*Chekwas Okorie explains how he founded APGA and UPP to enhance Igbo politics
*His contributions to the struggle for self-determination, how UPP influenced the Not Too Young To Run bill, and eventual emergence of many youth politicians and parties
*His romance with pro-Biafran group MOBIN, and eventual separation
*His struggles for Ojukwu’s Presidency, soul of APGA and UPP, and why he had to move to APC
NOTE: This interview was conducted on February 9th, 2020, a few days after Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) deregistered UPP and 73 other political parties
Chief Chekwas Okorie founded the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), and the United Progressive Party (UPP), two parties which he dreamt of using to promote Igbo political fortune.
Okorie however, has since moved to the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) because both parties are no more in his hands.
Here, he gives details of his struggles as an Igbo political leader, the price he has had to pay, and why he joined the APC. He spoke to Jungle Journalist Magazine in this exclusive interview:
What is your reaction to the challenge of having to lose your party, the UPP once again?
INEC has most times been very disruptive of the democratic process in Nigeria. Personally, I have become a victim twice. The first one was after founding APGA. INEC at that time gave recognition to a treasurer of a political party as Acting Chairman, something that will never happen even in a primitive setting where there is no order, not to talk of a political party that has a constitution registered with the Commission.
If there is any circumstance where the chairman is to be removed, it is usually the Deputy Chairman that will take over. If for any reason the Deputy Chairman is involved, it will now be the Vice Chairman (there are 6 Vice Chairmen, each from a geopolitical zone) who will take over, the one from the political zone where the chairman comes from. The treasurer is not in the order of succession. But INEC did it and that landed the party into a prolonged leadership crisis in court. The same INEC was oscillating between me and the person I has this issue with. Somewhere along the line, they will issue a letter and say I remain chairman. That was what happened when the late President Umaru Musa Yaradua constituted a constitutional reform committee and parties were invited.
The then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was our chairman. But I was the one who represented APGA because of that recognition that came.
We completed that process. After a while, the same INEC reversed itself. So that was responsible to a large extent why, after 16 years of registration, APGA has not been able to grow beyond Anambra State, and has never been able to control the whole of Anambra at any one time. That’s was a very poor showing and INEC played a key role in destabilising a promising party.
Here we are again. There is an amended electoral act which gave a number of conditions which, if not met or if none is met, a political party may be deregistered. Parties must maintain the basic conditions for which they were registered. The principal condition was that the party must have a functional office. It must have a National Executive cutting across minimum of 24 states. But then for a party like UPP that’s been there for about 8 years, we have offices in 36 states. UPP is among the first six with the foremost national secretariat. We occupy a duplex.
And so they came and verified that our offices were occupied by real officers with IDs and functional offices. And they went back happy. We were not expecting this. The reason they gave no longer specified the things contained in the electoral act. The reason they gave is that parties that didn’t win any seat in the last general election were disqualified. But more than 30 of 36 states since the act came have not held those elections. For instance, Enugu will hold their room 29th of February and our candidates are already screened and are campaigning, only to hear this.
So we felt that if they are going to use that section, then they should have waited until after all the elections before the deregistration. The same INEC said in the same Press Conference that more than 100 political parties have applied to be registered, and it’s their constitutional responsibly to register new ones. Look at the sheer logic. You deregister parties that are already growing and gaining traction, 74 of them and then register 100 fresh ones.
You are setting more and more confusion among the electorate because these 100 new ones will begin to promote their manifesto, logo and symbols for elections that are not far away.
Instead of expanding the political space, you are constricting it. Ifeanyi Uba for instance was disqualified by APGA. Instead of going to make trouble, he latched on to another party and used it for an election and won. YPP survived because of that single seat, even if they didn’t have offices. But if you reduce the parties, somebody like Ifeanyi Uba will not have anywhere to run to. He might resort to self help and there might be more crises. INEC has done great damage to our democratic process.
There are over 150 political parties in the USA, and that is the model we are copying for democracy.
Why do you think it seems you are being targeted?
I wouldn’t know why UPP was included in this one, but from the very day- 26 December 2002, after we registered APGA, the first thing we did was to zone the presidential ticket to the South East, knowing that we except that kind of policy is made by a party, an Igbo man can never be the candidate of any major political party.
Unknown to me, as soon as I had that press conference at Zodiac Hotel Enugu, APGA became a target.
Two weeks to our convention, a young man from Anambra came up and offered to run for President on our platform and paid nomination fee of N10 million. We got it on good authority that he was being sponsored by some interests in the North. If we had accepted his money, he would have been a candidate. The way Nigeria has been structured, the delegates coming from he North will be more than us.
The constitution is designed in a way that all the local governments in Nigeria will produce delegates on the quality of local governments. So the North West for instance would have bought 188 delegates as against South East that will bring 95. So imagine the rest of the North coming together.
Ikemba would have been defeated and I would have carried the burden up till today that I simply brought him to national level to be disgraced.
We disqualified the man and Ikemba emerged unopposed, but the government ensured that they rigged the election in the South East beyond measure. As soon as the election was over, President Obasanjo invited me to the Villa where we spent hours talking about APGA. He told me point blank that I committed a political sin.
