SENATOR Ben Obi, National Secretary of the Caretaker Committee of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was the Special Adviser on Inter- Party Affairs to ex-president Goodluck Jonathan in the days ahead of the watershed 2015 presidential elections that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to power. He speaks on the dynamics; maneuvers and intense jockeying that made Jonathan concede defeat and averted a looming bloodshed. Obi , who has a rich history of party formation dating back to 1978 and served as National Secretaries of Nigerian Advanced Party, NAP, and All Peoples Party, APP a major bloc in the founding of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC reveals that APC took 7 years to come on stream.
He therefore dismissed hasty moves to form a mega party to wrest power from APC in 2019 as waste of time. He also speaks on the party’s zoning policy and why Jonathan will not run for president again, the struggle for Biafra, the release of Nnamdi Kanu from detention, party defections including calls on the Deputy Senate President, DSP, Ike Ekweremadu to do that, PDP crisis, among other national issues. Sunday Sun met him in his office in Abuja.
What are your basic impressions on the 2015 general elections which you played a big part in, and juxtapose it with the re- run elections in some states last year?
I am getting a bit worried about what elections have become since the 2015 elections that made President Goodluck Jonathan to concede defeat to President Muhammadu Buhari. Many of us did a lot of work to make sure that votes counted in the various elections that took place preceding the 2015 elections. As you may well recall, my office played a significant role by conducting workshops in all states that had elections ahead of the elections. And I made it a common factor that all candidates including the incumbents who were governors, as the case may be, were made to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU to ensure that the elections were free, fair and transparent. Based on that, a lot of the political parties that felt they were jolted by some forces found it difficult to break loose, but remained steadfast because of the MOU. I later on conducted an All Political Parties Summit which was done on the 12th of June, 2014. Of course, you know the significance of June 12. I brought all the presidential candidates, all the national chairmen and major stakeholders including ambassadors and high commissioners. It was chaired by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former Head of State. And again, all the presidential candidates and the national chairmen were made to sign an MOU.
That Summit was basically convened because of the way we politicians, politicized the Boko Haram insurgency away from its terrorist nature. And that was disturbing, and a lot of embassies and their ambassadors came to see me here to urge me to do something about it. There is a world of difference between politics and terrorism. So, I met with the National Security Adviser, NSA because of its security nature and he said I should go ahead. We collaborated, and all the ambassadors, high commissioners were in attendance. That Summit gave birth to the Abuja All Political Parties Summit of January 14, 2015 which later became known as the Abuja Peace Accord, where Jonathan, Buhari and all the other presidential candidates signed a Memorandum Of Understanding, MOU.
Has the MOU been violated by any of the parties so far?
That is what I am saying. That was one of the reasons behind President Jonathan conceding defeat. What I did, and I think it is important for people to know is that in order to get the confidence of the opposition parties, I made sure I brought in international diplomats. The chairman was Chief Emeka Anyaoku. I approached him and he accepted. The Guest of Honour was Mr Kofi Annan. I brought in Professor Ibrahim Gambari, also from the United Nations, UN, General Isaac Obiakor (UN). So, I left nobody in doubt of the honesty of purpose of the summit. And above all, I worked hand in gloves with Prof Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. When we got to that stage, I knew it would be difficult for anybody to back pedal. When I did that Summit of January 14, 2015, the Secretary General of the UN sent me a congratulatory message through his Special Envoy in West Africa, Ambassador Edwin Chambers and requested that I should not stop with the summit, but should proceed to set up the National Peace Council, which we did, working in concert with Bishop Mathew Kukah. We took it to the next level by meeting with Cardinal John Onaiyekan, compiled the list and made General Abdulsalami Abubakar the chairman, Ebitu Ukiwe, the deputy chairman. Many well meaning and eminent Nigerians were conscripted to follow up on the Abuja Peace Accord. Bishop Kukah and I were the coordinators. That is the result of what we are enjoying today. Because, there is no such thing happening again, elections so far in Edo, Ondo, Rivers have become like going to battle fields. I noticed some security agencies getting political parties to sign MOU. My goodness; security agencies don’t know anything about that. In my own time, I invited them to come and participate.
