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‘Buhari could become father of modern Nigerian democracy’



Last Thursday, Nigerians celebrated the 60th Independence anniversary of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic with measured fanfare. In this interview, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Chekwas Okorie, reflects on Nigeria’s journey to nationhood, pointing out what could be done to right some of the wrongs that have been weighing the country down.

How would you reflect on the country’s journey to nationhood so far?
Reflecting on Nigeria’s journey to nationhood comes with mixed feelings. I was already seven years old when Nigeria became independent; so I was one of the primary school pupils who marched on that day in my school uniform, waving the flag. So, I can say I have seen the good and bad parts of Nigeria. The good part was short-lived while the bad part has sustained over a long time.


When was the good part?
The good part was that there is nothing as good as independence even at the family level. And Nigeria attained independence without firing even a shot. It was one of the few cases where independence was attained without a fight. So that was a good beginning. And the understanding of the founding fathers then was to have a federation although what we had could be called a quasi-federation. But it was a federation to the extent that three major regions (a fourth region was later created) had the necessary latitude under the constitutional framework at the time to develop at their own pace, have very healthy competition and explore and exploit their individual regional comparative advantages. They contributed to the centre as federating units. The revenue allocation at that time was 50 per cent by derivation and that in itself compelled the various regions to look for avenues to generate sufficient revenue that will ensure that they have more to develop their areas after making their contributions to the centre.

It was during that period that the Eastern region was recorded as the fastest growing Third World economy. In the area of education, the various regions were growing but maybe not at an equal pace. There was already the University of Ibadan at the time the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was established. Shortly after, there was Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and so on and so forth. So, the regions were competing and were growing. But as I said, that era was short-lived; it lasted for six years and we are talking about 60 years now. That was when we attained some of the milestones I mentioned. But there was a coup and everything went into the reverse gear. That military intervention led to a civil war.


Now let me fast forward to 1970 when the war ended. At the end of the war, this idea that some people lost and some won led the leadership at the time to go into certain conspiracies to put down those who were defeated forever. I say this well guided by what I experienced.

I remember my conversation with former President Olusegun Obasanjo after the 2003 presidential election. In that election, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) fielded the late Ikemba Odumegwu-Ojukwu as its flag bearer. Immediately after the election, because of the massive manipulation that occurred, there was this fear that Igbo people who voted massively for Odumegwu-Ojukwu across the country might violently protest against the outcome. So, Obasanjo invited me to the Presidential Villa where I spent hours with him. In the course of our conversation, Obasanjo told me (I’m using his exact words) that Nigeria was a tolerant country to have allowed somebody from a section that wanted to secede to become vice president barely many years after the war. By this, he meant that if anything had happened to Alhaji Shehu Shagari, an Igbo man would have become president. He told me that it was a fatal mistake. He looked at my face and said, ‘you are a young man. You committed political sin by making Odumegwu-Ojukwu the presidential candidate of your party’. He knew the role I played to make Odumegwu-Ojukwu the presidential candidate of the party against all odds. He also said to me, ‘do you know how long it took South America to produce a president of America after the American civil war?’ I said yes. He then asked, ‘how many years?’ I said, ‘150 years and that was when Jimmy Carter was elected president’. He said, ‘so you know history’. I had goose pimples. I asked, ‘so this is the type of plot these people have for us, that we will never smell the presidency until about 150 years?’

I fast forward again to 1999 when the former head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar imposed the 1999 constitution on Nigerians. It was an imposition because that was not what was agreed at the constitutional conference. As a matter of fact, the late Gen. Sani Abacha had already approved the recommendations of the conference, which included a six regional arrangement. But Gen. Abubakar dropped all those fine recommendations. Everybody knows that there is nothing like a regional arrangement in our constitution but they use it when it is convenient for them. But to show you that mischief was intended other than the lie that we gave ourselves that constitution, the provision to amend anything in the constitution is so cumbersome that it will take the proverbial camel to pass the eye of the needle for the major issues that are holding Nigeria down to be amended in that constitution. And that is why everybody is clamouring for restructuring. So, I think that Gen. Abubakar should apologise to Nigerians for the imposition of the 1999 constitution that has put us in this quagmire.


