‘Ndigbo should adopt Zik’s template to reassert relevance in Nigerian politics’
Last week, Chief Chekwas Okorie had a public presentation of his book, APGA and The Igbo Question. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, Okorie, who founded the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), but is now a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), explains why the book came amid the preparations for the 2023 general election. He gives insight into how the people of the Southeast zone can reassert their relevance in national politics instead of clamouring for the presidential tickets of the ruling APC and opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which, he insists, they will not get.
You recently presented your book, APGA and The Igbo Question in Abuja. Why is the booking coming at this time when the country is preparing for the 2023 general election?
Actually, there had been demand for the book for quite a long time, especially after I made a decision to discontinue further litigation on APGA leadership crisis. That decision was made in 2012; and it was in that same year that we moved on to form the United Progressive Party (UPP), with the same vision and mission.
As soon as we moved on, stories began to emerge; all sorts of claims began to emerge from varied quarters as to who founded APGA, whose legacy is APGA and the processes that led to its formation. Even people who knew the through story were distorting the history. So, the pressure was on me to tell the story and I took my time to tell the story.
I didn’t want to just tell the story of APGA alone; I wanted the story to come along with the Igbo question, which was what APGA was originally intended to answer by way of providing the platform for political engagement, which I have known for a long time, not by begging anybody; not by platitudes but by positive political action.
So, 20 years down the line, I said to myself, ‘here I am; God has kept me alive. I can’t continue to wait.’ Actually, I had the option to write it against next year when I will turn 70. But I told myself that this is 20 years after the formation of APGA, which is also a round figure; so, I chose to do it this year. I began to write the book in December 2021, but the materials were already there. So, it was ready for printing in a couple of months.
Can you shed light on your role in the formation of APGA and the vision and mission of the party as originally espoused?
Let me go back a little bit. In the First Republic, the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe transformed the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), which he was originally its national secretary then called general secretary. When the mantle of leadership fell on him after the death of Dr. Herbert Macaulay in 1947, he transformed NCNC from being a western regional party to a national party when he was able to convince the Igbo State Union to key into the NCNC.
So, immediately NCNC spread all over Nigeria, because the Igbo State Union was in every nook and cranny of Nigeria, the effect was that the NCNC did so well in the election of that time; they had far more votes than its rivals but not enough to form government. So, it chose to go into a coalition with the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) under Zik’s guidance. That gave Igbo people relevance in the political power equation in Nigeria.
In the Second Republic, the same situation arose. Igbo people were running to other parties to become running mates and Dr. Azikiwe had voluntarily retired from partisanship. Unfortunately, he found his people clamouring to play second fiddle. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo took Philip Umeadi as his running mate; Mallam Aminu Kano took Mazi S.G. Ikoku as his running mate; Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim took Dr. B. U. Nzeribe as his running while Alhaji Shehu Shagari took Dr. Alex Ekwueme as his running mate.
So, Zik thought that it was not right that Igbo people would voluntarily and happily want to play the second fiddle. As a result, he came out from retirement and decided to join the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP). It could be recalled that his joining the NPP compelled the founder of the party, Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, to go and form another party, which was the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP). So, Zik dominated NPP, became its flag bearer and went to election. The outcome of it was that he led NPP into an accord with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). That accord yielded, among other things, Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke as speaker of the House of Representatives. So, Igbo people had the rare privilege of having a vice president from the other side (NPN) and a Speaker from NPP, the same combination that the Yoruba are enjoying today.
By 1996, Zik had become old and I didn’t see any Igbo man that had his political stature, sagacity and savvy. So, I though that if we didn’t have such person, we should at least have a platform and may be through that, have a rallying point in terms of a personality. That was what led me into the formation of APGA.
Also, I was disturbed when I found out that no Igbo man, not Zik, not the late Michael Okpara or K. O. Mbadiwe had ever founded a political party in Nigeria. We always joined the one founded by others. So, it became a challenge. I began to make that effort in 1999. I applied to INEC but we weren’t registered because Gen. Sani Abacha suddenly decided that there would be only five parties, which would adopt him to transmute to president. Unfortunately, he died and that didn’t work.
In 1998, another opportunity came and we applied again with me leading the way. Again, we were unlucky; a number of factors played out and they did not register us. Part of what played out was that they found out that we had brought Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to lead us. I didn’t know that the military and the political class had this morbid fear about him. So, even after we met the requirements, they made sure that we were not registered. I discovered it afterwards. So, I made a third attempt leaving him behind and by the grace of God, we succeeded.
