Chief OCJ Okocha, SAN is a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). He speaks, in this interview, on issues concerning the Rivers State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), zoning and ethnic sentiments. Excerpts:
The main issue in the Rivers PDP today bothers on the choice of the party’s candidate for the 2015 governorship election in the state. What is your position on the agitations for zoning arrangement?
My position on this matter is that the selection of a candidate for participation in election is a matter exclusively within the purview of a political party. It is their right and entitlement to select the candidate, whom they best feel could win relevant elections for them. And in that matter, so long as the party has done all that is necessary and the candidate, or likely candidates have done all that is necessary, the party is entitled to select the candidate of its choice, which it believes will facilitate that party’s victory at the relevant election.
I have heard about talks of ‘it would be a particular ethnic group.’ Indeed, some ethnic groups have issued statements that, unless a party selects their sons or daughters, they would not vote for such party. Some have issued statements that there is a zoning and rotation policy and they even cited the Nigerian Constitution, saying that positions should be made to go round. I am saying that, as attractive as those arguments may be, all that do not stand what is essentially the democratic process. Most of the parties’ constitutions that I have looked at, always uphold democratic principles as enshrined in the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria and invariably also enshrined in the constitutions of those political parties. So, it is a matter strictly within the purview of a political party.
Does your position have any constitutional backing?
I have a copy of the constitution of my own party, which is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), reputed to be the largest party in Africa. It says in Article 7. 1(b), the objectives of the party; ‘Subject to the provision of the Constitution of the Republic of Nigeria, the manifesto of the party shall be implemented by all organs of the party and government elected under the platform of the party. It also states that the party shall uphold the principles contained in this constitution and promote egalitarian societies founded on freedom, equality and justice.’
So, each political party, and particularly the PDP, has made its own constitution subject to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And there is somewhere, where it is clearly stated that the party shall not discriminate against any member of the party on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender: social or economic status. To enunciate further is that, in keeping with the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, nobody should be disqualified or excluded from an electoral process, a democratic process merely because of his ethnicity, religion, gender: social or economic status.
Article 8.1(a) of the PDP Constitution that is the relevant provision and the earlier one I cited was about upholding the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And the constitution even indicates that under the fundamental rights; that nobody should be discriminated against on the grounds of race or ethnic background, religion or circumstances of their birth. Clearly, the paramount thing is that every candidate in every party is entitled to contest every election, which that party tends to contest and, which the candidate himself indicates that he intends to contest.
So, you can now begin to particularise them because I have been hearing talks that some people should be excluded because they are from particular ethnic groups; I have heard talks from eminent people saying, if some people contest, there would be trouble; there would be ethnic war. It does not help us to begin to sound what we call drumbeat of ethnic jingoism, or drumbeat of ethnic division. Rivers is one state of several peoples: from Ikwerre to Andoni, Kalabari to Ekpeye, Ogba to Ogoni, Opobo to, even Ndokis, who are here in Oyigbo Local Government Area of the state.
Given your position, how will fairness, equity and justice come into play in respect of other ethnic groups?
It has to be noted that ethnic groups do not contest elections; it is individuals that contest elections. And as I have said, it is for the party to select who it feels will best help it to win an election. And you know one thing that has been ringing in my mind, pragmatism and expediency. That is the relevant thing. The party must be pragmatic enough, wise enough, sagacious enough to know that Candidate A, even if he comes from Tribe A, is the candidate most likely to be acceptable to the electorate; the most likely to attract the votes of the voting public; because, when voters go to cast their votes, they go there as individuals, not as ethnic groups. I, as an Ikwerre man, will go to cast my vote for the candidate I believe will best represent me; because political offices are for purposes of representations.
At least 16 aggrieved PDP governorship aspirants are not happy with the decision of the state party leadership to jettison the zoning formula to pick a standard-bearer. What is your advice to them?
Focusing particularly on the 16 aggrieved aspirants you have mentioned, I want to say, with all sense of responsibility that every man is taught, in our folklore, to use his tongue and count his teeth before he starts to say anything that may be controversial. I know all these aspirants and you, as journalists, ought to know them. Most of them are not even active in the politics of the PDP in Rivers. It seems to me a bit funny that some of them are not even residents in Port Harcourt or the state. After four years, they slide in to contest election; thereafter, they disappear. Four years, they come back again and put up posters to contest elections. They are only roughening the waters, causing unnecessary ripples that ought not to destabilise a party like the PDP.
The 16 aspirants, if I begin to take them one-by-one, I will tell you a lot about them; but I don’t want to be personal in this matter; I have just a general statement. They are not on ground. We have been in the trenches here, trying to sustain our party, the PDP, in Rivers and they slide in within the last two, three months. They put up posters and they are now crying fouls. Tell them that that they ought to know as PDP members that the supremacy of the party cannot be ever challenged by any member of the party. As I have said earlier, it is the interest of the party that is always paramount when it is contesting elections and it is electing a candidate.
