Igbo leaders have been in several meetings regarding the continued pro-Biafra protests in the South-East geo-political zone. What are some of the decisions that you have taken?
We had our Ime-obi meeting. Ime-obi is the highest decision-making body of Ohanaeze. When the issue was raised and reviewed, some of the leaders of the agitators were also at the meeting and it was agreed that the demonstrations should stop. It was also agreed that the agitations were as a result of injustice over time against the Igbo people and that it was important that Nnamdi Kanu be released to douse the tension because it appears that that was what created the agitation in the first instance.
Is that all what the meeting was about?
No, it was also observed that the (2014) National Conference addressed many of the issues being raised by the agitators; for instance, the restructuring of the country as recommended by the National Conference. It plays up some of these issues being raised. If something is wrong with the structure as it is, then something is wrong with it. Some of these include restructuring to zones, like we have at the beginning of the country, when we had the regions and they operated with their own constitutions. It is the best for the country. Running a true federal system will eliminate some of the issues being raised by the agitators.
Does this mean Ohanaeze Ndigbo endorses pro-Biafra agitation?
No, Ohanaeze is not endorsing it. Ohanaeze is not asking for the break-up of Nigeria. Ohanaeze is asking for the strengthening of Nigeria and changing the constitution to create the environment suitable for proper development of this country. That is what we are asking for. We want conditions that will make this country grow. The current constitution does not guarantee that.
But there are Igbos in the Diaspora that were videoed tearing their passports and renouncing their Nigerian citizenship. What have you done to quell the .heightened tensions?
We are talking to them. It is about dialogue. That is the same thing we are recommending to the Federal Government. You don’t show force in every situation. It is like fighting inside your house. You do not go all the way; there must be dialogue. Dialogue is the best option. Nobody should be tired of dialogue. The situation must be brought to order.
A lot of speculations have been made with regard to the cause, intentions and timing of the clamour for Biafra. Have you been able to point to anything in particular as the reason for these?
I think that the protests were sparked off by the arrest and continued detention of Kanu. What this shows is that those things have been building up. It is the accumulation of injustices and their perception that Igbo are being excluded in the decision-making of government and it just needed this to trigger it off. In other words, these issues have been there in their systems disturbing them. This was just a trigger and that’s why we think that releasing Kanu will defuse these tensions and then the issues will be addressed.
But Kanu has been accused of a number of treasonable acts, including soliciting arms. Are these not it enough grounds to be worried and hold him during the course of his trial?
We condemn any act that will lead to the disintegration of the country. We also do not support any armed struggle in this country and I don’t think the Igbo as a people would support any armed conflict in the country today, given their experience. Having said so, we think that there are other ways of addressing the Kanu issue. It should be addressed as a political issue, rather than a security issue. His continued detention is making him look larger than who he truly is. I think the Federal Government should find other ways of addressing that issue.
What alternative can the Federal Government explore pending Kanu’s supposed release?
I don’t know what alternative there is when he is granted bail in court and they say they are not releasing him. Is the alternative to hold him and expect that things will just go away and solve themselves? It is only by dialogue that some of these issues are resolved. If someone is trying to create a problem that could lead to a larger problem, isn’t it necessary to sit down and talk with the person and counsel (them) if need be? That is what you would do if you had children in your house and one was throwing stones from outside. You don’t bring a gun to bring him down. It is important to ask the child, ‘Wait a minute, what is the problem that you are breaking all these louvers?’ That is what a father would ask a child. Would I solve the problem by bringing a gun out and killing him?
Are you saying President Muhammadu Buhari hasn’t given enough fatherly attention to the Igbo?
I said before that this has been a long-running issue. It was not Buhari that created the problems that are long running. What we are saying is that we have a chance to rectify them.
Buhari has not visited the South-East since assuming office, despite these agitations and marginalisation claims, yet he has visited no fewer than 15 countries. What are your thoughts on this?
No, I am not looking there because I am not sure he has visited all parts of the country, leaving only the South-East, neither do I have problems with his visits outside of the country. As head of state, I know his responsibilities will involve external interactions. And he is not going there on holidays; I imagine he is going there to also seek solutions to problems. I have no problem with that. I have no problem with his not visiting the South-East yet.
Are you happy with the share of political appointments that the people of the South-East have gotten from Buhari?
