A leading member of the All Progressive Congress and former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Audu Ogbeh, in this interview with JOHN ALECHENU, speaks about his travails in politics, why he left the PDP, and several attempts on his life.
Was your foray into politics in 1979 as lucrative as it is today?
It wasn’t. I must say that, then, we were propelled by substantially different motives and different incentives. The motive then was for service and the incentives was more of the respect that the society accorded you for giving them good service and good representation. It would appear now that the objectives are different because I think political officers are over remunerated in this country both legally and illegally.
Why did you call former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s bluff in a letter you wrote to him as the chairman of the PDP, which culminated in your sack?
Generally, when you read public commentaries about politicians and politics, we are seen as a group of heartless individuals and that we don’t care about society and who are only interested in personal gain. We are seen as people who are only driven by self; by ambition and by money who don’t really care about moral and ethical issues. That may be a general perception but it’s definitely not true of every politician. I had reason to worry about a very grave situation then. And I had my personal fears about the ultimate outcome. I saw danger too because I was convinced that from the intelligence I had, by December 2004, the then governor of Anambra State was going to be killed. And I thought I had seen too many of these killings under our governance at the time. Bola Ige, Dikibo, Harry Marshal, Harman Pategi, chairman of the PDP in Kwara and (Funsho) Williams, too many of them, and none of them was ever brought to light and nobody was punished. I didn’t think we could carry on that way. So, I had my own moral burden and my concerns about the indifference or rather disinterest among the ruling elite to the plight of the individuals who came to such tragic ends. And in 100 per cent of the cases, none was resolved.
You said nobody was allowed to raise the alarm about these murders then. Who was responsible for the cover-up?
I do not know. You see, there is also a problem here because of materialism, the virus of materialism has bitten so hard and deep into all of us, nobody wants to lose his position or take any risk on behalf of anyone else as long as you are comfortable and making some money or living on the scholarship of society. That is the Nigerian attitude. In many way, I sometimes say to Nigerians, you have no right to demand good governance because you are such an army of sycophants, you are too docile, you don’t say anything and you are waiting for somebody else to die for you. We are all bedroom vocalists and bathroom stars performing but nobody dares talk outside because of sycophancy.
An attempt was once made on your life…(cuts in)
Three times now.
Is there a connection between these attempts and politics?
It is absolutely politics. The first one was on December 1, 1998. A certain political leader sent a gang to my house and they announced at night, “We’ve come to kill you sir” and I said to them, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, you will fail.” They fired 53 cartridges into my house, shooting my security guard, but I was left bleeding. My people in the boys’ quarters (I was alone in the house that night), who ran into the bush, came back around 6am and took me to the hospital. I survived by the grace of God. But earlier in the (Benue State) House of Assembly, I had survived an assassination and after leaving the chairmanship on August 11, 2005, five men were sent here, three in police uniform, two in plain clothes and they came in an unmarked car. They told my gatemen that they were sent from the Police Headquarters to arrest me. I was in Benue then at the burial of late Senator Adagba. The men later came back. I wasn’t home, so my son called me, I called my son back to ask them what offence I had committed. I couldn’t get the IG, so I got Vice-President Atiku Abubakar who then called the IG to ask him what my offence was. The IG told him that he did not send anybody to my house. Atiku called the Commissioner of Police and the CP said the police did not have any charge against me. I found out that it was a certain leader in the PDP who wanted to abduct and have me killed. People have accused me of betraying the party by leaving. But who will stay in a house, in an organisation and endure three assassination attempts? I hold my views. I am not scared because life and death are in the hands of God. I am not scared because what I am saying is not against any individual. I am just worried about our unwillingness to partner with God, resist evil and promote good governance so that a majority of our people can be happier. I don’t wish anybody any harm. I have never stood up on my own to say I am going to contest for any office, never in my life. I believe even if death is the ultimate, it is worth it to die for what you believe in. You hold these views and you are convinced they are correct views, you know that they are for the ultimate views of society and you keep praying. When I hear critics on television and on radio condemning politicians, I ask them, have you ever participated in politics? Have you ever tried holding a contrary view? Have you ever seen how ruthless some politicians can be in silencing contrary opinion? People who don’t know it talk very glibly on radio and television and usually, they are too cowardly to take the risk and participate. I was a head of department at the Murtala College in Makurdi before I resigned to contest for the House of Assembly under intense pressure of my people but my experience has been quite risky and dangerous. There was a time I drank tea somewhere and I think, it was poisoned. It’s dangerous, it’s risky but the Gandhi’s of this world and big names like that, we are nothing close to them. Martin Luther and others took risks and they got killed, Christ himself took a risk in confronting the Pharisees, it was a political death, they wasted him because they were afraid he was going to cause problems for them. If he did that, who are we to complain? We are nothing.
