Undoubtedly he can be described as fearless, courageous, strong and bold. Chief Chekwas Okorie is one of the main pillars of political renaissance in the country and Igboland in the past two decades. He opened up in this interview to address issues never discussed by him before on Ikemba, Umeh and APGA. This interview is worth your time. Excerpts
How will you describe state of the nation?
The country is in a most trying and challenging period, security in the country is at the lowest ebb, I will describe it as a situation that is just a shade that is lower than the civil war that was fought in Nigeria. It means that the country is sitting on a keg of gun powder. There are so many flash points.
What comes immediately to mind is the Boko Harman situation. Political leaders are not helping matters. The struggle for power has generated a lot of heat in the system; the position has gone beyond the level of credible opposition to the level of violence and very vicious opposition. The unemployment rate is alarming, especially among young people. And they have diverted source of their talents to many vices. General election is two years ahead, but it seems it is the next day, distracting those in authority to ensure that either they remain in 2015 or plotting to have their stooges to succeed them. There are no plans whatsoever and no intention to leave that aspect of choice to the people who actually are the true sovereign. INEC is battling to see that the process of electing leaders is credible and transparent. But I can see their efforts being sabotaged, either by denying INEC amendments they have proposed to the electoral act and the constitution by the national assembly that ought to be championing this course. There are other obstacles, which on their way distract those in authority. All of these given rise to the year that Nigeria may experience a major schism that may threaten the corporate existence. There are agitations of so many alienated groups for self determination. It’s trying, it’s challenging, but leadership is what is needed. Sincere, patriotic, focused and selfless leadership is what is needed to carry Nigeria over it’s difficult times.
Yet upon all these, they are not helping matters at Rivers State, I keep on wondering why a man who is carrying an elephant is trying to hunt a cricket?
Who is the man caring the elephant so that I can answer you?
The President, Goodluck Jonathan?
Well, I do not want to jump into that general condemnation of the president and his wife, over the situation in Rivers State, if the president is carrying an elephant as people will say, and he is searching for cricket it means something is wrong. But, why is it that all the prominent Rivers State people seem to be at loggers heads with Governor Rotimi Amaechi. Practically every other Rivers political leaders that I know. Is it possible that the president has deployed all of them, the most credible of all of them is Dr. Peter Odilli, who is leading the pack now. He is now matching on the streets against Amaechi, Amaechi was his boy. But there was no doubt that there was no love lost between them before now. All of the people who worked and, matched and fought side by side with Amaechi for him to emerge as Governor are all disillusioned. And this is a problem of leadership. If I look at Amaechi, honestly at first I was in total sympathy with him because I see him go through some of the travail I have gone through. And he began to perform and began to win the heart of the people. He used the media very effectively to showcase his delivery. But I must say from a distance that he has a personal attitude that smacks of arrogance and aloofness. I see in him self-opinionated person who will hardly consider other peoples opinion as important. He is not sensitive to public views and this is a mark of a good leader. No doubt, he was able to manage the militant youths who were operating in Rivers before he came and other people who held sway, but, I believe he could have managed all these other factors more effectively than he has done.
To blame the president, to me is uncharitable and cannot be strongly substantiated. There’s no doubt that the President’s wife is from Rivers State. As a human being no matter how hard she tries her interest in her home state will always show. There is no doubt that having come from Rivers state she is expected to take a certain stand even being the First Lady of Nigeria. So that suspicion that she has interest she has taken a stand has also fueled the allegation that this is the presidency-instigated battle. Who will deny Nyesom Nwike, the Minister of Education his right as a Nigeria citizen and a Rivers person, to aspire to be Governor? This is what has happened in many states of Nigeria, and continues to happen. Once an incumbent sees an aspirant that is not in his line-up and who seems to have prospects, there is all manners of battle, that sometimes lead to political killing. It’s also a common occurrence in Nigeria that once people get into power; the first person they attack is the person who helped them to ascend to power. I have heard it said by former President Obasanjo that once a king is made, the first thing he does is to target and kill the king makers, maybe in suspicion that they may make another king, so this are so common in Nigeria, look at the experience of Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia state. Whatever may be his fault, he is a human being but the viciousness with which Chief Theodore Orji fought him is not anything anybody will wish for himself. It does not matter the fault of Dr. Orji Uzor kalu as a human being, all of us have faults. But that type of fight waged by T.A. Orji was viscous and is still raging. And if you identify with Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, you become a victim.
