Former governor of Abia State and Senator representing Abia Central Constituency, Chief Theodore Ahamefule Orji talks straight from the heart unlike most politicians. In this encounter with Ahamefula Ogbu, he advocates for modification of presidential system of governance instead of jettisoning it. He also clarified that he, unlike some ex-governors alleged to be collecting pensions, knew it was against the law and has not collected any. He spoke on sundry issues on why there are agitations from the south east region, efforts to unify and galvanise the economy and why the people would still vote for PDP there
You were governor and now Senator, what is your assessment of the Nigerian democracy?
My assessment of Nigerian democracy is that we are trying because I cannot stay here and condemn that we have not tried since PDP was in charge for many years and in uninterrupted governance. Power was able to transit to another political party without any problem. In other climes especially in Africa, you see those incumbents who donâ€™t want to relinquish power, the nearest of them was what happened in The Gambia the other time but for at least being able to move ahead from one government to the other without any bloodshed. It is a major mark in our democratic dispensation. So we are trying though still in the learning process and I believe that as we go ahead, we will continue improving. The judiciary is performing, the Legislature is performing and the executive is also performing. So once each arm performs its job and conducts the constitutional oversight functions, then that is okay. Once the principle of separation of powers is maintained, it will grow our democracy.
There are allegations that the economy of the country is buckling under the presidential system which is too costly, would you recommend we change to another form to lighten the burden?
We were not dreaming when we chose the presidential system of government. We all accepted it; we were doing parliamentary before we went for Presidential system, it is for us now to harness the advantages of the presidential system though seen as expensive. It is now for us to marry it to be in line with our economy by working hard to make the economy to be buoyant. I think the presidential system is good. I like the presidential system, let us not be running from parliamentary to presidential. Are you going to try autocracy? Let us stick to this presidential system of government and reform it to suit our own purpose. We copied it from America and America is different from Nigeria, so we have to reform it to suit our purpose bearing in mind our culture, our multiplicity in terms of ethnic groupingÂ and our economy. So you marry these into this presidential system of government, it will be okay to suit us as Nigerians and Africans.
Do you consider coming to the Senate a political accomplishment?
First and foremost, I was able to come to the Senate after being a governor for eight years and still was voted for. To come here makes a statement which I am happy for. For the rest of my life, I will have Senator attached to my name. In the Senate we make laws, move motions and pass bills, go on oversight functions and these are the major things in serving the people.Â We attract constituency projects, make available dividends of democracy and I donâ€™t think I am doing badly, even as a new person in the Senate. I have a sense of fulfilment serving my people as a senator.
People are blaming South East region for voting PDP whereas APC has power at the center which accounts for lack of development projects being sited in that region, would you advocate that it should move over to APC in 2019?
Before you join any political party you must know why you are going to that party. What do you want in a political party? Is it to go and look for position? Is it to make sure you go there for the benefit of your people? Yes the South East has been behind PDP all along because of the agenda of the PDP government that was presented to us which gave us a sense of belonging as a group. You saw it also that PDP gave us a sense of belonging; that prominent, intelligent and resourceful Igbo sons and daughters were included in that government and given sensitive positions. To a large extent also, PDP touched the lives of people in the South East even if now people are querying what the party did in the region but they did. The South easterners were not as hungry as they are today. Their businesses moved on well and there werenâ€™t clashes between herdsmen and farmers.
APC is a new party and most of the members were in PDP.
What has APC got for the South Easterners? That is the main question. What is our stake in APC, will they accommodate the South East People?Â We want to be accommodated; we want where you will value the Igbo man and tap from his resources and his intellect. Once you do that, that is what drags the Igbo man to whatever he does or wherever he goes. Is APC ready to do that? Today you can see it, it is being discussed everywhere that Igbos are not well accommodated in the APC government.Â If you fail to treat the Igbo man well, he will find his way, he has the capacity to find his own way or even stay without politics. So this people have to change their attitude. PDP is still very strong in the south east because that is the party that most accommodated the Igbos, the south easterners, made promises to them and kept to most if not all of them. It was also the party that gave most of them the platform to be what they are today. Why then leave PDP? Despite what is happening in the PDP, a lot of people are still passionate about PDP in the south east.
So in spite of members of the parliament crossing over to the APC, you are not going to be one of them?
I have said it severally that I am not going to APC, what am I going to APC for? I am not going to APC. It is via PDP that I became a governor. It is via PDP that I became senator, so why abandon it? The South East people have the impression that APC does not love them.
There is this notion that the South East region lacks cohesion, is there anything the political leaders are doing to galvanise and synchronise the economy of the region and together grow it like in the first republic?
There are. When I was a governor, we had South East Governors forum, that was a major discussion that we had when Peter Obi was our Chairman. We moved ahead on this issueÂ until PeterÂ Obi stepped aside and I became Chairman but then politics came in because we were from different political parties, peopleÂ were not coming for meetings again, if you call for levies people were not paying and many of them started having their own intentions in terms of politics, some wanted to be president, some wanted to be vice president; some wanted to be this and some wanted to be that, so that brought about lack of cohesion among us which made the South East Governors Forum not to achieve this and thatÂ lasted for a very long time but now that they have started again,Â they have come together again to forge ahead and I know that the same issue is in their agenda, to make the South East to be one, howÂ to forge ahead to improve the economy of the south east because every south east stateÂ has its potentials; just, improveÂ on the potential and you will be self-sufficient.
