BY PAUL UWADIMA
Chief Chekwas Okorie is the national chairman of United Progressive Party (UPP). In this interview with PAUL UWADIMA in Abuja, je reflects on the anti-graft crusade by this administration in the last two years. He says while the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has made some successes, especially with the whistleblowing initiative. He argues that there is still a lot of work to be done with regards to building institutions that will make it difficult for people to be corrupt. He also speaks on state of the economy, his party and the forthcoming governorship election in Anambra State.
It is about two years since the APC defeated the PDP and took over the administration of the country, how will you assess the performance of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration?
If I have to be charitable and criticize constructively, I will say that there is some sanity in the management of public resources. The introduction of the Biometric Verification Number (BVN) and the Treasury Single Account (TSA), have helped to a large extent to bring some sanity. People in public offices, those who are in position to manage our common resources are no longer brazen as they used to be in pilfering public treasury. So there is improved accountability. Notwithstanding the lopsidedness and parochialism and nepotism, one can also say that the customs is generating more revenue. But be that as it may, the customs is being managed in a manner that made many sections of Nigeria feel alienated as federal character has been jettisoned, but other than that we can say there is noticeable improvement in the customs service.
What is your view on the administration’s fight against corruption?
On the fight against corruption, the EFCC has improved its performance and it is showing. The policy of whistle blowing is an innovation that is yielding positive results. But in fighting corruption, the aspect of getting to the root cause of corruption appears not to be in the front burner. What we see is fighting those who are perceived to be corrupt.
But blocking or building institutions that will make it difficult for people to be corrupt is still a long way to come. Outside that, the Presidency has become very slow. The level of insecurity is high and directly associated with the hardship in the land.
What of the provision of infrastructure and the economy as a whole?
In terms of road infrastructure there is nothing to show for it, the economy is in shambles and workers cannot claim to earn living wage and those of us in business our businesses have since gone under in practical terms yet I am still expected to pay the same income tax I was paying when my income was high and when they come to assess you they don’t care that you are no longer earning what you were earning before. All these are happening under this administration.
The president has been unwell and the acting president is now in charge, how do assess this smooth transition of power any time the president is away on health grounds unlike in previous governments where such travels tend to create power vacuum?
Well the constitution is clear that whenever the president is unable to carry out his functions or even when he is able and decided to delegate those functions to the vice president, that he can do that within the constitution. And I see that as what is going on between the president and the vice in this period of his being unwell. But when the president was to go outside the country, which means not within the Nigerian territory or within the Presidential Villa, the president did what is required of him to do and that was to transmit a letter to the Senate that the vice president would act on his behalf and that was what happened. But Nigerians are already worried that the president is not carrying out the functions of his office as a result of ill health and they have not hidden this. They are also worried about the secrecy behind the president’s ill health.
One of the campaign promises of President Buhari which he has obviously achieved, is the defeat of Boko Haram and the government has pointedly said that it has defeated the terrorists. Do you agree with this assertion?
Well if you say it has been degraded, yes, to a large extent, but to say they have been defeated is not the right term because they continue to attack and hit at military formations and unarmed civilians. And the fact that some of the Chibok Girls are still with the terrorists, even after the military takeover of their base in Sambisa Forest tells you volumes about the security situation in the North East.
2019 general elections is two years ahead, as a seasoned politician, do you see the APC retaining power at the polls?
I think the APC will be day dreaming if they think that they will return to power in 2019, no matter how they go about it. Don’t you see that the APC government is too slow? It is unfortunate that two years into the administration, many critical boards of parastatals have not been constituted. Even the APC as a party has not been able to constitute its board of trustees, right from the time it was registered in 2013. Four years of the existence of the APC, it has not been able to constitute its Board of Trustees. That shows you how it also approaches things of national importance.
What do you suggest the government should do to improve the economy that is presently in recession?
There has been a lot of suggestions on how to improve the economy. Now there is heavy debt burden hanging on this nation. So many people, contractors, workers and those who have rendered one service or the other are being owed their money. Occasionally we hear about bailout but it is not even sufficient. But government is busy piling up money to improve foreign reserve. You cannot be building up foreign reserve when people are dying. If you have foodstuff in your house and you are dying of hunger and you say, you are saving the food for the rainy days, suppose you die before the rain? So, I would have expected the government to reflate the economy by reducing those debts. No worker ought to be owed money or salary for work done. No contractor who has done an honest job that certificate has been issued on certain level of execution of projects ought to be owed money. Because the contractor you are owing money, is owing somebody somewhere. Either he is owing the bank where he borrowed money or is owing the suppliers of building materials who supplied him materials to execute the contract. So these have chain reactions. Let the government reflate the economy.
