BY SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN CITY Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, the first civilian governor of Edo State, is one man who craved, long ago, for an alternative national political party that can check the seeming arrogance of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) at the federal level.
Today, he is one of the Action Congress of Nigeria, CAN, leaders working for the registration of the All Progressive Congress (APC). In this interview, he discloses how the leaders of the opposition have been able to bury their personal interests to ensure that the APC merger becomes a reality.
He describes the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP as a failure, just as he notes that the activities of the First Lady of the nation, Dame Patience Jonathan, are making the President more unpopular. He speaks on other national issues including Edo State politics. Excerpts:
Some of the leaders of the opposition have been busy trying to register the APC. What impact do you think the party will make if eventually registered?
I think that the day after we get the official letter, registering the APC, the political dynamics of this nation will totally change, because it will be a move nearest to a two- party system. Secondly, we will be creating, from day one, a credible national party which will have root in every state, every geo- political zone of the country. We will be offering, from that very day, a choice between the PDP and the credible alternative, the APC.
We will be offering the people a choice between two proven entities, the record of the PDP is there and I think it is one great endless list of mismanagement, bad governance and extreme level of corruption, as against an APC which also has a record; fortunately, when you think of the record set by the South-west governors, when you think of the record set by the only APC government in the South-south, which is Edo, when you think of the Nassarawa governor who knows that he has an Assembly that is controlled by his opponent but he has been able to make a landmark achievement in the short time he has been there, you know we have an edge over the PDP. And, of course, you must think of the ANPP contribution in terms of its strength in the North-east.
Also coming into the fold very strongly is Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, and you have to count Anambra where we control one senatorial area, and, but for electoral manipulations, we would have won the governorship there.
Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, the first civilian governor of Edo State
So we have a party that is evenly spread all over the country. The one component of the party in the North, the CPC, their candidate in the last elections garnered about ten-eleven million votes; by the time we add to that the massive votes that are to be harvested in the South-west, in the South-south, South-east, I think the voting public will now see that, truly, they have an alternative with performance that can be the ruling party at the center.
So it is going to be interesting, it is going to be challenging and i think the course of political events in this country will dramatically alter. I don’t want to go into the endless crises and the threat of implosion within the PDP which, of course, can only rebound to the advantage of the APC.
Several governors of the PDP will be lining- up, knocking at the gates of the APC in the not too distant future; so the future is absolutely bright for the APC.
Many people think that the same crisis you spoke about in the PDP may tear the APC apart due to personal interests of the leaders?
It does not worry me. I have seen miracles happen since the negotiation for the merger of this party started. I have seen politicians accept what I never thought politicians will accept. I have seen politicians making sacrifices that I never thought politicians were capable of making.
I have seen the hand of God in what is happening now; we have already set up an interim executive to meet up with the requirements of INEC. We have three major parties each of which has an executive already, almost the same number of positions.
There were three, four chairmen, but we now have only one; so there are chairmen today who are just playing the role of ordinary members and they have accepted the situation. Nobody has had to make extraordinary promises of anything whatsoever.
In a political circle, I think that is nothing short of a miracle. God loves this country. I have no doubt about it and what is happening now is God’s way of saying, ‘look, I wish you people well, I want to give you another chance,’ and, thank God, the various leaders of the parties, have been modest enough, sacrificing to make what has happened possible.
Yes, there will be disagreements here and there, but the pattern is already set on how to spread the offices between the various interest groups and the minute the APC is recognized, all the barriers of ‘I am CAN’, ‘I am CPC’, ‘I am ANPP’, will be totally broken down; we will now have one single national party.
But how optimistic are you that APC will take over the Federal Government come 2015?
I am not a gambler but, on this particular issue, I am ready to wager anything. The discontent in the country is palpable, you can see it, you can feel it, even touch it.
The hopelessness in the country is very high and you can see that the people are waiting for a way out. What they have been doing in the past is based on the fact that they did not perceive that they had a credible alternative so that they can punish a non- performing Federal Government. Now that the alternative is here, I have no doubt that the long suffering Nigerians will know where to dismount and back the party that will restore hope to their lives.
What do you think about Rivers political crisis/ factionalization of NGF?
I don’t know if there are words harsh enough to describe the developing situation in Rivers State . It is disgraceful, it is shameful. Not only before Nigerians, we are also dancing naked before the international community. 35 responsible leaders, the second layer of governance in this country could have such arguments over an election in which only 35 actors, leaders, executives governing millions of people participated.
