Nothing can stop power shift to South in 2023 – Okechukwu

Osita Okechukwu is a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the director-general of the Voice of Nigeria (VON). In this interview with BODE OLAGOKE, he speaks on why power will shift to the South in 2023, his assessement of this year’s general elections in the South-east and the scramble for NASS leadership positions, among other issues.

Elections have been won and lost. If you are to give a post mortem, what do you make of the litigation arising from the outcome of the presidential election?

To be honest with you, I don’t see much in the litigation. Without prejudice to the tribunal, I don’t see much in the presidential election tribunal. One, because if we want to be pragmatic, instead of being political or blowing propaganda; that is always there. Mr. President, for God’s sake, has a vote bank of 12 million votes.

That was first gazetted in 2003 repeated in 2007.

If you remember, if you were there in the new INEC office at airport road, I was one of the agents of Mr. President. We were waiting for the results of Borno for instance — it was yet to come; Imo had not come when Professor Iwu walked out of the collation centre and called the media and announced the results he had on a sheet of paper and walked away.

I think about eight states had not come in, but he announced the result, which to me was a result he manufactured by himself, because even the beneficiary of that result being a statesman, the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, owned up to the fact that the system that brought him to power was fraudulent! That was what led him to establish the Justice Mohammed Uwais panel on electoral reform which has remained one of the most incisive panels.

In 2011, the 12 million voters still voted for him; in 2015, the same thing. What denied him victory outside his region in 2011 was the fact that he needed a critical supplement from the South which Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu by his own grace and strategy provided.

Nobody can deny that. He had more votes in 2015 than he had in 2019.He has what you call in political science cult followership that he has always have. So, anybody going about saying that he went to Facebook to organise a result knows that practical realities were waiting for them. But the fact of the matter is that he has always demonstrated it; in Kano, he got 4.4m votes. In most of the votes in the North where he has cult followership he made more votes than the governors. I am not surprised about that.

Secondly, and most importantly, the issue that Nigerians used to push aside about the presidential election result. If you take time to go through the demography and cadre of the 84 million accredited voters of Nigeria, you will discover that housewives – 14.7 million; farmers, 16.7 million. That’s 35%, INEC data. That’s Buhari’s base and the majority of them voted for him and that’s substantial. He is more inclined to the masses than his major opponent. He is a Talakawa and that’s what he inherited in the North.

So, even if you repeat an election tomorrow those people will still vote for him and as God will have it, Asiwaju and our members in the South-west made history: they made over 80% in the South-west. For the South-east and for the first time, Buhari got 25% in three states out of five, which he didn’t have in 2015, 2011 and 2003. This time around, he got 403, 000.

When you go back to the South-south, he never had one million votes in all the previous elections, but he had that this time around in 2019. So, even those who claimed that he rigged the election, I normally ask them, did Buhari rig in the South-south or in the South-east? He didn’t.

But the observation of the main opposition party, the PDP, is that INEC was selective in its application of rules guiding the electoral process. For instance, they argue that the commission was strict on the application of smart card reader in the southern part of the country unlike the North. What is your take on this?

It isn’t a good argument. You know why? If you come to Dugbe area of Ibadan and you want to dispense with the card reader, does that mean Osita Okechukwu had no agent? Because if my people said no, we must use card reader, it will be used! Are they saying that Atiku had no supporters in the North? If they are saying so, then they fall in line with what we have been telling them; that part of why Atiku lost was the Ohaneze Ndigbo, Afenifere, Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF from the South-south and the Middle Belt Forum. They just sat down one day and they said they were adopting him! You don’t adopt a child of somebody without a good agreement with him. If you do so, it backfires. That’s why Atiku had 50,000 votes in Yobe. So, are they saying the man has no supporters in Yobe or he had no agents in Yobe? So, for those agents there was no record to show that they were chased away, no report I read by foreign or local observers that they were chased away.

What happened is that this is a president that committed a lot of resources, energy, and sweat in trying to get rid of Boko Haram that has tormented the region. Nobody in the affected zones will forget such a person.

The Boko Haram that you just mentioned – the concern out there is that the security situation is getting scarier. Apart from Boko Haram, bandits are having a field day in the northern states. Nigerians are of the opinion that after the election, inertia has crept into the Presidency. That the APC was desperate for power without a corresponding sense of responsibility?

No, anybody saying that is either doing propaganda or he doesn’t know that the front lines weren’t a one-day matter. When in the last six years before President Muhammadu  Buhari came, budget year in year out, the Lagos Ibadan road was budgeted for and the money vanished, the Enugu- Port Harcourt appeared in the budget disappeared, Kano- Maiduguri appeared in the budget, disappeared! Those misdemeanors created a dysfunction. You know what it means when they tell you that over 10 million kids are out of schools? You know what it means when they tell you that over 12 million Nigerian youth are unemployed? That over 80 million are underemployed? It wasn’t built up in one day. So, those are the material conditions that gave birth to insecurity, but it could have been worse if not for the commitment of Mr. President and he is also looking for the solution.

