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Iyobosa Uwugiaren dialogues with Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, a very strong voice in the political development of Nigeria, especially in Anambra State, on Nigeria’s democratic journey since 1999
On May 29, Nigeria clocked 20 years of uninterrupted democracy. Do you think we have made any progress?
I think we have every reason to celebrate. Much as I may accept that the growth has not been quite impressive, in so many areas, we have a lot to celebrate. The fact that we say it is uninterrupted for the past 20 years is in itself a major reason to celebrate. It means democracy has come to stay. When you look at the democratic processes, going by the last elections, there have been lots of improvement. It may not be in the conduct, but in the laws that are supposed to enable the process. There have been some landmark electoral laws that Mr. President has assented to. That means the future of elections in Nigeria is bright. Despite all the challenges we have seen in the past, votes might start counting very soon. That will trigger the correction of other processes that may have affected this democracy negatively. For instance, the quality of candidates that will contest in future elections and the processes of bringing up the candidates will improve. I am particularly happy that we have the candidates of the ruling party at the centre in two states, Zamfara and Rivers, who were excluded from the latest polls because of certain infractions. Who would have imagined that that could happen in Nigeria, where we simply think that once you are in power, you can have your way in everything? These little things, to me, matter a lot in assessing how far we have gone. I know also that it is taken for granted that parties in power could win certain states. I also saw in the last elections where an incumbent governor could not win a senatorial seat. These are indications that with the laws and corrections we have seen, there is hope that the future will be better. The result is that the electorate would have more confidence in the process and you may see better players coming into the process. That will increase the quality of participants. If we have quality legislators, then we should have a robust National Assembly. We will have quality people who may ordinarily not come out to partake because the process in the past has been frustrating, now coming out and emerging as governors. Economically, I don’t think that we have remained where we were 20 years ago. Today, our financial institutions are stronger and can do bigger businesses. Some of them are competing on the international stage. It is during this process that we produced billionaires. We have also seen certain sectors grown to be international leaders – the music industry and Nollywood, for instance. We have seen stronger and more independent legislature and judiciary. The National Assembly has shown that they can be independent and have views contrary to those of the executive. We have seen also similar situation with the judiciary.
The opposition, especially your party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), believes that some of the strides that we made democratically have been eroded by the incumbent administration. Do you share that sentiment?
I don’t have all the statistics to situate that sentiment; but I tend to look at democracy holistically in the last 20 years. It is a combination of what we have seen in the last four years and the preceding 16 years of the PDP. There is no doubt that we had less tension during the PDP days, especially during the Jonathan/Yar’Adua period. The PDP was in power for 16 years and they played a big role while All Progressives Congress (APC) has done four years going to five. We are watching to see what would happen at the end of the APC administration.
There is this argument concerning strong men as leaders as against the building of institutions. Part of the complaints in some quarters in the last four years concerns strong leadership rather than strong institutions to drive the process of development. Which would you subscribe to?
I have studied development in two countries; Singapore and Russia. If I were to use these two countries as example, There must be a balance. A strong leader with the right vision and honest mission is necessary. However, we need a combination of both in this part of the world, where certain things are still at developmental stage.
Many argue that if you combine both, you may blur the line between when the leader follows the process as constitutionally laid down and when he begins to drive things based on his own mission.
Either of these will work in line with the constitution because when you have a strong man, he does not downplay the constitution, but he would rather use the constitution in way that it will help him to achieve his vision.
Obasanjo tried to do third term. If the National Assembly had amended the constitution to allow that; I don’t think anybody will accuse him of not working with the constitution. How do you work round that and at the same time deliver development to the people, because meaning well is different from doing well?
I don’t support it when it’s for personal purpose like I’ve said. If it is for the purpose of having extraordinary constitutional powers to enable you hasten processes, engage in things that ordinarily will take a long time. As a matter of fact, it’s in all constitutions. It’s only recently we saw American Presidents dishing out executive powers. But it becomes a problem when you are unlucky to have a President who wants power to actualize a selfish personal agenda and to deal with the opposition. At that point, you expect the people to show that power actually belongs to them just like we had recently in Sudan and Algeria.
Looking at Nigeria in the last 20 years, many people believe that governors have not done what they should do and; today, we have only four or five states that can stand on their own. What do you make of that?
It is really a very sad story. Talking about some governors and their performance, yes, it is very disappointing. I believe in a developmental process that is from bottom up. When I say bottom up, I’m talking about local, state and federal government. Today, there are certain situations that are in some states for which we blame the Federal Government. And there are certain situations that could have been apprehended within the local government but we are sending SOS to the President. Then you wonder why you have local authorities and state governments. The reason is that the quality of governors we have produced in some states over the past 20 years is appalling. When most governors are looking for a deputy, it is an unwritten rule to choose a weak person who cannot really raise his head to give you any form of trouble or question your actions. The ideal thing is to choose a competent person to understudy you, so that in your absence or your exit, the deputy can continue with the vision you both share. That is why in many states the deputy does not succeed the governor. Look at it in terms of the electoral process, you find that because of the enormous resources in the hands of the governor, in 95 percent of the situation, it is a fait accompli that a sitting governor should return for second term even if he is not performing. A combination of all these has led to very poor quality of governors in the states and that has affected, to a very large extent, governance and dividends of democracy in the last 20 years.