In Enugu State it’s almost a tradition that once you get into power you must turn around and attack your benefactors. Chief Nwobodo was a victim, what goes around comes around, you can go on and on. The only person who we can say has managed his own with sufficient dexterity and political sagacity is the Governor of Lagos State, he almost came to a head in the last election as everybody watched with keen interest and berthed breath, how this performing governor was going to engage in a fight with his benefactor. How he managed to maintain cordiality till now is a case study that needs to be emulated. So this is what I see going on, in Nigeria, may be because of the opposition we are playing, which I said has moved from opposition to viciousness. Now some people are making it look like the person who is responsible for all the political problems in the River State is the President and his wife. No blame is going to Rotimi at all. Prof. Wole Soyinka will shout from Lagos, Femi Falana will fire from there. Tam David West who is from Rivers, but hardly in Rivers will do his own. Everybody, who is vocal, but is outside the theater of the struggle blames the President but those who are inside and who are prominent Rivers people and who have more stake then these people who are talking have said that this our son is not behaving properly so to blame them won’t solve anything definitely. Again, I think leadership is needed by all here and the President can do more to return normalcy to Rivers State than keeping aloof because I guess that what he’s doing now is to avoid being blamed for any action he may take no matter how altruistic. But that wouldn’t solve the problem he must do something to resolve the problem. He is the father of all Nigerians for now.
You have only ended up justifying Amaechi’s position and helping his case, because all these people you have mentioned are ganging up against him just because he refused to share government money to them and like you said, he is working. He is using the money to serve the ordinary people of Rivers State?
I don’t believe that. He is not the only one that is working. He is not the foremost performer in terms of service delivery. What of the Fashola I just mentioned? And look at how complicated Lagos is. If anyone is accusing him of sharing or not sharing money, why is he having peace? Is he sharing money or not sharing? You can go on. In Enugu State where I live, I come from Abia, but I have lived almost all my adult life in Enugu State, I have never seen any development in Enugu State since the war ended, as I have seen under Sulivan Chime. Look at the people he has managed, in spite of the fact that he is an introvert by nature. I knew him from his University days. But in spite of being an introvert, he has still managed to wield all the contenting forces in Enugu. Look at his masterstroke of zoning the governorship to the Enugu North Senatorial zone Nsukka area. Everybody who had one suspicion or the other came together. Those who were being suspected of nursing gubernatorial ambition that can upset the chart like Chief Ekweremadu and those in opposition like Dubem Onyia etc, have all come together to align with the governor. And the summit he had in Enugu was the most successful that point to stability of government in that place. And to me, he has performed in Enugu State more than Rivers. I visited Rivers recently and some of the things I saw on television are not so on ground. The roads are horrible. The traffic jam in Rivers can make someone crazy and this thing can be done with the kind of resources at his disposal. But now he says – this is Federal road and this is State road. How many states have done federal roads for the comfort of their people and gone back to ask for a refund? Or do I talk about Akwa Ibom State that is a master piece and a show case? It’s now a destination point in Nigeria. Has he not managed his relationship even with former governor Attah where initially it seemed that the centre would not hold? But now there is no major event within Attah’s family that the governor is not there and there is nothing happening in the State that is major, that Attah does not participate in, thereby telling all those who often benefit from crises that there is no point to have a fight for a fight is not for the benefit of Akwa Ibom State.
So, I have acknowledged what Rotimi Amaechi has done well. There is no way I will deny him the things he has done well. But there is no way I will also blame other people and assume that the reason they are fighting me is because I’m not giving them money. People used to give that kind of excuse. When we go down to the details, you will see that even the person who is giving more money or largest is more accountable, because these people who claim they are not giving money, by the time you go into what they have amassed for themselves, you will shudder. So I don’t want to go into the issue of who gives people money or what. I am talking about what I can see from a very dispassionate part of view. Amaechi has a behavioral problem. Sagacity that is required of a leader. He will soon leave there and join the family of the ex’s. I know of some state governors who can hardly visit their State of Origin, because of the way they ran the State. As soon as they are practically on their own self-exile. I hope it doesn’t end up that way for him.
