The inauguration of the president-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress and the Abia State governor-elect, Alex Otti of the Labour Party, is just days away. In this interview with MAYOWA SAMUEL, the Abia State chairman of the Labour Party, Ceekay Igara, who also serves as the chairman of the council of state LP chairmen, speaks about the legal challenges facing Tinubu and Otti, as the battle to stop their swearing or overturn their victories gathers more steam. Excerpts:
The inauguration of the incoming governor, Alex Otti, is just days away. How are your preparations going?
We’re perfectly good to go. All the arrangements are on. We’ve set up a committee that will be responsible for each activity. We’re kicking off on Sunday (May 21) to the 26th. We’re also planning a thanksgiving, we’re putting the venues in shape, and the Local Governments are already on red alert. On Monday, I’m going to have another meeting with the NWC, NEC and the State Executive Council in order to find out their level of preparedness. I think the security agencies are all on alert, we’ve notified all of them. Everybody is expectant.
The outgoing governor, Okezie Ikpeazu of the PDP will be handing over to the governor-elect, Alex Otti. It’s expected that his body language throughout this inauguration preparation period may not be entirely satisfactory. What’s the level of cooperation of Ikpeazu concerning this handover?
One thing is certain, what must be must be. The chairman of our transition committee, Rev. Father Christian Anokwuru once said that the government wasn’t cooperating with them. But from my understanding, it’s to the benefit of the outgoing government to cooperate with us because whether they cooperate or not, the swearing in must come and go. The government in power then will have access to every document and information. So, it’s better for it to be a win-win affair, all of them should provide us the needed information and support.
Reports say that the court has nullified Otti’s candidature along with other LP candidates in Abia and Kano, over your party’s failure to submit its membership register to INEC within 30 days before the primaries, as stipulated by the Electoral Act. What’s your reaction to this?
We’re still pre-hearing. There’s been some news flying up and down on social media that Dr. Alex Otti has been sacked. People always want to engender this kind of information to attract sympathy or whatever. You know me, I’m not a lawyer, but I had to call our Senior Advocate who is our lead counsel. He said it is fake news. So, I don’t know where they engendered that. Even if anything like that happened, it’s not the end, because nobody has served me any matter. I don’t know if there had been any judgement, that’s why I started asking them, “you didn’t serve me or anybody.
How did you get this information?” That’s what prompted me to call our senior advocate, and he said it is fake news. I don’t know where it’s coming from.
(A Federal High Court sitting in Kano State has since denied nullifying the candidature of the Abia governor-elect, Alex Otti.)
“We’ll strive to meet up with the social responsibility of the government but the truth is that our major focus and major assignment is to give the people of Abia a sense of good governance, a sense of what it means to have good infrastructure. It’ll not come easily but we’re prepared spiritually, mentally, and physically to ensure that all of our promises are given to the people of Abia State”
So, you’re confident that the decision of the tribunal regarding the petition against the emergence of the governor elect will go your way?
Of course yes. We have won. I don’t know the grounds they intend to use to throw us away. Somebody said membership, they’ve forgotten that there’s a proviso. Even if Dr Alex joined us later, the national chairman and secretary can provide him a waiver, and that settles the issue. So, I don’t know why people are making a huge nonsense out of nothing. So for me, there’s no reason for anybody to panic about this issue. That’s why I’m so confident doing what I’m doing.
Recently, there was a war of words between the incumbent governor, Okezie Ikpeazu and former governor, Theodore Orji, regarding the nonpayment of about 30 months salaries to workers in the state. How would you describe the attitude of Ikpeazu towards the workers?
At my level, I don’t speculate, I’m not in government. I’ve engaged with some workers, some said they’ve been paid, some said they’ve not been paid. The governor is saying they’ve paid, others said he hasn’t. I think it will be important that since we have less than a month now, to be in government, I will have the details of the true position. By then, nobody will challenge us that we’re not telling the truth. But one thing that’s clear is that if there are arrears which I know they will pay, my governor-elect said that between now and the end of the year, he’s going to clear the pensions, gratuities and all those things. We’re also aware that there’s been a disparity in their own pronouncements. We’re encouraging Abians to be a little more patient, we’ve promised that between now and the end of the year, we should have either cleared or pay substantial part of the debt.
