Ben ObI: The real reason Jonathan accepted defeat
• Why IBB, Atiku, Ciroma Asked Me To Work For Jonathan
• How I started the Movement Against Obasanjo’s Third-term Bid
Senator Ben Ndi Obi was generally seen as the brain behind the peaceful conduct of the 2015 general elections that brought the President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) to the seat of power. He was and still remains a chieftain of the then ruling — now in opposition —
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) but used his role as former President Goodluck Jonathan’s Special Adviser on Inter-party Affairs to get political gladiators at all levels to sign peace deals that culminated in the famous Abuja Peace Accord. Ben Obi, in this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU, the News Editor of The Guardian, speaks on that initiative, as well as, on the prevailing political and socio-economic situation in the country.
During the administration of President Jonathan, you played a major role in what was to become a very peaceful transition. I remembered you were going from one state to the other canvassing peace, and to some people, that accounted for the relative peace that followed the 2015 Presidential election, as well as, those of Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun and Anambra states in the first instance. But what would you say was missing in those peace deals you midwifed, considering what is happening now?
I want to start by saying that when I was appointed in October 2011, it took a long period of time to settle in with President Goodluck Jonathan because if you recalled, in the same PDP, we had the northern leaders searching for a northern consensus candidate. And these candidates (or aspirants) were President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Gen. Aliyu Mohammed Gusau and Governor Bukola Saraki, as he then was. These four aspirants were being considered by the northern elders led by Mallam Adamu Ciroma in producing a consensus candidate. Gen. Babangida had High Chief Raymond Dokpesi as his Director-General; Atiku Abubakar had Chris Muhammad as his DG, Saraki had Udenta-Udenta, and Gusau had me as his DG.
So when they finally settled for Atiku as a consensus candidate, they then, directed the four of them to go to Atiku’s house and resolve on who would be the consensus DG and the other three would be deputy DGs.
So, we retired to Atiku Abubakar’s residence in Asokoro and President Babangida — who was always chairing the forum anytime the four of them met — was also steering the meeting, said well at this point in time, each aspirant should nominate who would be the consensus DG. So Babangida nominated me, Atiku nominated me, Gusau nominated me, and Saraki nominated me. It was Babangida who announced it to four of us.
So, coming from that background, you could see the uncomfortability of President Jonathan in bringing me on board. But when we had meetings (when he started talking to me), he said his idea was to bring me in as his Political Adviser but he had realised that he was likely going to run into trouble along the line with the political parties because they were becoming too interested. So, he wanted to re-establish the office of the special adviser, inter-party affairs and would want me to take charge of that. I said, ‘Mr. President, the buck ends on your desk.
When he now offered me that (position), I went back to all these leaders — President Babangida, Vice President Atiku, Gen. Gusau and Saraki and to all the 15 northern leaders that were meeting — because I attended all their meetings, and there was a standing instruction from Adamu Ciroma and President Babangida that all the meetings that we had must be conducted in English language. I was present in both the meeting of the four and the meeting of the 15. So, a meeting of four became a meeting of five and a meeting of 15 became a meeting of 16 because of my presence.
So, to each and everyone of them, I said: ‘This is an offer I got from President Goodluck Jonathan. What do I do, what is your advice? What do you people suggest?’ Everyone of them said, ‘go and help him.’
That is the truth; the four of them and all the northern leaders, Adamu Ciroma, MD Yusuf, Ango Abdullahi… all of them approved it.
It’s unfortunate, and I have been sad and pained to see what is happening and I hoped and prayed that the leaders and elders of that state would urgently intervene. People must respect that it is God who gives you power and if God gives you power, that power is to protect the lives of the people and not to massacre them. The maximum period Governor Nyesom Wike will stay on that seat is just eight years. Why must people loose their lives? Amaechi should be thankful to God. He was speaker for eight years and governor for eight years. He is now Minister for Transport. So it’s time for sober reflection. Why do we need to do all of these to ourselves? Yet these were allies
Even though I understand a bit of Hausa, there was a standing instruction that all their meetings should be held in English Language. So, there was nothing that was said in anyway or manner that was to exclude me from knowing.
True to type, a lot of President Jonathan’s political associates were saying: ‘can he really trust Senator Ben Obi? On the other hand, I had played politics in one way or the other with all the leaders in the opposition party, including the then Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, now President. Our paths had crossed; we had worked together.
