Legal practitioner and Secretary General of Aka Ikenga, the Igbo think thank group, Okey Ilofulunwa has insisted that President Muhammadu Buhari must respect the principle of Federal Character as enshrined in the 1999 constitution in his appointments. This is even as the president has come under intense criticisms for neglecting the entire South East in forming his government.  In this interview with EZUGWU OBINNA, Ilofulunwa says that time has come for Buhari to face governance. Excerpts:

Judging by the increasing neglect of the South East by the Buhari administration which one could attribute to the way the zone voted in the last election. Would you say the Igbo should have voted differently?

Well, I don’t think so because in a democratic dispensation, the constitution provides for the existence of many political parties, in the sense that the one vehicle through which an individual is elected into leadership position is through the political party. Now, everybody has a right to decide which political party he wants to support. The constitution guarantees everyone the right to belong to any political party of his choice. The fact that some persons have decided to align with the manifesto of a certain political party does not necessarily mean that they are no longer Nigerians. All the rights and privileges that accrue to them as Nigerians should not be denied on the basis of the political party they decided to support during election.

Take for instance, the constitution says that for you to be qualified to vote, you must be up to 18 years, but when a president emerges in that election, he will also govern those below 18 years. So if you stretch the argument, it means that since people below 18 years did not vote, the president should not formulate policies that would favour those under 18 years. No, the fact is that after elections, electioneering activities cease and governance starts. They are two different things, so anything you do on the basis of voting pattern is unacceptable, it amounts to discrimination. It is contrary to section 42 of the constitution which provides that no one should be discriminated against based on whatever leaning. You should not discriminate on the basis of voting pattern, you cannot do that.

There is always this believe that the Igbo are being marginalized in Nigeria. But in a sense, one could argue that the problem of the Igbo has been their inability to forge a common united political front?

I will approach that from two perspectives, first of all from the perspective of the nature of the Igbo and second, from the perspective of the position of the Igbo people in Nigerian situation.

First, let’s understand the nature of the Igbo man. He is republican in nature in the sense that the Igbo don’t have conventional leaders; what we have are situational leaders. In whatever situation we find ourselves, whoever represents what our aspirations are at that point becomes the leader in that situation. If you look at the traditional Igbo society, people gather at village squares to take collective decisions on matters that affect them. If there is a situation, they will within themselves choose the person best suited to lead them in that situation. If tomorrow another situation emerges and throws up another person as the leader, then he will turn out to be the leader. But that does not detract from the fact that there is still council of elders, chiefs and so on, who normally advise. That is from that perspective.

Another is the perspective of the situation of an Igbo man in Nigeria; in summary the aftermath of the civil war totally destroyed everything Igbo the system, the culture, and so on, were affected.  So the situation of an Igbo man metamorphosed from ‘igwebuike’ that is collective strength to ‘Ike otu onye’ that is individual strength. This is because, at the end of the civil war, every Igbo man was given 20 pounds to survive. It then became survival of the fittest. That threw up situation where people no longer had respect for institutions because they were destroyed. People started scavenging for survival and of course, some people survived and became leaders in their own right. The point still remains that an Igbo man has a peculiar character, you don’t just lead him; you have to convince him on why you think you should lead him. If he doesn’t share in that aspiration, he will not follow you. He is objective and analytical in his followership that is the nature of an Igbo man.

Does it mean that among the current crop of Igbo leaders, none has been able to convince the people to rally behind him?

What I will say is that since the demise of Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and somehow those of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr Michael Okpara, Akanu Ibiam; these were great Igbo leaders; we have not been able to get a leader in those moulds. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have people that can take up from where they left, but it’s whether those people will be able to lead the Igbo the way they (the Igbo) want. The fact still remains however, that we still have people that have the capacity to lead the Igbo, but whether they are doing so is what I may not be able to answer effectively.

Among these past leaders you mentioned, Ojukwu happened to be the only one that indeed lived long enough to participate in this current democratic dispensation. He ran for the office of president in 2003, but despite him being a respected leader as you mentioned, one couldn’t say the Igbo rallied behind him in that election as his party APGA lost to the PDP in the South East states?