They are disgruntled; anybody can be disgruntled, even when you go to contest, somebody will win and when you have seen the person to have won fair and square, you are still disgruntled. Some will even go as far as going to court, election tribunal and up to the appellate court. At the end of the day, what do they achieve? I caution them, I advise them, in all sense of responsibility, we have a responsibility to work and build our party, the PDP, in Rivers and reclaim our mandate that those we had elected previously have now taken to the APC. It is a responsibility for all of us and we must all join hands to fight that battle. At some point, certain things will become secondary and other things will become paramount. The interest of the party is paramount. As I have also said, the particular situation in Rivers now indicates that we must select the best candidate.
Are you now saying that apart from Nyesom Wike, the PDP has no other aspirant that has what it takes to defeat the APC in the state?
I can tell you that some of the 16 governorship aspirants will not win elections, even in their wards. This is because nobody knows them in this place. My point is that anybody can stand up to say ‘I am interested in contesting for a political office.’ But for me, as a member of a party, I will advise that the paramount interest of the party should be to ensure that the candidate that we select is the candidate that is most probably going to win the election for us. That is a matter that is in the realm of probability because you never know how the individual voter will cast his/her vote; which is, as I said, where sagacity and pragmatism come in. As you hold that ballot paper, you look at all the candidates-they may be more than 10. They may be as many as the registered political parties in Nigeria, which, at the last count, were over 50. Some have been told that they have no reason to be in the business anymore but they have gone to court and you all know that some of them said they have won a court case that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has no right to proscribe or strike them out as political parties.
But, there is an insinuation that if the 16 aspirants failed to push their demands through, there will be protest votes during the election. Are you not worried about that?
I am not worried about it in the least. The 16 aspirants are 16 persons; protest votes can be cast by themselves. They cannot dictate to me that I should cast a protest vote; I have no reason to protest against PDP if it selects a candidate that I am perfectly satisfied with. They don’t even know which candidate the PDP wants to select, but they are already arguing that one particular aspirant should not even contest. And that is the point I am making; that every member of the party, who feels he/she has an interest in a political office, should be given the right to contest and let him contest and win or let him contest and lose. When there is a fair and square contest, if you lose, you lick your wounds and, as a loyal party man, you support the candidate selected by your party.
So, I am not worried about any protest vote. As it stands now, Rivers, as far as I know, is a PDP state and we feel totally unsettled by the fact that this new party called the APC has taken some of our members and we are worried that, if we do not take our time; if we do not plan our strategy well, we may even be losing the election. That is why I said, ‘no, we must all rise up and begin to work for the PDP and work for whoever emerges as its candidate, at all levels, from the presidency, down to the local government councillors. So, I am not worried about any protest vote; they can only cast one vote for each of themselves.
Also, there is this strong allegation that politics in this state is between what was called Ishimbam and the Asumbam. Is there anything like this in the state?
Let me be honest with you; that is an internal matter among us, the Ikwerre people. As Ikwerre people, Ishimbam means the head of the clan or the head of the tribe. Asumbam means the people from the backyard of the clan/tribe. It is just what they will call yabis (as the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would put it). It is not to be taken seriously; Ikwerre people are Ikwerre people. Even when sit in one village, some people will say, ‘I am the son of the first son.’ Some people will say, ‘You are the son of a woman; you cannot be the head of the meeting.’ It is all about internal wrangling and yabis among us.
There is nothing like that; we don’t regard any part of Ikwerre land to be superior to the other. In reality, and in keeping with my training as a lawyer, nobody should be discriminated against, based on where he/she comes from. An Ikwerre man is an Ikwerre man. If you go to our history, we all came from various directions when migrations of people were on and ultimately, we have consolidated ourselves as the Ikwerre people. So, Ishimbam and Asumbam is just local politics.
There is always zoning in every constitution; even in the Nigerian Constitution there is what we call Federal Character. In my own Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), we have zones. I emerged as the first candidate who benefited from zoning in 2000, when I win the election from the Eastern Zone. What was the background? The presidency of the NBA had, invariably, always been in the Western Zone, from Chief FRA Williams, SAN, our preeminent leader when he was alive and the West, which entered the legal profession first, were like the Ishimbam of the profession. The Yoruba have gotten into the legal profession since 1876 or thereabout; we in the East, Sir Louis Mbanefo, got in 1936, while the North came into the profession around 1955, with Alhaji AGF Abdul Rasaq in Kwara State, in the old Northern Region. So, we could be regarded as the late comers into the legal profession.
