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Without partnership, Nigeria’s presidency’ll continue to elude Ndigbo –Nwodo, ex-PDP national chairman

A former governor of Enugu State and ex-national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo, shares with RAPHAEL EDE his views on the chances of the South-East of clinching the presidency in 2023 among other issues

As a former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, how would you describe the primary that produced Atiku Abubakar as your party’s presidential candidate?

I think the primary went well. The planning committee was inaugurated early enough and it had the necessary sub-committees that will make the primary to be successful. The sub-committees were populated by people who had done these things before and knew what to do. Finance was provided for these committees in good time, so nobody had any excuse to fail. They rolled out a beautiful convention. The initial challenge we had was that we were supposed to have our convention on Saturday and Sunday and the All Progressives Congress was supposed to do its own Monday and Tuesday. The government did not allow us to use the Eagle Square because it needed 48 hours after an event to clear the place, in terms of security, if the President would be present at the event.

Eventually, government was able to meet the Independent National Electoral Commission to move the deadline for primaries. So, the APC had an opportunity to move its convention but at that time we had already gone far into planning our convention. We were helped by the failure of the President (Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)) to sign the amended Electoral Act; so, we didn’t have statutory delegates. If we had statutory delegates with the elected delegates, we would have had about 4,000 delegates on our hands and that melodrama that we had would have been almost impossible to manage.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan recently criticised Section 84 of the new Electoral Act. He said allowing only elected delegates to vote at primaries had not guaranteed the recruitment of quality leaders. How would you react to that?

I think the National Assembly shot itself in the foot. They (lawmakers) were trying to keep out political appointees from the primary, because in 1998/1999 after the first and second elections, we had a situation where a governor would have almost 200 special aides and advisers, apart from his commissioners, and he would bring all of them to the convention and they would almost be equal to the number of those who should normally attend the convention. So, whoever the governors supported with all those political appointees already won the election before voting would start. After the horrible experience we had at the PDP primaries at that time, we removed political appointees and reduced them to the barest minimum. So, those who have been elected, like National Assembly and state Assembly members, voted at the convention or congresses.

What about those in the local government?

They were supposed to be elected and be able to vote, like the chairmen of councils and councillors. Also, the immediate past chairmen and secretaries of the party were also added so they could use their institutional memory to guide and vote. These were the statutory delegates and we believed that if they were there, their judgment would definitely be superior to one person per local government. The APC did even better because their own constitution says three persons per local government, so they had more delegates. I think all these other elected officials from the local government, state and national should have been there, but when the National Assembly removed the appointees, they forgot to retain the clause that allowed all these other elected officials to remain.

Some people complained about the quality of the delegates, what do you make of that?

We need more quality delegates. It is not so easy to bribe a governor, a senator, member of the House of Representatives or even a local government chairman to vote against their conscience. Now, a governor could pick a delegate and tell them who to vote for and if they don’t like the governor’s choice, they would look for aspirants who would buy the vote. They could end up collecting so much money from different aspirants. It is definitely not the best and these are the side effects.

Many southerners, especially the South-East, wanted the zone to produce the next president, starting with the candidates, but it didn’t work. How do you feel that the party didn’t zone the ticket to the South-East where you also come from?

I feel very bad; extremely bad. It is one of the worst experiences I have had in politics because I went out of my way to educate people why we should have a president from the South-East at this time. We were not happy when it was thrown open. We lost at the convention. In my party, for example, we had 95 delegates from the South-East, 95 local governments, but between the two candidates who stood for the election; Anyim Pius Anyim and Sam Ohuabunwa, they got 15 votes. So, what happened to the rest of delegates from the South-East? I went round Nigeria twice with some of our friends and we met all the kingmakers in the country twice and none of them told us, ‘look, my friend, you are talking nonsense. It is not your turn.’ They all agreed because it was self-evident, we didn’t tell lies.

If the presidency is to come to southern Nigeria, it should go to the South-East. We organised a world press conference in Enugu State and all those who spoke at the conference, I mean all, said it was our turn and that we had the capability and quality people who could lead this country. Thereafter, we had the greater Nigeria conference in Abuja where Edwin Clark spoke loud and clear from the South-South, Pa Ayo Adebanjo from South-West spoke and (Bitrus) Pogu from the Middle-Belt. We had about nine PDP (presidential) aspirants at that conference and the press, radio, television and newspapers, was awash with all the good reasons we put forward why it should be the turn of the South-East. We were also in the social media. I haven’t participated in a campaign that was as holistic as that. I don’t think there is anything else to be done that was not done, and for all that to fall on deaf ears in the PDP, I was quite sad, that we didn’t even convince our own delegates not to talk of delegates from the South-South. We were the biggest supporter of Jonathan and when (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo couldn’t get votes from his people, we gave him solid votes.

