‘Power should shift to South in 2023’

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Chief Chekwas Okorie is the National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP). In this interview with MUSA ODOSHIMOKHE, he speaks on why the Southeast should produce the next president in 2023, how the Igbo will unite behind its candidate and other national issues.

Your party adopted President Muhammadu Buhari during the recent presidential election. What is the party’s plan for the 2023 election?

In August 2018, our party, the UPP, resolved to support President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 election. We made it clear that we were conscious of the fact that Nigeria has a conventional rotational arrangement in place. I call it conventional because there is no such arrangement in our constitution. Of course, the arrangement favoured the North. It means that the North will complete its two terms in 2023, following the re-election of President Buhari. Against this background, the UPP has zoned its presidential slot to the Southeast in 2023. We made a statement on it and addressed a conference to that effect. It was in our communiqué and was made public. Since President Buhari won the election, we have put in top gear every arrangement to ensure that the Southeast produces the President in 2023. Being a party with limited resources, there is need for wider political consultation and engagement, because it is a national project. We are working on the premise that the Southeast has never been given the opportunity to produce an elected president since independence. It should be noted that the region is a critical factor in the power equation. So, we are going to be working to ensure that whoever we bring out as the presidential candidate will meet the acceptance of the cross section of Nigeria. Consultation has begun, meetings are being held with critical stakeholders in various political parties and beyond. But, I can say that stakeholders in the North, the Southwest and the Southsouth are favourably disposed to the Igbo producing the President in 2023. We will deploy our political and diplomatic power for the engagement. It will be diplomatic in the sense that the cause is a cross country thing. Giving the presidency to the Southeast means the system is equitable, fair and balance. We do not want to believe that some group would have to threaten Nigeria before they are allowed to preside over Nigeria. Unfortunately, we are reminded of how Chief Moshood Abiola died in the circumstance that many people didn’t quite like. For instance, the Southwest reacted by coming up with the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) populated mostly by Yoruba. So, to appease the Yoruba, the military that handed power to civilians in 1999 manipulated the system to ensure only two presidential candidates from Southwest contested the 1999 election. In the Southsouth, the Niger Delta came up with its agitation which was more of militancy. This brought the economy to its kneels through vandalism and militancy. So, Jonathan Goodluck, who came on the saddle, was like an appeasement for the Southsouth. The Southeast has not resorted to such thing. We don’t believe that this is the only way a race that had been denied the opportunity to preside over the affairs of the country can access power. So, we are using political and diplomatic approaches to be able to get the support of Nigerians. The UPP has been positioned to anchor the project. The UPP is also amenable to a merger or political alliance. It does not have to be a UPP affair. If eventually the Igbo candidate runs on UPP platform, so well and good. Again, if the candidate is a product of a merger between UPP and other parties, it is also good.

During the 2019 election, the Southeast was urged to wait till 2023. Do you think other zones would give the region the chance to produce the president in 2023?

We are very much aware of this and what is playing out. The Atiku 2019 campaign was the highest impact he had made in his aspiration to become the President. Most of the votes came from the Igbo people, not just from the Southeast but across the country. This was first time an opposition party won the presidential election in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. It was because the Igbo people came out to vote for him. The understanding is geared toward 2023, when it will be the turn of the Igbo to produce the President. The Igbo showed their excitement, emotion and sentiments, following the nomination of Peter Obi as Atiku’s running mate. This is based on the understanding that it will be their turn in 2023. If you now turn around to decide that he is going to run again,  because he lost, I can tell you that it will be his worst political outing. I can tell you that not a single Igbo vote will go to him. I don’t equally see the Southsouth being available to him. I do not know where he will get the votes. He does not enjoy the followership that Buhari enjoys. Mind you, it took over three attempts before Buhari could make it. That is on one side. On the other side, I will also like to appeal to the Southwest to consider the fact that when Chief M.K.O Abiola contested, practically every Igbo all over the country voted for him. They did not care whether he was a Muslim or Christian¡ they believed he was the best qualified at that time. And considering that the Southwest enjoyed the Presidency under Obasanjo for eight years, I will appeal to them to support the Southeast for President. They should not think they are in any form of rivalry with the Southeast¡ that will not help our democracy. But, if they refuse, nobody will deny them the right to contest, because the constitution allows them the right to aspire to any office in the country. But,  they should be mindful of the fact that Yoruba votes alone cannot give them the presidency, because we have Igbo people living there in Southwest. They should be able to look into all that; we shall approach them and see how much cooperation that we can get. I don’t see any person in Yoruba land today that can equal Awolowo by 30 to 50 per cent in terms of followership. But, he still did not win the Presidency, because he relied entirely on the votes of his people. Not that they don’t have the numbers, but they are confined to one geo-political zone. In the case of Igbo people, they are spread across the country and all that it needs is mobilization and sensitisation.