He said, ‘you made Emeka Presidential candidate, a man who wanted to break up Nigeria’. He reminded me that it took 150 years after the American civil war before a southerner became president, Jimmy Carter. It occurred to me that the plan was that we Igbos will never smell the presidency.
He said they were even lenient to make Alex Ekwueme Vice President, and if anything had happened to Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Ekwueme would have become President. I spent four hours there, so I knew that to them, I committed treason.
As soon as I left, the plot to destroy APGA started. They felt that if APGA was left, even Ojukwu could run again and upset their plans. So what happened to APGA came from the presidency of Obasanjo.They simply recruited who amongst us they wanted to use.
What happened between UPP and the Biafran group Movement of Biafrans in Nigeria (MOBIN) in 2017?
I don’t want to open old wounds, but the thing is that my passion for Igbo people dates back to 1976, and I have made a lot of sacrifices.
Barrister Emeka Emekesiri came here and we went into alliance with MOBIN, which he made me to understand was the political wing of the IPOB. I was determined to encourage MOBIN but unfortunately, the members appeared to know everything in politics. They were not coming to gain experience, they were coming to teach me.
In spite of that, I did my best, I am not a money man, but I carried them along to the best of my ability.
Like I said earlier, they were trying to impose on the party their preferred candidate. But I knew what was going on in Anambra. They had two candidates in mind and one gave them an office, but when they saw a younger candidate, they began to oscillate towards him.
Their initial candidate who is older, as we speak now, for his character, is now in detention. This is somebody who if we had screened him, will never qualify because the Supreme Court has made pronouncements about him and you can’t have such an indictment and fly a party flag. That was who they wanted to impose on us.
The next was a man who wrote a book about something close to Biafra, but is a book when you read, says that all Nigerians are Biafrans. But because of the title, they got emotional and I learnt that his idea was to get the ticket and compromise it.
The young man was supporting a Professor, who was prevailed on by the government not to run. When the professor decided to follow the government and wait to possibly fly the next election’s ticket, the man(MOBIN preferred candidate) said he didn’t like what the professor did.
He then decided to run for elections. It was in the course of making up his mind to run that I began to look at it. You came here promoting a professor whom you vouched to stand by.
When we were at all these, Osita Chidoka has not joined us, he was still in PDP. By the time he turned around to say he was coming, Osita had come. We said ok, go to Anambra State, let the people decide. But the feedback we got from Anambra confirmed clearly that he was on a mission.
At the end of it, the other person met our requirements, and when he saw that, he organised a team to come and disrupt the party congress. When the thugs came, police tried to stop them. It wasn’t easy, and police used tear gas. Unfortunately, someone that was asthmatic inhaled it and died.
So we were shocked that MOBIN was part of the whole thing. MOBIN went and did a Press Conference that they will destroy UPP and bring down Chekwas Okorie. So if we didn’t bring a candidate of their choice, they will bring down the house?
We gave MOBIN concessions that no party will do in Nigeria. They came to our party affairs with Biafran flag and other insignia. So we just withdrew and started our own thing. They even threatened to set up their own party, or join another party and take over the whole Igboland.
I was watching. I don’t know what has become of MOBIN now, whether they are still in the political thing.
What will be the political future for you? Have you been able to breed acolytes to take over from you?
There are many of them, as a matter of fact, one of the things that UPP did was to domesticate the ‘not too young to run law’, we are the only party to have done that. So all the young people in the country, mostly in the South East came and collected our forms free, because we wanted to encourage them. At a time, they gathered and came to Abuja to pay me a special visit and that whether they win or loose, in the next 10 or 20 years, they will never forget that they cut their teeth with the opportunity given to them.
It also inspired the emergence of parties like YPP and other parties that base their support around the youth. But even at that, we were still the only ones that made our nomination fee free for the youths and for women, and for the physically challenged. No other party went that far. Yet we were not a party that had money, yet we knew we were meant to mentor and encourage the young ones.
With what has happened, I am the longest standing opposition political leader in the Igbo nation, living or dead. From the time of the emergence of democracy in Nigeria till date, nobody has been in opposition as many years as I have been. It was out of choice but many people used it in a very sarcastic way against me.
But it was out of choice, and there is no way you will fight the Igbo cause and you will not be in opposition.
It’s only when the Igbo are in government that you won’t have cause to fight. So once you are fighting Igbo cause you have already assumed opposition, and that’s what I did from APGA to UPP. I wouldn’t say that Igbo elites, the business class or even the top politicians have given the type of support to that vision.
Instead, the one that first caught the attention of Nigerians was ruined by some Igbo elements. If UPP was given the type of support it deserved, in addition to what we had, we wouldn’t have been empty handed in terms of elective offices.
But despite all these, it’s not time to retire. I will be 67 in March. So by Nigerian political age bracket, I am not up for retirement. Tinubu is a little older than me and he is still very much aspiring, and there are so many others like that. I will be doing myself and the people I represent a disservice if I retire now. I still have mileages to go.