Ekwueme explodes – Why Jonathan won't get block votes in South-East
Though it was not a Sunday, Dr Alex Ekwueme, former Vice President, who had a scheduled interview appointment, took The Sun team to his chapel, a sanctuary in the upper chamber of the right wing of his house.
He had led the way from his living room to climb the staircase to the chapel, explaining that it was the only place the interview could be held without much distraction from visitors.
After we had ascended the 'holy' upper chamber, we began the business of the day that lasted for about two hours, with the octogenarian looking at the country, remembering what had happened as if they occurred just yesterday, appraising power equations from independence in 1960 till now.
Dr Ekwueme, who co-founded the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with some other illustrious Nigerians, also looked at the current state of the party, saying that things have fallen apart in the PDP envisioned to be a mass movement that would rule the country for 60 years.
He also told the story of how the party has derailed from the original vision of the founders, and how the leadership has abandoned him.
Looking at the crises rocking the PDP across the country, he said that he was not sure if the successes of the past would be the same during the February elections.
He pointedly said that President Goodluck Jonathan may not be fortunate again to have overwhelming support like he had in the past in the South-East, saying that he had taken the zone for granted.
Dr Ekwueme spoke just as there are vociferous voices from the South-East, alleging unfair treatment by the Jonathan administration. It would be recalled that when Dr Ekwueme turned 80, the president did not attend the ceremony, but he was in Lagos to attend the birthday of Dr Tunji Braithwaite. Former Abia State governor, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, had written President Jonathan then, pointing out the possible oversight, but the president reportedly minuted the letter to Chief Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, who merely laughed the matter off.
Just on New Year eve, Catholic priest, Father Ejike Mbaka, had also delivered a sermon, which was very critical of the Jonathan administration. In fact, the priest asked the president to step out of general elections coming up next month, as he would not get a second term in office.
Excerpts of the interview with Dr Ekwueme:
Your Excellency, how has life been with you?
Well, I cannot thank God enough for all He has done for me. At 83, I'm fit and lively. This morning, I've played two sets of tennis, there are many people at my age who can't walk unsupported and some are bedridden, but by the grace of God, am still very fit and moving about. So, life has been good to me, and I cannot thank God enough for all these benefits bestowed on me within these 83 years plus.
What is the secret of your good health?
I don't really know, but I think the main factor is that everything should be done with moderation. I drink, but I don't drink to a point where I start misbehaving. I eat, but I'm not a glutton, I just eat enough to satisfy my appetite. I smoke, not cigarette anymore, I smoke cigars once or twice a week and I try to exercise to keep fit. I think these are basically what I can refer to, if you want to call them the secret of my good health.
Okay, let's look at Nigeria. In 1960, you were a youth. What was the Nigeria you saw at independence, up to the time you became the Vice President in 1979 and to the period you left in 1983?
In 1960, I was at the Race Course, as it was called then, on October 1, when the Union Jack was lowered and Nigerian flag, the Green-White-Green was hoisted and Prince Alexandra handed over the instrument of office to Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. At that time, we had very lofty expectations of what Nigeria would become. In fact, those of us then, we felt Nigeria would be the pride of the African continent, and that it would be a model of the ex-British colony because the journey to independence was very tortuous.
There were many conferences, starting from the Ibadan Conference of 1950, so many conferences in Nigeria, so many in UK until arrangement was fashioned, which was acceptable to the leaders at that time. So, we were very optimistic and hopeful that with this detailed work at independence, that Nigeria would be a success story of British colonialism. Now, as you know, that has not been because within five years and six months of that exercise, the political terrain had become so rough to a point that those of us who lived in Lagos could not travel to Ibadan in safety without fear that you would be stopped on the way and your car burnt, and there was almost a state of anarchy. In that confusion, some young soldiers thought the best thing to do was to get rid of the leadership, not just the leadership, but their own leadership, the military leadership, which was what happened in 1966 and which triggered a chain of reactions and counter reactions.
In July, the same year, there was counter reaction which resulted in the elimination of most of the military officers in Eastern Nigeria and after that it got to a situation where we had to scamper from the North to the Eastern Nigeria in search of safety, the rest is now history. There was secession and there was civil war and after three years, we came back in January, 1970, until 1979, the military decided to hand over to the civilians. That's how we came on board. But three months in the second term, they came up again; they put us aside and took over. On December 31, 1983 they had a palace coup within the military, which changed the leadership that lasted almost eight years, the Babangida regime, until he stepped aside and then brought in an interim government. From interim government to Abacha, from Abacha to Abdulsalami and Abdulsalami decided to hand over to the civilians. In 1999, 'civilians' (in quotation marks) came back on the scene but the civilian who came back was the military civilian.