You are an elite and so can see things differently from the people. My opinion of Rivers State is quite different from yours?
Your question was that the President caused it that he has an elephant and is still looking for an ant to kill. That has already shown the opinion, which you have formed, but unfortunately my answer is not in conformity with that. It’s different (laughs)
Let us progress before the Rivers problem consumes our time. How do I present this question, so I do not hurt you?
No. Ask me anything. This is no holds-bar interview. Don’t ever try to paint your question in order not to hurt me. Ask the most difficult question. Even if it is provocative. Please feel free.
Every person has been trying to blame Victor Umeh for stabing you at the back. But when I sit down, there is this question I ask myself. You said Orji Uzor kalu is not perfect and that’s accepted. You too, Chief Chekwas Okorie, you are not perfect?
Definitely! If I am, then I am not a human being.
When you sit down and recall, what were your mistakes at APGA, your shortcomings that Umeh took advantage of to stab you at the back?
(laughs). This is the first time am being confronted with this type of question, well, self-criticism is always very good for any person. I always say that sometimes we do not examine ourselves and we will always blame everybody for our failures and mistakes. And I try to the best of my ability to have self-searching of my own person, and criticize myself. The emergency of APGA was a peculiar situation. It was as a result of three attempts, to found a political party that will amongst other things provide a platform for the political identity of the people of Igboland. And this effort spanned over seven years. From 1996, when the first application was made, (the effort began in 1995), to 2002 when APGA came up, we had made three attempts. Two previous ones failed. So this party came, we faced an election. Election was just around the corner. And in search of people, we found out that most politicians had taken positions in the existing parties. But my greatest shortcoming was the sort of loyalty I gave to Ikemba, which I had given to him since he returned from exile, seeing him as the symbol of our struggle and being narrow-minded about it.
I was an unapologetic follower of Ikemba. I was extremist in that followership. I stepped on toes that I need not to step on. I don’t want to mention their names. But they were powerful toes, both in Igboland and outside it all in defence of the man I believed in. The man I believed in had no love lost with the entire Igbo intelligentia and the elite, both in business and the bureaucracy, but was the hero of the masses. That disconnect did not endear me to this critical sector of the Igbo society. So when this party was founded, it took him six months, perhaps to look around to know if there were godfathers we could not operate with. I had known him for twenty years, before we parted ways in 2004. And when he saw that the wash was cleaned as it were, he came and joined us. He came in December 2002. This party was registered in June, 2002. And I did not hesitate from the time he joined to propose him as our presidential material in January 2003 convention. His word was command to me. Even when my personal principles I held dear to clash with his command, I had to compromise to obey his order. No normal human being is expected to do that. That was a very major mistake of mine. A major weakness of mine. If there is anything called excessive loyalty, and it is a sin, I committed that sin because of Ikemba. And it was for that reason that he told me to allow him the prerogative to appoint the person who would be the governorship candidate from his State of origin, and I accepted without questions. That was how Peter Obi emerged. Because of the fact that Peter Obi did not emerge through the process, you can see our benefit and how we were rewarded. The same weakness of mine of giving respect to elders even against my personal wish played out when Umeh resigned from the party in October 2001, when we were not yet registered. We were still struggling to get the NEC requirements. He joined us in July 2001. Three months after in 2001, he resigned, for reasons I do not want to state here. But one principal part of it was that he did not see the prospects of meeting the requirements. He didn’t see the war-chest as it were, that would have wet all those NEC requirements,
The financial war- chest?