Yes, that is what I mean by the nature of the Igbo man being republican. I did say that the Igbo do not have eternal leaders; they have what I will describe as situational leaders. Ojukwu led the Igbo shortly before the civil war, during and immediately after the war. For that situation, he represented what the Igbo people wanted and because of that, they decided that he should lead them. And he led them well even though there were people that feel otherwise, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he led the Igbo. That is what I meant by saying that the Igbo have situational leaders.

Remember that during the activities that preceded the 1999 election, at the Jos convention, the Igbo wholeheartedly supported the candidature of Dr Alex Ekwueme prior to the convention because they felt that Ekwueme represented what they wanted, they believed he was their leader and all of them went to Jos with the single purpose of supporting his candidature. But of course, if you followed the activities of that convention, you will know how he lost; the conspiracies that played out. Since then however, Ekwueme has not been able to galvanize that kind of support or following among the Igbo, even though he is still being highly respected. He has not been able to galvanize such following, that buttresses the point I am making that we have situational leaders, if a situation emerges, somebody that will achieve leadership for that situation will crop up and lead them until the result is achieved or the situation ceases to exist. That is the nature of the Igbo man.

Talking about Ekwueme, in 2003, he ran for president, at a time when many thought the Igbo should produce a president, but unfortunately he lost to Obasanjo at the PDP primary. But the point is that while Ekwueme was easily the best candidate for the Igbo at the time, they could not rally totally behind him as you had others Igbo candidates?

The thing is that in every twelve, you must have a Judas. And what I would say for sure is that the situation that existed then towards the Jos convention which led to the Igbo massively supporting him may not have been the same in 2003. He was not able to galvanize that kind of support. The point I am making is that at any point in time, who best represents the yearnings of the Igbo people, will become their leader.  But even in other ethnic groups, you still have people that could not join the bandwagon. In the Western Region for instance, despite the massive support Obafemi Awolowo had, he still had people that opposed him; people like Ladoke Akintola, people like Adelabu, they all opposed him, even Bola Tinubu during this dispensation has a lot of people that are opposing him.

Let’s talk about Buhari’s administration, within these 100 days, there have been a lot of arguments, one of which, of course is what he has achieved. How would you assess his performance so far?

Let’s start from what we know; we have to start from the known before we get to the unknown. The known is that as we speak, the government has not started governance. As we speak, it has not put concrete policy on economy that would move the country forward. But I will give it to him that he has been able to galvanize sentiments towards believing that he stands for anti-corruption, but governance is not only about fighting corruption; as a matter of fact, the president himself cannot fight corruption but he should have strong institutions like the EFCC, ICPC, the police, the code of conduct bureau, these are the agencies that should go after quote and unquote ‘corrupt’ people. So what we are saying in essence is that it is about time Buhari started to implement good policies that can move the country out of this economic dungeon that we find ourselves in. Just like Bishop Hassan Kukar advised him, he should face governance because right now, he has not started governance.

Talking about the issue of fighting corruption, a lot of people are insisting that he starts his much talked about probe from 1999. What would you say about this?

My honest opinion on that is that crime is crime, and legally crime does not run against time. In other climes or other environments, people have been prosecuted for crimes they committed 50 years ago, even in situations where these people have left power for a very long time. The bottom line is that at any point in time you have facts to support the commission of a crime, you prosecute. And if the court finds the person guilty, punishment follows. There is no limit to the period that you can investigate. If tomorrow, you have people who believe that someone who committed a crime twenty years ago, the law allows you to go after the person. You cannot say you want to turn away from others and say you want to concentrate on a particular period of time, of course, people will read meaning into that, and you can’t blame them. So my view is that first of all, there is no time lag for crime, such that prosecution no longer applies. At any point in time you have done an investigation and come out with facts to support the fact that a crime has been committed, you prosecute.

But some have argued that Jonathan should have probed his predecessor as Buhari wants to probe his?

