A former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Cross River State and former clerk of the state House of Assembly, Ntufam John Okon, speaks in this interview with David Odey in Calabar about the party's rebound, its forthcoming national convention among other thought-provoking issues.
A lot has happened after the Supreme Court judgement regarding the authentic interim national chairman of the party. How has the rebuilding process progressed?
As you have rightly pointed out, there were a lot of challenges during the Sheriff period after the Port Harcourt convention. And by God's grace, the Supreme Court gave judgement upholding the outcome of the convention. Some people said it was in favour of Makarfi. But I say no, it was the convention that is supreme organ of the party. If you realize, before that convention was held, there were a number of committees set up. There was the Jerry Gana committee, and other statutory committees to see how we can rebuild the party. One of the major issues was about the presidency. Because of the way the party lost the presidency in 2015, it was decided that the presidential ticket should be zoned to the north in 2019 and the south should take the national chairmanship. And when we went for the non-elective convention in Abuja, some of the areas we had problems were the areas of parallel excos in some states, which were dissolved at the non-elective convention. A date has been fixed for the national convention, which is 9th December. There have been several meetings in trying to put the convention committee together. Candidates have come out, there are about six or seven chairmanship candidates, secretaries, there are many positions to be filled during the convention. There are many issues being downplayed. A lot of constitutional amendments have been made which will be looked at during the convention. I know election is very important. But the constitution, you know, is the ground norm. A lot of issues have been touched regarding the primaries: expanding the caucuses, expanding the electoral colleges at the local, state levels. You know we are no more in power at the national level. You know we have to bring more people into the decision making process of the party. So those are the kinds of things that have been going on in the party. There has been a lot of reconciliation going on. And by God's grace, we are doing very fine. In spite of what you are hearing, the party under the leadership of Makarfi is trying to sort out the problems affecting the party.
As a former chairman of the party in the state, you still play active role in the affairs of the party, unlike some other former chairmen. Why is it so?
We must give credit to God and not to any human being. One of the problems we have is looking at human beings, his lack of self-contentment. As a person, I am lucky in life. I worked with politicians in the House of Assembly as Clerk of the House. And it so pleased the leadership of the state at that time to look at me, among all the politicians they had, to say 'You have the integrity, you have the mien, you have the ability to come and manage us'. And they brought me out to be the state chairman. I think it was an honour. And having done that for four years, you know the kind of result God gave to us in this state. We won all our elections, both at the local level, the state level and the national level. And having been a part of that, I think it is only good for me to be satisfied and give my best whenever I am called to contribute to the party. I have to show gratitude to the party that gave me that opportunity, that gave me that scope to work. When I go to some of my colleagues at the national, some of them say 'you are supposed to go for a second term because of your performance' and I say 'yes, but it wasn't so because it is God that did that.' If I didn't go for second term it does not mean I have to be bitter. I was holding the key of the party. I am interested in working for the party because PDP is one family. Having made a mistake as a party and had fallen, we must stand up, brush up and move ahead. Nigerians still need us. And even the opposition in the state needs us. So we must not allow the mistakes of the past stop us from moving ahead. That has been my attitude.
There is a lot going on ahead of the election of the national chairman of the party at the party's convention on 9th December. There is controversy surrounding it. With all this, is the party really on track for 2019?
I think we must put politics in perspective. There is no way we will go to national convention to hold an election that there will be no conflict of interest. It must always be so. If you look at APC, since they had their national convention, they have not even been able to hold non elective convention. Even for the NEC meeting, it was only two weeks ago that they held it. But you know we have been holding conventions, NEC and so on. That shows that at least we are still engaging in a democratic process based on our constitution. There will be controversy about electing a national chairman no doubt. The national chairmanship is such an important position because it affects the running of the party. It affects the future of the party. It even affects those who are going to emerge as governorship candidates, presidential candidate; a lot of things, even the House of Assembly candidates. It's a gamut that is so important that it is raking the kind of muck you are seeing. If there is no controversy, it means PDP would have been a dead party. The interest is there. The whole nation is looking up to us. That the candidates are moving from one zone to another campaigning shows the level of internal democracy in PDP. There is nothing to be afraid of. There is going to be an election. Whatever happens, only one person will emerge as chairman. All we are praying is that due process, transparency should be there so that one person would emerge that will be able to hold the party, be able to reconcile, be able to move the party forward. My dear, there is no way there will be no controversy when you are holding this kind of election because of a lot of interests. There are so many interests within the party. I think it is natural.
