Obiora Okonkwo, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is a business leader and Chairman of The Dome Entertainment Centre Limited, Nigeria’s Iconic entertainment hub in Abuja. He is also the Chairman of the Board of several other companies. As a staunch believer in Project Anambra, he is deeply involved in the task of making Anambra State one of the best in development of human and natural resources for the indigenes and other residents.
Okonkwo, in this interview with our Special Correspondent, Achilleus Chud-Uchegbu, addresses some issues in the polity with special attention to the call for zoning in the political leadership of Anambra state.
TNE: By May 29, Nigeria’s democracy would have been 20 years uninterrupted. Do you think Nigerians have any reason to celebrate despite what many observe as stunted growth?
I think we have every reason to celebrate. In as much as I may accept that the growth has not been quite impressive, but in so many areas also, there is a lot to celebrate. The fact that we say it is uninterrupted for the last 20 years, that in itself is a major reason for celebration because if it has been uninterrupted for the last 20 years, there is every likelihood that democracy has come to stay. So, I am happy about that. When you look at the democratic processes that we have undergone, going by the last election, there have been a lot of improvements. It may not be in the conduct, but in the laws that are supposed to enable the processes. And since the last election also, there have been some landmark laws that the President has assented to. That means that the future of elections in Nigeria is becoming brighter and very soon, despite all the challenges we have seen in the past, votes might eventually start counting in subsequent elections, at least, to a greater percentage. That in itself, I believe, will trigger the correction of other processes that may have affected our democracy negatively. For instance, the quality of candidates that will contest in the subsequent elections, the processes of bringing up the candidates as it concerns the internal party systems.
I am particularly happy that we have a sitting government in two states of the federation, Zamfara and Rivers, which the electoral process excluded from contesting in the last governorship because of certain infractions on the law. Who would have imagined that that could happen in Nigeria, when we often think that if you are in power, you can get your way in everything? These little things, for me, matter a whole lot in assessing how far we have gone.
I know also that it is taken for granted that parties in power could win certain States. I have also seen, in the last election, where an incumbent governor could not win a senatorial seat. These things are good indications that there is very good hope that the future will continue to be better. The resultant effect is that when people who have been on standby as onlookers have more confidence in the process, you might see even better players coming into the fray. That will increase the quality of participation and then at the same time, will also increase the quality of the output. I believe that in this aspect, it may not have been as fast as we expected, but the fact they are happening at all and have been steady, shows that it is a thing to celebrate within these 20 years.
Economically, I don’t think that we have remained where we were when we started. We all know the capacities of our financial institutions. Today, they are stronger. They can do bigger businesses. Some of them have gone international and are competing big time on the international stage. It is during this period that we produced billionaires in Africa. We have also seen certain sectors grow to become international leaders – the music industry and Nollywood readily come to mind.
TNE: The opposition, especially your party the PDP, believe that some of the strides that had been made democratically have also been eroded by the incumbent administration. Do you share that view?
I don’t have all the statistics to situate them within the time frame, but I looked at democracy holistically in the last 20 years. So, it’s a combination of what we have seen in the last four years and then the 16 years of PDP. But there is no doubt that there was less tension during the PDP days, especially during the Jonathan/Yar’Adua period, but, by and large, these things are all tenets of democracy. Obviously, the PDP stayed for 16 years and they played a big role in the good things we are enjoying today. APC has been there for four years. We are still watching to see what it would become at the end of it. With the new government coming in, who knows what will happen.
TNE: There is this conflict between those who believe in strong men as leaders and those who believe in the building of institutions to drive the democratic processes. Part of the complaints in some quarters, in the last four years, is about the tilt towards the strong man leader rather than allowing the institutions to drive the process of development. Which would you subscribe to?
I look at two countries which I have been studying their developmental stages, and the leaders in those two countries – Singapore and Russia, and if I were to use these two countries as example, I will tell you with all sense of honesty that I will rather go for both the constitution and strong leader. But there must be a balance. I will only choose that where the strong leader has the right vision and honest mission, not for their own selfish interest. If it is out of patriotism and they are ready to work for common good and in the interest of the country, then we need a combination of both in this part of the world where certain things are still at their developmental stages.
Some still argue that if you combine both, you might blur the line between when the leader follows the process as constitutionally laid and when he begins to drive things based on his own mission.
You are right but either of those work in line with the constitution because when you have a strong man, he need not downplay the constitution. He would rather use the constitution to help him to achieve his vision. Let’s say for instance, the Russian President is not in power today because he wanted to stay longer and then set aside the constitution. He worked within the framework of the constitution and was able to step down to become the Prime Minister and contested again to become president because there is a constitution that allowed him to contest again. He’s a strong man with a vision and is able to have his way around all those things according to the constitution.
TNE: Obasanjo attempted to do third term. If the National Assembly had amended the constitution to allow for that, I don’t think anybody will accuse him of not working with the constitution. How do you work round that and at the same time deliver development to the people because meaning well is different from doing well?
