Kimse Okoko is a former President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC) and a retired professor of Political Science at the University of Port Harcourt. He spoke with some journalists in Port Harcourt, Rivers State Tony Ita Etim was there for The UNION. Excerpts.
How will you rate the image of Nigeria in the international community after a successful transition from civilian to civilian government and the role played by former President Goodluck Jonathan?
There was a huge apprehension on the part of many countries in the world that the post 2015 general elections in Nigeria will be very problematic. That would have also affected the survival of the country as a nation. That was the feeling of quite a few countries. But we overcame all that. First of all, I will agree that the election was generally peaceful and I thank God for that, but they were massively rigged. Secondly, conceding defeat by former President Jonathan was a total surprise to me and many observers both nationally and internationally. For those who know Jonathan, he is a man who means what he says. He said nobody should spill anybody’s blood for his political ambition. He meant it. He has always said that even when he was the governor of Bayelsa state. I think this statement was what saved Nigeria from the chaos that would have followed the election, chaos that would not have known where it would have led Nigeria to. It would have led this country to a situation where the very corporate existence would have been adversely threatened. That singular act on the part of Jonathan demonstrated his love in democracy. And it is a legacy that will stand the taste of time. It was statesman-like. It was courageous. I said courageous because there would been people who would have encouraged him to challenge the results in court. But he stood firm and damned all that by conceding defeat. That is the greatest demonstration any politician in Nigeria especially giving the implication of the act. It is the greatest demonstration of his love for the country. Jonathan will be remembered for that legacy by the whole world for a long time. Nigerians must be grateful to him for saving our citizens from untold hardship.
Is this demonstration of political statesmanship enough to take us away from the class of pariah nations?
It removes us from the class of African leaders who refuse to exit from power in the face of whatever reasons they have. It is a lesson to those sit-tight presidents and prime ministers in Africa. Nigeria would no more be classified among those countries again. We will not be considered as a pariah nation any more as far as democratic norms are concerned. We have fulfilled the requirements of democratic practice by that singular act of Jonathan. The international community will look at us in that good light.
Why do you think Nigerians suddenly become so attracted to vote for a man who truncated democracy 32 years ago?
As far as I am concerned, there is no question in my mind that the election was massively rigged. There is no doubt about that at all. If you listened to the post-election comments it became very clear from north, West, East and the South, that elections were massively rigged. When that becomes obvious, it is therefore clear that no serious analyst will say that there was an overwhelming support for a particular candidate. No. The elections were massively rigged and there is absolutely no question about that. In saying so, I am not saying that he (Buhari) does not have support. He had support in his constituency which is the north in particular. It will be wrong to say he had overwhelming support from Nigerians because the elections were rigged. It implies that we have to still work very hard if we want to reep the benefits of democracy. The citizenry of this country are sufficiently educated to appreciate the need for elections to be free and fair. We must have to resist the rigging of elections in this country. If we are not able to do that, then we will continue to wallow in this pool of sectionalism that does not do anybody any good. We will continue to play the ethnic cards in our political process. It will continue to draw us back. INEC in the future should go the whole hog to take the bull by the horn by introducing e-voting. This will eliminate the problem of rigging. Electronics voting must be part of our solution to ending rigging in Nigeria. INEC must strengthen itself and have the system to institutionalize e-voting. They introduced permanent voting card and card reader machines, yet there was this massive rigging. The permanent voting cards in some cases were given to a particular individual and not distributed to their owners. Rigging started right from there. Thump-printing is still widespread. Changing of election result is still widespread. Under-age voting is still widespread especially in some parts of the country. These are the ingredients of election rigging. So long as we remain the way we are, this country will continue to be under-developed.
That sounds like an indictment of Chairman of INEC, Professor Attahiru Jega?