What do you make of the allegations of discrimination leveled against his regime by many south-easterners?

President Muhammadu Buhari said the South-East gave the PDP 97 per cent of its votes and we gave him five per cent and that it would influence where he would concentrate. As we speak, I don’t know if we have got even one per cent patronage from this regime after seven years. With all these, when the party didn’t zone it (presidency) to us, I was sad. When we lost awfully, I was even more pained that our own people didn’t even believe in all these things we were saying or money played a better role than what we were saying and preaching. For whatever reason, I was disappointed. The same scenario played out in the APC. You can say they finally zoned to the South but if the reason why they zoned to the South is germane, why not South-East? Why go to the zone that has produced president for eight years and vice president for eight years and you want them to produce president again for eight years while another zone in the South has not produced for even one day? Is that something that will make me happy or make anybody from the South-East who is patriotic happy?

Do you think there is a conspiracy in Nigeria against the South-East?

There is but there is also a conspiracy in the South-East against the South-East because I was expecting to see most of our political leaders stand right behind me or in front of me or by my side, re-echoing what we were saying but they preferred to keep silent.

There are two PDP governors in the South-East but none of them welcomed presidential aspirants from the zone in their states, how do react to this?

Atiku Abubakar made every effort to come here but he was blocked. I don’t know whether (Asiwaju Bola) Tinubu made an effort but I never saw him in the South-East.

There were four aspirants from the South-East but they were not welcomed by governors in the zone. What went wrong?

They were supporting the South-South and you begin to ask yourself if you are the one something is wrong with. You begin to ask yourself if you are stupid projecting South-South. The reasons you are giving; are they not self-evident? Are they not true? Has anybody been a civilian Head of State other than the six months of Aguiyi Ironsi? Since this dispensation, has anybody been elected the president from the South-East, even in a party that was founded by an Igbo man, Alex Ekweme? So, what is the problem? Why will our own people not champion this thing or was I wrong in championing this? But I have not convinced myself I was wrong.

The South-East has always voted the PDP and some persons in the region feel betrayed by the party. It would also seem the south-easterners in the National Working Committee, Board of Trustees and National Executive Committee didn’t advocate enough for the presidency to come to the region. What will you say to that?

Anybody who says the face of a president from the South-East for 2023 is not Okwesilieze Nwodo, the person is not being fair to me, because as I said, I don’t know what else I would have done that I didn’t do. I am not speaking for everybody but I also know that I was not alone in what I was doing. Indeed, I did what I did mostly with BoT members from the PDP from the South-East. I can name them; Senator Ben Obi was with me in all the trips. We went all over Nigeria, so was Achike Udenwa (former Imo State governor), so was Onyema Ugochukwu, ABC Nwosu, Chief S. N. Okeke and so on. All these people are BoT members from the South-East. We had a good number of us who believed in what we were doing and we did our best. That the party was not convinced about it or the party felt the only way they could win an election was to throw it open and all that, I doubt it but that was what happened. At the end of the day, I said I am not happy. I don’t know how many people are not happy about it but having said so, the solution is not for all of us to walk away from the PDP.

Despite all the efforts, what could have made delegates from the region not to vote for aspirants like Pius Anyim and Sam Ohuabunwa. Why the betrayal?

That is what I have been saying; it is either they voted for money or they followed the leadership in the zone that didn’t support the South-East candidacy. The leadership of our party in our zone is not identifying with this South-East agenda. For me, those two factors are not enough reasons for them to abandon the ship. The same thing happened in the APC. The leadership of the party in the South-East includes Orji Uzor Kalu, the Senate Chief Whip, and Hope Uzodimma (Imo State governor), who is a sitting governor. They were supporting Ahmed Lawan (Senate President) for the North to come back. And now that the candidate is from the South-West, what are they going to negotiate for us in that government when they did not support the man that won? We have a lot of work to do; we must re-strategise. It will be a disaster if the APC wins and a man who never visited the zone is the president and nobody from the zone can reach him. So, will it be a tragedy if South-East was abandoned by the PDP and they formed the next government and we are nowhere to harvest anything for the South-East in that government. Our leadership must re-strategise; what happened to us in the primaries must not be allowed to happen again in the future.