It is his responsibility to make appointments and for those who have been appointed, we thank him for that. Whether or not we feel completely happy with the appointments is another thing. We know our strength, our number and what is appropriate. It is not for me to make such statements here. It is for the general public to decide whether the appointments have been right or proportionate to who we are or not.
The Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, has been embroiled in controversy since the inauguration of the 8th National Assembly in June. Do you think he is unrightfully in office?
I know that there were plots to get him out of the place. I do not know whether they have stopped, but I don’t think it is in any person’s interest to try to get him out of that place. They should realise that the Igbo are a major tribe in this country and to have a government that does not have equal representation of Igbo is not helping anyone. We feel it is proper to have one of us there. It is only fair and that election was done by the National Assembly. It wasn’t guided from outside. If that was their wish, then that is the true meaning of democracy. I think people have a right to choose who they want as their principal officers. The more we have such occurrences, the better for our democracy.
Ekweremadu recently alleged that an attempt was made on his life. Do you think it may be connected with these political plots?
I do not have all of the security details. I cannot make any statement as to whether it was really a threat or not. Be that as it may, we condemn anything that puts the life of such a high office holder or any Nigerian for that matter at risk. We only pray and hope it is not true. If it is true that there was such a plot, then that is absolutely dangerous and not in the interest of this country.
Are you in support of the Federal Government’s position view of Radio Biafra as a security threat?
Like I said earlier, we are against anything that will create hate in this country. We are nation builders. We have made giant strides and contributed enormously to the unity of this country. We condemn any act that brings hate. Thus, if the radio station is doing that, we do not support it.
Law enforcement agents and agitators have been involved in a blame game regarding the violent nature of the pro-Biafra protests. Who do you think should be held responsible?
When we have large numbers of people together, there is a tendency that some undesired elements would quickly cash in and want to cause havoc. It is not usually easy to control such large crowds and that is why we think that government should quickly devise another way of handling the situation. First, release Kanu; you won’t get those people in the streets. It would be easy to discuss with them and find out what truly the grievances are. It is important to address what their grievances are because there is a reason why they are doing what they are doing. It is not enough to say, ‘Let them go to hell.’ It is not enough to dismiss the truth with a wave of the hand. It is important to address these issues. If it is not addressed, it goes away today, it comes back again tomorrow. No nation grows with that attitude. It is important that when any section feels aggrieved, the issues are looked into. Usually, when you have people protesting, you don’t have control over what they can do and that is exactly what we saw in Onitsha (Anambra State). We do not support such actions that disrupt the peace of the environment. All the same, we think it is important for government to really look inwards and say, ‘What is wrong here because something is wrong?’ Where people say they don’t want this or that anymore, something is seriously wrong and it is important to address those issues or, at least, listen to them.
We have heard that lgbo leaders like you have been dialoguing with the Federal Government. Do you think the government should communicate directly with the leaders of the pro-Biafra groups?
First, Ohanaeze has not had any discussion with the Federal Government on this matter. Ohanaeze’s attention has not been sought, apart from (Buhari) generally asking the Inspector General of Police to look into the matter. On our own part, we have been talking to some of the leaders who are agitating to find ways of truly understanding what the issues are and trying to advise them on the best ways to address the issues without disrupting the peace of the environment.
It has been reported that northern elders like Maitama Sule would dialogue with south-eastern leaders on the Biafra agitations. Have you been approached by any of them?
We have information that they have been meeting; it is good to meet. But Ohanaeze has not engaged in any discussions at that level. We have concerned ourselves with discussing with our people here, because that is where it is happening. We are hoping that our genuine advice will be heeded. We think that this matter should be put to rest immediately. Kanu should be released to defuse the tension and they (government) listen to what they are saying. We have to first put this country in its right place before we start thinking about growing up. We can’t be praying for the country to grow when it is fractured. There is so much suspicion among ethnic nationalities in this country. Nigeria has refused to become a nation, even after all these years of independence. It is in the interest of the country to look at the National Conference and implement those recommendations. Until we do that, we will be moving in the same vicious circle. You don’t solve a problem by abandoning it. Today, it is the agitation of the Igbo. I am sure there are other tribes in this country who are also not pleased with the way it is structured and probably do not want to say anything today. But that doesn’t mean that they are not aggrieved.
Do you think there are some people benefitting from the supposed marginalisation of the Igbo in the country?
