Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: Why I Did Not Stop Obasanjo from Becoming President in 1999 - Alex Ekwueme (2)

Alex Ekwueme, for Nigeria's Second Republic vice president, this second part of his encounter with Sunday Vanguard is as explosive as is revealing. Sampler:

Did you ever have the opportunity to challenge Obasanjo regarding all these? 'Yes, we were in the party caucus one day and I told him all the things he had done to me and people present were shaking because they hadn't seen anybody talk to Obasanjo like that.'

Asked what would make him get so angry, he simply retorted, 'nothing'. From the real formation of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the reasons for the pull out of Afenifere, Obasanjo's choice of Atiku Abubakar as running mate in 1999, his confrontation with Obasanjo, how he could have stopped Obasanjo from becoming president, his views on the electoral reforms and many more, Ekwueme, soft-spoken displayed a sharp memory of events. Excerpts:

WHAT was the real strength of G-34 because before then there was NADECO and some people thought the two groups should have been integrated?

I would not want to talk about the attitude of NADECO to what went down then because they thought they had the monopoly of fighting for democracy and any other group that was trying to do something then was poaching on their territory and yet NADECO, only came up six months after Abacha had taken over government because I believe they believed that Abacha was going to handover to Abiola.

So they played along with him and when he didn't do that they asked their people who had joined that government to resign and join NADECO but they had already compromised their position and that was why Abacha didn't take them serious.

The letter from G-18 shook Abacha more than all the propaganda of NADECO over that period. First we had the All Politicians'Summit, which Abacha came to scatter. We then regrouped and formed the Institute of Civil Society, to sensitise the Nigerian public and the dangers of continued military rule which amounted to enslavement. We invited Justice Kayode Esho to chair the launching. We had a meeting in my house in Lagos and it was there that Northern members of the group - Rimi, Lar, Ciroma, Awoniyi - said that the impression had been created that all the north was behind Abacha. It was there that we agreed that the first salvo should be fired by the North, before the larger group would then come in.

They met in Kaduna, did a letter to Abacha which Lar delivered. After that, we met again at Mainland Hotel, inviting people from all over the country and from there the group moved to 34 and then we prepared a more detailed memorandum and we set up a committee of four of us to finalise it - Prof. Uzodinma Nwala, Senator Onyeabor Obi, Prof. Jerry Gana and myself. We met in my office at Ademola Street and finalized it.

How did the idea of a political party emerge? At what point did that happen?

It was when Abacha died and Abdulsalami took over. They invited us as a group to the Villa. After the meeting we considered whether we should mid-wife a political party or that we should be the catalyst for a political party but not for us to be involved in that party that was to be formed.

So, it was just thrown open; we did not really agree on the specific plan of action. But we had another meeting at the Ladi Kwali Hall of Abuja Sheraton Hotel and Towers, where all the associations involved decided to form a political party. At the end of the day the associations agreed to form the party.

But Afenifere pulled out at the last minute, why?

I don't want to speculate, but I think at that our first outing at Ladi Kwali Hall, which attracted people from all over Nigeria - the hall was full. The group representing Afenifere signed the memorandum of understanding, MOU, on August 13, at the Western House and the Ladi Kwali event was on August 18, and they also signed the MOU.

When I came in to chair the event, the type of thunderous response I received, especially from the Northern delegates to the meeting, must have sent a signal to the PCF that if they stayed in that group, they would be drowned. It was unfortunate because if they had stayed, we would not have been saddled with an Olusegun Obasanjo.

One of the leaders of PCF, alluded to what you just said, that it appeared as though plans had been concluded to install you as president, using that platform of the PDP and, therefore, the Muson Centre meeting would be boycotted?

We sent people to call them and even waited but they did not come'

So, how come after all the struggle by all of you, at what point, after the formation of the PDP, did the party fall into 'wrong hands.' What role did the military play?

Well, they made sure that Obasanjo was installed - they gave him many facilities to enable him win, materials and otherwise and they even campaigned for him. It was Babangida who convinced Sunday Awoniyi.

I was in Jos, Plateau State in February, 1999. The feeling at the convention ground, even before the voting started, was that you were likely going to clinch the ticket. Would you say you did not try your best or that the military overwhelmed everybody?

For me, it's unfortunate, but I've always lived not to regret things because God Almighty is always in control.