Your state seems to be different because it does appear that All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) leadership has done so well….
It depends on the yardstick APGA is using to measure its performance. It depends also on what APGA is comparing itself to. If you compare APGA with many low performing states that cannot pay salaries, then you may be right. When you ask somebody like me if that is an achievement, I will say you are wrong because it is government responsibility. Paying salaries cannot be an achievement. How can a governor tell me he is doing well because he’s paying salaries? If you can’t manage the resources of the state and the people to be able to pay salaries, then you don’t need to contest in the first place. When you tell me if they have grown the size of the economy in Anambra, if you are looking at the economy in kobo terms when their source of income is chasing ‘Okada’ riders and motor parks as their of IGR, maybe they could be happy about it. For somebody like me, who knows the huge potentials of the state, I will say, ‘no’. If there is some sort of stability, compared to other states that are not performing well, they can take the first position. But have they actualized the potentials of the state? The answer is ‘no’ because, for me, your achievement depend on the target you set for yourself.
Are you not saying this because you are in the PDP? When you look at many PDP states too, they are celebrating tokenism.
It is not a matter of being a PDP state or being an APGA state. Any governor who cannot, in this age, take his state to the highest level, has nothing to celebrate, regardless of what political party he or she belongs to. I’m talking as a professional who knows what is happening around the world.
Would you say the challenges we are looking at now relate to the process of the emergence of people who are chosen as leaders using yardstick such as loyalty and godfatherism?
To a large extent, I say ‘yes’ from the point of view that competence, and credibility have been relegated to the background in choosing our leaders. In Anambra, we seem to have resigned to fate. The majority of the people may not be able to reverse the trend and those who are enlightened, who know better, some of them are in their different comfort zones outside the state and do not care what happens. The situation is not limited to Anambra. It is also happening in other states. I hope that with the electoral processes evolving and the new laws that make votes count, things will change, and competent people can come forward for leadership positions in states across the country.
The dominant issue now in Anambra state is about zoning for elective positions. What do you make of it?
I feel amused when people canvass for the zoning of governorship, especially in Anambra with the paralysis we have in government right now. Don’t get me wrong, zoning is okay where it is to create a balance and equity. But that can be done only for inconsequential positions, not for governorship. By the way, what are you zoning in Anambra? We should be talking about one state, one people and one development. Anambra is also a homogenous state. We speak the same language. We have the same faith – Christianity – 100 hundred percent. The territorial mass of Anambra is just like the ranch of one person in Texas. There is not much that divides Anambra people. What could be the basis of saying someone is not from my zone?
It’s not only politicians that are canvassing for zoning. Some clerics are also saying it is the way to go.
When you talk about zoning in Anambra for governorship, Obosi people will say “take it to my senatorial zone.” When they take it to a particular senatorial district, people will clamour to zone it to a religion before same people will demand the zoning to a particular village. When it gets to the village, people will have reason to say it should be their own family. I really think that it is those who do not mean well for Anambra, especially now that equity has been achieved, that are talking of zoning on the basis of senatorial district or religious denomination. What could be such a difference in political expectations between a typical Catholic and Anglican? There is basically not much difference. It could a different thing when you have a state where you have Christian population, Muslim population, Hindu population and the rest. It is only then you will be clamouring that maybe when you have your Muslim brother as governor, he might push for Sharia law, which offends your faith; or Hindu government who could as well do the same. As a Political Scientist who is a specialist in civil society, I wrote my PhD thesis on the role of civil society in the Nigerian political transition. During the course of my research, I found that despite all the political disabilities we had as a result of coup d’état, the only untouched, stable civil society in Nigeria has remained religious groups. Church is a civil society like a political party. As long as you see pure civil society definition as a group of people who could come together to use their own privilege, whether minor dominance, to exercise some influence to change things, church is like a labour union. Church is like a students’ union. During the military era, we saw them appoint military administrator for labour unions. We saw them proscribe students’ unions; you saw the National Assembly, political parties killed but the Church remained untouched. I respect the right of whether you are an Anglican, Catholic or Pentecostal, or any group coming together to demand for change that will affect the common good. If the coming together is for individual, selfish benefits, that’s when it contradicts the definition. Anambra is such a privileged state that has such homogeneity in terms of our culture. Our denomination can be used as strength and not as diversity. If only people will understand what it really means, they can use it to challenge the political class and become a balance to check the excesses of the political class, to demand for what is good for the state. Only one thing can solve this problem; a governor who has vision, someone who has competence, someone who is able because he will be focused on doing what is required for the office.