What about the debt burden the state already has? If you consider the very low revenue of the state with the state’s debt, what makes you so certain that the incoming government will be able to pay these arrears inherited from the outgoing administration that fast?
We’ll likely borrow to pay and invest, we’re not going to borrow to consume. If you put money in the hands of Abians, it’ll engender activities within the economic ecosystem, increase income for the state, which will translate into increased activity within the social environment. It will also increase the comfort and confidence of Abians. Once these are done, it’ll be clearer for us to put in place a system of repaying outstanding loans, it’ll help us to be empirical with details and figures. As it is now, we’re still outside the government. My governor-elect, Alex Otti said that he’s going to pay these workers’ salaries. The reason is because it’s going to engender activities which will rub off on our general economy and GDP, and that’s exactly what we’re looking at. We know that we have little resources, we’re also going to block all the leakages. Once these are blocked, things will shoot up a little bit our income and IGR, and the cost of prudent management of the available resources. We may likely achieve a larger percentage of what we want to do. So, it’s not going to be business as usual. Dr. Alex Otti is an economist and a banker by profession. You see, he knows what it means to engender activities within the economic ecosystem. Once that is done, I assure you, it’ll attract more investors. People will have positive responses to our appeals and demands. So, he’s going to do a lot. I’m not concerned about our IGR, after all when the right things are done, funds flow freely on its own.
During the campaign in November, Otti said Abia State has a N150 billion debt profile. He also lamented that 51 percent of the state population is unemployed. What is the incoming governor looking to do in this regard to address this?
We’re not going to operate a bloated workforce, we’re going to reduce the cost of governance. These are all measures to conserve resources which we’re going to plough back to the system. On the issue of loans, it can be rescheduled. If you recall, I said once we take over the government, we’re going to have better details. Investors are going to come. If investors come, they’ll also employ our people and reduce the rate of unemployment. So there are several things these activities we’re going to engender are going to bring down naturally, and the confidence of people will grow because of transparency and prudent management of available resources. You’d recall that I mentioned that before donor agencies come to Abia, they must have ascertained your level of prudent management of available resources and transparency. When this is noticed, funds will gradually and easily flow into the economy.
Pending the time when investors will start considering investing in your state, if 51 percent of your state population are unemployed, and workers are being owed 30 months salaries, how will this unemployment be solved if those already working for the state are being owed 30 months’ salary?
Owing people salaries doesn’t mean they’re not employed. Most of our young people within the system here are entrepreneurs. What they need is a good environment to operate and to strive. That’s what we’re going to provide for them. Government will not employ everybody, the government is not an employer of labour. Rather, we should engender an environment that will be convenient for them to do their businesses, and that has been assured.
Nigeria is well known for overlooking other aspects of the economy to focus majorly on crude oil. Abia State is one of the oil producing states in the country, but what other sectors are the incoming government looking to tap into?
There are too many areas. In Abia State alone, if we completely focus on tourism, tourism will be larger than oil. If we look at palm oil, it’ll be larger, it’ll give us more revenue than crude oil. If we look at gas, mind you, Abia has the largest deposit of gas in the country. There are too many areas, we have solid minerals, we have the manpower. It’s just prudent management of the available resources and organised plan for developing our solid minerals that’s needed. Once these things are put in place, you’ll bring in investors. You’ll see what will happen in Abia, it will be like a miracle.
What’s your rating of the governor’s performance so far?