The Igbo have never been united when it comes to producing a consensus candidate. How are you going to address this?

This would not be difficult to address. This is because of their republican nature. Everybody seems to be a king and perhaps this is a small enclave. When a major issue emerges, honestly everybody will rally together. It happened times without number in the past.  People will fall in line. This will be achieved through the UPP platform. Our people say you have to secure the floor first before you can lay your mat on it. If there is no floor, you end up carrying your mat on your head. The floor here is the political party and that is why I say the UPP is anchoring it and it is open to the idea of mergers with other parties. When that is done, the issue of who becomes the candidate from the Southeast will no longer be the exclusive choice of the Southeast. It will be the right of the members of the party who are stakeholders across the country. Once the person emerges on the viable platform, others will fall in line. The main work is building a national platform, engaging stakeholders across the country to support the Igbo people to have the sense of belonging in the political configuration. If this is done, the issue of 100 aspirants coming on board won’t matter, because at the end of the day, only one person will emerge. The person will not be from the Igbo people, but delegates from different parts of the country will decide who gets the ticket.

What signals is the attack on Senator Ike Ekweremadu by his kinsmen sending to others?

Honestly, what happened to Ekweremadu is an embarrassment to well-meaning Igbo people. It is a setback and on the other hand it also addresses the fact that the suspicion that Igbo political leaders are discreetly working against the success of the agitation for Biafra. People like Ekweremadu, including my humble self, pare being suspected of not supporting separatist agitation. I have been involved in fighting for Igbo unity. There are people who see the attack as an Anambra conspiracy to humiliate the Igbo leader.  It could not have been Anambra conspiracy but a few persons handiwork. We want the people of Enugu not to see it as an attack on their son. We want them to see Ekweremadu as a symbol of the Igbo political leadership. I don’t know how this attack can unite the Igbo; it can never be. If the Igbo people are not united, how can they achieve anything, whether it is the Presidency or self-determination? So, I will advise the promoters of the attack to return to the drawing room and know how to channel their grievances in a more civilized manner. If they go ahead and attack the Nigerian leader who is a non Igbo, it will be dangerous for them. For example, if they attack or embarrass the President, have they considered that we have more than 20 million Igbo living in the northern part of the country? That provocation can put the lives of the people in extreme danger. Even if they were not born during the pogrom, have they not read about it?

Some people are already saying that zoning will not give room for the best candidate …

Like I have stated in the past, zoning is not a constitutional thing and it is by convention. Sometimes, conventions are stronger than laws, because the people are sentimentally and emotionally attached to it. It is not by tradition; traditions are difficult to change. Since Governor Nasir el-Rufai has come out to say this, let him also bear in mind that it was that convention that recommended Buhari to most Nigerians. So, most people allowed the North to produce the President, having had President Goodluck. Most people felt since Buhari won the election, he should also be supported to have a second term. And if at the commencement of the second term, the likes of el Rufai will be making such remarks, he should also consider how long it took President Buhari to win the election. Unfortunately, Nigeria is getting more regional than ever before. We thought that by now we would have been more inclined to nationalism, but we are drifting more into regional sentiments. The leaders of the region are tilting toward regional identity. If you look at what the regional groups are doing, sometimes you see about four cultural groups calling for unity. He is entitled to his comment, but it is not a well-thought out view.

(The Nation)