Former National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, in this interview with The Punch, talks about insecurity, the 2019 general elections and the crisis in the party’s chapter in Edo State
How would you describe the last general elections?
I’m glad because the All Progressives Congress came out victorious all through. We have been badly bruised, no question about that, but we came out fine.
To what would you ascribe the success of your party in the presidential and the National Assembly elections?
If I had to ascribe it to any one major factor, I would say it is the following that the President (Muhammadu Buhari) enjoys that took us across the finishing line. Unfortunately, there was so much dissension in the party, arising from primaries and the rest of it. The intense dissension made it difficult. As a result, we lost a lot of states (to opposition parties) in the process, which is unfortunate. The most unfortunate cases happened in states where we couldn’t even, by the definition of the Independent National Electoral Commission, field candidates; the definition that the Supreme Court has agreed with. It was really sad.
But the European Union Election Observer Mission recently described the elections as not fair. What would you say to that?
All I can say is this; in terms of electioneering, the process and the rest of them, we have taken a step backward. When you consider the degree of violence; I’m not talking about the EU report now, because I’ve not read them. I only read what the papers reported. I will love to see the report myself. But, there’s no question about the observation; when you start losing 200 lives in the process of an election, then something is terribly wrong. It is not worth the sacrifice of 200 lives.
So, to that extent, we have taken a backward step, and it is my hope that whatever is in this report will help us streamline processes for the future. My party condemned it outright. Every report like that has lessons for you. But, I haven’t read it, so, I don’t know how strong they are in their condemnation. But, any criticism, however much you disagree with it, may have lessons for you, lessons you can glean from, lessons you can learn from. That’s the way I look at it. It will help to improve the processes in future elections. We must, as a party and as a nation, aim for truly clean elections that do not involve the kind of violence that we had.
Although President Buhari was declared winner of the last presidential election, many people believe he wouldn’t have won if the election was not rigged, considering his unpopularity. How do you respond to that?
There is nothing much really to say about that. People must learn to accept results of elections. We have a penchant for not accepting results of elections. But there are cases where there are clear injustices, particularly in the selection process.
But in the case of the presidential election, to my mind, there was no such thing. Whether we like it or not, President Buhari has a cult following in a large section of the nation and that has seen him through all the time. You can look at when he was not even the President, he had 12 million votes challenging a government that was determined that he should lose at all cost. His case is so clear that it doesn’t need any argument.
Your party was able to successfully have its wishes in the National Assembly unlike what happened in 2015 while you were the party chairman. What do you think changed this time?
That was fantastic; what happened this time was absolutely fantastic. I think in 2015, apart from the fact that there were a lot of interference and we were going through a learning process, there is no question at all that mistakes were made by a lot of individuals and the party.
I’m glad that they have learnt from it and they have seen that imposition does not work; it has never worked. ‘Godfatherism’ works for a while, but from my experience from all over the place now, it is never a permanent process. Eventually, it will collapse.
This time, I think after the initial pronouncement, the members were allowed to do their own will and dealing, and in the process, they provided a leadership that the party is happy about, and that I am happy about.
Like some of your party members have alleged, do you think they are right that you condoned indiscipline and impunity while you were there as chairman?
You know, in politics, people just take a swipe at people: “Ooh, he’s been bribed, he got N300m. Ooh, he condoned indiscipline.” I think from anybody accusing me (of condoning those things), I will want to know the specifics (of what they are talking about).
For me, the only difference is that I did not carry a sledgehammer; I don’t believe in a sledgehammer. I was properly brought up, I went to school, and so, I believe in my ability to persuade, to get people around to do what requires to be done. Of course, that is very much less dramatic. What is important is, do you get results?
I was challenged; they said I was weak, and all that. But, look at the primaries I oversaw and the opposition I faced. Did I cave in? Of course I did not. So, really, what is weakness? Does strength consist of how much power you have and how you can break heads? No, it doesn’t. For me, that is not my interpretation of power. My interpretation of a strong man is a man who sticks to principles and can only be swayed by superior arguments, not interests, not personal interest, not any other person’s interest. Somebody who has principles, applies the principles without discrimination and is firm in upholding the results from those applications, full stop. Those are two different types of politics.
