SENATOR ONYEABO Obi is a lawyer and politician. In the Second Republic he represented Anambra West Senatorial district . Obi, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in this interview with Vanguard, argued that the North should not allow itself to lose out in the current power game owing to the inability of ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua to take up the reins of power.
On the alleged cabal holding the country to ransome, the PDP chieftain maintained that it is a common phenomenon in any democracy in the world over. He also bared his mind on other burning national issues. Excerpts:
WHAT'S your assessment of the nation's present political psychology?
Speaking about psychology, the nation may need a psychiatrist, that's the only thing I can say. Our present situation is uncertain and unnecessarily so because we are trying to get progress under the present regime, liberalising some of the freedoms, improving on democratic culture and tendencies.
But certainly, the President's health and the way the information was managed and the failure to ensure an effective, amicable and prompt transfer of power then as it was were not done and these have over heated the polity.
So, sadly, all those developments were unnecessary because we're making progress and I hope that can stabilize the situation, regain initiative and keep moving forward in the last remaining year of this administration's tenure.
So, would you say the events of the last few days have stabilized the polity?
No, I think it's too early to say anything about stabilizing the polity, because there are uncertainties caused by many factors and even the powers at play are not moving in the same direction.
And so, it will be difficult to have stability with such unstable tendencies.
Maybe you want to shed more light on these unstable tendencies?
I said the issue of the President's health was not well properly managed, but I don't expect that the President became so suddenly sick that he could not transmit a letter to ensure that his Vice, constitutionally and legally held the fort for him, I think that should have been done.
Then, there was so much darkness or lack of information about the real state of the President's health. And when it came to salvaging the situation, the way it was done was that of necessity. Unfortunately, the legality has been doubted and it has been declared illegal. It will set the nation back if that becomes the experience of the Acting President.
These are all the risks because nobody knows the real state of health the President and whether he is coming back or not .
Some of these uncertainties have impacted on the Federal Executive Council, on the Acting President and the National Assembly. Everybody is talking with his tongue in his cheek. By God's grace, we shall get through this, but at the moment, we haven't.
Nobody has seen the President since he was brought back into the country, as a member of the party's BOT, how does it make you feel?
Well, it is certainly good news and so, we hope that he's recovering. But as some people have said, you have to separate the President from the presidency.
If power is properly harnessed in the Acting President, then, one can only go on wishing that the substantive President continues to make progress in his recovery and that he will be well enough one day and able to effectively reclaim and execute his office. So, to that extent, it is sad not to know exactly the state of his health; but we wish him well, but the country has to move on.
What of the fact that the Acting President does not know the actual state of the President's health.
Well, let's say that as long as power is properly harnessed in the Acting President, knowing or not knowing is neither here nor there. And like I said, we had an experience of transfer of power from a substantive president on account of illness. In October 1965, the then President, Dr Nnamdi Azikwe went abroad for medical treatment and he handed power over to the President of the Senate, who was next in hierarchy and was sworn-in as acting president. So, we have a precedence.
Now, recently, the President of Egypt, a dictator for that matter, being away on surgery, handed over to the Prime Minister, who is next in command. Every President and every public officer knows that his office is temporary for him as a person, but that the office must go on, regardless of the state of his health. So, if he's not able, for any time to perform, he will hand over to somebody.
It happens in the field of politics, in government and even in football. It happens in every sphere.
Once you cannot execute your present position, you have to give way to somebody who can, until you are able to resume.
So, what is the problem with our own system?
The problem is the Nigerian way of doing things. Nigerians have always done things correctly, but, sometimes, the devil in us comes out and we in fact create crisis where there is none and this lay seeds of disturbances everywhere.
Generally, the vulnerability of the system, does not do well, for the economy, for the politics, for the governance, for ethnic relations, for anything. So, we need to get back on track, so that effective government will encourage our national unity and the advancement of the economy.
Some have blamed what is happening on the cabal within the portals of power, that is presidency, saying that it is the cabal that is holding the nation. How do you react to this?
