By David Tarkaa
Nigeria is currently at a crossroads over its continued existence as one nation, with agitations for secession and restructuring from different parts of the country. Convener of Fast Forward Nigeria and former president, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Orkuma Hembe, speaks on the restructuring debate, 2019 elections and the ‘Atiku Challenge’ in this interview with David Tarkaa.
What is the fast forward Nigeria project all about?
Fast Forward Nigeria project is an assemblage of young professionals in business, who are both in public and private sector but who are also politically inclined. You cannot do business in Nigeria and avoid politics. Over time, we have come to the realisation that politics influences the business environment a lot and we are not only professionals in our fields, we are also active politicians, so we came together under the banner of Fast Forward Nigeria because as far as we know, under the President Muhammadu Buhari government, there is some considerable progress especially in the fight against corruption, tackling insecurity and other burning issues. However, we find it particularly worrying that the economy has suffered a lot. At the initial stages, there was a blame game, they kept on saying it was the President Goodluck Jonathan-led government that depleted our resources and brought us to this state of the economy. We were actively involved in voting for President Buhari to lead this country Nigeria and we think he has played his part, he has set the stage and now it is time for us to look for people who are experienced and nationalistic, people who know much about the economy to take the centre stage and see how we can move the country forward, faster. We are not saying Buhari has failed, no. The country is moving but we say it should move at a faster pace.
What exactly do you seek to achieve with the Fast Forward Nigeria project?
In the end, we intend to influence politics positively, we intend to support candidates who we think have the ability to deliver, we intend to have a strong voice and if possible, go ahead and support who will become the next President of Nigeria. We do not want to leave things to just sentiments, we do not want to leave it to the politicians, we do not want to leave the issue of the leadership of this country in the hands of a selected few so we are mobilising and hoping that in the end, we will be able to deliver the required change which would be championed by people who have experience, pedigree and capacity to deliver when voted into office.
Talking about the President’s performance, what is the your take on the recent release of data by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) that the country is officially out of recession?
Well, when you talk of statistics gathered in Nigeria, I don’t want to criticise the NBS but there are a lot of questions that come to mind. Some of these people sit in the comfort of their offices and throw up data. For instance, they told us that Nigeria is officially out of recession but that is not what the common man wants to hear, the common man wants to put food on his table, the average youth wants a job and you are telling him that the country is out of recession yet it does not affect his wellbeing. I do not belong to the school of thought that deals with theory, what is happening practically is what is important to the common man. In the area of security, when the Boko Haram insurgents were defeated, we knew and when the Nigerian troops were advancing and taking back captured territories, we knew. You do not need to give us statistical figures to believe. We want results and not figures.
There has been a lot of agitations over the unity of Nigeria and restructuring. What is your position on that?
I’m a believer of restructuring but it has to be defined. Political restructuring is necessary in Nigeria, educational restructuring and economical restructuring is critical and I stand strongly in support of it. For instance, the IPOB agitation today, the Boko Haram insurgents and the Oduduwa people calling for restructuring is simply an expression of frustration by the people. People are sad, people have been unable to get from this government what they expected. At best, some times, you get excuses or hear them blame other people. It is simply an expression of how people feel that they have not been carried along in the scheme of things. That is one of the reasons why Fast Forward Nigeria is thinking that the next President of Nigeria should have the ability to unite all those grieving parts of the country. For this goal, we think Atiku Abubakar has the ability to bring together all the people who have grievances and set a new direction for our country that will be hinged on unity. Fast Forward Nigeria is in total support of restructuring, people need to be re-convinced, we need to redefine our unity. For now, people feel marginalised and sidelined. We are a country that is multilingual and multireligious, they feel alienated when politicians use petty sentiments to divide them. We are for restructuring and we feel strongly that Atiku Abubakar fits the bill because out of all those who have indicated interest to contest for presidency, he is the only man who has brought an issue-based campaign and the next election will be about issues. We are willing to work with someone like him because he is ready to engage with Nigerians and have a discourse regarding which direction the country should go.
If restructuring is so desirable, why do we have opposition in some quarters?
I think those who are against restructuring are simply enemies of the country who fear for their own selfish political interests. The All Progressive Congress (APC) promised to restructure this country but when they got into power, probably for fear of losing absolute power that they have at the centre, they have changed the beat of their drum. So those against restructuring are simply enemies of our nation. The people are saying redefine our existence, even our constitution is due for review. When people live together, nothing is static, you review even in marriages, you continue to refine and remodel to meet emerging trends. Those against restructuring are simply being unfair to this nation for their selfish reasons.
2019 campaign is around the corner, what kind of president do you think Nigeria requires at this stage of its democratic journey?
Nigeria needs somebody who is experienced and understands the thinking of Nigerians, somebody who is detribalised, somebody who is not a religious fanatic or bigot, somebody who builds bridges across all the divides. Secondly, Nigeria needs a President who understands the economy, somebody who knows what numbers to use to make our economy viable. Finally and thirdly, Nigeria needs a unifier, someone who can bring every body to the table and discuss what they want to restructure. These are the qualities that we feel strongly that the next president should possess.
