Former Governor of Imo State, Dr. Ikedi Ohakim, in this interview speaks on the current security challenges in the country, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo leadership, among others.
*You have commenced contempt proceedings against those who conducted a parallel Ohanaeze election. Is it not something Igbo leaders like you should have resolved out of court?*
Ordinarily, that should be the case but we had exhausted all the options for amicable settlement. Before the elections, we had appealed to aggrieved parties to allow peace to reign but our efforts yielded no fruits. I personally visited some of them in their homes with notable leaders and traditional rulers but they remained adamant. We were then compelled to go to court to seek for an order restraining the group from conducting a parallel election outside the one organized by the electoral committee set up by the immediate past executive of Ohanaeze Ndigbo led by Chief Nnia Nwodo. Still, they defied that order and went ahead to conduct a parallel election. My worry is that outside the Ohanaeze issue, Ndigbo are becoming the most vulnerable group in Nigeria to the dangers of impunity and disregard for the rule of law. And it has become an existential problem to the Igbo nation. The Igbo nation is perhaps the most factionalized in the whole of Africa. It is a very dangerous trend.
*Don’t you think your remark is too sweeping?*
That is the reality. Among the political parties, we have more factions in Igbo land than in other sections of the country. If we sweep the Ohanaeze matter under the carpet, it may suffer the same fate as the World Igbo Congress which has became moribund because of factionalisation. Since the 1980s and up to 2010, the World Igbo Congress was the only rallying point of the Igbo, even more than Ohanaeze because the Igbo in the Diaspora took a lot of interest in it. Igbo leaders here at home made sure they attended its annual convention which usually holds in the United States of America. Presidents, Heads of State of Nigeria, top politicians from other parts of the country sent goodwill messages through representatives. But today, what do you have? The organization has collapsed due to factionalisation. I know the extent I went when I was governor to try to make peace and bring it back together. I am very nervous over what is happening in Ohanaeze. All of us know the damage factionalisation can cause even the most formidable organisation. I am not saying that I am right but since those concerned have refused to listen to our pleas, let the courts decide.
*Recently, you wrote a personal letter to Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State in which you advocated the setting up of a judicial commission of inquiry over the recent massacre of about 17 people in the state by alleged Fulani herdsmen. You mean the investigations by security agencies are not enough?*
Let me seize this opportunity to once again condole the government and people of Ebonyi State over the loss of their loved ones arising from that unfortunate incident. Investigations by security agencies are necessary but are not sufficient in dealing with issues of that magnitude. As I noted in the letter, only a neutral arbiter like a judicial panel can unravel the mystery. The police are an interested party in the sense that it would be working under the fear that some people are either undermining its authority or questioning its capacity. It may, therefore be compelled to be protective of its own image. But a judicial panel will look at all sides without minding whose ox is gored.
*Beyond Ebonyi, it is insecurity everywhere. On Easter Monday, Imo State came under attack. I need not repeat what you already know. What is your take?*
I was shocked to the marrows and like every well meaning citizen of Nigeria, I condemn that dastardly and unconscionable act in its entirety. But my attitude to every security matter is to approach it with great caution and not jump into conclusions. Even the statement by the immediate past Inspector-General of police on possible culprits was too hasty. So let’s remain calm and allow investigations to be concluded. I am in touch with the state governor who has rallied round Imo leaders on how to tackle the current development head on and I have no doubt in my mind that the state government is on top of the situation. We are putting politics aside and putting heads together to find a lasting solution. There should be no panic. Imolites should not be made to think that the problem is peculiar to their state. It is a national calamity which has risen from some systemic imbalances. That’s why I am at the fore front of the call for restructuring and state police. Yes, we should be worried as a state but nothing should be done to create the impression that Imo State has been singled out or that those currently at the helm of affairs are overwhelmed.