I was going to do a tie-back to the free presidential ticket which Lawal Kaita had offered you earlier. How do you philosophically look back at both events?

Okay, can you see now what somebody told you as being the reason why PCF pulled out and can you then imagine what would have happened if I had accepted the free, automatic ticket at Abuja.

Which one came before: The automatic ticket or the PCF pull out?

No, we were all there. The ticket had been offered to me in the presence of the PCF representatives and I turned it down so, to now go back and still feel that there was some sort of arrangement is a different thing all together.

The meeting where Kaita offered that ticket to me was some four or five days before the Ladi Kwali event. But they saw it as a script.

Some people also accuse you, just as you accused the PCF people who pulled out of PDP that had they stayed, Obasanjo wouldn't have been imposed on the party. Conversely, had you also accepted the automatic ticket, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible for the military to browbeat the leadership of the party into supporting another candidate? Before you bring God into it again - I know God always has His own way - please answer the question, Sir?

You see, the approach Obasanjo used, the first day he came to the meeting in Abuja, he offered to underwrite the party's preparation for the council elections with N130 million. During the campaigns for governorship elections, all those on the PDP platform, he backed almost all the successful PDP governorship candidates, using money to campaign for them to get nomination and then become governor so when he comes back to you to ask for your delegates' votes, you have to pay back.

Before the convention, Obasanjo said, at the height of his impeachment crisis of 2002, that the North wanted the presidential aspirants on the platform of the PDP to sign an undertaking that they would do the bidding of the North. He said you initially refused to sign but you eventually signed. He even brought out a document which he said contained the minutes of the meeting. So, what happened? Did you sign the document?

The issue was raised at Bolingo Hotel and my answer which was unassailable and a bit embarrassing to those who raised it was that 'this is exactly what those who complain about the North are saying: that you monopolise certain ministries; that now, how do you think a president would work well and be successful if he does not appoint the best hands he has in his cabinet to take charge of key ministries and rather, if those ministries are reserved for certain class of people'. I also told them that this actually confirms what people are saying about the North. They felt embarrassed.

But Obasanjo brought out a document which he said were minutes of the meeting?

There can't be minutes of any meeting because they met with each candidate separately.

Let's move on. Obasanjo was said not to be qualified to even contest the primaries of your party but you people allowed him?

First, apart from the fact that Obasanjo did not deliver his State or local government area, he did not even win in his ward. What actually happened was that the responsibility was on the party secretariat.

A screening committee was set up to screen the aspirants and the names were published nationwide. Before the screening, Solomon Lar, as chairman of the PDP then, sacked the screening committee and set up a new committee, headed by the present chairman of the Population Commission, Makanma. When he was asked why he did that he said the previous committee had been published and, therefore, prone to compromise, which was rubbish.

Any way the national vice chairman of the party, for the south east, Sylvester Ugoh and the national vice chairman of the party, for the south south, Dr. Dele Cole, wrote a joint memorandum to the screening committee, quoting the resolution of the NEC on the conditions that aspirants must fulfill but that Obasanjo was not qualified to seek that office. When the screening committee got that letter from the south east and south south, they were confused and were at a loss regarding what to do. The screening committee chairman, who had just been put there by Solomon Lar, asked Lar what to do. Lar wrote to them and told them that it was too late to disqualify anybody late in the day. He said what they should do was to give Obasanjo provisional clearance and they wrote so.

We gathered that you chose not to pursue this at the convention ground, and that you said you did not want to set the country on fire?

That issue came up at the convention ground because I had the minutes of the meeting where it was said that to qualify you have to win at some levels. The meeting of NEC on November 24 was that from President to councilor, you must win your state, local government and ward in that order for you to even qualify to seek to represent our party at the polls. The meeting of December 10, ratified that resolution and this was done preparatory to the December 5, LG elections with a view to ensuring that every aspirant participated fully in mobilizing people for the party.

The December 5 election was meant to determine which parties would qualify to be registered and you could not seek office on the platform of the party as president if you did not contribute to the success of the party for registration. It was very clear. In Jos, the constitution of the party as at that time, made the secretary the chief executive of the party. The chairman was like a board chairman but the secretary was like the managing director, chief executive who runs the party. Unfortunately, Okwei Nwodo allowed Solomon Lar to hijack the executive functions of the party.

But he said in a separate interview that he was already being tagged as an Igbo man wanting to help you, another Igbo, to secure the ticket of the party. That was how he explained it?

