Former Governor of the old Anambra State, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife, talks about the Biafra protests and the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in this interview with Leke Baiyewu, Punch reports…
Do you think releasing the Director of Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, is all that is needed to resolve the grievances of pro-Biafra protesters?
Everybody in government knows that the people of the South-East are aggrieved but the flashpoint is the detention of Kanu. Let me go over the issues the people of the South-East are complaining about: One, those who killed our people in the North in the name of Boko Haram or who have been imprisoned in the North after the election of (President Muhammadu) Buhari. People were speculating whether the attacks were the first action for Islamisation or not. People reacted so autonomously in every state of the country, yet the government did not act. Following that, 39 appointments were made by the new president – Out of these, there was none for the South-East. What does that say?
In a country that has six geopolitical zones and six principal offices, of which the SGF (Secretary to the Government of the Federation) is the least of them, the South-East was not able to get the SGF position. This is what made me to say that Buhari appears to be pushing the South-East out of Nigeria or making them (Igbo) think they are not welcome. We have made all efforts on these issues; we had cried and expressed our feelings. But on top of these, we saw his list of ministers and saw where we belonged in his calculation.
We are not going to continue to kill ourselves. With the recent events about the (pro-Biafra) protests where all idle youths in the South-East would block Onitsha, Owerri and other places if people can’t find their livelihood, who are the ones suffering? It is our own people.
God created Nigeria and gave Nigeria an assignment – to develop into a superpower and wipe away the shame of slavery from the face of all blacks. Look at Nigeria as it is now because of amalgamation. The South-East takes the whole country as theirs and we are developing everywhere. The development in every part of Nigeria, at least, is 50 per cent due to the South-East. If that is the case, why should the South-East go away and not help Nigeria accomplish its destiny? But we have a saying in Igbo that when you get to a stage that you are so insulted and you have no honour; that is when to quit.
If the Constitution says at least one minister should come from each of the 36 states of the federation, it means south-eastern states have their representatives in the current Federal Executive Council. What else are you talking about?
Before the appointment of ministers, 39 appointments were made and none of those appointees came from the South-East. And then, with all the noise made, the appointment of ministers did not favour the South-East, even with the appointment of the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Science and Technology and the rest of them. I see the President as an agent of endangering one Nigeria. I said so and I have no apologies for that.
If you think the South-East is marginalised under the new administration, how would you agree that the zone fared better than other zones, especially the South-West, under the last administration?
Nobody knows the difference between the South-West and I because I fought battles on behalf of the South-West for (MKO) Abiola. I have never been different from them (Yoruba). The South-West is moving to make Nigeria one but the President tried to form a coalition of North-West and South-West by his own design and his interests including some persons. The South-West discovered that they were about to be used. For example, it (the South-West) is the most sagacious part of Nigeria – many people know – whereas they knew there was no road where they were being taken. Now the president gave my friend, Babatunde Fashola, (Ministry of) Power, Housing and Works; three heavy ministries that are too big for one person. That is to tell Yoruba something.
Nigeria is bigger than any person and God loves the country. God designed Nigeria for unmatched success; politicians who don’t know the power of God are trying to mess up God’s design. If Buhari doesn’t revise his programme; if he doesn’t change, he will fail.
If the Igbo people in the South-East have grievances, do you think taking to the streets is the only way to make them known to the government?
I am not a street man; I don’t take to the streets; I don’t carry placards. I say what I know is true but some people have only gone to the streets to express their grievances. This country is blessed; this country is great. What we are battling with are things we don’t even have any control over. I was born into Christianity; I was a Christian on arrival; I was Igbo on arrival. I didn’t know where or who I was when they made me a Christian and gave me a name; so does Musa from Kano who doesn’t know when he became a Hausa/Muslim. Instead of focusing on development which God wants us to focus on, we are focusing on tribalism, religiosity and all manner of divides, which bring negative results.
If the pro-Biafra protesters are calling for secession and not how to resolve issues, are they not playing tribalism, which you are preaching against?
I don’t know what you are talking about. What I know is that people who have been marginalised; who are victims of injustice and unfairness are showing their anger. That was why I said Buhari is pushing the South-East out of Nigeria by ignoring their interests. These people who are protesting are protesting against the same thing.
Is it ideal for the protesters to begin a fresh push for Biafra at a time some Igbo leaders have warned that the matter should be buried?
We, Igbo, are republicans and independence-centred. We are still the most united people in Nigeria. More than 50 years out of federal power control, we are still very united. No other (ethnic) group has it.
What other options do you think are available to Igbo in resolving the issues affecting the people apart from protests?
After the (general) elections, an Igbo think tank worked every week for two and a half months and came up with what they called ‘Igbo Strategic Roadmap.’ The first programme in the roadmap is seeking the face of God. From there, we designed the things that will make our economy to grow. We also designed some (regional) integration with the South-South to the extent that the South-South would want it, making it clear that nobody wants to dominate anybody. We are about to launch the programme privately. Remember, we have voted with our feet for one Nigeria. Go to anywhere in Nigeria and you will find south-easterners there, building the place as if it belongs to them. If you go to anywhere in Nigeria and you don’t find an Igbo person, pack your things and go. We have shown it and it is not by chance; it is our tradition. We have a saying that ‘where you live, you mend.’ It doesn’t have to be where you were born; where you find yourself, you mend and develop. We have done this everywhere in Nigeria.
