Barr Uche Okwukwu is someone who is used to controversy. In fact he is never tired of stiring even new ones. Not too long ago, he said that he is an Igbo man like many other Ikwerre people if not alone. Only recently, he stood up in support of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Today, he insists that he is still the chairman of the ACN even if before the last governorship elections, he had told his supporters to vote for Gov. Chibuike Amaechi of the PDP. In this first part of The Tide Roundtable, a vintage Okwukwu talks about the ACN, its guber candidate, Dr Abiye Sekibo, the true origin of Ikwerres and in fact, explains how monies exchanged hands, before, during and after the general elections. It is a serial you cannot put away. This is just the beginning. Read On!
A lot has been said of your person, but very little is known of your early life. Who are you and where were you born?
I was born in Elele, in Ikwerre local government Area of Rivers State, into the family of Mgbu-Oba. I was at several times educated at St James’ Primary School, a Catholic establishment and from there, I went to County Grammar School Ikwerre/Etche, finished there, before proceeding to the Rivers State College of Education, now Ignatius Ajuru University of Education, Rumuolumini at the time affiliated to the University of Ibadan. Where I did Economics and Political Science. After that, I went to the University of Ife where, I read Law and was called to the Bar in 1995, I later proceeded to Danish Institute Demark, for my human Rights training in 1998. Equipped with this background, several times, I had the opportunity of addressing the United Nations (UN)in Geneva. I did that in 1998 while, presenting the case of the ogoni people. During Late General Sani Abacha maximum rule in 2004, I presented another peace talk in Geneva. I have also attended several courses in and out of this country, in Europe, the Americas and Africa. I am a lawyer and a politician, but with a different colour.
Being a Human Right activist, your crusades, most times, hovered around politicians and unsavoury political activities, how do you fit into a political party structure being a well-known human right activist, known to be critical of the political class?
There is no difference, the most important instructment in every society is power. It is only with power that you can change society. If you like, be a Priest, Lawyer, Sailor or Doctor, we need power to change society. Power does not necessarily have to be political. I am not talking in terms of becoming president or Governor. You (The Tide Editorial Board) for instance, have the power of the pen believe me, it is a huge power. Infact, you are the fourth estate of the realm. In most cases, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” Largely in Africa, the kind of power you need to change society is political because of the near monolythic structure of African Society. For that, from time to time, I have the conviction that I should participate in the political process to see if I can, use the process, to help change society. I am not out of tune, the founder of the liberation theology, Kabilo Toures, a priest once said that the hand that works is mightier than the lips that praise. I am not out of tune because revolutionary realists like Chekovera and others also identified with political struggle to change society. They all believed that Human Rights have to be advanced, and you can only do that when, there is in place, the kind of constitution that will help sustain democracy and rule of law in this country. Mind you, those that make the law are parliamentarians while, those that execute the laws are the Executives. You see, here I am.
In your brief resume, you dwelt principally on your academic accomplishments and a bit about your human rights struggles. Where and when did you start your political life?
I started my political life with the now defunct Social Democratic Paarty (SDP) in the third republic, in 1992, I was also a member of the old All Peoples Party (APP) now All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP),on which platform, I, in 1999 contested election into the Rivers State House of Assembly to represent Ikwerre Constituency and lost, not in the field but in the courts. The court of Appeal in its wisdom said I did not win. (Interception): Who contested against, you?
I contested against the present Governor, Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, like I said, the Court of Appeal said, I didn’t win and I should not be in the Rivers State House of Assembly. So, as a lawyer, by my training , I have since accepted the verdict of the court, particularly, when you do not have the right to appeal beyond that points.
Beyond that level in 2010,I emerged as the State Chairman of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN )the party, I am currently heading.
Chairman, during your introduction, you said you are a politician of a different colour. What colour are you made of?