So, when I came on board, I sought audience with President Jonathan and I said: ‘Sir, you have insisted on having a transparent government and you keep singing the song, one man, one vote, one woman, one vote, one youth, one vote. We have to concretise it. We have to make Nigerians see that you are sincere and honest in allowing INEC run a free, fair and credible election all the way down.’
Were you convinced that the former president was honest from the beginning?
Yes; it was practical. I told him I wanted to start conducting workshops. The first state was Edo. So, I wrote him, and he approved it. I went to Edo State, invited all the candidates, including Adams Oshiomhole who was the governor. Everybody spoke — and I was doing this hand-in-gloves with Prof. Atahiru Jega, the chairman of INEC at the time, who was so excited about it.
One day when I was with him, he asked, ‘How were you able it assemble all of them, and they come in and they all agreed?’ I said, ‘honestly I don’t even know. What I tried to do was, for every state I go to, I talk to them directly, meet them one by one. Once you are a candidate, you are a candidate. I get their commitment.’
So, it was a huge success, and the President called me to say, “How did you do this? I told him it was all in line with responsibility. So he said I should write formally for the workshop to be extended to all states where elections would take place. At the time, elections were to happen in Anambra, Osun, Edo, Ekiti and Ondo states.
On June 12, 2014, I held the first National Summit of all political parties and I sought audience with the President. I said, ‘Mr. President, in view of the fact that we are having Boko Haram and some parties have reduced this to cheap political talks, there is need for us to divorce our politics from the security situation we have found ourselves in the country today and that is what I want to pursue now, If I have your blessing to go ahead.’ So, he said, ‘yes, go ahead.’ He said I should speak to his National Security Adviser. So, you could see that all my workshops and summits were in conjunction with the National Security Adviser.
Now, the problem was, it was just two months after APC had been inaugurated into full-blooded political party. So, I wrote to the leaders of APC reminding them of the significance of June 12 and why the summit was necessary. But to my pleasant surprise, the National Chairman of the APC then, Chief Bisi Akande – a man I have a lot of respect for – brought the matter up before the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party and it was unanimously adopted by the NEC of APC. I then sought appointment with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (as he then was) at his Aso drive residence. I said, ‘Sir, I have come to formally invite you to participate in this all parties’ summit and it is going to be chaired by General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Dr. Alex Ekuweme. When I finished speaking, he said to me, ‘Ben, we all know you, we know what you stand for, we know you will not do a thing that would not be transparent. So I will come.’
That was how we held that summit which all of them attended — President Jonathan, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and all the other leaders — and they all signed the communiqué.
When we were at the waiting room before we went into the forum, President Jonathan said, ‘how did you manage to get all of them?’ Gen. Buhari said, ‘This summit was approved by the NEC of the party; it is because we know Senator Obi is a straight forward person.’After that, I started working towards organising an all-political parties summit.
How did all of these consultations lead up to the ultimate Abuja Peace Accord?
The Peace Accord took place on January 14, 2015; the Summit was the first one. I must say this of President Jonathan: He would always approve my suggestions because I would come open to him to say ‘this is what I want to achieve.’ I didn’t want it to get to a point where some people would say, ‘why did you push the President into this?’
I said to the President, ‘I want to do National Summit for the election and I’m not going to use any of our Nigerian leaders. I want to see how I can get in Kofi Annan, Emeka Anyaoku, Ibrahim Gambari, and General Obiakor.’ These are Nigerians, but no political party would say this one belongs to party A; I made sure I did not include such a person.
Gen. Obiakor was the first ever African Special Adviser on security to the United Nations, Gambari was the Undersecretary, Emeka Anyaoku was Common Wealth Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, Secretary General, United Nations.
I got Kofi Annan, talked to him and he agreed. So, I went to the President and said Mr. Kofi Annan is coming to the event and was not too sure. But when I wrote for the protocol and other things, he said, are you sure he is coming? He called his chief of staff and said, ‘once it is confirmed that Kofi Annan is here, if I have an engagement be it campaign or anything, cancel it for me immediately.
Lo and behold, on the January 14, everybody was there. That’s how we signed what now became what we know as the ABUJA Peace Accord. It says that the election should be violence-free; result, once transparent, should be accepted; INEC should conduct transparent, free, fair, credible elections; and that late campaigns should be avoided.
But would you say that the January 14 peace accord was largely kept?
With the hate campaigns that preceded the presidential election?
