By Onyedika Agbedo
Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Jnr) was elected as the President-General of apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, recently. A lawyer and economist by training, Nwodo is not new to public life. He had served as minister of civil aviation (1983) and minister of information and culture (1998-1999), amid other national and regional assignments. He aspired for the presidency on the platform of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) in 2003. In this explosive interview, Nwodo speaks on his new responsibility and the state of the nation, baring his mind on issues like the alleged marginalisation South-east by the incumbent administration, the separatist agitation in the zone, restructuring and the economic recession ravaging the country, among other issues.
You are assuming the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo at a very critical period in Nigeria’s history. How are you finding your new role?
I have found the job extremely challenging. I have witnessed considerable enthusiasm from our people for structural change in Ohanaeze, and activist representation on issues that affect Igbo people. One month into office, we have been put virtually on our toes and we have been moving, meeting and talking. So, it’s been quite busy.
Some people opposed your emergence on the ground that you are a politician and might take Ohanaeze into politics. What is the assurance that the organisation will continue as a socio-cultural group under your watch?
The prerequisite for holding a national office in Ohanaeze is that you must not belong to any political party. Right now I don’t belong to any. As for my antecedents, the question is not whether I conform to the Plutonian philosophy that man is a political being, and whether I have in my past been identified with partisan political identities. But what did I do with them and what kind of politician was I? I believe all those who voted for me considered those things and they came to the conclusion that notwithstanding my political antecedents, I am qualified to hold this position at this point in time. So, this question, in my view, is overtaken by their mandate because they exercised their mandate on behalf of the whole of Igbo people.
Ohanaeze at some point derailed and the Igbo virtually lost their voice at the national level. What programmes are you putting in place to restore the dignity of the organisation?
I don’t think you want me to be judgmental on my predecessors, but what is important is that we have been given a new challenge and I would like history to judge us on the basis of what we have done. In one month, I have instituted a cabinet government. My executive meets every month. In one month, we have orchestrated our vision for Ohanaeze and your newspaper has published two advertorials we issued. It has gone viral on the social media and our people know where we stand. And they have begun to key in, in various forms. Our people in the Diaspora have keyed in; they are interested. They are looking for active participation and involvement in the affairs of Ohanaeze based on the road map we have announced. In our executive meeting, we have set up a committee for reviewing our constitution in order to ensure that there is more effective participation of our people. We have decided to set up a website for Ohanaeze so that our activities are topical and accessible. We plan to itemise all town unions in all the Ohanaeze states as well as places where Igbos live outside their homeland. So, we are going to have a roll call of all affiliate organisations and town unions. It’s a gargantuan information technology (IT) project. You know the world has become electronic and this is the easiest way by which people can relate to an organisation, because people are very busy and dispersed. There are Igbos living beyond the shores of this country whose ‘Igboness’ is pulsating. And they are anxious to relate in some ways to ensure that our interests are properly harnessed and defended when they are attacked. So, the project is well under way.
Also, we have a new office coming up, thanks to Rochas Foundation. We are designing what to do with the office when it’s finished. I am on a consultation tour, which has taken me to Abuja and Lagos. I will also go round all the Igbo states. I will also take the opportunity of the tour to meet with leaders of Afenifere, the Pan-Niger Delta Movement, Arewa Consultative Forum, Middle Belt organisations and so on. The meetings will provide opportunities for exchange of views on the constitutional future of Nigeria.
Both the ACF and Afenifere congratulated Ohanaeze on your emergence as president-general of the organisation and expressed their readiness to work with your leadership towards finding common solutions to the problems of the country. What are the likely areas of synergy you are looking at?
Well, Igbos live in all parts of the country and they have challenges everywhere that they live in. In the North, once there is a political unrest, Igbos are the first victims of that unrest, and our people are murdered and slain with reckless abandon. This has to stop because we are not doing that to other Nigerians living in Igbo land. So, when I meet with ACF, I’m going to raise that matter.
In Lagos, our traders are treated with considerable discrimination both in the allocation of land and destruction of shops and markets where they trade without involving them in the reconstruction and the ownership afterwards. Igbos who are building are denied Certificates of Occupancy for very long period without any reason, which paves way for the government to destroy their property at will because there is no legal status. Meanwhile, under the Nigerian constitution you are free to own property anywhere in the country as a citizen. If an Igbo man has so much confidence to build in Lagos, he should have a right to occupancy. I mean, why should a man have valid permission to build but you would not give him a Certificate of Occupancy? Our traders pay double taxation here. After clearing their goods in the wharf, they are subjected to further harassments on the streets by the same Customs officers who charge them money, sometimes illegally. Why should you be really punished for doing legitimate business in your own country? And they seem to have no protection from anybody while this is done. These are issues I intend to raise with either government agencies or other socio-cultural organisations, which can influence government to ensure that we have better relationships.