I believe that within the African society, the kind of democracy that the colonial masters imposed on us was one predicated on values, respect for lives, respect for values, the values for respect, respect for public properties and ofcource law and order and I am desirous to see the glorious past reestablished. When I came in here,the memories of the past flashed. Back then in Elele, every day, my father subscribed to the then Nigerian Tide, and the vendor who sold him the paper daily was also called, TIDE. and I read the Nigerian Tide all days of my primary school, until when, my father died in 1980. When, I was in the secondary school. Today, of course you still see, The TIDE, it is still on, I was and still am very happy with those of you working here, you have, over the years shown huge respect for and loyalty to this institution as an important public institution and you’ve really been working hard to ensure its survival. That is the substance of core values I am talking about. I believe that if we have purpose-driven politicians and such also found themselves in governance, and who are in tune with this kind of ideas, ours would be a better society. For example, I attended a glorious primary school and I can say it was wonderful; I was provided with government chairs, in the first one, two years we were carrying chairs, and later government desks, I went to County Grammer School, Ikwerre-Etche, there too, I had government lockers, I had government uniform, I had government desks ,I ate in the dinning. I can go on and on, for, it was indeed a glorious past and for me it was communism at work or what is called welfarism which means that the entire society’s energy was being galvanised to run a society in such a manner that the gap between the poor and rich was truly narrow.
In those days, when, we found ourselves in Ikwerre Etche, there was not much gap between the poor and rich. When you wrote common entrance in a village school and somebody else wrote in Port Harcourt, both of you found yourselves in Stella Maries or Akpor Grammar School. So I believe that those ideas were glorious ideas taken from the African past, being translated, to a large extent, today. The present Governor of the State, is building schools without discrimination, nothing like this could be in the village or that in the township.
This is the kind of idea we had in the past. The standard of education was the same all over the state and I believed that if we work hard and establish a society like that, we would build a better society. That indeed is my colour of a politician.
Were these not the same values that you once said powered your human rights campaign? Why in politics now?
First and foremost in post war Nigeria, I came back to Rivers State as a refugee. Majority of us did also, and the reality that faced us was the reality of poverty, clear poverty and the environment was quite challenging. Then, severally I asked questions, what caused the crisis that led to the situation that we found ourselves. If found out easily that every crisis was born out of injustice, whether it is a regional, political or economic crisis, it is one part of injustice, oppression, intimidation and fear, it cannot only be the presence of combat that it is war, fear itself, is war. As I grew up, I had formal education, I equally saw all those ideas being duplicated, more so, I was born into a family that treasured values, rights, the truth and welfare of others. My father was a civil servant in the Risonpalm, it was initially called River State Agricultural Development Corporation, and later became Risonpalm. The company was in my town, Elele, before it was later taken to Ubima and of course I saw first hand, the challenges that the people faced. Even when they said, “come and pay N30 and go to school, (which was what we paid in those days to be in a boarding house), not many people went to school, because they couldn’t. I am not saying this because I am a lawyer today. I know people who were more brilliant than I was, in the primary school, who didn’t go to school because they were from a poor family. I have genuine and undying sympathy for such people in the society, I also know those who were in County Grammar school, Ikwerre Etche as I was but who could not proceed beyond that, not because they were not brilliant but because of their circumstances of birth. So, I was and still am desirous to have a society that can guarantee some kind of equality, with common rights as blanket starting point, but my idea about society and its growth emphasises that people get justice ,equity and equality to a large extent. Of course, you can agree with me that we now have considerable freedom, where, you can go to court and file motions and shout and bring out somebody from a police cell. We have a system we operate where, to a larger extent, the shouts of the weak are being redressed and if you apply your education, talents, experience and contact to help those who cannot help themselves to ensure that their rights to human integrity are protected, their rights to decent work and equal pay is respected and protected. All granted fall under the ambit of the human rights struggle, and I thank God that in his infinite mercy, he allowed me to understand what is involved in respecting others without minding where they come from or the language they speak, or religion, faith they react to and I still pursue these only, I now combine them with politics. Of course, you agree that there is only so much advocacy can achieve, but political power is a faster vehicle to effect societal change, in the interest of the weak and hopeless.
At what point and which specific development informed your realisation that this human rights advocacy alone could not get you where you had always wanted, except you combined it with partisan politics? Since you said you succeeded as a crusader.