You chaired the meeting of the leadership of the PDP where the zoning formula was adopted by 57-2 votes. How would you describe the current plan to dump the rotational arrangement between the North and the South?
It is very easy for people to say oh, we don’t support zoning, let us support the best. But how did it come about in the first place? I was part of the Abacha Constitutional Conference Commission and we drafted a very good constitution which, unfortunately, the Abdulsalam administration changed. We recognised the anxieties that Nigerians have, that for nearly 40 years, the North single-handedly monopolised political power. It took us four years to persuade northerners to leave the next election which came up in 1999 to the South. People have forgotten that in 1999, not one northerner was a presidential candidate, nobody. Nobody from the North contested the election as an act of goodwill and an act of political and social responsibility to the Nigerian society, especially after the Abiola saga, the June 12 saga. You won’t believe if I tell you that I saw one of the oldest and most respected men in the North who’s no longer alive burst into tears one night to persuade late Abubakar Rimi to withdraw from the race in all parties across the north. There wasn’t one candidate because the South was grumbling aloud that they were tired of northerners alone monopolising political power. It was only reasonable for us to say okay, let’s rotate between North and South so that there will be peace. It is very nice now for new political artists and architects to say, ‘oh, zoning should not be practiced let’s pick the best. Will they accept it? What if tomorrow one zone seizes political power and hangs on to it forever,’ will the same Nigerians not complain? We had true federalism before January 15, 1966. The coup of ‘66 killed it. It was Aguiyi Ironsi who introduced centralism. He even passed Decree 34. Most Nigerians don’t know the history which abolished the regions and created 36 provinces to which he appointed 36 prefects and 34 of them came from one part of the country. That was the beginning of centralisation of governance; that was the beginning of the Federation Account. Today, it is the North that is the criminal because they think we invented it, we did not! These are the issues; if you say don’t rotate, pick from anywhere, who decides who is the best? And I keep giving an example of states like Kogi and Benue where one ethnic group may eternally dominate governance. Is it acceptable in a democracy? That’s part of what I call the tyranny of the majority. I am afraid, we will have to look at it again. It has its own weaknesses, but it’s something that should not be jettisoned because it is the same Nigerians that are saying we don’t want it now that will be back tomorrow, changing their minds.
It was once reported that the sum of N40bn meant for the 2003 general elections went missing under your leadership. What happened?
Where? Which election?
The 2003 elections.
I didn’t handle party funds. The party didn’t handle party funds. There was a campaign office headed by Chief Anthony Anenih, Adamu Chiroma and others at Legacy House. We did not do anything with the funds; we were not even allowed to see them.
You were quoted as saying that some Nigerians pocketed about N60bn for Nigeria to secure the debt relief from the Paris Club. Who were these people?
I don’t know their names but this was also reported by the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission. They said a percentage of three or five was paid to the negotiators and I asked where this money was and who were the people who handled it. Till today, we haven’t had an answer.
You are now a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria, soon to become the All Progressives Congress. Some have described the APC as an amalgamation of strange bed fellows who are united simply by the quest for power.
With all due respect, I will also say to them they are talking from the point of a total lack of political experience. Do they know the history of the PDP itself? I can teach them if they don’t know. The PDP came from 16 disparate political groups. What was so uniform about those bed fellows then? I think as all political aspirants or leaders are concerned, it is the issue of the development of this country that is central. I do not think that any political group has a different ideology from that. Our backwardness in education, in agriculture, in industrial output, the crime rate and insecurity, the poor state of housing and infrastructure which ideology does anybody have apart from these? Is somebody coming to tell me he is a communist in this country now? Or some arch socialist from out of the blues? Ninety nine per cent of the society is conservative. And when you are a revolutionary you have to be careful not to wander too far off the public. If they say we are strange bed fellows only out to grab power, what are those in government doing now? They’ve grabbed that power, they don’t want to let go. If Nigerians are satisfied that they are being perfectly well governed, then we have no business even trying something new. We agree with a large number of Nigerians that Nigeria is not making the progress it is expected to make, does anybody doubt that? We may be from different backgrounds, (Muhammadu) Buhari, the rest of us are from different backgrounds but we still share the anxiety of the average Nigerian for better education, better health services, better roads, and better power supply. We all agree that the economy is really not growing and 250,000 graduates are coming out annually without jobs. Our industrial output is back to the position of 1960, contributing less than three per cent to our Gross Domestic Product. We have become a dumping ground or what they call a consumer nation with goods coming from all over. We neither make pencil nor rulers for pupils here. Should a country remain like that? That’s the anxiety we are showing in our manifesto that we should create jobs, improve housing, improve security and also deal with corruption. With all due respect, people talk to us as if we are in the kindergarten. This government isn’t taking serious measures against corruption and they like it. There are people even within PDP today who are very unhappy within their own party. If they opt out tomorrow and say let us try it elsewhere, they will be told they are strange bedfellows. That argument is totally out of the way. We are inviting younger people to come into this household. There are really no new ideologies anywhere in the world now. It is now about economic growth, security, stability and dignity of man -these are the issues that now run the world not-even the Chinese are not talking about Maoism, Communism or Socialism. They are talking about the growth of China, they are talking about running their country like an industry that produces wealth and happiness for the majority of the people.
