Basking on the euphonia created by the Obidient Movement and the success of the Labour Party, (LP) in the last elections, one of the brains behind the movement, Professor Pat Utomi, in this interview with GEOFFREY EKENNA speaks on the outcome of the 2023 general elections, the role of some old guards in whipping up ethnic sentiments, the opportunities missed, the unfortunate discoveries and other research necessary to be done to unravel what went wrong
What’s your impression about the two circles of election we had? Did it improve our democracy?
You know, either on the 28th or the 29th of February 2023, I took a working title for the book I was going to write. The title was, ‘We nearly saved Nigeria.’ Why the choice of that title? I mean, I have spent most of my adult life on a personal mission to create a more just society that is making progress, economically, and socially. So I’ve been an activist for 50 years, starting as a 17 years old undergraduate at the University of Nigeria in 1973. That course many times seems like a losing proposition; sometimes, flickers of hope, but I was persistent and my values, my principles, all of these things never waved out. You can see it in many struggles I’ve waged, whether it is my position on June 12 or the passion with which I fought to restore the mandate of Chief MKO Abiola. Or in how economic justice for the poor can come from decision-making in government and all of these. When the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was founded, I was at the table even though the concerned professionals had agreed that we would not ourselves go into politics, and those who disagreed, like Donald Duke and Waziri Mohammed, moved on to engage in it while the majority of us chose not to participate in politics. We were a civil society; we had an important role for a better society to emerge. However, Dr. Alex Ekwueme was the principal and most active person in the founding of the PDP in 1998. Because of my relationship with him, I was present at those early meetings. Therefore, at the founding of the PDP. As it turned out again interestingly, good friends came up with the argument when the nomination fight was taking place that it is important for us to influence the person who emerges in terms of the kind of policies that can make Nigeria a better place. That process led me to become head of the economy of the think tank of the advisory team of our candidate, Olusegun Obasanjo. I was the Chair, Ifueko Omoigui was Secretary. When I felt the PDP was going in a very wrong direction, I began to ask, my goodness, is this how we’re going to end up? Because those who should have gone into politics did not come in 1999 and so many accruals entered and oil prices went up as a result of it, those accruals used oil prices to erect a barrier entry into politics. We had a scenario where something needed to be done and I began to see very clearly and very publicly that the PDP was not now in a position to help us make progress.
What was actually done back then?
We needed an alternative track and I began to talk about a third force, a new way that invariably led me into contesting coming out to contest in 2006 against the 2007 elections. And old friends in the concerned professionals who had said we should not participate agreed that in principle we had made a mistake. Therefore we tried to create a new approach, a new way away from the dominant PDP and ANPP structure of the time. We knew it was a hard climb, but we were not going to let up or give up. In 2012, Leadership Newspapers invited me to give their annual lecture, Azubuike Ishiekwene was then the Managing Director of the Leadership Newspapers and they gave me the topic: ‘political parties.’ I thought this was the moment to make a case for a political party different from the PDP type. That lecture became really the first salvo in what became APC. Now, at the time that that process or that lecture was given on that day, on the high table, were almost all the opposition leaders. Bola Tinubu and Bisi Akande and others. I recalled when I finished giving the lecture because the podium was at the edge of the High Table and the person sitting in the last chair before me was Uncle Sam Amuka, Publisher of the Vanguard, who turned to me and say, ‘You’re deep.’ And I replied jokingly, ‘do you think I was shallow before.’ Anyway, to cut the long story short, Tinubu not long after came to me and said let’s go to Buhari and let’s build this thing that you’re talking about.
