Secretary of the National Caretaker Committee of the Peoples Democratic Party, Senator Ben Obi said continuous blaming of former President Goodluck Jonathan won’t solve the problems before the present government of Muhammadu Buhari. He spoke on the state of the party and expressed optimism that an end was imminent to the crisis in the PDP. Onyebuchi Ezigbo presents the excerpts:
At 56 what can you say are the high and low points in the life of the country?
I always believe that we still have a great future ahead of us. How do you really place a country with a great future? All leaders of the world recognise the great potential of this country. We ourselves, partisan politics or not, also know that this is a great country endowed by the Almighty God and I think and hope that very soon, we should get out of the naughty economic recession that has hit us in the face.
A lot of people especially, those in APC have come hard on your party lately. They say the PDP government of 16 years is responsible for the crisis the country is going through at the moment. Do you agree?
First of all, what is the duty of the opposition party? When an opposition party is searching for victory, their duty is to find fault in the incumbent government and use that as a pedestal to find its way into power. I think APC succeeded in doing that and they are now in power and I believe driving through government by May next year, they would be 2 years. I believe this is the time they should squarely look into governance and provide for the people the dividends of democracy as promised.
Yes, the PDP was in government for 16 years, however, it is also important while the APC government is pointing at some negative aspect of the 16 years, it is important that they mention also some of the positive achievements of the PDP government particularly in telecommunication and other aspects of governance. It can’t be a complete story of woe. That isn’t true. You see, as a party, some of us were members of the Senate when we stood against our president of the country, who also was a member and leader of the party when the issue of elongation came up.
We stood firmly on the part of the constitution and never wavered. So, I want to say without any fear of contradiction this is not the time to start passing the bulk or encourage the blame game to continue. Victory has been achieved, the government is in place and what the government of the day should do is to find solutions to the enormous problems facing the country. Every government has a duty of providing solutions to the problems on ground so it is the duty of the APC government to find solutions to the problems facing the government today.
We as oppositions have always believed and I have said so severally in all my interviews that there is a time to complain and there is a time for governance. It is also the responsibility of the PDP to work hand-in-gloves with the government in ensuring the betterment of the Nigerian people and the Nigerian nation but that doesn’t mean that the party must not criticise the ruling party, when they find them going in the wrong direction.
Our duty as the leading opposition party is, of course, to focus on areas we find the APC lacking in its commitment to the people of this country via their campaign promises and that is how great nations are built; that is my understanding of politics and not to criticise for the sake of criticising. Where there is need for us to work hand-in-gloves with the government for the betterment of the Nigerian people, the party – the PDP – will be happy to do that.
Some believed that the government of PDP failed to take the right measures to save for the rainy day when Nigeria had resources at its peak which is said to be responsible for the present economic situation?
Don’t forget that going back on the Obasanjo era, Obasanjo came in and tried very hard to put Nigeria on the global map because at the time he came in to replace the military leadership, Nigeria was very much like a pariah state and when he came in, he started by getting global focus on Nigeria and he went on to pursue how to redeem the debts, which the country had gotten into. Ultimately, he succeeded when he brought in very experienced hands like Ngozi Okonji Iwela and Oby Ezekwesili, who had vast experiences in the World Bank and brought in a couple of very sound experienced economists to join hands with him.
When he left, it was the Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration and let not also forget that it was that administration that brought about the Sovereign Wealth Fund, which is also a way of providing for the rainy day. You see, the problem is in politics. A lot of things can be said but when you take your mind back to what were the things the various governments did? That doesn’t mean that probably there are no shortfalls in what has happened but a new administration has come in, they came with the change mantra, so what people are expecting across board is to see the change affected in all segments of our daily life.
Naturally, they must have obstacles, difficulties which they may not have seen or envisaged in the course of their campaign, which is expected but Nigerians are beginning to feel that we just have to move on. This hardship is becoming too much. Hit the ground running – that is what we want to see and that is the position and that is what I am trying to say to you this afternoon. This is time for governance and before politicians across the board are condemned there must be a sense of understanding to make sure that this government is able to hold the country together. It wouldn’t be in the interest of even the PDP to see the country going in different directions, where you would say one nation with many destinies; it is not in the interest of PDP.
What is your candid advice to today’s government in order to get Nigeria out of the woods?
Basically, the change mantra by the APC championed by President Muhammadu Buhari is to fight insecurity and corruption. These are two major platforms which he canvassed in his campaign. On the issue of security, which is basically a fight against Boko Haram, I think a lot of success has been achieved in that area, however, you can see that a lot of pressure groups have sprung up from the various zones of the country and each one giving different reasons for their existence and agitation. But, you see, the truth of the matter is that there must be a level playing field at all times.
I don’t think that we should believe that it is President Muhammadu Buhari that will go onto the streets to arrest cult people and all of that. I believe it is the duty of the various security agencies to do their work diligently and do them with fairness and equity across board. Don’t create a situation whereby people believe that it is lopsided and most people have that impression. They pass the bulk to where the bulk stops and that is, they pass the bulk onto the president. But, you see, the president, like I said, when we were in government, the various agencies didn’t come to complain that they were lacking in resources to do their jobs. So, holding Jonathan responsible is because the bulk ends on his table so that is the situation we find ourselves.
