A former governor of Anambra State and Presidential Adviser to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo on Political Matters, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, in this interview speaks on his time in office, first as governor then as Special Adviser to Obasanjo and other issues.
During your time as the governor, you were accused of not embarking on projects that had direct bearing on the people. Why was this so?
That is wrong. Eventually, those who levelled the accusation have discovered that I was performing and not informing, that's one. Number two, I came to Anambra State from the Central Planning Office basically as a Central Planning Officer. What I was planning was not the ordinary things that governors do. Those ones were going on at a breakneck speed and I will tell you how. When (MKO) Abiola was contesting for President, the National Republican Convention in Anambra State wanted him to lose Anambra in favour of Bashir Tofa. And they wanted to use my performance as a reason to argue that the Social Democratic Party could not do it. What did I do? I knew I wasn't making noise. I got the most effective, respectable and knowledgable people from Onitsha, got them buses, brought them to the office and said please, go to our neighbouring states: Enugu, Abia, even Asaba (Delta State), etc, and come back and teach me what to do. So, they went but they didn't know my motive. They went and the governors were very happy to see a delegation from Anambra State who had come to learn. They showed them everything and they came back. We were seated in my conference room for them to give me a briefing on what I should be doing. I said okay, maybe it is better you see the little that we have done so that when you come, you will put everything together. They didn't go to Onitsha, they didn’t go to every other part of Anambra State, they went to only Awka. When they came back and sat down, I said, I am now open to hear from you what you learnt and how I should perform better. One of the leaders said, "Oga, we are just coming from touring Awka and we saw so many projects, more projects than all the states we toured in the various senatorial zones put together, how did you do it? And how come nobody heard about them?" Then I told them that I wanted to work for eight years in Anambra State and by then, Nigerians would see what I was doing; they would see a changed Anambra; they would see an oasis in a desert and they would ask that I should be President. I wanted to contest the presidency; that was the only way I saw an Igbo man wining an election to become President. Governorship was a strategy for the presidency. That is why I performed without informing and when they went and saw, Abiola, instead of losing, scored 62.5 per cent of the votes in Anambra State and he won in Enugu and also in Akwa Ibom.
You were once quoted as describing yourself as a Social Democrat, what do you mean by that?
I am a progressive. Social democrats are progressives. Who is a progressive? A progressive is somebody who puts himself in the other disadvantaged person’s position to see what is good. If you are alright, happy and wealthy, put yourself in the other person's position, somebody who is not as lucky and then if you think his position is not alright, amend it. That is progressivism. It is like the four-way test of the Rotary Club — Is it good? Is it true? Is it fair to the other person etc? It is like Christianity: 'Love your neigbour as yourself'. That is true progressivism.
Looking back, can you compare the education system today to what you had back in those days?
Well, I don't know whether I should compare the education system then and now. I can compare the motivational system then and now but even today, you have some people who are even more strongly motivated than I was in those days. Of course, in those days when you finished standard six, you were fairly educated in the English Language and if you finish school certificate, there was really nothing to add to your English Language. You can add to your literature but not to your English Language. But today, I was reading a petition written by somebody who studied medicine and had some problems; he wrote to me to help him. It is not easy to describe the languageit was not English. I enjoy telling people how I skipped secondary school not by choice but because my father did not really know or appreciate it. So, I had to become an apprentice trading first in medicine, then spare parts until my body revolted; I said I wanted something better and, eventually, God did it.
Some have suggested that a two- party system is best for Nigeria considering the fact that we tried it in the 90's with the National Republican Convention and the Social Democratic Party. Do you still share this sentiment?
Let me tell you, I don't know how to say things indirectly or in a slow fashion. Nigerians have seen the truth, they have not decided to follow it. Yes, there was a ripple that may have blinded the people to the truth. That ripple was that many people thought that General Ibrahim Babangida devised a two-party system, a little to the right, a little to the left, and imposed it on Nigerians. That was the misconception of many people who were opposed to the two-party system. We were eight permanent secretaries planning the return to civilian rule for IBB. Eight of us agreed that the only way to unite Nigerians was the two-party system: Progressive and Conservative.
