The Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, Mr Osita Okechukwu, a die-hard supporter of President Muhammadu Buhari, in this interview with Tobi Soniyi and Shola Oyeyipo, admits that the Igbos have a genuine case to demand for equal treatment. However, leaving Nigeria, he said, is not an option. Excerpts
In your view, is leaving the country the solution to South-east marginalisation?
There are areas like the issue of number of state, because these states, none, since the civil war, was created by referendum. The states and local councils, yes! They are deliberate merginalisation of the Igbo. There is no doubt about that. But if it is whether the Igbos are accepted in this country, I would say yes, we are highly accepted. Acceptability in all nation states, especially in vast ones like ours, is measured not only by government but also by inter-personal relationship between individual where they inhabit. So, to that extent, the Igbos are accepted.
The fault lines of tribe and religion do exist all over the world. Yes, it impact on Igbos; not as a single out, it is because of the law of what we call proportion. In about 28 states of the country, if you take an accurate census and tell everybody who is an original indigene of Lagos State – stand this side; the next tribe that lives here, stand the other side; the Igbos. I don’t know the other tribe that would come second. If you go to Kano, the same thing. If you go to Calabar, the same thing. If you go to Akwa-Ibom and Maiduguri, the same thing. It is only in Kaduna that you tell all the indigene to stay on one side that we can compete with any other tribe. Same in Kwara, Niger and Ondo State. We will beat any other person in Jos. To me, it is acceptability. And the Igbos have been allowed their businesses to thrive in the areas where they inhabit. Even in small villages and towns.
We, by the grace of democracy and the cordial relationship; the Igbos produced two House of Representatives members from Lagos. It is acceptability in my own understanding. I keep on saying this and I also said for those who are agitating that we should leave that there are two platforms of exiting; one through democracy, one through force. Majority of the people, if asked, they will say they want to leave through democracy. And I said if that be the case, the highest organised Igbo position to any conference since the independence was the Abacha conference. The formal vice president – an elder statesman led the Igbo to that conference with one singe agenda; regions. Guess what happened? When it came to the turn of the regions, Enugu and Ebonyi States voted against region. Lagos and Ogun voted against region. Majority of the states in the South-south voted against region. Majority of the states in the North voted against region. Then there was a repeat performance; the 2005 Obasanjo conference. You might say that it was not democratic but the position is that those who went voted against region. In the Jonathan Constitutional Conference of 2014, the same voting pattern was repeated. No one region voted collectively for a regional government. Because it is very easy for us to talk about democracy and also when votes take place some people will say no, we were not there, but some people were there! We of the APC we opposed the Jonathan conference because our idea was because it was an emergency conference to railroad the Nigerian electorate into the Jonathan government but inspite of that, those who are more concerned and affiliated to the Biafran struggle, those that went to the Jonathan conference but they couldn’t vote even one region. So, we must take note of that. If you take note of that you will now ask yourself, what is the solution?
I am 62 and I have never spent more than a year out of the country since I was born. It is what you pointed out. The overt structural marginalisation of the Igbos in state creation and local government creation. Overt in the sense that the truism is that the revenue of the country is being shared along this line. The representation in the National Assembly is being settled along these lines. If you say the number from the South-east it becomes three times five while in the regions that have six states they are 18. In the North-west that has seven they are 21. So, even if it is take away of the senators, it becomes marginalisation. And we are one of the highest populated group in the country but if it comes to the issue of appointments under our present government, but the strict method of appointment in this regime is not peculiar to Igbos either. That is what I keep telling my people. I said in certain sections of the North there is agitation for us to scale it up so that there will be equity and justice and I believe that Mr. President acknowledges that that kind of noise exists. So, the issue of appointments for me; we have more than 2000 vacancies left, which I believe can be used to level.
But guess what. If you look back, the Jonathan regime, the Igbos once had Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Minister of Finance that Coordinated the Economy as well! We had two-times Minister of Power. We had deputy senate president. We had deputy speaker and numerous juicy appointments under the Jonathan regime, but the paradox is, under that regime, the Onitsha Bridge – the Second Niger Bridge, the little he did was package a PPP and did not pay the federal government counterpart fund before he exited.
The Obasanjo era, inspite of the Igbos in the PDP primaries in Jos, in February 1999, they still voted the PDP but between that 1999 and 2015, what is the result? Decayed infrastructure, dilapidated federal roads, non-revamping of Enugu Coal and other essential minerals in the South-east. Yes, those who got SGF, Senate President, Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker, CBN Governor, they lived a luxurious life but the communities they come from are worst off.