It is still the same thing. My view as a legal mind is, I still maintain that a crime can be investigated, no matter the time, so if Jonathan did not prosecute those before him, that would, in my opinion, be one of the failings of his government.

Buhari’s appointments have also been another talking point. As it is, the South East is left out completely and the South generally could argue that the North is having a lion share. Would you agree that there are indeed no competent people in the South East?

That argument cannot be father from the truth. There are competent people everywhere and the fact still remains that the position of the constitution is very clear. The appointment must reflect federal character, in section 14 (3) of the 1999 constitution as amended, it is very clear. In your appointments, you must beam your searchlight around and if you do so, you will get competent people from all the nooks and crannies of this country and work with them, you don’t have to run a government of exclusion; you don’t have to do that, otherwise you would be breaching the constitution. If you don’t want federal character anymore, then you expunge that part of the constitution that provides for federal character so that merit becomes the order of the day. But so long as you still have it, you must respect it.

Don’t you share in the argument that the president should appoint those he feels he can work with as long as they achieve results?

My answer is that our environment cannot support that assertion for now. We have not grown to a level that people will not have those considerations. It is still part and parcel of us, so long as we have not developed to a point that these things no longer matter, we must respect them, and that is why the constitution of the country provides for that. Maybe in about 50 years from now, we may no longer be considering these factors, because we must have grown beyond that level. But for now, the greatest spender in the Nigerian economy is still the government, if you check the genesis of all those that have made it in this country, they did so through the help of the government, and one of the closet links to government is still the people you know. So, one of the ways of knowing people in government are that they come from your environment. If a particular person from your environment heads a particular agency, even if you don’t know him, you might know his parents, siblings or links that can take you to him. But if the person is far from you, maybe from another region, you might not be able to reach him; you may not be able to get anything from him in terms of patronage. So long as we are still at this level of development, you must live with that until we get to that level of sophistication that these things don’t matter, and that is why efforts should be geared towards building strong institutions rather than building strong personalities. As long as you keep building personalities and not institutions, this problem will persist.

Some people have argued that there are still a lot of appointments to be made?

Not at all, if you look at the appointments the president has made so far, these are the people that would constitute the nucleus of his administration, I don’t want to use the word kitchen cabinet, because as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to be in government to be in his kitchen cabinet; kitchen cabinet means the people he consults, you may not necessarily be in government to be part and parcel of that. He has formed the nucleus of his government, so the rest is just people from outside. Even at that, section 147 sub-sections 3 of the 1999 constitution provides that every state of the federation should provide a minister, so he doesn’t even have a choice in that regard. But the other issue is what portfolio he gives. So, even the states that have been highly favoured will still get their ministerial nominees.

There has also been the issue of second Niger Bridge which you released a statement condemning its suspension. But the government has come out to deny suspending work on the bridge?

It is obvious that it is politics because I watched the head of the Infrastructure Construction and Regulatory Commission say that because certain things were not done, that the activities of the Second Niger Bridge would be suspended. Part of the reasons he gave was that the land owners along that stretch were not adequately compensated, I wonder how that should be a reason enough to stop a project of that calibre. I think what they tried to do was to test the waters, when they did and found out that the pressure was much, they decided to deny that. How can you say that a project that government is not funding fully, which of course we still have issues with because it should be completely handled by the government as part of its major project under capital expenditure, but it is under public private partnership, but we even conceded to say let it start. Let the government pay their contribution which is around 30 percent of the total cost then we are finding the rest, but they are stopping it, I mean, that is the height of it. A major link road from the entire Eastern Region to the West and you want to stop it when even the contribution of government is not much.

So you think it was politically motivated? 

Of course, they just tested the waters to see how people will react.

One could therefore suggest that the current administration has shown or is trying to show the South East that it is not particularly about their interests. What would you advise the zone’s leaders in this regard?

My first view is that the President should see the entire country as his constituency. After the presidential election, whoever wins becomes the president of the whole country; the entire country becomes his constituency. The leaders of the South East should keep reminding Buhari that he is the president of every part of the country and should not therefore neglect any part of the country.