The solution lies in critical infrastructure. He has embarked on 5,000 km of federal roads, 5, 000km of standard gauge railway lines, and additional 5, 000 of electricity. The Mambila he is doing, he didn’t moot the idea, it was mooted as far back as 1973; it is going to produce in the fullness of completion in the next two years, 3, 000 megawatts of electricity. The coal in Enugu that he is interested in in the fullness of time, he is going to produce about 1, 000 megawatts of electricity.

Those were in the cards, but they were never implemented. The mushroom of crimes is because of employment. I went to NYSC the other day, they said they record over two million graduates that come for national service in a year and not up to 20% are being employed. That’s why we are saying the national assembly that is coming in the 9th Assembly should please cooperate with Mr. President so that his source of funding, both grants and loans, should be secured so that we can have infrastructure to get Nigerians back to work.

Anybody that tells you that the country will move without modern transport system, without adequate electricity supply, is living in a fool’s paradise.

Are you painting a picture of hopelessness, considering the fact that all these things you have itemised have gestation periods? Before it manifests, we shall be at the mercy of bandits and Boko Haram because, like you said, no infrastructure to drive employment. Is that the picture you are painting? 

No, I am not painting that picture. Go to Ibadan, the rail reconstruction to Lagos has employed, directly or indirectly over 200,000 persons. When it is through, it will certainly employ more people and it is also going to help Lagos because some people will now live in Ibadan and transit to Lagos less than one hour. That’s the kind of development we are saying.

If it starts work, it starts to employ from day one, direct and indirect but if you go to the national assembly now and block him, making it difficult for such loans to be accessed or some ultra economists saying we don’t need to borrow, we are over borrowing. If you don’t borrow, where do you get the money? These are heavy capital intensive projects, but we must do these projects; that’s what is done in London to make the United Kingdom what it is. There are rail lines in the US and there are federal roads – most of them were done by borrowing.  So, when people say, let us borrow and do critical infrastructures, people gets scary and you now ask them: if you have more electricity the amount of money you use in sourcing diesel and running the generator will be very low. The high tariffs of the hotels won’t be there if there is electricity. So, I am saying, one that the situation we find ourselves would have been worse if not what Mr. President is doing. And he wants to encourage the governors to also intensify their own efforts, because some of them are blaming the Constitution, but it doesn’t prevent them from doing certain things.

If you actually look thoroughly inside the Constitution, some of the things being hyped on the Constitution aren’t true. There are a lot of things you can do as a governor if you examine the Constitution well. Mr. President is begging them that everybody should sign in on the independence of the judiciary, independence of the House of Assembly, but some of the governors are reluctant because House of Assembly shouldn’t be a rubber stamp house. All the local government chairmen and councillors are in the pockets of most of the governors. We must get away from that so that we also help ourselves. We shouldn’t look at power from the perspective of ‘myself and against the public.’

The picture you just painted leaves one with the impression that the legislative arm of government is the encumbrance on Buhari presidency. But they would argue that they don’t have to be a rubber-stamp legislature

No, nobody will ever or never canvass for a rubber stamp legislature or national assembly. Nobody would do that. But what we are saying is that issues that concern critical infrastructure should be separated, because nobody in the country today has said Mr. President isn’t embarking on one federal road, two or three in his state.

Nobody has accused him of being selective on that. The Eastern corridor rail line is going to connect 18 states, but he needs to be supported. Let us not get scary. America we copy on a daily basis owes the world; they are indebted even to Nigeria. This is borrowing that concerns development and we have the number. When you have the people you pay your loan easily and everybody knows that he won’t pilfer the loans.

Post 2015 elections: We had chieftains of the PDP moving into the APC, boasting that with their defection, the APC will take South-east. We just had a general election. APC didn’t add one state, but lost even Imo to PDP. What actually happened?

Please, don’t run into a puzzle that some people are floating. It isn’t a one-party state. We are running a multi-party system, where two dominant political parties are prevailing, same thing in the US, same thing in the UK. Wherever you have a multi-party system, the two dominant political parties naturally one of them will have strongholds. It isn’t new. Some parties maintain some states for over 20 years in the US until one accident or the other happens.

Secondly, as I told you earlier, I said there was also a vile propaganda by Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, PANDEF, and Middle Belt Forum that adopted Atiku. We were going into the election, we were happy at the onset that the fault lines that were knocking down the growth of democracy in Nigeria have been erased because between President Muhammadu  Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, they are both Fulani Muslims, and from the North. We thought that the issue of ethnicity and religion will be put off the cards until my brothers adopted Atiku. In fact, they got higher than Atiku did on the issue of restructuring.

Afenifere asked South-west to vote Atiku, but the APC still won substantially in four states, out of six. Why did all of your boasting to take the South-east couldn’t even secure Imo?