I believe that the various security agencies should handle their job diligently and go ahead to make sure there is a level playing field for everybody. The PDP as a party has made it clear and I have said it again and again, that we would support government in the fight against corruption. That is the position of the party even before we came in as a caretaker. That is the official position of the PDP. You see, when you make campaign promises people never forget them because it is not everybody that is everywhere at the same time. When you travel to village, the people there that you give your words hold on to your words and wait for you to come and actualise those words and when you don’t, they see it as a betrayal of trust. That is the point I am making.
Your party, the PDP cannot provide the needed opposition since it is engulfed in crisis. Why do you think the crisis in PDP has lingered?
Honestly, you must understand that PDP is a huge political movement and when you obtain the ticket of the PDP in any election whatsoever, there is at least a minimum 50 per cent assurance of victory in most cases. So, the struggle for control and management of its leadership is always fierce.
When we came in, we found out that the party was sharply divided in the sense that most of them didn’t agree with the leadership that was put in place by some of the governors and when they themselves rediscovered that the generality of the party leadership across the country were showing serious concerns about what they did, they were trying to remedy the situation and what remedy did they come up with?
They felt there was a need at the Port Harcourt convention to set up a caretaker committee that will run the party for three months and that was the caretaker that brought us to the leadership of the party. However, the crisis in the party started from its defeat in the general election in 2015 and when a party in power for 16 years is defeated in a general election and necessary and urgent measures were not taken immediately to rebrand and remodel the party, you have these kinds of problems and I saw this coming and I raised it.
What should have been done to avert the crisis?
At the time, there were allegations flying across the leadership of the party, what would have happened at that point in time would have been the issue of a caretaker that came in almost one year after. The caretaker would have been the answer. You see, management is critical for the survival of a major political party. I say this with all sense of honesty, having been a founding father of three major political party and party secretary I know what it takes to run a political party. I understand also the intrigues in building a political party.
The measures we didn’t take after our defeat that we took almost a year after is what we are going through now. Some of the people don’t understand the vision of the founding fathers of the party, which is a problem. How was the party put together? What is the aim and goal of the party? These are issues the drivers of the party must understand and know. You see, we have reached a stage where I think we are beginning to have some understanding.
Only recently we were able to reach a point, where both sides – the Markafi and Sheriff sides – met and decided that they must jointly issue a statement. Fortunately, I was at the meeting and now we have to move on to the next stage of their understanding which was put it in black and white. Soon, we will brief the various organs of the party and then come up with members that would constitute the joint committee from both sides.
Will there be a formation of new reconciliation committee?
Yes, that would look at all the grey areas. Don’t forget you have the Ekweremadu committee. Don’t forget you have the Dickson committee. You also have the Jerry Gana committee. All these are committees searching for peace and how to reconcile the party. So, by the time we brief the various organs on how this meeting came about and how a joint statement was issued, I am sure we would have a clearer picture and guidance on what to do next in terms of putting things in order.
Something came up shortly after the joint statement. Some people expressed divergent views at the state house. Is it right to assume that the move was done without the consent of the stakeholders of the organs?
I just told you the various reconciliation groups that we have in place and there is nowhere that we as a party can shut our doors to reconciliation. So, as they were pursuing their reconciliation, this opening came.
Who first made the move for reconciliation?
The two of them agreed to meet and to look at the possibility of moving the party forward and they met.
What happens to the existing reconciliation committees?
I am only the secretary of the caretaker committee and I just told you that we would be briefing the various organs of the party sometime this week. The organs of the party set us up and it is the same various organs of the party that would decide the way forward. All I can say is at least a platform has been created and the modality to move the reconciliation forward has been set. It is now time for the other organs of the party to key into it with the best advice. So, these meetings will clearly put the right steps forward on how we can move forward.
One of the key areas of disagreement between the two groups was the fact that Sheriff insisted the caretaker should step aside; that it is an aberration to the PDP constitution, being his minimum condition for reconciliation. Has there been any shifting of grounds?
The two of them agreed to set up a joint committee. That tells you that we have gone beyond that. Like I said, I have been three times National Secretary and founding father of political parties, the ultimate, supreme authority of any political party is its National Convention. Forget about intrigues, if you remain in court on this matter, ultimately the court will tell you that.
Look at the constitution of the party, itself it is very clear. So, I am saying to you that what is important is that all along there hasn’t been a situation, where the two of them came together. People have been speaking for them. They never met to look holistically at the problems. When they now met, it was easier to understand how to forge forward in building and reorganising the party. So, I don’t see any problems talking about the decision of the National Convention. The joint committees will look at these problems and see how best we can move forward.
In the case, that there is a suggestion that the party reverses to the Port Harcourt convention. Would that be an acceptable decision?
That can only be done by another convention. That reversal can only be done by a convention and I don’t think anybody in the party is looking at that direction, at least, not to the best of my knowledge.