When we succeeded, we made a policy that our presidential candidate would come from the Southeast and that it would remain like that until it is either achieved through us or through any other party. That again disturbed the powers that be. And who did we bring up as presidential candidate? It was the same Odumegwu-Ojukwu who was at a time locked up for 10 months for daring to say that he was going to run for president.
We brought him in and gave him the presidential flag of APGA. I raised his hand on January 10, 2003 and gave him the flag. And he did what he could do under the circumstance and Igbo people began to be watched again; even though we didn’t win, we made some relevant points. At least, it was obvious that by the next election in 2007, if we consolidated what we achieved in 2003, nobody would take Igbo people for granted anymore. So, the plot to destroy APGA began in earnest one year after the 2003 election. So, by December 2004, some weak links within APGA played the role they wanted them to play and APGA crisis began from then till 2012, eight good years.
I went to the Supreme Court for three good times. The Anambra State government was using the resources of a government that a party I founded enthroned to fight me. I sustained that battle for eight good years until I found out that government was with them. So, I decided that knocking my head on a brick wall would yield nothing. So, I gave up the fight. They didn’t win; I was the one that called my counsel to say he should discontinue further litigations.
So, the idea of APGA, even though a national party, was to give Igbo people a platform for engagement. It was not a platform for secession; it was not a platform for disintegration but a platform for engagement.
I went round the world convincing Igbo people that this is the best way to go. And behold, all the young men and women of Igbo extraction all over the world keyed into the APGA mission. Nnamdi Kanu was the chairman of APGA in the United Kingdom in 2002; I approved his appointment. All the people that you find in Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) today were members of APGA in the diaspora. But when the APGA problem couldn’t be solved, they lost confidence in the political process. Unfortunately, they thought that a different process will yield quicker result and here we are.
Given your account, how true is the claim that the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo played a major role in the formation of APGA even though he was a member of another party?
It is very true. Many top PDP people were involved, because I went to them personally to convince them that even as they were in PDP, they needed a fall back platform such that if they should be treated as orphans in PDP, they would tell them that they were not orphans but had their own political party. They were convinced and started to assist. He was not the only one that assisted. Gen. Ike Nwachukwu assisted; Chief Jim Nwobodo assisted; all the governors in the Southeast then assisted as well as many private individuals. Emeka Nwajiuba, who is the Minister of State for Education today, donated the national headquarters of APGA to the party. Their assistance heightened after Okadigbo was kicked out as Senate President and they said, ‘Oh, Chekwas must be right.’ That was when the support increased and eventually, APGA was made.
So, it’s true story. What Zik did with Igbo State Union, I did with Igbo delegates Assembly covering the 19 northern states of Nigeria. I am an ardent student of Zik’s political philosophy. Of course, I recounted what I am telling you in the book. I devoted an entire chapter to give credit to all those who contributed to the making of APGA including journalists.
You have already given a hint of when APGA lost focus and how. What agitates the mind of many people is why the weak links in the party failed to see what you saw and consequently caved in to the plot to destroy the party?
Ah! Many people today are seeing what Zik saw many years ago. Unfortunately, we are all guided by certain instincts. Those who are guided by principles are few. People with vision form party, but people with ambition join party. I have vision; I founded APGA.
By founding APGA and UPP, I became one of four Nigerians in the history of this country that founded two parties in their lifetime. Chief Awolowo founded Action Group (AG) and later founded Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN); Mallam Aminu Kano founded the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and later People’s Redemption Party (PRP); Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim founded NPP and later founded Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP); Chekwas Okorie founded APGA and later founded UPP. I am the only one alive of the four. That is my place in history. So, these are people with vision. But those who have ambition join party and jump from one party to another in pursuit of ambition.
APGA, which you founded, was at one point very strong in the Southeast where it controlled two states. Now, it controls only Anambra State and doesn’t look like a party that has the ambition of making inroads into other parts of the country. Even though you have parted ways with it, why has it refused to grow in your view?
The answer is as clear as daylight. The visionary, progressive platform was turned into a cash cow. The people controlling it after the coup in the party did not share in the original vision. And as we see today, it can’t even be said that APGA controls Anambra State.