No, you can not just explain it away; you have to do the right thing and not thinking about what people would say about you; he abdicated; Solomon Lar started writing letters to INEC, to aspirants, to everybody.

Was it after the convention that Lar took over or before?

Before the convention; he just took over the role of the secretary of the party, just immediately after I handed over to him as chairman. So, at the convention, the way it was structured, once a ballot box was counted, it represented the others. After the first box was counted I knew Obasanjo would win and I had enough time to decide on what to do next. First, I had with me a copy of that meeting of NEC of November 24 and the other one of December 10, 1998. If after the announcement of the results, I had the chance to raise the matter and push.

Two, I could accept defeat and say Obasanjo, I support you. Or to say Obasanjo is not qualified and, therefore, of the seven of us who contested, only six of us were qualified to contest and I, having scored the highest among the six should be declared the winner and forward my name to INEC tomorrow. Of course what would have happened would have been that Nwodo would have forwarded my name to INEC because we had no time left. Lar, too, would have written to INEC and said it was Obasanjo because he was fully for Obasanjo.

So, INEC would have had two nominations from PDP which was the front-running party, and it was already becoming very clear that whoever emerged PDP candidate would become the president, that would have created confusion. The military could easily hang on to that excuse and meanwhile, the mob outside the Jos township stadium was very restive and could set houses on fire.

Eventually, I decided that my keenness to serve Nigeria and to make it a better place for my children and my children's children should not blind me to the fact that Nigeria would have to exist first, before we can serve it, and that I, after all the struggle, would now, because of my own personal ambition, set the country on fire and prolong military rule, would be an unforgiveable act of selfishness and so I decided to allow it and support Obasanjo, hoping that he would appreciate all these sacrifices and understand because he did not know how the party was formed.

But if you had objected, you would have been doing the right thing, too. So, you chose not to do the right thing and we ended up with Obasanjo?

As I said, Nigeria would have to exist first before you can serve it; and today Nigeria is still surviving, even though remedial work needs to be done.

He picked Atiku Abubakar as running mate but some say it was a unilateral decision?

I'll tell you what happened. That evening, after the convention, we met at Solomon Lar's house.

Who were the 'we'? Was Obasanjo still in Jos?

Yes, Obasanjo was there; the secretary of the party was there; Senator Onyeabor Obi was there; quite a few others were there. What we decided was that we would reconvene in Abuja the next day and decide on the running mate and submit to INEC. So, when we got back to Abuja the next day, INEC called Okwei Nwodo to remind him that that day was the last day for which the name of the presidential candidate and his running mate had to be submitted failing which it meant that PDP would not be contesting that election. Nwodo then called Obasanjo.

Why call the candidate and not the party chairman?

He called Obasanjo and not Lar. And Obasanjo told him that Atiku's name should be submitted so that we could have our candidates.

So, it wasn't as if there was a consensus on the choice of Atiku?

No, there was none. The meeting we scheduled to hold in Abuja could not hold any more because there was a deadline to meet and it had to be met. This was taken over by events.

But how come the meeting failed to take place? Was it because Obasanjo rushed Atiku's name or because there was no time at all?

In fact, let me tell you, some people were still on their way from Jos when all this happened.

Then you would agree that Obasanjo was right in picking Atiku contrary to the sour grapes from some quarters?

Well, I think it was a well choreographed script which played out.

With all these, at what point did the problem start?

You mean with me?

Yes, at what point did he start having problems with you - not you with him? Because after the Jos convention, it was obvious you were ready to work with him?

The next morning, in Hilton, Obasanjo came to my suite and told me that he would like me to be president of the Senate, so that he would control the executive, I would control the legislature, that way we could work together and move Nigeria forward. I kept quiet and he said, okay, if you don't want to do it, I should give him somebody from the East based on the zoning formula. I said I would think about it.

Eventually I told him I wouldn't do it. I nominated Senator Onyeabor Obi because he had the experience, coming from the Second Republic and a lawyer of 30 years standing and it was the MOU on power shift, of which Obi was a major player, which made it possible for Obasanjo himself to emerge.

But Onyeabor Obi never made it to the Senate?

He never did, that was part of it. Then, somebody had already been nominated for that senatorial district - Anambra South. To get the chap who had the ticket to step down was a problem. Senator I. K. Obiora was also aspiring and this other chap, Eriobuna were contesting. Obiora agreed to step down but Eriobuna never agreed and Chuba Okadigbo was very keen on becoming president of the Senate and I think he had a hand in ensuring that Eriobuna did not buckle.What was the question again?

