Only the truth shall set us free, By Elliot Uko
Uko

OBINNA EZUGWU

Evangelist Elliot Ugochukwu-Uko, founder of Igbo Youth Movement (IYM), has noted that separatist agitation in the southeast worsened because some politicians wanted to use the development to advance their political careers.

Uko, the secretary of Eastern Consultative Assembly (ECA), who spoke in this interview, noted that the politicians were only interested in using the agitators to win elections.

Excerpts:

Over the years, you have been an active voice in the Southeast. What do you think has changed?

What has changed in the last couple of decades, is that the very thing I feared and worked so hard to avert has finally come upon us regrettably. The restive youths of the East finally rose up in anger. I had thought that both the Government and leaders of the region would listen to the truth, that the lid of the boiling cauldron could be blown off, when the temperature gets hotter and that everything should be done to reduce the heat and engage the youths.

It seems they wanted to see the mayhem first before they believe. The state of affairs in the East today was clearly avoidable, but political leaders made a mess of eating boiled eggs. Sad.

Frustrating dichotomy simmering for decades metamorphosed into seething anger in the hearts of youths of this region, who scared of watching their own kids face the kind of marginalisation they faced, raised their voices in diverse disparate forms. But the state not only chose to ignore them, but went ahead to mishandle the agitation by applying very wrong strategy of containment.

Leaders of the zone made things worse by misdiagnosing the crisis, which helped complicate the issues. Know-it-all attitude of both the Government and regional leaders mestastasised the crises. Even up till date, the real issues that inspired the agitation has not been given attention.

Everyone seems only interested in the symptoms of the problem. Nobody cares to address the root cause. What changed is that a little flicker of flame was unwittingly fanned into an inferno by the leaders who claimed to have all the solutions. That’s what changed.

Southeast is presently a war zone, with many point at IPOB as the culprits. Who do you think is responsible?

The sorry state of affairs in the East is pathetic, but finger-pointing isn’t the way out. Identifying the root causes, correcting past errors and truthfully addressing the root cause, will better heal the land than finger-pointing. Dr Alex Ekwueme pleaded with me to do all I can to avoid what’s happening today. He gave me two pages of print out from the Internet, where one Egemba and others were accusing the leadership of the agitators of embezzling their defense fund they had contributed overseas. Alarmed and worried, he mandated me to impress upon the agitators that violence of anykind would be wrong. He pleaded with me to bring Nnamdi to him for a talking-to, when he is released from Kuje prison.

When Nnamdi came out on bail five years ago, I took him to Dr Alex Ekwueme and the great sage admonished him in my presence to eschew violence completely. Nnamdi affirmed that he would never resort to violence. I took him to over a dozen elders, Bishops and traditional rulers and they all advocated for peace. In fact Col Joe Achuzia reminded him that when people die, they don’t come back to life. Therefore violence must be shunned. Archbishop Anikwenwa begged him to avoid anything that would lead to blood letting, when I took him to Awka.

Nnamdi told me they are demanding for referendum on the future of Nigeria. I advised him to key into restructuring instead. Because I know from my numerous interactions during my serial IYM seminars, that the loss of faith in Nigeria exhibited especially by diaspora Igbo population, is as a result of the unitary structure that feeds nepotism, sleaze, mediocrity and dichotomy.

He agreed with me. When the Southeast Governors pleaded with me to bring to a meeting on 30th August 2017, I pleaded with an elderly constitutional lawyer, Prof Ben Nwabueze to lead us to the parley, he consented. Nnamdi repeated his demand for the early restructuring of the country before the Governors, who assured us that they will take his demand to Abuja.

An agreement was to be signed in a fortnight where Nnamdi will agree to play down the agitation for six to twelve months to allow the restructuring of the country to proceed. But regrettably his house was attacked on the eve of the concluding meeting. In fact someone else was asked to rush to his house on the pretense that some political leader would use his phone to speak with Nnamdi’s Dad just minutes before the military assault on his house. Nnamdi escaped to Israel and the rest is history.

That is the genesis of the lack of confidence between Nnamdi and the authorities that inflamed the situation to the mess in the land. Breakdown in communication and the refusal to engage the agitators in the same manner Niger Delta militants, bandits etc are engaged, deepened the gap.

