A lawyer and former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, speaks with TUNDE AJAJA on the Anambra State governorship election, the insecurity in the South-East and issues around the 2023 elections
The proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra previously ordered a sit-at-home from Friday because their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was not released but the group cancelled the order on Thursday, what were your fears about the election?
There are many elements to your question and I doubt I can do all of them equal justice. I would recast your first sentence somewhat differently. I’d rather say that a threat was communicated in the name of IPOB. IPOB in the context of the Anambra election was very much a franchise used by a motley group of people with divergent goals. There is a partisan IPOB, for instance, rented by some actors in the Anambra election with a design to ensure as much insecurity as was needed to procure an overwhelming security deployment, which they considered conducive to a predetermined outcome. That is quite clear and a lot of the insecurity towards the Anambra election was attributable to this tendency. It is almost certain that senior people in government at the federal level were aware of this. There is a significant element of network crime in this involving the drug cults and gangs of mostly Anambra Central, who are freelancing for the highest bidder. You also have a set of violence-preneurs who are also active in Anambra and whose provenance is traceable to Ebonyi State. The IPOB-Eastern Security Network also exists although increasingly, while there remains some sentimental connection with their underlying message, their command and control structure, if it ever existed, has frayed to the point of being non-existent. So, folks are doing what they wish, it appears. It is, therefore, difficult to say for certain from whom the threat to the Anambra election emanated as such although the suspicion remained strong that the threat could be from sources allied to one of the candidates in the election for election rigging purposes.
The police deployed over 30,000 policemen and other agencies deployed personnel too, how does that make you feel?
It is beyond shameful that the government deployed all these assets – 34,587 police officers, including five Assistant Inspectors-General of Police as well as 20,000 or so Civil Defence assets, not to mention soldiers, ostensibly to police elections in what is the second smallest state in Nigeria (Lagos is the smallest) in terms of land mass. You would have thought that if these assets existed, the government should have taken action long before now by deploying them to bring this thing to an end. By choosing to deploy them only for election purposes, the conclusion is inescapable that the Federal Government wanted to use them not to address the violence but to manipulate the outcome of the elections. To follow the installation of a manifestly illegitimate governor in Imo State with another criminally illegitimate governor in Anambra State will guarantee that there can be no end to the crisis in South-East Nigeria. Hopefully, the Federal Government will see sense in that but I have my doubts. The desperation is beyond evident.
What could have been done earlier?
All these troops and assets should have been deployed long before now. It is not as if the Anambra election is some kind of accident or surprise. INEC had given ample notice of the date. Why the police and Federal Government have only seen fit to act like they are only interested in elections and not in the people or in communities must be for them to answer. Don’t forget, the primary responsibility for security under the 1999 constitution belongs to the Federal Government. All the security agencies under that constitution are federal. So, if they care only about elections and not about people or about communities, there is really little I or anyone can say to affect this situation.
Despite the outrage over the killings and violence in the South-East and assurances by the security agencies, the attacks have continued. Why has peace been elusive in that region?
The South-East is part of Nigeria and peace is very elusive in Nigeria under the current government. Seven years ago, the crisis of violence was mostly confined to one geo-political zone or two. Now, only the South-West is spared something close to generalised violence. So, you have to ask yourself what has gone wrong. The irony is that this is happening under the President whose claim to fame was that as a General, he had ready-made solutions to Nigeria’s security crises. Clearly, Buhari is part of the problem, not part of the solution. So, the crisis in the South-East Nigeria has to be seen in the context of larger trends in Nigeria.
The other thing is that it also has to be seen in the context of the electoral failures in the region. It is not an accident that the rise in the crisis in the region is connected to the Supreme Court judgement which installed as governor, Hope Uzodimma. What this means is that he has neither the political incentive to do anything about the violence nor the authority to find solutions, even when those are not too far-fetched. So, this crisis has multiple aetiology and trajectories. There is not one theory that really explains it all.
Some leaders in the region have called for a political solution to Kanu’s issue but the Federal Government has even amended the charges, do you subscribe to a political solution?
The amended charges I have read are mostly laughable and that is notwithstanding the fact that the Terrorism Prevention Act asserts a framework of extra-territorial criminal responsibility. It appears clear to me that the design is to find an artifice to keep Mr Kanu detained for as long as possible. The problem with the so-called leaders in the South-East is that most of them have really not acted in a manner to accrue any political authority to themselves or to create the impression that they desire to be taken seriously. The other problem is that in fact, the regime at the centre thinks the idea of ‘political leadership’ in the South-East is an oxymoron. You can see that with the President going to inaugurate a gutter in Owerri. Or with the All Progressives Congress which has fewer than 35,000 members in Anambra State claiming to have had a primary in which over 320,000 people “voted”. To use a contemporary turn of phrase, they are just catching a cruise at the expense of the South-East.
On the sit-at-home order, the South-East governors have on several occasions asked the people to disregard the order but some of those who dared it were attacked. How come people seem to obey non-state actors and disregard directives of governors? Could it be that the people have lost respect for the governors or it’s the fear of being attacked?
