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COVID-19: ‘Southeast not benefitting from federal government’s palliatives’

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Founder of Igbo Youth Movement, Elliot Ugochukwu-Uko, spoke with select journalists on the Federal Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, where he alleged that the distribution of palliatives was skewed against the Southeast geo-political zone. While urging those in charge of the exercise to be guided by fairness and equity, Ugochukwu-Uko, who is also the Secretary-General of Eastern Consultative Assembly (ECA), warned that ignoring the call would amount to sowing the seed of discord in the country. He also reiterated the need for the restructuring as the only solution to the myriads of problems bedevilling the nation, among other issues.

What is your assessment of the lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic Nigeria is presently undergoing especially as it relates to the Southeast zone of the country?
There nothing inspiring going on. It’s like we are all standing still, marking time. Nobody I know is excited, fulfilled, confident or happy with the situation in the country. The Southeast cannot be different. Nobody is sure where exactly we are headed. This is not the best of times. The COVID-19 holidays afford all of us the opportunity for soul searching and self-examination. But the plight of the less privileged and the vulnerable has been compounded, which is quite disturbing.

Ugochukwu-Uko


What is your take on the Federal Government’s palliative programmes to alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable during this critical period?
We read about the programmes on the pages of newspapers and also watch it on the television. But here in the Southeast, there is no such thing as cash payments and free food from the Federal Government. What we have here are commendable efforts to stem the hunger and hardship experienced by daily income earners by churches, corporate institutions, individuals and a few politicians. But those are clearly inadequate. The hardship is real. The suffering is real. Aids getting to these groups of people are inadequate. We are yet to see any kind of help from the central government. 

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Government is playing games with Eastern Nigeria as usual. Nothing stops them from distributing the aid or whatever through the 774 local government authorities if they are sincere. That way, it would get to every region. But they obviously don’t want to do that. They seem to be concentrating in the North, especially the Northeast and Northwest. Our people feel sidelined as usual. No town or village in Igboland can claim to feel the impact of the Federal Government palliative.

I challenge the people in charge to come out and show us beneficiaries here in the east. If anything is going on here, it must be very infinitesimal that nobody feels the impact. As always, we are deliberately sidelined.  The same people sidelining our region are wondering why the youths of this region want to get out of Nigeria like yesterday. 
You know that the Federal Government did not lockdown any state in the Southeast. The government only locked down the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states, and that is where it is focusing its attention. In this case, do you think the allegation of lopsidedness in the distribution of palliatives subsists?

As a journalist, I believe you are in a position to investigate how much, both in cash and materials, has been disbursed to each of the six zones by the Federal Government. The answer to your question will easily emerge when you publish how much Northwest and Northeast got. The distribution is preponderantly skewed against the Southeast as always and that is unfair, unjust and provocative. 

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So what are the governors doing about the situation?
I expect you, journalists, to investigate and bring this inequity to the attention of the authorities. This inequity and inequality are stuff revolutions are made of. You don’t need a soothsayer to note that just a little spark could lead to riots and mayhem. The little aid available is not being fairly shared across the country. That is unfair. That is wrong. Every discerning person can see that the people applying this dichotomy are sowing seeds for a revolution. They are actually saying to some regions “go to hell, you don’t belong here.”

Our governors should note that the angry people of this region are unhappy with the state of affairs in the land, especially with the one-sided style of distribution of the so-called palliative. Our people are clearly disappointed. 

On what the governors are doing, I don’t want to talk about our governors. I don’t agree with their style and I also don’t want to breach my code of conduct, which is not to attack any governor, as that would distract me. The people know whether the governors are standing up for them or not.

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When Prof. Ben Nwabueze and I escorted Nnamdi Kanu to a meeting with the Southeast governors two and half years ago, I realised that the overbearing influence of the Federal Government makes it difficult for the Southeast governors to be their own man. I painfully saw why the Federal Government is very interested in whoever emerges as governor in Igboland.

Governor Ugwuanyi is good at trying to avoid any kind of fight; he struggles to be a nice guy. Governor Umahi, even though he is performing wonders in Ebonyi with very impressive infrastructure development, is totally committed to the politics of pleasing the master and remaining in the good books of the owners of Nigeria. Governor Obiano decided from day one to fight his benefactor, thereby concentrating on survival in office; he has never stood up to identify with Ndigbo aspirations. Governor Ikpeazu doesn’t have any achievements you can put your finger on; he too is busy battling for survival. Governor Uzodinma, whom the Supreme Court enthroned, is the one that will split Igboland. It’s sad but true even though nobody is thinking about it now.

