Open Seasame - The Presidency & PDP: What Next?

The events of the political upheaval in Anambra state have attained the dubious distinction of representing one of the most visible reflections of the deterioration of the Nigerian political ethos. We all recall with grave concern the news of the violence resulting in damage valued at hundreds of millions of Naira to Government House Awka; Radio and Television stations; hotels and quarters housing members of the State Legislature.  Even the home of the State Chief Judge was not spared.  Lives were needlessly lost. Unbeknown to many of us, the plot was thickening.

It appears that on 6 December 2004, the chairman of the Ruling Party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Chief Audu Ogbeh wrote to the President. The letter, in its full text, is in the public domain. In the letter, the chairman of party appears to suggest that the leading party failed in exercising leadership influence and direction to avert the crisis. It rightly identifies the fact that Nigerians perceive the party in an angry, scornful way, for reasons that he considers absolutely unnecessary. He then lays responsibility squarely at the doorstep of the President. It is instructive to look at the text of the letter when Chief Ogbeh says:-

“…that the buck stops at your table and in my position, not only as chairman, but also as an old friend and loyal defender of your development programmes which I have never stopped defending, I dare to think that we can, either by omission or commission allow ourselves to crash and bring to early grave, this beautiful edifice called democracy”.

The public version of the letter continues by stating: -

“On behalf of the Peoples Democratic party, I call on you to act now and bring any, and all criminal, even treasonable, activity to a halt. You and you alone, have the means. Do not hesitate. We do not have much time to waste”.

The President’s reply appears to have been released on or about 9 December 2004. His response, again in circulation in the public domain, was in writing. Putting aside political shadow-boxing evident in the content of the letter, it contains some extremely startling revelations. First, it put in the public domain the circumstances leading up to the nomination of Dr Chris Ngige as gubernatorial candidate of the PDP for Anambra State. It sets out his own understanding of the history of difficulties following Dr Ngige’s election as Governor. He further sets out in his own understanding of what transpired in July 2003 with the botched kidnapping of Dr Ngige. It throws further light on what the President did after his return from Mozambique following the occurrence of the event, and how that particular situation developed between himself and Chief Ogbeh. At this stage, the letter then goes into more graphic details about events including his involvement and attempt to mediate between Chris Ngige and Chris Uba. For completeness, there is an account of that conciliatory meeting at the stage where the President was left alone with both parties. He states: -

“… and that was when I got the real shock of my life when Chris Uba looked Ngige straight in the face and said “you know you did not win the election” and Ngige answered “yes, I know I did not win”. Chris Uba went further to say to Ngige “you don’t know in detail how it was done”.

He states that he was horrified and told them both to leave his residence. The next disclosure is even more disturbing. The President’s letter asserts that the incident was reported to the Chairman of the party because, in his belief, although Ngige had been constitutionally declared the winner, for him, and for the chairman of the party, as he believed, there was a moral burden and dilemma both as leaders in Nigeria and leaders of the party. He accuses the chairman of the party of not considering it important enough to do anything or talk about it, post-election. The President then explains what he said to Chris Ngige in that he would continue to deal with him as a constitutionally declared Governor in that capacity, purely and strictly on a formal basis until he either runs out his terms or he decides to follow the path of honour or any competent authority declares otherwise. We stop the appraisal at this stage because the other aspects of the letter deal with other incidents, the disclosure which remain correspondingly disturbing.

Our belief is that we believe that the president has done the entire country a huge, probably unquantifiable favour. He has given much sought but commonly held validity and legitimacy to the view that has been espoused by so many since the conclusion of the elections in May 2003. Whilst the petition of Peter Obi, the UPGA Governorship candidate, remains sub judice, the inescapable moral inference that can be drawn from the observations of no less a person than the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is that the results of the Anambra State election were clearly interfered with. As is to be expected, Chris Ngige has denied this position. He has denied participating in the conversation but if the perception of Nigerians of its President as the leader of the nation is to be taken seriously, his utterances must be similarly believed.  We are aware that lawyers; various interest groups as well as stakeholders are all examining, very critically, the consequences of this disclosure.  We appreciate that as a matter of law, the position may be insufficient to indict Dr Chris Ngige but taken together with other evidence, must constitute compelling and persuasive evidence upon which the Tribunal considering the petition must act.