A tree cannot make a forest. Jega in Abuja cannot be everywhere in this country. He is a man of integrity and we knew him to be that because he belongs to our fold: political scientists. He cannot police the entire country if he does not have credible lieutenants. That is partly responsible for the electoral problems we encountered. It is not Jega that will send electoral materials to the interior parts of the country. Be that as it may, he has to accept responsibilities because he is in charge.But there are people who were given that assignment who failed to performed. If it is shown that his house was not in order which was not really in order because there were issues of nepotism by the way appointments were made in INEC, questions were asked concerning this. When you start on this note, then there will be problems. INEC was not in order even before the elections started.
Besides insecurity and economic low turn, what do you think is the main problem Nigeria is facing today as a nation that needs to be fixed immediately by the Buhari government?
Security is a major problem itself. But to me, if we don’t tackle corruption in this country, we have not started. Corruption is so ingrain in this country and the civil servants that were supposed to be the engine room of government are very corrupt. They implement policies and if they so embroiled in corruption, what do you expect? Corruption has even permeated the private sector, so we are in a real dilemma. It will be worse if the leadership of the country does not live by example. If there is doubt by Nigerians that a certain leader has failed in the integrity test, then we should do something about it otherwise we cannot tackle corruption. Throughout the entire gamut of this society, we have created a mindset that corruption is here to stay. Everybody wants to be part of that process. There are exceptions though. Those in position of authority, those in government have all have their hands soiled by this incredible level of corruption in this country. The situation is systemic. And if it is not treated systemically, we will fail in tackling it. When something becomes systemic, it becomes difficult. I hope the present leadership will muster the courage to tackle it right from the root. We are watching.
Within and outside Nigeria, Buhari is the man that is believed to have the magic wand of fighting corruption, yet he is alleged to be surrounded by about 80 to 90 per cent of corrupt people who aided him to power. Don’t you think his hands are tight already?
Being a military dictator or head of state is different from being a democratic president. There are so many checks and balances and you cannot act with a magic wand by giving orders and expect them to be followed. Even the Nigerian military now is something else. You saw when some soldiers deserted their ranks in the ongoing war against Boko Harm. That is unheard of anywhere in the world. Buhari knows and he ought to know that those around him are basking in corruption. He knows that he would be confronted with the forces that encouraged corruption. It is heart-warming to say that he said he is for everybody and he is for nobody. Only time will tell. If he sticks to that statement, he should be able to damn everybody and do what is right especially in the fight against corruption. I want to appeal to him that he keeps to his promise of publicly declaring his assets. That will be the beginning of people’s perception about him. The perception may change from that very moment. He should damn every bad advice from the people surrounding him. Declaring his assets publicly will beat his minister along the line and people will begin to see his seriousness in fighting corruption. I don’t want to over-labor myself on insecurity. My greatest concern here is the systemic corruption that has crept into our national fibre.
“I belong to everybody, I belong to nobody”, what do you understand by this extract from the President’s inaugural speech and what is its implication?
It is a very powerful statement if he can keep to it. It is going to be of a tremendous help to him in the fight against corruption if he can keep to it.. He seems to say that, yes, I have been elected, people voted for me, people contributed money for my election but I am not going to be bound by the activities of these individuals and if any of them is found to be corrupt, for example, I will be in the position to deal with him according to law. He is saying that I am here to unite everybody, unite the country and every Nigerian. If people see him to be despotic and ethnically inclined then people will not see him as a serious person. That statement is the most important statement Buhari has ever made and I want to pray that he succeeds in actualizing the statement. He says that he will be fair in equitable distribution of appointments, fair in the distribution of social amenities and infrastructure. All the regions of the country must be equally treated and fairly too. But unfortunately, I don’t see the statement injecting fears into the lives of the corrupt people around him, knowing who Nigerians are. The battle against corruption is going to be extremely difficult. But we want him to succeed and we must pray for him to succeed. He must prove to Nigerians that he meant what he said. It will not be long for us to know the truth. It will start from the appointment of ministers and others that will work with him. The moment he takes a wrong step first time round, that becomes a huge problem. He has no choice than to implement that statement.
