Former president of the Nigerian bar Association, Onueze Chukwujinka Joe Okocha, is a respected voice in the law profession in Nigeria. In this no-hold-barred interview withSenior Correspondent, in Port Harcourt, OCJ, as he prefers to be called, discussed the politics of Nigeria and Rivers State
Despite the signing of a peace accord between presidential candidates as well as governorship candidates in all the states of the federation, political violence has risen in recent times, what is your take on this?
I hope that the accords signed by the presidential candidates at Abuja and the one signed by three of the leading gubernatorial candidates in Rivers State will work. These are all responsible citizens of Nigeria. They are citizens who have reached the level of being nominated by political parties to represent them at various elections throughout the land in the presidential election on March 28 and the next one on April 11 for the gubernatorial and House of Assembly seats. I hope that those who signed the accord will be responsible enough to insist that, not only themselves but also their followers, will try as much as they can to allow peace to reign, and abide by the accord. We want peace in Rivers State and in Nigeria. My hope is that even after the election, Nigeria will still be a peaceful country for everybody to live in. It should be a place where all of us can go about our various businesses without let or hindrance. But I get alarmed when I hear various reports of untoward happenings. I get alarmed by orchestrated and intensive shout of violence by the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its members. Most of these things we hear, I see them as irresponsible allegations. You don’t just wake up and accuse your opponent of doing this havoc or that one without any evidence. I want to understand that they know that these are issues that touch so much on law and order. If they have any evidence, they should furnish the security agencies so that investigation can be properly articulated. This will make a way for those who are responsible for such crimes to be brought to book at the earliest opportunity. I think that all of us need to act responsibly, particularly at this point of our country’s development.
A fortnight ago at Okrika, the APC alleged that the thugs that disrupted its rally were sponsored by Patience Jonathan, Nyesom Wike and Evans Bipi, which has sparked a lot of condemnation across the country; what do you think of this?
Let me first say that it is totally regrettable, the incident that occurred in Okrika few weeks ago. As I said earlier, we need to conduct this election with decorum and allow the various candidates to articulate the opportunities available to them. I believe that in a democratic society people should be free to associate with others and should be able to go anywhere to preach the message of their political parties and manifestoes. I am not happy about what happened in Okrika. Having said that, let me come back to this issue of people making irresponsible and unguarded statements. At a time, I saw on networks that the First Lady was bereaved over the loss of close female political associates in Bayelsa State, who died in an auto crash. I understand that only one woman escaped from that inferno with very serious burns. Evans Bipi had issued a statement that he was not in Okrika on the day in question. Of course nobody would say he or she saw Wike at Okrika on that day. No matter how badly anybody may feel about that unfortunate incident at Okrika, let us also understand that these are issues of law and order and it gives police the opportunity to unearth the culprits. I have joined some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) rallies because I strongly believe in the candidature of Wike with some of my colleagues and I know that the PDP rallies were attacked. The most vivid is the one of Abua in Abua/Odual, where gunshots were fired. These are the things we should take to the law enforcement agencies, rather than take the law into our hands, and let them investigate and bring the culprits to book.
APC is confident to winning the 2015 presidential election, what do you think are the party’s chances?
Let me say this, we have to commend them for having that confidence of winning a general election in Nigeria, particularly the presidential election. But I think they are daydreaming. APC is not on ground in this country. True, they have access to information dissemination machines like newspapers propagating their dreams. APC is a party that was just formed about a year ago. It is not on ground particularly in Rivers State. You see their billboards and posters everywhere. The point is that all of them in the so-called APC today were all PDP members. PDP is well spread because it has been on ground and is still on ground. They are entitled to be confident but I know that APC will not win the presidential election. Certainly, APC cannot win with a candidate like General Muhammadu Buhari. APC will not also win the governorship election in Rivers. They will be lucky if they win three or four seats in the House of Assembly. I can tell you that this is a PDP state. As I said before, all of them who are now in APC were in PDP before. From the governor to whoever he has appointed as the caretaker chairmen of the local government areas were all PDP members. The governor knows this truth. Their message is just to pull down PDP, to pull down the candidature of President Goodluck Jonathan. They want to pull down Nyesom Wike. I am liberal enough to say that they will win a few seats in the Assembly. They will not win presidential election no matter what they do. They will not win the governorship election either. The APC people want to gain a few more seats in the National Assembly so that they can have leverage in Nigeria’s post-2015 elections. That is their gamble. They believe that with the fanatical support that Buhari seems to have in some parts of northern Nigeria, they can get some more seats to give them more power in the National Assembly. That is their gamble. Buhari may not win the election in three or four states of the South-West. In the North-Central, he cannot win there. In the North-East he may win some states there and in the North-West he may get some states also. He has a popular support from some areas of this country. I know what I am saying here. Buhari has crowd appeal in some states in the North-East and North-West, but have you sat down to reflect whether those in the crowd have their permanent voter cards? A lot of those boys are rented and hired.