*Assuming that you were at the head of affairs at this point in time, what would be your approach?*
I don’t know if you were in the state in 2008 when a similar incident occurred while I was in office as governor. I am talking about the attack on Zenith Bank along Wetheral road, Owerri during which many police officers were killed. After that incident and based on security advice, the state government bought critical security equipment including five Armoured Personnel Carriers fitted with gun torrents. In collaboration with the security hierarchy in the state, we set up security operations base at the police headquarters and installed modern communications equipment between the operational room and the 32 police formations in the state then and between the operational room and all the operational vehicles deployed outside, with a monitoring base in the Government House. And with that, we energized the police and the criminals took flight from the state until we left. The questions I have been asking since last Monday are, where are those communication equipment? Where are those armoured vehicles? I know that we handed them over to those who came after us. Are they still operational? Are they still here in Imo State? Before the incident, I used to drive pass the Owerri Correctional Centre and the security presence was nothing to write home about. You see an army vehicle with a few soldiers chatting. We are not even talking about attacks in the urban areas. A more worrisome development is the attack on police stations in the local government areas. During my time, what we did was to ensure that every Divisional Police Officer lived in the local government headquarters. It was the same for local government council chairmen and chief magistrates. That way, they all worked together to ensure that their respective areas were secured at least for their own personal safety.
But today what we have is a situation where the DPO, DCO, the local government council chairmen, the chief magistrates all live in Owerri. They go to work any time they like and leave anytime. I complimented the incumbent governor when he made it mandatory for the interim local government council chairmen to reside within their respective areas. But I don’t think that directive is being observed or enforced. We have to enforce it especially for police officers.
The criminals work with intelligence also. They know that once a DPO is not within the vicinity of the police formation they intend to attack, there will be nobody to coordinate a counter offensive. So, they move in and they succeed. Let the authorities make it compulsory. If the DPOs and DCOs and the local government council chairmen cannot live within the local government area, let them resign. Yes, they may complain about their living quarters. But that should be looked into as part of the new measures even though it has been perennial.
*A former operative of the Department of State Services revealed on national television that there were intelligence reports alerting the authorities in Owerri about the recent attack. What do you make out of that?*
Absolutely nothing. As far as I am concerned, the ex-officer concerned was playing to the gallery. That’s very presumptions of him.
On whose or what authority was he talking? A retired officer? As far as I am concerned, that’s an infringement but I leave it to those directly concerned to look into the matter. But for me, something does not add up here. What the gentleman said amounted to inciting the people against the government because he was insinuating that the government refused to act after obtaining intelligence reports. Who is he working for? Is he not supposed to be arrested?
*You said earlier that what we are witnessing is a national calamity and I believe only a few will disagree with you. But for how long would that be? Nigerians are getting increasingly frustrated. They are losing hope. Is the national government getting overwhelmed?*
I don’t think the national government is getting overwhelmed and I don’t think we should lose hope. All I can say is that the time is now to face the issue of a geo-political restructuring of the country squarely. I have said it over and over again, like many other well meaning Nigerians, that the present structure is not working. And to continue to pretend otherwise is to further put our collective existence at jeopardy. We must now address the fundamental questions.
We have to restructure. We have to decentralize power. We have to observe federal character as enshrined in our constitution. We have to give more autonomy to the federating units. We need state police. The current situation is threatening the very existence of our nation. Something drastic has to be done about it. I laugh each time I listen to those debating on where the next president of Nigeria will come from. For me, that amounts to trivializing a very serious matter in our hands. The country is on the verge of disintegration. There has to be a country first before you talk about those who will govern it. With bullets flying all over, who will conduct the election from which the next president will emerge? We have a situation where non state actors have taken over the security infrastructure of the country. We have to tackle that first.
*Last Sunday, the governors of the South East states met in Owerri and proclaimed the coming of a joint security outfit to be known as Ebubeagu. What is your take?*
It is a welcome development though many had expected it before now. There should be a follow up. It has to go beyond the issuing of communiqué. The matter we have at hand has gone beyond proclamations by governors. Those whose lives are at stake must be widely consulted. However, I remain optimistic.