Yes the financial war-chest. However, when the party was eventually registered in June, it took him less than one month in July to run back to be re-admitted. Everybody in the party objected to Umeh coming back, because he didn’t have a stake in the party and was not part of the struggle to have it registered. And when it was registered, he now ran back. It was Barr. Jacob Nwokoro, who contributed both financially and the legwork, even though he was not a member. But he believed in the philosophy and the vision that we needed a party to engage the rest of Nigerians politically. He called me and told me that he was not a party member and that he would never ask me of any other favor, other than to reinstate Umeh. I did not stand my ground. I conceded that to him. But not only that I brought Umeh back; I had to give him a position, because he was our protem treasurer before he left. The position was already occupied by Chief Ralph Okey Nwosu, who was then nominated by the Late Chief Chuba Okadigbo. I had to put Umeh as the Vice Chairman, South East zone and pleaded with the Chairman, Chief Edoziem Njoku (he is still around) to move to another position, so that Umeh could be given a more respectable place, having lost the position of treasurer. Now this soft spot was not in tanderm with practical reality. It’s a weakness of mine. So you can call it naivety. And as soon as Peter Obi became our candidate, Chief Ralph Nwosu, because he was also nursing gubernatorial ambition, and fighting so hard in building up the party, bolted out, because he felt he needed to be that candidate. That it was going to be his compensation for all his ambitions, in his own thinking, for building the party. He bolted out in anger. Caused his own kind of trouble which I managed better than in the case of Umeh and I and Ralph remain friends till tomorrow. The position of treasurer remained vacant again. Because that was Ralph’s position, when Umeh came back. Umeh ran back to me, pleading that he should be reinstated, because that position was going to Anambara State, don’t forget I’m from Abia, and I was the National Chairman.
Again, in my first fault, in my naivety, I conceded that to Umeh and brought him back and proposed him at our convention on January 2003 and was formally ratified in that convention. It was from that close position as treasurer of the party that he launched attack against me. They went and took advantage of Ikemba’s vulnerability as a result of age to tell him that they would hand over the party to him and he would decide who would be what. And Ikemba fell for it, because the party had now become attractive. Some people started to see it as a milk cow Peter Obi from the same state who was compelled to provide the financial facility. Because of my brand of opposition at that time, which was very strong against the establishment, and my Igbo people who are not cut out for credible leader of opposition, although I got an award from NUJ for credible leader of opposition in a ceremony in Abuja, I was declared at one time an enemy of the state, by Remi Oyo, who was the media Adviser to Obasanjo at the time and now the Director General of News Agency of Nigeria. So, you can imagine a politician who was not violent, but very vehement in his brand of opposition and very credible. my own brand of politics at the time did not endear me to people in power.
You can call that a weakness and when this crisis started, it was easy for them to get the support of the presidency. It was the presidency that first tried to get the late Guobadia to withdraw my recognition as the Chairman of the party and Guobadia wrote a letter, which he gave me a copy as a matter of official procedure, that letter was addressed to Ufot Ekaette, former SGF (Secretary to the Federal Government) that APGA had not had a convention since 2003 and hence I remained chairman. When he left and Professor Maurice Iwu came, his first action in office within fourteen days was to write a letter, giving recognition to the treasurer as the acting chairman. This is not done even in a primitive village where there is no written order, not to talk of a party that has a written constitution. You don’t remove a chairman and the person to take over is the treasurer. And that was the order from the presidency. And the top Igbo elite whose toes I had stepped on in the course of defending Ikemba, said to me “well it served you right the man you were defending is stabbing you now and we will allow you to roast in your stew”. So, nobody came to my aid for eight years. I take it in conclusion that having identified that aspect of my weakness, there were also areas people felt there were things I could offer. And that was why I maintained loyalty. In fact, APGA was split into two, along the line. I had no money to give anybody for patronage. I had no largesse to offer. I was been fought by the government that had all the resources, yet I had very fanatical followers. And so, it was more of what I believed in and not to leave them in the cold that persuaded me to look for another party. And it was easy to meet the requirement of the presence in 32 states of Nigeria. In fact, the law says 24 states, and that you must have state and national executives. We have these in 32 states because we have people who are following us. We raised that number quickly and met the requirement, and here we are and the lesson learnt is that all those weaknesses of mine, my mistakes, and my political team are now guiding me. Still that doesn’t make me a perfect person, but am better.
You wanted to take advantage of the Ojukwu philosophy, the Ojukwu name, the Ojukwu symbol and it backfired. Could there had been a strong APGA without Ojukwu?
