‘I warned that terrorism in Nigeria could go deadly’
Senator Ben Obi is the Special Adviser to the President on Inter -Party Relations. In this interview, Obi says he warned as far back as 12 years ago (2001) that terrorism in Nigeria could turn deadly. According to him, his experience motivated an anti -terrorism bill he initiated eight years ago in the Senate. He also speaks on President Goodluck Jonathan’s plan for Nigeria this year, Igbo leadership and the potentials of the country achieving Vision 20:2020, among other national issues. Excerpts:
Insecurity has become a major issue in the country. How did we find ourselves in the unsavoury situation?
The truth here is that when the issue of terrorism came to this country, it was completely at the worst state. We were unprepared for it. Nobody ever believed that, in Nigeria, people could tie explosives around themselves and blow themselves up.
I was in Washington when terrorists carried out the 9/11 attacks. I was held up there for one week because they stopped us from flying back (to Nigeria) due to the attacks. I went to attend a meeting at the Pentagon, I was there with the National Security Adviser. When I came back, I made a report to the NSA that ‘now that we have seen a new dimension of terrorism taking place in America, it will only be a question of time before we will experience it in Nigeria’.
So, when I went into the Senate, which I had to battle in court for two years after my mates were sworn in June 2003, I got sworn -in on February 2005, by 15 March 2005, I had put in two bills: one had to do with the establishment of anti- terrorist agency and eradication of terrorism. I gave reasons why the bills should be passed.
In the course of it, President Obasanjo directed his Attorney General, Bayo Ojo, to send in an executive bill after my bill had gone through the first reading. After the first reading, my colleagues from the North called me and said they were not comfortable with the bill, and they asked if this was sponsored by Israel. I told them that terrorism does not know colour. So they set up a committee to look at the bill, went through it and found out it was an innocent bill and a good one.
Meanwhile, I had recommended and pleaded with Professor Jubril Aminu to second a motion on the bill; Aminu was the Nigerian Ambassador in Washington when the 9/11 happened, and he was the one who spoke on behalf of ambassadors (to the US) to President W. Bush condemning the terrorist act. The bill passed the second reading before we left the Senate. I’m happy today that the process of passing the bill is on the way.
In the first week of the year, President Goodluck Jonathan assured that 2013 will be better than last year. But majority of Nigerians are not convinced because the same rhetoric have been repeatedly made by him. What is your take on this?
The president explained the situation, and I think he has given his word as president of the country, that 2013 would be a better year than 2012. And I want Nigerians to believe that it is not easy for a man in the position of the President of Nigeria to make such a declaration, I can vouch for him. Because there are several things that he has advantage of knowing ahead of all of us, so I believe that 2013 would be a better year.
During the presidential chat late last year, he had to take stock of the activities from the beginning to the end of 2012. You would also agree that no matter how much detailed report given by newspapers, people will still say that they are not satisfied. Being a president does not make him a super human being. There are so many things that are on the table of the president that a good number of us are not opportune to go out and verify.
And there are so many information also available to the Mr President that are not appropriate to let out for various reasons. Some of them may be security. But then, these are things that affect the day- to- day lives of Nigerians. When it becomes a security issue, it is advised that you don’t go into such things until certain things are put in place. So, once you occupy the seat of the President of Nigeria, there are several things people would want to know from you about the state of the country. Just because people are yearning to know these and you decided to let go, the reactions may be devastating.
Politicians would tell you that votes now count. That means that aspect of our national life is improving. We must be able to get our electoral process right. If we are able to put it together as it is being done now, the power sector, transport, then our industries and factories can come back to life. What that would cause is employment for the youths and the quest to be part of violence, terrorism or vandalism as being constituted by evil doers would drop.
The transformation agenda would bring clear changes that would impact on the lives of the Nigerian people. It is on course and I believe that is part of the reason the president said we will see a better 2013. Some people don’t even pay their tax; yet they want to enjoy the benefits of government. Where would the money come from? Above that, we have a country, and we want this country to be united, we want this country to grow. We will go into the year and be able to do an appraisal of 2013 to see if things have really started to improve. So I believe that for a man in that position to say to his fellow countrymen that things would improve, I believe things will improve.
You mean Nigerians should be optimistic when all we had in the past were empty promises?
When former President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power, people were saying he was harsh. When we had the eight years of his tenure, Nigerians said he was high handed because, as a general, he came with the tactics of the military. And people were saying we needed a democratic president. They said we needed a president with human touch and human face. Then came the Yar’Adua administration and people were saying,’ oh, now we are getting it’. And then President Jonathan came on board.
I am happy because I am serving under President Jonathan, because I try in my own interactions with him to see if we can try to govern this country using democratic elements. We know that he is the Commander- in-Chief, but let us see if we can do without applying that touch of commander-in-chief to make him bring down heaven on Nigerians, for any reasons whatsoever.
What I am trying to say is that Nigerians are saying’ no, we don’t want this high handedness’. Gradually, President Jonathan is trying to make sure that things are done properly, he reviews and consults before taking decisions on issues. Knowing my colleagues in the political arena, everybody counts himself very important. Everybody says he/she is a stakeholder. So, based on that, we try to make as many consultations as possible to be able to get the right answers. We may not be hundred percent in the results of the consultations, but at least people agree with us that they are being consulted.