What is your take on the military operation in the South East?
Well, no government the world over will tolerate what Nnamdi Kanu did by way of raising a militant group that was under going military training, I have hardly ever heard where the police was sent to quell those kind of uprisings. However, I want to say that the government did handle the Nnamdi Kanu and Biafra agitation matter as it ought to. If I were the President, I would not have arrested him in the first place. The arrest gave him popularity, the unfortunate part is now that he has been released, he has breached every single bail condition he was given and went as far as establishing a military wing of Biafra. Now, if you do not react and allow somebody to break the laws of the land in the manner which he did, that will not be fair, so whoever says or argues that the military is breaking the rule of law, I disagree. I simply say that the military is there to enforce the rule of law in this land and if any individual breaches it, that individual must be made to face the wrath of the law. The approach of the military may not be accepted by all but the fact still remains that he breached the laws of the land and he must face the music. This does not mean that I criticise the ideology behind IPOB or how they are thinking, they are grieved no doubt, but we must carry out our agitations within the confines of the law at least for now. As far as I can remember, we are still Nigerians and not Biafrans.
If we get to the point of restructuring, along what lines should the country be restructured?
Restructuring is not secession, these people are simply saying let us sit and renegotiate our existence. For instance, people say there are some states in Nigeria that are not viable so let us go back to regional government. When this is brought to the table, then we can discuss annd find the best approach and lines to follow. I want to believe strongly that IPOB members don’t believe in secession itself, they do not want this country to be divided because most of them live outside the eastern part of Nigeria. They, however, want to renegotiate. I listened to an interview recently where a politician said when the Yorubas agitated, they were allowed to become president and the Ijaws too became president through agitation and perhaps now that the Igbos are agitating, they may be given a chance to run the country. So for me, dialogue remains the best way out.
As NANS President, you supported the third term bid of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo against the position of his then vice, Atiku and a majority of Nigerians. Do you have any regrets for your actions?
Not a single regret. Obasanjo’s record as civilian president, though I stand to be corrected, is yet to be beaten. No president after him has done up to 10 per cent of his achievements. Obasanjo met N2 billion in the foreign reserve and left about N48 billion at the end of his tenure. Obasanjo brought GSM, which is today, one of the most successful stories in Nigeria’s history. Obasanjo got debt relief, the Paris club refund the country is enjoying today was initiated by Obasanjo. He had a formidable and viable economic team comprised of some of Nigeria’s best brains. I admired Obasanjo because of his love for this country and I supported him strongly. At that point, Atiku opposed third term vehemently but I never for once questioned his integrity. I always liked him because he was the engine room of Obasanjo’s administration, he discovered most of the brains that helped the government. Obasanjo set up a presidential panel to probe Atiku and the under tone then as we heard, was to indict him but up till this day, he has not been indicted. Atiku, even out government, has never stopped being relevant, he has never stopped contributing to national development, he has not stopped playing his role. Now Atiku has come out to say whoever has any evidence against him should bring it forth and I want to use this opportunity to call on a man who I admire so much, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo to take up the Atiku challenge and come forth with any evidence against him. There is a hashtag now called the ‘Atiku challenge’ and as a former student leader, I want to direct this to Obasanjo who also knows that I am his strong supporter to take up the Atiku challenge. People often ask me why Atiku? That he jumps from one political party to another but my argument has always been that there is no internal democracy in our political parties. A few people sit in their bedrooms and determine the fate of who they present to contest elections. Our argument is that if a respected man like Obasanjo has anything on Atiku, let Nigerians know about it or allow the man to get to the ballot and let Nigerians decide whether he is good enough for them, rather than using political machinery to circumvent processes to prevent other Nigerians from appearing on the ballot, a process which is very undemocratic. Every Nigerian, including Atiku, should be allowed to contest elections under a free and fair environment. Recently, there was a governorship primary election in Anambra state and Tony Nwoye beat his opponent Andy Uba with 2000 votes to over 900 votes. Today the APC appeal panel is speaking from both sides of its mouth over an election that was conducted and aired live on national TV and adjudged the freest and fairest in recent times. Tony Nwoye is also a former NANS President that we admire and we also believe in the not too young to run campaign.
Lastly do you have any comment on the state of affairs in Benue State?
Well, when you make mention of Benue State, it grabs my interest immediately. I am from Benue state and in all fairness to the citizens, I think a lot of the people have been unable to access from this government what they clamored for. Considering the kind of support the present administration not just at the federal level but Benue state got in the last elections, I think they have completely failed. Benue state government is owing salaries up to 9 months if not more and you get to hear conflicting stories. Just few days ago, the NLC said the wage bill was about N2.8 billion while the state government says its N8.2 billion. I wonder who to believe. There is so much confusion in Benue state and I think the present administration in Benue has displayed the highest level of incompetence in the history of governance in the state. By the next election, I believe the people are waiting to see what the present administration will use to convince the people to vote them again.