(Laughs) Why I will not delve into this question is actually because Ojukwu is no longer alive. And if I go deeply into it, I will raise issues that may not be very complimentary to the leader that have died. And I censored myself even when the battle was raging that I will restrain making any statement that will not be complimentary to him. I followed him for twenty-two years. As I have said it, I don’t mind repeating it that in the course of that…(long silence) there are things I will say now and they will say “so you knew all these while, but we told you” and all that and all that. And if you had stayed with somebody for twenty-two years, as close as we were, we traveled all together, sitting on the same side of the car, sitting on the same row in an aircraft, except when his wife was to accompany him. So if you have that closeness, there is no way you will not know each other’s businesses. There is no way each other will not have an idea and privileged knowledge about other things other than what others know. When the battle was going on for the soul of APGA I continued to pray to God not to ever make me as a result of the provocation or what I may term betrayal to go beyond the main battle of APGA to go personal. And God guided me; it never happened. And when he died, like all of us mortals will one day die, I made myself a promise that nothing will make me come now that he is not there to change what I may have to say about him, to say anything against him. But the only one I cannot deny is the fact that his presence made APGA far more rooted among the grassroots. And from what I have said in earlier interviews, we can blame also that his presence alienated the elites, to whom I said there was no love lost. My own calculation of political movement is that if you have 99% of the masses with you and you do not have the political one percent of the elite, that disconnect will make the movement suffer. That was why APGA never had funding. In the whole presidential election we could only fund five rallies in a country as big as Nigeria. We had a presidential election in which we couldn’t print posters even for the presidential candidate. We didn’t do it because the money wasn’t there. We had a presidential election in which we had five presidential fund-raising dinners, in which the party did not recover the cost of hosting the dinners, none of the five. Instead, we lost money. We paid over N300, 000 to Sheraton, we spent about N250, 000 at Lagos. At the time, these were huge sums of money. We paid from the party’s fund because we didn’t realize anything. We went to Aba and returned empty handed. We went to Kano and came back empty handed. We went to Warri and came back empty handed. These are places we had to go. The class of people I told you had no motivation to support us. That’s why when I saw those who came to give him honor at his burial; I said if the dead could see, Ikemba would be pleasantly surprised because so many of them took front seats. I know what so many of them said to me, what they spoke against him. But they all took front seats at the burial.
Again you cannot rule out the fact that APGA, especially I, Chekwas Okorie gave Ikemba a political rehabilitation nobody could give him and nobody could have given him. I followed him to NPN, from NPN to SDP, from SDP to NRC, from NRC to APP, his highest position in the parties was member, party Board of Trustees, even in SDP. Many people didn’t know he had that position from where he became a presidential candidate and leader of a party to which he never gave moral or financial support. That’s the much I want to say about him.
And by presenting him as a presidential candidate, he shone like a thousand stars. He became a centre of attraction again in Nigeria. He became a political bride that many political leaders had made pronouncements; they would not associate with and began to visit him. He had a 70th birthday at Owerri and the place stood still. But he had had birthdays all along. How come nobody remembered the date he was born and all that? Even Obasanjo who was not invited called me and asked why are you doing a birthday for his friend and we didn’t invite him. I thought he was joking.
He said he was going to send somebody even if I didn’t invite him. I thought he was joking. But he sent Prof Jerry Gana in a presidential jet. Jerry Gana is alive. Obasanjo is alive. Buhari and his team came from the north in a chartered airplane. Nigerians came together for him. That was the greatest honor he received after the war by a cross-section of Nigerians, including those who were on the other side of the battle. So it’s a two-way thing. His presence made APGA become a household name. APGA helped him to achieve political rehabilitation and we can say it was because of that rehabilitation that earned him also his massive respect. It’s not a one-sided thing by any objective observation.
When you look at what is going on in APGA today, the vicious fight between Umeh and Peter Obi, do you sit down and laugh?