There have been strong allegations that delegates collected dollars and that influenced who they voted for. How did Nigeria get here?

There is no way you can remove money from politics. It’s not possible. But every civilised country puts a ceiling on how much you can donate to political parties and aspirants and how much aspirants and political parties can spend. However, in Nigeria, the law is always executed in breach. The more money you have, the easier it is to break the law and get away with it. You can compromise all the law enforcement agencies and do whatever you want to do. It is not that the law does not exist but the law is abused and those who are supposed to check the abuse are not doing enough. You saw the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission officials at our (presidential) primary following Ghana-must-go bags that are containing rice that are being shared to delegates, thinking they contained money. The money was distributed even before the delegates came to the event. The same thing in the APC; you saw the EFCC team there in uniform. That was not where the money was shared. So, if they want to stop (monetising the process), there are more scientific and technological ways to identify and stop this. But the political will is not there to make sure that these laws are implemented, and if this madness is allowed to continue, quality leaders will never rule Nigeria at any level. It is money that will continue to dictate and will be the order of the day at any level of election in Nigeria and that is a sad commentary.

Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State has blamed the President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prof George Obiozor, for that poor outcome for South-East aspirants, and many people also said Ohanaeze didn’t do enough to mobilise support for the aspirants like some south-western leaders did. What is your take on this?

I don’t think David (Umahi) is quite correct. If you are to apportion blame, he must take a lot of the blame himself. He is the chairman of the South-East Governors’ Forum; I believe that almost a year or a year and six months before these primary elections, that body never met. Secondly, that body is supposed to give monthly subvention to Ohanaeze. I’m not sure his state ever gave subvention to Ohanaeze in the last two years, so also the other governors of the Igbo states. So, Ohanaeze did not have the muscle and empowerment to do what they were supposed to do. But I know because I invited Ohanaeze to the Greater Nigeria conference in Abuja. They were led by former president-general, (Gary) Enwo-Igariwey, and other important leaders; like the National Secretary of Ohanaeze, Chief S.N Okeke, Prof (Maurice) Iwu and so on. They were about six in that delegation that were sent by the President General to represent Ohanaeze. The Pan-Niger Delta Forum was there live, represented by Edwin Clark. Afenifere leader, 97-year-old Pa Ayo Adebanjo flew in from Lagos. The leader of the Middle Belt Forum gave the keynote address and all these people came because I told them that Ohanaeze was part of what we were doing and they came.

Umahi himself was there at the conference. In fact, most of the jingles and the television adverts he used for his campaign after that conference were taken from what happened on that day. So, I don’t think blaming Ohanaeze is the best. First of all, they didn’t give Ohanaeze the empowerment, and I tried very hard, as hard as I could, with my colleagues to get Ohanaeze to champion what we did but when we saw their incapacitation as a result of the political leadership, and by that, I mean the governors of the South-East not having a consensus to fight for the South-East, it was difficult for Ohanaeze to operate. We now have to take the lead and continue to reassure everybody that whatever we are doing was well canvassed with the Ohanaeze leadership and Imeobi of Ohanaeze. What we did was to save the face of Ohanaeze as much as we could and the leadership supported us throughout.

Now that South-East presidency can only be actualised through the Labour Party (Peter Obi), APGA (Peter Umeadi) and ADC (Dumebi Kachikwu), would you tell people to go along party or ethnic lines, because Umahi already said Obi wouldn’t get one vote from Ebonyi?

The truth of the matter is we are fighting from a position of weakness for two reasons. First is that no tribe in Nigeria can produce the president of Nigeria alone. We must understand that very clearly. If the Igbo cannot get votes from outside the South-East, they won’t even get the two-third spread before you talk about the majority votes. So, it is important that we strategise with these our sons who are campaigning to find how we can penetrate the West and the North and get that spread of two-third of states where we can score at least a minimum of 25 per cent in all the states. Second is the way Peter Obi is going now; he is the one that is most likely to get that spread as long as our people don’t make it an Igbo-centric agenda; because if it is an Igbo-centric agenda, we can’t win. Already, his campaign has taken a life of its own amongst the youths who believe in him, who believe his government would bring succour to them and drive development in the direction the youths and the women want. He is doing very well and he needs to be encouraged. But the Igbo must not go into the social media antagonising other tribes or venting their anger in what happened in the PDP or the APC. We need to get the support of other people; it is very important. So, I see Peter Obi as the best candidate standing in order to salvage the face of the South-East and the Igbo but it must be translated into a national movement. In doing so, our people must not go and take ownership of it. Our people taking ownership of it is not in his interest or in our overall interest.

