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INTERVIEW: Outcome Of Biafra Agitation Will Depend On Nigerian Govt’s Reaction –John Nwodo

John Nwodo, the leader of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohaneze Ndigbo, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Festus Owete and Ebuka Onyeji, speaks on the renewed agitation for Biafra, marginalisation of the Igbo race, 2019 presidential election and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
   Ohaneze Ndigbo, John Nwodo

PT: You are about five months old as president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. How has it been?

Nwodo: It is a sheer weight of responsibilities – the magnitude of the expectations of the people that I am serving, the sheer volume of literature that I have to consume in order to be properly guided by the things that I say and the conversations that I undertake, the volume of travels, the complete loss of privacy and availability to my children. You know I am a single parent because I lost my wife three years ago. It’s been a challenge how to cope with all these.

PT: You talk about expectations of the people. What are these expectations?

Nwodo: It doesn’t appear to me that the quality of people that had been elected as Ohanaeze leadership was as high as in this executive. My deputy is a retired deputy Inspector General of Police. We have a vice president from each of the states except the states that produced the president and the deputy. In Anambra, the vice president is a top businessman. He owns a hotel in Lagos; he is into real estate; he is into heavy importation. The one from Abia is a retired commissioner of police.  The one from Delta is a consultant dentist. The one from Ebonyi is a consultant pediatrician, a professor and former deputy governor. The legal adviser is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. His deputy is still the attorney general of a state. The secretary is a lawyer of over 20 years of post-qualification experience. The treasurer is a chartered accountant. So around the table I have about three lecturers on the executive. So we are very highly qualified people. These people are undertaking subcommittee work and generating so much work and activity. And so everybody is busy. Secondly, we are running an open administration. Everybody knows what we are doing. And the people were feeling that before it was not like this. So they are coming to us in a way they never came to Ohanaeze. And because of that the responsibility is too much. To answer my phone is a problem for me. I literarily leave it in silent mood just as I have done now in order to conduct this interview. If I leave my phone on I will probably not be able to do anything. If I dare open it I will stop this interview.

PT: Does that suggest you have regrets taking up the position?

Nwodo: First of all I reluctantly accepted the position. I didn’t want to. I felt that it was time for younger people to take up the responsibility. You know why? I started by telling you that I have a historical tragedy. Every man wants to die before his wife but my wife died before me. And I have young children and this is the time to watch them rigorously. It distracts me from strong parental responsibility. But you know we are all instruments of God and if it has become a collective view of my people that I should do this job for them it has become the view of God and with God all things are possible. Those things I regret about that I am challenged by this job, God will help me.

PT: One basic issue people talk about the Igbo is the issue of unity. Did you meet that challenge of unity and how are addressing the issue?
Nwodo: I think before I came there was some split in Ohanaeze. That doesn’t exist anymore. Before I came the southeast governors were not meeting, that doesn’t exist anymore. Thank God I was part of the council that brought them together to meet. So I don’t see the issue of unity as an issue at all. All the traditional councils in Igbo land meet with me. I don’t know where the disunity is now.

PT: So, we can emphatically say that the Igbo race is united today?

Nwodo: Inside your family I don’t know if you 100 per cent united. In Yoruba land there are two socio-cultural organisations but we know the one that is primary. In the north there is Northern Elders Forum and there is Arewa Consultative Forum. In the South-South, it is more diverse. So I don’t know what you are looking for. There is nobody that is as more united as the Igbos in the contemporary history.
PT: There are some organisations like that in the southeast.

Nwodo: If you know of anyone tell me.

PT: I used to know Mkpoko Ndigbo…There are some minor organisations like that.

Nwodo: It is an affiliate organisation of Ohanaeze. There are not less than, if you like, a hundred thousand organisations in Igbo land but they are all affiliated to Ohahaeze.

PT: If that is the case I know there are Igbos in Delta and you have mentioned that you have a vice president from there. I know the Ikwerres in Rivers State….

Nwodo: The secretary general is an Ikwerre man. They are part of the leadership of Ohanaeze.

PT: But it seems the governors of the south east don’t have a strong forum unlike those in other zones.