Who says the people are ‘obeying’ non-state actors? When an armed robber points a gun at you and makes you surrender your purse or money or car or phones to him or her, you are not doing so because you are under an obligation to but you nevertheless feel obliged to because the alternative could be your demise, right? That is not much different with the sit-at-home. People are not going to willingly starve themselves for IPOB, but if they are going to be decapitated by local blood hounds or their businesses burnt because they are trying to go to the market to get something to eat, then they may give up their right to go to the market in order that they may live for another day. About the governors of the South-East and what they say and don’t say, the fact is they don’t even take themselves seriously on this and they know that. They have lost all authority. This is not the place for me to go into how and why.
The Chairman of the South-East Governors Forum, David Umahi, recently appealed to Rev Fr Ejike Mbaka not to criticise the President as they were making efforts for Kanu’s release. What do you make of that statement and do you see that approach working?
I will not waste my time on the multiple harlotry of Ejike Mbaka or of the political gigolos that importune him all the time. My problem remains how his Bishop in Enugu, Rev. Dr. Callistus Onaga, continues to tolerate this kind of wilful debasement of both the pulpit and of the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. As for Governor Umahi, I will not dignify that aspect of the question with an acknowledgement.
The debate has been ongoing over the region that should produce the next president and many people believe it should be the South-East while some say it should be left open. What is your view on that subject?
I wish anyone who wants to be president of this Nigeria well. I am not sure how anyone can hope to succeed as president of this arrangement, irrespective of where they come from. But the politicians are fixated on 2023. Let me ask you: how sure are you that there will be elections in 2023? Look, to conduct just the governorship election in Anambra, which is 0.51 per cent of Nigeria’s landmass and about 2.2 per cent of its population, we are deploying nearly 14 per cent of the police personnel. So, if you have to do elections on the same day in Kaduna, Zamfara, Katsina, Niger, Borno, Benue and Plateau states, will you borrow Gendamerie from Niger Republic and Chad too?
Some support groups have emerged in the South-West, pushing for the candidacy of Bola Tinubu and Yemi Osinbajo, even though they haven’t shown interest. But there’s nothing like that in the South-East. Some are asking; where are the south-eastern candidates or do you think it’s too early?
I don’t know about Osinbajo yet but Bola Tinubu has not hidden the fact that he wants to be anointed the next president of Nigeria. There are also stories about interested people from the South-East or have you not noticed them? Rochas Okorocha has been going around or have you not seen him? Orji Uzor Kalu has also been interested; Anyim Pius Anyim too. I have also heard that Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba (Minister of State for Education) is interested. And I am sure you have heard of Professor Kingsley Moghalu. So, the South-East is not short of interested people too.
Do you have some candidates from the region in mind that you would want to see occupy that seat?
That is a decision for Nigerians who have the right to vote and for the political parties who have the duty to present candidates on their platforms. Any list I give you now will be of neither candidates nor aspirants. So, of what use will it be? Electoral democracy is not a contest between whom you wish to have. Rather, it is a choice between the options you have in front of you. Remember, in 2000, Americans dearly desired to have Colin Powell on the ballot. He was unwilling to run and the choice ended up being between George Bush and Al Gore.
There are people who believe that the governance structure must be restructured before the next election otherwise nothing would change regardless of who emerges. That does not look feasible; what do you think?
Is it not a little late in the day for that? I have no doubt that you are right and there are indeed people who would like for some progress to be made on the restructuring agenda before the 2023 election. The reality is also that there may be even more entrenched interests against that, including the President and the ruling party or those who control it. If the APC were interested, they would have acted on the report of their own restructuring committee. The fact that nothing has come out of that report should tell you all you need to know.
The National Assembly has left political parties with no choice but to conduct direct primaries; some people believe that should be left for parties to decide. What is your view?
It seems clear that this decision was driven by one thing only: the narrow desire of the members of the National Assembly to protect themselves against what they (may) perceive as the overbearing control of the party machinery at the state levels by the governors. The assumption that direct primaries will preclude the governors from continuing such control or will diminish their control of the parties at the states is really not well-founded. Whether you have direct or indirect primaries, a governor who is determined to end-run a primary in the state or pre-determine its outcome will, except in an anomalous situation like Lagos State, almost end up having his way. So, I am not sure where the National Assembly is hoping to get to with this but they are entitled to try and fire a shot across the bows of the governors. We will see how far it will go.
Nigeria is faced with banditry, kidnapping, economic crisis, endless borrowings, corruption and many others; what are your fears or hopes by the time this government leaves in 2023?
All that you have mentioned here, in my view and assessment, are not exactly the problems of Nigeria; rather, they are examples of the symptoms of our underlying problem, which – in one word – is abysmal leadership and leadership replacement processes. As long as our leadership processes are as they are, these symptoms will continue to metastasize until eventually, like terminal cancer, they overwhelm the body (politic).