On the issue of running mate, Atiku Abubakar has chosen Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, and your party seems to have left out the South-East?

Again, our presidential candidate said he wanted a governor from the southern part of Nigeria. We entered that race from a weak point because two governors here, we heard, did not support him and what he (Atiku) did was the natural thing to do if you are in his position. The candidate we had in the South-West, the Oyo State Governor (Seyi Makinde) did not support him. So, in the beginning, these people more or less, entered that race from a weak position. Now, the party set up a committee with members from the BoT, PDP Governors’ Forum, National Working Committee and former ministers to look at all these governors and shortlist three. I know in their consideration, they seemed to have been guided by two principles; the one he could have a frictionless relationship with and who could bring the highest votes to help the party win.

Do you foresee a time the South-East will be able to galvanise itself and work for its own people to produce Nigeria’s president?

With the experience I had in my political life, I believed the greatest achievement I would have recorded in my biography as a politician is to midwife an Igbo presidency. Since 1998, I have done everything in my power to make sure that God helps me to achieve that objective. I think looking back, I’ve had more by emotion and patriotism for the Igbo race that I did not take so much into consideration the political reality in Nigeria. At 72 years now, if I continue to be ruled by emotion in the remaining years I have, I may not even be able to help Igbo more than I have done. There was no pressure that I didn’t come under in 1998/99 to abandon Alex Ekwueme to support Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. I was the last man standing when we went to Jos and Obasanjo set out to punish me for giving Ekwueme 150 per cent support as he put it. He (Obasanjo) told me that my problem was that I insisted on being Igbo Nigerian, that I didn’t want to be a Nigerian Igbo. I use that an opportunity to crack jokes with him that after all, his people didn’t vote for us in this thing, and he was enjoying the power, and that we were the real Nigerians not his people and we laughed.

What have you deduced in all that happened?

I have come to the painful realisation that it is impossible to get the Igbo on one page to fight even for something that is so dear to them. It is very difficult to galvanise them under one platform. The last time we made such a serious effort was under Ekwueme. Since then, that effort has been whittled down. Again, maybe because of the quality of leadership that is available for us to follow. Secondly, I have come to the painful realisation that if we don’t build a solid network outside Igboland, the presidency of Nigeria will continue to elude us. What do I mean, if we don’t partner seriously with a sitting President in Nigeria and use his influence to midwife an Igbo presidency; working alone from our place may not be as successful. So, that’s why I said it is important for those of us in the PDP to strategise with the incoming government not only to make sure that he does restructuring but to factor us into that government for our people to feel for the first time after eight years that they are part of Nigeria and the Nigerian government, but that the government will midwife an Igbo presidency. This is critical also for those of them in the APC. How do you get an Igbo president out of the APC sooner than later? Now, we have an opportunity; Peter is doing well. How much support can be got for him internally and externally, using him to install the first Igbo president in Nigeria?

What do you envision for 2023 considering what is playing out?

The 2023 election is too close to call. There are many centrifugal and sentimental forces that are playing out and if I may quote Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who said in politics, two plus two is not equal to four. There are no permanent friends and there are no permanent enemies but there are permanent interests. Those who have interest to governor Nigeria in 2023 may make sacrifices that may shock everybody in order to win the election. Those that are stubborn and don’t believe in making deals, and believe that what they are saying is the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth and there must be justice, equity and fairness will lose like Ogbonnaya Onu lost in the presidential primary but he told Nigeria the truth. So, many forces are at play. How these forces will align and realign to produce the leadership in 2023 is too early to call. What I will advice our people as Igbo is that they should do the very best they can for God’s sake. Do what is necessary to make sure that the Igbo don’t lose out the way they lost out in the past seven years, because it will be too much for us after surviving a civil war. In doing so, no negotiation should be ignored. Enter every one of them, negotiate robustly and let us have something on the table. By the time we finish voter registration, let it be clear that we can cast in the South-East 20 million votes. How many people have won presidential election in Nigeria with 20 million votes? So, you have something to put on the table, the person you are negotiating with will sit up and listen to you. They are the things we must do now, not tomorrow, to give us a negotiating voice.

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