What I Experienced As Peter Obi’s Chief Of Staff – Prof Okunna

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What I Experienced As Peter Obi’s Chief Of Staff – Prof Okunna
Stella Okunna

Prof Okunna has revealed what she experienced as Peter Obi’s chief of staff.

Prof Stella Okunna was the Chief of Staff to the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Mr Peter Obi, when he served as the governor of Anambra State. She tells OLUWAFEMI MORGAN about Obi, his performance and chances in the forthcoming presidential election

Most of the previous presidential elections were mostly between two major parties, but many people have been amazed by the traction gained by the Obidient movement within a short time. However, some people see the movement as violent and intolerant. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t agree that they are violent. Honestly, it depends on how you describe violence. If you look at the other candidates, I think even grown-ups and mature people have been violent in their speech. The Obidient movement is made up of a lot of young people; they might be accused of youthful exuberance, but for violence, I don’t agree. Politics is a very erratic terrain and that is why in most of the past elections, you would see young people snatching or destroying ballot boxes and beating people up. That is what I call violence. I don’t believe what the Obidients are doing can be called violence. When people are fanatical about what they believe in, that is what you can expect particularly among young people. Other political parties are not immune to such acts. Watch their utterances, even their spokespersons.

You wrote a book on #EndSARS, do you in any way see any link between the activities of the Obidients and the #EndSARS movement?

I don’t think so. The #EndSARS movement was a movement that came out of frustration. It was a violent movement; not just physically, it was a violent release of pent-up emotions by young people against police brutality. They are people who have virtually lost hope in their country. For me, that is where the similarity ends because the Obidient movement is also being fuelled by the desire of young people who are losing hope and faith in their political leaders.

Peter Obi often reels out statistics during his campaign and interviews and some people are saying he’s given to statistics rather than reality, do you think he can engage both strata of the society?

I worked with him for eight years in different capacities. I was the Information Commissioner and I know he’s a man who has always been communicating with the people. He is a grass roots politician. As a governor, he toured all the 177 communities in Anambra State several times because he wanted to connect directly with the people, to inform them about what he was doing and hear from them directly without any intermediary. So, he is a man who can communicate with any cadre of people and get their acceptance. Before he became the governor of Anambra State, all the donor agencies had escaped because Anambra was a very difficult place. But when we came (into government), they came back because they saw good governance. That was at the highest level of communication – at the international level. He established a good rapport with them. So, whether highly placed persons or people at the grass roots level, he can engage them.

Obi’s critics said he did not conduct local government elections but appointed caretaker leaders to manage the local governments until the twilight of his tenure. Why was that?

We eventually conducted local government elections. If you remember what Anambra State was before Peter Obi became governor, we needed to establish peace, rapport and conviviality to conduct elections at the local government level. For a long time after he came, peace was not there. This was the state where people were chopping off people’s heads, either for proven or suspected criminal offences. This was a state where some political thugs who were against the previous governor kidnapped him. This was a place where hoodlums burnt down a radio and TV station, and everything. That was when this man (Obi) came. It was a difficult place. It took a while for him to settle and restore peace. At that time, who was even talking about the LG elections? At that time, he was trying to settle down. From March to September or thereabouts, he was impeached by the legislators. Was that the place you would conduct LG elections? He had to go to court to regain his mandate. He returned in 2016, and by 2017, elections were due. They conducted the elections and excluded him, and he had to go to court, telling them that ‘my tenure has not ended.’ It took him months to regain his mandate, and this was a man who spent three years, for an election he won in 2003. Was that a state where elections could take place? It took him a while, but gradually people began to see that this man meant well. It took a long time.

He had problems with power brokers in the state, which led to his impeachment. If he becomes the president, he might have to face regional and national power brokers. Does he have the political strength to survive those interests?

Peter Obi is a peacemaker by nature; he can get along with the devil because he is very humble and very modest. His modesty and humility belie his high status of wealth or political clout. Once you mean well, you have the interest of the nation at heart, you desire good governance and you are not there to steal or embezzle, he will work with you. It happened to him in Anambra. Before he became the governor, he wasn’t a politician. He was a businessman. Nobody knew him, but when they began to know him, understand what he stood for, who he was, where he was coming from, what his intentions were, and his good nature, didn’t they rally around him? Even at the regional level, he was the only governor on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance. The others were mostly in the Peoples Democratic Party at the time. Didn’t they make him the leader of the South-East governors? He will remain as humble and modest as he has always been. He is a unifier.

Do you think he will be able to manage those interests?

I can assure you that when those you think will oppose him at the national level understand him, they will rally around him, because he means well for Nigeria. When he gets to that stage, uniting Nigeria will be child’s play. Right now, there is no equity in Nigeria; people are not being treated well. You have the so-called federal character; is it working? Those who want to exploit the policy, when it suits their intentions, they apply it, when it doesn’t, they throw it away. One of the major things responsible for the division in Nigeria is the imbalance in the way people are treated. We are not being fair to some people. Obi is a very fair-minded person. He is going to love everybody and give everybody what is due to them. Once you get what is due to you, what are you quarrelling about? He won’t embezzle Nigeria’s money, instead, he will use the money to work for the people, and he is going to touch everybody.

One issue people have raised is that if Obi wins, the Labour Party may not have members in the Senate and the House of Representatives and that could make him vulnerable. What do you make of that?

There are people contesting on the platform of the Labour Party. Nigeria will have a new Senate and House of Representatives, and that means those who are there might return or may not return. Many people are contesting on the platform of the LP. I am confident that some of them will win. That is the way you begin a structure. It is built when your people win elections.

