Former Abia State governor, Theodore Orji, now representing Abia Central in the Senate, at an interview with newsmen, shares his adventure in politics and views on some burning national issues with newsmen. TAIWO AMODU who was at the interview session brings excerpts.
From your civil service days to being a Chief of Staff to a governor and thereafter becoming a governor yourself and now a senator. How has the journey been?
It [has been] a good experience, but you know in the process, there were ups and downs which I encountered and by the grace of God, I overcame and I am happy about it.
During your tenure as governor of Abia State, you had cause to have differences with some of your predecessors and today all of you are in the Senate. How do you feel seeing them particularly that you people have reasons to do things together now?
When the Chief Whip (Senator Orji Kalu) was governor, I was chief of staff and the Minority Leader (Senator Abaribe) was Deputy Governor and we did our job. Like I said, there were ups and downs, but we meandered through them, but today we are together in the Senate and we are working very well. We have good relationship. If there is anything that happened, it has been forgotten because you know my story especially with the chief whip. He dealt with me with his newspaper. You know people were reading that, but I kept my cool and today, it is out of my mind. Whatever you write is not on my skin. The same thing with Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe. I don’t have any trouble with him at all. Our relationship is cordial just as my relationship with the chief whip is cordial.
You keep talking about ups and downs; can you give us insight?
Many of them during campaigns, you see your friends fighting against you. You see some of those who trust you and you trust, thinking that they will support you, you see some of them sabotaging you, there are ups and downs and you try to weather through to succeed. There is no election that is easy. If anybody tells you election is easy, he is telling you a lie. If it’s easy, go and try.
You know I won my governorship election in detention and it wasn’t easy. That is the record I set in Nigeria and it’s not easy. I have not seen anybody doing that. I was in detention throughout. All the elections, all the campaigns and I won overwhelmingly. It’s not every person that can achieve that. If you think you can achieve that, put yourself in that place.
In fact, if you open the door of a cell, say let me stay here; you must endear yourself to the people. That time, people were ready to die for me. They said, unless I die in prison, they will vote for me and they voted massively for me and I didn’t die and came out as governor and, to me, it was an achievement. Even former President [Olusegun] Obasanjo didn’t win in prison. He had come out before he won his election. I don’t know who has done that in Nigeria. They put me behind bars for no just cause. There were a lot of things behind the scenes; people will be for you, people will be against you.
Unarguably, you are a leader from the South-East and ahead of 2023; we know it is your wish for the zone to produce the next president for the first time since 1999. What bait is the zone using in negotiating for power?
When it comes to the presidency, our zone has been marginalised. Our zone is the only zone that has not produced a president and other zones have done. After all, politics is a numbers game where you have to appeal to those who have the number more than us. Let them see our plight and support us and help us. After all, we supported you wholeheartedly and you win because you have a case to make. Why is it that in Nigeria, it’s only the South-East that hasn’t produced the president [of Nigeria]? Why? Yet, in that zone, we have the most intelligent people; we have every type of people: good people, quality people and if you want to get them, they are there. We are facing marginalisation because of our size. It’s only in the South-East that we have five states. Others regions have six and others more. If it comes in terms of number, we may not make it, except in alliance. So we are appealing to our brothers and sisters in the North and in the South. That is our biggest advantage, that we have not done it before, try us and see whether we are good. Why is it only South-East that has never produced a president? There should be justice and fairness and, to me, that is our advantage; that is our resourcefulness apart from our intelligence. But politics as I said is a numbers game. So we have to align with those who have the numbers to achieve this objective.
But don’t you think that the discordant voices within the South-East are bigger problems?
Yes, they are, but we will handle it. Shall we because of discordant voices deny ourselves of that opportunity? When we get the nod of others, you will see that we will come together. You see it’s very difficult to bring out somebody that everybody will accept, but we will manage to bring people that are good. Let the people choose.
What if the PDP zones the presidency back to the North in 2023 in spite of the widespread support it enjoys in the South-East?
Well, that is a party affair; that will be sorted out by the party and we are members of the party. And when the matter comes up, we will argue it. I can’t sit down here and argue. Like I told you, the advantage is for us. Can you imagine, if you come from a zone that has five states, while your colleagues have six, will you be happy? You see that you are marginalised and cheated and that is what is causing all these problems. There are agitations; I want to be on my own; we want restructuring, these are the problems. If you treat me like you treat the other person and I’m convinced I’m being treated fairly, I will not agitate. But if I am cheated, if I am being marginalised and treated like a second-class citizen, that is the reason the people are shouting. Check out the people who are agitating, they feel cheated. So, if we come to that level, we will argue it. If we present our argument, the party will listen. The PDP is strong in the South-East more than any other place. It is strong and they should listen to us.