It is for people to decide which direction they want to go. Do you want a situation of relative disorder, just so you can have your way, or, do you want people to trust you, believe in you and follow you because they trust you, not because you can smash their heads or deprive them of whatever rights belong to them?
So, these are two types of politics; one leads to violence, and the other leads to a deepening and maturing of politics, such that Nigerians can be better for it.
Look at India; look at the elections they had, which went on for six weeks. At the end of the elections, not a whimper of complaint was heard. Why can’t we aim for such civilised politics? Why must it be an ‘Ajasco’ type of politics? Why must we be killing people because of politics? Instead of dealing with programmes and the kind of country we foresee, paint the picture of the people to see, we believe in, why must it be, oh, this man stole this, this man stole that, that man doesn’t have a certificate, the other one doesn’t have that?
To me, that is a very crude form of politics and I think we are beyond it; we are a potentially great nation. But we are just putting ourselves into the bottom of the pit permanently. We should aspire; we should move forward, we should try to make politics lovely and decent.
You attacked the APC National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, saying he lacked the temperament to run a party. The party in turn came out to attack you; do you still stand by all you said?
I have said all I need to say on that subject. For me, it is closed, unless something dramatic happens. For me, that was an unusual position to take. Sometimes, you need to make the point in as harsh form as possible, so that even if the people are deaf and dumb, they will finally get the message.
You also asked the party to get rid of godfathers, what would you consider as the implications of having godfathers in politics?
Let me once again try to make it distinct: those who enthrone themselves, somebody called it ‘mentoring.’ Mentoring is very good, mentoring is very positive, mentoring does not imply that after you have helped somebody and the person learns the ropes, it does not mean that you have a permanent rope tied around his waist. You let him be, let him come for advice. If he doesn’t come for advice, fine. Let him make his mistakes and learn from them.
But, ‘godfatherism’, the unfortunate bane of our politics, is the one that seeks to govern from the outside. Before decisions are made, you must be consulted. Before appointments are made, you must be asked for your list. Before the person you have ‘god-fathered’ turns right or left, he must ask you which the correct road to take is; otherwise, there are consequences. My state today, is a good example. Look at the kind of situation it is creating. That is ‘godfatherism’ and it’s very different from mentoring, which is absolutely beautiful. It is not the same thing as ‘godfatherism’.
In your own opinion, what can we do to get rid of ‘godfatherism’ in Nigerian politics?
Well, I think the only thing is that, everybody believes he is a champion, until it is proven that they are not that much. It is inevitability. It has proven itself repeatedly. You can count everywhere where this (godfatherism) has happened. There has never been one; I can’t think of a state where it has gone very, very well.
So, maybe experience will be the only teacher that they need so they will understand that being accepted because of being respected is much more enduring than being accepted out of fear.
Although you are a former chairman of the APC, you are first of all a Nigerian, are you concerned about the state of insecurity in the country?
Of course I am! Every Nigerian should be concerned. As a matter of fact, I’m very, very fearful of the real intention of what is going on. Is there a very deep-seated motivation by people outside this country who do not wish us well, because, there is no doubt at all that a lot of these people come from across our borders. They have infected our own normal people, no question about that. They have managed to infect them, using religion and all that. But the fact is that this thing is happening virtually in every community.
For me, the question is; could there be a sinister motive by people who do not wish this nation well? I can’t answer that question, only the security agencies can. And even if they know, they may not tell us, unless they have dealt with the situation. But, I’m very, very unhappy about it. I’ve no doubt in my mind that it has to be the number one priority of the second term (of the APC-led government) and I have no doubt that the President will give it the degree of priority it deserves.
Do you agree that your party has failed in its campaign promise to rid the nation of insecurity?
No, the party did not, the administration did not. What we promised on Boko Haram, we delivered.
But they are still attacking and killing…
No, no, no. America is the greatest nation on earth today, but it still has its own security challenges. Look at the number of violence in their schools and everywhere. That is the greatest nation with second to none security operatives all over the place, and it still happens.
But in America, nobody will come and say he controls part of California. That is what the President promised and he delivered.
