Businessman and prominent politician, Orji Uzor Kalu, tells PUNCH why the Federal Government outlawed the activities of the Independent People of Biafra because its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, ignored the elders’ advice
Why did you say that the agitation for a sovereign state of Biafra cannot succeed and that what the Igbo should aim at now is to produce the president of Nigeria?
The Igbo should strive towards producing a president in the Federal Republic of Nigeria instead of agitating for the sovereign state of Biafra. I was the governor (of Abia State) for eight years and the issue of Biafra came up then. It even became a serious issue at a time that I decided to lead (Ralph) Uwazurike to see (former) President (Olusegun) Obasanjo but the former president refused to receive him. I was then surprised that the same Obasanjo was advising President Muhammadu Buhari to dialogue with (Nnamdi) Kanu. That sounds very funny to my ears and I don’t believe that such statement could come from the respected elder statesman who once told me at the Villa that he will never engage in a dialogue with somebody who wanted Nigeria to break up. There are so many federal roads in the eastern part of the country that are in serious dilapidated conditions but President Buhari has been fixing some of them now. If the immediate past government led by my brother and friend, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, had paid a little attention to the terrible infrastructure decay in the South-East and South-South geopolitical zones, there won’t be any form of agitation in the first instance. Some of these people involved in the Biafran agitation are doing so out of frustration. Climate change had really dealt with most communities in the South-East leading to flooding and massive erosion. So, the Igbo should produce a leader that will fix the economic and infrastructural challenges affecting not only the Igbo but the entire Nigeria.
But do you think that the agitation for Biafra will stop even with an Igbo man as president?
Biafra as a concept can never die but I want a situation whereby it will exist in the minds of everybody as an ideological issue and not as a geographical expression. The real Biafra should be a concept for development, and economic growth through planting of more agricultural trees for commercial purposes. The concept of Biafra should be on how to achieve an empowerment strategy for our people. We need a Biafran agitation that will strengthen our industrial base and bring prosperity to Nigerians. It is difficult to talk about Biafra as a republic when the Igbo are living and have investments everywhere in Nigeria. If you go to Birnin Kebbi now, the Igbo are in the majority there after the aborigines; the same is the situation in Ogbomoso, Osogbo, Kafanchan and other major towns across Nigeria. So why are we agitating for a republic? God decided to create us as Nigerians so that we can derive strength from our diversity. The young men who are championing the Biafran republic have never heard the sound of a gun before.
But you met with Nnamdi Kanu in the prison, did you explain all these things to him?
I spoke with Nnamdi Kanu in the prison and gave him quality advice. I counselled him to embrace peace and agree with whatever terms that will set him free. I also warned him against allowing his boys to be displaying Biafra flags, coat of arms, organising parades, establishing secret security service, and mounting a guard of honour. I told him that by doing all these, his group had subdued the sovereignty of Nigeria and are therefore looking for trouble. No government on earth including the United States will allow any group to be championing the cause of dividing their country. I believe most sincerely that with the situation on ground today, majority of the Igbo do not agree on the issue of Biafra as a separate country. I have heard some elite, including professors who are saying that they want Biafra but they should know that there is no way such agitation can be achieved under the law. There is no section of the Nigerian constitution where you have restructuring. There is no section that spells out the process for dividing the country. All those things are alien to the constitution. If willingly, we want to talk about constitutional amendment, then people can bring up various issues. Today, the creation of Biafra Republic is not feasible. The (Indigenous People of Biafra) boys have the right to express themselves but they do not have any right to engage in destruction of property, raping women or setting up a Biafran intelligence service. No country will allow that to happen. I am an Igbo man before being a Nigerian and I have no regrets being an Igbo man. I have lived outside Igbo land so I understand Nigeria. I sincerely want to say and maintain what I have said earlier that Biafra as a country is not an issue now. The issue is for the Nigerian government to give us justice and fairness. When some Igbo people cry of marginalisation, I tell them that if they go to other parts of the country, the people there are also crying because the story is the same. There is a wall between the rich and the poor. We don’t have any war of dialect or language. The rich people should start having a human face so that we can move the nation forward.
What was the response of Nnamdi Kanu to your explanations after your discussion with him in prison?