When Obi became the vice presidential candidate of the PDP in 2019, it was said that his governors in the South-East did not support him. Are you hopeful they will not undermine his chances this time round?

I don’t think governors in the South-East have the power to control the votes in their various states. People, irrespective of their party affiliations, will vote for Obi, and perhaps go ahead to vote for their parties in other elections. Even (Prof Charles) Soludo (the incumbent governor of Anambra State) does not have any control over that, even though their presidential candidate is also an Igbo man (laughs).

Anambra was one of the top five flooded states weeks ago and many people have asked what Obi did while in office to address that problem in the state. What did he do with the ecological funds during his time as governor?

When we had a major problem with flooding in 2012, he was the governor then. Everybody was satisfied with what he did. Long-term planning for flooding as he said (Obi) would be to dredge the Rivers Benue and Niger. During his time, he opened the Sycamore area in Onitsha. The Nwangene creek and Sycamore areas were permanent flood-prone areas. There was the fear they could submerge the entire Onitsha. It was Obi who dredged the sycamore drain and the Nwangene creek and that was how that threat in Onitsha was addressed. He also built large drainages in Awka.

As a lead communications professor, how would you assess the job done so far by the president’s spokespersons and the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who speaks for the Federal Government?

I tell you, it is a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. I think there is too much propaganda. I am a journalist and our role should be the watchdog of society. Let me digress a bit: when Peter Obi became the governor of Anambra State and I heard my name announced as the commissioner – I didn’t know Mr Peter Obi from Adam. The first time I met him was at the swearing-in for commissioners. I was terrified because I knew that as a professor of communication, he could make me information commissioner. I also knew that if he did not do well, I would become a propagandist or a liar, if I didn’t leave. I remember I walked up to Peter Obi and I told him, ‘I don’t know who you are, I don’t know whether you will do well. If you don’t do well, my teaching subject in the university is in the ethics of mass communications, I will not lie to you.’ That is the problem with people who speak for the government in Nigeria; there is too much propaganda, too much praise singing and too little constructive criticism of the leaders. Our duties as journalists are to be watchdogs; even as spokespersons; they are doing the work of a journalist for their principals. There are two extremes; you should not be an attack dog. I am not saying you should attack the government for whatever the government does. For some journalists, it is a weakness in them. Other spokespersons and journalists are lapdogs; you are there, you are eating, your principal is bribing you with goodies, and you are thinking about your stomach infrastructure only. The middle ground is the watchdog; you are looking at what the government is doing. If the government does well you praise him, if it doesn’t do well, you bark. Many spokespersons are praise singers because they don’t want to lose their jobs. They want to cover up for their principals.

In summary, this administration did not do as well as people hoped. When this government came in 2015, there were high hopes. They came in on the mantra of change. They were saying former president Goodluck Jonathan was weak and incompetent. Did they perform? Isn’t insecurity now worse than when Jonathan was there? Has education not collapsed at all levels? Has the Human Development Index, all the indices therein, not worsened? Has unemployment not escalated? Look at fuel (in terms of subsidy payment and scarcity), look at poverty. We are now the poverty capital of the world.

I am sure if Buhari’s spokespersons have the courage to tell him he wasn’t doing well, he would have done better than he has done. But some of them there have surrounded him with lack of criticism and guidance

Insecurity has become a major topic in the South-East…

(Cuts in) It is frightening and I think the government needs to act fast. I came from Enugu before this interview. You can’t drive for more than five minutes before you meet a checkpoint. The exploitation is too much; they are collecting money from every commercial vehicle, from the shuttle vehicles to tricycles, popularly known as Keke NAPEP and they are enriching themselves. People will say we should not criticise them because if they leave insecurity may rise, but I feel somebody should caution the police, officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps and the army.

Talking about the secessionists in the South-East, do you think they will sheathe their swords if Obi becomes the next president?

I am not sure because those who are asking for Biafra are, maybe, not asking for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction. The secessionist tendency began because they felt that the Igbo race had been marginalised and ostracised. So if that is what they are really asking for, maybe if somebody who is equitable gets there the problem will be solved. If Peter Obi gets there, he won’t be an Igbo bigot, but I don’t think he is going to marginalise his own people the way others have marginalised us. I don’t think he is also going to treat the Igbo better than others. When it comes to political equity, they say the Igbo do not matter. Maybe if Peter Obi gets there, I am hoping that they (the secessionists) are going to calm down. Right now, look at the service chiefs, the appointments and key places, where is the Igbo nation? Obi is going to win, and when he wins those who are agitating to leave Nigeria might begin to have hope that he would be equitable, not just to them, but to all.

Speaking about marginalised people, only about six per cent of women are in appointive or elective political positions. Do you think Obi will empower more women in politics?

It is not just local knowledge; the world knows that the Nigerian woman is not reckoned with. From his first tenure to the second tenure as governor, women occupied very important positions in Peter Obi’s government. The commissioner for local government was a woman; the commissioner for women affairs; you would say it is expected; the education commissioner was a woman, and they worked well with him. He was recognised as one of the gender-friendly governors in the country at the time. Obi believes in women and the women he worked with were also good in their various fields. So when he gets there, he will recognise, appreciate and honour the Nigerian woman, and I believe women are going to support him fanatically, the way we did in Anambra State.

The Labour Party seems to be having a lot of internal crises at the moment…

(Cuts in) Is there any party that does not have internal problems? Politics is a game of selfishness and greed. You will always have squabbles. The Labour Party is even better than these other parties. Do you know how these other parties are being torn apart by rivalry, injustice and greed? I wouldn’t want to single out LP in terms of internal crisis?

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