The situation is also very alarming because it is a precursor to what is happening, it has now degenerated to such an extent that the consequences are going to be enormous if it continues. The whole nation cannot be behaving as if this is kindergarten politics, as if this is student union politics. Minister, Honourable members, police commissioner, the Presidency, behave as if there is a cult war in a university. Five people trying to impeach a Speaker and a governor; if it were a fairy tale, it would still have been very outlandish, but to think it is disgraceful that supposedly responsible people are fighting for something the end of which they may not live to see, and the nation is tense.
They don’t even think of the consequences, they are so myopic and so blinded by events which are yet to come, two years from now. Everybody keeps saying power belongs to God, so why have they decided to play God at this very early stage of the process? The issue today is nomination, the election is not even an issue, but when people are pontificating and talking, they bang the table, ‘if this one does not become this, Nigeria will cease to exist, we heard that from the South-south and from the North’.
What kind of rubbish is that? Let them talk within their parties, concentrate on making sure that those they favor get nominated, we have not come yet to voting and we have to trust the Nigerian people, put their case before them, and stop beating war drums and promising bloodshed if A or B is not returned as President, not even to be nominated as a candidate. I find it astonishing.
It is as if normally responsible people are taking leave of playing ordinary common sense. So one can only appeal that they should go step by step; everybody should shift his belt and carry the battle to his party, get nominated; when campaign time starts, we can start the game. I don’t see reason for this kindergarten type of overheating the polity and endangering the corporate existence of the nation. Let these people keep quiet and not play God, when the time comes, God will show the people what to do.
How do you view the recent war of words between the President’s wife and the Nobel laureate, Prof.Wole Soyinka?
Normally, the President’s wife should not be doing what she is doing, out of respect for her husband, the President, out of respect for the position she holds. But she is a Nigerian, she has a right to a party card, she has a right to aspire for whatever she wants to be politically in this nation but that has a price. From her exalted position, immediately she decided to be involved in political combat and political conflict, then she should be ready for the consequences. I find that very sad indeed because she was a pinnacle, but she has abandoned that pinnacle and decided to be a politician like every other person.
That is unfortunate and that is of course the reason for the comments that we observed recently. I read some of the comments and they were surprising. I even listened to a few radio programs and some people said ‘you should not talk to the First Lady that way’.
I agree, you should not even talk to the President like that, but if anybody, President or the First Lady, decides to go into the mud of politics, then he/she must expect the mud to be thrown at him/her. Even though I am in the opposition, I admire the President’s wife because she is a very strong- willed lady, but there is a lot of good she can do without descending into the murky waters of political conflict.
It is easy to make that deduction that she could be the cause of the crisis in Rivers State because she was in Rivers for ten days, the whole place was virtually locked down and days after she left, this conflagration started. Well, this is a case of putting two and two together. Wole Soyinka and Ben Nwabueze are respected Nigerians and she cannot ignore their advice and it will be very unfair for her to condescend to a level of trying to insult such great men.
But are not surprised that the President has not been able to caution the First Lady and stop this national embarrassment?
The President probably thinks and his advisers have probably convinced him that these things serve his political interest. May be they are right, may be they are not. But like I said earlier, the fight should not be something that involves the total population of Rivers State. It should be something to be carried out within the structures of the PDP. It should not affect the House of Assembly.
If you want to induce members of the House quietly, whatever you need to do, do it, but carrying thugs there, with the police supporting them one way or the other, that is not the best way to convince anybody. This is something for persuasion, inducement, not something for breaking heads. It is unfortunate, I would have expected that the President will be more presidential both as the issue relates to the Nigeria Governors Forum that is a disgraceful show of ineptitude at too high a level of governance in Nigeria.
The NGF problem and also this Rivers angle, the President should step out as a statesman, he is the father of this nation, he is the number chief executive of this nation, the governors are chief executives of their states, they have a common interest outside politicking. He should now take whatever else he wants to do within the PDP family and not allow the kind of show of shame we are witnessing today. His position must be clear, must be firm, he must put himself at the right side of history and posterity and his own personal reputation.
What do you see ahead of 2015?