Every executive government in every world including the advanced democracies, has a cabal. There is a good book written about the cabal. The President's men, these are people who run the country and in a presidential system, that is the misfortune of it, that an unelected and secretive group of people often called the kitchen cabinet are the ones who decide how things are done. And those who are elected and who think they have mandate of the people, may not be on the surface.
So, a cabal is everywhere, for good or for evil. The President's men are active, the kitchen cabinet is active, unelected, non accountable and sometimes, not entirely patriotic, that's the danger and they have their own interest. Because they are unaccountable, because they are invincible and so, how do we judge that.
People have pointed at the President's wife as being the head of the cabal.
The wife of a functioning head of government has an influence over activities and over policies, that is the fact of life. And she's not the first lady to exercise or influence power. And abroad too, they influence power, but they don't come out and announce it, but they all do because in the secrecy of the bedroom, the wife can make the husband change the politics one way or the other. They can influence their husband either in the bedroom or on the dining table, that's a normal way of life, it's for better or for worse. It may work out well or it may not work out well. That's the way of life.
But how would describe our present experience?
Well, we want to see how it all ends and we have not heard the other side of the story of the accused cabal. They may be innocent victims, there may be even cabals working outside them, we don't know. It's up to you to dig out the President's men or the kitchen cabinet or the cabal and tell us who they are, what their roles are and tell us whether they are working for good or for evil.
Let's talk about the Acting President, he has been sufficiently empowered and at least, he's in charge now. But some people are not comfortable with the fact that the President is there, while he remains the Acting President. What's your assessment of the arrangement?
Well, the circumstances by which he came to power were very trying. First, some were accusing him of over ambition, which I doubt, because he seems to be a loyal person to the substantive President; some are accusing him of timidity which is possible, some are accusing him of incompetence, which is uncharitable.
But whatever it is, the circumstances under which he came in, the resolution and the way it was managed or stage managed, did not give him a good ground to start and assert himself.
And with the President coming back without his knowledge and he not appropriately linked with those controlling the news about his (Yar'Adua's) health, it cannot make him very comfortable because they are working in the same environment.
When you have the substantive person in the next room or in the next compound and each time, you have to look over your shoulders to see what he's doing, whether he approves it or not; and you have to be receiving hints from people on what he likes or dislikes, it becomes very uncomfortable to do anything.
But he's making some moves and we'll give him time to stabilize. He has announced a Presidential Advisory Council, but one of the things I think is wrong with the Presidency and the governance is that, the cabinet is too large. Most countries have a cabinet of ten people but when you have a cabinet of 50 people, you will have a big conference hall, it will be very difficult to have a proper dialogue and reach agreement easily.
So, one of the things Nigeria should address is, have a cabinet of twelve, with two super ministers from one of the geo-political zones who will be able to achieve a meaningful progress. It's one of the banes of Nigeria. I think we still have to address the question of having an effective governance.
Some commentators are still calling for the invocation of Section 144 of the Constitution even as the National Assembly, particularly the Senate is saying that the President will not be impeached. What's your take on this?
Well, the problem of the present situation is the air of uncertainty and this can be ended either by the President resuming his office or he being declared incapacitated. Impeachment is an indictable offence and if you're ill, it's no fault of your own and so, impeachment may not be right.
I will say that it is either he resumes office or the cabinet declares him incapacitated or if he can't, he resigns. But another thing is that, there is vacancy in the office the Vice President and this cannot be filled while the Vice President is Acting President. So, instead of having a two man presidency, what we have now is a one man presidency and even the section of the country, which provided the president, has nobody. But it will be in their interest if that position is made substantive, and somebody else is put to support him, unless the President is coming back soon.
Otherwise, the country will suffer if one man is carrying out all the functions. He's still carrying those constitutional roles as Vice President with additional President's schedule as Acting President. So, it's not a job for one man when things are going well, let alone in a country where we need all hands on deck.
You talked about the President being declared unfit and the only organ or body that can do this is the Federal Executive Council but this body has been branded and called several names by different people on account of its refusal to do so. Do you really think it is up to the Federal Executive Council to declare the President incapacitated?
