For a long time, Chief Chuka Odom, former Minister of Environment, Housing and Urban Development as well as ex- Minister of State, Federal Capital Territory, has been taciturn in the public space. Apart from making interventions sparingly, through newspaper articles, he refused to grant press interviews.
However, the conduct and outcome of the last elections as well as subsequent developments have drawn him out to speak on the state of the nation.
In this interview with FRED ITUA, Odom speaks on the just concluded election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the need to zone the Senate Presidency to the South East, among others.
What’s your assessment of the recent elections?
To be very honest with you, this election disappointed many Nigerians. It was a low point in this country. Low point in the sense that it does not measure up in comparison with previous ones. Countries grow. In 1999, when we conducted an election, the military midwifed it. Four years after in 2003, we had another election. It should have been an improvement. In the last exercise, INEC openly told Nigerians that it would conduct an election that will be accepted by every Nigerian. They made those pronouncements and refused to listen to journalists who saw some loopholes. These processes were codified. It means a law was passed that electronic transmission of results will now be used. INEC embraced it to the delight of Nigerians, only to casually discard it at the last minute, blaming it on glitches.
That’s not how countries grow and make progress. About N400 billion was expended on this election. Western countries call for snap elections and they don’t cost up to that amount. Election shouldn’t be an event. It should be a process. When anyone turns 18, he should be able to walk into any INEC office and register. It should be like a driver’s licence or your bank card. INEC should have offices in the 36 states. They should recruit about six months before the elections. You see the vehicles that brought INEC officials to polling units. They looked rickety. Some INEC officials are complicit and sold themselves to the political class to ensure that elections are not conducted in a proper way. We lost an opportunity to show that we are serious in this country. It doesn’t matter who won. The political class has achieved their motive by awarding electoral victories to themselves. Now, they’re preaching peace and justice. How can you have peace without justice? To be honest with you, this may repeat itself when we have our next general election. INEC can have a budget to have full offices in all the 36 states, with compliment of staff, like the CBN. You cannot go to the streets six weeks before elections to recruit people. INEC is a sensitive organisation. There are so many questions to be asked. How can you use soldiers to take out INEC staff to unknown destinations and the results are uploaded as authentic? This is a joke. We are making fun of this country. Because the citizens have allowed this to persist, politicians will continue to do the same thing. This election represents the worst in our democratic history.
Are you saying that there is no aspect of the elections that meets your expectations?
Look at it like an apple affected by maggots. You use your teeth to remove the affected part, rinse your mouth and eat the other part. Have you not eaten maggots already? I’m not saying that the entire process collapsed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have noticed the successes of Labour Party in many areas. It was practically like a warfront. See Abia State where Labour Party won. The people had to fight for it. I’m not saying that some people didn’t win. They did. If you’re a candidate in an election and you’re popular and you don’t have the resources to protect them, you’ll not win. We’re not talking about individual elections. We’re talking about a system breakdown that was engineered to happen. In many areas, voters were intimidated. In some areas, policemen were not armed. Should we revert to the era of sending armed soldiers to polling units as recipe for violence and criminality at polling units? After 24 years of our democracy, we should have evolved a culture embraced by every actor about things acceptable or not. The institutions should have the means to enforce the law. What we have is a collapse of the institutions. When a state loses the exclusive rights of coercion and non-state actors take over, then there’ll be chaos. That was what happened during the elections. The politicians were desperate and they compromised institutions of state to achieve their desires. In Lagos, they attacked ethnic groups like the Igbo and other ethnic minorities. We’ve videos of high profile people who called for attacks on Igbo. These are the kind of things that led to the holocaust. We don’t hold these people accountable because the system has yielded itself to non-state actors. Your observations are correct. These things can only happen in a system that works. Take for instance the issue of traffic offences which is the simplest crime. You can’t run red in any street in Europe. You can’t because you’ll be penalised. I’m talking about the simplest of offences. In Nigeria, it’s different and there are no sanctions. Human beings will do what they’re doing when they believe they can get away with crimes. We live in a country where human lives are wasted and nobody is held accountable. If it continues, it becomes a culture.
Would you support a visa ban on those who carried out these attacks?
I’ll not only support but also welcome any intervention. We belong to the comity of nations. We’re not an island. Those countries have every legitimate right to intervene when necessary, even if it means seizing offenders’ assets. Russia invaded Ukraine. Assets of Russia and their supporters were seized. Their oligarchs too. The money will be used in rebuilding Ukraine. We don’t live in a global jungle. My point is that, any intervention announced by Western countries will be welcome. They should target the offenders’ assets, their family members and the hospitals they use abroad. They can’t create chaos here and move abroad.
The sharing of political offices is the main thing now. The Senate Presidency is the issue. How would you advice the APC on that issue?