O yes; we went further. Having done that, I worked hand-in-gloves with Bishop Hassan Kukah and founded the national peace committee to follow up on the Abuja Peace Accord. Now the follow up originally had Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar as chairman, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe as deputy chairman with some others — about 22 highly-placed Nigerians from the judiciary and all of that. So, we were meeting with Presidential candidates before the election. And whenever anybody made hate statements publicly we called the person to order individually and collectively. So, we were monitoring everything, including INEC, from beginning to the end, and we had a soft spot for President Jonathan and President Buhari.
Would President Jonathan’s prompt acceptance of the result of that election be a result of that Peace Accord?
Absolutely! We were the first to move him; as soon as he made that statement, we moved in. In fact, it was General Buhari who called us because the idea was to go to Gen. Buhari to talk to him and say, ‘look please make sure your party men and women are not saying anything volatile,’ and then go on to President Jonathan. The results were trickling in at the time.
So, Gen. Buhari called us at the secretariat at the Sheraton Hotel — he actually called Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar — to say, ‘I have just received a call from President Jonathan congratulating me; the result has not been fully announced yet he has just congratulated me.’ So Gen. Abdulsalami begged him and said, ‘Sir, I want to put you on speakerphone because we are having a meeting, arranging to come to you as agreed.’
So, we put him on speakerphone and he repeated what he told Abdulsalami and we decided to go to the General.
So, President Jonathan was actually alone when he put a call to President Buhari congratulating him?
He was alone; nobody prompted him to do so.
Was there no pressure on him from your committee or from other external forces to accept the results hours before he made the call?
See, that was why I used the likes of Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku. With such people, how can you rescind on such understanding to which you appended your signature? So, I’m sure that he (President Jonathan) was probably making sure he was not under any pressure from anybody: ‘Look, I am the one that appended my signature to the document as president. If I had not wanted my Special Adviser to hold the summit, I could have said no to it and there would be no summit’ and these are the things he considered and bet you me, that has made him what he is today — one of the most respected politicians in the continent of Africa. That singular act is what a lot of people are looking at and you can hear how President Buhari refers to him outside the country and inside Nigeria.
Have you been in touch with the former president ever since he accepted that defeat and left power?
What was the most important discussion you held so far?
He said, ‘look what else would I have done?
What was your response to that?
I said, ‘Mr. President, I congratulate you because for a man of your age to have done what you did in the continent of Africa is rare. But, you see, for what you did in making sure that we had the Abuja Peace Accord and making yourself the sacrificial lamb for that peace accord, you remain forever, the light for politicians to find their ways.’
Are you aware that many of your colleagues who worked with President Jonathan were actually unhappy that he accepted defeat?
I wasn’t bothered. I was working for President Jonathan as his Special Adviser, Inter-party. My concern was Nigeria and the political parties in Nigeria and what would bring ultimate peace in a setting that was so soaked in tension. That was my concern.
Mind you, it was God that gave me the wisdom to apply in bringing about such a peace accord.
When we went to President Jonathan, he said that much to the committee (NP committee); when we went to President Buhari, he repeated how I came to him; and Cardinal John Onaiyekan, in a national interview repeated how I brought about the National Peace Committee, saying that the appreciation should go to me. Politics is a friendly game, there must be winners, and there must be losers.
With what happened in Bayelsa and the blood flowing in Rivers, it would appear that the peace accord got through your intervention has been betrayed; what really went wrong?
I think there is need for President Buhari to look into the APC and among his close associates for somebody who can navigate smoothly and swiftly among political parties to make them understand that loosing lives in elections does not worth it. It is not what election is all about!
The duty of political leaders is to preserve lives — selfless service. It is the duty of politicians. You are to serve and not to be served. So we should put the blame on those politicians.
In fact, the acting chairman of INEC when they were preparing for Kogi election — the very first election in this dispensation — sent me a text: “Good afternoon Senator, we are already missing your activity; it is showing up now. What do we do?”
I sent back and said “Dear Acting Chairman, I think it is proper for INEC to organise something since there is nothing in the system or government that would be holding the parties together.”
So, you see I think we must go back to that. You have to find somebody who the political parties will listen to. I worked hand-in-gloves with the Inter-party Advisory Council (IPAC). Each time I’m doing this workshop or summit, they were there. So it was clear, I didn’t need anybody.
The 2015 elections ended peacefully, thanks to your interventions, but the tribunals nullified the outcomes in some states leading to repeat elections in Rivers and Bayelsa, for instance. What do you say to those who would argue that the peace could have been that of the graveyard?
It would be difficult for me to say because I’m not a lawyer. What transpired at the tribunals would be difficult for me to say because I did not attend.
