Why time is running out for Tinubu to do the right thing — Ben Obi

Chief Ben Obi served as the Political Adviser in the office of former National Security Adviser, General Aliyu Gusau. He also served as the Presidential Adviser on inter-party affairs to President Goodluck Jonathan.

A People’s Democratic Party, PDP, leader, Obi, in this interview, discusses the state of the nation and his disappointment at President Bola Tinubu’s nine-month administration, expressing his fears about what may happen. Unlike many who merely criticise, he offers some useful suggestions on how Tinubu can wriggle out of his self-inflicted, multidimensional crises.

By Jide aAjani

Looking at the state of the nation, how would you describe what we are going through now in Nigeria?

It is very disturbing because we have never reached the rock bottom disaster in terms of governance in our country and I’m taken aback, particularly with regards to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria today. Everybody had presumed that things would pan out differently and we would move positively out of Muhammadu Buhari’s era of eight years of very poor and bad governance. Now, it seems that we have fallen deeper and deeper into a very obvious morass and I’ve been wondering within me if really a solution is in sight.

I’m also very worried about the calibre of appointees. Some of them, at best, have been provincial players and I think President Tinubu should widen the scope and look for people who have national perspectives and vast national experience. The time is now. It must be done now because he and Nigeria do not have time. I’ve been talking to my political colleagues across party lines and I ask, the danger that is looming, that I am seeing, does it mean that you my colleagues are not seeing it, you’re not feeling it? It is so thick that you can hold it, feel it, and touch it. And it seems to me that governance today is still business as usual and I am saying no! You cannot be doing the same thing again and again and expect a different result. The approach must be different. I am saying that I am completely flabbergasted, to say the least about what governance has become in the last nine months or thereabout.

We must find a solution to the suffering of the Nigerian people. You cannot put Nigerians under this burden and some other people are living a life of affluence – the very lowest percentage living in affluence. It is unacceptable and before you say Jack Robinson, they’ll say it is opposition. There must be an end to this blame game. There must be an end. So, the opposition will come to an APC state and organise a protest. Are you kidding me? Is that not cheap?

You know Tinubu very well and many who also know him say this is not the Tinubu they know. Where would you say he got it wrong? Was it from that first day of inauguration when he said ‘subsidy is gone’? Or is it to do with the floating of the dollar simultaneously? Where would you say he got it wrong?

Oh, definitely, that has been overflogged here and yonder. I mean, you can’t just come on your inauguration day – and as I’ve been told by many of his associates that was not in the script. He just mounted the stage, without any planning, without any scenario analysis on how to absorb the shock, and when you look at that vis-a-vis what happened in 2012 during President Jonathan’s era, all those who came onto the street to demonstrate, what has been their own opinion of what has happened today? Ever since that statement, because there was no planning, no scenario analysis, no preparation on how to absorb the pains that would come from that shock, everything seems to have gone haywire. You talk about the price of the naira to the dollar, you talk about fuel, you talk about prices of foodstuff, everything is hitting the rooftop and it seems to me that nobody is in charge, nobody is in control.

I know President Tinubu very well. I know him well. So, I’m really disappointed that things have gone this way.

He has not even shown me what I expect of him, his knowledge of Nigeria, in trying to search for competent people across the country. He has not even exhibited that at all. But when you just restrict yourself to those who worked with you as governor of Lagos State, which is very provincial and does not display a national outlook of experienced and capable persons in your government, this is what you get.

But some hold you people vicariously liable for how we have found ourselves in this mess. Even under Jonathan, there was such a mess in PDP and Jonathan’s government (and I wrote about it after my encounter with Jonathan inside Aso Rock) and I warned that if Buhari took over, Nigeria would be in trouble.
Your party allowed Jonathan to misbehave and the opposition took over. In 2019, we know what happened at INEC with the server issue. But in 2023, some had expected that even with Peter Obi leaving PDP, your party should still have been able to root out APC. But again, Kwankwaso also left and then you had the G-5 constituting their own obstacle. As a major player, what would you say to these?

