It’s too late to expel Saraki from APC — Audu Ogbeh

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A former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party and a founding member of the All Progressives Congress, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, tells JOHN ALECHENU about the National Assembly crisis among other issues

You played a key role in the merger of different opposition parties to form the All Progressives Congress but with what is happening now especially in the National Assembly, do you have any regrets?

No, I have no regrets. It was a good thing to do. Without doing it, there was no way the opposition would make any impact on the political scene. In spite of the obvious embarrassment we are facing, it was a good thing to do. We will get over this.

The party especially in the Second Republic had a better grasp of its affairs and members. What would you say has gone wrong today?

It’s quite simple. Take India for example. India became independent in May 1947. India has never had a coup or a disruption in its democracy. As turbulent and corrupt as Indian history has been, they avoided coups. The soldiers simply left the civilians to blunder around and mature. But we haven’t had that luxury here. Each time the system is disrupted, it degenerates because democracy is not a destination, it’s a pilgrimage. Yes, in the Second Republic there was a structure and the party chairman was a pretty strong person; the President deferred to him. Today, the President owns the party chairman, dictates to him or tries to, at least before now. As a result, the culture of party supremacy has waned so badly that respect for the party is quite minimal now. If we carry on nurturing it I guess it will come back again soon.

Do you share the fears of Nigerians that whenever a ruling party is in turmoil it has an adverse effect on governance?

I do. There has to be some cohesion, otherwise who is going to adhere to the party’s manifesto? Who is going to listen to the party? Who is going to discipline erring party members living extravagantly, embarrassing the party and the people? The party has to be strong enough to call people to order and in the absence of that, of course, there will be a great deal of wobbling and incoherence in policy implementation.

What do you make of claims by some of your party members that what is playing out in the National Assembly is simply part of the antics of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party to grab power through the back door?

I do not condemn those who have this kind of thinking. It’s like some of our members who moved over from the PDP still have their PDP sentiments very strong in them and they are using that connection to achieve those objectives. They may be successful in the short term but it’s going to ruin them in the long term because one must decide where one belongs. I do hope that before long, we can get over this thing and realise that party membership is a fairly serious business. One makes up one’s mind where one belongs and one makes sacrifices for belonging there. If one doesn’t want to, then one is actually creating difficulties not only for one’s party but for the country and one’s own person as a politician. This is because once one is adjudged unreliable and unstable, nobody will trust such an individual with higher authority.

Nigeria has been at a political precipice on more than one occasion. One of such times was during the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency. There was a time the then House of Representatives attempted to impeach him. What really happened?

There was great turbulence in the PDP before I became its chairman in October/ November 2001. I knew there were problems in the party. There were arguments between the party and the National Assembly and between the National Assembly and the President. My predecessor had made a lot of efforts. When I came in we began the process of healing those wounds. After a while, we stabilised a bit but then the impeachment issue came up. Now, the Assembly members felt the President was too aggressive and too contemptuous of their membership. The President felt the Assembly members were not mature enough and that they were misbehaving. That dispute almost ended up in the impeachment of the President. My duty then was to try and ride over the storm. I saw beyond the demand for the impeachment of the President other dangers facing the country and her democracy. I didn’t like the prospect of the first southerner elected into office being thrown out by what in the end would have appeared as a conspiracy by the North. It wasn’t too obvious then but I had cause to call the then Speaker, the young man called Ghali Na’abba, and told him that I would not encourage him to push the matter too far. He wasn’t happy about it. After the (Chief MKO) Abiola saga, we in Abuja started the party in 1998. The late Sunday Awoniyi, Adamu Chiroma, Iyorchia Ayu, Prof. Jerry Gana and those of us who met had decided that no northerner should be a candidate in the election in 1999. The same message reached the All Peoples Party then and that was why in 1999 there was no candidate from the North in any political party contesting the election. We felt that the South had endured long enough. They had been grumbling about this business of northern domination whether it was civil or military rule and that it was time for this family to get together. Issues of chieftaincy and headship do matter in our society here. Some day, they may not as in the United States where a son can take over from a father. Jeb Bush is on his way now. He may make it, he may not make it; it doesn’t matter to the Americans. But here it matters. Therefore, we did what we did. I was not going to be a chairman who would sit and watch the impeachment of the first elected Southern President because I was certain that the South was going to say wait a minute, “is it that Obasanjo was that bad or that these northerners don’t want anyone else on that seat?” I think the latter sentiment would have prevailed. And I saw the consequences way beyond the anger and discontent of the members of the National Assembly who were pushing for impeachment. Thus, I pleaded with Ghali. He wasn’t happy and I am sure he had said so before to people but he respected me and the thing calmed down. That is why it is so strange to read in Obasanjo’s book (My Watch) that Atiku Abubakar, Iyorchia Ayu and I were the ones planning the impeachment and that he had a mole in our midst. It sounds preposterous, to say the least, and highly uncharitable of him. I respect him as a former president but he was making wild comments about things he knew nothing about. I was on his side just as I was before his re-election in 2003 when 15 governors came to me that they didn’t want him and asked me to call a meeting to ask him to step down. But I told them I would not call a meeting and he (Obasanjo) in company with (Waziri) Mohammed, the chairman of the Nigerian Railways Corporation who died in a plane crash, drove into my house here shortly after that and asked me what was going on. I told him what the governors said and advised him to appease them and he did. I stood by him and he told people including Adamu Chiroma that God and Audu Ogbeh saved him in the election of 2003. Therefore, these inconsistent statements just to smear people are highly uncharitable and hopelessly un-presidential. History can’t be re-written just because people feel bad about somebody at different times. I respect him as a highly intelligent man but he is too full of mischief and vengeance.