Could it be that the elections were so peaceful but not so free and fair as the verdicts of some of the tribunals tended to portray?
I don’t want to be involved with the judiciary, but Nigerians who participated in the elections can speak for what they saw. If some cases were different, well, I won’t say.
The news in town right now is that all your friends are running to APC for shelter. When would Senator Ben Obi join follow suit?
You know I have a principle that I set for myself since 1978.
What principle sir?
That once I stand at point A, I want to remain at point A from the beginning to the end. I moved from the then ANPP; it was APP, and I gave that party the name All Peoples Party (APP) on August 28, 1998 at the Sheraton Hotel and I became the first National Secretary.
We had this problem when Alliance for Democracy (AD) joined. They dropped Ogbonnaya Onu and Olu Falae became the candidate, with Shikanfi now running and some of us let go. APP is the majority party. Why would APP not produce a candidate and AD, the vice? And so there was disagreement and the like of Saraki (Oloye), Ojukwu, Ikimi and myself left. We didn’t leave the system; together with the nine APP governors, we insisted. We said, well, if it is is Obasanjo, so be it.
Ultimately, Mahmud Waziri who was chairman and myself national secretary ended up in the Obasanjo’s administration. Mahmud was the Special Adviser, Inter-party Affairs and myself Special Assistant, Office of the National Security Adviser.
They now changed the party’s name from APP to ANPP. Without inviting us to any meeting, they wrote to us to drop our appointment with Obasanjo. The party was in factions, so how could you have written? So, we ignored them. And then, they said we had been expelled.
That was how Mbadinuju, who was my Governor, ran to Obasanjo and said look, we know this man, he will just remain there, he would not move. Please help us tell him that we are giving him a ticket to go and run for the Senate in the PDP. As he was saying it, Obasanjo sent for me, Ogbulafor and Audu Ogbeh. He said we should go and finalise my entry into PDP…that Anambra State has already given me a platform to run for the Senate. That was how I ran for the Senate.
Now, again after we had to fight Obasanjo and third-term elongation plan, which I spearheaded. The first meeting took place in my house and the first person that I brought on board was Senator Uche Chukwumerije. The day I was sworn-in after a two-year legal battle, I then got further names — they were six.
We had the first meeting, second meeting, the third meeting and then the joint meeting of both the Senate and those of the House of Representatives, also in my house. I had Senators Chukumerije, Bello Bunza, Saidu Dansadau, Senator Maccido, Afikuyomi and Mamora
So, in 2006, after we had dismantled Obasanjo’s third-term agenda, Obasanjo used Col. Ahmadu Ali to deregister us from the PDP, including Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. They had to come and register Atiku in the Vice President’s office.
So, that was what led to the formation of ANPP and I ended up being the Vice Presidential candidate in 2007. After that, President Umaru Yar’Adua came on board and set up the Alex Ekwueme reconciliation committee that brought us back to the PDP.
Therefore, I don’t feel comfortable, even though everybody believed all my colleagues are in APC. So, I still relate with them. For instance, I have not attended any meeting with the PDP.
Why would I? I want to give special attention to my family.
But you are still in the PDP?
I’m a loyal party member, very loyal and I don’t waiver. I said to myself, one year, I want a change. I talk with my friends again and again in APC.
If you were asked to intervene or assist in steering the Change Agenda, what would be your response?
By way of advice? Yes, I can give advice but not by way of appointment. The PDP doesn’t have a working agreement with the APC government. But if I am called upon by the APC to say, ‘what do we do, then, as a patriot and responsible Nigerian citizen, I would oblige and give them advice, offer some guidelines on the way I think things should be done.
Can you share your thoughts on the political situation in the country, especially as they affect events in Rivers?
It is disheartening to see what is happening. Politics should not be the spilling of blood. That should be the last thing politicians should get themselves involved in.
It’s unfortunate, and I have been sad and pained to see what is happening and I hoped and prayed that the leaders and elders of that state would urgently intervene. People must respect that it is God who gives you power and if God gives you power, that power is to protect the lives of the people and not to massacre them. The maximum period Governor Nyesom Wike will stay on that seat is just eight years. Why must people loose their lives? Amaechi should be thankful to God. He was speaker for eight years and governor for eight years. He is now Minister for Transport. So it’s time for sober reflection. Why do we need to do all of these to ourselves? Yet these were allies.
You mean Amaechi and Wike?
As a major political stakeholder in Anambra politics, why has it been difficult to get the politics right?