The National Assembly is currently amending the 1999 Constitution; don’t you think the South-East should take that advantage to increase the number of its states to six?
Yes, it is necessary and we have not been keeping quiet about that and we have been fighting and shouting to increase the states in South-East to six, but you know it is a constitutional issue. You know how hard it is to create a state in a civilian regime. Since the coming of civilian and democratic government, has there been any state creation? No! All states were created through military fiat, but we know that we are disadvantaged in terms of state. So if a system is put in place like the constitution review, we will bring it up. If the constitution permits, we will do all things possible to abide by the constitution. So we are anxious, we are not keeping quiet and we know our disadvantage and we are pushing it.
You were a seasoned civil servant, a chief of staff to a governor, a governor for eight years and now in the legislature. What can you tell Nigerians is the panacea for the socio-economic ills bedeviling the country?
The advice is already on the table and that is restructuring. If there are dissident voices, call them and discuss with them and find out how you can bring them in and that is what will solve the problems we are facing now. Restructuring is what everybody is shouting.
Should the restructuring you are talking about include resource control?
Yes! The resources are coming from somewhere. You are producing and you are not getting enough, will you keep quiet? You will be shouting every day. You see the people of Niger Delta shouting every day. We should restructure with resource control left with all those areas. We know the areas that are sensitive. Call the dissidents to a conference and discuss with them.
Including the proscribed Independent People of Biafra (IPOB)?
Yes, of course. Is there anything bad in discussing with IPOB? If you don’t talk with them, they will continue to give you trouble. You discuss with them.
You have been in the National Assembly for the past six years now. Some Nigerians seem not to be comfortable with the present Assembly. They are saying, the legislature is just there to pass anything for the Executive. How do you feel when the ninth National Assembly is being dismissed as a rubber- stamp parliament?
Of course, we are trying our best and there is nothing you do that Nigerians will not criticise you. In the 8th Senate, there were also criticisms. They want to criticise us to the extent that they almost render us worthless. There is nothing you do that is appreciated. Even when you are doing your best in the interest of the county, you see some people sitting outside saying you are eating all the money.
You remember what happened during the EndSARS protests, is it not the senators that were being attacked? So, the legislature is there for checks and balances and when you are doing that job, there must be problems. But you know the executive has a bigger hand, such that when you make a law, and they refuse to execute it, it becomes worthless. There are many laws that we have made that are not executed. It’s the executive that gives teeth to what we do. No legislature is a rubber-stamp. Politics in Nigeria and elsewhere, the Senate president belongs to a political party and there are many interests he has to protect. That he is now the Senate president, should he be anti-party? Nobody will do that. If they meet you and say let’s do it this way and if they don’t consult you, meet them and say let’s do it this way in the interest of peace.
There are many parties in the House of Representatives. APC, PDP, APGA and others are there. So, you have to balance all interests, which is not easy. They think if you are in the House of Representatives, you are there to oppose anything government does. At times, when they bring good idea, you have to support and the good idea may not go down well with the people, but with time, they realise that it is good.
Talking about Abia State, during your tenure as governor, you were reported to have promoted all the state civil servants at once. What informed that decision?
Yes, I did that. I was a civil servant before and that is my primary constituency and they voted for me. For me, they are very hardworking and how do I reward them for being consistent with me. The greatest thing you can do for a civil servant is to promote him. If you promote a civil servant on level 13 to 14, the difference may just N10. The salary difference may just be N10. And can’t government bear that and make the people happy? I’m happy you remember that. That is the first thing I did because I promised them at that time that when I get elected, I will promote them. And there was no promise I did not fulfill. Ask them; ask questions around.
Incidentally, you clocked 70 years at about the time Nigeria clocked 60 a few weeks ago. Where do you see Nigeria in another 60 years from now?
Nigeria clocked 60, but Nigeria was existing before 1960. I wish Nigeria well and will pray to God to give us good people that will continue to pilot the affairs of this country. Dubai which is the envy of the whole world today, it is somebody that made it and such a person can come from Nigeria and make it like Dubai. Many countries that were backward before are the same countries we go now to borrow money from. I want a situation where other countries come to borrow from us too. There was a time Nigeria went to one country and paid salaries of all their civil servants. That was the time of General Yakubu Gowon. He went to a country and the people complained out of frustration and he ordered that all salaries of civil servants be paid. Let’s be in that position again, where people will come and beg to borrow from us and not a situation we beg other countries to lend us money.
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