interviewBy Ochereome Nnanna
Former Secretary of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), for-mer Minister of Transport and current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe spoke to Ochereome Nnanna on issues of national interest Excerpts.
Congratulations on your 64th birthday. What does it feel like to be 64?
Thank you for coming. I was born just as the Second World War came to an end. In fact, it was a privilege. It is interesting that since that World War there has not been any other conflagration that has consumed the whole world. There have been other hiccups like the Cold War, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East, the civil wars in Africa and Latin America.
But by and large I belong to a generation in which diplomacy as an instrument of maintaining cordial relations between countries has been the preferred instrument. And so, finding myself being in charge of diplomacy and peace in the largest country in Africa is humbling and a great privilege.
Let me ask you the reverse of the classical question: "who do men say I am". I would like you to tell us what you think of the man called Ojo Maduekwe? How do you see yourself?
Like the rest of humanity, I come from somewhere. I come from a creator. And there is a reason why the creator brought me into this world. And when I finish my time in the world I will return to my creator. I have always spent time to find out what purpose God created me for, and to what extent I have fulfilled that purpose, that is why I am here.
You are one of the very few members of the Nigeria elite who have succeeded at being part of the administration of this country at very high levels consistently for more than ten years now. One would like to know the secret of your success.
How have you been able to thrive in a Nigerian system that is so turbulent that some people do not manage to last more than two years in any administration?
I am flattered by your question. I am also intimidated by it. I mean, this is not the first time I am being asked the question. I too have wondered about that, and I cannot put my finger on it other than to concede it to the awesome grace of God. When we talk about the grace of God, my definition of it is "unmerited favour".
I am not being self-deprecatory or pretending to be modest when I say I don't believe I have come this far because I am the best, or that I have come this far because I am the most intelligent. Or other attributes that people tend to heap upon those who have done well in their areas of calling. I am strictly here by the sheer grace of God and that makes me more humbled. I spoke earlier about the purpose of our being on earth being to fulfil God's Will.
It propels me to ask myself: beyond longevity, either in private or public life, how well have I served the Almighty God by serving my nation, or to always seek God's forgiveness for those areas I have failed? I am always conscious of the fact that I have not always done my best; I have not always done as much as opportunities would suggest.
But having said that, I have been extraordinarily privileged to have served in a variety of positions, even before 1999. My first stint in government was as a young National Party of Nigeria (NPN) member of the House of Representatives during the Second Republic (1983). It was difficult, as you know, coming from my own part of the country to be outside the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) and contest an election. It was like an act of rebellion running against the awesome influences of the Great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and also Chief Sam Mbakwe.
When I contested and won against a much more fancied incumbent Hon Oke Okpi (may his soul rest in peace) Governor Mbakwe conducted a research (you know my part of the country was still under the old Imo State) to know why this happened in spite of so many influential members of the NPP from that area and very great Nigerians and Igbo leaders, such as Chief Nnanna Kalu and Chief John Okam, and so on, Chief Mbakwe wondered how these people could lose. He found out that this Young Turk as I was then known did not campaign on the basis of a political party because the NPP won all the surrounding constituencies.
They voted for me on the basis of what they saw as the dynamism of my campaign. And I was able to resonate strongly in the hearts of the good people of Abiriba, Nkporo and Ohafia. I went to the House of Reps but unfortunately, that democratic dispensation was not allowed to last long because the military returned.
By the time civilian rule returned in 1999 I was mainly engaged in the area of public service. We've been involved in all kinds of programmes, sometimes at great political cost to ourselves because we did not go into the bush to carry arms against the military. Sometimes at great political cost we listened to the military and assisted them to hand over power to civilians.
At the end of the day, no matter what compromises were made Nigeria was better served in that the return to democracy was not accompanied by a recourse to another civil war. Lives were lost, of course. Good people went down both in terms of their lives and in terms of their reputation.
But at the end of the day, thank God, we have democracy since 1999; not perfect yet, but there is a national consensus that no matter what is the problem with our democracy it is still better than military dictatorship. And the solution to the problem is even more democracy. The rule of law is very important because that is the pillar upon which everything rests. We should be patient with each other. As you rightly noted, I have continuously served since 1999, as Minister and as party secretary. It is a great honour.