I don’t think so and I don’t see the reason why any person should. What is happening could completely disrupt the peace of this country. That is how major issues start. They start from very mild protests and evolve into something that gets out of control and that is why we are worried. There is not one politician who can be a beneficiary of what is going on. If it goes beyond what we are seeing presently, every person will be in trouble. Hence, I do not think that there are such people who would be praying for this to continue.
Some of the governors in the South-East and South-South have condemned the protests and distanced themselves from the agitations. How can the government show interest if the governors in the region are unresponsive?
Ohanaeze’s view and stance are quite clear. First, we ask that the government looks into what the agitators are saying. They didn’t just wake up and start demonstrating. We do not support any action that will disrupt the peace of this country. We think that it is extremely important that the government listens to what they are saying.
But there are some who believe the marginalisation claims and agitations are exaggerated….
Some of the agitations are genuine and within the view of every person. The majority of the things they say are real. If you look at the road network in this country, the worst roads are found in the South-East. We are not saying it was this administration that caused it. We are saying that these had accumulated over time, including the present perception that the government in place now, for some of the strategic appointments, excluded the Igbo. That is the issue.
What do you think is the role of the state governments in the South-East in resolving the tension?
It should be dialogue. You are lucky that the people who are agitating are not faceless. They are known. It is better to deal with people whose faces you know. Once they disappear into the bush, you have no person to dialogue with. Now that they are available, dialogue is the solution.
A former Finance Minister and daughter of Igboland, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is being investigated for her role in the Goodluck Jonathan administration, which is now shrouded in controversy. What are your thoughts on this?
As a matter of fact, Ohanaeze is not against probing any person. We are rather against selective probing. If we are going with probing, let’s go all the way and probe every person who is found to have committed any offence. But convicting people without trial; accusing people when they have not been tried is wrong. It is primitive and not civilised. People are presumed to be not guilty until found guilty. Somebody has been put into the public domain and he is already accused of having done something. I think it is improper. I think the proper thing to do is quietly do the investigation and if the person is guilty, they can go ahead and label the person.
The title ‘Eze Ndigbo’ was banned in the South-West some months ago after a dispute with a traditional ruler in the region. What is your take on this?
Ohanaeze had a meeting with some of the ‘Eze Ndigbo’ about three weeks ago and right now, we are in the process of trying to put down guidelines on who they truly are. It has been a long-term issue. First of all, Ohanaeze wants to apologise for to all the traditional rulers who felt disrespected by the actions of an ‘Eze Ndigbo’ (in the South-West). We completely apologise for any misunderstanding and hope it doesn’t happen again. These people are not traditional rulers in any way or form. They are merely symbolic and they provide local leadership for Igbo where they reside and are, in no way, competing in functions with traditional rulers. In Igboland, not only in the South-West, over time, there have been disputes. The South-East Council of Traditional Rulers has made laws in conjunction with Ohanaeze towards the abolition of that title ‘Eze Ndigbo’. It has been on and we are driving it and hoping that we get rid of that.
Is there a similar recognition for the Yoruba in the South-East?
The Igbo are peculiar and all over the country. I don’t think we have such massive presence of the Yoruba in the South-East in that sense. They are here but in some places, they have such leaders, not as traditional rulers, like Obas — I haven’t heard of one. I will investigate to see if such exists, but I haven’t seen one yet.
Some Igbo in Lagos State are currently holding elective offices after their victories at this year’s general elections. What is your response to this?
It is a thing to be encouraged. Ohanaeze commends the Lagos State Government. It is not the first time; they have done it before. I am aware of others in the South-West. It is a good development and that is the meaning of leading a nation. We hope this will happen all over the country.
Do you think it defeats the agitations that the Igbo are marginalised?
I don’t think the problem is the South-West. The problem is at the centre. I don’t think Igbo complained that they were marginalised in Lagos. What we are really asking for, and it is in the interest of the country, is that if they say we are building a nation, people should be free to live in any part of the country they want to take as home. These things are in the conference recommendations and there is no running away from implementing them.
The All Progressives Congress has said the Igbo stand a good chance of producing the president in 2023. Do you believe that?
I am not God. How can I be predicting 2023 from now? 2023 is about eight years away; that is a long time and any person (from any region) can (emerge president). Politics is a changing game and it would be entertaining for somebody to sit down today and start predicting what will happen in terms of power play in eight years’ time. It is not as simple as that.