There are speculations that the pro-Biafra protests are actually a move against Buhari’s government, just as the South-East and the South-South geopolitical zones think the Boko Haram insurgency was to frustrate the Goodluck Jonathan-led administration. Is this true?
There is no link. When an eastern person was president, some people concocted insecurity by way of Boko Haram to get power back to the North. All northern people, including the Muslims, decided they must have it. Whether the northerners were in the Peoples Democratic Party or the other party, they voted for Buhari. When we discovered that, we clapped for them. We are not against anybody. God loves us and we will survive; we will succeed, whatever happens.
It appears that the South-East still bears resentment against the North but can you say that the Igbo have genuinely forgiven the northerners decades after the Nigerian civil war?
There is no animosity. Immediately the civil war ended, we trooped back to the North and started doing better things than we were doing before. We told the northerners, ‘we are here to stay.’ The better it is for Yoruba, the better for Igbo; the better for Hausa, the better for Igbo; the better for any group in Nigeria, minority or majority, the better for us. What is good for Nigeria is good for Igbo.
Why are the Igbo not pushing for the implementation of the 2014 National Conference report rather than constituting a think tank to design economic policies for only the South-East and South-South?
I was the governor of (the old) Anambra State and in my inaugural address, which title was ‘Think Home’, I said, ‘invest in the North, invest in the East, invest everywhere; invest also in Anambra.’ That was my ‘Think Home.’ We decided to ensure that the home economy is strong; strong enough that somebody from there will find it hard to leave for economic survival outside the East.
Do you think what is happening to the Igbo today is as a result of how they voted in the last general elections?
There is a Constitution which doesn’t say if you voted this way, there will be Federal Character; if you voted the other way, there will not be Federal Character. The Constitution has shown the direction. He (Buhari) swore that ‘I will uphold the Constitution’ not in regards to the voting pattern. As the governor of (the old) Anambra, I did not remember who voted me more than the other. I saw the whole state as my assignment. It will be very myopic to begin to think of how he was elected president; that is not expected of a president. Therefore, governance should not be about how the electorate voted.
After Buhari became president, do the Igbo people now have a different perception of him as regards good governance?
What we are dealing with now is actuality, not perception. We are dealing with the actions and activities. The actions of the president make us feel he shouldn’t have been president. If he says something, he doesn’t mean it. He said ‘I belong to everybody, I belong to nobody.’ It later turned out that he gave more to the South-West, and more to the North than to the South.
Did the Jonathan-led administration not give more to the South-South and the South-East than it did to the South-West?
I know you are trying to push words out of my mouth, otherwise, I know you know the story. The South-West was given adequate position. They (Yoruba lawmakers) went to the House (of the Representatives) and voted out South-West. It was a democratic system and it was sustained. Jonathan from the East – when I say East I mean South-South and South-East – gave more positions to the North in every way. He adopted appeasement mentality and strategy, giving them everything – positions and investments. We were not protesting; were very happy with the schools he built for the almajiris. The federal roads in the East, by the time he was going, were abandoned. Whenever you travel from Enugu to Port Harcourt, Onitsha or Asaba, you will see that eastern roads have been abandoned; even in the West (roads have been abandoned). We from the East are not a selfish people, whether it is Akwa Ibom or Rivers; we have voted for one Nigeria. Every part of the East has voted for one Nigeria.
The PDP has reportedly said it plans to correct its mistake of fielding Jonathan as its candidate in the 2015 presidential election by fielding a northerner in the 2019. Will this not dash the presidential hope of the South-East?
Whether it is the PDP or the APC, or any party whatsoever, our fate is in the hands of God. People can plan, God will dispose. For some of us, what is more important is our plan for the South-East to become economically strong, not what is coming from the Federal Government. It is in the interest of ordinary Nigerians that an Igbo should become president of Nigeria. This country will be developed.
For now, what is the plan?
I don’t know. We are still working on it.
Do you think Igbo are better off remaining in Nigeria?
Nigeria is better off with Igbo people remaining there (in the country); if there are more Igbo people, it will be the best. Igbo, having voted for one Nigeria and in consonance with their belief that where you live you mend, are not keen to leave Nigeria now. But as we say, it is not by force that we will make Nigerians have us with them. If they say no, we will accept no.
It is not likely that anybody will say no. At what point will Igbo review their being Nigerians?
If the kind of separation Buhari is doing continues, there will be a review.
Some Igbo leaders have urged pro-Biafra protesters to cease fire. Do you also believe in dialogue?
They should use only the legitimate means to demand for what they want, including negotiation, explanation and begging – begging with respect, not dishonourable begging. Igbo have voted for one Nigeria and God has an assignment for Nigeria, which requires Igbo participation to carry out. Igbo will not leave unless the dishonour is too much. Everybody knows that the Igbo have been honoured in the United States of America as one of the four groups that helped that country to greatness. For that, we have a village in Virginia. No other group in Africa (has such); no other group outside of the Irish, English and the Germans. A professor – I think he’s a German – came out with ‘the four greatest achievers in the world.’ Number one was the Jews; two, I think between Germans and British; three, the Chinese; four, the Igbo. This is no local talk; it is not a matter of boasting. Why should we leave when we have an assignment here? We should help Nigeria accomplish that assignment.