The ruthless pillaging of armed herdsmen probably inspired the militia in the East. This is the truth of the matter. While it was wrong to form a militia, it is equally unhelpful to begin the story from the middle. Cutting off the origin of the emotions and sentiments amongst younger elements of the region that inspires the agitation, would be unhelpful. It is in trying to sincerely find out why millions of youngsters from the region agitate to secceed, that your question will be truthfully answered. Nobody knows who are responsible for the mayhem.We will do well to engage the agitators.

When and why did the agitation turn violent? What is responsible for that?

I’m close to the ordinary people of my region. The admiration and confidence they repose in me, helped me earn their confidence and made the peace efforts I championed possible, but that has also generated a lot of envy from the political class who blackmail me viciously. My disagreement with the political leaders, stem from their arrogance and paranoia.

They lack deep insight on the origin of the agitation, they are also scared of presenting the truth to Abuja. They prefer adhoc responses that only deepened the situation. The agitation turned violent when the agitators established a militia, ostensibly to defend the farmers, who are scared of the herdsmen attacks. Before then they only marched with Biafran flags demanding referendum.I disagree with the formation of the ESN, because that would provoke the government. I also know that killing the unarmed agitators would lead to unexpected reaction and response from them.
I walked away from the agitators over three and half years ago, months before the 2019 elections. I refused to take calls from them and switched off from them since then. I don’t know at what point things got out of hand. My reason for walking away was three fold.

One, politicians were desperate to use them to advance their political careers. They were meddling through their lawyers, siblings etc. They weren’t interested in closure and resolution of the crises. They were only interested in using them to win elections. One was desperate to use them to become governor, another was desperate to use them to launch his attempt to become Vice President or even President. These politicos began to induce and manipulate the agitation while at the same time cleverly deceiving the security agencies that they have the solution to the agitation.

Two, my attempt to present the truth about the anger and frustrations that inspires the agitation in the hope that sincerely addressing them to seek closure, was unacceptable to both the regions leaders and the Government. So I had to withdraw completely since January 2019.

Thirdly, the legion of advisers to the federal Government on the issue, was frightening. This army of “friends” of government, survive entirely on giving information on such matters. They all claim they are in charge of the region and they therefore should be the ones to resolve the issues. This set of people who actually have no idea what really drives the agitation, only misadvised and misled the Government. This last group actually deepened the situation in their bid to impress Abuja.
When I turned my back on the agitators just before the last general elections three and half years ago over Nnamdi’s delay to call off the election boycott and allow people vote candidate of their choice, Nnamdi refused to inform his politician friends that I’ve turned my back on him.They only found out last year when one Senator visited me in Enugu to plead with me to travel out of the country to meet Nnamdi. He was shocked when I told him I had no interest and that I walked away from them over three years earlier. He left disappointed.
I believe that sincerely engaging Nnamdi even in detention, will greatly help heal the land. Those who destroyed the peace effort I built through the grace of God, five years ago, are too ashamed and too proud to acknowledge their mistake.That is the truth.

Do you think governors of the region have done enough to stop the mayhem in the East?

There’s no point recriminating the governors. They acted within the limits of the system the country operates and also knowledge barrier.For instance I pleaded with Governor Ugwuanyi on several occasions to convince fellow South East Governors to set up a joint committee to engage the agitators to extract their grievances and begin to parley with them.
I met him about a dozen times between 2015 and 2017 begging him to engage the agitators. He kept telling me to come back in three months. Governor Umahi also told me that the issue is beyond them. On one occasion Governor Umahi told me that he was elected to govern Ebonyi state and not to engage Biafran agitators.

They didn’t believe me as I pleaded that if the 2017 opportunity is missed that it may be difficult to resolve the crisis. They probably thought I was looking for something, they also probably believed that the agitation would be crushed. They didn’t understand that the thing has gained traction and that delay was dangerous.

I don’t blame anyone. They didn’t see or hear what I saw and heard in my three decades of organising IYM seminars and talk shops for Igbo youths all over the country. Do they didn’t take my suggestions seriously.

You are an advocate of equity and fairness in Nigeria. What do you make of the just concluded PDP primaries?