I will not tell you a lie. Nnamdi Kanu did not agree with me at all on my views about his activities. I did most of the talking throughout the two hours and ten minutes that I stayed with him. I told him many stories about life especially some of the stories that the Ikemba Nnewi (Odimegwu Ojukwu) told me when he was alive and also explained lot of things to him based on my experience in life but didn’t agree with me. I had to cut short my journey when I heard what was happening between his boys and the military. I returned to the country on September 14 and came straight to Abia State on the 15th to make sure that we talked to the IPOB boys so that they would stop what they were doing and allow peace to reign.
But people are saying that the Army aggravated the tension by launching the ‘Operation Python Dance.’
Nobody can say that the Army has no power to do training. Such argument is out of order. The army has the power to do training in any part of the country.
You said that majority of the Igbo do not agree with the agitation for Biafra as being championed by IPOB. Do you think that your position is justified based on the alleged foreign support that the group is receiving?
There is no foreign government that is supporting IPOB. I have consulted all the intelligence agencies in Germany, France, US, UK, China and I have discovered that there is no foreign government that is supporting Biafra. If foreign governments are supporting them, you would have seen the change in their approach and strategies. They are just using that as propaganda to deceive people. It is a lie.
There was apprehension and tension in the South-East following the military show of might in Abia State, and you offered to talk to the federal authorities to see ways of bringing about normalcy, how far have you gone in this regard?
Based on our timely intervention, the federal authorities have replaced the soldiers with the police on roads. The military are back to their barracks. Some of these things about tension are mere propaganda. Immediately I returned from the United States, I embarked on consultations. From September 15 to today, I have consulted fully with all institutions of the Federal Government involved and they all responded to my enquiries. I have since discovered that people are blackmailing the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and the propaganda cannot stand. We are a nation and we must continue to live in harmony and do things the proper way. All these things are annoying.
But proponents of a Biafran nation have argued that the sovereignty of an Igbo country will bring rapid development to the people better than what they are getting under the Nigerian government.
No, no, no, nobody is talking about that. We are not talking about having a nation as the Igbo people any longer. We are talking about one nation that is one Nigeria. I know that after the war and in the process of punishing those who took active part in it, a lot of injustices have been perpetrated but we have also had opportunities as southerners to correct some of these things when our people were in power at the federal level but they failed to do anything. For example, since 1999 that Nigeria returned to democracy, there is no northern leader that has really ruled this country up to one term. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo did two terms totalling eight years, while Goodluck Jonathan did six years. One would have expected these two leaders to turn the South-East to paradise if truly the problem is between the North and the South. Roads like the Enugu-Umuahia-Okigwe-Aba-Port Harcourt expressway, Enugu-Awka-Onitsha Expressway, Owerri to Port Harcourt, Aba, Ikot Ekpene-Calabar, Imo-Mbadon-Umuahia-Bende-Ohafia-Arochukwu-Cross River and the Okigwe-Nnewi highways. These are the roads that people are complaining about. At the moment, you can see construction work going on the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, while work is also ongoing on the Awka-Onitsha Expressway. There is also work going on now on the Umuahia-Ikot Ekpene Road. These are being done by the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Buhari. He once challenged me when I complained about the poor state of our roads. He said, “But we once had the secretary to the government of the federation, the minister of finance, minister of aviation, deputy senate president, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and many others in powerful positions but that they did nothing about the roads.” Now the minister of works has given marching orders to the contractors handling the road projects to start the jobs. If our sons and daughters who had held influential positions in the recent past had improved on the development of our area, we would not be where we are today. Sometimes, our people are fed with wrong information. We also have governors in the South-East, who didn’t really perform. If Jonathan had done these Roads, nobody would be talking about marginalisation today. If Jonathan had done the East-West road, nobody would be complaining. The problem of Nigeria is that most people who found themselves in the position of leadership were not prepared for it. You must be able to manage yourself before you manage others.
IPOB members are saying that the soldiers took Nnamdi Kanu and his parents away while the military authorities are denying it. As an Igbo leader, what is the position of things?
Kanu was not taken away by the military. Kanu went to Malaysia from where he travelled to the United Kingdom. Nnamdi Kanu is in London right now as we speak. He was not arrested by anybody. He left the country on his own. One of his relations has spoken to me and explained everything because I wanted to see him and talk to him wherever he was and see how I could meet some Federal Government officials on his issue. I also wanted to see ways of talking to the President about him, and find common ground but his family told me that he has left the country, unless they are lying to me. I believe, whether he had left the country or not, he is not with the military because I asked the Commander of the 14 Brigade, Brig.-Gen. A.K Ibrahim, who is a very fine and good soldier, well educated and dedicated, and he told me that they don’t know his whereabouts and I am sure, the Department of State Services have the same information. I also visited the commissioner of police and he said he didn’t know his whereabouts and that they are also looking for him.