It seems the chairmanship position is tilting towards the southwest because there are a lot of candidates from that region…
I think it is perception. A lot of people feel that if you go to the south-west, some people will tell you that the north has had it. Some will say the south-east or the south-south had the opportunity to have it. But south-south will tell you we never had it. The deputy national chairman was Uche Secondus and even when he tried to be the acting chairman, they took him to court and said there was nothing like that in the party's constitution and he was asked to vacate the seat. The south-south will also say they have not occupied that position. The convention said the chairmanship position should go to the south, just as Makarfi is saying. But if the leaders in the south say they want to micro-zone it to the south-west, that is a different thing entirely. But up till now they have not done that. The convention did not say south-west. It said south. It is dangerous to now say zone it to the south-west alone. Because when it comes to the north for the presidency, somebody will now say zone it to the north-east or north-west. We want it to be open so that people are not shut out. That is what is happening. I think south-west naturally are gunning for it. Let me also correct an impression. I hear somebody accusing Makarfi of imposition. Some of us when we had problems in the party after we lost the 2015 elections, Makarfi was one of the leaders selected to go round the south-south for reconciliation and we had interaction with him and we saw a very peaceful, honest person who wants the party to succeed. And his emerging as caretaker committee chairman was not through lobbying. He was just called to take up the job at the Port Harcourt convention and he has been doing his best. There is no way you can now accuse him of single-handedly wanting to impose a national chairman. It is not possible in PDP. There are too many stakeholders. We have the governors' forum, we have the national assembly caucus, we have the ex-ministers, we have the board of trustees. What happens is that in every state we have our leaders. In Cross River State our leader is Governor Ben Ayade. We have other leaders like Senator Liyel Imoke. And we have been having meetings with all these stakeholders. These are meetings you and I may not even be there. But once they finish these meetings and come to agreement among the geopolitical zones, they will come and brief the delegates. Delegates will ask questions. Thirty percent of the delegates will support the leader of the party. It is not a rocket science. You are not expecting delegates to go there and own their own start voting. Attacking the Caretaker committee chairman will not help matters.
You said the complaint by the National Assembly caucus of PDP about the state governor hijacking the party has been resolved. Could you elaborate on how it was resolved?
Understandably, it is a matter of interest. The thing happened in 2015. Waiting till now to bring up this kind of issue… But I tell you something. When parties' structures are being built, apart from what you see in the open, there is a lot of consultation taking place behind the scene. There is no way the governor can single-handedly handpick the leaders of the party. Yes, he is the leader of the party, he is the driver of the party. You cannot take that away from him. It is a norm right from Donald Duke's era to Liyel Imoke's. I am a stakeholder. I must be frank that the governor consulted me and other leaders in Akamkpa. Both here and Abuja where we had the caucus meeting, we sat down and discussed. I was at the caucus meeting both in Abuja and in the government house and they sat down and agreed that they should work together the more, and the governor agreed. The governor is being encouraged to consult them the more. You see, the challenge about running of parties is that you don't just go to elections. You must show interest in party affairs. One of the challenges we also have is that National Assembly members should also show interest in the affairs of the party. They should be in touch with the chairman of the party to know what is going on in the party, the welfare of the party officials. I am not blaming the governor. He is not staying aloof. They have discussed and there is assurance that there will be more consultations. That was why we had successful caucus meetings.
As a former PDP chairman, do you see the party being managed now the way it was when you and your team were on board?
There is always management style. In my own time, my Governor, Senator Liyel Imoke, was somebody who believed in the activities of the party. He wanted the party to be very active and it paid off for us. You know I was very active. You agree I was very active. We were very active. The new governor is more interested in governance. He feels he should concentrate on industrialization, boosting investments and so on. His orientation is that if you do this you will impact on the grassroots. He believes the party should play a minimal role. You can see even in his government, he tries to encourage opposition politics and so on. But in my own time, it was for us to build the party. But let us see how it works. But I can assure you that by 2018 the attitude would change. The party would be more active. The situation is like this because the local government election has not been held. It makes the party to be more dormant when there are no elections. Governor Ben Ayade believes more in governance and development than partisan politics. That is his style. With apology, my former governor believes you can combine the two and still move on.
It seems all is not well with the party in the state as big wigs such as the former speaker of the state House of Assembly are defecting from the party. Don't you think this will impact negatively on the party?
I wish they did not defect. But the concern about their defection is that it is happening at a time there is no reason to defect. Why am I saying so? Because if we were doing primaries as we used to do, then people get dissatisfied and defect, you understand that it happened after you wanted to become a senator and you could not have the ticket and then you move to another party. But I think politics is a matter of interest. We have lost the national level. Don't blame it on the state alone. It does not happen in Cross River State alone. Politicians always seek their interest. They go to where they believe their interests will be better served. The tendency is that the patronage is not as weighty as what you will have at the national level where the APC is holding sway. So a politician will say let me join the party in power at the national level. That is what is affecting us. The APC is in power. And a lot of people are not pushing our party to return to power. I think if we were holding power at the national level, those who are defecting now won't do so. Don't look at it as Cross River State problem alone. It is happening across the states. Look at Anambra for instance. Look at all the gimmicks. Those of them who ought to have held the party together have defected to either APGA or the APC. Blame it on the Nigerian political psyche. We may have problems. But don't take it away from the fact that people have interest and they have made their calculations and they feel that their interest will be better protected in APC. Yes, the impact is there. But don't forget that we are on ground. We hold the structure of this state. By God's grace, I don't see anybody upstaging us. We may not have the 100 percent things we used to do because of the power structure at the national level and here but I can assure you that we will take the state. The governor will do that. PDP is strong enough to be able to hold the state.