In this Buhari regime where we don’t get as much as they did then, federal roads are being addressed. The second Niger Bridge, Buhari has paid N14billion already out of about N30 billion that Federal Government of Nigeria is required to pay as counterpart funding on the bridge. He is also looking into Enugu coal. I was with the Minister of Solid Mineral, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. He is almost ramping up an arrangement to revamp Enugu coal with a South African company. While we had two ministers of power they did not do so. We once had Prof. Barth Nnaji and Prof. Nebo as ministers of power.
What is worth praying for is for Buhari to return back to health, look into the agitations of several sections of the country that truly the appointment was against them. Because I believe when the president comes back, with over 2000 appointments left, there is enough room for redress. I am more interested on projects not appointment.
2019 is in the corner and there is this agitation that the presidency should go to the South-east, what is your view about that?
My view is very simple. I have made it clear. I said that there is convention in public affairs. That is the law. The convention has its moral weight. The law has its legal teeth. It is the convention that governs United Kingdom government. That is why they run an unwritten law.
Lets not forget, when we got to the fourth republic, the Northern elites who have a better command of the Nigerian Army, said, in their own patriotic interest, for the country to remain united we should rotate power to the South and it went to the South-west. In order to heal the wounds of the outcome of the criminal annulment of Chief MKO Abiola’s June 12, 1993 general election. The assumption that gave birth to the convention we are living on, whether it is the APC constitution or not, whether it is in PRP constitution or not; the only party that has it in its constitution is the PDP but it was an outcome of that convention that was sold to save the Nigerian state, to create peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence.
The gap of the eight years came with Obasanjo: 1999 to 2007. When Chief Obasanjo wanted to add, the Nigerian people said no. They rose on their feet. To obey that convention. Even the greatest reason why Jonathan lost the 2015 election outside the issue of corruption was that he was breaching a convention. I do not see if President Buhari returns to health, why I should tell the Igbos this is their turn. Rather, we are talking of 2023 when the North must have concluded eight years. Because the convention, in Nigeria, has become a life of its own. When the former president, Chief Obasanjo said it is the turn of the Igbos, I said when he finished in 2007 why didn’t he give the Igbos when he had the levers of power? Why is he now seating in his comfort at Hill Top Mansion and dishing out orders that it is your turn meanwhile from his own record he said he is no more member of any political party. So, is he giving what he doesn’t have?
I saw it as mischief! Very great mischief by an elder statesman. So, left to me, if President Buhari returns to health, we should allow him to finish the solid foundation he is laying for the prosperity and progress of the country. Some people say there is no foundation. Why no foundation? Everybody agrees that they cannot take money as they used to do before. Buhari did not invent the TSA. He did not invent the BVN. But these are two instruments he had implemented and getting deeper. If you listen to the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, you need to see the level that socio-mechanism has taken Nigeria to. We are coming to a cashless society. So, how are you going to carry the money now? How? Your little account that money trickles in, suddenly you see N500m there, how do you explain it? Or you give it to somebody or your driver to keep it in my bedroom and when he finishes he whistles. He gets five percent of it. And according to Adeosun in one of her town hall meetings, she said they are not compelled to let people know who told government what. So that even the whistle blower is protected.
Do you therefore agree that by 2023, assuming the president runs and completes his second term, it would be unfair not to zone it to the South-east?
If President Buhari should stand on his feet; I don’t see anyone ….. look at what I told you. The other day we deliberately went on the road being constructed. For instance, Enugu-Onitsha. If you see the thickness of what RCC is putting on the ground there. By the time they complete only one lane of the dual carriage, for a people who could not travel without losing their tyres under unintended consequences of bad roads, you now tell them not to vote for Mr. president. I have also passed through Ilorin, Ibadan and Lagos because most of the time I travel on road. So, if you are traveling from Lagos to Ibadan and it becomes easier for you will you throw your vote away? With little fund and much is being done. The Igbos are not fools.
Recently, the Chief of Army State, General Tukur Buratai warned soldiers against hobnobbing with politicians. Many suspected he was warning against coup. Why would anyone want to engage in coup now?
The world has said no to military coup.
What happened in 1999? When the military professional research group that had given itself the mandate to stop coup all over the world came to Nigeria to save democracy, the then Chief of Army Staff, General Victor Malu was opposed. He said ‘Are you people coming to take over the army?’ They told him no sir. We are here to help you to make sure that there will be no coup again. That we have done that in Latin America, we have done that in the Middle East. We didn’t come to take over the Nigerian Army sir. What we came to do here is to install what we install by psychology, by training, the credibility of officers are soldiers. Malu did not believe them.