What of his parents, where are they?
I don’t know. I visited them in December last year and I was not impressed with the discussion I had with the father and the mother because I expected them to have acted better. Since then, I have not visited them. I feel that they have not impressed me because they ignored my advice to them to talk to their son on the need to stay at home and avoid public outings. I said his people can continue to carry their flags around but that they should not disturb anybody again. They have a right to express themselves but that such rights should be within the limits of our constitution. They have the right to carry Biafran flags but they should do so within the limits of the constitution. Once your activities are within the limits of the law, you are in order. You cannot carry Biafra flags and be stopping vehicles and smashing their windscreens. You cannot carry Biafra (flags) and be raping young girls, you also cannot carry Biafra (flags) and be assembling young men every day. These are people who have no job and after doing that, they will go and engage in kidnapping or they will go and do armed robbery while some will go and do other things to make money. Hunger is a very terrible thing. The traders in the market have warned them to stop the nonsense they are doing. Why should you be extorting money from people in the name of Biafra agitation? They are extorting money from people in the market against their will. If the federal and state governments continue to watch and allow all these things to continue, there will be chaos in the state. If Kanu had not proved stubborn but listened to advice and kept to the rules of the court, we won’t be where we are now.
But some Igbo intellectuals and leaders have argued that Kanu has the fundamental human rights to…
Which fundamental human rights? When a court of law had given an order? It was not Justice Nyako speaking, it was the law of Nigeria speaking. If Kanu was dissatisfied with that ruling, the day he came out, he should have approached the appellate court where five justices would decide on his case. He is destroying business in Igbo land. The GDP of this area is going down every day. The people who used to come to Aba to buy shoes, dresses and all kinds of products and materials are no longer coming. There is no government that will leave a section of his country to be mismanaged this way.
Don’t you think that the decision to proscribe IPOB and tag its members as terrorists will further aggravate the tension in the land?
I really don’t understand why someone should sew uniforms for a group of boys under his control and start to make statements which he is not expected to say claiming that he disagrees with the law of the land. Disobedience to the law of the land itself can make you to be tagged as a terrorist because we have a law, the constitution. I am an Igbo man to the heart, I don’t care what anybody says, I don’t pretend and I have never asked any president to give me a job. Since I left office as governor, two presidents have approached me and offered to give me federal appointments but I rejected their offers. I even told one of them that I have a (court) case with you (your government) and he said, “Oh yes, I know about the case. It is political because I have read every file about the case.” The former president is the late Umaru Yar’Adua, may his soul rest in peace. I don’t want to go into further details because the case is still in court.
The argument of IPOB members is that tagging them as terrorists is a declaration of war against the Igbo because some armed herdsmen who are unleashing terror on innocent farmers were not tagged terrorists…..
Who tagged IPOB members as terrorists? Was it Buhari who tagged them as terrorists? The answer is no! Was it Buhari who proscribed them? The answer is no! It is only the people who live within the same enclave and area with them that said no, we will no longer collectively tolerate this (activities of IPOB members). The president has not said anything on this issue. The people are fond of attributing everything to Buhari. The governors went to Enugu for a meeting where the group was proscribed. In the first place, some of the governors mismanaged this issue. Go and ask Nwazurike, he is still alive; when he was doing this (Biafran agitation), there was a way we treated him. We gave him guidelines and warned him not do certain things. We told him (as governors then) that his group had the right to carry the (Biafran) flag but anytime they wanted to carry it, I usually invoked the law of the land and made it binding on them because that was the right thing expected of me as governor. You cannot be going to the market women to carry their foods and be eating. You cannot go to a woman selling akara with the little money on her, and carry her akara and eat. The boys would sometimes see a woman selling food by the roadside and decide to eat all her food without paying her. When I was governor, whenever such incident was brought to my attention, I usually applied the law instantly. The law is very clear. People should stop the sentiment, this is about saving this nation, it is about saving our people, it is about bringing back economic prosperity to the South-East.
What is your advice to President Buhari on the issue of the herdsmen attacks?
President Buhari has to come up fully with strong pronouncements on how the herdsmen should manage their cattle. He has scored high points in Boko Haram insurgency, and IPOB crisis. He should also address the herdsmen issue because these are some of the things that are causing dissatisfaction in the land. As the president, he should come out and put up a strategy on how the herdsmen could be put under check
When do you think the Igbo should produce the president of Nigeria, 2019 or 2023?