There are 11 House of Representatives seats in the state; eight of them belong to PDP. There are three senatorial seats in the state as in other states; none belongs to APGA. So, where you have the executive governor and majority in the House of Assembly, you can’t say you are comfortable.
The 2023 election is by the corner and it can spring a situation where these other parties will dominate the State Assembly. If that happens, a hostile State Assembly may not allow all the good intentions of Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, who is now the governor, to scale through, because he has to pass through them for appropriation and all manner of approvals.
I have a chapter in the book, which I titled, ‘A New Vista Beckons’. Now, Igbo people are going cap in hand begging APC and PDP to give them their presidential tickets. And I have said more than two years ago that it’s not going to happen. Luckily, Prof. Soludo, whom I recognise as a well-bred, patriotic Igbo son, is now in the saddle. Now, instead of all these begging and platitudes, knowing full well that power is not given by milk of human kindness, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and well meaning Igbo leaders could go and sit down with Soludo, the de facto leader of APGA today and brainstorm and bring out a candidate that has integrity, who can be marketed to the rest of Nigeria, and make sure that he has the party’s presidential ticket. With that, you are sure you are on the ballot. If you are not on the ballot, your lamentation continues. But if you are on the ballot, you will be able to use the number and spread God has given you to push your cause. We have such number in Lagos State.
For instance, in 2003, notwithstanding the massive rigging at that time, APGA won Suleja Federal Constituency when we didn’t have a candidate. We won Amuwo-Odofin and Ojo Federal Constituencies without candidates, because people simply voted the symbol; they didn’t ask who the candidates were. That is the extent Igbo candidacy and emotion can go when it comes to matters like this.
I am not a member of APGA as I speak to you; I am a chieftain of the APC, but I have passion for APGA, because nobody throws away his baby. Even the father of the prodigal son took him back. But in this case, APGA is not even a prodigal son but a victim of kidnap. So, there is a strong reason for me to show passion and sympathy. That is why I’m giving this free advise to them.
Why are the presidential hopefuls in the 2023 election from the Southeast not looking in the direction of APGA with all the potentials it boasts according to your explanations?
As I said earlier, people who have vision are few; those who have ambition are everywhere. Almost every human being created by God has ambition, but vision is the one that is scarce.
Now, I will not recommend to APGA to even consider any person who has gone to another party, failed nomination and wants to come back and seek for substitution. No! They have to have an original candidate and that is where Ohanaeze has a role to play.
Soludo is the governor of Anambra State; he has his own challenges. But if Igbo leaders meet him and request for his cooperation, I am certain he will willingly grant it. I am not in a position to do anything in that party, because I’m not there; I’m only giving a genuine, sincere advise.
I practically conscripted, if I may use that word, Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu to run on the APGA platform. There are other people I don’t want to mention their names here (but their names are in that book) that I approached and they declined to run on APGA platform. In the case of Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu, I had to get Justice Eze Ozobu, then president-general of Ohanaeze to come and put his hand on my own hand and charge me to go and make him APGA’s presidential candidate. This was on December 24, 2002. On December 26, 2002, I addressed a press conference at Zodiac Hotel, Enugu and proposed Odumegwu-Ojukwu as the presidential candidate of the party in line with the mandate of Ohanaeze. Present there were Dr. Joe Nworgu, who later became the secretary general; Chief HBC Ogboko, the publicity secretary and Prince Richard Ozobu.
So, Ohanaeze can do the same now. Get somebody you know can deliver and whom you would be proud to market to Nigerians and tell APGA to give him the choice of first refusal and he would fly the flag. With that, at least, three major parties will lock horns and the political equation of this country will change. Campaign and election will become vibrant again. There will be fresh consciousness among Igbo people; they will now know that they are part of the contest and it will even douse tension in the area of insecurity. Most Igbo people are behaving the way they are behaving because they don’t think there is anything for them in corporate Nigeria.
If Ohanaeze approaches you to suggest an individual that can make your zone proud in this regard, who would be your choice?
I can’t be promoting somebody who has not given an indication that he would be ready to fly the flag of the party. I told you that I approached prominent Igbo sons to ask them to take the presidential ticket of APGA in 2003 and they declined. But Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu took up the gauntlet even when he had no money. So, somebody must have the courage to say, ‘I am moving forward to represent my people and be the point of engagement with the rest of Nigeria.’ Nobody is talking about moving away from Nigeria, but about engaging the rest of Nigeria in a normal political engagement.