Now, as we develop our democracy, our constitution remains the legal foundation on which the democracy thrives. Sadly, after the First Republic, all constitutions have been imposed on this country by the military. And the jurisprudence of law is its acceptability by the people. Right now, our constitution was forced on us; we need a constitution generated by the people. This is a democracy and it has to function like a democracy. All the problems we have in this country emanate from the inadequacies of the constitution and how it is implemented. I intend to raise it with these other groups. This exchange of ideas will help us to see how we can bring to the table an effective participation of the ordinary Nigerian citizen in determining the kind of constitutional structure our country should have. It will help us to identify our common areas and our areas of difference; and that’s part of problem solving.
The secessionist agitation by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) is one of the major problems confronting the country at the moment. The continued detention of IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, has been giving impetus to the agitation. How does Ohanaeze intend to handle the issue?
Let me say, first of all, that both the press and the government have an unfair treatment of the Biafran struggle. Boko Haram is worse in terms of treason than IPOB. Boko Haram is an armed attack against Nigeria’s sovereignty. It is a movement determined to Islamise Nigeria and to impose their own concept of Islam on the entire country. It is a movement intended to wipe our entire educational system and subject our women to lack of education. And where they physically conquered in the past, they erected local authority, traditional authority and hoisted flags. What could be a greater challenge to our national sovereignty than Boko Haram? I don’t see any.
The Odua Peoples Congress (OPC) is a militant organisation in the South-west; they move in convoys not confronted by the Nigerian Police or the Armed Forces. There is now streaming on the social media an Oduduwa Republic, advertised with the full complements of a national characteristic – the estimated GDP, the parts of Yoruba land that constitute Oduduwa Republic, their mineral resources endowment and what have you. They are actively encouraged by the intellectual class in Yoruba land. It has not even got a mention anywhere in the media, print or electronic. No security agency has invited anybody for questioning and the names of people who promote it are advertised. Nobody has been once invited to be asked why he or she is proclaiming an Oduduwa Republic.
Now, the people of the Niger Delta have sought for some independence of their own, if nothing else, fiscal independence. In pursuing this, they have turned into an arms struggle. They have blown up oil wells and oil pipelines. They have disrupted businesses and law and order with reckless abandon. Government is negotiating with them every day!
But the boys in IPOB have only asserted their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association under the constitution. They are unarmed! The only instrument of mobilisation that they have is a radio station, which was not licenced. Meanwhile, all over the country, all kinds of people now have radio stations that are not licenced. None of them has been subjected to indefinite detention like Nnamdi Kanu. The discriminatory treatment of IPOB is a microcosm and a symptomatic of the macro subjugation of Igbos to second-class citizens in Nigeria.
Let us assume for the sake of an argument that they have done something wrong, which I don’t agree with. They are treated in a worse manner than other people in Nigeria who have done equally things that are very, very wrong. And as their father, I speak for them; I grieve for them and I champion for them. I have no apologies for this; they are my children and the justice of their case cries to high heavens. You see, the fact that a child explained loudly to his father what his grievances are is a symptom of love. If they were grieving internally and keeping this to themselves, they could be instruments of insurrection in the kind of a submarine. But they are crying aloud in the streets and saying, ‘we are not happy’. A good father would call them and say, ‘sit down my children, what is your problem’, like they are doing to the people of Niger Delta. They are negotiating with their fathers and negotiating with the militants. All the militants there have become billionaires overnight. They have an amnesty programme for them. But on the part of the IPOB people, the only answer is force, intimidation and total subjugation of the rule of law in their treatment. I say that this is wrong and I will continue to say so.
Are you inviting the government to negotiate with IPOB?
Yes, I am! I have only downed my pursuit of a negotiation with government on this matter because of the unfortunate health situation of our president. The President has been quite charitable to my executive by extending his hand of fellowship to us so soon after our election. And I salute him for this; it is magnanimous on his part. I also extended my hand of fellowship to him. The President is my personal friend. I was with him in the same political party; both of us ran for the presidency under the same party. So, I intend to explore that degree of relationship and his hand of fellowship with a view to seeing that this policy towards IPOB is reversed and we can sit round the table and discuss.
But what do you see as the root cause of this agitation because from every indication, those guys are not relenting?