Apart from the south east governors, there are also otherÂ organisations of prominent SouthÂ Easterners who have been fighting for this like Engr. Chris Okoye who has pushed for South East Nigeria Economic Commission, SENEC and Mazi Sam Ohuabunnwa and others but IÂ believe the governors have to drive this because it is the governors who are the political leaders. They have to galvanise resourceful South Easterners to buy into this project.
Can we look at the relationship between you and your successor because in most states you see infighting between incumbents and their predecessors which affect development?
My relationship with him is cordial, relationship based on mutual respect. I respect him as a sitting governor that I handed over power to. I accord him all that respect, he respects me as a former governor, an elderly person to him and as elder statesman too. It is cordial. I will give him space as a governor to do his job. I donâ€™t bother him, I am not overbearing on him and heÂ takes his decisions and does governance the way he feels will benefit Abia people and we are moving on very fine, I donâ€™t compete with him over anything, either on the pages of the newspaper or anywhere, I donâ€™t. He is the governor, this is his time, I have done my own, I realise that I have left the stage which is occupied by another person; therefore he should go ahead.
As a political leader from the south east what do you think is the biggest problem of the region in finding its foot developmentally?
The greatest problem we are having is the issue of political structure and the infrastructure that will boost the economy and make the region to stand very well and strong. You know how Nigeria is structured and that is why we are asking for restructuring. If the south east is left alone, you will see people will bring in their ingenuity to help in developing the place, they will use their resources to develop the place. The governors must have the will. I continue calling on governors because they are political leaders coming together and showing the way. When we were inÂ regions we were doing better because we had regional heads.Â M.I. Okpara and Zik but today we have states withÂ different governors with their own ideas looking after their own people, so if they can come together on regional or similar basis, be united in purpose makingÂ sure the region develops we will make a headway.
In the Senate the South East is not yet completely represented, as one slot from Anambra is yet to be filled, what are the leaders from the region doing to bridge that gap and ensure adequate representation?
We are not happy about it because Anambra is not fully and adequately represented since Ekwunife lost out but the problem is with the court and INEC. We are lawmakers and we obey the law so you cannot go and jump the law, you cannot force INEC to conduct an election, when the court has not so ruled. We want someone whether from APC or PDP so he can raise a voice for his people here. We want the right things to be done.
You have another two years in the senate, what would you aim to achieve with it?
I donâ€™t know whether you have an idea of what I have done in the first two of my four year tenure, I think I have represented my people very well and they have testified to that. If you go home, they say that they didnâ€™t make a mistake to vote me to the senate. In terms of constituency projects, we have over 10, but I know that six local government areas that make up my zone have benefitted from my constituency projects that I attracted in terms of water, electricity, roads, erosion control. Six of them have benefitted but nothing can be adequate as far as dividends of democracy are concerned. What I will do is to attract more to them. I have a scholarship scheme that has benefited all of them. I pay the tuition fees of 10 undergraduates from each of the six local governments and that is 60 people and I will continue with it till the end of my tenure and by that time, I would have trained many graduates from my zone. In the senate I have been sponsoring bills, and motionsÂ that would be favourable to the nation and my constituency. In terms of oversight functions we will continue with what we are doing. It has taken me to several places within and outside the country and we are garnering experience andÂ we will so continue based on available funds, there is no going back, instead we will add more. When I was governor, within available resources, I put my signature all over the state in development and I will do the same here in the senate.
There are allegations that lawmakers collect money for constituency projects and pocket them, are you not part of those doing that?
I donâ€™t know about that. I am a lawmaker and I have never collected a kobo for constituency project,Â if it is true we will all be collecting it and when you come I will tell you that yes this is what I collected and this is what I used it for. The projects I mentioned to you are the ones you try and put into the budget and pursue it, you donâ€™t even nominate contractors that do the jobs, the MDAs nominate contractors, but some can pass through you to them, if they succeed good enough. There is no lawmaker who is collecting constituency money. That is the propaganda they are telling people, there is nothing like that, I am in the Senate I have not seen it, it is not happening. There is nothing like taking constituency money and putting it in your pocket, it is not happening. Even as a legislator you use your money. Like the scholarship scheme I run in my constituency where I dispense cash to the undergraduates, it is my money and not in the budget
Where are you moving to from the senate since in nature there must be progression?
For me? Well I am a politician and my own is that whatever I have gotten in politics, I donâ€™t fight for it but I work hard. Every person has a destiny. When you work hard, whatever destiny has for you will come and that is how God has piloted me till this stage where I am now. I have never killed any person to get to a position; I have never done any evil, I have never committed any offence to come to where I am now but I am here as a senator and as an ex-governor so I leave myself open to God. It is God that charts your destiny; so if after my tenure here God says go and sit down, I will go and sit down. Right now I am just here as a senator, no other ambition on my part, it is only God that directs.
Some former Governors are allegedly collecting pensions while holding other political positions, are you a beneficiary of this?
No, I am not collecting any pension. I was a civil servant and I know the rules. As far as I am in the senate drawing salaries, you cannot talk about pension until you go away from here because there is a pension scheme for politicians, ex-governors as contained in Abia law, and the constitution. That could be the one that people are talking about that the ex-governors are collecting a lot of money but as far as I am here, I will not even ask for it becauseÂ I know the implications therefore I have neverÂ collected any money from AbiaÂ State. The treasury is there, you can find out. I have not been paid anyÂ pension and if they pay me I will return itÂ as it is against the law until I leave here. When I leave as a senator I can write them as a free man to start paying me my pension.
Those making that allegation are mischievous, that is what you see in politics; you will be on your own and people will concoct something and hang on your head and you start struggling to extricate yourself.