By that time it was already late technically in my view because, on the push of Chief Olu Falae, I used to say to Tinubu let’s go to Buhari and build a coalition that can redeem Nigeria from this PDP thing. By the time of that lecture, the 2011 election had taken place. The former British Deputy High Commissioner, Peter Carter, who was in Abuja when that election took place, I saw him nearly weep talking about the pain they felt trying to get Buhari to make the comments that’ll stop the killings. After that conversation with Peter Carter, I cancelled Buhari from my list. So, when Tinubu said to me let’s go and see Buhari, I told him I had given up on that game because I don’t see Buhari will bring good to Nigeria. I was significantly influenced by one long dinner conversation with Peter Carter. Tinubu went ahead and got back to me that he had had the first meeting and that Akande was with him. I said to him, that it was good to talk to Buhari but encourage him to nominate somebody else that people can support because I don’t think that he has the leaders to be able to show Nigeria a way forward; that I had promoted Chief Falae’s effort for us to build an alliance with Buhari in the understanding that at the very least, he’ll be a hot champion in the fight against corruption. Something I thought Nigeria desperately needed. So, if he didn’t do anything else and just fought corruption; we would have made some gains. Indeed at a point in time, Chief Falae’s mantra was ‘if we could work together, while he was chasing the thieves, you can set the tone on how to govern.’ And it was that mantra that had driven the original efforts to form an alliance with Buhari, even the Late Dr. Tunji Braithwaite got on the height of the point and we had so many meetings. I remember how many times I travelled to Kaduna. When 2011 happened, and I had that meeting with Carter, I decided that track was closed for me. Buhari could not offer what it’ll take to make Nigeria make progress. As I said, when Tinubu got back to talk about him, I said ‘can we get him to nominate somebody?’ I went as far as even suggesting someone he can nominate who is even from his own state and all of that. So, I suggested Usman Bugaje to Bola Tinubu and Tinubu’s remark to me after the first meeting they went to was that he also was trying to raise the issue of Buhari nominating somebody, and someone advised him to leave that one until an agreement is reached. From that to another and whatever games that these people play, they ended up with candidate Buhari and I said to him, we were in this with candidate Buhari and he failed us in 2011 when we were nearing consensus even around him and he suddenly did not show up anymore. That I’m convinced that Buhari will not be in any alliance, and that if he succeeds, that’s if Tinubu succeeds in bringing him in, he should take my support for granted. That’s how the 2015 coalition was built. But I told him clearly that I was very skeptical about where that was going. But not a surprise therefore, when that election was won, within weeks I said to him, this thing is going nowhere. We’ve just created a vehicle of state capture for some people and I quietly stepped away and stayed away. Bringing this history to answer the question you asked, when we returned to this concept of a Third Force and I began to work on it. My idea then was that we need a base pillar, and legs for this Third Force. And those pillars are the Labour Unions we must build an alliance with the NLC and the TUC. I got myself into that work. I made a presentation to their national working committee and all of that and to my pleasant surprise, on my birthday last year, the sixth of February, 2022, the usual colloquial conversation, the private/ public conversations on my birthday in a hotel in Victoria Island, the NLC presented us with a strong commitment that they would work with us to found that force. It left me with the challenge of finding those political parties that can come together with Labour to create this. By the time we started that conversation, there were several political parties involved. The one we all actually expected will be the base was the ADC. In the course of the conversation, Femi Falana suggested that Labour can and should retrieve the Labour Party. To cut a long story, we ended up with the Labour Party becoming available. That was how I created the concept of the big tent to include everybody, all the various parties that were involved in this thing and then, Civil Society Organizations that are not political parties and Social movements including the Labour Unions. That’s the concept of the big tent.
Not many people actually believed that it would work really.
Were you bothered? Everybody was like it was a joke, it cannot work and all that. On the 5th of May last year, I was in Enugu where I gave an interview on a live broadcast on urban radio, Enugu. And I was asked this Igbo Presidency thing, ‘how will it look?’ And I said I don’t necessarily believe in the Yoruba or Igbo Presidency, however, there’s such a thing as equity and inclusion. And that if there’s a group that has been excluded in the Nigerian project that they were very strongly found in, it’s the Igbos and that if one were to use the politics of geo-ethno position, that people who had the right to the presidency were the Igbos majorly located in the South-East. I said however, because it’s going to be South-East majorly does not mean that any character that comes out from the South-East can become president because he comes from the South-East. I, therefore, hope and expect that the PDP will be of wise judgement and nominate Peter Obi and that the APC will be of wise judgement and nominate Ogbonnaya Onu and even many of the South-East aspirants running up and down, if it doesn’t come down to these two people I know are of serious character and service, I’ll step into the race because I’m an Igbo-man and claim it for the Igbo nation. People were calling and saying positive things. Meanwhile, we’ve made our Third Force and most people were generally inclined to my being the candidate of that Third Force, then the PDP did its usual “wuru wuru”, but Peter Obi sensed it and left. The APC began its own “wuru wuru.” They neither nominated a candidate of quality, character, commitment, and competence from the South-East.
How come about Peter Obi and the Labour Party?
I later saw that Peter Obi was moving to Labour that we were trying to make the Third Force. Meanwhile, we were yet to conclude if it’ll be ADC or Labour Party but Femi Falana’s pressure moved us to the Labour Party. Although for me, the name of the party doesn’t matter. So, I accepted the membership of the Labour Party and sent in some money for the form. I learnt Peter Obi was coming and I said really? We talked and he said to me he had to tell me something. Because I’ve heard some rumours that I went to bring Peter Obi because of Bola Tinubu. The fact is that I didn’t bring Peter Obi. When we spoke, I asked where he was and he said he was in Abuja which was exactly where I was at that time. So, we agreed to meet at a point where he told me this was what he was planning. And I said to him, ‘Peter, you’re younger than me and I’ve told my children that at age 70 if they see me running up and down because of politics they should bring out the letter that I’ve written and correct me as having lost it and bring me back home. By the time this election will take place next year (2023) I’ll be 67. I just want the country to move forward; you’re much younger and I’ll support you. Go ahead and run.’ That was how the matter was finalised; it didn’t take many conversations. But my point in all of these is that we then ran a campaign without prece-dence in Nigerian history. Without the so-called structure all of these. For a couple of several reasons, the Nigerian people are fed up with the old guard, they wanted something new. The thing that resonated in Peter Obi’s comments, was these values, character, and competence that caught the imagination of the Nigerian people much more than people thought was possible. The youths caught fire and this extraordinary campaign was about to do what everybody has worried about how we can do it in Nigeria, breaking the backs of religion and ethnicity in politics. The traditional establishments first didn’t take it seriously.