The fear I have for the country is the nomination process. Once the candidates emerge, the political battle lines will be very clear and will be decided. And that won’t be subject to structures any more, it will be subject to your ability to convince the people that you have performed in the past and you will even be able to do better in the future. And I don’t think that in this age, it will be possible to do, with INEC, the police force, the totality of the security agencies, what happened in President Obasanjo’s time.
The world has moved on including the Nigerian world. Of course the opposition has learnt very bitter lessons and, but for the courts, some of its victories could not have been achieved, only a few were snatched back from the seizure by the PDP. So it is clear that we have to be better prepared for 2015 and any other election for that matter, because the first election is coming in October, Anambra State.
And we are going to have elections in Ekiti, Osun, and the rest; we are not going to take chances. The only people who would want to fake the elections will be those who want to be self -destruct, because things won’t be like they used to be because we too will be prepared.
How do you view the battle for the presidency between northern leaders and the South-south?
Sometimes I think I am over simplifying issues but I could go back to what I said before, it is for the Nigerian population to decide who will be their president. The day will not come when all those contesting will be northerners or where all those contesting will be southerners; there will be a mix of North, South, East and West contesting in 2015. It will be left to the good sense of the Nigerians voters to know what is in their best interest. I have got calls from strange people who say I am one of Jonathan’s supporters and I said no, that is not the issue.
The issue is that he has fundamental constitutional right to contest and you cannot take that away from him, just like it is the fundamental constitutional right of the Nigerian voter to decide who governs him. To me, the issue is simple; all the people over heating the polity and shouting it must be a northerner or a southerner; that does not arise. President Jonathan is entitled constitutionally as a Nigerian to contest the election. It is for him to convince the PDP.
Any other person is also fully entitled, it is for him to convince his party, then we meet at the political battle ground. I hate people creating arguments and difficulties where there are none. Of course they are initial drums of political excitements leading to the big event, but if they can do that without endangering the political health of the nation, the better for us. But I don’t think Nigeria will collapse for any reason.
You were one of the South-south leaders who fought for a president from the region which eventually produced Jonathan. Will you say you are satisfied with his performance today?
That is a difficult question because I am in the opposition. I am in a totally different party, but I do not think the economy is doing well in spite of all the good things that they quote. When capital flows into Shell, into Chevron, and when the banks shuffle their papers and money is being made and exchanging hands, we are said to be going at six, seven per cent.
I am an economist, my career was basically at the Ministry of Economic Development, Economic Planning, but until that word, development, reaches and touches the average Nigerian, until I see stability in power, until I see growth in employment, until I see graduates who have hope that even after three years they will get jobs, governance have not been effective. My attitude is that it does not matter where the President comes from, those are the basic indicators of a successful government. I think it is clear that there I nothing on ground to show that this government has performed.
Coming to your state, Edo, the battle for Governor Oshiomhole’s successor is already on. Do you not think that may tear the coming APC apart in the state?
The only surprise to me is that the struggle for his successor started so early and such an intense manner, and I think it was wrong. We still have a lot of catching up to do in Edo and I mean that seriously we don’t want anything for at least two years to divert the energy both of the government and of the people. There is a lot of time for that, the advice one wants to give in a situation like this is that those who get into the ring too early are likely to fight themselves to a state of exhaustion by the time the real fight comes and you will allow a third party to run away with the prize. It is even in the interest of all those that are involved to back down and let the proper time come. It was really threatening to destabilize the party, and, if the party is destabilized, government will also be destabilized and we don’t want such thing. I was very upset about that and I think at the appropriate levels we all made that very clear.
Edo PDP is strategizing also ahead of 2015 and 2016. Do you think the APC will have the fire power to check the PDP since Oshiomhole’s tenure will come to an end in 2016?
I don’t see the PDP featuring in the struggle. The real struggle will be who will satisfy the people within the ACN and being capable of continuing at the same level that Governor Oshiomhole was operating; not whether the PDP will feature of whether they are re-organizing. I know human memories are short, but the last ten fifteen years is also short and people remember what they lost in twelve solid years of PDP governance in Edo State. And the excitement that the last five years has brought, the hope, the change, will always be considered, not the PDP. So the real issue is going to be who will replace Oshiomhole rather than whether or not the APC as it is will retain office. I have no doubt about that in my mind. Oshiomhole has made us proud and Edo people will always be grateful to him and reward him with their continued support.