The national chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP) Chief Chekwas Okorie, is not impressed with the level of growth recorded by the country since attaining independence 58 years ago. He told MIKE UBANI, in this interview that the country has not had the right kind of leadership that would propel it to the path of growth and development, and insists on the introduction of electronic voting, and restructuring of the country. EXCERPT
At 58, can you say that Nigeria has made significant growth?
No. Nigeria has made stunted growth since independence from British colonial masters on October 1, 1960. The country’s growth is not impressive at all. And this is as a result of poor leadership. And this poor leadership became very excruciating after the civil war when the military began to tamper with the political structure of Nigeria in order to concentrate power in the North. And this happened overtime to the extent that the political structure we have today has become the main impediment to national development. Several states have been created quite alright, but these states have not been created based on any objective criteria except with the view of concentrating more powers in the North. The local governments have also been created along the same line of prejudice and bias, and more and more of the powers of the regions before the war have now been appropriated by the Federal Government. The revenue sharing formula of Nigeria has also been skewed in favour of the centre, making the federating units at the state levels mere beggarly units that look up to the centre every month with cap in hand begging for allocation to survive. And this has resulted to a lot of agitations for restructuring – even agitations to return to the old order. This country is endowed with tremendous human and material resources, but unfortunately, the country is a very big embarrassment first to the black world that keeps looking up to us as a model and as a symbol of what the black ought to be. And then to the larger international community that sees Nigeria as a bundle of corrupt and wasteful conglomeration of ethnic nationalities.
How do we get the kind of leadership that will propel the country to the path of growth and development?
Quite frankly, Nigerians are very rational people, but when you have a system that does not permit them to exercise their rationality through the free exercise of their franchise in voting, then you begin to have the kind of leadership recruitment that gives the impression that Nigerians do not know what they want. The electoral system has made this situation terrible, and almost like it is a problem that is beyond solution. As I said earlier, Nigeria is endowed with a lot of human resources. All over the country, there is no section that you won’t find very eminent, intellectual, erudite and honest Nigerians who are ready to see Nigeria as one. But the leadership recruitment process has been allowed to be influenced by religious, ethnic and other mundane prejudices and sentiments. Our leadership recruitment process has become monetized and commercialized. And in some cases, there is outright imposition. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is just answering independent in theory, and not in practice. So, until the electoral body is able to come up with what has improved leadership recruitment process in developed countries such as electronic voting system, we cannot talk about the right leadership in the country. Look at the government we have in Rwanda today. Rwanda has overtaken Nigeria within a very short time. Even Ghana uses electronic voting system and that has given the people the hope and confidence that it is those that they wish to rule them that will rule them and not those imposed on them. Once you get the leadership recruitment process right through the use of electronic voting, then of course, you have gotten the leadership right and every other thing will follow.
What is your assessment of party primaries?
I am far more concerned about the election that will determine who wins than the process that brings up the candidates. I say this because a political party wishing to win an election in a competitive democratic process like the one we have now should be able to put its right foot forward. I say this because the stake is higher, and options are many. I have seen people lose nomination because they were short-changed, and they moved to another political party and won the election. When I founded the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) Hon. Uche Onyeagocha, came to me crying that his party has denied him ticket after spending huge sums of money. We gave him our nomination form, and waved the nomination fee temporarily hoping that when he succeeds he will find time to pay the party because party needed the money to operate. He won in that same federal constituency, beating the person that was used to change him in the PDP. So, this is what multi-party system can bring about. So, if you read what is happening in many parties today, there have been a lot of manipulations and multiple candidates emerging in the same constituency through parallel primaries. If parties have gone ahead to do what they think is best for them, it should be left to the electorate to decide whether the party was right or wrong.
What is UPP doing to mobilize supporters as the 2019 general elections draw nearer?