What do you mean by equity being achieved using zoning?
I have read a lot of articles which dealt with these issues very deeply and, to a very large extent, I concur with some of the opinions expressed. Since the history of the creation of the state, we’ve not had a governor from the northern zone. It is also known that it is one of the zones with the least development, mainly due to the location, riverine and there is not much emphasis on farming. The area is neglected. We don’t have any law to that effect. There was no meeting convened to that effect. But there was this understanding that if the northern part of Anambra should be given a sense of belonging to partake in governance, it would really help to reduce tension and promote equity. That period was when there was constitutional consideration for the creation of new states in the South-East. So, some local governments in the northern part were actually clamouring to be given their own state, which they called Orimiri State, including Onitsha. This is actually the genesis of this concern. At that point, most of the biggest things in Anambra like the market were actually in Onitsha before you go to the Nnewi axis. So, could it have been a feeling that out of the lack of sense of belonging and rejection that they succeeded, a large chunk of Anambra would have gone with them? One thing is that it is just a matter of parties giving them the ticket. The issue of winning does not mean that if other people had voted to the contrary, they would have gotten the ticket and lost. But having the ticket has actually also, to a large extent, served the purpose. I believe that election having been won by the APGA candidate who has won a second term that is ongoing, equity has been achieved. Some of the articles discussed, there was never a time that Anambra South did not contest for the ticket of major political parties with our northern brothers. The people that actually kept faith to zoning are those of Anambra Central because if you look at the candidates who have contested strongly, you can see that there was no strong central participation. Look at the 2013 election, when Dr. Chris Ngige came out to contest in then Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) against zoning, that was his poorest outing in Anambra. In the 2015 election, Osita Chidoka’s hometown, Obosi, had about 80,000 voters. But he scored only 5,000 votes. It shows entirely that Anambra Central people, as I have said, on equity for North we stand. Therefore, I really think that zoning has achieved its purpose, especially where governorship is concerned because the situation of the state is pathetic and you need a miracle worker who would come from any part of Anambra to rescue us.
What potential do you see in Anambra that you think others are not seeing, when you talk about generating IGR?
Anambra is unique. The leadership dynamics there cannot be the same with the leadership dynamics in Rivers, Lagos or Kano. It is a state with great potentials, seen mostly in the human capital. For us to realize that fully, we should be looking at a unity leader; a leader who must emerge by unifying all the various interests and factions in the state because if you emerge from one faction that alienates the other, you are losing a great resource that will help to galvanize people for the progress of the state. If you look at the issue of commerce, it is a state that has been first in so many things related to commerce. The unique nature of it is that the strong population of the state are in Diaspora. The potentials I see there that have not been tapped is a leadership that must be able to create a system that should be closely connected or linked or exposed to the Diaspora. If you look at last year’s statistics of the money transferred from outside Nigeria into the economy, it was more than the amount of oil revenue we generated. In Anambra, the people sustaining the quality of life are people who are not making income in Anambra. That’s why when you look at the poverty index of Nigeria, Anambra is the lowest, not because of the government or leadership of the state. Majority of the people who live there, even it is time for them to marry, their brothers and sisters overseas send them money for the dowry. When it is time for them to go to hospital, the money comes from overseas. Where they cannot cure them locally, they fly them abroad. The prospect is that we must have a leader who is a team player and is able to co-opt all various interests, bring them to table and say we have divided ourselves for so long along political lines with godfather issues like we’ve had in the past. He must be able to bring people together to sit down on the table and actualize whatever agenda. I think that if that is done, we become the Anambra of my dream and that Anambra of my dream is that state that is secure, where every life is treated as sacred. Our life in Anambra is actually guided by biblical principles because of the impact of religion in all aspects of our life. The first development that came into that state that made Anambra what it is, education, hospitals, came from Anglicans and Catholics and I do not see why people should try to divide these people or alienate them in any way in the current developmental process of the state. That is why today some people still worry and ask that why is it that in Anambra politics, some people might go to court, people might accuse each other in the newspapers, but you’ve never heard of any political assassination? It’s because we are strongly guided by our religious principles and we will like to see a prosperous Anambra. We can only be prosperous when all our material resources and highly equipped human capital with our intellectual profile are fully developed and harnessed. I do not also think that we should continue to tamper with local governments. It must be autonomous. It’s only when development starts from bottom up that we can realize our full potential. With that done, we would have restored the pride by repositioning it to take its dominant place in commerce again and strive towards full industrialization, which is actually the next big thing if combined with agriculture. Take a hold of commerce, dominate it and then use the proceeds to drive our industrial and agricultural growth. That is the way to go.