After these elections, the Igbo will never be taken for granted again. What happened in a place like Lagos has vindicated people like Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. This is a young man that started raising the alarm about the marginalisation of the Igbo. People still feel that after a war that was fought over 50 years ago, the Igbo should still be punished. So, power is just rotated among two ethnic groups in Nigeria to the chagrin of the Igbo that have contributed to the development of this country. Since APC has won the presidency until otherwise decided, two Muslims have emerged as president-elect and vice president-elect. Since the formation of APC, the Igbo have been programmed to be onlookers. The issue of zoning the Senate Presidency to the South East is a marginal token. It shouldn’t be a subject of discussion. The president and vice president are not Igbo. When they form the government, they won’t consider Igbo for serious positions. Those making the argument for the South East are right, unless the APC wants to take the issue of marginalisation to another level. The first thing is to zone the Senate Presidency to the South East and find a way to build back confidence of the Igbo. If Tinubu is really honest and sincere about his call for unity, I recommend three basic steps. First, zone key offices like the Senate President to the South East as a first step. Then begin to address the issue of marginalisation of the Igbo and other Southern minorities. That’s my opinion.
Talking about the Senate Presidency, Orji Uzor Kalu is the natural, qualified candidate. He has all the qualities. That’s my honest opinion. I’ll encourage South Easterners to rally round him and do the right thing. Kalu was a member of the House of Representatives in the Third Republic. He’s a former governor of a state for two terms. He’s the most qualified man for the job. He’s very good at retail politics. He can foster unity and stand up against tyranny.
Some people argue that the South East has not contributed marginally to the success of APC…
That takes us to the 97 versus 5 per cent Buhari said when he got into office. Tinubu has said he won’t do that. Once elections are over, you’ve to carry everyone along. That argument about what the Igbo contributed to the APC is uncalled for. For an individual to have won elections under the APC in the South East means he worked for it.
You spoke about the youths who are disappointed. How do we sustain the interest of the youths going forward?
The youths have not gone home. From my own reading, they’re still hopeful that something good will happen. The youths have come to a turning point where they won’t back down. Until you decide what to do with educated youths, you’re not serious about governance. If there is no strong arrangement to handle them and expect to have a safe country, you’re a joker. Even if the youths migrate, no countries can take more than five million youths. Any incoming administration in May that doesn’t have a plan for the youths will have more problems.
During the campaigns, restructuring was a major issue. How would you advise the incoming administration to handle that?
I want to be very honest with you. Nigeria runs a unitary kind of government. I believe in fiscal federalism. I believe the ethnic minorities or the people should be able to define their future. Our problem is not restructuring. Our problem is weak institutions. Before we can restructure, we need a minimum level of stability first. Institutions will give teeth to restructuring. The only way to restructure is through a constitutional means and that’s through the National Assembly. We need to restore faith in key government institutions after what happened during the elections. No country stops restructuring. You do it in phases. The United States and the United Kingdom are still restructuring. You’ve to do the right thing. By now, we should have been able to address these grey areas. But because nobody takes responsibility, governance goes into a holiday. Some of the leaders see it that when they’ve positions it is their birthright. The system of governance has been so devalued.
Labour Party is seen as the third force. We saw APGA, PPA and others like that before, but they soon fizzled out. How will you advise the Labour Party and forces behind it to keep the momentum?
I think we should put this in perspective. This is not about Labour Party, but Peter Obi. If Obi had taken his trade to another party, the same thing would have happened. People saw in Obi hope and a saviour. That was what these young people did. These young people were part of #ENDSARS movement. Obi spoke to their pains. This is not about party. There is no way Labour Party could have grown the way it did without Obi. Labour Party did well. This is because it had human resources. The institutions were so weak to protect their votes and they were stolen. There was an attempt to retire the old order and they quickly regrouped after the presidential elections and fought back. You can’t take away from people whose only job is politics. If Obi continues to build on the project, with the masses behind him, they’ll still be there for him.
You talked about the failures of INEC. Some people suggested that all elections should be held in one day. Do you agree with that? The South East is in chaos. How would you advise the people to address these issues?
I don’t think holding all elections in one day will solve the problem. It has become obvious that INEC lacks the capacity to manage all elections in one day. The main task is how to make the electronic voting water proof. INEC needs to build a strong system. Secondly, INEC needs to look at the human components of the elections. INEC cannot continue to bring Professors from universities a few days to the elections. They should have proper staff and electoral officers. Every election is local. Conducting elections is local. It is not rocket science. We just need strong institutions. This is just a proof that the system isn’t working. I believe strongly that what happened in this election was planned. There was a deliberate attempt to market this chaos and they succeeded. If we want to carry out electoral reforms, we need the political will first. We saw the resistance to electronic voting in the National Assembly. Any serious government in Nigeria should set up a judicial panel of inquiry to be vested with enough powers to question people. Until we develop a culture where things like does not happen, we won’t make progress. That is how countries grow. But I doubt if there is the political will.
The problem in the South East is predictable. You’ve denied them everything. There is the issue of marginalisation by other ethnic groups. Even in the South East, the leaders are not doing well. We need people in the South East who are compassionate about the people. It’s going to be an organic growth. In the South East, the leaders have joined those marginalising them. They’ve no allegiance to the people, but they represent those marginalising the people.
Back to the issue of zoning. There are claims that South East leaders may sabotage the Senate Presidency bid. Do you have these fears?
I’ve no such fears. If there are saboteurs, we will know them. The South is the playground for every saboteur. Because we’re marginalised and have this inferiority complex, anything given to us is a token. That’s why there’s stability in other zones. Let’s hope that with the experiences we’ve had, we will give peace a chance. We know our problems in the South East. My thinking is that, that won’t stop us from identifying those qualified to occupy positions in the South East. 2023 is not 1999. Things have changed. We’ll gradually exit that mindset.