Quite apart from this position, two even bigger and certainly more important issues emerge. The first is whether the President acted responsibly and properly in the face of what he clearly accepts was a material interference with the electoral process by declining to take any action upon information that had come to his attention.  Second, the role of the Chairman of the PDP must itself be called into question. His position, however, is somewhat diluted by the fact that as a politician, he may feel himself under different constraints and thus justified for employing every tactic or advantage available to his party in order to maintain itself in Government. Having said that, this position will certainly be at complete variance with the moral or ethical position that it appears in the tenor of his letter. Clearly, his volte-face, honourable as it may seem does not go far enough. In the developed nations whose democracy we continue to ape, this type of indiscretion would have materially affected the entire Government. Certainly, it would have called into question, and probably compromised, the position of the presidency. To expect this to happen in the Nigerian context would be tantamount to dining on a feast of naivety. What is remarkable about the President’s comments is that, upon reading them, it is manifestly evident that they emerged from reflected thought; careful editing and precise delivery. For one who has been so heavily maligned for intemperate reactions, the response was measured and well reasoned, clearly worded to bury any doubt about its purport. It is also evident that it was intended for mass publication, a circumstance that we do not believe was envisaged by Chief Ogbeh when he wrote his initial letter.

We note that there have been various interpretations given and positions that have been taken by well meaning Nigerians following the disclosure. The position of NAS is simple. First, we believe that the disclosure of the President as to the circumstances of the electoral exercise in Anambra State must play some role in the determination of the issues that have been raised at the Election Tribunal. Second, that position must be placed before the Court. Whether the President who, for the purpose of law is a competent and probably compellable witness, will now become a key witness in the determination of those proceedings remains to be seen. However this position develops, it seems to us inextricably linked with the determination of the future of the people of Anambra state. Clearly, the resolution of the leadership problem in the state must be the key that opens the door for stability and responsible governance in the state. The distressing feature of this persistent hostility is that the lives that are often lost when the political battles riddled with violence take place are those of people who have very little role in bringing about the circumstances. The common man in Anambra state is the biggest victim of this uncertainty. The vast amount of properties that have been damaged can only be repaired by using public funds. Those who expect their daily needs to be met a little more competently will now suffer the prolonged fate of having the expectations put on hold until the destroyed infrastructure have been restored. There is no doubt that arrears of salaries will increase; roads, schools and hospitals will receive less attention and other aspects of communal life will be deprived of the revenue that ought, rightly to be applied to ameliorating circumstances that were previously unacceptable.

Constitutional experts must examine the consequences of the type of disclosure that the President has made in the context of the position itself.  What are the President’s duties in these circumstances? We are all fully familiar with those that are expressly stated in the constitution. In the Anambra State scenario, those duties cascaded all the way down from the elections in 2003 to the state of affairs preceding and including the recent acts of violence. The reliance upon the conflicting decisions of two High Courts judgements ostensibly upon advice given by the Attorney General of the Federation was and remains a red herring.  In reality, the initial decision relied upon could never have survived the scrutiny of the Court of Appeal. For the protagonists of the Rule of Law as the just and right course, it was necessary to follow the legal process, however absurd that seemed.

There are huge lessons to be learnt from this expose.  Those who are quick to criticise the President would reflect, in detachment, on the vista that his letter has opened to the question of constitutional development in Nigeria.  His letter has, seemingly, certainly without intending to, earmarked critical benchmarks openly for the development of the mechanics of party politics in Nigeria. It has now highlighted critical issues arising from the electoral process, a litmus test of any true democracy.  What is clear from this experience is that neither the President nor PDP as a party have emerged smelling of roses. This situation clearly calls for a myriad of soul-searching retreats by the party in Government and Government itself, to determine whether, truly, only the acquisition of power, as opposed to engendering the growth of democracy is indeed the only motto for the party in majority.

Signed:

ANDREW OBINNA ONYEARU
NAS Capone
National Association of Seadogs (NAS)

15th December 2004

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