In nine months, he will produce the next Ohanaeze leader and you won’t expect him to nominate a PDP sympathiser. That would negate why he was forcefully made governor at this time. You also won’t expect Ndigbo to flow with his Ohanaeze nominee, who will definitely be an APC sympathiser. Nwodo’s last nine months may actually be the last days of a united Ohanaeze. You may quote me on this. So, Ndigbo are going through difficult times and it’s not over yet. The younger generation is not proud of our governors; they are nobody’s heroes, except of course the praise singers and cheerleaders.

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You talk about owners of Nigeria as if some external forces are piloting the affairs of your people. But they freely choose their leaders through the ballot from 1999 to date. Why do you blame others for the failings of those you elected into offices?

The failings of the Federal Government vitiate whatever good intentions by local governments and states, as long as the quasi-unitary structure is still in place. The failings of the Federal Government impair whatever any other unit of government can do. The constitution makes our President the most powerful in the world. As long as some folks deliberately delay the reconstruction of the polity for whatever reasons, so long we will all remain in this pitiable situation. You seem to have so much faith in the transparency of our electoral process. Anyway, some folks joke that our last election was the best in the world. 

The opposition PDP claims the government is not handling the COVID-19 crisis properly as the Goodluck Jonathan administration did with the Ebola outbreak. Do you subscribe to their view?
That could be true. But you see, even though this Buhari administration is a disaster, the 16 years of PDP didn’t actually move Nigeria forward. The PDP brought upon the land the evil of imposition of candidates, mindboggling rigging, financial malfeasance or sleaze in a scale never before experienced in the land. PDP laid the foundation for the confusion in the land today.

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The late Dr Alex Ekwueme told me that Obasanjo assured him that he would restructure Nigeria, but the fellow mischievously preferred a third term to salvage Nigeria. Igbo political elite surrounded Jonathan for five years; they wined and dined with him into the wee hours and failed to use the opportunity to address group interest. Today, Igboland has no international airport, no seaport, no rail services, nothing. The roads until recently were in a horrible condition. The PDP is extremely lucky that Buhari goofed; if not PDP would have been history. 

Really?
With all due respect, Buhari lacks the political sagacity needed to effectively run a heterogeneous, multi-cultural society like Nigeria. Probably angered by the fact that the Igariwey-led Ohanaeze rebuffed his overtures to meet with him during the 2014/2015 electioneering, he angrily decided to teach the region a lesson. I suspect that both Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, by their professional training, must have tried to get his permission to correct the grave mistake of 97 per cent/five per cent formula and the import of that faux pas on the psyche of a very over-sensitive race he fought against during the war. A race that remembers vividly the role he played at Asaba and other war theatres. They also recall how he distributed the PTF intervention projects under Abacha. His media handlers managing his public image know that the unprovoked 95 per cent/five per cent dichotomy will irreparably damage both his image and place in history. That no effort was made to clarify the statement and mitigate the damage done by the pronouncement simply suggests that the man probably said he didn’t care. His image handlers could have easily played with words and said their principal couldn’t possibly say or mean to apply such divisive formula. But the whole world waited in vain. So those hurtful words stuck till this day, five years on. He unwittingly placed a wedge between Ndigbo and himself. And of course, PDP benefitted. 

Had he been smart enough to reach out to Ndigbo in his first term, he would have won them over. He also chose fear and coercion, as his style of governance, to the end that his close aides seem afraid to tell him anything they perceive he may not want to hear.  His mistakes were avoidable. He didn’t know Ndigbo do not worship man. That is the truth.

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Are you suggesting that there is no hope for the APC to deepen its foot in the Southeast?
The PDP gave us bad dreams. The APC brought nightmares. More than half of the APC people jumped from the PDP. We are in trouble. They are all the same. The entire political class is a direct product of the military. The military ruled us with their civilian accomplices and collaborators; these guys simply metamorphosed into the Nigerian political class, whose dreams, desires and aspirations are totally different from that of the hapless masses. The citizens crave for jobs, infrastructure, security, a growing economy and justice. The politician is occupied with how to win the next election, acquire property overseas, live the good life and of course, continue to fool the people. None of them worries about the condition of the masses or the future of the country. They only pretend they care when it’s convenient. If they truly cared, they will not delay the restructuring of Nigeria a day longer.

What should be done at this moment to redeem the situation?
Nigeria is long gone beyond redemption if we don’t restructure immediately. We have been lying to ourselves for over 50 years. General Gowon unilaterally unified the structure by abolishing the regions as he announced his creation of 12 states 53 years ago. A very bloody internecine war enthroned mediocrity in governance at the end of hostilities in 1970. Corruption was celebrated as we announced to the world that our problem was what to do with too much cash. Nigerians started competing with Arabs on who were the craziest spenders in boutiques, designer stores and jewellery shops all over the world. While China, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia were busy building their economies, we were blocking streets in Lagos, dancing  “Board members, board members” and  “Ajalla travelled all over the world”.