What could be responsible for this new thrust?
Lack of faith. Security agencies are the ones organizing MOUs, and when they do that and go and play a partisan role, those political parties have no option but to take to the streets and unleash violence. When I prosecuted that of 2015, I was working together with the Inter Party Advisory Council, IPAC that comprises all political parties. So, there was this understanding among the parties and the agencies – INEC, IPAC. I keep saying something. The president must take interest in the office of the Adviser on Inter Party Affairs. Unfortunately, the present president does not have anybody in that place. And the person must enjoy the confidence of the other political parties.
When I conducted the June 12, 2014 All Parties Summit, I went to see Chief Bisi Akande who was the then Interim Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC. I met him as he was with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and I told them that this was what I was planning to do, and I came to solicit their support. They said to me, we know you very well. We know you are a man of your words, and that you will do things the right way. But, because of the importance of the proposal, we would like you to write formally, so that we discuss it at our next NEC (National Executive Committee) meeting. I wrote, APC discussed it at their NEC meeting, endorsed it, and participated.
So, you need somebody who can convince the other parties to toe the path of peace. As president, as my principal and boss, President Jonathan had the right to have declined my requests for the summits, because the end result of those requests was in my correspondences to him. He could have easily said oh, this is a booby trap. Rejected. And this same issue of Abuja Accord that reverberated all over the world has set the pace that people are now conceding defeat. You can see it has happened in a few African countries. But someone began it. So I always give credit to Jonathan. I am also happy that President Buhari, whenever he is making any speech of great importance, will always recognize the role played by Jonathan in conceding defeat. At that time, the world had concluded that Nigeria was going to split.
But despite your observed significance of Jonathan’s concession and the conciliation in president Buhari’s speeches, some people still feel the government is hounding the ex- president’s regime.
This is the problem. When 10 days ago, AIT invited me to come and speak on the issue in the Gambia. I said to them that the situation in the Gambia is unfortunate. A man who has held that country by the jackboot for 22 years, killing, maiming and forcing people into exile eventually conceded defeat, and the opposition mismanaged the victory. The man was still in charge, and you started saying you were going to reverse everything he did. And the man did not find it funny. He said, so this is what will come upon me when I leave this office? He changed his mind. Because of the nature of our continent, there must be a way we can manage some of these things and not allow it to be seen as persecuting people. The PDP as a party has said it loud and clear that it is not against fighting corruption. Personally, I am not against fighting corruption. I am head and shoulders with the president in that regard. But, there must be a level playing field. Nobody must be a sacred cow in the fight against corruption. The fight against corruption must not look partisan.
Do you think the perceived lopsided nature of the battle against corruption is responsible for the massive defection of stalwarts in your party to the APC, perhaps to seek refuge?
Really, I have never had respect for carpet crossing in politics. As a matter of fact, I see it as an ignoble act by politicians. Once you lose elections, you jump boat. These are bread and butter politicians. I don’t want to waste my time on such people. Some of them for obvious reasons are afraid that the long arm of the law may catch up with them and they believe that going there will save them. But I can assure you that president Buhari is not the type that will wine and dine with you with that kind of understanding. It may take some time, but rest assured, he will come after them. What he has started, he cannot stop. The long arm of the law will ultimately catch up with those who have question marks on them. That you have jumped boat from the PDP to the APC will not be a saving grace. Recently, I heard some APC leaders saying that these people are coming to reap where they did not sow
Do you not think APC is seen as a safe haven, since no member of the party has been questioned, including ex- governors and the recent controversial case involving the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal?