What happened from 2000 to 2003 was unfortunate — when we were deciding on who should fly the party’s flag, the candidate of the party. As I said this was one of the reasons I was in court for two years.
For instance, I won my primaries in the party’s convention unopposed. When I ran in the general election, it was in fact, unopposed because Ben Obi was running. So I eventually ran unopposed, only for me to hear that my ticket had been given to somebody else after the primaries.
After the primaries?
After the general elections, it was given to somebody who was not an aspirant for the senatorial seat. In fact, he was an aspirant for governorship, he came to Senate for two years and I was in the wilderness running from one court to the other — from Magistrate Court to the Supreme Court — courts that had no jurisdiction. The interesting thing is that I had 33 rulings, I won all; in all judgments, I won because it was too obvious.
So, I was not the only victim. That was what happened to the PDP situation at that time. And unfortunately, that has been the case and that is why you see in as much as the PDP’s on ground in Anambra, they never win elections because at election time, they become hydra-headed. Now you have multiple factions and Obiano won and is now serving for four years.
Is there any strategy for resolving this?
Well, I think maybe when we go for convention and a new leadership emerges for the PDP – hopefully credible leadership — then we start getting things right.
What would be your comment, your advice, considering what is happening in the country now?
Well, I must be honest with you and I said to myself, I want to concentrate on my family for special attention for one year. I have been in politics since 1998. I said to myself, with this new administration, I want to give them time to settle in and leave them till at least one year to see how things go before I would want to react in anyway about the administration. But I know that President Buhari is a man with integrity and very daring credibility to make a lot of changes happen.
Nigerians appears to be in a hurry to see these changes?
Nigerians are always in a hurry. Don’t forget, but I must say that I am one of those pleading with them; yes, we want results, we want positive results, we want to see changes promised. Please let us tarry a while.
The great Zik of Africa when Shagari won a landslide and you guys confronted him and said ‘‘What do you say, he said to them ‘‘Surulere” and he said Surulere is not that town, “Surulere is patience.” Let us give them one year and see how things go thereafter.
This administration will clock one year on May 29, barely one month from now…
Yes, but don’t forget he gave a date that he would appoint his ministers and he came up with his ministers. It takes time with great degree of tact and acts and strategy. I am saying, answering your question, I gave myself one year to assess him.
How do you describe your relationship with President Jonathan now that he is out of office?
Well, cordial relationship. I try to call him, ask after him. He was my boss and would always remain my boss. Through him, I became Commander of the Order of Nigeria. He approved that for me. He made me his special adviser. We never had any problem. I gave him the best advice to the best of my knowledge.
Do you discuss Nigeria when you talk?
Not at all!
Many people still think that the former President actually made some mistakes, which if he had a second chance he wouldn’t repeat. Do you also share that sentiment?
No human being is above mistakes come now and again. That you are president doesn’t isolate you from making mistakes, but what is painful is when you make mistakes of the heart.
Do you think he did his best when it comes to fighting corruption?
Well, you see the problem is and I kept saying this at that time, you give somebody an assignment. If he had difficulties in carrying out the assignment, he should say it. If it is funding, say it but those whom he gave appointment never cried of being starved of fund or never said to anybody that they were being influenced from doing our work. I sat down, prepared the schedule of my office and took to him and he approved it. I think people who were given assignments should be judged by their performances, and not the former president. They too should be judged for being competent or incompetent before you start saying, anyway, the buck ends with Mr. President.
Some words for Nigerians in these trying times?
Well, I know things are a bit difficult and I know that Nigerians are going through very hard times but this is a great country and I am appealing with my colleagues, the politicians across the length and breadth of this country to please in the name of God, play politics with some degree of compassion for the Nigerian people to understand that they have voted you in to give them quality service and not to come and massacre them or strangulate them.
Nigerians should please let us give this administration some little more time. I know that, as a person, President Buhari has the best interest of this country at heart. That is why he contested again and again before he was elected into office. He ordinarily would have said, ‘Nigerians you don’t want me, so be it. Let me go and rest.’ We, myself and Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, encountered him in 1984. When Nigerian politicians were running and were scared of him. We requested for an audience, we met him and he was pleasant, he said he was concerned too. He said he had read our manifestoes. He said that he granted an interview to editors of Newswatch (Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Ahmed) where he said if politics were played the way Nigerian Advance Party played politics, this country wont be where it was at that time.
So, I know that the man has good intentions but it just that a tree doesn’t make a forest. All hands must be on deck to move the country forward.
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