Nwodo: The governors in the north are more divided and their division is very clear as in the parties they belong to and they don’t make any bones about it. They meet once a month sometimes. Southeast governors meet every month now. Since February the southeast governors meet on the last Sunday of every month. And if there is some major things….. like this Sunday is anniversary Sunday for all of them because they were all sworn in on May 29.  And so many of them are going to have their anniversary celebration this weekend. So they are not likely to have a meeting this weekend. There is no month they have not had a meeting. So if that is your indication of unity they have the same unity as you have in the north. But it does not stop them from belonging to their political parties. And unlike the northern governors they have a physical secretariat in Government House. They have a ministerial council of commissioners of finance and economic planning who meet before them and produce memos for their meetings. And they have got an economic advisory committee made up of serious economists drawn from various states.
PT: Is the Igbo race still marginalised?

Nwodo: You have the answer to the question. If you don’t then you don’t qualify for the work you are doing. We are not president of Nigeria, we are not vice president, we are not president of the senate, we are not Speaker of the House of Representatives, we are not Chief Justice of Nigeria, what else? We are not President of the Court of Appeal, we are not even Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. I have exhausted the three arms of government at the federal level. We don’t have any. The closest we have got to is the deputy senate president and after that there is a yawning gap below. If you go to the executive it is terrible. Let us first of all take the security apparatus of Nigeria. There is a clear vote of no confidence on the southeast as to our eligibility to hold positions in the security apparatus of Nigeria. We are not Chief of Defence Staff, we are not Chief of Army Staff, we are not Chief of Air Staff, We are not chief of Naval staff, we are not head of Nigeria Customs Service, we are not head of Nigeria Immigration Service, we are not head of Nigeria Intelligence Agency, we are not DG of State Security Service, we are not head of Federal Road Safety Corps, we are not head of Civil Defence, we are not Minister of Defence, we are not minister of Internal Affairs. My friend, what are you asking me?

PT: But you have ministers? 

Nwodo: Is it conterminous to our population in Nigeria. I know a time when (Shehu Musa) Yar’Adua was promoted from Lt. Colonel to vice president (Chief of General Staff) just to make sure that his area had a sense of belonging. I know a time that Adetokubo Ademola was made Chief Justice of Nigeria just to give the west a sense of belonging. Are you not from Nigeria? I am asking you. The essence of a federation is the unity of different independent units. For the federation to be real and for it to be respected by all parts of the federation, every part of the federation should feel a sense of belonging in the federation.

PT: Does the security situation in some parts of the southeast have anything to do with this marginalisation? We have the IPOB, MASSOB agitating for Biafra. 

Nwodo: I don’t think so. Each of the political parties have people from the southeast. So, they have no difficulty in finding people who are loyal to them to appoint into positions of government. I became minister at 31 in the government of Shehu Shagari. That government of NPN did not win the governorship in the state (old Anambra). It did not control the state assembly. But his vice president was from that state. I was from that state. In fact, before me, the minister of health was from that state. His two political advisers were from that state – Chuba Okadigbo and Professor Odenigbo. The minister of education was from that place. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, was from that state. The minister of science and technology was from that place. That was the first time Nigeria created the ministry of science and technology. I don’t know what you are asking. It has never happened like this. Under Obasanjo, his minister of finance was from our place. So what you are saying does not hold water at all. We have OPC in the west. If that was so Boko Haram would have been a reason why there should be no minister from the northeast of Nigeria.

PT: Some people have said that you want to reap where you did not sow. You didn’t vote for the APC and so why should you expect appointments from the government formed by the party?

Nwodo: I have just answered this question. I have told you that under Shagari even though his party did not win in the state, he still had important people in his government. There are people who worked for President Buhari in the southeast. It is an opportunity for him to recruit knowledgeable people from there that can serve him and use it to teach the people that in this court there is justice. Secondly, he would have been respecting the constitutional injunction which requires as he was being sworn in as president is to cease to be a party leader and to make sure there is a reflection of federal character in the appointment. The constitution clearly spells it out that everyone must be made to feel a sense of belonging and he swore to that constitution. And quite honestly as Ohanaeze we are going to test the fulfillment of that provision of the constitution if there is no improvement on what he is doing. It is the only way it will grow the political process.