Yes I did succeed as a human rights campaigner, but I did not say I required political power, at all cost but did say participating in the political process because there are different kinds of power. You, as journalists, have power. You can use the pen and make the man in the SSS to release a wrongly held citizen even if the Commissioner of Police disagrees with you. In doing that, you do not require political power. What you write may even have more effect than what you have to say because many people would read you than hear what the Commissioner of Police said. Chekovera, the legend once said because we love life, we must defend it.
It means that you cannot fold your hands and say you believe a particular thing without trying to identify with it. If you believe that an average Nigerian child should have the right to education, if I believe that our resources in this country should guarantee us access to employment, I know that political power is very important to address them, because it deals with allocations and use of resources, because when we come together and agree to have a social contract , we individually surrendered our own rights to be controlled; even our environment is given out, for the state to control, therefore, the total environment is state environment that is why there is law and order.
If they sell crude oil, they do not bring it to the individual, they put it in the state’s coffer. All this, is predicated on the principle of the Social Contract that the man who keeps and disburses public money must mange it equitably, for the common wealth. Therefore, if such a man deviates, even the process of replacing him, by appointing another is still part of the political process. So if you decide to participate, it in a political process, whether you write a feature and say things should be done this or that way, it is a political process, if you preach before the alter and even caution the king as Prophet of Nepal did to David, it is a political process. Mind you, I did not say that it is only the politicians that can influence or change a society. To influence and change things for the better, it is the duty of every body and in fact, if we fail, we all fail. For example, I have said times without number, under the military, even though most people will not agree with me, 70 per cent of the struggle to enthrone democracy was carried out by the journalists. They were writing, if you say something and it was not written nobody hears it.if somebody’s rights are violated, misappropriations found and nobody reads it, we all fail. So, you see, 70 per cent of the struggle against Abacha was carried out by journalists (you people) even though there is one Igbo parable that says,” If a man took a dog to the bush to hunt, upon return, it is the man that cooks the animal, even when the hunting dog comes, it is chased away, in the words after all, I took you for hunting.”
Journalists are the famous democrats as most politicians, lawyers are. Imagine this scenario, that doctor that naturally saves lives is inhibited by a law to do so. One such law was when police recently said that a person with bullet wound must first bring police report before treatment by a medical doctor. Whether right or wrong, good or bad law, it is a law, made by the political process.
When you eventually decided to participate in the political process what actually influenced your eventual choice of a political party? The ACN?
Yes, my ideological bias is pro-South West, I read the Sun Newspaper yesterday, that ideas move the world. Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo didnt run free education with his personal money. The man just woke and reasoned that unless something drastic was done the poor won’t have education and said no, he could not continue that way, if not, at the end, only the rich Yoruba would go to school, and the poor would not, because of non-affordability. So, he persuaded his people that had qualified as a lawyer in London, 1945, before starting politics and became Regional Premier, ‘I am comfortable’, he told his people but what will happen to the rest of the Yorubas, particularly, those from Ekiti, Ondo, poor farmers who do not have opportunity? Of course, school came to them late compared to the Ijabus, Egbas the Lagosians and the rest. Something needed to be done, so Awolowo had to tax the rich and put proceeds in the state fund and successfully ran free education. It is something unbelievable in the 1950s, it had never been experimented anywhere, in Africa, but they tried it, and it worked, today you may agree with me that the Yoruba tribe, including Delta and Edo to the present day Oyo, is the most adanced in terms of education, but can the South East pursue same policies.
You made the news during the April Governorship elections campaign, from the ACN’s perspective, for the wrong reasons, when you pledged support for Gov Amaechi instead of Dr Abiye Sekibo, your party’s candidate. Some said you were bribed to defect, and therefore, sacked by your party but your loyalists dismissed such accusations as the pot calling kettle black. What really happened?