When this continued and we had the debacle in Port Harcourt in 1993, a northern candidate who was looking as if he was going to win and a western candidate- the incumbent then was Mrs Priscilla Kuye-it turned into some kind of divisive politics. When we reconstituted the Bar, the elders felt that this thing should be moving round (and I was one of the proponents) so that each zone in the country, where the Bar is having three zones, should feel a sense of belonging. So, we said, ‘okay, go to the West. Anybody from the West can come.’
Recently, one chap from the Mid-West raised an epic battle against three other candidates from the core West, the Yoruba EgbeAmofin and Austin Alege from the Mid-West won. But they are all from the Western Zone. When it goes to the North, there is this issue of Muslim North, Christian North, far North, Middle Belt and all that. But we said ‘no, it is your wahala there. Whichever candidate you select, we will take it.’
This is what is happening now in Rivers; the political solution is, let the party select who it wants. Don’t forget that the PDP is not the only party in the state. The other parties can end up selecting an Ikwerre candidate and some people will actually go there and cast their votes for that man because they know that, that is the man they know and, from his antecedents, they can judge that he will be able to govern Rivers to the best of his ability and in the interest of all of us who reside in the state.
So, this is the point; zoning is an affirmative action but it is not in all cases that it is applied. Zoning and Federal Character are not applied in all cases. Look at the succession to the position of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) now. The outgoing CJN is a Northerner; the one that has been cleared by the Senate is a Northerner. Will we say because there is Federal Character in the Constitution, we will leave what should be a selection process that has been in existing? The one before this one is a Northerner; the one before him is a Northerner. This has been from Justice Muhammed Uwais’ time.
I was in the Federal Judicial Service Commission in 2000 when Justice Uwais was made the CJN. After him came Belgore, a Northerner; after Belgore came Kutigi, a Northerner; after Kutigi came Katsina-Alu, a Northerner; after Katsina-Alu came Dahiru Musdapher, a Northerner; after Musdapher came Alooma Mukthar, the lady, a Northerner and now Mahmoud Mohammed, also a Northerner. You don’t sacrifice merit on the altar of ethnicity and you don’t sacrifice merit on the altar of Federal Character or what we now call senatorial district on ethnic group. Let the best candidate emerge from each political party and let the electorate choose who they want to be their governor, their president, their local government chairmen and their councillors.
From your standpoint, it is apparent you have one of the aspirants as your candidate for the PDP governorship ticket. Who is the person?
You know I am not coy about myself; I like to speak openly. If Nyesom Wike emerges as the candidate of the PDP, I will vote for him. I am not a delegate; as you know, they just finished the PDP ward congresses. If I was a delegate, I would vote for Wike at the primaries. This is because I know him and I know his capabilities. This is a tactician; this is a politician who was the chairman of my local government area for two terms. I come from Obio/Akpor Local Government Area, the same as Wike. His antecedents as local government chairman showed his leadership qualities. Then, he became the Chief of Staff to the Governor of Rivers State. He convinced me to come openly and start wearing a PDP shirt and attending PDP rallies and addressing political rallies. Nyesom Wike did that and I campaigned for Governor Rotimi Amaechi; I campaigned for President Goodluck Jonathan.
We used to hold mammoth rallies at the College of Arts and Science and I spoke there. On one occasion, NamadiSambo, the vice president, was there and Amaechi called me and introduced me to him, saying, ‘ah, that is OCJ now. That is the man the president selected to be a member of his campaign committee- the legal team of the president campaign committee in 2011’. So, I know Wike very well and you and I have seen that this is a fact which nobody can deny, particularly the disgruntled 16. Wike has kept the PDP alive and well in Rivers. But for him, maybe the PDP would have gone under. So, with all those antecedents, do you think that I will vote for any other candidate? Nobody has shown that he can do what Wike can do. So, I am unabashed; I am making that statement, without any apology to anybody, if the PDP selects Wike as I pray and hope that it will do, I will vote for him as the governor of Rivers.
It can deduced from your submission that you want Wike as the PDP governor because he is your friend…
No, I am over 60 years old; Wike is very much more younger man. I will prefer to call him my younger brother. But, I make friend with people of all ages. I will also be generous enough to say I believe I am his friend. However, it is not on the basis of friendship. I have given you the reasons I am going to vote for him if he emerges as the candidate of the PDP and I will also convince the delegates who will represent me at the party primaries to vote for him. Real performance, capability to perform, the potential to perform, even greater are what I see in him.
I know all the 16 aspirants. I am a Port Harcourt boy; I have been living there since 1970, after I came back from the Nigerian Civil War. So, all of them, I know them; some of them are my personal friends. But, some of them have not even worked for the political party that I belong to, called the PDP up to 1/10 per cent of what Wike has done for the party. I mentioned them and you know them. They disappear after every election; they come back every four years to come and contest. Do they think we don’t know who is who and who is working for the PDP? It is not a sentimental issue; it is based on what I know to be facts on the ground and the potential seen to perform, even better than what I can see as facts on the ground of previous performance of Wike