PT: How are you going to do that?

Nwodo: We will go to court.

PT: Is that legitimate? Is that a proper thing to do? Is it normal?

Nwodo: I beg your pardon. Isn’t it normal for a citizen of Nigeria to go to court to say this provision of the constitution has not been obeyed (and) I want the court’s pronouncement on it, if the president has not satisfied the provisions of the constitution in his appointments? And at the moment we are assembling all the appointments he has made, state by state, region by region. Already what I see is a short-change of the southeast.

PT: The constitution says the president shall appoint at least one minister from each of the 36 states…… 

Nwodo: Political positions don’t end with ministers. I have just given you the line of people in the security services who are not ministers.

PT: What you are saying in essence is that President Buhari has breached the provisions of the constitution. 

Nwodo: I told you that we are compiling his appointments so far which clearly indicates that the south east is shortchanged. If he does not redress it, then it will be a breach and I know he has not finished his appointments.

PT: Is that why Ohanaeze is supporting IPOB and MASSOB?

Nwodo: I don’t know what you mean by “supporting.”

PT: The first press conference you gave on assumption of office I recall you declared that you would support IPOB and MASSOB. 

Nwodo: Read me carefully whenever I speak. I have said that the way our people are being treated angers the young people in my place. Their anger is not just at the Nigeria establishment but at their parents. They believe we have become lethargic and we have become incapable of championing their cause. They have taken the laws into their hands and as far as they are concerned Nigeria is not theirs. Why is this? Come to the southeast. Don’t just sit in your table…. A friend of mine who came from abroad and drove from Anambra to Delta State to see an old client of his, gave a very detailed account of the police and army intimidation on the roads of the southeast. I travelled from Enugu to Onitsha and one occasion I counted 17 checkpoints – a distance of 65 kilometers. What does this mean? In every four kilometers you have a checkpoint. And if the checkpoint was to check you for arms or for drugs I will understand it is for national security. But they are toll gates. I mean it is so brazenly done that for commercial vehicles they know how much it is, they drop it on the floor. You see the disgrace of the uniform. They pick as much as N50 on the floor. But they have to keep a queue of people in order to collect that toll. In a democracy? In modern Nigeria? And you a journalist you are asking me and you have the capacity to find out if I am saying the truth. And you will not report it. I dare you.

PT: If we see it we will report it.

Nwodo: It is not hidden. If you like I will give you pictures that people have taken of it. I shouldn’t do the investigation for you? I want you to do it yourself. The other day I was coming from Onitsha. I stopped in Oji River where they have an army checkpoint. A young boy of about 16 years was who they recruited to collect the money there. When I got there I saw him collecting money openly. I came down from my car and I walked to him and said to this young boy – who are you collecting this money for? He looked at the soldiers, he looked at me, and looked at the soldiers again. I held him by the shirt and I say bring that money. I turned to the soldiers and asked them – will you use your son to do this? You are sitting down there and don’t care if any of these trucks is carrying arms and this boy is just collecting money for you. The boy shrugged from me, tore his shirt and ran away into the bush. I took my camera and took pictures of the soldiers and I said I will show your commander this. Who wants to listen to me? How would you feel if you live in this kind of environment?

PT: What exactly is your position on the renewed agitation for Biafra?   

Nwodo: Nigeria has pushed our youth to a point where they have expressed a vote of no confidence on the country and they just want to be left on their own to go. The debate is still on in Igbo land regarding whether every Igbo man wants Biafra or not. But a lot depends on what Nigeria does to react to the feelings of Ndigbo.

PT: What is your view on the bail conditions given to Nnamdi Kanu? 

Nwodo: They are unconscionable, they are illegal.

PT: But remember it has to do with treason.

Nwodo: So what? Every person that is arrested of a criminal offence under our constitution is presumed innocent until proven guilty. You can’t begin to give somebody punishment without proving him guilty. You can’t say that I will not speak or address a press conference. It is my right. It is freedom of expression. It is a fundamental human right in the constitution. It is freedom of association. This interview we are holding here it is our freedom and nobody can come and arrest us. It is freedom from discrimination. Nobody can deprive my daughter from taking this house if I die. She is my first child. Because she is a woman? You can’t tell Nnamdi Kanu not to meet with more than 10 people or address a press conference. It is an illegal condition. It is not allowable under the law. This is happening. The former GMD of NNPC has just been released on bail without any condition and he is being allowed to go abroad for medical checkup. Do you know how much they recovered from him? As journalists you will not do anything about this. When it concerns an Igbo man you journalists look the other way.