Buhari has promised to develop the Niger Delta region, President Jonathan was there for six years yet could not bring development to the region, what is your take on this?
Only time will tell if Buhari himself was sincere with that promise. That is all I have to say about that. As I have said before the Niger Delta did not benefit significantly from Jonathan government. There is no question about that. Unfortunately, one of the most glaring landmarks is the East/West road which has not been completed up till now. As I drive through the road, I have not seen any work going on there again. That is a tragedy. Jonathan was doing so because he did not want to be seen as favoring the Niger Delta alone. He realized this when he said he would make amends in his next coming (second term). Unfortunately, his next coming did not come around. Niger Delta is still largely what it was yesterday and today. You can see that there is still excruciating misery in the Niger Delta. You can still see oppression against the people of Niger Delta playing out daily. While we are fighting corruption, if the country is not restructured on the line of truly federal system, we will still not arrive at the point we want to get to. If we continue the way we are, it will be very difficult to fight against corruption. The laws of the country also encourage corruption because the concentration of wealth and power lie at the center. This clearly encourages corruption. If this administration wants to succeed in fighting corruption and quickly too, it should restructure the country along true federalism. This government must also implement the report of the last national conference to move this country forward. If they think they can ignore the recommendations of the conference and they want to fight corruption, it will be difficult. The composition of this country as it stands compounds the problem of corruption.
There is a speculation that President Buhari may make himself the next Minister of petroleum the same way Obasanjo did. How do you see this development?
Obasanjo left this country worst than he met it. He made the country more corrupt. He left the NNPC badly corrupt when he imposed himself as the minister of petroleum. Obasanjo sat over the rottenness of the NNPC. He was the doyen of corruption in NNPC when he remained as minister for seven years or so. He arrogated to himself the Czar of NNPC and left the place even more stinking than it was before. My problem with Buhari taking over the ministry is whether he will have the time to do the job that is required. NNPC requires a complete overhaul to function well. May be Buhari wants to do that because he does not see anybody who he can trust to handle it. Maybe he wants to do that for one or two years and then set NNPC on the right path before he appoints somebody else. If it is that he does not see somebody with high integrity, then it will be a problem for him. There are still men of high integrity in this country and we know ourselves. I think he sincerely wants to see that NNPC which is one of the bastions of corruption is cleansed. But he will not have enough time with other daunting problems confronting the country to cleanse the NNPC.
In the face of reported move by Buhari to probe corrupt institutions, Jonathan urged Buhari to extend his probe beyond his administration to that of Obasanjo. Do you agree to this?
I think it makes sense to say that Obasanjo government should also be probed because that administration was as bad and as corrupt as corruption itself. It was very evil. For people not to accuse Buhari of witch hunting, the suggestion may be a good idea to probe the two governments. I don’t see any reason for him to want to probe the Shagari government because Shagari was a good man. I am fully in support of him probing Obasanjo because he will learn a lot about that rotten and evil Obasanjo administration. If the president decides not to waste his time probing past administrations, so be it. Let him do the right thing. That is what Nigerians want to see. They want result and positive one at that. Obasanjo was dictatorial even as a civilian president. His activities in Odi community, his activities in Zaki- Ibiam, his whimsical policies, his erratic mannerisms are not in conformation with democratic norms. Democracy needs a good headed leader. It requires a thorough examination of policies and programs before they are implemented. It respects the various organs of government and does not require the centre to lord it over other arms of government. It requires checks and balances. These were absent under Obasanjo’s administration because of his wrong tendencies. He almost implemented his evil third term agenda. If he had succeeded, he would have gone ahead to implement the fourth term and the sixth term and so on. But he was stopped from this mad agenda. Thank God Nigerians stopped him in his evil track. These are the characteristics of military nuances that Obasanjo introduced into his civil rule. He will fail even in his attempt to surreptitiously be in power in his dark room enclave.