At independence, you had lofty expectations and in 1979 you were given an opportunity to become the Number Two citizen. What efforts did you make to ensure that those lofty dreams were realised?
First and foremost, anybody who has a sense of history will know that for about 34 years we were enslaved, until on December 31, 1983, which can be regarded as the golden age of Nigerian politics, because there was democratic freedom in the real sense of it. The party at the centre then, NPN, (National Party of Nigeria), the chairman of the party came from the South- West, the President from the North-West, I, Vice President from the South-East, the President of the Senate from the South- South and eventually Speaker of the House first, from the South-East and later from the North-Central.
So, every part of Nigeria had a sense of belonging, you cannot buy that cheaply in the market. That is the main thrust of our contribution. But unfortunately, the military was impatient to let that experiment grow and three months in the second term they came again; otherwise, if we had continued, Nigeria would have become a modern democratic state in which every Nigerian will have a sense of belonging, which is the most important thing and everybody will have a sense of citizenship and nobody will feel he or she is a second class citizen and we would have provided security and a mass oriented programme like housing, Green Revolution, that's agriculture. So, these are the contributions we had.
You said that the return of civilian rule, the first one by Obasanjo, was a kind of military civilian administration. We remember that you were at the head of the G34 that metamorphosed into the PDP that drafted Obasanjo into that election; so why did you say so?
It is not G34 that drafted Obasanjo. He was in jail in Yola when we organised the party and the first election under the new civilian dispensation was the local government election in December 1998, which was to be a litmus test for deciding which political parties would be registered, and as you will recall, PDP swept the votes throughout the country. It was a very popular party, so we made the party at the risk of our own lives. If you go back to 8th May 1998, one of the magazines had a shouting headline: 'Ekwueme takes on Abacha.' It wasn't a pleasant thing for Abacha to hear.
If I do not have friends who warned me, I won't be alive talking to you now because he didn't like what we were doing at all. And of the 34 who were represented in the G34, I was actually the one that was signing the memorandum, it is my signature that was on it and in other documents because I was chairman of the group, and he didn't like it. And Directors of the SSS in Enugu where I stay, in Anambra here, my home state and in Owerri, Imo State where I have business interest, were told to keep 24-hour watch on me so that anytime it pleases Abacha, I would be picked up.
But somebody, a friend who didn't like what probably was to happen, came and told me, and said I must get out of here very quickly and I did. I drove from here to Cotonou to Ghana and from Accra I fled to London and I was in London planning how to strategize to come back, and then Abacha died. Then Abdulsalami invited us, the United Nations, Kofi Annan came and spoke to us, the G34 group, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth came and spoke to us, then we moved on until the actual return of civilian politics. But don't forget the background that led to the popularity of the PDP in the December 1998 elections, that is local government elections, House of Assembly elections, state governorship, National Assembly and presidential elections, which our party swept across the whole country and the idea of the party was not that it would be an ordinary party, it was intended to be a mass movement, that's why I said everybody should come on board including people who were fraternizing with Abacha. I remembered in one meeting we held at the Federal Palace Hotel. That was the first day Barnabas Gemade came to our meeting and Jibril Aminu objected to his presence there, because he was the chairman of the Committee for National Consensus, that is, the five parties that had adopted Abacha's presidency. Jibril Aminu said he should not be allowed to stay and I was the one presiding over the meeting and I said he should be allowed, that we were starting on a clean slate and that we wanted this party to be a party for all Nigerians to come together and it would be a mass movement, so that all things being well, we would follow the philosophy that inspired the organisation as a party that will rule Nigeria for 60 years. It wasn't a bluff or a matter of bragging, it was the reality of the situation. I wouldn't say that our original dream has been sustained because it's no longer the mass movement that we envisaged.
So, what went wrong?
What went wrong in the first place was that they drafted Obasanjo. First and foremost, Obasanjo was not qualified under our rules to run or be a candidate for the presidential election because the National Executive Committee of the party had in November 1998 decided that anybody who wanted to contest the presidency must win his local government during the local government elections because the qualification for being a party candidate is that you must win the local government elections. So, if you don't win the local government elections, you won't be registered. The party took that decision at the NEC meeting that everybody who wanted to contest for the presidency must win the local government elections of December, that was in November. As you all know, Obasanjo didn't win his local government, he didn't win his state, he didn't win his ward, and he didn't even win in the polling station in front of his house. So, by NEC's guidelines, he wasn't qualified to run at all. Don't ask me how he came to run, that's part of Nigerian machinations. The National Vice Chairman for the South- South, Dr. Patrick Dele Cole and the National Vice Chairman for the South-East, Dr. Sylvester Ugo wrote letters to the screening committee attaching the NEC resolution of November, which was confirmed at the meeting in December presided over by one of Obasanjo's cohorts of blessed memory, Deputy Chairman South-West and because Obasanjo was not part of the group forming the party he did not know the philosophy.