With the sensitivity of the 2015 general elections and the need to stamp out rigging, do you think Nigeria is ripe for the card reader technology in the elections?
It depends on what the electoral umpire has said, I mean the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The way they have tried to package the coming election is that everybody must have PVC. To be accredited to vote, they said your card must be tested to ascertain that you are actually the owner of the card which makes you eligible to vote in the elections. If this is to effectively checkmate rigging, I give my support.
If you also can effectively identify registered voters, then I give my support. But some of these devices of electronic methods sometimes fail. In the 2011 elections we were talking about electronic voting. Some electronics whiz kids tried to demonstrate how electronic voting works. But knowing Nigeria and the kind of electric power we have, it was discarded. This time around we are talking about a card reader that works with battery and not necessarily electricity. If they are certain it will work, let them use it. But if for any reason they know that this will not work, they should discard it and people should be physically identified and allowed to cast their votes.
In view of the discrepancies surrounding the distribution of the PVCs, many people have called for Attahiru Jega’s sack; do you think he still has the integrity to conduct elections?
This is not the first time that INEC under Jega’s watch has postponed elections for one reason or the other. True, the reason this time around appears cogent such as the security issue, the NSA’s intervention that he cannot guarantee security of voters and the electoral process in some parts of the country and so wanted some shifts to enable the military put their house in order. That is just one aspect. The other is the phony way of reporting the distribution of the PVCs. I have this niggling feeling within me that Jega and INEC have bungled the process. Here is a commission that conducted voters’ registration four years ago, why should it take four years to produce permanent voters’ cards? You produce PVCs and they are not even enough and not evenly distributed. People in Cross River State said that their PVCs were sent to a particular state in the North. These are things that indicate clearly that there had been some incompetence on the part of INEC. The buck stops at the table of Jega. He must accept responsibility for these unpardonable lapses on the part of INEC, particularly with the production and distribution of the PVCs. There are also serious security issue. The Electoral Act says that a state of war can actually justify why an election can be postponed. Because we want a free and fair election, we believe that INEC can conduct itself fairly and the security agencies can guarantee our safety before, during and after the elections. The other issue is that of Jega having consultations with the APC people. I think I will like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Jega’s background indicates a man that rose to limelight by merit. This means that his personal integrity is at stake having become the chairman of Nigeria’s independent commission, he will do himself grave damage if he does not debunk the allegation that he cohorts with the APC. You can only do so much to rig an election because people are so much aware on how to police their votes.
Would you comment on the conduct of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who just dumped the PDP by publicly shredding the his membership car
In essential terms, a membership card that someone carries as a member of a political party, is a property of that party. It is just like you working in any company, when you are leaving that organisation, you have to surrender the ID card and other items belonging to the company. Obasanjo has engaged himself in malicious damage of a property that belongs to the party. He can be prosecuted. But you know, Obasanjo is an old man, he is more than 80 years. He has been a father of this nation on two occasions. He commands international acclaim. He has been sent as a peace envoy. But by that conduct, he has belittled himself by ordering his ward chairman to publicly tear the card. He should be grateful to the PDP that gave him eight years to rule this country. I think the party deserves respect from him. I don’t think he is doing well for his reputation. He has a freedom of association as a right, but he ought to have left the party honorably. Let Obasanjo carry his own cross. We all have our own to bear.
Can PDP sue him for the destruction of its property?