And the issue of corruption that ex-President Obasanjo noted is not being fought thoroughly…?
There are agencies mandated to address the issue of corruption. My own simple position is that those agencies have not come straight to Nigerians that the tools they work with are being denied them. I am also conscious of the fact that in the days of Obasanjo’s administration, I was one of those legislators that quarreled with the impeachment of some governors with less than two thirds members in attendance – in Plateau, Oyo and Ekiti- which was virtually spearheaded by the EFCC. I am not saying that the governors were not corrupt, but, as a legislator, I believe that an impeachment can only succeed with votes of 2/3 of the assembly and nothing less.
It happened even in Anambra State when the legislators relocated to Asaba. As long as I remain an adviser to President Jonathan, I would advise him to give the agencies the tools to work. They have their own rules of how to go about it, so they should fight it just to make sure that the result is there, clearly that there are no issues as far as the constitution is on ground, nobody is above the law.
Everybody must be subjected to the law of the land. Whoever is found wanting, let the full sledge hammer of the law come upon him. And once the president tells you to do that, which he is doing now, nobody wants the president taking over the duties of the EFCC. We have to draw the lines. But if the EFCC comes up to say that they’ve not been funded, they don’t have the tools to work and they are being denied this or that, that is a different ball game. Then you can see President Jonathan battling corruption. People must not expect President Jonathan to play a role you find some former presidents playing in their tenure.
The postponement of the PDP Board of Trustees election and the ouster of a key member of the party give room for pundits to believe that there are intrigues going on in the party?
PDP is a huge political party and, for anyone to effectively manage the affairs of the party, more so when you want to play a more speculative role for the growth, you need to really scrutinize the BoT members, to know which of them would really uplift the credibility of an ambassadorial committee. So, if it is going to be the chief adviser, then that person must be able to carry the tag of a party like the PDP. So, when things like these happen, I am not surprised. For me, it is nothing unusual.
You were at the forefront of the agitation to immortalize the late Odumegwu Ojukwu and you advised the Igbo to wait for President Jonathan’s decision on 2015 presidency. What message are you trying to pass across?
Igbo people don’t really believe in a monolithic leadership. It has always been a collective leadership. Odumegwu Ojukwu’s case was different because he found himself leading the people at a particular time that was quite volatile. And he was gifted. he was a teacher, he was a fighter, he was an orator, he was a courageous administrator. And he loved his people; he came from an aristocratic home, but settled with the people. He came from an aristocratic background to help his people and then chose the philosophy of showing the light where the people could find their way. That was a different era. And, of course, he was a man who had style and tradition, so all of that counted.
He never went out of his way to declare himself Igbo leader. I can say this authoritatively because I was actually one of his closest friends for many years. In fact , he hated the word “leader”, he would like you to say ‘i am a responsible citizen’. Yet he found himself playing a major role and leading the people.
In talking about leadership, don’t forget we also have Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who is very highly regarded. Because of Ekwueme’s emergence at the national level, it would really be difficult to place him as an Igbo leader. He was the vice president of Nigeria, and it would be relegating cocooning him into that small area of the region. I am not looking up to anybody to emerge as an Igbo leader, because Igbo are big and they don’t have leaders. Leadership in Igbo land is more of a collective thing.
We are looking and working toward Nigeria as one of the top 20 countries in the world in 2020. Do you think we are still working in that direction and is it achievable within this timeframe?
Government is programmed to actualize that dream. Again, it is not an easy effort for Nigeria to be one of the 20 economies of the world by 2020. But the potentials to achieving that is on the ground. We only need to do the right thing and that is why President Goodluck Jonathan came with the transformation agenda. It is only through the transformation that we would be able to get our acts right. But if we don’t key into the transformation agenda, we go back to our system of doing things, it is clear that we would go into our old habits. And once we are able to do that in two years, a lot of things would change. And because Nigerians are very active in doing things, I don’t see how we cannot do that.
However, we should also be conscious of the fact that all the other countries are not static. If we want to overtake them, they are also on the move. I am conscious of that fact. Now look at one major issue in Nigeria developmental stride. The issue of electoral process. At least, today, Nigerians must give credit to President Jonathan. The first time a sitting president would say, ‘listen to me, let nobody rig election for me. No Nigerian blood should spill because of my election. If I lose, I only go back to where I came from!’. And ever since then, he has stood by the truth in the Nigerian electoral process.
In Edo State, he mandated me to go there to ensure the constitutional rights of the people on free and fair elections. I went there and did a workshop and told them that President Goodluck Jonathan, though a PDP member, had no interest in who emerges as governor and that the process would be free, fair, transparent and credible. And I went there and I did my workshop. And the candidates came.
At the end of the day, it was a free and fair election. When we got to the time of Ondo State, he called me again and said ‘go to Ondo State and conduct that sensitization workshop again, and tell them it is going to be a free and fair election’. To a large extent, the elections were free and fair in Edo and Ondo. President Goodluck Jonathan was the first to congratulate the two governors: one, ACN and the other Labour Party.
And I think the only way this country can develop and grow and become one of the 20 economies by2020 is for us to work hand-in-gloves and move on. I know Nigerians have suffered a lot. I am appealing to them to exercise a little bit of patience and we will get there.