It’s again, a very painful thing to talk about. When I remember all that we put in to get APGA and to make it a strong party and those who never shared in the vision, start to fight viciously I laugh. They rebuilt it from a movement to a family affair. APGA was derisively called Agulu People Grand Alliance because two of them came from the same place –Agulu. By the time I threw in the towel, there were about 23 suits pending in the various court. I felt that enough was enough, especially when Ikemba died. After the funeral, there was no person around who could come to the platform and make peace. Those who never wanted peace to reign were those who were left to continue the fight. So I moved on. I made a profound statement and that was on March last year, that the soul of APGA I took away with me. I think it was your paper that gave prominence to that pronouncement. Other papers carried it, but your paper gave it more prominence that the soul will reincarnate in another party. UPP is still in the word. What happened was because I returned the certificate of APGA voluntarily and before I did that I prayed over it with a heavy heart. That pronouncement that I made was given a divine authority by God. And I said what was left was the carcass. You can see clearly that what has been happening with the carcass I left for them. This one plays this side and the other one plays the other side. You can also see the cannibalization of APGA. Okorocha took a chunk of it to APC. Peter Obi has his own portion of that carcass and Umeh has his own portion of this carcass.
To me it’s like a pronouncement of my given divine authority. It’s nothing to laugh about. I see APGA as a child kidnapped by political kidnappers. In that custody, he died, and the body they kidnappers kept and started to fight over who will posses it. And when he died the soul departed, that’s the spiritual way I see APGA. Whatever they are doing now may be prolonging its interment. As we speak, there are two conflicting Appeal Court judgments. It’s just that one person is using the press more than the other side. The whole world is celebrating Umeh for winning an Appeal Court case, which was on a technical ground. All that that the Appeal Court said was that he was not properly presented before the lower court and the judge went beyond what was presented to him to make certain pronouncements; technical ground. Now another Appeal Court judgment has gone ahead to accedes the convention held by Okwu, which is Peter Obi’s side. How INEC responds to these two judgments is left for it. But whatever INEC does, it is not the Supreme Court of Nigeria. So they will still end up at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and there is nobody who is not a reckless risk bearer, that will use this platform to contest any serious election, when the validity of its candidature will still be a subject of litigation. How does the person embark on campaign? How will the enlightened and sophisticated Anambra voter to cast his vote for somebody that they know that their votes will be in doubts as to the value of the votes cast? Let me give you a very small scenario. Suppose an APGA candidate for governorship election coming up later this year by November wins by popular votes, and the courts says the nomination was not valid because the National Chairman and Secretary that signed the nomination were not authentic officers, he loses. Now the person coming second whom the people of Anambra did not give their mandate becomes governor by default. What kind of governor will that person be when he knows that the people didn’t vote for him in the first place? So Anambra people will not gamble with their vote in that circumstance.
Was it why Ifeanyi Ubah moved from APGA to Labour Party?
Yes, because from what I heard, he has invested heavily, mind-boggling amount of money in supporting Umeh. But he took a long look at what may end up being his fate if he became stubborn and went into election on that type of platform. I think it was a sensible thing for him to do, to go to a party at least, where his nomination will be valid, and it will now be left to know how the electorates respond to him. I don’t see any person who has head on his shoulders use any side of APGA. No matter what the INEC says, the Supreme Court is still there. The case of Andy Ubah should not be lost on anybody. The case of Chibuike Amaechi and Omehie shouldn’t be left on anybody even though the circumstances are different, but they are all pointing to the non-validity of the person who has won an election declared by INEC and later on thrown out by the court.
It should be a stupid risk for anyone contesting election under APGA; that’s what you are saying because the opposition may fund any of the APGA group to go to court even after election?
Yes, reckless and stupid and any other word even stronger than that.
What is the position of the Igbo now that 2015 is approaching and is it not about time we bring out a strong candidate for president?
It’s too early
Too early? For Igboman to be president?
No, no, no …UPP as a political party has already zoned the 2015 presidential slot to the South East political zone. It was a policy decision of the National Executive Committee of the party, contained in a communiqué and read to the media. So it’s the only political party in Nigeria that has taken that decision, to actualize an Igbo president. And no one will be surprised that the party I founded did that because I did it in 2002 before Ikemba joined. And that was what made it possible for him to ever run for president in his lifetime. So, I remain the only Nigerian who has founded a political party and did not use it to run for president. I’m yet to see any other one.
Having said that. I want to say that I’m prepared to make that sacrifice again, so that an Igboman will run for president given under the party-UPP, but what I said is too early is to come out and say: this is our strong candidate. First of all UPP believes in internal party democracy. The electoral act has been shifted on party primaries to emerge. And the timetable for 2015 is yet far from