Progressives are interventionists, conservatives are non-interventionists. When I was the governor, if you were coming from Sokoto or Maiduguri to Anambra State, you would behave as if you were going home. You had no problem. The same way an Anambra person going to Sokoto where NRC was in power or Maiduguri, where NRC was in power. They would be going as if they were going to meet their brothers. Nigeria was on the line for development and progress. There are many practical reasons why the two-party system was dominant. If you have two parties like the SDP and the NRC, you have two giants. In the field of politics, when giants meet giants, they negotiate. But today, you have one marauding giant – Peoples Democratic Party and an uncountable number of Lilliputians dancing around it and the PDP cracks the heads of the Lilliputians as it likes. If it likes, it kicks them in the stomach or the groin.
I sold the idea of two parties to Obasanjo and he agreed but some other people appealed to his personal interest. The PDP has no reason to support a two-party system because they are strong. They can create more parties because the more parties, the more noise and therefore, the stronger they are. So, tomorrow if we want to make progress, we should go back to the two-party system but not by law. There are ways to do it, and still allow others who may grow into major parties to develop.
The two-party system is what obtains in America and Britain…
America never had only two parties, Britain never had only two parties, all developed countries appear to have only two parties, they don't. They have more but when you know the right way, should you be too concerned about how to go the right way? You grab it, if it is by legislation, let it be, but let the law allow other parties. You make two parties work and then allow independent candidates that become the fuse that protects the system. If you say two-party system and you don't allow for independent candidates, then it becomes too tight.
What was working for and with Obasanjo like?
Obasanjo has so many good points. I worked for Obasanjo not just as the President, I worked for him as military Head of State. I was a civil servant. He organised that I should travel around the world with some officers to discover how Nigeria was cheated in those days. We went to Her Majesty's Treasury — I used to be brilliant! When we got there, I told them one beautiful story about one study I was doing and they allowed me into where nobody was allowed entry. We travelled around the world, came back and Obasanjo proposed to give us national honours but he was told that civil servants should be commended when they did their jobs but not given national honours.
Working with Obasanjo as a special adviser was a different thing and it was not surprising. It was not the same person. Obasanjo, as a Head of State and General was a human being, well organised and composed, but Obasanjo as the President? Something had happened. This man did nothing but they put him in prison for three years, and his neigbours were mosquitoes and rats. In fact, he was giving names to rats that he saw and when he came out, he didn't really distinguish between Nigerians and the rats he met in prison. He started treating us like rats, rabbits and mosquitoes.
In writing, I told Obasanjo what he was doing was wrong. In writing, I told him: "Lead us, even rule us, don't bully us". He hated me for that. Nigeria has need for an Obasanjo, there are areas he is so good that nobody else seems to be as good and we need him now. I have never hated him for one day; I have never borne any grudges against him. I discovered just only after one week that I could not work with him. I wrote to him my trajectory, what I wanted us to achieve including this two -party system and he read it with marginal notes that showed that he was revolting against many of the things I was proposing, but I couldn't leave immediately because Igbo people will say "Aha, he thinks because he is Ezeife he knows everything". I had to play my cards well before leaving.
Can you name some of the areas where we need an Obasanjo?
He has political instincts that can keep Nigeria together and make every Nigerian feel like a Nigerian. You know, the Yoruba and the Igbo had always been parallel lines in the Nigerian system. In reality, they had both been parallel slaves. Some of us had to make sacrifice.
Why was I in the Alliance for Democracy? Why did I fight as if Abiola was my elder brother? The first reason was that I am a Progressive. The second reason was that I didn’t like the Igbo and the Yoruba going as parallel lines because that would destabilise Nigeria. If the North is allowed to feel as if they are gods and the rest of us are devils, not even fit to live in Nigeria, not to talk of rule in Nigeria, then we may continue to bear it until the country collapses. But if the Yoruba and Igbo understand themselves and swear to the interest of the country, they can challenge the North and say look, this country belongs to all of us and without fairness, you [North] cannot last forever.
