of Wadata House ever again. We also resolved never to attend any meeting at the Villa from that day.

President Obasanjo, in an unusual show of humility and respect, came to Wadata House and personally apologized for the excesses and indiscretion of his Ministers. It was unprecedented. One day, President Obasanjo sent for me and when I arrived, he said ‘Ozi’, I responded ‘sir’. He said, “There is a vacancy in my cabinet for a Minister, would you like to serve”. I responded, “No sir”.

President Obasanjo took my response without any offense but with philosophical calmness. He then said “if that is your decision, give me a name”.

I replied “Yes sir’.

I then pleaded with him that I had no one in mind immediately, but that I will go and pray over it and revert.

The next day I called him and gave him the name of my nominee and he told me to forward it to his Chief of Staff.

I did as he directed.

President Obasanjo the same week sent the name to the Senate for clearance.

There are more instances I can give to show how respectful he was to the PDP leadership.

Why did you refuse ministerial appointment when it was offered directly by the President himself? Many people would have rushed for it.

BABA must have wondered too. But he did not ask but rather he respected my decision and asked me to give him someone.

In answer to your question, I felt greatly honored, but somehow it did not appeal to me. Except for the monetary compensations, mundane privileges and seductive glamour, it has no other attractions. I believe that ministers are very strong personalities and are subjected to a lot of temptations.

I wanted to be free and be myself.

More importantly, I was in the University of Bristol when very distinguished Igbo sons, Dr Joe Nwodo (Ochendo) and Chief Emma Adiele, both of blessed and immortal memory, invited me to come home and run for the position of National Vice Chairman PDP South-East. Before I came back, they had paid the necessary fees and filled the forms only for me to come and cross the “t’s”, dot the “i’s”, fill in the gaps, sign and submit. They along with Oyi had done most of the groundwork before my return.

They knew why they wanted me for the position without any preconditions on their side. I thought it would amount to a betrayal of trust if I left midway for what they may misconstrue to be my personal benefits.

So I decided to complete my tenure to their honor and satisfaction. If you think of the heavy personal risks I took to call him on July 10, 2003 while he was in Maputo to discuss the unholy abduction of His Excellency, Dr Chris Ngige, a sitting governor in the South-East… It was a desecration and totally unacceptable. As National Vice Chairman and Chairman of PDP South-East, I considered it a personal challenge and dammed the consequences.

Against all persuasions, BABA saw with me why it would be considered the declaration of war in the South-East. So, later that evening after briefing the NWC on my resolve, I left Abuja with A. K. Dikibo and Bar Ray Nnaji for Awka.

There we met with the Anambra State Commissioner of Police and the Director of DSS, both of whom had very strong reservations. We headed for Choice Hotel and there confronted the AIG who was incoherent. We had more police and easily had access to where they kept Dr Ngige. We met with the sister, Bar Betty, I was told. She directed us to the room where His Excellency was. Thank God he  was in high spirit. I led him to my car and both of us drove to the Government House Awka with AKD and Nnaji coming behind. There we met with the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, I think Rt. Hon. Barth Ndubuisi Onugbolu or so and the members of the state House of Assembly, some of whom were in very joyous mood, and got the issues of the fake resignation resolved. We returned to Abuja that night after we had our tasks accomplished. It’s a long story.

The rest will be told in due course. I remember also what transpired when the official residence of Oyi of Oyi, Dr Chuba Okadigbo, the most cerebral and celebrated Senate President, was invaded and himself held hostage by the police on orders from above. Again I went there in the company of His Excellency, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, then governor of Abia State, who summoned the courage to accompany me to Apo Legislative Quarters. Fortunately, we gained access and entry into his residence and got him rescued. I still wonder what would have happened if I was a serving Minister and what leverages I would have had. Again, there are so many other encounters and experiences.

What of the governors?

Well to the best of my knowledge and recollections, the governors of the South-East cooperated with the party. We had regular meetings and always tried to maintain boundary management. There was a year during the Ebonyi State Congress, then Governor Egwu wanted to control the Congress. I was in Enugu and got a hint. I left Enugu and went straight to the Congress venue. On sighting me, His Excellency recognized my presence. I sought to know from him where Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, Ambassador Lawrence Nwuruku and other prominent members of the party from the state were not there. His explanations were not quite convincing. I requested him to introduce an interlude of music. He accepted. I got someone to take me to where Senator Anyim Pius Anyim and his group were. We exchanged pleasantries and, as God would have it, they were well disposed to whatever will help with the growth and development of the PDP in Ebonyi.

With that the issues were resolved, both groups were very accommodating and the list was harmonized after which it was presented for acclamation. It was a huge success. Senator Orji Uzor Kalu was also outstanding in his cooperation with the party leadership. Let me give you a few examples:

During the nomination of Chief Onyema Ugochukwu as Chairman of NDDC, there was disenchantment within the Abia political leadership.

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