You should know; you are an Igbo man yourself. I had even answered the question earlier. Our children feel like second-class citizens in their own country.
Because of the things I have explained to you.
Like what and what?
You read my inaugural speech. We are completely shut out from the intelligence paraphernalia of this country. No Igbo man heads any of the intelligence agencies of the country; we do not head any arm of government. We do not sit in any sensitive ministry. The allocation to capital projects in Igbo land are made to achieve some kind of propaganda effect because in actual implementation, nothing is done. The Enugu-Onitsha expressway has been on very budget since the end of the war till today. Recently, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN), assured us that in the next 17 months, those roads would be reconstructed. But we had been given such assurances in the past and they never came to anything. The Enugu-Port Harcourt road has remained like that since the end of the war. We had been given assurances in the past and nothing has happened. Contractors like Julius Berger don’t come to the East to work; contracts in Igbo land are awarded to second/third rate contractors, who do very little work. The Niger Bridge has remained in its comatose state for a very long time. Jonathan promised us that he would not leave office without the construction of the Second Niger Bridge but it never happened. Under this government, the project was suspended for a long time. I hear that work has resumed but I hope that it is so and that very soon we will see it completed.
The Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, has promised us that the River Niger will be dredged; I hope that it is concluded under his tenure. He seems to be a man who does what he says and I anxiously look forward to seeing the dredging of the River Niger executed so that we can have a seaport there. But this has been on the table for decades. The child I had when the project was first conceived is already studying for PhD today. So, these children don’t believe that the system is fair to them.
Now, the coal in Enugu has been lying there for God knows how long. As we speak, the Federal Government has not even done a feasibility study to determine the quantity of coal that is available so that it can attract foreign investors. Nkalagu Cement Factory has been moribund for a very long time and it is taking an Igbo, Ibeto, to revive and expand it. Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment looks away. And they have directors on that company? Nobody cares about the salt and lead in Abakiliki, Ebonyi State. Igbo people have no equal access to the exploitation of our mineral resources. Among Nigerians who are allocated oil wells in the country, we are in abysmal minority. Those licences are not given to us. This is preposterous, unacceptable and discriminatory; we condemn it in its entirety. It has to change; we are equal partners in this federation. Unless we are treated so, Nigeria is asking us to ask for secession once more.
What is your take on the threat by IPOB to carry arms if the alleged killing of their members by security agencies continues?
Let’s forget about that. These are mental ejaculations. People who are young make statements under extreme anger; it doesn’t arise. There is no evidence that they are acquiring arms. So, let’s talk about something else.
Ohanaeze also issued a statement saying that it would not fold its hands and watch while Igbo sons and daughters are harassed by security agencies. What does it intend to do?
I have already reflected it by the things I said I would do in terms of discussing with the President.
A chieftain of the ACF, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, recently said that the North was prepared for Nigeria’s breakup and you have said here that if the status quo doesn’t change, Igbos might still ask for secession. Are you saying that Igbos too are ready for the dismemberment of the country?
At no time in the history of Nigeria has our togetherness been threatened as it is today. The mutual suspicion between participating units in the federation is at its highest peak. That is why I am holding the consultations that I am doing. This is our last desperate attempt to save the Federal Republic of Nigeria. No doubt, there is strength in diversity. This is the greatest African country in terms of land mass, population and mineral resources; and also in terms of potentials for leadership and development. It is in the interest of all of us to work together. But we have got to do it the right way and if we don’t get it right we might as well say ‘to your tents Israel.’ That’s all I am saying.
So, what is your take on the crusade for the restructuring of the country?
Don’t ask me for my personal opinion. This Ohanaeze is a collegiate leadership; so don’t ask for my personal view.
What is the position of Ohanaeze on restructuring?
We have not discussed it. We are consulting and discussing with each other. Until the facts crystallise, I cannot come to a decision as to what the Igbos want. John Nwodo is just a chief servant of the Igbos; I am an instrument for carrying out Igbo opinion. We are in the process of consultations. I have diagnosed the problem as best as I can with you; synthesising the solution is a matter of consultations with all our people first and then the other component parts of Nigeria, and agreeing on something that everybody shares. That’s what leadership is all about. Leadership is about building a consensus and making sure that all parties feel satisfied in what is a consensus. As to whether there is a grave situation, there is one. What Ango Abdullahi said is as good as what I am saying; we are both saying the same thing. We have attained Hooke’s law of elastic limit. The patience of Nigerians has been pushed to their very limits and this is the time for statesmanship. That’s why I am being as frank and open as I can so that those at the helm of authority may realise that the time for strategic thinking has come. The time for solutions has come. The time to give statesmen who love and care for this country the opportunity to come together and seek a solution to the problems of the country has come. To delay further is dangerous; it is a ticking time bomb.