Let me tell you, Chidi. What they are doing; if the APC continues to shield their own people, one thing is certain; they will not be in power forever. When we were in power, I think it was my friend Vincent Ogbulafor as national chairman who said that PDP will rule for 60 years. And then, other people started to repeat that entire track. I call it irresponsible political utterances. It didn’t take five or six years after those careless statements, we found ourselves outside of power. What goes around, comes around. It is only a question of time and APC will realize that power is transient. It is important that I appeal to the president that there must be fair play across board. And it is his duty as the President and Commander- in- Chief of the Armed Forces to see fair play across board implemented.
Since that is not being done, where does that take PDP to?
It is not going to take us anywhere other than what I just told you. They are not going to be in power forever. When another government comes to power that is not APC, what they did will also be done to them. Is that what we are going to be doing? You just come to power and start hounding your opponents, leaving other important things that will put smiles on the faces of people.
Now, your party is in crisis, the APC which is in power also has a measure of rift. The development may have forced some gladiators in these two parties to begin moves for a third force in the guise of a mega party. What are you impressions about the immanent coagulation for a mega party?
(Draws in a deep breath and laughs) I have been involved in founding political parties. In my political career, by 2018, that is next year, it will be 40 years I have been in politics. And in that span of 40 years, I have been instrumental to founding three major political parties, and I know what it takes. I was not even in PDP. I was in APP, All Peoples Party. I was the foundation national secretary. I gave the party the name, APP on the 20th of August, 1998. We did the Nigerian Advance Party; NAP in the Second Republic with the late Tunji Braithwaite. I was the national publicity secretary, and later national secretary. This APC, we are talking about, don’t forget that in 2007, I ran as the vice presidential candidate to his Excellency, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar on the platform of the Action Congress, AC which is a major stakeholder in APC. After that, from 2008 we started working together, (all opposition parties) including President Buhari. We were meeting regularly at the residence of Attahiru Bafarawa, until it collapsed. In 2011, we continued, until it collapsed. And later in 2014, they brought it together. For almost seven years, we tried to build a formidable opposition political party. Today, when people shout mega party, mega party, I know it is a waste of time. I know it cannot come to fruition.
Why do you think so? APC came as a mega party and wrested power from PDP
I just told you when we started what finally became APC. Formation of political party is not a thing you do in two, three months; not a thing you do in one, two, three years. The issue of trust must be established. And how many politicians trust themselves? I know it is not going to work, and I am not going to bother my head about it. And I can tell you that the PDP remains the most formidable political party in the country.
With the crises enveloping it?
It still remains the most formidable party. The moment the reorganization of the party is concluded, as is being done, it is all over for others. Go now to where they are meeting; the Strategic Review and Inter-Party Affairs Committee that we set up is meeting now. That committee has 11 syndicates. They have plenary sessions today, tomorrow and next tomorrow. The place is filled to capacity. People are calling me left, right and center, telling me to include them.
But why an inter party committee? It fuelled the suspicion that PDP was seeking to metamorphose with a new name with more people from other parties?
Parties have been seeking to collaborate with us. So it is in the wisdom of the party that we should discuss it. Like I said earlier, in my position as Jonathan’s Special Adviser on Inter- Party Affairs, I had a good working relationship with Inter-Party Advisory Committee, IPAC which comprises all the political parties.
What gives you confidence that PDP will overcome this crisis before the next elections when there is a third force stoking the fire?
Look, the most authentic policy making organ of any political party is the national convention. The convention set up the caretaker committee. It is like when you get a judgment from the Supreme Court, you can only appeal to God. That is why you see all the judgments coming out in favour of the caretaker committee. We are only waiting for one from the Port Harcourt end. So, whenever we call meetings, which you can testify to, not one governor will be missing. 95 per cent of the various organs – the National Assembly caucus, the Board of Trustees, BOT, and other stakeholders will all be in attendance
But we learnt that some governors are also hobnobbing with the mega party option.