So, how did he emerge in the first place?
Well, they said some military people went to his place; Babangida and General Gusau, went to Ota to beg him to come in and after that, the Shehu Yar'Adua element within our party, represented by Atiku took over; they said it was Obasanjo they wanted, they were not happy about my prospect of becoming the president.
That was what happened because they had the coup in 1983, they thought I would come there and be vindictive. I assured them I wasn't going to do a post-mortem, that I have plans for Nigeria, I wasn't going to look backwards, they didn't believe it; they wanted one of them they could speak esprit de corps with, that's how he came on board. For him, PDP was just a vehicle he used for acquiring political power and having done that, he tried to convert it to a private property changing the chairman at will and within a space of two years we had four national chairmen of the party, Solomon Lar whom I handed over to, to Barnabas Gemade to Audu Ogbe, and then to Ahmadu Ali and so on and so forth.
This PDP you envisioned will be in power for 60 years, but from what you are telling us now it appears this dream is going to be a mirage. So, how can PDP bounce back, or is it shattered already?
The truth is that the PDP as it is today was not the PDP we founded in 1998; that is the truth, I won't hide it from anybody. It is not the PDP I risked my life to found in 1998. Now, PDP has been hijacked by people who have no philosophical or spiritual attachment to the precepts that informed formation of the party in 1998. What I envisaged for PDP in 1998 was that it would be a mass movement, satisfying the needs of the masses and having membership from all over the country.
But at a stage, the political party decided to do registration all over again and everybody lost his membership and had to apply again to register your name and those likely to dance to their tune were registered while the others found it difficult to register in a party they helped to found, so that is it. So, the problem started from day one, election of President of Senate, the first President of Senate was elected by votes of only 22 PDP Senators, all the other Senators who voted were not PDP Senators. Whereas PDP had 66 Senators out of 109, they refused to use their votes to elect the President of Senate and from there opposition started.
From the picture you have painted, it appears that the foundation of the PDP is now shaky, do you think it will be able to stand the opposition of the APC that is strongly rooted in the North and in the West in the 2015 general elections?
Strongly rooted in the North and in the West. Until you get to the ballot box you don't know where you are strongly rooted because what I can tell you is that the PDP will not have an easy walkover this year as it did few years ago, seven years ago, and 11 years ago; in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 because the party is finding it difficult to manage its successes. The person contesting for governorship in Sokoto is PDP elected Speaker, Tambuwal, the person contesting for APC governorship in Katsina is a former PDP elected Speaker, Masari, it's like that everywhere. People who founded and worked for the party are alienated by poor management of success, and those who do not have the patience, some of us have decided to find new channels to fulfill their political ambitions. I, for instance, the chairman of the party, first chairman of Board of Trustees, first chairman from the civil society to G34 and so on, if I was not myself, I'm not bragging, I am being modest, I have no reason to be in PDP today. All I have received throughout the years is humiliation and neglect.
When there is crisis, they remember that I'm around. The late Yar'Adua, when he came on board as the President, invited me and said he knew our party was in a shambles and he felt that I was the only person, as the person who started it at first place, that could bring people around and together and he put up the reconciliation which I handled all over Nigeria, visited people, talked to those who are disgruntled, people who had issues resolved and made our recommendations. Unfortunately, those recommendations were not fully fulfilled, President Yar'Adua himself passed on.
For the fact that we do not have enough opposition is to my view a natural development. When IBB decreed two political parties, NRC and SDP, he called me and asked what I thought of that, I told him in principle that I am in support of two party system where there are two strong parties. But I have reservations for the two party system being created by a decree. So, now in this dispensation we have the PDP, we have the APC which is the major opposition party which I think is healthy one provided we base our decision making on issues rather than abuses.
Why has the party you formed turned around to neglect you?
I told you that I have no business being in PDP today because I am not a noisemaker. I am not created to be a noisemaker or to create trouble, they are using it to deny me whatever is due to me. Because you are a gentleman, you won't disturb, rather the people who shout and make noise, they try and accommodate themselves so that they don't create problems, I think it is an unfortunate approach to life. But those who don't make noise and don't create troubles also have feelings as human beings and they should not have been denied what is due to them.