What happen then?
They thought their old game will work by dividing people into religion and ethnicity but the young people were not budging. They started saying they were just four people twitting in a room. Okay, they said in another one month they’ll run out of money. They don’t have the money to run a presidential election. When two months passed, they started saying they were collecting money from the Diaspora. They said that Obi and Pat Utomi will start quarrelling very soon about sharing money. But Peter Obi and I never spoke about anything money. But they said he and I are quarrelling over money. The shock of it was Dr. Ayo Ighodalo, who’s married to Emeka Anyaoku’s brother, asking me ‘what are you doing with Peter Obi? I want to bet you that by January, you and Peter Obi would have parted ways’ and I said really? It’s not a simple matter. There’s a vision and dream I have for Nigeria. He shares that vision. I’m not a title-driven person. If he can make it happen and I can support his achieving it, why will I not do it? I said let’s watch and see. They said again that we’ll run out of money by December. After December, they said a different thing that the problem is the North, that we have no base in the North because our campaign actually started from the South-East, South-South, Middle-Belt and then we got to Gombe, Bauchi and even into Boko Haram territories where helicopters could have been shut down. One day we were on a helicopter flight from Gombe Airport to Biu; we looked down at the sites below us and I said to myself that just one Boko Haram rocket, I, Peter, Datti and Abure would be gone. But the passion was so much that we went to these places. It was unbelievable. The Northerners were coming out screaming Peter Obi in areas they said we cannot go to. In one of the journeys in January, I said to myself, we have redeemed our country. This is why when they came back with their aggressive, ethnicity, religion-driven fight back by late January and followed it up with the rigging efforts of 25th February, I decided that the title of the book will be, We almost saved Nigeria. And then by March 18th, if there’s any illusion they destroyed everything. All of these works of years of believing in Nigeria. I’ve talked to a couple of Ambassadors who are organizing trauma sessions in their bigger embassies that have different ethnic nationalities that live in Lagos. That people were so traumatised by what happened in Lagos last Saturday that they actually had to bring in experts to help people to get back to mental normalcy. This is why when I see people on Twitter saying which ethnic cleansing and which violence took place, you know that they’re either sick, in self-denial or live in insulated neighbourhoods because people were traumatised by the experience. Lives were shaking beside the ones lost. At least I know five people that have told me that they are selling everything that they have in Lagos and moving abroad. And I said is this my Lagos, my beautiful Lagos that I love so much it can be mended? How did we get this low? How did we get this far? The same people who followed me, who they now recognise as Igbo to run to the streets. As a CEO, I was on the Streets over Chief MKO Abiola. The same people are now morally justifying the exact opposite. The response should not be the response of blame or anger towards them, but something happened. Unless you can understand it, you can never fix it.
Don’t you think that what happened on March 18th was retaliation for what happened to APC on February 25?
Of course. They never expected it. They actually lost Lagos by a wide margin on the 25th of February not by what the rigging allowed as PDP people told you, they didn’t get up to 200,000 votes compared to Peter Obi scoring about a million votes. What is democracy is when people vote for their preference. To assume that their preference is ethnic, I don’t think it is right. This is why I want to talk to Joshua Green and his team. We need to study this and I want to understand it. I have my sense as a social scientist of some of the things that happened. These are civilised people. We need to know what happened.
I saw it coming. The day Tinubu got the nomination, I was talking to Niyi Adesanya think tank, pastors, in a think tank meeting, when I was talking to them for support. Suddenly the news came, “Emilokan” I said it was a joke but that was it. I felt how, why does it go on so quickly through to us? How come such yielding to emotion and that emotion is an ethnic one? I have to understand what happened, especially with my own friends. I’m a big champion of Yoruba politics. I think of the Yorubas as the most sophisticated political group in Nigeria. A good part of my politics of the past 30-40 years has been built around that. That I became active in politics was significantly influenced by people like Pa Ayo Adebanjo who said I cannot continue to be an activist. To make a lasting impact you need to be a politician, due to the regard, respect, and treasure of the sophistication of the politics of the South-West. Even more importantly, I became involved across all levels in championing handshakes across the Niger. I engaged with Nzuko Umunna in the handshake across the Niger. As Chairman, Board of Trustees of Nzuko Umunna, I hosted the meeting in Enugu that brought Pa Ayo Adebanjo, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, Jonah Jang which was a remarkable eye-opener because many of them had not been to Enugu before.