So, I have seen some aspirants from Igbo land; they are qualified people, but they are just talking about what they would do to create jobs and this and that. Who wouldn’t say the same thing? There is nothing that they have said that anybody else won’t say.
For example, none of those aspirants whether from the North or South has ever mentioned one word about restructuring as part of his social contract with Nigerians. Yet, everyday, some socio-cultural groups like Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum and so on and so forth will be shouting restructuring. Here we have people who want to rule Nigeria; not one of them has had a singular courage to say, ‘If I’m made president, I will restructure Nigeria.’
Meanwhile, restructuring will engender economic growth; it will give every federating unit the latitude to expand, explore and grow at its own pace. And what will that mean? All the grammar about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and all of that in other countries will be happening here. What is keeping Nigeria down is the political structure that we are operating yet not a single aspirant has said a word about that. I have been watching them. If you are afraid to say that which your fathers are saying, what courage do you want to take to be president?
President Muhammadu Buhari is a very courageous man and has introduced certain policies that may be considered difficult or unpopular but they have turned out to be quite helpful. So, you need to be prepared to take difficult decisions; you begin to show that you can do that when you are presenting yourself. That is why you could see a comedian become president of Ukraine. During the campaigns, he said things that the people felt were what they needed, but these people are telling us theories that they don’t even know how they were propounded. In fact, not even one of them has impressed me in terms of their economic postulations and how Nigeria will get better through such.
Do you see APGA making inroad into any state in the Southeast in 2023 given the euphoria that greeted Soludo’s ascendance to power?
Not with this present leadership and structure. In fact, Soludo may be good, but he is working on a very tight rope. If nothing is done to re-launch APGA into the national scene, he may find his State Assembly taken over by other parties and that means a very horrifying first tenure for him. By March next year, he will just be one year in office. If by then other parties have taken over the State Assembly, how would the remaining three years be, not to talk of another term?
I have tried to pass this message across; how he is responding to it I don’t know. But the point remains that Anambra alone can’t give APGA that movement. So, it has to be Igbo people that will bring back the APGA spirit.
You were very emphatic that an Igbo person will not be given the presidential ticket of either the APC or PDP, and in your own words, you have been saying so since two years ago. Why do you have that conviction?
It’s simple. I may not be a prophet or a clairvoyant, but my political projections have never disappointed me. PDP, for example, is one political party that has so much hatred for Igbo people. From day one, the owners of PDP (every party is owned, forget about what you see outside) took a decision that an Igbo man will never be president, not in the next 100 years. And president Obasanjo told me this personally in 2003. In fact, he even gave Ndigbo 150 years to think of it. He cited the American situation where it took 150 years before somebody from the southern part of America became president of America after the American civil war. And that person, Jimmy Carter, is still alive. We discussed all that in the villa. So, that is the PDP agenda against the Igbo.
Also, PDP in 16 years did not start and complete any project in Igbo land. But in seven years, President Buhari has been opening up the Igbo space. But PDP will tell you that they gave appointments to Igbo people. What was the essence of the appointments when those so appointed could not appropriate any budget to implement any project.
Now, what the PDP is doing is affecting the APC. That was what my friend Osita Okechukwu tried to put across the other day and people are criticising him. But he didn’t capture it well for people to understand where he was coming from.
You see, by PDP throwing the door open, meaning that somebody from the North based on Nigeria’s geo-political structure will be their candidate, it becomes politically risky for APC to surrender the northern space to PDP. So, APC said, ‘okay, if that is what you want, let us start from there’. PDP went North Central to get their chairman; APC went to North Central to get their chairman. PDP threw their presidential nominations open; APC is doing the same. Already, Governor Bello of Kogi has bought and we are hearing that the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan might buy. After those people have bought nomination forms, will you tell them not to contest the primaries? And if they are contesting, will you tell them not to take advantage of the lopsided political structure that the military imposed on Nigeria?
So, where does the Igbo man stand? The realistic thing instead of all these beggarly things that irritate me is to return to your party, APGA; the party God gave you through Chekwas Okorie, and come back to the centre to lock horns. If they can take my advise and do what I am proposing, the missing third leg of the tripod will be restored. Forget about other parties; APC, PDP and APGA will be the parties to lock horns and APGA can come out of it either engaging in pre-election or post-election alliance like Zik did in two republics. I don’t know why this is difficult for my people to understand.