Fairness demand the Southeast be supported to produce the next President. That would be the right thing to do now, given certain facts on ground. But turn by turn presidency suggests there’s something wrong with our country and our structure.

Sectional presidency and ethnic prejudice is unhealthy. Regional and religious differences wouldn’t be an issue if Nigeria were restructured along the lines of true federalism and devolution of powers. People jostle for central power because of the winner-takes-all attitude that the unitary structure supports.
In truly federal systems the world over, “it’s our turn” mentality doesn’t exist. Nigerian political class is predominantly dominated by a predatory band of ruthless exploiters who throw up every injurious argument in order to grab power for themselves. They manipulate ethnic sentiments and sectional emotions to whip up division amongst the people that would help tilt power to their advantage.

Meanwhile they themselves hardly quarrel amongst them selves, especially when they share their loot. There’s no difference between a northern politician and a southern politician, a Christian politician and a Muslim politician, a PDP politician and an APC politician. They are all offshoot of civilian friends, acolytes and associates of the military rulers of Nigeria, who jumped into Partisan politics and have held the country by the jugular since 1999. If Nigeria is restructured today nobody would care from which zone the President will come from.
It’s the over centralization of power at the centre and the crippling of the federating units by the 1999 constitution that makes the stake very high for the struggle for central power and all kinds of arguments prop up as politicos struggle to outmanouvre each other by driving ethnic arguments. In the case of the Igbo, I think Igbo politicians are responsible for crashing the desire and dream for a South East Presidency. 95 of them voted as delegates at the convention and 80 voted against South East Presidency.

When I marched for Igbo presidency 20 years ago in Enugu, our politicos told me “Elliot do you really think an Igbo man can be president in your lifetime?” It’s tragic that Igbo political class do not believe in it and always work against it as they always place self interest over group interest. Sad but true.

It appears the Igbo presidency project is on the brink of dying? What do you think they are not doing right?

What they aren’t doing right is that the culture of placing personal aggrandizement and individual accommodation above Regional interest will continue to hurt the zone politically.
History has noted that over 80% of South East delegates voted against South East presidency.

Governors of the region did not support Igbo aspirants…?

The Governors mobilised and voted according to their own interests. Confirming that the interest of the people do not matter to them. But that isn’t new. It has always been that way. Which points to the state of affairs in the region. Sad.

What do you make of the quest for rotation of presidency between the South and the North, the six regions?

Rotation isn’t a bad idea, but as I said few minutes ago, a restructured Nigeria will have no need for all these, because each region will develop according to their need and strengths. Nobody will care about where the President comes from, as each region will be in charge of her destiny. Germany, India, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada etc don’t rotate the Presidency, because true federalism ensures each federating thrives.

Is the South East worse off under APC than it was under PDP?

People of my region are suffering from poor leadership irrespective of the political party. We are stuck with a conscienceless political class irrespective of party affiliation. The actors do not care about the welfare of the people and the future of the land.

Imagine this: Immediately after the 2019 general elections, I approached the DG of the South East Governors forum, Prof Otuanya and told him that the Governors should kindly set up a team that would quickly engage the agitators in order to avoid what’s happening in the region today. He promised me they would. A few weeks later he was appointed SSG by Enugu Governor, I assumed he would take seriously what I suggested. They dutifully ignored my request until the situation deteriorated.

Again, we pleaded with them to establish a South East Development Commission, till date, nothing has been done along that line, as they prefer to work alone and sometimes at cross purposes. We are dissapointed. Nobody is proud of them here, except their retinue of praise singers and cheer leaders.

What will bring peace to the region, judging from your interactions with different stakeholders of the region?

Only dialogue will bring genuine healing and lasting peace. The errors made by the Igbo political class in handling the agitation, brought us to where we are today. They were using the earlier leader of the agitators to win elections and empowered him in the process. They erroneously assumed that this one would be like the previous leader. They lacked deeper insight that what gave the second leader great following was because he swore to the followers that he would not behave like the earlier discredited leader who was accused of pecuniary pursuit, compromise and departure from the ideals of their struggle.

The political class didn’t know this and therefore supported brutal suppression which backfired and snowballed into a big crisis. Only sincere dialogue and the willingness to address the root cause which is the suffocating unitary system. Engaging the agitators remain the path to peace.

 

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