Some people have criticised PDP leaders for what happened in Port Harcourt, that they should have avoided the crisis if they were not in haste to change the Sheriff-led national leadership?
I told you when we started this interview how the majority of the members of the party were feeling and the feelings with which they came to Port Harcourt. You could remember at that same 21st May, there was also a PDP faction meeting here in Abuja also calling it a convention, though it wasn’t a convention. The Jerry Gana group, the Ibrahim Mantu and others and as soon as the decision in Port Harcourt came to their knowledge, they endorsed it.
The truth of the matter is that the Port Harcourt convention that set up the caretaker committee was indeed a popular decision but you see when you are running a political party that is very large, you must concede to some dissenting voices like minority would have its say but majority will also have their way. That minority if not well managed can create a problem. You have seen the activities of the caretaker and you have seen the participation from party state chairmen, to governors to National Assembly members to BoT, which tells you clearly where the party stands.
We didn’t even go to Port Harcourt. With all sense of humility, when I was approached, I rejected it. I said I have been National Secretary three times and I don’t need to but they said this is for a special circumstance and all that and they pleaded with me to understand the situation. I wasn’t interested and Governor Wike led the South-south leaders to say that they were conceding to the South-east. So, you see, some of us were not doing this because we want to cling onto any position. What we are doing is that we want to reorganise the PDP and put it in a good position to be a formidable opposition party in the best interest of democracy of this country.
Has anything been done about the numerous court cases that have developed during this crisis?
You don’t put the cart before the horse. Leaders must meet. You don’t want to create a situation, where both Markafi and Sheriff will sit down, meet and say this court case, we will redraw it. There are many interest groups and that is why the briefing I am talking about will happen and then the other leaders will be able to say how we would tackle these issues including these court cases. When you now reach a solution, it would be a lasting solution.
As a strong advocate of electoral reform, what do you think should be the priority in these key areas for the government?
One thing which you must credit the Jonathan administration with is the ability to conduct free and fair elections – one man, one vote, which led to the victory of APC. Former President Jonathan championed complete sanitisation of the electoral process of which he later became a victim of but you see, there are still areas that need to be properly sanitised. The issue of card reader has become a matter that needs to be thoroughly and properly managed.
In each and every election, it keeps rearing its ugly head. The same thing in the last Edo election, there was quite a number of complains about the card readers. One would also expect that the complete team of federal commission be put in place if they have not. I only heard last night about this panel headed by Senator Ken Nnamani, whom I know has a clear head on the details of electoral reforms, which we tried to pursue together when we were at the Senate.
So, I believe that with him, they will come up with some very wise suggestions and electoral reform and I hope that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari will also look into it and make sure that we have an INEC that works. A lot of people complaining that we have been running state election with inconclusive elections and people are complaining. These are just states. One state here, another state there and so on and so forth and people are worried: ‘can we do this same thing for a general election?
It is a question that is pregnant. I do hope and pray that the new panel would be able to find answers and solution to all the grey areas surrounding electoral reform that the president if necessary passes them back to the National Assembly if they need an act from the National Assembly.
The issue of restructuring the country has also been canvassed. Do you believe in the restructuring of the present federation?
Yes, there is no question about that. I have been in strong support of restructuring in my early political days and I don’t intend to waver out of that for whatever reason ever. I wasn’t a member of that conference. I was in government but what is important is that all the zones paraded very incredible and highly respected eminent persons in their area and some and most of the things, about 70 per cent of the decisions that were reached were by consensus. So, it is important that some people take their time in this government to study it.
At the book launch last week, Professor Soludo, who was reviewing the book ‘the Politics of Biafra’ did mention specifically the promise of the APC that they were going to look and carry out the restructuring and he told them that this was the time and they have to do it. The agitation is increasing by the day and it wouldn’t cease. So, I believe that some people should look at that document again and look at things that can be looked into to bring about succour and understanding.
What about the fear that restructuring could bring about disintegration?
No, that is not what the conference talked about. You wouldn’t believe that the bitterness in which political parties struggle for the power at the centre because there is so much power invested at the centre and this issue of devolution of power has been on for a long time. This was what gave rise to the Alex Ekweme formula of six zonal structures, which was also agreed upon and which was also there during the Abacha era. So, restructuring is critical with particular concerns for the federating units so that states can develop at their own pace.
This is what we have being saying. We have been saying this since 1998 and 1999. I believe that government must find a way to set up a committee to look at that document. A document that was chaired by a retired Chief Justice of the federation and deputised by a former foreign minister, an intellectual with all the prominent names and citizens across the country – former IGs and Service Chiefs – shouldn’t be a document that should be thrown into the waste bin. Tax payers’ money went into it. Anything done by government that was constitutionally instituted can’t be ignored. That is all I am saying.
Don’t create a situation whereby people believe that it is lopsided and most people have that impression. They pass the bulk to where the bulk stops and that is, they pass the bulk onto the president. But, you see, the president, like I said, when we were in government, the various agencies didn’t come to complain that they were lacking in resources to do their jobs. So, holding Jonathan responsible is because the bulk ends on his table so that is the situation we find ourselves