Why Nigeria is still far from being a democratic nation – Owokoniran

Rahman Owokoniran is a politician, former commissioner in Lagos State and current general secretary of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) South-West Zone. In this interview with INIOBONG IWOK, he assesses the recent presidential primary of the PDP; the chances of the party in the 2023 general election, spate of insecurity, among several other issues. Excerpts:

What are the chances of Atiku Abubakar against the ruling party’s candidate, Bola Tinubu in the 2023 presidential election?

Atiku would defeat Tinubu any day; Atiku has been contesting in Nigeria for a while now. In the third republic, Atiku was a major player; he was the one who stepped down for MKO Abiola at the convention which made it possible for him to pick the ticket of SDP.

At that point in time, Tinubu was part of the second level players. So, I know with the experience of Atiku and having been in this race for some time, I know he has the connections. We are not just talking about someone who just picked the ticket; we are talking about a giant in the political space.

Southern Nigeria, including the Middle Belt advocated for the presidential ticket to be zoned to them. With the present arrangement don’t you think the chances of the PDP would be affected?

I don’t think so, I think at that time those statements were deliberately targeted at creating opportunity for the Middle Belt, believing that if somebody emerges from the South, it would give them a chance to be the vice president.

The configuration has changed now, and in any case, we can’t use the pattern APC used, our own pattern must change, because in PDP, if you look at the way different zones had benefited from the presidency, you would see that the South-West have had their opportunity to rule. It would not be wise for our party to say that the presidency should come to the South-West.

The South-East wanted the presidency, unfortunately it did work out, which means that the PDP was not ready for a Southern presidency. Otherwise, with the amount of money that was spent for the thing to go that way, it could have happened if it was to be.

The configuration has changed now, we have to sit down and look at what is possible for our party to win. Even the North-Central is singing a different tune, but the days ahead would tell.

The South-East felt neglected, they are still not happy they did not get the presidential ticket. Are you saying PDP is not concerned?

Well, I believe as you see and demonstrated by Governor Wike, he was magnanimous. For me, it was clear to him what played out in the convention, if the PDP South-East, or South-South desired the presidency they should have worked it out among themselves, they should not have had that large number of aspirants from the regions to cut their votes.

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My own thinking is that a good number from those areas did their calculation and felt, this is what we need now and when we have our turn, we would be safe and secure to keep the presidency at that point in time, but for now, this is the way it should go. I think that is the message I got from that convention. Good people from those areas gave Atiku their support, though they also split their votes.

Some people think the over-monetisation of the process did not help their case. Do you agree?

It is not true; everybody spends the same amount of money for the same people. If I want to go to race with you and I want to defeat you; I would select my delegates and pump them with money. What happened was that everybody gave money across board. It is an issue of who can serve us the best and I believe by now, indications are there for people to see that the South-East and South-South, own the party. Would they abandon the party because they did not pick the ticket? I don’t think so. I think they spoke loud and clear that for now, the party presidential ticket is safe to be in the North. People argued that Atiku locked down over 11 million votes, I can’t just throw that away. We are in opposition, opposition must trade softly, it is ok for APC to take chances, they are in the saddle right now, we are in the struggle to take power from them.

So you don’t think it will affect the number of votes PDP would get in the South-East, in the presidential election?

We could have done better even with Peter Obi, the South-East votes was 400,000, in some states; 300,000 in other states, is that the best they could do? If they had given us 1 million votes each, we could have been singing a different tune now. A good number of people from that region did not welcome Peter Obi, because he was from APGA, but in the South-East they see APGA as an integral part of them because they don’t vote APC. Basically, the campaign has not started, elections would begin to thicken up and people would be telling all kinds of stories, especially on social media. What I know about our country and even in some other countries, the question would be; where is the South-East going to vote? Where is the North going to vote? And they would be asking what is it for me? And if these are the questions, those are what would give strength to the votes. And the North would say; we want power to stay with one of our own. And the South-Easterners would be saying; even if we want power to stay with one of our own, are we going to cross the line? Is that what we want, a second place or a third place? So, why not play for this and if we get it, we have a launching pad and the next time we get the presidency. The South-West has never been one anyway, even during the days of Akintola, Awolowo, the South West has never voted in one direction, except for the election won by MKO Abiola, and that has its own reason. MKO Abiola has never been part of the progressives; he was always part of the NCNC and the rest. It was during the time of the election, that he came over and he was forgiven?

All the people who later became NADECO did not give him a chance in the primary election; they voted against him, they only supported him after the primary election; that was what gave Abiola a chance of harnessing support from both sides.

What is your take on calls in some quarters that PDP national chairman should resign, with the emergence of Atiku who is also from the North?

