For 18 years, Senator Ike Ekweremadu (PDP, Enugu West) has been at the Senate. In this interview, Ekweremadu, who was Deputy Senate President for 12 years, spoke on the agitation in the South East, secession threat, 2023 and state police, among others. He told Daily Trust that the rising insecurity in the country is a result of Boko Haram menace in the North East.
The agitation in the South East for secession went down days after you—leaders of the geopolitical zone —took a position on IPOB. Why did it take you that long to find your voice?
It’s due to how difficult the issue has become to deal with. The situation is like when water is coming to your house, you keep on blocking it, but over time, the place will be flooded. It was the country’s inability to deal with the matter quite early that led us to where we are today. Some of us saw this problem coming and we warned that we were going to have a problem.
I believe if everybody is gainfully employed or has money to put food on the table for their families, it’ll be quite unattractive for someone to take to such high-risk criminality as banditry and kidnapping.
The second problem is related to the first, which is unemployment. Most of the people, when they finish school, look forward to having something to do and support their elderly parents, siblings and society because our society is based on family ties. You can only fulfil these responsibilities if you’re employed. Since the youth are not employed, they feel frustrated and as they say, the idle hand is a devil’s workshop.
The other problem is the issue of what we call the neglect of certain parts of the country in the running of the nation which they are part of. The elderly ones had believed that dialogue would be the solution to it. They’ve continued to dialogue with the federal government as regards this; they made lots of submissions, but when nothing seems to be happening, there’s a growing agitation – not just agitation but frustration. The frustration led to a gap between the people and their leaders and some people are now filling these gaps with whatever rhetoric they’re selling.
The rhetoric makes sense to some people who believe they’re not seeing anything from the dialogue. It’s the combination of all these factors that are fuelling insecurity in the South East.
Public assets worth billions of naira have been destroyed by ESN/IPOB. The destructions were carried out by youths thought to be industrious. What do they want to achieve with this?
First of all, it’ll be hasty to say it is IPOB or its associated agencies that are behind these attacks. This is the narrative of security agencies. As far as I’m concerned, the issue of who is behind it is still being investigated. IPOB has said they’re not the ones doing this. Whether to believe them or not will depend on the outcomes of investigations.
I’ll not take a stand yet in respect of who is behind the burning, but what I’ll take a stand on is that it’s wrong for anyone to destroy public assets, it’s totally irresponsible. For some people, it’s the so-called unknown gunmen, for them, these unknown gunmen can be from anywhere. That’s the problem as the federal government and the security agencies have not been able to prove or come to conclusive and convincing reasons that these are the people behind it.
Some say the tension we are having in the South East is a result of alleged sidelining by the federal government, especially in terms of appointments. Do you subscribe to that?
Of course and I have said it. It is not whether I subscribe to it, I have tried to address it myself. After the elections in 2015 and being in the Senate for 12 years then, I consider myself as a statesman, nationalist and pan-Nigerian, the first thing I did was to approach my friend, Senator Abu Ibrahim, who was also very close to the president. I told him that the election was divisive and we need to do something to make sure that we don’t get into problems in this country and that I needed to talk to the president-elect to appeal to him to be a father to all. I am in the PDP and he is in the APC. As an individual, I did not have a problem with that, what I wanted to achieve was how the country could be united.
So, he was convinced and he made arrangements, we met with the president at the Defence House. I explained this to the president and also met with Audu Ogbeh, who was close to the president. We all spoke about it and I proposed that he (Buhari) needed to talk to the South East and South-South to assure them that he would be a father to all and president to everybody.
After the swearing-in, what I suggested never happened. When in 2016, the South East started complaining, I led senators from the region to see the president. I explained to him that the situation was dangerous and the people are feeling annihilated and he needs to do something about it. Thereafter, the South East governors and Ohanaeze, including myself, again went to see him in 2017 on the same subject. At that time, we were emphasizing the security sector as there was no person from the South East heading any of the security agencies. He tried to explain to us that it was a matter of competence, promotion and there was nothing like federal character in it. But, for us, it does not make sense because we were looking at how to make the country united and if there is sacrifice to be made, it should be made. Shehu Yar’Adua, I remember when he was a young officer, was promoted just to ensure there was a balance in the military formation then. So, sometimes, you make sacrifices to build a nation.
The problem is that we are not managing our diversity well; this has heightened the tension in the country. We are not the only country that has fought a civil war; America fought a civil war and they came out of it by proper management of diversity.
At a point, the Republican candidate had to go to Tennessee, one of the states that wanted to break away and chose a Democrat as his running mate, just like the APC going to the PDP to get a running mate. In 1958 or thereabout, the people of Quebec in Canada were agitating to leave, the leadership of the country decided to pick someone from the region to make him the prime minister of Canada to make sure there was peace. After that, the agitation stopped rather than intensified. They eventually agreed that the two official languages of Canada will be French and English to make sure that there was proper management of the diversity.
But here, we are seeing our fault lines and we allowed them to expand. That is the problem. I believe we can still arrest some of these agitations and problems by the proper management of our diversity.
We have to rebuild a Nigeria where Mallam Umaru from Sokoto was elected twice as Mayor of Enugu Municipal Council, an NCNC stronghold, holding that office from 1952 to 1958. He was a prominent member of the Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe-led NCNC. We have to bring back the Nigeria where Bashorun Balogun became the Mayor of Port Harcourt courtesy of the NCNC; and where Justice Kalu Anya, an Igbo, was appointed the Attorney-General of Borno State Judiciary. That is inclusivity and as I have always emphasised inclusivity, justice and equity as sure paths to peace, security, and development.