The theme of the 60th independence anniversary revolves around the need for Nigerians to work together to advance the growth and development of the country. Given your submissions so far, how do think this could be achieved?
The popular view is that organising a national conference to restructure Nigeria is about the only way out. But I do not flow with that position; it is a way out but not the only way out. My position is that in all circumstances, half bread will always be better than none. So, I disagree with those who describe the constitutional amendment going on now as a waste of resources and time. If you look at the items to be addressed in this amendment, they all touch on most of those things that border all of us. And we no longer have a monolithic North that will say that the status quo must remain because of the experiences of recent times.

So, I expect the social-cultural organisations in the major zones of the country to channel the synergy they have exhibited publicly to our representatives in the National Assembly, the governors, and the state Houses of Assembly instead of insisting that the exercise is a waste of time and resources. They should submit their memoranda to the National Assembly and exert pressure on their representatives, who I believe has the number, to ensure that those amendments are passed. If those amendments are made, Nigeria will definitely be a better place than what it is now and we can go from there.

We already have a constitution. As imperfect as it is, we need to continue to amend it. There is no way you will have a constitutional conference if you do not have the executive arm of government to support, fund, and mobilise the people for it. I have been involved in the attempt to have a national conference without involving the executive arm of government and I know that it never worked. I was part of PRONACO. The one that worked was the one that former President Goodluck Jonathan convoked because the government had the resources. We were looking at N8 billion at that time. But he lacked the political will to implement it.


This government has not pretended about its dislike for a national conference. Moreover, the state of the economy does not even allow for such enormous amount of money to be appropriated for that kind of conference as important as it is. So, I am of the view that there is now an opportunity and we should latch unto it and have the constitution amended to reflect some of the things we want. To me, that is the way forward. The 1999 Constitution is the root of Nigeria’s backwardness, disunity, and the suspicion among Nigerians. Everything that is bad in Nigeria is traceable to the 1999 Constitution. That is why I am demanding for Gen. Abubakar’s open apology.

The President reiterated his commitment to deepening democracy in the country through the conduct of credible elections in his speech. What should he do to achieve that in the shortest possible time?
Well, I am on record as having been canvassing for electronic voting since 2012. From the very month, UPP was registered as a political party, it became almost our mantra. We submitted a memo to the PDP-dominated National Assembly but they jettisoned it. They simply did not want to look at it. Ironically today, PDP is saying that if there is no electronic voting by 2023, they will boycott the election.

One thing that I give to this president, which I want to be put on record that I am commending him strongly for, is his non-interference in the electoral process. And it did not start with the recently conducted Edo State governorship election. Since he came into office, having been a victim of the serial travesty of justice in matters election, he decided that technology would continue to be deployed in order to improve on the credibility of the electoral process; and he has been doing that.


So, I expect the National Assembly to expedite action in enacting enabling bills that the president will sign into law for our elections to be credible and transparent. As a matter of fact, the moment we do away with the ballot box system, we would have solved 70 per cent of the violence in our elections. If we do not have these ballot boxes the way we have them now, there will be no jobs for thugs.

So, now that INEC is seriously getting ready for electronic voting by inviting different manufacturers to come and showcase the technology they have even in advance of enabling laws, people are becoming more confident that their votes will count. And I want to predict that the forthcoming Ondo governorship election will even have more participation in terms of percentage than the Edo election and more Nigerians will come out to vote in subsequent elections.

What does that mean to aspirants for elective offices? Knowing that voters have the power to determine their fate, the campaign will be more robust; the value of the electorate will also increase.

This is what I think the president is looking at. If he is able to achieve that, he will become the father of modern Nigerian democracy.


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