We are being very strategic. Don’t forget that the UPP had earlier made it clear that it is not going to spread itself thin in this election, and so we are not presenting a presidential candidate. So, because of that, we are concentrating on the governorship, senatorial, House of Reps, and House of Assembly elections. The UPP has also done another thing that is strategic. We have very promptly domesticated the Not-too-young-to-run law by coming up with a policy that all those that are within the ages of 30 and below – who are eligible to run for election – are exempted from paying any form of fee such as expression of interest and nomination fees. And women too – irrespective of what offices they want to contest for, are also exempted from these fees, as well as Persons with Disability (PWD). This has endeared UPP to the Nigerian public as not only youth friendly, but gender friendly. The story of UPP’s revolutionary approach to elections will continue to be told, and it will carry us to the next election.
Against the backdrop of the bleak picture you painted about Nigeria, do you think that going forward, the country has a bright future?
Nigeria has a bright future. As a matter of fact, some people say God is a Nigerian. This country has come so many times to disintegration, but it managed to survive it. The civil war was the biggest challenge Nigeria had to remain as one. And after that we had other security challenges, and some leaders we have had in this country, by their actions and inactions, allowed the crises to grow. We have seen the Maitatsine religious crisis, and today, this Boko Haram that has not gone away completely, though it is being taken care of. Then the herdsmen problem of attacking farmers is a very terrible thing. The herdsmen attack on farmers was there during the administration of former President Jonathan, and nothing was done. But when President Buhari came, the herdsmen got more brazen. They felt Buhari was there patron, and became more emboldened. Unfortunately, this administration is treating them with kid gloves. That has brought us bad image in the international community. However, the country has a bright future. Today, agriculture is growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, the achievements in the agricultural sector have resulted to a halt in the urban-rural migration. And the land is beginning to yield more crops than ever before due to improved seedlings and improved farming technology. So, more educated people are taking to farming because they have seen it as good business, and not just for subsistence. In terms of infrastructure, this present government has done something that I am impressed with. Governments we have seen in this country have come, cancelled contracts awarded by their predecessors, or even stopped paying for the contracts, and award fresh ones. And at the end of the day, neither the old ones nor new contracts are ever completed. So, Nigeria became one large abandoned construction site. But this government came and decided that those contractors should be mobilized to return to site, and insisted that the quality of work as agreed on must be done. And today, we have a lot of projects done by this administration. I come from the South-East, and I can bear witness to the infrastructural development that have resumed with the same contractors that were there all along. This is the kind of patriotic approach to developing the country that was not common until Buhari arrived the scene. Look at the Second Niger Bridge. The PDP used it for campaign for as long as they existed as a party. And even at the end of the day under former President Jonathan, they awarded the contract to what they called Private, Public, Partnership for an amount that was more than N200 billion. If that had worked, our people would have continued to pay toll gate until eternity. But this government has reversed all that, and brought the Second Niger Bridge project to direct government funding at less than half the price that Jonathan awarded it. And the work, to the best of my knowledge is over 40 per cent completed. President Buhari is beginning to raise our hopes on the reintroduction of the rail system in the country. I took a train from Abuja here to Kaduna, and after finishing my political meeting in Kaduna, I boarded an evening train and returned to Abuja the same day. President Jonathan started the project, but he didn’t have the political will to complete it. Rather, the project was completed by President Buhari. So, there is a bright future for this country.
What nature of political structure would you want introduced in the country?
We already have six geo-political zones which mischievously the military refused to include in the constitution. I will like to see a formalization of the six-geopolitical structure in the constitution. The six geo-political zones should be made federating units, and given the type of powers that the regions of the First Republic had. There will be state police because there will be states under the geo-political zones. And there will be community policing that will also help to maintain security at the rural level. Then these states within the zones should develop at their own pace, and make contributions both to the zonal leadership and federal leadership on agreed percentages. So, the states will be the ones contributing to the centre, instead of going cap in hand to Abuja to collect money. The federal government should be saddled with maintaining security against external invasion, foreign affairs, fiscal issues, the Central Bank, Immigration, and Customs.