If I am a trouble maker, Obasanjo would not have been civilian President because that Jos convention where he was elected, after the returning officer announced the results, I had in my pocket a copy of the NEC decision of November 1998 showing that to qualify you must win your local government. All I needed to say after the candidates' result was announced is 'I'm sorry, this election which we just finished there is supposed to be seven candidates but in fact only six, the person whom you said had won is not a candidate and cannot be because the NEC has taken a decision and only a convention can change that decision and no convention has been called to change that decision, so I expect that of the six candidates left, Don Etiebet, Francis Ola, Philip Asiodu, Jim Nwobodo, myself and Douglas, of these candidates left I scored the highest votes; so I expect the party to forward my name to INEC as the candidate of the party and Secretary of the party then was Dr. Okwy Nwodo and the constitution which the party was operating at that time for the administration of the party, the secretary of the party is the chief executive of the party, the chairman was just like the chairman of a board of a company. It was later that we changed it and made the chairman chief executive of the party. And if I had done that, Nwodo would have been bound to forward my name to INEC. And Solomon Lar who was instrumental in Obasanjo running in the first place by asking the screening committee to give him provisional clearance, which was never substantive before the election, would have forwarded Obasanjo's name to INEC, so PDP, which was a frontline party would have had two candidates and there might have been crisis and the military might have postponed exit for us to resolve.
And I don't want my personal ambition to be the reason for prolonged military rule in Nigeria, which I risked my life to fight against. So, I embraced Obasanjo and greeted him. Three weeks after that, at the dinner fund raising for him, I chaired the dinner at the conference hall of Hilton and in the East here I paid for broadcast in all the nine FRCN stations in the former Eastern Nigeria, saying that they should support Obasanjo. So, as I said maybe because I am not a troublemaker I have been taken for granted, anybody can step on my toes and I'm not given what is due to me but there is a limit to one's acceptance of humiliations and provocations and one will come to say enough is enough.
If you had gone ahead to become the President of Nigeria, we know that Presidents run the country based on party manifesto, would you have made any difference bearing in mind that you have same PDP party manifesto to guide you?
Of course, yes. Presidents make impacts because of their personal stamp of administration. For instance, you don't tell me that Obasanjo's presidency, of course, they were on PDP manifesto, was not different from Yar'Adua's or Goodluck Jonathans,' the incumbent president. The presidency must have an imprint of the person who has the presidential power, so I would have given Nigeria something different.
So, in essence the Yar'Adua/Jonathan presidency is better than that of Obasanjo?
No, I am not saying that, each one has its merits and demerits.
How would you assess that of the President Jonathan. How would you see the presidency under Jonathan?
Well, it's not a question you should be asking me really, as long as I'm in PDP, I cannot come out to say PDP president is rubbish, except that each president must have his own decision making capabilities and must make a personal input in the presidency for which he will be remembered. Some are remembered for what they have done and some are remembered for just having occupied that seat.
But many believe he has lost grip because of what is happening in the country. You can see insurgency in the North, kidnapping and all the rest of them in the South, because of all these people said he has lost grip?
Well, you should bear in mind that this trouble in the North-East didn't start with Jonathan. At a time insurgents were occupying local government headquarters in Yobe State before Jonathan even came on the scene, but it escalated after Jonathan was elected and 2011. Stories connect it to some statements made in 2011 that if Jonathan wins, they will make the country ungovernable. And after the election, insurgents took over a whole region of a country that out of 26 local government areas in Borno State, Boko Haram is in charge of 22. So, it's a situation that is not necessarily of Jonathan's making. However, his approach to it, it's a matter of approach. In our time we had Maitatsine, I think in the same Borno State, the same Maiduguri but President Shehu Shagari didn't waste time in crushing them. They resurfaced in Kano, we faced them again squarely, surfaced in Sokoto State, his own state, in area that was our showpiece for rural development, irrigation, there they were finally crushed, they didn't rear their heads again until we finished. Then when Buhari came in 1984, they resurfaced again this time in Yola and he dealt with them as well. Some people said that you can't kill insurgency with the force of arms, but even insurgents are not immortal, except for few who are suicidal elements; many of them don't want to die in the final analysis. So, if you face them squarely, they are bound to retreat.
How is your relationship with President Jonathan?
Well, if I should describe, I will say the relationship is cordial, but that doesn't mean that he gives me my due or that I endorse every action he takes, that's how I can put it. I try to make our relationship as cordial as I could.
But he has been going around seeing some of the party leaders, recently he was in Minna and we have not heard that Jonathan came to see Dr Ekwueme, yet you said you have a cordial relationship with him?