A person who has political advantage does not want to lose it even if that advantage may cause him more problems. When you are talking about transforming the six geo-political zones into federating units, some northern elements will oppose it. Anybody that is sensible must consider the reason for 1914. It was not to help the South. 1914 was God's doing actually, using British imperialism to create a big brother, a rallying point for Africa called Nigeria. We eventually became slaves and today, we are still the foot mat of the rest of the world. Who should save the black man? Who should raise the black man's prestige? It is only Nigeria by virtue of size and history but we are not doing it. It is not even in our consciousness. That is where we failed.
With your advocacy for a two- party system, do you see the recent merger of opposition political parties serving as the "second giant" you talked about earlier?
There is one caveat I will give, sometimes Nigerian politicians are strange. They act without reason. The merger is going nowhere because there is no internal cohesion. Strange bed fellows are ganging up against a political party and they are not united by any set of principles or ideology. It cannot last in a system that works. Someone called me today to say: The merger is in the Tinubu and Buhari alliance, the ANPP is just an appendage. The person called it a name I don't want to repeat here. I know and like Buhari and Tinubu but there is no ideological syntax, there is no ideological common ground that binds Congress for Progressive Change and Action Congress of Nigeria together and it is doing Nigeria a disservice. This is not how to get the two parties I am talking about. The two parties I am talking about is one based on ideology and this present one is subject to so many interpretations. Some interpretations can be very hostile. APGA has already said it was not part of it.
Has your dream of having an Igbo President died?
No! I think we should just let an Igbo become the President and from then on, it should be by merit. And why? The tripod: Yoruba, Hausa Fulani have been presidents. If you say six geo-political zones by 2015, all the zones have been President for not less than five years; only the South-East is left out.
In 2015, we want to have our first term but Jonathan has a right to seek a second term as the President. So, how do we deal with these two rights? The Igbo forces and the Jonathan forces must play the game of cooperation. How will they do it? Go ahead, canvass for the various interests before the primaries come. When it comes, they should come together and negotiate.
Igbo being President of Nigeria is not just a matter of equity, justice and fairness, it is also a matter of Nigeria moving forward. The Igbo are the only autochthonous Nigerians. Autochthonous in the sense that any where you see an Igbo man, be it in Russia, in Japan or Estonia, he is a Nigerian. Two, Igbo have voted with their feet for one Nigeria so that anywhere you go and you take away the indigenous people, the next large population is the Igbo. Now, what do they do? They go to a place, live in that place and behave as if they are indigenes of that place. They develop the place, build houses and live with confidence that makes them look like the original owners of the land.
We the Igbos have now realised some changes we have to make. We must make friends with our host communities everywhere because the man saw you come to his village without even a bicycle but gradually, you put a kiosk somewhere and you gradually became big and built a big house. In the evening, you sit out there oozing confidence. What will that host be thinking? In the beginning, he will salute you, increasingly, he will become jealous of you but since you must live with him, turn him away from jealousy to appreciation. One of the ways is for you to institute scholarship for indigenous people. You should not be there training your children as an Igbo man and then you see hordes of other children roaming the streets, called almajiri, it's not fair. Put back some of the money you made into that society where you made it.
In the interest of the development of Nigeria, we need an Igbo as President even if it is for once. You know why? All the good traits the Igbo man has: aggressive pursuit of wealth, achievement, motivation, hard work, aggressive industrialism, the social structure of the Igbo: an egalitarian society with upward mobility; where a man, when he wants to pray, says, "God, let my son be greater than me, even my apprentice must achieve more than me". This is a society for developing people, you don't have it everywhere. That is why an Igbo being President will be good for Nigeria.
During your time as governor, did you envisage the kind of power and influence governors now wield over their party?
Everything can be overdone, bounds can be overstepped. When I was governor, I met with my associates from both NRC and the SDP. I headed the SDP occasionally, we shared ownership of the whole but the party remained the party. You can influence the party subtly, you don't take over and run it. In Nigeria, money is ruling and where money comes from are the pockets of the governors. The issue of the Governors' forum has advantages: they are not from a uniform society, they can learn from one another about the best way to handle certain things in their various states. The forum should do a self-regulation or it will be destroyed.