The constitution gives them that power and I think at one point, they(former FEC) were getting to it. And since the elders of the nation and the former president has spoken that this situation is not right, they had to regularize it. I think they would have summoned the courage to do so. It is not anti- Yar'Adua, nor anti-PDP nor anti-anybody.
It is the interest of everybody that a regular government must be in place to carry the burden which this country is contending with. So, I think they have to do it when they have to do it, unless the President is able and well enough to come back to effective governance.
Whether the President will be able to come back is what nobody knows, but it appears the North is not comfortable with the arrangement of making the Acting President the substantive president .
Well, the North will lose as well because we are all Nigerians. We are all the losers. Like I told you, one man is now doing the work of two powerful people. The country is the loser because there is a limit to what a man can do with our security, political and economic challenges. One man is not supposed to do all those jobs, so, we are all the losers including the North. And a sick president is of no use to them either.
If they have a seated Vice President, it will be good to them than a sick president. It's a no win situation for anybody; whether you are North or South, it's not a comfortable situation. The country is not moving and other countries are just laughing at us.
Is that why you talked about the issue of uncertainty?
Yes, there is uncertainty because nobody is happy. Elements of the North and South are not happy; activists in the civil societies are not happy too. So, who is happy, who is gaining from this business? Nobody, except for those you've been calling the cabal.
The Acting President has been taking some steps, he appointed an advisory committee and recently changed the National Security Adviser and also sent requests for six more Special Advisers to the National Assembly. How do you regard this?
In my own view, you can have movement without motions. The re-cycling of the old generations is not the best way forward. We need fresh ideas, fresh brains, fresh inputs and with the recycling of the old generations, it's going to create more problems because they also come with their own baggage, their own bias, prejudice and quarrel, but if it will help the Acting President to stabilize, why not. But I think there are too many bodies, too many cooks spoil the broth.
How do you react to his dissolution of the Federal Executive Council Wednesday, which many people believed was long overdue?
It is an interesting development and it is a good step by the Acting President to reconsolidate his hold on the administration. The calibre of persons he nominates as ministers for Senate confirmation will indicate the trend of his new team.
What kind of people do you think he should appoint?
He should move away from recycling dead firewood and instead chose a team of people who have something new to offer.
What do make of the recent appointment of General Aliyu Guasau (rtd) as the new Security Adviser considering the fact that, just before Yar'Adua came back, he was one of the candidates being pushed for the position of the Vice President in case of Jonathan becoming the substantive President?
Well, I'm surprised that he accepted the appointment, but there must be a reason and I don't know whether the Jos crisis has anything to do with it. I talked about recycling, I'm sure there are very bright and capable people who can do that, otherwise, they will never make progress. They come with old ideas, which may not have worked; if they worked, why were you changed; if they didn't work, why not try fresh hands instead of recycling. Maybe it's a temporary move.
Maybe it's for experience sake?
How do you get experience, if you are not exposed. Did he have experience before he was first appointed? No. There are many people who are in the system and outside the system, who have held security jobs in the establishment who can be National Security Adviser. Why didn't they go back to MD Yusuf, what of Shinkafi; so, if you are looking for Security Advisers, they are many.
Do you think his appointment has anything to do with the calculation of the 2011 presidency?The calculation of whom, that is the question?
But the North didn't appoint him. If they influence the Acting President to appoint him, then, that becomes his own responsibility. It didn't help him the last time, because he contested the primary with Yar'Adua, unfortunately, he came third after Yar'Adua. I'm sure he's a competent and good man but I hope it's just for a short while.
As I said, he was one of those mentioned to occupy the position of Vice President just before Yar'Adua returned. How do you situate this?
Many people have been mentioned. After all, at the convention where Yar'Adua was chosen, there were 14 candidates. It's a free country, people can aspire. Many names have been mentioned, but not all those names will make it.
2011 is approaching and you are a member of the BOT of the PDP and the national chairman of the party said that the Acting President should forget anything about 2011 presidency. What's your reaction to this because people have said if Jonathan performs, why not ?
You don't put the chart before the horse and you can't cross the bridge before you get there. Jonathan has a massive task of moving the country forward, if he guarantees that in one year, I think he deserves to go and rest.