What’s your relationship with Obasanjo now? What exactly transpired between you two as it was reported that both of you ate pounded yam together at your house hours before he moved against you?

Yes, he came here and we had lunch. We have no problem (now); I didn’t see him for 10 years. I saw him after 10 years in his house during the last electioneering campaigns. I went there with General (Muhammadu) Buhari and others. We saw and greeted. I will always respect him as Nigeria’s president and an older person. I will always respect his intelligence and capacity for work. He is an absolutely incredible man when it comes to ability to work and grasp issues and deal with them. But I keep saying that the element of mischief and vengeance tends to diminish his greatness.

In the light of what you said earlier, would you say the sentiment that the North is overbearing is justified?

It’s not true. The North does exist as a political block. Sometimes, in trying to make compromises, political commentators become extremely uncharitable as well. In 1999, the North decided not to field a candidate. They were not forced to take that decision. There was no law banning them from taking part. On our own, we said no northerner in this election. Nigerians must appreciate or remember that we believed the South had genuine reasons to grumble about what appeared to be an endless northern domination of the polity. But sometimes some southern commentators do not remember this. The North occupies 76 per cent of Nigeria’s land mass but it is not economically strong and it has to wake up and become stronger. The South dominates the economy almost to 90 per cent. For instance, there is no northern bank operating today. The so-called banking consolidation sold all the three northern banks that were in existence to southern interests. Today, we have no economic base and we know that when we do apply for credit there are sometimes visible discriminations against us. Even in the agric credit scheme of N200 billion which many of us applied for; we were turned down on the grounds that we are politically exposed. I am aware of senators in the South who got N3.5 billion and who hadn’t cut a blade of grass. I was denied, so were Jerry Gana, (Aminu) Masari, and Abdullahi Adamu. Certain things happen and we know but we decide not to flog them too far because we want Nigeria to function and work together. Thus, these complaints are sometimes totally unnecessary.

Obasanjo seems to be the go-to person on national political issues; do you think he will be as meddlesome as some think he was during the tenures of late President Umaru Yar’Adua and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan?

People are free to go where they wish. Like I said, he is a very intelligent man and he does have a pretty good understanding of the political system. People go there but what they make of his advice is up to them. As an elder statesman of that statue, there is nothing outrageous about going to see him but I do hope that people then filter what they get from him, know what is useful and what should be discarded.

Does the APC need to be wary of him?

I think our party leaders are mature enough to know what is good and what is bad. Like I said, he has played a major role in Nigeria’s history and he is a statue, in his own right. He is a man of tremendous capacity too. Therefore, when people go to speak with him, he will tell them a lot of fantastic things that will help them but there are things they may need to be very careful about.

Should the APC hierarchy expel Senate President Bukola Saraki and co if they fail to toe party line?

It’s too late to do that. I think dialogue is the answer and I wish to God that that dialogue had taken place much earlier. Two, calling that meeting at 9:00am when voting (for leadership positions) was happening at 10:00am was a strategic error. I didn’t know who engineered it. It was a very tragic error. Three, I think a committee should have been set up long ago to get the process of reconciliation over with. The committee not involving the party leadership but elders from the party should meet both sides in the divide within the APC and sort the matter out because the longer it lasts, the more embarrassment we get, the more the public confidence in us shakes and the more difficulties we face in governance.

In view of the current crisis, will the APC amend its constitution?

It isn’t the constitution that is the real problem. Constitutions are run by human beings. We have our constitution; we have a certain understanding among ourselves about what we should do and shouldn’t do. I think there are some managerial lapses somewhere. Some mistakes have been made. For instance, we have not yet formally inaugurated our Board of Trustees; what are we waiting for? This is the kind of crisis that the Board of Trustees should have taken over and resolved and not the National Working Committee or the National Executive Committee of the party. Why is the Board of Trustees still not in place?

Do you see this crisis as a battle between Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar/Saraki for the soul of the APC?