I don’t support it when you manipulate the constitution for personal purposes. If it is for the purpose of having extraordinary constitutional powers to enable you hasten the development process, engage in things that ordinarily will take a longer time for a shorter time, why not? It was only recently we heard in the United States of America that the President could use executive powers to correct some situations. Every country that wants to have a strong President who will push through his visions must have those allowances. The problem will be if you are unlucky to have a President who just wants those powers to actualize his own selfish personal agenda and also deal with his perceived opponents. That’s when it’s very dangerous. It is at such points that the general population rises to show that power actually belongs to the people, like we had recently in Sudan and Algeria.
TNE: Looking at Nigeria in the last 20 years, many believe that state governors have not done what they should do and that is why today there are only four or five states that can stand on their own. What do you make of that?
It is really a very sad story talking about some governors. Their qualities and their performance have been very disappointing. I believe in a developmental process that is from bottom up. When I say bottom up, in this our constitutional system, I am talking about local governments and state governments, before you get to the federal. Today, there are certain realities in some states and we blame the federal government. There are certain situations that could be managed by the local government but we are sending SOS to the President and even blaming him. When you see such, you wonder why you have local authorities, local governments and state governments. The reason is simply about the quality of governors we have produced in some states within these 20 years. When governors are looking for deputies, they go for the very weak who cannot raise his head to give you any form of trouble or question your actions, when indeed it should be the opposite. You are supposed to select a very competent person who should understudy you, so that in your absence, he or she would continue with the vision you all share. That is why you have the situation where the deputy hardly succeeds the governor. This reality has not been particularly helpful in deepening democracy and managing situations.
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TNE: Your home state, Anambra, seem to be different because it does appear that the APGA leadership has done so well.
It depends on the yardstick with which APGA is measuring its performance. It depends also on what APGA is comparing their self with. If you compare APGA with many low performing states that cannot pay salaries, then you may be right. But when you ask somebody like me if that is an achievement, I will tell you no in capital terms because it is the responsibility that you must execute. Paying salary cannot be an achievement. How does a governor boats that he is doing well because he paid workers’ salaries? If you can’t manage the resources of the state and the people to be able to pay salary, then you don’t even contest in the first place.
When you tell me that APGA has grown the size of the economy in Anambra State and what you point to is equating the economy in their kobo-kobo terms, and that their focus on Okada riders, Keke and motor parks as source of IGR, maybe they could be happy about it. But for somebody like me who knows the huge potentials of the state, I will say no in capital terms.
For me, the extent of your target depends on the objective you set for yourself. If you say at the end of a semester in the university, I must score 90 percent to have an A, if you have a C, you will be weeping, you will be unhappy. But in the same class, there are people who have gone to their pastors and churches to pray for them so that they make a P. Those ones will come back and give testimony and throw a party if they have a pass. While you are unhappy that you did not make an A, they are partying that they even made a P. I think that is what is happening in Anambra state with the APGA government.
TNE: Are you not saying this because you are in the PDP? When you look at other PDP states, they too are celebrating tokenism as a form of success.
It is not about being a PDP state or being an APGA state. Any governor who has not been able in this present time, era and age, to take his state to the highest level, the higher altitude in line with the global yardstick of measurement, has nothing to celebrate, regardless of which political party he belongs. I say this as somebody who knows what is happening in Anambra state, who knows what governance should be, not what it is in our own context. I have seen things happen in other parts of the world. I have seen transformation orchestrated by some individuals as a result of change in leadership. I am saying this as somebody who is exposed and an economist who understands economic indices and as a political scientist who understands political dynamics. I’m saying these things as a professional who knows what is happening around the world, who has a good grasp of worldview. So, my yardstick is looking at the world around me.
TNE: Would you say the challenges relate to the process of the emergence of people who are chosen as leaders using some yardsticks as loyalty and god-fatherism?
To a large extent, I will say yes; from the point of view that competence, credibility has been brought entirely to the least of criteria for choosing leaders. However, to my mind, that is the only surest way for our future. The led, also to a large extent, have to share in the blame because they have proven to accept whatever goes, especially when their minutest interest is protected in the process. If by any mistake somebody has gone in there by default but the person is not competent, there are so many ways allowed by the constitution to exercise some pressure on the person to improve or even show him the way out. But we seem to have resigned to fate.
I know that in some states like Anambra, due to our demography, the led are the weakest percentage of the population. They may not be able to gather themselves together and there may even be those who don’t even have expectations. Some of them only wait until the elections to queue and follow the politicians and grab what they can grab to vote. The exposed people, those who should know better, are in their different comfort zones outside the state and doing very well and may not care what happens. I think such a thing can also be seen in some other states. But it should be getting better soon. I hope, with these electoral processes that are now evolving and the new laws, things would change for the better.
TNE: The dominant issue in Anambra state now is about zoning. Do you feel amused by that and what do you make of it?