I don’t know about that, and I don’t want to waste my time about that. But I say to you, that whenever we, the caretaker committee call a meeting of the PDP, all our 11 governors will be there, without exception. People who go and hobnob with one mega party or the other, I can only but wish them well. But I know that we will overcome. I am not talking to you this morning based on any fear of a faction in the PDP. As national secretary of NAP, and even in APP, when there was too much of quietude, we created some bubbling situation, as long as you are in a position to ultimately take control. At times, you want to even test the strength of your leadership control.
Are you insinuating that the hand of the leadership of the PDP is in the crisis?
How did it all start? When you take the hand of the clock back, you will see. But people may say this has taken too long. Yes it has taken too long. But, you see, we want to find a permanent solution, so that once this problem is put behind us, it is forward ever, backward never.
Another issue is the intense jostling to fly the flag of the party in 2019. Will it not pose another kind of crisis for the party?
In my political career, I don’t ever put the cart before the horse. You cannot fly the flag of a party that has not gone for convention to produce its candidates, or organize its primaries.
Even if they are testing the water?
They can’t go ahead to test the water. A serious political party will not be distracted by such actions and movements. That’s the truth. In any case, it is a healthy situation that people are indicating interest. If the party is dead, nobody would like to fly the flag of a dead party.
You zoned the presidency to the North shortly after you lost the elections. With recent developments and mounting ethnic tensions arising from the leadership style of President Buhari, is the party reviewing the issue?
The PDP has always had a zoning formula. The power structure was zoned to the North in 2007.Unfortunately, President Yar’Adua passed on, and President Jonathan had to take up from there. Even at that time, the North was yearning that they had to complete their two terms.
Buhari completed it?
No. Buhari is not a PDP member. They have been yearning for it, and the only way to bring justice to bear is to do the right thing. And the right thing is that power must go back to the North. And it was good that the Ekweremadu Committee recommended that early enough.
Ekweremadu is fighting to retain his seat as deputy Senate president. The APC senators want him out. How would you react to this?
Look, Ekweremadu by virtue of his position today, is the most senior elected PDP member. And the PDP as a party will not allow Ekweremadu in any way and manner to be harassed or intimidated. He became deputy Senate president in an election that took place in the red chambers. I was a member of the red chambers and I know how things operate there. Talking seriously, the 109 members don’t go in there to practice partisan politics. They go beyond their partisan stakes and do only what is right. That is why my speech when we were shooting down the third term agenda of Obasanjo was simply on doing the right thing. I don’t see how anybody in his right senses would like to lead the pulling down of Senator Ike Ekweremadu. It will be very difficult. It will not work.
What if it works? What will PDP do?
It can’t work. What is the majority margin? The PDP has stabilized, and trying to rock the boat of the PDP can lead to crisis. And I am sure the senate president himself understands what I am saying.
Is the PDP playing opposition role well? Some people say it is not.
You know some people say things at times without verification. If the PDP hasn’t been in government for 16 years at the center, the only way to go would have been by engaging in propaganda, lies and what have you. The PDP must show maturity, must show experience in whatever it does. If you criticize the Buhari administration, you should be in a position to offer suggestions and alternatives. And that is what the PDP has been doing. Despite the fact that we have these distractions here and there, we still carry on in a very organized, structured manner.
Your friend Abubakar Atiku is in the vanguard of calls for the restructuring of the country. Some others are calling for the breakup of the country. Where do you stand?
I agree completely that we have to restructure the country; we have to go back to true federalism. I have also been part of the struggle for the devolution of power because I believe that there is so much power concentrated at the center. That is why the struggle is always bitter and very aggressive. When we ran the parliamentary system, the pace of development that we noticed in the era of Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Michael Okpara was unbelievable.
There was no oil. We were exporting palm seedling to Malaysia. Malaysia is now the world leading palm oil producer. What baffles me is that the land is still there, still very fertile. Then, Nigeria was ahead of countries like Malaysia, Brazil, and India. The story has changed. On the issue of the breakup of the country, they should just forget that. Nobody is talking about that. I sit down with Igbo leaders now and again. But I have not seen any serious minded Igbo leader talking about the breakup of Nigeria. That is not on the card.