PT: May 30 is Biafra Day. IPOB has asked its supporters to sit at home. What is Ohanaeze’s position on this? 

Nwodo: Today I went to a lecture on 50th year of Biafra at the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja. Neither the organizers nor the vice president nor former President Obasanjo nor the Chairman of the event, Ahmed Joda, talked about remembering all those who died during the war throughout our intercourse there. People died on both sides. Nobody thought about it until it was my turn to speak and I ask for a one minute silence and all of them stood up. About 1.5 million people on the Biafran side died. When I talk about Biafrans I am not talking about the Igbos. Philip Effiong was from the present Akwa Ibom. He was deputy to Ojukwu. Kogbara from Rivers was administrator in Biafra. Achuzia was GOC. So, Biafra was beyond the confines of what you call Igbo land today? The feeling is still in all those places. And so what do you really want me to say. Do you realize that these boys are moved by the fact that on that day a number of our people died? Do you know that Nigeria openly said during the war that hunger is a legitimate weapon of warfare? Do you know that the 1.5 million people that died during the war died of starvation? It doesn’t include those who died in combat. Do you know that not less than half a million Igbos are lost in neighbouring countries where they were taken as refugees and became assimilated. It was difficult to know their names because they were taken as children from kwashiorkor camps. Their parents were not there. None of them remembers who is the father or mother till today? And in Gabon there is a contest as to the paternity and citizenship of their president because he was adopted by his father, the former president of Gabon. And he went into politics and he succeeded his father. The people who know how he was adopted are saying this is an Igbo man that came from Biafra and he is not our son. Legally speaking, if he was adopted he is a Gabonese. So the argument does not hold water. This is the positive side of it. But there are some others who have disappeared into the air. Their parents may have survived but they cannot reach their children up till today. The Nigerian government did not trace any of them. There is no cenotaph built in remembrance of any of these people either in the southeast or here. An entire phase of history has been obliterated. And you tell me that…… they have been very law-abiding. In fact, they say everybody should stay at home. They didn’t ask everybody to come and demonstrate on the road. They say stay at home to prayerfully and sorrowfully mourn the dead.

PT: Let’s return to the issue of appointments. Do you view President Buhari as a sectional leader going by the appointment he has made?

Nwodo: You can label him as you like but I have made my point.

PT: There appears to be an opening now. The SGF is on suspension and some people have said this is an opportunity to name an Igbo man for that position because they feel the suspended SGF might not come back. What is your take on this?

Nwodo: I am not a presidential adviser to Buhari. 

PT: But you should have a position.

Nwodo: I have no position at all. If I were president I would appoint an SGF according to certain established rules, competence, principles and what have you. If there are people with this competence in every part of the country I will look at the part of the country not well represented and give it to them. It is not my duty to advise him who to appoint. 

PT: In the recent past prominent Igbo politicians have moved from PDP to APC.

Nwodo: Like who? 

PT: I can name Ken Nnamani, I can name Sullivan Chime, and there is also a former Speaker of the Enugu State House of Assembly and many others. I know you are not playing active politics now. But how do you see it? Is it also part of the move by the Igbo to take a shot at the presidency?

Nwodo: When you say many I thought you were going to tell me about 100 or 200 people who have defected. But that is expected in a political process. And we must respect an individual’s right to choose whatever party he likes to belong to. That is a matter for politicians and it does not perturb me at all nor does it perturb Ohanaeze. What is important however is that at the time of election, Igbos will demand from politicians – what agreements they reach with their political parties regarding our extant problems? What is the view of your party regarding our extant problems? If it is strong issue of the Igbos like marginalization, what is your party going to do about it to make sure that we feel as part of this country? They must say it to us. And if they do not say it to us Ohanaeze will not support them. It will not support a party that has no agenda for the Igbos.

PT: That is to say that will determine where the Igbos will vote in 2019? 