We stole our country dry, destroyed the railways, Nigeria Airways, our education system, our health care, everything. 
The feeling that the oil cash will never run out brought out the animal in us. We simply got used to cheap, unearned, easy money. We began enjoying the good life without working for it. And just look at where we are now. We destroyed our institutions and now send our children to schools in Ghana, Benin, Togo, Cameroon, etc. Shame on us! That’s why Igbo youths are ashamed of Nigeria and want out. Nigeria is a sinking boat. And there are no life jackets available. It’s that bad.

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You see, I will be 58 years old this year. The story of Nigeria from my eyes isn’t an inspiring story. As a kid, I recollect the First Republic politicians in their flowing agbada and long cars, Opel Capitan, Zephyr, Chevrolet etc. They partied like there would be no tomorrow. They were truly powerful. The crises and civil war blew them away.

Then came the soldiers in their well-starched and well-ironed green khaki and their Land Rover convoys; they held sway as they were worshipped for an import licence and other favours. They too passed away.

Then came the Second Republic; the NPN, UPN, PRP, GNPP and NPP days. I was a teenager moving into my early 20s. Those ones ran amok. They lost all sense of responsibility and probity. 

Then the army came back; this same Buhari. They flogged people on the streets; they called it a war against indiscipline. They broke into warehouses and forcefully sold essential commodities. Buhari’s friends removed him and Idiagbon; and we went into rigmarole with Babangida for eight years. In those eight years, corruption was elevated to culture and nobody cared. Tai Solarin caved in, was co-opted with People’s Bank. Wole Soyinka explained away why he accepted to join through the Federal Road Safety Corps. Only Gani Fawehinmi stood with the masses like the rock of Gibraltar. He was our Horatio at the city gates. He couldn’t be bought. We watched; we noted.

Then came June 12 and the drama. Some people went to Abacha and brought him to come and chase away Shonekan. He came, cleaned out the treasury and showed us the meaning of repression. He was on his way to transmuting into a civilian president when forces greater than him intervened and saved Nigeria. 

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Then Abdusalami came and later took a bow. Now look at where we are after 20 years of uninterrupted democracy.
I have seen enough to cry over my country’s missed opportunities. While other countries were busy building their nations, we wasted decades, beating about the bush. Nigeria is a sad story. The painful part of it all is that the political class doesn’t want to repent. That’s the problem. 

Is that part of the reasons youths of Southeast region are pushing for secession?
The youths of eastern Nigeria are more dynamic than youths of other regions for three reasons. They suffer from discrimination everywhere they turn, every day of their lives. They are afraid and scared to hand over or bequeath this condition of second-class citizenship to their children. That is unacceptable to them. Their position is unambiguous: Treat us as equals or let us go. We want to live as freemen, not as slaves. Secondly, they have never been slaves to anyone for thousands of years until Frederick Lugard forcefully united Nigeria and forced them into a union they neither understood nor desired where other people deliberately make life very uncomfortable for them. Every effort to thrive as equals is consistently thwarted by folks who claim they are born to rule others. So, the agitation will simply continue until something gives. Finally, the large army of Igbo youths in the diaspora has managed to convince the millions at home that their elder’s laissez-faire attitude to the precarious political situation of Ndigbo in the last 50 years is largely responsible for their plight. They are all agreed that something must be done about it. 

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That is exactly what has been going on. The Nigerian state regrettably chooses neither to engage them nor address the structural imbalance that feeds their anger and disenchantment with the system. So the beat goes on.

I fear a revolution. All the ingredients are there. I should know. I have been here long enough to know. I formed my first group, the Igbo youth council, as a teenager, at the D’elmina Club, Adelabu Street, Uwani, Enugu in 1981, 39 years ago. I changed the name a decade later to Igbo Youth Congress in Lagos, in 1991. On May 28, 1999, 24 hours before Obasanjo was sworn in as President, I disagreed with my friends and associates and went solo. This time, I christened the new group, Igbo Youth Movement. I have worked closely with every genuine group in Igboland for more than three decades. I should know what is going on. I have been around for too long and I know that the Nigerian government enjoys the agitation, if not they would have addressed the structural problems of Nigeria. 

The restructuring of Nigeria remains the only solution. And this encompasses reverting to the 1963 constitution, enthronement of true federalism, devolution of power, justice and equity, a level playing field for all, fair play and equitable distribution of everything that no man should be oppressed. 

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