We have a sitting president in the All Progressives Congress and if he is not running again in 2019, the North should complete their eight-year tenure but I would advise President Buhari to run because he is entitled to a second term under the constitution.
Despite his state of health?
Are you his doctor? The man is very healthy. I told you then that he will come back healthier, you can see him now. He is back and healthy. People should stop spreading rumours about the president’s health. It is only at his will that he can decide not to run. If I was in Buhari’s position, I would contest again for a second term because other presidents before him did so as a right. There is nothing wrong with the man.
So, the Igbo should wait till 2023 to produce a president of Nigeria?
Yes. The Igbo will produce the president in 2023. If Buhari is not running in 2019, another Hausa man should be allowed to complete his second term. When Yar’Adua died, Jonathan came but if he had listened to the people’s advice, this situation will not be there because if I were Jonathan, I would have ruled for six years and allowed other people to run.
How do you think that the Igbo will be able to produce a president when the leaders are not speaking with one voice?
Other tribes have produced a president, so it is the turn of the Igbo too. Obasanjo was elected president in 1999 despite the fact that the Yoruba did not vote for him. He lost in his ward; I was there on the Election Day. So, any Igbo man that is widely accepted can be president of Nigeria. How did Obasanjo and Buhari become president? Are they better than any Igbo man? The answer is no! The issue is that if they know how they made Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari president, they should also make an Igbo man president so that there can be complete unity and we would forget about the civil war because not making an Igbo president will still remind our people that the marginalisation which started after the civil war has not ended.
Do you think that the Igbo presidency will bring about the desired development to the South-East?
There will be massive development in every part of Nigeria not only in Igbo land. The economy will change. The development will be channelled towards the entire country and we will appeal to the Igbo to make personal contributions to the development of their areas too. Make an Igbo man president today, I can assure you that the agitation will go down but first of all, let the Federal Government immediately implement the recommendations contained in the 2014 confab report. If the decisions are implemented and the Igbo have one more state like other regions, even before they produce the president, we will be moving. I call on the federal government to be magnanimous enough to present the 2014 confab report to the National Assembly for immediate implementation.
But is your appeal in line with what your party is doing with the Governor el-Rufai committee on true federalism?
What the el-Rufai committee is doing is very good by trying to get the views of Nigerians but they should also carry along the 2014 confab report. That constitutional conference was chaired by the retired Hon. Justice Kutigi, a very reputable jurist, so they should consider the recommendations in the report.
You were once quoted to have said that the Lagos IGR will drop by 70 per cent if the Igbo should withdraw their investment from the state but some people have faulted your position claiming that Lagos ports actually accounts for its prosperity. Can you clarify your position again?
No, I never said so. I quoted what somebody said when I delivered a lecture in one of the universities. I actually quoted an authority who was a special adviser to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu when he was governor. The special adviser, in a memo he sent to Tinubu said if Igbo should withdraw their investment from the state, the IGR will drop by the figure you quoted. There is no way I can say that the Igbo will withdraw their investment from Lagos. Every component of this country is very important. It is painful when I hear some people saying that they are more important than others. It is also painful to me when I hear people saying that the Hausa have nothing to contribute to the nation’s economy. It is not true. Agriculture is the most important thing that can serve as alternative to the revenue we are getting from oil. Before the oil discovery, the regions were making use of proceeds from the sale of agricultural trees which they produced to finance the Federal Government. So every tribe should see other people as important contributors to the economy too. Some people think that they are superior to others but it is not true. We should love ourselves as a nation without any impediments, respect each other’s religion and everyone should strive to say the truth. Let me tell you that international agencies operating within and outside the country were very happy with the emergence of President Buhari because they knew that the economy of Nigeria would have collapsed if he had not intervened. Look at the people we trusted with power in the past, they opened the Central Bank and looted all the money there. I keep telling the people that I will always stand on the side of truth even at the risk of my life because I am not afraid of death.
Majority of the states are not paying salaries again and Buhari has said that the governors should be held responsible for this. Do you agree with him?
In good conscience, if you are a governor collecting N1bn as security vote, without paying salary, you are a criminal. If you are a governor and you collect security vote before you pay salary, then you are not doing what is expected of you. They should pay the workers first and take the security vote later. As governor, my last security vote was N200m; it was ranging between N120m and N150m before then. So governors should make payments of salaries a priority.
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