What is the correlation between the secession agitation in the South East and the 2023 presidency?
They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, we say the South East wants the presidency; while some say they want to secede, so they’re not mutually exclusive. I believe that if the people of the South East are saying they want the presidency of this country that could be one of the things that can heal our wounds. The second part of it is that, if the presidency is given and somebody is still talking about secession, most people will not listen to them.
In Abia State, there are people called Ngwa people, they wanted a state from Abia, it was a big problem and I’ve been involved in the process for a long time. The same happened in Enugu where I come from, the people of Nsukka were asking for a state. What happened? In 2015, the people from Abia gave the governorship of the state to the people of Ngwa, and in Enugu somebody from Nsukka, and nobody heard about the agitations again. That is politics and a better way of managing diversity. I do believe that the issue of secession is because people felt they have lost confidence in this country as no hope is coming around and nobody is interested in the argument.
What the younger ones are saying is that this country called Nigeria that belongs to all of us is no more comfortable. People are pushing us out of this. I don’t want to see it as secession; I believe that it is the country that is pushing away the South East because the region wants to be in Nigeria. That is why they invest everywhere in the country.
But there is this argument that it is the elite that really wants to remain in Nigeria, that the youth led by Kanu and others, want to move out.
I don’t think that is the truth because that man who is selling pharmaceutical products in Kano, somewhere in Dengi and the plumber in Borno are not part of the elite; the mechanic in Sokoto is not an elite, but living there. The guy who is doing his small farming business in Katsina from the South East is not an elite and not interested in secession because that means he has to move from where he is earning his living.
So, the issue of secession is an aftermath of what is happening in the country and I guess that if the country graciously says that let us give the South East the presidency, I am sure that it will be quite unpopular for secession to arise again. Look at what happened on June 12, the federal government decided on its own to give somebody from South West the presidency. Did we hear about June 12 after that? It was Buhari that said he was going to proclaim it as a public holiday.
Are you saying the issue of Biafra will end if an Igbo presidency materialises?
No, I’m not making a guarantee, but I said it will be unpopular.
Pressure groups in the North are saying the agitation is being fuelled by Igbo leaders to actualise Igbo presidency, how would you react to this?
That is totally an irresponsible statement to make. Some of us have said we don’t want violence, we’ve never supported it. I’ve said it in public several times that nobody, especially those of us who witnessed the war, either as toddlers who suffered or elderly who fought. My village was devastated, schools were completely destroyed, hospitals everywhere were completely destabilized.
I was just four years old when the war started, I had to trek far distances for safety. After the war in 1970, there was no school to attend because they were destroyed, if you are sick, you can’t go to the hospital because they were broken.
It was like that for over 30 years or more. It was my emergence as a senator that addressed that part of my constituency where we had to rebuild the bridges, roads, markets and other infrastructure. I went to the IDP camps in the North, I told them I could relate to their problems because I suffered from it too.
Let us accept the argument. So, does that mean that the federal government will want people to be killed because of the agitation before they will accede to the president of South East. Who does that to his family? You want one of your children to burn your house before you give him a wife? That’s irresponsible; you should treat your children equally.
Power is all about negotiation; you can’t just take it, but engage in negotiation through compromise. Are you building bridges across other regions to make case for Igbo presidency?
People have said it publicly and privately, arguments have been raised in this aspect, negotiations have taken place, compromises are being done. I have not lost faith in that happening because 2023 is still around the corner, but it’s left for people like you in the media, if you see wisdom in what we’re saying, to also proclaim it, you push for it. When people are unjustly treated, it’s unlikely for them to be interested in peace.
For a man who stays in a house, it’ll be irresponsible for him to put fire in that same house if you’re doing everything to make sure that your family is living together. What will this country lose if an Igbo man becomes president? Nothing! The best they can get is to help stabilise the country. Whatever happens will help to stabilise the country.
For the purpose of argument and statistics, those who have ruled this country as presidents, do you think their villages are better than others? It’s a psychological thing. Those who have ruled this country from the south to the north to the west, check their villages, local governments or states; are they better than the other ones? They are not! It makes no sense for somebody like me. It’s just a psychological issue. So, we’ll lose nothing by doing that.
Are the Igbo leaders doing anything to call IPOB leaders to order?
Well, we said it in a meeting in Enugu that we’ve set up a number of committees under Ohanaeze to see how they can reach out to these young ones and explain to them the hazard they’re putting themselves and everybody; to explain to them that dialogue is superior to any kind of violence. This is democracy; you can agitate for whatever you want so long as there’s no violence, but once you cross the line and become violent, it has become illegal and it’ll not achieve any result.
The attacks in the South East suddenly reduced and this was after your meeting, what magic did you do and what will you say on President Buhari’s comment, “a dot in a circle”?
On the issue of the decrease in attacks, efforts are being made every day, the federal government, leaders and community leaders are making efforts. They’re engaging everybody. So, nobody should take credit for the reduction. It’s a combination of everybody’s effort. Even in some parts of the North West and North Central that are having problem, there’s now some reduction too.
What has happened now, which is another strong case for state police is that a place like Niger has to hire local vigilantes. Katsina and Kebbi, Zamfara all did the same because all of them have large forest boundaries where these guys operate from. This was what I warned against when the whole thing started.
That’s where the issue of Buhari’s dot comes in because those people are now in the middle of the dot in that forest. So, the bandits pursued from those places are now the dot surrounded by local vigilantes and not the federal government’s might. Those vigilantes are the equivalent of state police. So, the problem is that it is the crude form. Forces like Amotekun and Ebube Agu are now the crude type of state police because they’re not moderated, thus, they can harm anybody in the long run since there’s no moderation.