If you ask why we didn’t retain Imo, you should lay the blame in Oshiomhole’s hands

How do you mean?

The mainstream of APC in Imo by the conclusion of the party congress had rescued APC from Rochas Okorocha’s hands. By the time Oshiomhole came on board in June, even I met with him on July 12 and I pleaded with him that the mainstream led by Senator Osita Izunaso, Ifeanyi Araraume had recovered APC from your friend’s hands, don’t give him back. If you give him back, we lose Imo. I pleaded with him. So, the loss of Imo was in Comrade Oshiomhole’s hands; he shouldn’t absolve himself. What he told me that day was that Rochas was the first governor that came to support him. I told him everybody supported you, even those who stepped down before we went for the convention; regard them as your supporters.

I told him that Governor Okorocha had alienated the people and that ‘if you give him back APC, we will lose Imo.’ So, Oshiomhole shouldn’t absolve himself from the crisis in Imo even if he is absolved elsewhere.

But Oshiomhole still ensured that Uche Nwosu, Okorocha’s son-in-law didn’t pick the APC governorship ticket. Did it not vitiate your claim that he handed over the party to his friend?

If Oshiomhole didn’t cancel the Congress that was concluded before he was elected, he cancelled it now and gave the apparatus to Rochas Okorocha! When I met him, he said Okorocha was the first governor that supported his bid. I asked him, because of that, don’t throw away the APC. He said he would ask Okorocha to take certain percentage of the structure; that for now he had no hand in the party management and I told him it was better to leave Okorocha empty handed!! He went and argued with Rochas to take Senate or governorship. The man said no; immediately he cancelled the primaries, Rochas grabbed the structure. He came back to him to take one and leave the rest to accommodate others and the man said no. But I warned him. I told him unless you have a plan to kill the APC in Imo; if you have a plan to kill APC in Imo, give him.

The APC has endorsed the North-east and South-west for Senate presidency and speakership. The party went further to micro-zone to individuals and there have been strong reservations. What is your take on the dissent over micro- zoning?

Let us be honest. In every political discourse, if you want to be pragmatic and reasonable. Senator Ahmed Lawan and Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila have been our arrowheads in both chambers. Don’t think they are just coming yesterday. They have been our arrowheads.

Yes, you must balance as well, but a lot of people are behaving as if the strategic offices are only in the national assembly. The carrots aren’t only in the national assembly and even in the national assembly; there are about eight carrots in both houses. There is deputy speaker, deputy Senate president, there is the majority leader of both houses, and there is chief whip. If you leave that, there are committees that are strategic. But outside that, in the Executive branch as well there are carrots and zones that can be balanced. But if you want Mr. President to work seamlessly as regards these critical infrastructure, you need Gbajabiamila and Lawan. That has been my own view. We don’t want any excuse. For some of us, I want railway station to return in Enugu and whatever will make it possible I will go for it. I want the Enugu coal industry to be revived and I want the Second Niger Bridge to be completed. I want the federal roads in the South-east to be completed before Mr. President leaves. So, there are carrots.

Talking about carrots, your zone isn’t in the APC power equation and they keep distributing. Aren’t you worried that the South-east is being shut out?

How can you leave out my zone? You can’t leave the Igbo, otherwise even if you do Lagos to be good, are we going to lose? The Nigerian problem is that you haven’t developed anywhere, otherwise go and develop Damaturu and make it a place that competes favourably with any city in the world, Igbo won’t lose. And immediately you start Damaturu, it means you will do others. But what is happening now is that nothing is done until these three years after Mr. President started insisting and we are saying let us give him support. The four years he has left is very scanty and before you know it, it will disappear. The South-east has no gas plant, even in Nnewi. It is Buhari that has that plan and he is going to borrow money for that. All the carrots aren’t finished in the national assembly, they aren’t. There are other juicy carrots. Some of these service chiefs are going on retirement and Mr. President has talked about inclusiveness. He has said that whatever it is this government is going to be inclusive. He has said that more than twice and you know he isn’t a pretentious person.

Are you of the strong conviction that power will shift in 2023?

Why not?

You must have read the comments attributed to the immediate past SGF, Babachir Lawal, that the North might retain the Presidency?

These are fringes! When Obasanjo was given presidency even the Yoruba did not vote for him. Did it stop the power to shift to the South-west? Did Yoruba vote for him in 1999? So, don’t listen to propaganda. They will tell you, the Igbo aren’t united, but I ask, who is united?

I have been with Buhari since 2003; did all the Hausa-Fulani follow him? No. The elite of the North didn’t follow him. Did it stop him from being president? When the Nigerian people decide that the Igbo by merit, equity and natural justice should be brought back to the mainstream and let them be president, it will happen. The likes of Babachir Lawal, Junaid Mohammed these are fringe elements that don’t make the mainstream.

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