Many people have reasoned that apart from the grace of God the reason you have weathered the storm in the Nigerian system is because you understand the Nigerian system better than those who did not last long?
Well, (laughs), that is a rather charitable way of putting it. I think you are being very nice to me. You don't want to present it in another style. I have heard people who, when they want to be charitable they say I am very cunning. Others say I am a good chorus man or praise singer. Anyway, there is something about me which those I have worked with will tell you. If I am with you, I am with you. I give you absolute loyalty.
If I have any difficulty with you, my loyalty includes telling you the truth; telling you: "Mr. President, I have problems with your stand on this issue. Mr. President, could you look at it this way?" I was once a member of the party executive when I worked with a National Chairman. I was once a Special Adviser to a Minister of Foreign Affairs.
So, I have had the opportunity to work with very important people in this country. Not to tell you the truth is for me, an act of disloyalty. You are the boss. You know more than I do and you see wider than I do. If your position comes out different from what I advised and that comes out as the official position I will defend this position to the last ounce of my breadth.
I don't go behind you as the boss and say no, don't mind what he is doing; I was not part of it. It is either I am with you or I am not with you. And if I am not with you the honourable thing to do is to ask to be relieved of my position. I will quietly go away. I won't tell the world that I had any disagreement with you on the issue.
If I don't do that, that means whatever point of view I had is not the fundamental issue because you are in charge. Nobody I have worked with can ever doubt my loyalty. And that loyalty means not being neutral, not being a spectator while things are happening. I will be with you throughout the controversy that may arise from even the issue I have a different opinion with you on.
The thing with me is that the normal things people believe are necessary for people to survive in the political jungle; I have not been good at them. I am not good at backbiting, gossiping, or backstabbing. I fight straight. I am not even sure I am good at the networking skill that ensures personal survival. I don't know how to have one leg in and one leg outside. So, even those I fight do respect me because they know it is not personal. Apart from that, I come back to the sheer grace of God because I never had a political godfather in terms of political leveraging and finances.
In some ways, I have broken all the rules of survival, even the rule of strong ethnic bonding. I am sure you are familiar with the controversy people associate with me (laughter ). I have been seen to have too much of Nigeria inside me and not enough of my own ethnic stuff, which is an unfair comment, anyway.
That aspect that I am too cosmopolitan or nationalist can really hurt in a multiethnic Nigeria where attachment to your roots is so strong; where you are identified with your roots first and foremost, the issue of Nigeria can wait. I disagree with that approach. I am very vocal in condemning that. Sometimes this has not helped me politically but I know that if being a nationalist is not popular today it will be popular tomorrow. Our ethnic and cultural identities as Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa or Fulani are gifts from God to us, but we must not allow that to becloud our mega-identity as Nigerians. It is the big canvas that enables the micro-identities to thrive.
So, your name is actually an Ohafia name?
Yes. And also Abiriba people bear it.
Some people say that the time you were Secretary of the PDP, with Obasanjo as the Leader of the party and Ahmadu Ali as Chairman, was possibly the worst time in PDP; that during that period every anti-democratic tendency was unleashed, such as the third term, do-or-die elections and imposition of candidates. Is it a correct assessment?
Those were difficult days, to say the least. Either way one looks at it, there was a civil war in the Party. I call it the PDP civil war. No war is nice, but I think that civil wars tend to be more brutal, for reasons or psychology that leads to that kind of implosion. Here was a party that was dominating the political landscape, virtually without any challenge from any other party. It was in a very comfortable position, with overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and the state governments it controlled.
I am not here trying to blame the opposition for the performance of the PDP. It is difficult to manage success if you do not have any credible opposition. The opposition parties are supposed to provide, in a peaceful and constructive manner, a clear alternative to the ruling party. It should not matter how long it takes. The opposition should keep at it. You never know, the people of the country, maybe out of sheer boredom, it may not even be that the ruling party has failed; it might just be that the people want to try something else, so they can decide to change the ruling party.
Even Britain, after Churchill had rescued the country from the claws of Nazi Germany, how was he rewarded? It is not always that parties lose elections because they have not done well. It is often because the people want change. Without credible opposition, this choice will not only be absent, but also the opposition will tend to grow from within the ruling party, since nature abhors vacuum.