You cannot stop a suicide bomber. Somebody is determined to kill himself and take others along with him, tell me, how do we stop him? The war at that level is still on, but we pray that deep involvement by the people themselves and their willingness to report suspicious movement will help the security agencies. But to expect that the act of violence will stop worldwide is impossible; it’s a terrible period in the entire universe. We are not exempted from it, and what it means is that a different type of insecurity manifests itself in the process. If we solve one problem, another one is coming up on us. That is the one I’m saying is very, very worrisome and I have no doubt that the President will give it the priority it deserves because it is worrisome. Anybody who is saying it is not (happening) or trying to wish it away is not living in the real world as it exists. It is very worrisome.
Your party also promised to improve the economy, but since it came to power, Nigerians have become poorer and the country is now the poverty capital of the world. Don’t you consider that as failure?
Well, let me put it this way; the problem has not been solved. Of course, there is real anguish in the land, there is real pain in the land and it is very unfortunate. It will sound heartless to say it is not so. This is a very unfortunate period that we are passing through. Unfortunately, development is a long process, a tedious process.
As I said in one of my interviews, in 1963, when, as young, passionate officers, we joined the civil service, when development plan which we were a part of, was the in-thing, in many countries of the world, people were actually dying of hunger in the streets. They had trucks plying the streets picking up people who had died of hunger. May God never, never let the situation be as bad as that for us! It’s a very, very unfortunate thing, and if we don’t accept that it exists, emphasise and work to correct the situation, then we are not being true to the Nigerian people.
It is a situation we inherited and it was inevitable. We don’t want to go into the history of it; we are supposed to solve the problem. That is why the people entrusted power to us. All I can say is that, the collapse of the Nigerian economy has been reversed, the economic base has been rebuilt during the first term (of President Buhari in office) and it is my prayer that with the nature of the government we are going to have now, we would be able to bring to bear, the innovative policies, effective policies that will address the economic situation and bring growth.
Right now, we are talking about two per cent of economic growth but the population is growing at well over three per cent, in which case, we are not growing. And if we are not growing, we cannot address a lot of these issues. So, when constituted, the government must aim at a rate of growth that is well in excess of three per cent. Whatever needs to be done has to be done.
Painful decisions may have to be taken, as far as the economy is concerned, which, of course, as usual, will lead to hue and cry in the system. But, there is no way we can make the level of progress we need to make if we do not think and work out of the box. Think out of the box, do something new, be creative and result-oriented.
What calibre of people do you expect the President to nominate for ministerial appointments for his second term in office?
I don’t know about that; I’m not close to the process, but the President said something in the speech he made on Democracy Day. I was struck by the admittance that political will, which means taking tough decisions and sticking by them to make them produce the necessary result, is something that will be a feature in the second term. I have no doubt at all that when he takes up the plough, we will see it.
As a former governor of Edo State, you understand the politics of the state. How would you describe the present political impasse in the party?
Well, I don’t know the details yet, but from what I know, it is a very, very unfortunate situation and it only originates from the breakdown of ‘godfatherism’. Edo State is a typical example of that. The only thing I want to say at this stage is that both sides should know that at all times, even from the time of the Action Group, Edo State, then Mid-Western Region, has always been a marginal state, meaning that there is no real landslide in Edo State. Edo State people have shown that they can vote in a discriminative manner. So, just to remind the combined combatants that if they continue on the path they are taking, there is the danger of making the APC the opposition party in the state, because the division in the party is very deep. And if they don’t reconcile quickly, then I can bet now that they will lose the state. That’s my only message to them.
What advice would you give to those involved in the internal wrangling?
Isn’t it difficult for somebody in my position to advise them?
But, you’re a major stakeholder in the party and in the state…
You know what happened when the plan was on to remove me as the national chairman of the APC. It makes me want to take a very deep look at things. We all saw this happening, we knew it could happen, but I’m surprised it could happen with this degree of intensity. But, like I told you much earlier, ‘godfatherism’ does not work with a thinking people who are so diverse. People talk about Lagos, but Edo State is not Lagos.
Our senatorial districts are boundaries of relatively distinct people. What you can do in Lagos, you cannot do here. Basically, Lagos has only two ethnic groups, the Yoruba and the others. Here, it is not quite the same, so let them not destroy the party and the state because nobody will benefit from it if that happens, everybody will lose.