Chief Chekwas Okorie is the national chairman of United Progressive Party and former national chairman of All Progressives Grand Alliance. Okorie says the huge success of the recent sit-at-home order by the Indigenous People of Biafra on May 30 across the South-east to mark Biafra Day is an indication that the majority of Igbos, though not on the same wave length with IPOB on secession, aligns with the group’s perception that the zone is being marginalised in Nigeria. He also speaks on UPP’s strength ahead of the November 18 governorship election in Anambra State, in this interview with Vincent Obia. Excerpts:
How do you see the attitude of the federal government to the agitation by the Indigenous People of Biafra and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra?
The government’s attitude is wrongfully headed. The government has remained adamant, despite wise counsel by well-meaning Nigerians across-the-board, not just Igbo leaders, that it should engage the leaders of these groups in dialogue. The federal government has refused to do that, whatever may be their reason. It is something they may allow to get out of hand, like the case of the Niger Delta militants and even Boko Haram. Now IPOB and MASSOB say they are non-violent. Maybe, they are being taken for granted. I believe the government ought to be aware by now that the agitation has spread among all levels of the people, not just young people, and it has been internationalised. The world is watching. The sit-at-home order that was very successful was reported by every major media organisation in the world. That means it has drawn international attention, and the way Nigeria is managing the threatening cataclysm is making it worse. I have not seen any form of political sagacity or proper leadership provided by the Nigerian government in handling this crisis, and it keeps deteriorating everyday.
Don’t you think it is better for the Igbo to demand justice within Nigeria than seek secession?
Secession actually is not the option for people like us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be championing the formation and leadership of political parties for a long time now. The reason why some of us have opted for the political option is to seek for a better Nigeria. The reason why each time there is a constitutional or national conference Igbo people take it very seriously is because we are looking for a better Nigeria. Igbo leaders have never gone to any of those conferences to tender any memorandum or move any motion suggesting intention to secede. But the younger ones can be much more impatient. However, if Nigeria has met the Igbo area even halfway, it could have helped to douse the tension.
The issue of secession is not the option for the average Igbo person. We have more investments in Nigeria than any other ethnic group. We are more dispersed and live in different parts of Nigeria than any other ethnic group. There is a place in the North where you have Igbo settlements that have existed more than 400 years. I have visited them there in 2000, the very year the caliphate marked its bicentenary celebration. That means Igbo people were already there more than two centuries before Uthman Dan Fodio entered Sokoto to establish the caliphate. Yet, the same Igbo people are regarded as non-indigenes in the North.
This marginalisation and outright exclusion have not helped matters. If you want to calm these young ones down and discourage them from seeking separation from Nigeria, you would hardly have sufficient logic, based on what they are seeing. The argument that they were not born during the civil war is defeatist. In fact, that they were not born during the war is even the main reason why they cannot appreciate what we faced.
Some people have suggested a return to the former regions and abolition of the present states. Do you support this view?
No, I don’t support return to the regions because it would create more problems for the country. Many groups or sections of the country that had felt marginalised or dominated by others now have a certain feeling of liberty through the states. So if we try to collapse these states into regions, these groups are going to raise problems, and you will begin to go back to a problem you had earlier solved. That is one aspect.
The other aspect is that what we are looking for are federating units under a true federalism. We already have the geopolitical zones. Instead of talking about regions, we should be talking about the geopolitical zones as federating units. But even in that, I can tell you that in the South-east geopolitical zone, Ebonyi State, in particular, has been vehemently opposed to the geopolitical zones as federating units. They want the states to remain the federating units. It was as a result of this that the National Conference recommended the creation of more states so that there would be a balance.
What should Nigerians expect from the UPP national convention this month in Awka?