Many people believe that the implementation of the 2014 confab report will enthrone peace in the country. Even former president Goodluck Jonathan who midwifed the conference did say so when he recently addressed United States lawmakers. Ohanaeze had also expressed a similar view in the past before the emergence of the current executive. But you just talked about statesmen who love the country coming together to seek for solutions to the challenges of the country. Has Ohanaeze changed its position?
These are all parts to a solution; no part is exclusively the best. But the point is that we need a discussion. With all due respect to former president Jonathan, he was lethargic in his handling of the conclusion of that conference. I mean, if you set up a conference and you really wanted to make use of the deliberations of the conference, you should have also had a political mechanics for the adoption of its reports and the consequential constitutional changes. In his own case, he had a majority of his party in the National Assembly and it was an easy thing for him to ensure that his party was in the forefront to reach an agreement for a constitutional amendment.
But I didn’t see the political will. And what he is doing now is like a post-mortem. When he had the executive authority to push institutional and constitutional reforms, he didn’t do it at all or as fast as he ought to. So, this is something that the Buhari/Osinbajo administration must re-tool. They must put this constitutional discussion on the front burner. This federation as presently structured does not enjoy the confidence of Nigerians. And to delay a discussion of it further is to exacerbate the tension and increase separatist agitations.
Are you calling for a fresh conference?
Don’t put words into my mouth. What I have said is sufficiently explanatory. The government should make up its mind on what it wants to do.
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo recently said the Igbos deserve to produce the next president of the country…
(Cuts in) I am not interested in this. Let’s talk about something else.
Given the picture you have painted about the country, what is your advice to politicians from the South-east especially against the backdrop of the recent media spat between governors Willie Obiano of Anambra State and Rochas Okorocha of Imo State?
I know that the print media like selling their papers. So, sometimes you exaggerate a story beyond its actual form in order to sensationalise and get people to buy. You have not also reported that Obiano and Okorocha have been talking on phone since then; and they have made it public that they have no personal differences. You have also not made it sensational that I have spoken with both of them and they assured me that this thing was exaggerated by their lieutenants who replied stories without clearance with them; and that they are fundamentally still friends and brothers. I hope that this response will also be given adequate prominence the same way as was given their disagreement. Really, that was just a storm in a teacup. Even husband and wife sometimes disagree. Okorocha’s difference with Obiano was exaggerated beyond proportion. They are very good friends and we are all meeting and talking.
You know that what led to that disagreement had to do with the ongoing realignment of political groupings across the country, which has seen many politicians in the South-east defect to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). As the trend continues ahead of the 2019 election, what is your advise?
Igbo politicians are free to belong to whatever political parties they like. And I’m sure that in whatever parties they are, they are advancing our basic Igbo interests. Ohanaeze is all-inclusive. In Ohanaeze, members of all the political parties are there and each of them knows our position. And the whole essence of representative government is to put the interest of your constituency first. So, our legislators, ministers and top politicians know what our interests are. I’m sure they are advancing them as vigorously as they can wherever they are.
Nigerians came out recently to protest against the level of hardship in the land, which was occasioned by the economic recession that hit the country over one year ago. You once aspired for the presidency. How would you have handled the situation if you were the one on the saddle at a time like this?
First of all, you know that this recession is a global thing; it is not peculiar to Nigeria. But our situation is made worse by the fact that we are an economy largely dependent on oil revenue. Our situation is made far worse because we are a country whose resources have been frittered away by unbridled corruption. Our situation has been made worse because our capacity for law enforcement is seriously jaundiced. People can get away with murder in this country; Nigerians don’t believe that the law is made to be obeyed. They believe they can purchase their way through crime. And so, you can’t really change a system without an order.
The diagnosis of the problem by the present government is correct. We need diversification. So, they want to concentrate on solid minerals, agriculture and general services as a way of diversifying the sources of revenue. My worry is that the government has not hit the ground running. In May this year, it will be two years that they came into government. In print, I have seen this policy of diversification but I have not seen the practical component for mobilising the citizenry and for achieving the goals of the policy. What do I mean by this? Take agriculture as a typology. If we really need to radicalise production in agriculture, we must have a policy that addresses agriculture to the individual farmer, the corporate farmer, our financial institutions, donor agencies and educational institutions. We must get the people to buy into the programme, accept it as their programme and think it in their daily lives.