I asked at what time did the two of you begin to part ways?

After that offer, he told me that on Thursday evening, there was going to be a fund-raising for his campaign and that he would like me to chair the event. I agreed. I was there, I chaired it. Danjuma was there, Dangote and a host of others. When he came to the East for the campaign, I met him at the airport and I brought him here to my house.

You mean he came to this house? Where did he sit in this living room?

Interesting! He sat exactly on the seat you are now (laughs). He then requested that he wanted to have a word with me in private and I agreed. We moved to the other side outside and he requested that he would like me to give him one person that he would make a minister and I asked him: 'One person'? He said 'yes'. I said 'okay'.

So, from here we went to Okpara Square, I campaigned for him, from there to Awka, because at that time, the whole South East was still smarting from the events of the Jos convention and as I went campaigning for him, some thought I was a mental case.

From Awka to Asaba Stadium, we got there at night, we campaigned and I returned only to go back to Lagos to meet him at Ikeja.

Olu Falae emerged as AD/APP presidential candidate along with Umaru Shinkafi as running mate. But something happened. Pius Okigbo and Ben Nwabueze, I believe went on air to announce that Ohanaeze wanted the Igbo nation to vote for Falae. I found it difficult to take because they didn't consult me and if anyone is going to claim that he founded PDP, without being immodest, I can make such a claim. So, how could I be campaigning for our candidate and my people would be told to vote for somebody else.

So, I went to the radio station here at my own cost, made a broadcast which was sent to all the stations in the eastern zone including Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Cross River. I went to Lagos and did the same on network radio that my people in the East should vote for Obasanjo. In spite of all these, I heard later that one of our people here who was close to him said Okigbo and Nwabueze wouldn't have made such an announcement without my consent.

Who told you, Sir?

I won't mention the name; but he believed the story.

Did he call you to find out what went wrong?

No, he just believed, in spite of all that he knew I did to counter that statement.

But all these were before the general election and people still saw you, the party leadership, moving round the country together and you stomached all these?

Of course we wanted the party to win. After the elections and swearing in, I gave him the one person he requested, Professor Barth Nnaji, someone I thought would make a difference because of what he had propounded to do to move Nigeria forward, to move away from crude oil to industrial development, based on the experience of the Asian Tigers. So, I nominated him and gave him the proposals from Nnaji. The guy is from Enugu State, any way and not from Anambra, not my state.

The next time we met he told me that in the military there is something they call a bad weather option, that if a dignitary is coming and you're preparing for a parade and rain falls on that day and the weather changes, what do you do? What would be your fall back position. What he was telling me was that I should give him somebody else in case this one did not work. So, I gave him Ali Baba of blessed memory, who was from the Yola, Adamawa State.

Was it that you couldn't find somebody from your Anambra State or what?

Anambra had a lot of people and we were entitled to our quota as a state. For Anambra State, Onyeabor Obi was number one but Obasanjo preferred Menakaya, who supported him.

After taking all the people he wanted, I went to see him one day and he showed me the list and asked if I had any suggestions and I said the first name proposed by Anambra State should have been picked, that is Senator Onyeabor Obi and I made him understand that the MOU which brought about power shift was actually typed by Obi because in his Western House Office that night, his staff had all gone home so he had to do the typing himself and I felt even if for that reason alone he should be chosen.

Another name on the list which caught my attention was the female nominee from Plateau State where he said he wanted a woman. I told him the original list from Plateau State had a woman's name so why not pick that woman, but instead you put another woman's name there.

He said he would effect that change as suggested by me - at least that was what he told me there. When the list got to the Senate, because of the previous tango between Obi and Okadigbo, the latter went and ganged up with Anambra senators. Obi scaled the hurdle the first time but they canceled all that and started all over again. The second time, the senators from Anambra State said Obi didn't have their support and, therefore, could not be passed.

What is more, they said the political adviser, Prof. A B C Nwosu was from Nnewi as Obi and that two of them could not come from the same place. But this was the same excuse in the case of Adamu Ciroma from Potiskum and his cousin, Adamu Maina Waziri. They represented Ciroma's name but never represented Obi's name - meanwhile, Waziri served as an adviser while Ciroma served as minister.