Indeed, I do feel amused by that because it is only selfish politicians in Anambra state that will be canvassing for zoning for the position of governor, especially with the state of fatal paralysis we now have. Don’t get me wrong, zoning for me is okay where it is to create a balance and equity. But that can be done only in non-consequential positions, not for governor. And by the way, what are you zoning in Anambra State. We should be talking about one state, one people, one development. Anambra is a homogenous state. We speak the same dialect. We have the same faith – Christianity hundred percent. The territorial mass of Anambra State is just like a ranch in Texas. There not much that divides people in that State. We like the same food, we wear the same type of cloth.
But it’s not only politicians that are canvassing for zoning; the Anglican Bishops are also canvassing for zoning. They want the governorship zoned to Anglicans.
When you talk about zoning in Anambra State for governorship, Obosi people, for instance, will say zone it to my senatorial zone. When they all gather together, then they will be clamouring to zone it to religion. And then when they zone it to the same common religion, they will say zone it to my own village. And when it gets to their own village, other people will give you the reason why even inside their village, it should be their own family. Is it not the reason why on issues of kingship, you still see nucleus families who cannot agree on one person? You go to a town and that small town cannot agree on who will be their town union president or who will be their king. So, what does it matter to go and canvass for zoning in the state when even internally, they also have their own disengagements?
So, I really think it is those who do not mean well for Anambra State, especially now that equity has been achieved, that will be talking of zoning on the basis of senatorial district or even religious denomination. Tell me what could be such a difference in political expectations between a typical Catholic and Anglican? There is really not much difference. It could a different thing when you have a state where you have Christian population, Muslim population, Hindu population and all that. It is only then you will be clamouring that maybe when you have your Muslim brother as a governor, he might push in the parliament, Sharia law which offends the fundamental of your faith; or Hindu government who could as well do the same. Unless there is selfish interest that he will think serves him better to zone either to this denomination or the other. Wherever you hear people blowing that trumpet, go behind it and you will see that person paying the piper must have been somebody waiting by the corner to be the beneficiary. For me, the focus should be on competence and capacity and vision.
TNE: What do you mean by equity being achieved using zoning?
I have read a lot of articles which, to my mind, has dealt with these issues very deeply and to a very large extent, I concur in some of the opinions expressed in those articles because before 2013 in Anambra State, since the history of the creation of the state, we have not had a governor from the Northern Senatorial zone. It is also known that it is one of the zones with the most laid-back development, mainly due to their own natural locations; there are lots of riverine, farm areas and there is not much emphasis on farming. The area is neglected. We don’t have any law to that effect. We don’t have any constitution to that effect. There was no meeting made to that effect. But there was this spontaneous understanding that for once the northern part of Anambra State should be given a sense of belonging to partake in governance. It was really necessary to reduce tension and promote equity. That period was when there was constitutional consideration for creation of new states in the Southeast. So, few local governments in the northern part were clamouring very seriously to be given their own state, by name Orimiri State. That was the genesis of this concern.
If that had succeeded, a large chunk of Anambra State, including Onitsha, would have gone with them. That was why it became necessary to make that consideration, though unwritten. I have read some articles in the press which discussed about the southern part of Anambra South Senatorial zone clamouring for it. It has been published that there was never a time that the South Senatorial zone did not contest for even the ticket for the major political parties with others. Therefore, I think that zoning has achieved its purpose and it must not be sacred in the political equation in Anambra State, especially where governorship is concerned because the state of the state is so pathetic that you need a miracle worker who could come from any part of Anambra State to rescue it.
TNE: What potentials do you see in Anambra State that you think others are not seeing when you are talk of generating IGR for the state?
Anambra is a unique state. The leadership dynamics there cannot be the same with the leadership dynamics of a state like Rivers State, Lagos or Kano. It is a state with great potentials, seen mostly in the human capital. For us to realize that fully, we should be looking at a leader who should be like a unity leader; a leader who must be able to emerge by unifying all the various interests and factions in Anambra State because if you emerge gallantly from one faction that alienates the other, you are losing a great resource that will help to galvanize people for the progress of the State.
Then if you look at the issue of commerce, Anambra is a State that has been first in so many issues that are related to commerce. The unique nature of the state is such that the strong population of the state is in the diaspora. So, the potentials I see there have not been tapped. It needs a leadership that must be able to create a system that should be closely connected or linked or exposed to the diaspora.
If you look at last year’s statistics of amount of money transferred from outside Nigeria into the economy, it was more than the amount of oil revenue we generated. In Anambra State, the people sustaining the quality of life are people who are not making income in Anambra State. That’s why when you look at the poverty index of Nigeria, Anambra is the lowest, not because of the government or leadership of Anambra State. The diaspora remittances play a great role.
So, I think that the prospect is that we must have a leader who is a team player, who should be able to co-opt all various interests, bring them to table and say we have divided ourselves for so long along political lines and then have create a system that must be able to bring people together to sit down on the table and actualize a vision for the state. I think that if that is done, we become the Anambra of my dream; and that Anambra of my dream is one that’s is prosperous and secure, where every life is treated as sacred; one with restored pride to retake its dominant place in commerce and strive towards full industrialization.