In order to make this illustration demonstrative, let’s go back to history. Under the First Republic, Dr. Michael Okpara had an agrarian policy in Eastern Nigeria; Sir Ahmadu Bello had an agrarian policy in Northern Nigeria; and Chief Obafemi Awolowo had an agrarian policy in Western Nigeria. In Eastern Nigeria, the greatest target was palm produce; in Western Nigeria, the greatest target was cocoa; in Northern Nigeria, the greatest target was groundnut. Groundnut pyramids sprang up in Northern Nigeria; cocoa was a major foreign exchange earner for Western Nigeria. Today, little West African countries have overtaken us in the production of cocoa. Malaysia has displaced us completely as number one supplier of palm produce. We used palm produce to build the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; we used cocoa to build the University of Ibadan; we used groundnut to build Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Today, we cannot even sustain those universities even when we still have the potential to increase the export of these products; instead, we are importing them because of over reliance on oil. Now, the government did not hit the ground running with ideas and practical implementation. Let me also advance farther than the First Republic. Under Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation, part of which was inherited by subsequent administration, then military administrator, Samson Emeka Omeruah, started the Palm-to-Palm programme and multiplied palm seedlings in my state. I am still enjoying the product of Palm-to-Palm because my father bought a lot of palm seedlings then and planted them. Today, my brothers and sisters enjoy palm oil from it, which continue to flow unlimitedly. Now, there is a serious increase in the price of palm oil and it’s probably one of my major sources of livelihood.
Yes! Former governor Donald Duke of Cross River State had a tremendous programme for the production of palm seedlings. In the next 10 years, palm oil resources in Cross River will earn enough foreign exchange to take care of the state’s recurrent expenditure, courtesy of a leader who engaged in futuristic thinking.
Now, I don’t see the practical components of the implementation of the diversification programme. I don’t see how as a farmer I can get improved seedling, how I can get consultancy advice or how I can source fertiliser at a cheap price. I do not see that government has a target that in every local government in this country, especially in the South-east where I come from, that has problems in accessing their farmlands, there will be land reclamation of two miles every year. I don’t see institutions that have been built up at town, local council, state and federal levels that will drive the diversification policy as a national emergency. Consequently, the diversification philosophy is a slogan. It has not become an implementable policy.
The growth of new industries through the exploitation of new solid minerals is a beautiful policy on paper. But I don’t see its practical implementation because I still see the coal in Enugu in its unexploited state. I still see the lead in Abakiliki without any policy of government towards attracting foreign investors to exploit it. There is no projection that in three years time or so, these numbers of mineral resources will earn us this volume of foreign exchange. In England where I went to school, they plan for the expansion of a road in 10 years time from the date of commissioning; so they begin to think about the cost of the project from the word go. Nobody thinks like that here.
But we also used to have national development plans until the military came and distorted the system?
We can’t live in the blame anymore; we have to move on. And this is a democracy for goodness’ sake. Sometimes in this country, government is seen as the conquest of warfare and so on the attainment of government you just put a number of people who campaigned for you in positions, who may be loyalists politically but bereft of ideas about how to move the country forward. There must be a thin line between payment of political dues and recruitment of people with the intellectual resources to move the country forward and with the discipline for implementation of policies. This is the greatest drawback of the present administration. They have not connected the people with the declared objectives. The objectives are fine and beautiful; nothing can be better. But there is no movement for it. They need to mobilise the citizenry to believe in what they are doing.
When the president of Czech Republic came to Nigeria for the Anyiam Osigwe lecture series sometime ago, somebody asked him the magic he used to transform Czech Republic from a developing country to a developed country within so short a time. He said, ‘we got our best brains to develop the policy for a paradigm shift, we sold the people the policy, we democratised it, we publicised it, the people accepted the programme as their own and in their individual spheres of influence, they began to operate it’.
Look, I lived and grew up in Igbo land. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu democratised the concept of Biafra to the ordinary Igbo man during the civil war. His propaganda was first class. Even his threat that should all Biafrans be killed, the grasses would fight, was believed by the people. And the Biafrans coined a song in which they sang, ‘have inexhaustible patience, patience wins a war; even if we have no foods or meat to eat, let us kill lizards and eat them instead of meat’ (dibe, dibe, dibe ndidi nwe nmeri, onye anu guru ya ribe ngwere, na Biafra nwe nmeri). Young people in the army were singing it and they believed it. Nigeria needs a philosophy that will catch the ordinary man in the direction in which it wants to move. Without it, we cannot get out of this recession.