I led the campaign of my party in the 23 local government areas of the state as Chairman and to a large extent, the ACN moved ahead. Unfortunately, many Rivers people, thought differently about the governorship. For the records, during the National Assembly election, I was in my village in Elele and ofcourse it is on record that I delivered my ward and unit in spite of all because I did my homework. But many people said that the incumbent governor has set in motion laudable things that are very difficult for any other person to handle, properly. And it was their thinking that he be let to finish those projects he had set in motion, so they could judge how far he could go between the and 2015, because the projects are not only mega in nature, in character, and in content.
The monorail for example, does not exist anywhere else in any part of Africa. The whole idea is of Rivers State; the new campus of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Greater Port Harcourt and the Karibi-White mega hospital are others. He is the one who conceived these ideas so to avoid something like a gap between ideas conceived and implemented or even a stop because somebody did not agree with the idea and concept. “Yes, the projects may not be all be perfect ideas, but let them progress with the serving Governor,” was the message I got from a large number of people of Rivers State. But I did not stop there. I also discussed with some very senior journalists in the State who also repeated the thinking of Rivers people based on their own independent findings, that Amaechi be allowed to rule till 2015. By then, they would have been able to see what has been done of the mega hospital, Greater Port Harcourt,monorail and so on and so forth. Of course, I explained this to my party, ACN but being a political party, you can be sure they would not accept, but the truth about my person is that, in all of my life, I have always submitted to and agreed with superior ideas. So, based on self conviction, what I said before the election, after very wide consultations, was that my believers should join me in expressing my respect for superior ideas and vote for the incumbent Governor Amaechi.
I was mindful because the issue was a sensitive one and many would label me a thorn-coat or outright betrayer,’ that was why I said, “those who believe in Uche Okwukwu should vote for the incumbent Governor, but should vote ACN for the House of Assembly seat in my constituency. Even so, I have been called several names, I do not bother myself on that because even General Powell, a leading Republican, and former Joint Chief of Staff of the USA, encountered the same problem during the elections that ushered in President Barack Obama. Powell had had a personal consultation with top fellow Republicans, stated publicly that he believed Obama, and not his party’s candidate McCain, had very well clear-cut idea of what America needed.
He said, Obama has clear cut idea of what he wants to do in America.
As it was in my case, he too found it very difficult to convince the rest, because Obama, being a black with a Muslim background was indeed a hard-sell coming out from both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
He told them still that he believed Obama had great plans for America and since that was what the country wanted he begged that his Republican folks should give him a chance to follow his heart.
Of course, they rejected him, So, he said well, I Powell will vote for Obama. Today, Powell is still a member the of Republican Party. The Republicans knew that he took a personal decision, so they said, we will not kill him. They did so because they knew every political decision in this world is a collection of personal decisions. So, every political action is also personal. You bear the burden and bliss of it.
And I have said, if anybody read my interview, previously in some National dailies, my position was clear, the people said they wanted to allow Ameachi till 2015 after 8 years. Period.
Powell was not chairman of the Republican Party, you were a party chairman and in that position you took an oath not to allow your personal decisions to affect your official conduct. Since your decision ran contrary to the party’s agenda, was it not anti-party? Was that why you did resign as chairman of ACN in Rivers State?
I did not resign as the chairman of ACN. I did not resign as the chairman of the party at all.
Why not, was your personal position the decision of the party?
No, not decision of the party, but I consulted widely and called the leadership of the party to a meeting and I told them this, ‘we should not do things for the fun of it, we must as much as possible be with the people, I mean greater percentage of Rivers people. This is their opinion. “I told them, and of course with great respect, the person who contested the House of Assembly elections in Ikwerre Local Government Constituency is here and alive to attest to this. In the meeting I called, I told them the opinion of the people of Rivers State to allow Amaechi continue with the mega projects he has started, whether it is right or wrong let us allow him to go on with projects till 2015, so that he would be able to achieve over 50 per cent success before any other person can come on board because any other Governor may not agree completely with his concept and ideas, or, he may agree with it but may not go on with the same speed that the man who conceived the idea would have gone about it. But if you have 50 per cent (on ground) of a particular thing, whoever comes would be morally bound to pursue it. But if left at this stage, it may not be in the interest of the large majority of Rivers people.