There may be some credence to that but if we had a better structure and a better national vision these struggles will pale into insignificance. We’ve always had this country torn apart by these vested little individual interests diminishing the national interest. Where would any of us be if this Nigeria wasn’t functioning? That’s the big question. The debate has never been about those who are pro-West in their economic orientation and a few of us who are pro-East saying let’s look to China and India, how did they solve their problems and others who are saying, no free trade, globalisation in the West. We’ve never had a debate about how to deal with the issue of poverty saying that that is the biggest enemy of the society and that 90 per cent of Nigerians are living under terrible stress. We’ve never had a strong debate on education. Should we look back 30 years at our good old Teacher Training Colleges, bring them back to really teach our children, teach the teachers first how to teach and make them teach our children properly? We have never had a robust debate on our financial system. Here is a country whose interest rates hover around 40 per cent for the small scale borrower. Where on God’s-given earth can 40 per cent interest rate grow an economy? And then they keep glossing over it and because one can’t produce anything. If one adds that to power shortage, one depends on importation of everything. And the more the country depends on imports the more the demand for the dollar weakens her currency at home and the more poverty and unemployment are increased. But there are no debates on all these. It has always been about who wants to be in charge or wants to be seen as the big lord in the political system and it’s causing us a lot of headache.

The APC has jettisoned zoning and some analysts have linked this to the ongoing crisis in the party. Do you subscribe to this?

This whole business of no zoning is a political fallacy that can’t work in Nigeria. The democratic system of Nigeria as it is today cannot function without certain sensitivity to the interests of sections of the society. We are Africans; we are very sentimental people and highly emotional. That’s what we are. Even in more advanced democracies, when John Kennedy was President of the US, he came from Massachusetts, his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson came from Texas, Richard Nixon came from California, his Vice President came from North Carolina, Barack Obama comes from Chicago Illinois or is it the Island of Hawaii, where did he pick Joe Biden from? The East Coast. One can go on and on. They have this sensitivity, they may not say so but there is the need to move this thing around a bit. It’s always happening. When it suits us, we say zoning is nonsense, let’s get the best. Is it true? You have to zone. Are you going to have a President in Nigeria some day from the South-West, Vice President South-West, Senate President South West and Nigerians will accept it? Or the North brings President, Vice President, Speaker, Majority Leader and people will accept it? You can’t do that. Or the East produces President, Vice President…? It’s not feasible. The point is that something got a little weak within the party structure that allowed this situation to come about and we should learn from it. I only want to advise the PDP not to celebrate too early because I hear them making comments. Even yesterday, I heard them saying something about us making excuses. But by the time we start explaining to Nigerians why the treasury is almost empty, many of them will be in tears; because they caused it.

The APC governors have intervened in the crisis with some of them demanding sanctions against Saraki and co while some are known to be supporters of the senate president. Don’t you see this capable of tearing them apart?

I think we will meet soon and take care of all these issues and put them behind us because the polarisation doesn’t do Nigerians any good. They have entrusted power to us, they don’t want to hear quarrels, they want to hear solutions. Nobody is interested in where you met and quarrelled. People are in distress and that’s the truth. We can quarrel and quarrel and become as unpopular as the party and government we replaced. I am talking as a member and elder of this political party and as a founding member. We are more concerned about how to govern this country and make Nigerians happier and God has given us so much and we have not one excuse under the sky for failure. Let the debate be about issues not personalities. I find debates on personalities nauseating.

Also, what measures are being taken to ensure that the party is not hijacked by a few?

It’s up to all of us to work hard and stop that from happening. Why do you need to hijack the thing anyway? What will you do with all the power? You alone want to be in charge of appointing everybody and therefore what? Become an emperor? Why can’t we work together for the great good of this great country called Nigeria? The widow in the village, the unemployed and the pensioner who can’t get his money doesn’t want to know who is in charge of naming everybody or not naming everybody, he wants some peace, he wants lower interest rates so he can try his hands on business. A young girl wants to set up a small beauty salon, she wants a place to borrow half a million naira, manage it and create three or four jobs and feed her brother and sister. But we don’t do it, I am sick of all these things in Nigerian politics. There are too many quarrels and too little governance. I am saying so because I am old enough to know that these things debilitate governance.

Nigerians nay the world has waited for a month for the cabinet list of President Muhammadu Buhari and there is no green light. Is this not an evidence of a slow and indecisive start?

Are you going to send a list to an Assembly that is divided? How do you have half your party members fighting and the other half supporting and the PDP laughing? Those who blame him should watch out. He is under immense pressure too. There are too many interests at play and he has to search for people who can deliver. There are Nigerians who are hanging on every word of his and if Nigerians have any reason to hope now, it is because of his personality and the confidence they have that he is sufficiently mature enough to deal with certain situations. He will not do anything to make them lose faith or panic by naming a cabinet that people will say, “wait a minute how can this cabinet work.” He is like a coach naming his football team.

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