Even if you want to plan coup in Nigeria now, there are certain things that are on the ground that will not allow it to work. Both on moral side; that there is a consensus that this is not it; that the over 30 years of military rule in Nigeria did not add any plus and the world has said no as well. And there are instruments that also will reveal who is planning what. It is not only on the technological side, it is also on the moral and the world convention. So, what Buratai is saying is not what anybody should misunderstand. There are people who go with soldiers to their villages for festival, for marriages. I think that is what Buratai is talking about. You know Nigerians, we are show people. We want to flaunt wealth. That they are able to gather Mobile Police in one truck, military in the other. I think that is what Buratai is talking about. He is not talking about military coup.
The opposition PDP has maintained that the anti-corruption war of Buhari is selective and targeted mostly at the opposition. Do you share that view?
Would you four years ago probe Osita Okechukwu as Director-General of Voice of Nigeria? You can probe me today because this is my seat. Would you, ten years ago, have probed Diezani
Madueke as Minister of Petroleum? So, I told my friends, I said the little I know about Buhari, if he is alive and he is going for eight years, he will jail some of us because after four years somebody will say Mr. President, can you go through this file sir? Mr. Osita Okechukwu did not pay this one, did not pay that one. The person could have done it five years ago.
We are now in charge of NNPC, who is going to be probed? It is the Group Managing Director today that will be probed tomorrow. It is the Minister of Petroleum today that will be probed tomorrow. It is the ministers today that will be probed tomorrow. It is the nature of the event. So, there is nothing selective about it. Now, we have returned to whistleblowing, so why don’t they blow it?
We are even saying the drive needs to go deeper because we needed more people in the cocktail, so that if they are in the cocktail, it becomes a deterrent because human being by nature is selfish and greedy but you can tame man’s greed by efficient monitoring. Look at what a young man like Ibrahim Magu is doing. Can you fault him? The day the senators rejected him, I was not shocked but that day I respected Magu. Those who are saying Buhari is partial or selective, out of those being prosecuted, is there any of them that they said did not steal?
Sambo Dasuki, is he of different religion with Buhari? In fact, if they talk of the caliphate, he is scion of the main headquarters of the caliphate. So, nobody should be saying that Buhari was selective. My friend and my brother, Olisa Metuh, he didn’t say that he didn’t collect money, what he was saying is that it was approved and they are saying there was no budget. For me, it is a social revolution. It is quiet but it is a social revolution.
People are growing impatient, especially on the economic front with recession biting harder. What is your advice?
My little advice as Yoruba will say is ‘surulere’ (there are gains in being patient). Why are my saying surulere, look at it now, infrastructures in the universities are being re-fixed. The only problem is that I don’t think most states are doing much. If most states and local councils are playing their own part, that NGO would be different. It seems everybody is focused only on the federal governKent The councilor that was elected in my village about three years ago, he is building a mansion. Nobody asked why? In fact, the villagers will jubilate that the guy knows what he is doing. So, the war has to be fought on the psychological side as well that the people should know that when you cross the red line by flaunting what you are not supposed to have, the people should ask how. That over 40 percent between the state and the local council, we should start querying it. If we don’t query it we would have more hardship.
What is your take on the issue of restructuring of the country?
I am not a big fan of restructuring.
One, I have not got a good definition of restructuring. Secondly and most importantly, for some of us who are the weak and the poor, we must be afraid that if we restructure without setting out a template of transparency and accountability it means that when we get back to my state that you are restructuring for me, those who stole in the past, even without federal police, can also kill us. It happened in the first republic.
Why don’t we collectively listen to the foundation we are laying now. We are borrowing over $4bn for the expansion of the transmission lines – what us called the super gauge, and I ask them, if the over $5bn being borrowed for Mambila and it produces 3000 megawatts. If the $1.5bn being borrowed to make Lagos-Kano standard gauge, is it not to make it easier for transit in Nigeria? And the good agitation that they made that the eastern corridor also should be opened, can it be opened if we become Enugu State or eastern region? So why don’t we level the country so that the weak points can be strengthened under this arrangement?
If you look back at the Jonathan regime, the Igbos once had Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Minister of Finance that coordinated the economy as well! We had minister of power two times. We had deputy senate president. We had deputy speaker and numerous juicy appointments, but the paradox is, under that regime, the Onitsha Bridge – the Second Niger Bridge, was left undone, the little he did was to package a PPP and did not pay the federal government counterpart fund before he exited.