The UPP appears to be recognising state working committees being set up across the country, what is the reason for this development?
In Nigeria there is too much mobility of politicians mostly after elections. The ones that the public get to know about are the ones that usually affect elected people and prominent politicians when they move from one party to another. But not so prominent people make all these movements and nobody notices. It is the party that knows how many of its members have depleted especially among the officer cadre or how many more people have joined the party. So it is not a one way thing. Some leave some come in depending on new awareness. After the last general election the UPP being a new party, it was barely a year old before the election, didn’t win anything. From state assembly to the Presidency, we had nothing. That meant that some of our members, especially the officer cadre migrated to where they felt that they might be more comfortable. In the course of our doing this too, the party began to rebrand itself and that attracted to it some people. Within this period factions that broke away from APGA, and some other political parties began to come into the party. So we don’t want to wait till our next election convention, we had election convention in December 2014, our next election convention will be by December 2018. And that would be too close to general election. And we decided that this is the time to begin to reconstitute our ward, local government and state structures, in order to prepare the party for the elections ahead. This exercise is ongoing. We only make public the ones that have been concluded. We completed that of Anambra and we made it public, that of Imo has been completed and we had made it public. In due course more states will be concluding their own exercises. Everyone knows that they are all on acting capacity until there is election convention which will emanate from ward congresses to national convention, which is by December 2018. So, all we are doing is to prepare the party for democratic encounters and of course the first one taking off now is Anambra State governorship election.
How is UPP preparing for the Anambra State governorship election and what are the chances of your party?
UPP has made a quantum leap in its image and profile from the last governorship election in 2013 in which we participated but our performance was not so good, again we were barely one year old before that election, because the party was registered in October 2012. But between that time and now our ideological underpinning has become more public than before. We have looked at the entire Nigerian polity and found out that most Nigerians, overwhelming majority of Nigerians want a restructured country. Overwhelming Nigerians want a country where the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria will have some sense of self determination. We already had in our manifesto resource control, true federalism and devolution of power. All these are already there, and we have given them sharper focus. So all of these things have impacted in Anambra State and the pro-self-determination groups, some of them are in the Biafran agitation, some are not, found UPP the only political party in Nigeria that has a manifesto and ideological thrust that would serve their best interest. So they began to surge into the party and this is happening across the country, but it is more prominent in Anambra and that also means attracting aspirants.
One other factor that has been to the advantage of UPP is that we are one of the very few political parties where there is no rancor. There is no dispute pending in any court even if it is a magistrate court.
So you can say that we are about the most peaceful political party today in the country. So nobody wants to go to where there will be trouble. And those who are joining us from those troubled spot, we are also trying to show them the way to be disciplined and their coming in has not altered our peaceful political state. The other advantage we have which is related to the one about being peaceful is that the APC for instance which is the ruling party at the centre has not brought the change it promised. And it has been most hostile to the South East people, in terms of appointments, in term of siting of infrastructure, even the proposed 2017 budget paints very gloomy picture for the South East. So, the APC holds no attraction at all. Not just to Anambra but to the country. Then the PDP story is in the public domain. They are waiting for what the Supreme Court will say about the leadership of the party and whatever the Supreme Court says, it simply means that one faction will win and the other faction will lose. And whichever one that wins the one that wins will take control and the losers move on. Some people are not waiting to see the winners or losers, so they are moving out. PDP is not a party to be reckoned with in the forthcoming governorship election in Anambra State. I can tell you that the battle for Anambra governorship is a straight fight between UPP and APGA. But because we have stronger, more acceptable and more popular message our chances of winning are far brighter than APGA.
You said that there is no rancor in the rank and file of the UPP, but we know that political parties’ problems start after primaries to select candidates especially where the losers felt cheated, what is UPP doing to ensure transparent primaries beginning with the governorship primaries in Anambra State?
First and foremost, in UPP I made a vow that there will be nothing like imposition of candidates. In free and fair primaries only popular candidates can emerge. While we are building the party to make it popular you also think about the candidate of the party who is a product of the people. What we want to do is to ensure that our primaries are transparent, free and fair. Because we are dealing with only governorship election it makes things a lot easier for us. We are going to go the extra mile to give it very wide coverage by the media both print and electronic to ensure that the world will witness along with us the transparency of our process. This is to ensure that whoever emerges will know that he is the popular choice of the party and whoever tries to make trouble, after the process is seen to be so open and transparent, will make himself a laughing stock.