Nwodo: As a parent organisation we have an advice to give to our people. You cannot be a father without advising your children. Whereas we are not partisan but every government at the end of the day determines the quality of life the people live. They determine the water the drink, the schools your children go to. These politicians must give us…That is why the other day I made a representation to members of the National Assembly from the southeast and south-south Benue, Plateau and Bauchi and co along which the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri Railway line to ensure that they are included in the Chinese loan before they vote for it and that is why there is an impasse today. I am not a politician but I cannot fold my arms and see the benefit of my people………….I don’t care who they vote for but I want to know what the man they are voting for is going to do for us.

PT: Ahead of 2019, what are those things you want Ndigbo to have, apart from infrastructure?

Nwodo: It is too premature now to state our manifesto but I am sure every Igbo man knows what we want.
PT: Does that include taking a shot at the presidency?

Nwodo: I don’t know. The presidency is not vacant. Taking a position on the presidency now is unhealthy. No party has called for nomination. I think it is unhealthy even for the nation at the time our head of state is sick. To lure me into a discussion on it is unpatriotic. I don’t think it is healthy.

PT: I am asking because some prominent Igbos have said 2023 is the best time for a president of Igbo extraction.

Nwodo: I am not their public relations officer. I am not their press secretary. Why should somebody say something and you are asking me to comment?

PT: You are the head of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation… 

Nwodo: It does not qualify for my comment. People are free to say what they like. I don’t want to be lured into an argument on a position that is not vacant.

PT: But you are not happy that the Igbo have not produced the nation’s leader…

Nwodo: It is 47 years now since the war ended and in these 47 years no Igbo man has been president of Nigeria. Only once has an Igbo man been vice president. It is there for you to see.

PT: So, what legacy do you want to leave behind?

Nwodo: Under the law I have a four-year mandate but I wished it was shorter because in five months I am already wearing out like a tyre. But to be honest with you I want to build a strong organisation, an organisation that our people can trust. You asked me majorly political questions. Ohanaeze’s responsibility is beyond that now. We are going into a cultural revolution and we are setting up a committee to determine how we bury people, how we can make it less expensive and more symbolic. We are setting up a committee to look at some of our cultural practices. In Igbo land it is traditional that once yam is harvested there is a new yam festival in every community. That festival is an opportunity to thank God for the harvest. It is done in different communities at different dates. I am talking with traditional rulers in the entire southeast with a view to seeing how we can choose a particular date in a year that any Igbo man, no matter where he is will do his new yam festival. So it becomes a very good opportunity to bring children back home, to bring friends to come and see your culture. It is a major cultural event which everybody looks forward to because it brings everybody home. It is an opportunity for families to meet when they come home.

PT: People have also talked about high bride price in Igbo land. Are you also addressing that?

Nwodo: We are also addressing it. We are also addressing the role of women in our situation. Thanks be to God the Supreme Court has helped us in one area. The Supreme Court has taken a decision that the Igbo inheritance law is struck down because of the violation of the provisions of the constitution. Hitherto no Igbo daughter (and appears it is so in some part of Nigeria), can inherit her father’s estate. It is believed that she is married somewhere else and only the boys can take the buildings. And in some cases only the first son takes everything. It is unfair. And right now under the ruling of the Supreme Court every child of yours, irrespective of the sex, has equal rights to your assets.

PT: But you know your people are independent-minded or republican in nature. You think they will not resist all of this? 

Nwodo: It is a different thing whether you resist the law or whether the law resists you or not. The law has been made. Anybody who doesn’t abide by it knows he will lose in court. But it will take time for the knowledge to pervade and for people to abide because these are cultural issues. But twins were being killed but it is no longer so. We are growing and we must grow and religion outlaws many of these things and many of my people are Christians.

PT: Igbos are scattered and own businesses everywhere. Is there a deliberate policy you are putting in place with a view to luring them to come and invest at home?

Nwodo: I have already addressed Igbo businessmen in Lagos and Abuja on this. Every part of this country has a God-given talent. One of the things that marvels me about my people is their industry. They have the capacity to survive any situation. An Igbo man lives on the street and works on the street and in the night he turns his shade into a house.

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