A copy of the APC manifesto making the rounds show that part of your anti-corruption fight would entail a probe of the previous administrations? (Cuts in…)
This is the most interesting of all the speculations I have heard. I was the chairman of the manifesto committee; there is no mention of probes in our manifesto, not one word. We didn’t target anybody. This is the handiwork of the PDP. I heard their publicity secretary talking that we wanted to probe President Goodluck Jonathan and Olusegun Obasanjo. Vendetta is not in our manifesto, there is nothing that says so. Somebody invented that and said our manifesto is not attractive. I was part of the design of the PDP manifesto, you can ask Gen. (David) Jemibewon. I was part of it. Our manifesto is different from the PDP’s. We talk about fighting corruption. We neither talked about probing individuals nor past administrations in this country. I don’t know where they got that from. It’s not our intention to witch-hunt anyone but it is our intention to come down hard on corruption. I have been in this business for nearly 32 years. Where under the rules do civil servants have access to the treasury to withdraw N30bn and steal it? What happened to financial regulations? How do people have access to such large sums of money, take and share it? The Senate can’t even access the individual because he is protected by 25 hefty mobile policemen and armoured vehicles. A level 14 officer? Once you mention corruption, people panic and invent stories. If anyone is inventing things and panicking, he is welcome to do so. It is the same PDP that is inventing the All Peoples Congress and the other APC, funding it and pretending that we are kindergarten children and don’t know anything. We have our sources of information. If a probe becomes necessary, it is not the subject for a manifesto.
Over the years you’ve been speaking passionately about agriculture and its place in our economy. Why does it appear that our agricultural policies don’t seem to work?
They don’t appear to work because first of all, there is such an outrageous turnover of leadership. The average tenure of a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture is a year and a half. A new minister comes and wants to do something new, he or she begins and within a year and a half, he or she is gone. Two, governments turns over too fast, when the military came in 1983, they cancelled everything that (Sheu) Shagari had put in place in the River Basins. We had spent money and made investments there. Bulldozers were sold off, they said it was a drain pipe, irrigation facilities and canals which every country has make agriculture work, was erased and since then, we haven’t had time to invest in agriculture. Let me give you one of the problems we face, we don’t have good seeds. Yesterday, the World Bank said a Nigerian farmer who plants maize would properly get three tonnes of maize per hectare whereas his counterpart in Zimbabwe will probably get 10 tonnes of maize. Seeds, extension services agro-practices, availability of fertiliser and application are all in severe shortfall here. The Nigerian political elite have neither interest nor passion for agriculture. They know very little about it, they joke with it, when you tell them you are a farmer, they laugh. As long as you have a leadership that has very little interest or understanding of agriculture, we will continue to be threatened by food crisis. The national consumption of rice is six million tonnes. It is going to rise by 2050 to 35 million tonnes; we are shipping in rice from Thailand, Vietnam and India. India can feed 1.2 billion people and still have something to spare and export, we are still battling to produce that quantum of rice here with given the right quality. These are the issues confronting us. We import fruit juice concentrate to the tune of $4.2bn a year. We spend $1.5bn importing milk, a billion dollars a day importing rice. We spend almost $1.8bn on sugar. I went to India and I got the state of Maharashtra and found 250 sugar factories in one state, all owned by cooperatives. India is the biggest sugar producer in the world but also the biggest consumer. We can’t do anything. The policies keep changing and then of course, you have the problem of banks. I consider Nigerian banks as practitioners of predatory capitalist. They are turning out embarrassing profits now and we are clapping for them. Obviously they are bleeding this society for their profit and you can’t take a loan because it is 27 per cent or 26 per cent interest rate. In the US today, the highest interest rate is three per cent to jump start their economy. Our brilliant economists here will never understand the relationship between an outrageous interest rate and declining economic productivity. And we’ve carried on pretending that everything is fine over the years. You have to buy a generator, buy this, and buy that and we carry on. If we can’t deal with the food thing, this country’s problem hasn’t even started. If we are going to produce six million tonnes of rice, we must cultivate at least two million hectares of land. Who is clearing the land for the farmer now? Nobody. Who is running irrigation canals? Nobody. So, if this country can’t connect stability between food security to its ultimate development goals. It will never get there.