Did you ever have the opportunity to challenge him regarding all these?

Yes, we were in the party caucus one day and I told him all the things he had done to me and people present were shaking because they hadn't seen anybody talk to Obasanjo like that.

That must have been immediately after he was sworn-in?

No, not immediately; much after that.

What was his response?

He just danced around it. He couldn't answer straight. What answer would he have? These were all facts.

So, what was that final straw? At some point it was evident that you were no longer part of the mainstream PDP?

I can not even place my finger on any one single event but I think on the whole, Obasanjo felt I was too strong a character in a way and that he could do everything to undercut me and reduce my influence in the party or even in my own state and he undermined me.

As a matter of fact, he didn't appoint any of the people I proposed, not one person. When I asked him he said the governor of Enugu State said he didn't want Prof. Nnaji. The person I nominated. I asked him, 'you said I should give you just one person, and yet, the governor of Enugu State (Chimaroke Nnamani) is going to veto my nominee? Somebody who came back from Orlando, Florida; someone Jim Nwobodo helped to become the governor is now going to veto my own nominee?'

What would make you snap, as in storm, get angry, scream at someone, because some of the instances you've mentioned are enough to make a man storm? What would make you angry?

Nothing.

Okay, how do you relieve yourself of stress?

I play lawn tennis. I play two sets.

Some people could not suffer Obasanjo and, therefore, were compelled to dump PDP and move on; with all these that you have talked about which transpired between you and Obasanjo as president, why didn't you just take a walk?

The truth is that so many people who used the PDP as a spring board for getting power, once they lose that power and no longer have the power they quickly jump out of the party. A few whom the party used and who are committed still have an attachment to the party because of the original concept of the party as a behemoth that would capture the interests of the masses of Nigeria and in which the people will have great confidence are still there.

These governors dumping their parties for PDP, is it proper?

I'm open-minded about it. There is no provision in the constitution which goes against it but in the area of being a legislator, the constitution is clear. It doesn't mean that it is morally okay but legally, what can you do. But talking about morality, how can somebody jump from PDP into your party and you hand him your ticket automatically. Look at Bauchi, the man had always been a PDP man, look at Imo State, Ohakim had been a PDP member since 1998, he comes into PPA and they hand him their ticket and the man now returns to where he came from and they are complaining.

I wish there was another way round it that was why I said I have an open mind about it.

Would you say Yar'Adua is on the right track?

At least Nigerians and the party members are not groaning under another jackboot of a buccaneering and excessive administration. So, you give that to Yar'Adua.

Let's look at President Yar'Adua. How would you assess him?

First, is that he is not a dictator. Certainly, Nigerians couldn't have suffered another dictator after Obasanjo. His weak point would be that he does not move as fast as some people expect but you can make haste slowly.

Your state, Anambra would witness a gubernatorial election next January: What should Nigerians expect and how does it feel that you are from that state?

Do you watch cowboy films?

Yes.

In Anambra State, PDP Anambra is comparable to a situation of all chiefs and no Indians. You know you're supposed to have all Indians and one chief as leader, but in Anambra, it is all chiefs and no Indians. Everybody is a chief and everybody thinks he or she is capable of running the state. Many are concerned about the situation arising from over ambition. I once called a meeting of stakeholders from all the local governments where we reached some basic understanding on modus operandi and modus vivendi, but within a week, a full page advert was in the papers castigating me of supporting one faction against the other.

The buzz word today is about electoral reforms. Yar'Adua gained plaudits when he set up the Uwais Committee but the problem today with most people is the decision of government to appoint the umpire, the INEC chairman; if any other body appoints INEC chairman, would that solve our electoral problems?

I don't know why people are so fixated about the appointment of the chairman of INEC. The important thing is that the chairman when appointed should not be removed any how and the chairman is well protected by the constitution.

Once the chairman knows that he can not be removed just like that, he would do the right thing. But to say that you want an executive function of appointing INEC chairman to be transferred to the judiciary, what about the appointment of the person who heads the Civil Service Commission, what about the Police Service Commission?

Elections at the local government level have been by far worse than what INEC conducted so how do we get out of the mire of electoral irresponsibility?

Everybody wants to control what he has: The PPA governor wants all the local government elected officials to belong to his party and it cuts across AC, ANPP, PDP and so on. The State Independent Electoral Commissions are manipulated in a way to achieve this.

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