First, an Atiku presidency wouldn’t have put us in this mess. Come on! His experience, his reach, his knowledge of how the system works! An Atiku will not come on stage and just announce that the ‘subsidy is gone’. there would have been stakeholder meetings before the subsidy is removed. None of those happened and that is why we are where we are today

But by not holding the PDP together to defeat APC, he has put Nigerians in this mess.

What I’m saying is that if Atiku had been president, with experience in statecraft, things would have been different. Atiku, as you know, was VP from 1999 to 2007 and he has great knowledge of the Nigerian space in terms of governance. There are people who were around him who also had the experience and competencies that would have accompanied his government.

But when you are running a political party and you find out that the leadership of that party seems to be in some sort of disarray, then the party is in trouble. When a party is caught in the web of indiscipline, that party is in trouble. These were factors that played out within the PDP just as we were heading out for the elections. We lost Peter Obi to the Labour Party, LP. We lost Rabiu Kwankwaso to the New Nigeria Peoples Party, NNPP.

If you look at the votes, particularly the votes that went to Peter Obi, those votes were basically from the strongholds of the PDP. And we lost both men as a result of the leadership of the PDP not being accommodating, so to speak because when you know the strength of a particular person, you ensure that you limit the gap amongst those who are likely to disrupt the process of the party. We have seen the G-5 on one side and you do not want to allow one or two other persons to leave your party and create more problems. If we had kept Obi and Kwankwaso in the PDP, we wouldn’t have felt any impact in terms of optics from the G-5. These are issues which the leadership of the party failed to handle adequately.

The leadership of the party was led by Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, my good friend. Again, when you talk about party management, a lot of experience is required and then also in the leadership and running a political party as vast as the PDP, the leadership must also show some degree of humility and absolute perception of how things are happening around it. That didn’t happen. So, we went through a series of anti-party activities and appropriate steps were not taken to discipline people. I am an apostle of party discipline and I have always maintained that.

I had been national secretary of four major political parties in this country. When you’re running a political party and you’re moving smoothly, you must intentionally create a problem to check the mechanism of your control to check if you have a good response mechanism to bring that crisis you instigated under control quickly. That is because the experience is there. Let’s test the strength of our management.

Some blame the candidate of the party and some defend him. Those who blame the candidate insist that he should have been more conciliatory to Wike, while others say if he had, Wike would have kept making more demands?

It’s not enough to say you are blaming the candidate. The candidate had a wide range of support and at one point, there were series of meetings between the candidate and the leadership of the G-5 and other people also met with them but the different demands that were coming out were somehow. Over and above that, we’ve always had situations whereby the leadership of the G-5 had always wanted to play a major role in the affairs of the party, even starting from the Modu Sheriff days. There was a way some other leaders of the party insisted that enough is enough and we had to draw the line. The truth is that the loss of the PDP came from the Peter Obi angle because the areas where he took control were the strongholds of the PDP since 1999. But for Obi and Kwankwaso, the story would have been different. And even at that, you’ll also agree with me that it seems INEC had made up its mind on how it wanted to conduct the elections but if those votes Obi got had remained in PDP, it would have been difficult for INEC, except the INEC Chairman wanted to go on a suicide mission.

Talking about the election and INECand the issue of polling agents across the country, how come your party could not gather enough evidence based on what we saw and what we heard? How come PDP could not prove many of the infractions that were witnessed? So, what happened to PDP agents across the country? Let’s leave INEC aside. I’m talking about PDP properly monitoring and defending its votes?

I don’t think you’re correct. Agents were there, bringing abundant evidence about what happened in most of the voting centres and again, everybody saw the way the judiciary went regarding the 2023 elections. From the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. What happened left everybody screaming because what happened at the Supreme Court, particularly, was very shocking and the seemingly adversarial manner of the judgment.

I think there will be a need for you people to even scream louder because of the letters and spirit of the judgment. One of the very profound – curiously profound – part of the judgment is that you must bring a witness for every piece of evidence and the issue of substantial compliance. We have over 176,000 polling units in the country. The constitution is silent on what constitutes substantial compliance and in a democracy, it is about numbers. With over 176,000 the Supreme Court says you must bring enough evidence and witnesses substantial enough to render the election as not having substantially complied.