But a faction of IPOB is constituted by Igbo elders?
That is not what they are talking about. I had the opportunity of discussing extensively during the yuletide with Justice Eze Ozobu. That does not mean we are not supporting IPOB. But at least, the issue of breakup, I think should not be discussed. What they are saying is give these boys a listening ear. Listen to what they are saying.
Do you support the release from detention of Nnamdi Kanu who has become the arrow head of the struggle?
I believe that the matter is better discussed as a political issue. Nnamdi Kanu comes from somewhere. So, there are people who can take responsibility to talk to him. Some of these young men did not experience the war itself. So, when you make them understand that what they are being denied is because of the war, it is strange to them. After 47 years since the war ended, we should have put it behind us by now.
Do you think Buhari will come back in 2019 based on performance and other attributes?
That question should be directed to the APC. He is a sitting president and the likelihood of his coming back stares us in the face. We will also produce a candidate. It is left for the electorate to decide.
How do you assess his leadership so far?
His leadership is such that the mantra he came in with; – change, fighting corruption, insecurity, and economy, is tainted. He has done well in the fight against insecurity, the issue of saying Boko Haram has been conquered, is it not better to keep quiet and let the achievements speak for themselves. The moment you begin to boast that you have conquered Boko Haram, they come and look for a soft target and tell you they have not been conquered.
Kidnappings and Fulani herdsmen attacks, are they not security issues?
They are security issues. That is why I say we need a lot of jaw-jawing, dialogue. You must come to the table with clean hands. Those who go to equity must go with clean hands, so that all and sundry will be involved. The issue of how to lift Nigeria from its present state of quagmire is for all hands to be on deck. I have not criticized the Buhari administration, because I am an advocate of criticize when it is time to do it, govern, when it is time to govern. I am not going to bother myself with what the APC is doing with their candidate, I am going to confine myself with what PDP will do and who we are going to field.
Talking about zoning formulae in the PDP, former president Jonathan recently declared that he is not through with politics yet. But the party has zoned the slot to the North for 2019. Since he is from the South, does that not pose a conflict?
I don’t think President Jonathan will do that. The party has made its position very clear. President Jonathan is much disciplined. He will not go against the party. He has not finished with politics, yes; of course, he is just 58 or 59. So why should he be through with politics? He still has years ahead to play partisan, contributive politics.
But having been president, he may not run for a lesser position
I am not saying that he will run for election. Does he have to run for election to be contributive? His role as leader of the party is quite clear. Nobody can take that away from him. He is a very, very visible conscience of the party.
How do you at the leadership of the party look at the role played by former President Obasanjo in installing Buhari? Are you making any overtures to him to return to the party?
I don’t want to discuss him because he is not a member of our party. He has finished with the party, and the party has finished with him. I am not one of those who are in contact with him. Whenever I see him, I go and pay my respects. When I was senator, he was the president. I wish him well.
The intra-party conflict in your party will soon be addressed by the appellate court. Will you accept the verdict whichever way it goes? If in your favour, will you go for reconciliation?
The truth is that we have set up some committees for reconciliation. There are so many people we need to bring back to the party.
Governor Wike is The Sun’s governor of the year pick. He is under investigation by various security agencies over the recent Rivers legislative re-run polls. What is the stand of the party on these?
As far as Wike is concerned, the PDP is 110 per cent solidly behind him. We know what is happening; we know why he is being fought. And we have no apologies standing with him side by side all the time, all the way. His cause is just. He is a very loyal and committed party man. I can tell you as the secretary of the party that the party has no regrets whatsoever in standing with Governor Wike. He deserves the Governor of the Year Award given to him, and the party will also be with him at the award night to show that a man of very great significance in the party and the country has been given his due recognition. I thank The Sun newspapers for doing that.