There are three major things that Nigerians should look forward to. One is the non-election convention. We are not electing new officers. Our next election convention is about December 2018. What we have lined up for the June 28 convention of the party is, one, to ratify the approvals of the National Executive Committee. Those approvals include our updated manifesto, which contains provisions for self-determination by all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria; true federalism; restructured Nigeria; resource control; citizenship rights; state police; community policing. In fact, we have reduced the highlights of the 2014 National Conference to a manifesto format, and that is what we are coming to ratify. Once it is ratified by the convention, it now becomes an article of faith and a social contract between the party and the Nigerian people because we will proceed to submit it to INEC, which will supervise the ratification. Two, are the minor amendments we have made to our constitution. Minor in the sense that the constitution of political parties, as body of rules, must not be in conflict with the constitution of Nigeria and the Electoral Act. Whenever there is conflict, the constitution of the party becomes a nullity to the extent of that conflict. The minor amendments we made in our constitution are simply to remove areas that breed rancour so that we will continue to enjoy the status of the most peaceful party in Nigeria and to make the administration of our party more efficient.
The third one is to confirm or ratify the reconstituted state and local government structures of the party, at least in acting capacity, till the next election convention. What normally happens after every elections is the high mobility of politicians. The ones reported in the media are the ones that affect elected people who move from one party to the other. But there is much more mobility among politicians who don’t hold offices, who are simply in search of greener pasture. So as we lost some officers, we also gained more people. There is need for us to harmonise and reconstitute our executive at those levels to make our party more functional than it has been.
These are the three things that would come out of the convention. But I think the manifesto is the highlight, actually. The provisions we have in our manifesto cannot be found in any other party manifesto anywhere in Nigeria, and that is what we are going to sell to the Nigerian people. And that is what is going to be our strength in the democratic encounter of 2019, in fact, starting from 2017 in Anambra.
What are the unique advantages UPP would be taking to the Anambra governorship election this year?
Before now, we thought Anambra election would be a direct encounter between UPP and APGA, APGA in the sense that it is the party in government, which you cannot wish away. We thought that way because there is no sensible person from the South-east, moreover Anambra State that is more or less a gateway to the South-east, that would vote for APC. APC has been very hostile to the Igbo and has not pretended about its disdain for the people of the area. I doubt if any sensible person will leave his house and go to the polling booth to cast his or her vote for APC. So APC is not in the race.
As for PDP, even without its crisis, PDP was in power for 16 years and there is nothing to show for it. Even when there was some nickname to the immediate past president on the PDP platform, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, they gave him Ebele, an Igbo name, just to endear him, that did not touch his heart to do anything, to have anything for which he would be remembered in the South-east, except his friends he appointed into positions who only succeeded in uplifting the living standard of their nuclear families. PDP has nothing to tell the Igbo or Anambra people for which they would receive support.
APGA has been decimated by crisis and, recently, an order of mandamus, which is a declaratory order of court compelling INEC to recognise Martin Agboso, who is vehemently opposed to Governor Willy Obiano continuing as governor. So as we speak, APGA is not available for Obiano for the next election. That leaves Anambra open. UPP will cut through Anambra like a knife through butter. It is an easy win for us. But we are not taking anything for granted. We are planning that even in our victory, we will be magnanimous. This is for the simple reason that the person speaking with you is the founder of both APGA and UPP. So if the two parties have the same DNA, an encounter cannot be vicious. It’s going to be like a family affair.
Do you have other things you want to tell Nigerians?
I will first express my disappointment in APC as a political party that is in government at the national level, a political party that controls 24 states out of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. And a political party that has the majority in the National Assembly. Yet, this is the party that has caused the greatest division among Nigerians. Nigerians have never been so divided. I have never seen a party like this in all my life.
I have never seen a party that will promise Nigerians, canvass true federalism, which is even in the first paragraph of their manifesto, but that was the very first thing the president who won election on the party’s platform said he will not look at. When he said he will confine the recommendations of the National Conference to the archive, he has simply set aside the manifesto of his party. And all these leaders – I call them pseudo leaders – in APC who are posturing that they are for restructuring, have not raised a voice to tell the president, even privately, that his public pronouncements and body language are antithetical to the ideological beliefs of the party.
Nigerians have been misled and deceived, it’s like a 419 kind of political gimmick. So every Nigerian that feels dissatisfied with what is happening should go and get his voter’s card. That is his weapon to liberate himself from this stranglehold that has kept most Nigerians miserable, so that during the next election, which is not far from now, they will be able to strongly determine who represents them, not just the president, but from the state assembly to the highest level.
Something is sweeping across the world at this time, and that is radical departure from the old order. In America, France, etc., this is happening. So Nigeria cannot be an exception.