Are we talking about a third or a quarter of the total polling units? What number of polling units in the over 176,000 polling units would be enough to render an election as not having substantially complied? That’s one leg. How many days would you need to prepare the evidence? In the Supreme Court’s latest judgment, you will need to provide evidence to cover a substantial field and you must bring witnesses. The last hearing did not admit up to 500 witnesses within the allotted time in the statutes. Does the statute not present us as a bunch of unserious people? What it then means is the survival of the fittest. Go out there, grab it, run away with it and let the loser go to court?

Exactly! That is what we were told. Just get the victory and let the other people go to court. Substantial compliance in this issue, as far as I’m concerned, can never succeed in our courts. How can you go and get evidence even if it is a third of the over 176,000 (about 55,000 +) polling units in the country? It tells you clearly that something is wrong with that judgment. Where will you be able to get those documents to present to the Court of Appeal? Meanwhile, some of them in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court had made up their minds where they were going based on their interpretation.

This is where the National Assembly needs to look at the laws again and recraft those laws with regards to what can constitute substantial compliance so it becomes a lot easier for people to be able to prove…

If there is certainty about what will constitute substantial compliance, won’t politicians work to that figure? Is it not about the judiciary being altruistic in its dealings?

You have a point but when we get to that bridge we will cross it. What I’m saying is that if there is no certainty about what constitutes substantial compliance, again and again, we will continue to suffer from judgments of that nature.
Unfortunately, I do not know the capacity of the National Assembly today to be able to do what is right. Going by what comes out of that assembly today, I’m even more worried. The PDP is working hard on rejigging itself as an opposition party and we are doing wonderfully well with that process.

How are the merger talks coming up?

We are in discussion and it is a work in progress. If you recall, I was the presidential adviser to Jonathan on inter-party affairs and in the course of that, I strengthened the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC. Just before the 2019 elections, I was able to lead a committee that put together the CUPP (Coalition of United Political Parties). So, with all sense of modesty and responsibility, I know a good number of these party leaders and we’ve been meeting on how we can all work together.

It’s not an easy task but our discussions have commenced and I’m happy about the way we are progressing. But the decadence in the land is worrisome and we are not even being assured by the government in power. Nigerians need assurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The simplest is leading by example which they are not doing. I just hope that we do not get into the mess of people losing their patience and getting to the streets and putting things asunder because the hunger in the land is unbearable and I’m very worried.

With your experience and having served in different capacities, chiefly as Political Adviser to the NSA, what would you be suggesting to President Tinubu in terms of holding this country together on the economic, political and security fronts?

We had a similar situation in the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari and there were crises all over and it became chaotic. A suggestion was made to President Shagari that he would need to call a meeting of the six political parties at that time (NPN, UPN, NPP, PRP, GNPP and NAP) – two leaders per party.

Let them come and air their views about the country and why they were having issues with the ruling NPN. And that was the tonic. It worked like magic. That would be a very good suggestion I think Tinubu would need because we were all able to bare our minds before the President. All those who needed to give responses were immediately summoned. If it was the Police, late Sunday Adewusi was called. If it was the military the Service Chiefs were called. Have regular meetings with former Presidents and NSAs to guide you.

But we have the National Council of State?

That’s different. I’m talking about something more practical and which would be productive. Look at the Niger republic coup for instance. Look at the response. Where did it lead us? I would advise that such a distinct meeting be called with former Presidents and NSAs or even Defence Chiefs because we are getting into a period of a security emergency.

This is not a time to grandstand and claim you know it all, that you are in charge. Yes, you are in charge but where has that led us? Where?

On a lighter note, when you had those meetings with President Shagari, which party did you represent? I want to believe it would have been the Nigeria Advance Party, NAP, with Dr. Tunji Braithwaite. That’s the only place you would have fitted in at that time?

(Long laughter) Of course yes. It was Tunji and I. We were young revolutionaries at that time and we got the party registered as the only one different in outlook and mentality compared to the others. We were revolutionaries but now, age and experience have tempered all that (another round of laughter)

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