All the information available to me may not be enough for me to assess him based on available resources and his competence. But if you look at the general perception, for the fact that workers are being owed, it’s hitting hard on the government. The infrastructure development isn’t how we think it should be by now, that alone is a minus for the government. I may not be so concrete, because I don’t know the available resources they have. I know we’re going to be more transparent, we’re going to use more credible people within the system, we’re going to use people who are more knowledgeable, it won’t be an all comers affair. This could be some of the mistakes of this government. We’re going to use principled people, competent people to run the affairs of government. We’re going to reduce the size of governance to the nearest minimum. There’s no free meal anywhere, so if you work, you’ll get your pay. We’ll strive to meet up with the social responsibility of the government but the truth is that our major focus and major assignment is to give the people of Abia a sense of good governance, a sense of what it means to have good infrastructure. It’ll not come easily but we’re prepared spiritually, mentally, and physically to ensure that all of our promises are given to the people of Abia State.
The South East has been bedeviled with insecurity, due to the activities of IPOB and unknown gunmen, especially during the Monday Sit-At-Home orders. How has the spate of killings and kidnappings by these terror groups been in your state?
Abia is the most peaceful state in the entire country. I haven’t heard of kidnapping for a very long time. I’ve not heard of unknown gunmen doing anything in Abia, for a very long time. Sit-At-Home does not stop activities, it’s the mentality of people. Every day, my office and a lot of offices are open on Mondays, except for those who are afraid. Up until now, I’ve not heard of anybody being attacked. Activities are picking up across the entire Abia State. If you go to Arochukwu, there’s no Sit-At-Home there. It’s only in one place that the Sit-At-Home was so much observed. I think it was because of the battle between the military and the IPOB boys that come from neighbouring states, they’re not stationary here. When they come, they do their funny thing and go back. That’s why people are afraid. If not, there’s no place, find out from other people. Even from the military and police reports, Abia is the most peaceful state in the country.
So, you’re scoring the governor a pass mark in the area of security?
I’m sure you know the race to the leadership of the 10th Assembly is heating up. The APC is doing all it can to gain more control. What are your expectations from your party members who are National Assembly- elects in the incoming assembly?
As a matter of fact, we in the Labour Party are talking about a new Nigeria. Talking about a new Nigeria means we must do things the way it favours Nigerians, not the way it favours few individuals. Because of that, we seriously believe that all our House members-elect and Senators-elect will key into this our ideology of having a new Nigeria. They’ll go away from parochial participation, parochial interests and follow this new phenomenon of having this new Nigeria. What it means is changing them from the usual frenzy to a system that’s going to give the executive arm, the normal check that should be, in order to get the right governance.
On Thursday, many expressed serious criticism over the meeting between Senate President hopeful Godswill Akpabio of the APC and the Julius Abure faction of the Labour Party, probably to strike a deal for him to become the Senate President. How do you react to this?
Was it Abure that visited the APC headquarters? It is left for us to agree. They came to see us, you can’t push out a visitor. We had a visitor, in the person of APC’s Godswill Akpabio, it’s left for us to make a decision, it’s not left for you to judge. I was in my house, a visitor came, I can’t cane and send him away, No. The only thing I’ll do is to listen to him. When he finishes his comment or whatever he has come to say, I’ll tell him okay bye, let me consider it. You know that we can’t agree, you heard what the chairman told him, that we’re here to pursue our own Presidential election to a logical conclusion. So, I don’t know what suggests that we’ll compromise with the APC, it’s a very wrong narrative.
The Apapa faction is actually the one accusing you of now working for Tinubu…
Merely looking at that Apapa faction, they’re evil and criminal. Everything about Lamidi Apapa and co. is criminal and evil. Do you know why I said this? They felt they got an injunction, a restraining order, against my national chairman. Did that order give them the power to assume the position of national chairman? No. Did that order give them the power to go and break into our national headquarters to steal laptops and other things? The answer is no. Did that order give them the audacity to do all that they were doing? The answer is no. So we see them as criminals, and that’s what they are.
What’s your own interpretation of the court order in Abuja that restrained Abure and few others from parading themselves as officers of the party?
It wasn’t so, I was in the court. The only judgement was that the court assumed jurisdiction to hear the matter which we appealed. We said the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the matter.