That is a distraction. What is a membership card? Sometimes you look at the character involved in the matter and you say, I will not dignify this chap. There is a common saying that silence is the best answer to a fool.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration does not seem to have good rapport with the international community, especially the West, could this be as a result of his poor handling of terrorism in the North-East?
I don’t know where you get that impression from. He enjoys the cooperation of the international community. International commentators see Jonathan as the most democratic President in the history of Nigeria. He has opened up Nigeria and allows the rule of law to be used as a governing tool of this country. The Western countries are doing business with Nigeria. China is in the country doing business here. The Koreans are here. Many heads of states in Africa see Nigeria as God’s gift to Africa. They may not agree on a few issues, like corruption and others, but nobody should hold Jonathan on the current problem in Nigeria. Boko Haram did not arrive in Jonathan’s tenure. They started in Obasanjo’s government. Corruption has been in Nigeria for a long time even before the military took over in 1966. Nigeria has always had corruption problem. Jonathan has done his best to fix Nigeria. He cannot take up a riffle against Boko Haram. The average Nigerian is corrupt. Carrying money is not the only corrupt practice that we know. Anything that is tainted is corrupt. Anything that is rotten is corrupt. Fear is also a corrupting influence. This was said by one eminent judge of the Supreme Court, that fear is a corrupting influence. A judge cannot give a judgment because he is afraid that they may kill him. That is corruption. These are problems that have eaten deep into our national fabric. Corruption is not just in Nigeria. It is there in England. It is there in China. In China, sometimes they execute people for corruption by firing squad or hanging. Jonathan must be given credit for dealing with these issues.
For six years, the Nigerian Army could not defeat Boko Haram, but in recent weeks they appear to be winning the war against insurgency, why is this so?
Everybody in Nigeria is talking about the menace of Boko Haram. It got to an alarming point when the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted last April. So far, there appears to be no serious hope of their release. We have heard about women who have also been captured. The military in Nigeria must also be commended. Before now, monies meant to equip the military were diverted. Equipment was not bought and soldiers were not sent for training. This was when our military started to suffer neglect over the years. Our military has been commended for its success in peacekeeping operations. We are now seeing the result of the supplementary budget of $1 billion that the President sent for approval by the National Assembly. The military is now better equipped to deal with the insurgents who themselves are so well equipped, by what we see on television. We have seen the reinvigoration of the effort by the President and the Nigerian military to deal with insurgency and this is bringing good result. We have so far recovered some of the villages taken over by these insurgents and I believe that before the rescheduled election, more will be recovered.
The Rivers State judiciary complex seems to be under lock and key, despite the suspension of judiciary workers’ strike.
It worries me and has worried me right from the first day when JUSUN (Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria) said they were going on strike. It worries me much more that they used metal bars to weld the gates of the Port Harcourt court complex, which houses many courts. The courts by the principles of our laws and jurisprudence must always remain open. They symbolise the rights of the citizens. When there are holidays, one or two judges are appointed as vacation judges to take care of some cases that may come in during the holiday period. We know where this problem came from, because of the appointment of the chief judge of the state. JUSUN are the junior workers of the judiciary. They are not up to 40 percent of the personnel in the Rivers State judiciary. Some of them said that the Presidency was to blame for the shutdown of the judiciary. Sometime last year, they said OCJ Okocha was to blame, because I was a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and I wanted to impose my sister as chief judge. At some point they said it was Justice Aloma Mukhtar, former chief justice of Nigeria. This started in August 2013 when the governor appointed a wrong person as acting chief judge. I want to believe that they will realise the error they have done to the judiciary and retrace their steps even though it is becoming late.
You mentioned inducement, but about N6 billion was allegedly paid from the Presidency to induce some pastors to support Jonathan, do you believe this?
There is what we called circumstantial evidence. JUSUN is a junior staff in Rivers State. They said their safety could not be guaranteed because courts were attacked. At some point, they said who would they be answerable to and all that! A junior worker cannot decide who becomes the CJ of Rivers State. Even at that they were still going to work because the government was paying them, yet health workers are not paid. Civil servants have not been paid. Assembly workers are not paid. This is why I said they were induced. On the N6 billion, I challenge who made that statement to come up and clarify his position. I can only say let him produce evidence because, a man in that position, he must produce evidence. We are watching who was given that money. We are waiting patiently.