The opposition became nurtured in-house in the PDP. Ordinarily, there should be nothing wrong with that. It was not opposition based on differences of opinion within the PDP on, say healthcare or education, how much money should go into those areas. It became a raw challenge for the control of power.
I am being as objective as possible so as not to unfairly blame any particular group. Once there was a challenge internally there will be a civil war in the struggle to establish who was in control. But I can assure you that even in that civil war; there was a lot of decency by a lot of people. There are things that some of us will not like to talk about because it will look like oh, because it is all over we now want to look good.
There are certain secrets every man of honour should take to his grave. But I assure you that the picture was not as dismal as it appeared. And that is why we should always support two things concerning a ruling party. One is internal democracy. We should not allow a situation where any particular group hijacks the party. And if that group is opposed to the president, who, no matter how you look at it, is the leader of the party, there is bound to be a response. And that response could not always be salutary.
No matter the situation, the president as the leader of the party must be supported. The tail cannot wag the dog. A president should not be made to look like he is just a caretaker president. The president is the president and must be treated as the president. In every presidential system, a sitting president always has the right of refusal to present himself for a second term of office.
To start challenging a president's right to that, even when he has not spoken about it, is very unhealthy and liable to trigger off certain responses, such as the kind of civil war I talked about. It is untidy. I don't know any other part of the world where that kind of thing happens. And that was what happened in the PDP.
It is like former President Bush. He can have problems outside in terms of what the Democrats want to do to him. But it is unheard of that in his first term his party will not re-nominate him for second term. It is not that people will not challenge him. It is that there is a presumption that he will not be allowed to run. Here in Nigeria in 1999, a president gets elected. Within one year people are already saying why he should not have a second term.
Of course, the party will have to face the consequences as to whom it presents to the electorate at any given time. I have taken responsibility for whatever I did as the Secretary of the party at that time. I am not making any excuses. But to the extent that we did not come out of that experience smelling likes roses, it was a real problem not just for the president but also for the party. And I do not see that mistake being made again in the foreseeable future.
The PDP went through an uncommon difficulty. Let us learn from it and put the sad memories behind us. The issue of internal democracy must be upheld. If a person is the winner of primaries, declare him the winner. Number two is that the presidency must be encouraged to remain united. There can only be one president at a time. You cannot have a co-presidency.
What message do you have for Nigerians on this impression that the president is slow in delivering any of his campaign promises?
My message to Nigerians is to remind them that everything about the president and his antecedents is that he is a result-oriented leader. He is a leader who wants to establish clear benchmarks for his leadership. He is quiet but he is very thorough and analytical. When he became governor of Katsina State the same talk that is coming out now about his presidency was there in Katsina, but see what he did for that state in the end.
As far as we believed in open field for contestants and the delegates power to choose (which was eventually what happened when the party elected Yar' Adua as its candidate) there were some strategic assessments of those who could best succeed Obasanjo. And unanimously, at the various meetings that took place, the Party made the right decision when it settled for the former governor of Katsina State.
There were three main attributes that stood him out. One was his commitment to transparency. And it was clear to us that the funds he had for running the state were used in a very effective manner. And no one suggested that he engaged in self-enrichment. Indeed, he was the only governor who went beyond legal requirement to declare his assets publicly. He did not go pushing for the job, as much as he was very qualified. He just wanted to serve the people without worrying about the future. The second one was that he is someone who plans whatever he does. And that planning helped transform Katsina. And of course, the third one was loyalty to the Party.
When he came in, he said we have the problem of power, fuel supply, and the Niger Delta. It is not that those before me did not do well. It is that these problems have continued to fester. Let's look at these closely. What does it take to fix them so that we don't just throw money at them with little result? As a result of yielding too much to public pressure, the kind of meticulous attention these problems require has been difficult to attain over the years, even before 1999.
This president, inherited many of the successes of some of his predecessors and wants to build on them and take this country much further than would have been possible before now. He is definitely not slow. He is thorough, and he does not want to offend the rule of law. Due process means one step after the other. It is bound to take some time. But once this process is followed through, the result will be long lasting and worth the wait. When the results begin to roll in, Nigerians will be happy.