It's a good question to ask him because Obasanjo was here in this house in November 1998. While he was President and on visit to Anambra State, he slept in this house in my bedroom. He came here and we had dinner with Anambra leaders, traditional rulers, political leaders and others and he spent the night here and the next morning he went on visit to some projects and he left. When he came again on a state visit, he couldn't sleep here because the governor insisted that he sleep at the Government Lodge but he came here for lunch. I'm giving you examples, Jonathan since he became President has visited Anambra State severally but he hasn't come to this compound, so I'm using it as an example.
Does it not mean that your relationship with him is not cordial instead as you claimed?
It is cordial, but maybe he doesn't appreciate that without my risking my life there would have been no PDP and the popularity that made it possible for him to become the President of Nigeria. Okay, I know, for instance, my friend Braithwaite of NAP had his birthday, the President went to Lagos to celebrate with him but I had my 80th birthday and he did not come.
Was he invited?
The whole Nigeria was invited. Of course, he was invited but he did not appear personally at any of the events, even the ones in Abuja. So, it is a matter of style.
Let's come to your state. You co-founded PDP and one would have expected that your state should be core PDP but over the years it's APGA that holds sway here, what happened?
In the1999 election, Anambra State in the presidential election gave the highest number of votes throughout the whole federation to PDP. The state was 100 per cent PDP as it was from Anambra State that they sent people to go to other states including Baylesa to set up PDP state branches. But then we are in Nigeria, at one stage I suspected that the then President Obasanjo was not so happy that PDP was in control of my state, when he had no state executive and there was a deliberate effort to disorganise PDP in this state. Even some people went as far as burning the government property. So, the party was disorganised, and in fact, the emergence of Peter Obi was as a result of protest votes by PDP members.
Now, we have election in less than two months, people are disgruntled. At the last election, the state voted overwhelmingly for President Jonathan, we had the highest per cent of all the six geo-political zones for the President. In less than two months when elections are held, many people from South- East may not vote for Muhammadu Buhari for reasons which I will not go into now, but it does not necessarily mean they will vote for Jonathan because of how things have evolved. Many will not vote at all. Not casting their votess at all is a minus for the President, so he shouldn't take the South-East for granted that it will be the same 99 per cent votes that will come from the South- East in 2015. It might not be.
Is it too late for PDP to make amends and revive its fortunes?
Well, because the leadership of the PDP in every state in the South-East does not have coherency, well organised PDP structure today. Ebonyi is in disarray, Enugu is abdicated, Abia, Anambra have about six different factions, Imo is not serious at that, so it requires hard work for PDP to bring together the South-East to how it was eight years ago. My worry is that many of them in the leadership of PDP don't even realise that there is this danger, they think it is business as usual, so they take South-East for granted that they will vote that same way they voted, 90 per cent of vote to President Jonathan, it may not happen.
So, in the heat of this crisis, did you make any effort to advise the gladiators?
One of them, I won't mention names, who was most offended by the machinations of the party headquarters, when he wanted to leave the party, I talked to him and said, I am still in this party in spite of what has happened over the last 20 years, so why are you leaving just because of one incident, stay and carry on in PDP as you used to do, and he listened to me.
As it is now, what is your earnest advice to PDP to avert danger in the upcoming elections?
Go down to those offended in all the states, and make peace with them. Actually, call genuine reconciliation and do give and take to accommodate all. Not if you take a decision today, one group comes you promise you will do this, next week another group comes you say a different thing and you follow that group, that is not how to bring the party together.
Your Excellency, the problem of PDP appears to be that of lack of internal democracy, why is it difficult for internal democracy to reign in your party?
If you read our report, half of it is devoted to internal democracy. If there is internal democracy and somebody loses primary election he will not go crazy about it and start being destructive. But if things are not done fairly that is what causes trouble most of the times. The problem of internal democracy is linked to lack of integrity, equity and justice.
When your presidential ambition was truncated, one would have expected that subsequently you would launch back to actualise your dream, why did you jettison that dream?
Well, it was truncated actually in 1999, and I have talked about how the election went and somebody who was not qualified in the first place was given the ticket. But four years after that, I tried again, people told me that I was wasting my time contesting against the incumbent who has all the resources and the power of information and so on. In spite of that, I felt I had some ideas that would benefit Nigeria but it failed.
By 2007, Obasanjo had done eight years based on our own arrangement at the national convention that the presidency would move to the North, so I didn't want to utilize my opportunity again. In 2011, Jonathan acted as President although Vice President and wanted to actualize his dream. The Sun