Barrister Uche Okwukwu is the secretary-general of Ohaneze-Ndigbo Worldwide, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation. In this interview with ANAYO ONUKWUGHA, the Ikwerre-born legal practitioner, going down memory lane narrated his experiences during the June 12 struggle
Did you play any role during the June 12 struggle?
Every struggle and every politics is local. I have been consistent that the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election was an injustice against Nigerians. Particularly, it was an injustice against MKO Abiola and the Yorubas at large.
You will agree with me that just about the time June 12 was annulled, there was similar injustice metted out to the Ogonis. Regrettably today, nobody remembers that injustice even though it was a huge metaphor that was used to explain the disaster called Abacha.
I do pray that one day, Nigerians will come to appreciate the grave injustices that should be addressed. Just as I have said that the Abandoned Property Decree is a huge injustice against Ndigbo. Giving Ndigbo 20 Pounds after the war was a huge injustice.
However, we thank President Buhari for addressing the injustice against Abiola and Yorubas occasioned by the annulment. The moral burden to address other injustices.
How did you get involved in the struggle?
During the June 12 struggles, I played a lot of roles. On March 31, 1998 I was the only Nigerian on record, that presented a paper condemning the atrocities of the military government in Nigeria on the floor of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland.
Others that came to participate in the 54th Convention of the Human Rights Commission were people like Clement Nwankwo, Ayo Obe of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) then, Dr. Willy Nwidudu, who has left the country on exile; he was an Ogoni activist and some others.
In the Nigerian government delegation were Professor Yadudu, who was then the legal adviser to Gen Abacha, Chief Tom Ikimi, who was then the minister of Foreign Affairs and Barrister Tom Orange, who was the Rivers State Commissioner for Education then; he was part of the Federal Government delegation.
I left this country to Switzerland through several routes, which still remains a secret, just to explain to the world what was happening in Nigeria.
Ledum Mitee slept with me in the same room. Thereafter, he left Switzerland and I remained there to pursue other things. But that is by the way.
What did you benefit from the struggle?
I was the lawyer to the Ogoni 20. They used to be Ogoni 20 but one died. I defended Ogonis for several years and suffered several incarcerations. I was put on trial and the first Magistrate that heard the matter was Kate Abiri, who is now the Chief Judge of Bayelsa State.
Apart from that, I coordinated the first anniversary of the murder of the Ogoni 9. In fact, my house was used as the Facilitating Secretariat because MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People) didn’t have a secretariat. My two-bedroom in this compound was used as MOSOP secretariat.
Amongst those that were there is Patrick Naagbaton, Robert Azibola, Felix Tuodolor, who was the first President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Stanley Nwogu, who left for Sweden later, Isaac Osuaka. All of them were in my house. But nobody remembers all these things today.
When no Church agreed to organise the church service for the anniversary, we held the church service in my hometown, Elele, incidentally by a Yoruba pastor of the Celestial Church of Christ. Nobody wants to remember these things today. The pastor is still alive but those people are undocumented and nobody remembers them.
I was director of Legal Services of the Niger Delta Human and Environmental Rescue Organisation. I was one of the strongest voices in the Niger Delta, explaining the issues of some of the unresolved contradictions occasioned by military domination of politics in Nigeria.
When the Ijaws came up with the Kaiama Declaration, I defended the first victim of the declaration. His name is Kenneth Desi, he is an Egi (Rivers State). He was arrested for distributing the leaflets of the Kaiama Declaration. He stood trial for about one year at the Omoku Magistrate Court. Uche Onyeagucha later came in. I am sure that a lot of people have forgotten.
What was your perception of the annulment of June 12 election by the military government?
The annulment of June 12 is wrong but it is one of the injustices; several others exists that call for address. The imbalance in the structure of the country is also an injustice. A situation where a region has five states instead of six. No other region in Nigeria has five states apart from the South-east. It is injustice.
Sir, are there other injustices that you want the Buhari administration to address?
I will tell you one glaring injustice in Port Harcourt that will shock you. In 1979, Rivers State had five senatorial districts. Every state had five senatorial districts under the 1979 Constitution. Old Port Harcourt Local Government Area was a senatorial district and it was Dr. Obi Wali that was elected to represent Port Harcourt Senatorial District.
No other Senatorial District in the history of this country, I want to be emphatic about it, has only two local government areas. Only Port Harcourt Senatorial District that has two local government areas. So, they have only divided into two since the 70s till today. That is a huge injustice.
Port Harcourt ought to have a minimum of four local government areas because all the other old local government areas in Rivers State, let me not go outside Rivers State, has a minimum of four local government areas.
The Old Degema has Asari-Toru, Akuku-Toru, Degema and Bonny; the Old Ikwerre-Etche has Omuma, Ikwerre, Etche and Emohua; the Old Ahoada has Ahoada-East, Ahoada-West, Abua/ODUAL and Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni local government areas.
So, you will agree with me that injustice has been metted against the Ikwerres. It becomes necessary that to address some of these injustices, through state and local government creation, that something should be done.
What do you think is the way forward?
We need to have a group discussion about the structure of Nigeria and what the different groups have suffered and it should be addressed. We need extra-constitutional, extra-political, extra-legislative measures and interventions that can be taken to address injustices. You will agree with me that the speed, in which June 12 was recognised, passed into law and accepted by the President, was fast-tracked. Something should be done to address the injustices that affected people.
I have spoken about abandoned property years back and I said, you cannot hold another man’s property in peace-time when you said I have pardoned you for what you did. Something should be done to address that. Remember that abandoned property is punitive. When you take a man’s sweat, confiscate it and you say, oh, I have forgiven you, for the war, no Victor, no vanquish, yet you hold his property, I think, it is absurd and unacceptable.
Several things went wrong during the military regime, I thank God for bringing Buhari, to address some of these wrongs. I pray that he addressed several other wrongs.
Any other advice?
Well, thank God the APC was able to secure a leadership that is less antagonistic because the last leadership was obviously very antagonistic. Of course, you know that when you don’t have a cordial relationship with the Parliament, the Nigerian National Assembly, you don’t achieve much.
I pray that the cordial relationship be sustained, which will help him get Bills passed into Law early, particularly the budget. But beyond that, the President should as a matter of urgency take steps to address the decay in the health sector. Nigeria is losing hundreds of billions of naira every year to foreign hospitals. Of course, his case is an example.
All over the world, military hospitals and teaching hospitals are the best. All the period Fidel Castro was sick, he never left Cuba for any foreign treatment. Foreign treatment violates the citizen’s right to treatment. We need at least six Centres of Excellence to address the health challenges of this country.
I don’t agree that there is any plan to Fulanise West Africa and Islamise Africa. Why I don’t agree is that even before the whitemen came, Islam has taken a chunk of West Africa. Islam is older than Christianity in West Africa. In terms of practical steps to Islamise Nigeria, the President does not call for that.