My view is that those people are agents of destruction. How can we complete the primary and the first thing to say is that the chairman that midwifed the process should resign? It is strange, because what they are asking is not just the position of the chairman. Can we have the chairman and secretary from the same region at the same time? The chairman would come from the North and secretary from the South. So, it goes beyond that, it means a rearrangement of the positions. During the SDP days, Kingibe was the national chairman of SDP and they said let leave the presidential ticket open for all regions, which is what PDP has done. They should not have left it, but they did not do that. During the Third Republic, Yar-Adua won the primary election, but Babangida annulled it, which does not mean it did not happen. That gave an opportunity for MKO and others to come into the race, which was the beginning of the crisis of that republic.

Is that what we want to go back to? If you made a decision you stand by it. You left the presidency open, it means the presidential ticket can come from anywhere, at the appropriate time you can then arrange the national executives’ positions.

Let’s talk about Lagos State; what is the party doing to resolve the issues that trailed the gubernatorial primary election ahead of 2023?

We are getting ready, we are in the process of resolving the issues; we have so many committees working on the issues right now. Believe me it is working. The good thing now, unlike the past, is that we have more time until the general elections.

Contrarily to that time, when we used to have a window of one month, the situation is different now. We would continue working on it. We are getting ready; this time we are going to be ready. Even time heals wounds. We have a candidate who is a grass root politician, and is a young man, who has the strength to move and connect to the people. Even in 2015, we were giving people free forms to contest, but today we have an average of three or four people contesting in each of the constituencies.

Is not like the money they are spending is so big, but you would not throw your money into the sea, if you don’t believe in your party. That is to tell you that PDP is not what it was.

Part of the fear among the people is that your candidates may not be able to compete with the APC financially and other shenanigans they may throw up. How prepared are you for that?

There is nothing that would be new to us in Lagos; we have always found a way out of it. In terms of security, I can assure you that we would match them every inch of the way in every aspect to make sure this election is not rigged by them.

In 2015, we did everything possible to match them, but our gubernatorial election was rigged by the agencies of government. It was a conspiracy by agencies of government that Goodluck Jonathan must go and that affected everything. This time around, I don’t know where the agencies are. But we are working with them and they are responding to us. But they have started a new trend now, not registering people as they come, they are only registering in selected locations.

But our people have told them, that you have to register us, you can’t tell us you have given tallies to some people and it is those people that would be registered.

What is your take on the worsening security situation in the country, especially the recent massacre in an Ondo church?

We are still looking at the facts into some of these things, I know in the South-West we are not resting, we are doing a lot in terms of security. There are lots of groups, apart from the police, that are monitoring the situation. There was a case, where a police officer was sent to monitor elections in Lagos and his gun was removed and not before long, we mobilised and his gun was recovered and given back to him.

Nigeria just celebrated Democracy Day; is Nigeria on the right track?

For me, we are not where we were eight, ten years ago, but we are far from being a democratic nation. The steps have been taken that are right, but we are far from it.

Internal democracy is still less than 25 percent, unless we get that right, then we can begin to produce a true representation of the people. If we still have a situation where people handpick candidates, the people can’t rely on their government, because they do not get their authority from the people. That is where we are now; governance is very remote from the people.

They don’t have to listen, because they don’t represent the people, it is the people at the top that select, they collaborate among themselves, and they do what they like. That is why people have not been going to the polls to vote; they say it is not what they put in the ballots that counts. They don’t have regard for us, this time around the parties and INEC have been doing a lot to encourage people to come out and I think there would be 50 percent turnout.

You were a former close associate of Bola Tinubu, why did you fall out with him?

Like I have said, I am a democrat, and I believe in democracy. I believe unless we sustain it, we may not enjoy the civil democracy for a long time. We have to invest a lot into it; even America that has been in democracy for 200 years are still having issues. But here in Nigeria our leaders don’t believe in democracy; so, I did see those signs that we are walking into an enterprise, I can’t be happy there. So, it was a matter of principle that separated us. I saw the AD that became ACN and came into formation and knew what it meant; somebody brought his money and registered those and say this is the party and I know it is his own enterprise. It is not democratic. And you can see that the former ACN is now struggling in APC because it has become a bigger party. Once we go to that then it becomes problematic for one person or few cabal to now begin to detect the process; that is the struggle the APC is in today.

So, at that point in time, mine was very simple, it would not be democracy again, we would not have a voice and we have people looking at us, what do we continue to explain to them? If you look at my colleagues at that space today, they have diminished in status, because they have been replaced, not because they are bad people; but because they can’t represent their people they have to represent the godfather. When you represent the godfather, you can’t be in the good book of your people.

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