I am the chairman of the council of chairmen, the Abuja one which was fraudulently acquired, said they restrained Abure, national secretary, treasurer and organising secretary from parading themselves as national officers, pending the determination of the allegation of alleged forgery. That matter, has it started? That order, the Appeal Court vacated it yesterday (Thursday) and set it aside. Then, that of Edo, you know it’s a court of competent jurisdiction that said it has restrained Apapa, Labour Party or anybody from doing anything against the leadership of Abure. So, if you have such two court pronouncements, you choose whichever one you want to follow.
“If we had made our institutions stronger than individuals, these fears would’ve been allayed before now. It’s because individuals are stronger than the institutions as a result of corruption. They know Obi is coming to fight the status quo, that’s why they’re ganging up against him, but it’s only God that’ll destroy all their plans”
Going by these conflicting decisions, do you think the judiciary is helping matters or aggravating it?
It’s the government in power that I accuse, because if the government in power wants to do things right, they’ll not go into every activity, they’ll not even go into forcing the judiciary to do their bidding. If you see what happened in the Federal High Court in Maitama on April 27, you’ll see that they’ve already decided on what to do. Even Justice Muazu who was there because he assumed responsibility, made some pronouncements that from our own understanding, even our own lead counsel, right inside the courtroom said, My Lord, based on your pronouncement, I came to the court with my own applications of appeal, because we know we’re not going to get fair judgement and fair hearing here. That’s the statement he made inside the courtroom there.
The court hearing of Peter Obi’s petition is ongoing. What are your expectations? Last week, the lawyers of Obi said that INEC refused to give them the documents they needed, but INEC countered and said they called a meeting but the LP refused to attend the meeting. They also said they asked for N1.5m to secure a document from them but Obi’s lawyers refused to pay. What’s the truth regarding that?
They requested a huge amount of money. Initially, we said we said we’re not going to pay. But we later said we’re going to pay. However, when they came to court, they brought only 28 percent of what we demanded. So, we said no. We have your money, give us the hundred percent of what we requested. They have not done it. We demanded, on behalf of Peter Obi, that INEC should give us the results they declared. Whatever result they declared, they should just give it to us. But they were only able to give us only 28 percent of the result they declared. They declared results the other day, but now, we’re asking that you give us all the results you declared, INEC couldn’t provide them. So, what does it really mean? That’s the challenge. As at the time we left the court, our lead counsel made it clear, even right inside the courtroom, that we’re here with the money they requested for, we need them to provide the results and then we send their money, but only 28 percent of the entire results nationwide was provided.
What are your expectations regarding the final outcome of Obi’s election petition? Many have said that Tinubu shouldn’t be sworn in until after the determination by the court, as it will be difficult to remove him from office if the judgement doesn’t go his way.
You and I know how tribunal matters go. It would have been better Tinubu isn’t sworn in until this matter is determined. That’s the fear everybody is having. But you know that Tinubu is not the sole administrator or owner of Nigeria. What Tinubu is, is a citizen like me. If we had made our institutions stronger than individuals, these fears would’ve been allayed before now. It’s because individuals are stronger than the institutions as a result of corruption. They know Obi is coming to fight the status quo, that’s why they’re ganging up against him, but it’s only God that’ll destroy all their plans.
The Local Government election was supposed to be held last weekend. However, it didn’t hold due to a court pronouncement. What’s the actual situation of the matter?
Firstly, we’re not participating because you know, you can’t build anything on nothing. We found out that the commissioners that they had there, were not properly screened by the state house of assembly to authenticate them, so there’s no basis for the government to give them money or any disbursement. There’s a court order refraining them from conducting that election, and that order has not been vacated. That’s the issue. Yesterday, after the engagement, the chairman of ABSIEC, Prof. Agu Nkpah, confirmed that they’ll not go ahead because the court order hasn’t been vacated. So, the election didn’t take place last weekend as planned.
Is your incoming government looking to probe the outgoing government when it assumes power?
It’s a bridge, when we get to that point, we’ll cross it. It’s not our major occupation now. Our major occupation is to give our people succour, give a certain degree of comfort and convenience for them to operate in a civilised manner, in an environment that’ll usher in what we’re looking for.