Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, was the governor of Abia State between 1999 and 2007. In this interview, he talks on his successor, Theodore Orji, crisis in the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and his business
You recently delivered a lecture in the United Kingdom where you called for Igbo president in 2015. Why did you take the campaign outside the shores of the country?
I took the campaign there because the colonialists from the UK amalgamated us about 100 years ago (1914) and they also played a leading role during the civil war. I wanted them to understand the fundamental injustice that has been done to the Igbo. This injustice is glaring. When I speak about injustice, I’m not talking about appointments. I saw some rabble-rousers in Abuja saying the Igbo have the highest number of appointments. Those are not issues. If they appointed Senator Pius Anyim as Secretary to the Government of the Federation, they did so because he is competence. People from other tribes had held that position before. If they made Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala the Minister of Finance (and Coordinating Minister of the Economy), it was based on her competence. It has nothing to do with whether she’s an Igbo or not. Lt.-Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika was made the Chief of Army Staff because he is competent. He became the highest ranking officer after others were retired. We’ve had occasions when other tribes had occupied all these posts.
I took that message there to make it clear that an Igbo man or woman should be President in 2015. Since 53 years of independence, we only had it for six months and 13 days. I want us to rewrite this social injustice to justice so that the country can move forward.
What was their feeling after the lecture?
Oh, good feeling! They were surprised, even those that don’t know much about Nigeria were surprised and wondered why a tribe has not had opportunity like others. I am not saying this because I am an Igbo but because we have to bring practical leadership into the polity.
Observers have said the disunity among leaders from the South-East is the clog in the wheel of the region?
Which tribe is in unity? When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was made President, was the South-West in unity? The majority of the people in the region opposed him. Were the northerners united when Musa Yar’Adua emerged? It is surprising when people say there is no unity among the Igbo. Nobody is in unity in Nigeria; it is the same everywhere. I get irritated when people say we are not in unity.
How come when Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu ran for the presidency, he did not get an overwhelming vote from the South-East as expected?
No, Ojukwu won all the votes he needed to win. But the question is was the election free and fair? In the axis you’re talking about, there was no free and fair election. I’m sure that Igbo traders and villagers voted for Ojukwu. I can bet with my life that they cast their votes for him.
Can we still have an Igbo leader who can command the kind of respect and followership that Ojukwu had?
I cannot speak on that because I don’t want to sound personal or too open. I think the Igbo in the markets should answer that question.
Are you coming out to represent your people in the 2015 presidential race?
No, it’s not about me. People are making this issue look personal. It’s about our people. It is about a larger society called Igbo. I feel the elite are not talking; most of the elite are semi-blind; most of them are not seeing it the way it should be seen. If we don’t tell the downtrodden what is right and what is wrong, our tribe might perish. This is the truth. If you bring any Igbo man tomorrow, I’ll support him. But if the Igbo people ask me to run, I will run. I’m capable of running the country; I’ll run it practically and positively for the benefit of all Nigerians.
With the South-East states shared by the All Progressive Grand Alliance, a faction of which has joined the All Progressive Congress, and the Peoples Democratic Party, how would the region get a consensus candidate to actualise its presidential dream?
I’m a member of PDP and if I’m not in the party, I should be in Progressive People Alliance. The Igbo leaders are talking. Those in APGA, PPA and others are talking. The Njiko Igbo has presented a new dimension for the Igbo tribe. The group is working hard with Senator Chris Anyanwu, Senator Emmanuel Onwe and the rest of them to ensure we achieve our aim. We are going to fight with our best. We have people who understand what politics is about and the importance of ensuring that there is unity among our people. These are people who totally believe that there’s no other time that is better than now. I am not talking about people who have misplaced their priority and those who have sold their conscience believing that it is better for other tribes to rule them.
In Abia State politics, many people believe you played a prominent role in the election of your former Chief of Staff, Theodore Orji as governor, but things fell apart suddenly. What really happened?
I don’t like to talk about him (Theodore Orji). He was a member of staff for eight years and God used me as an instrument to make him governor. I don’t want to talk about him until when he’s out of office. If you see anybody who says I sponsored him to write against the governor, that person is lying. I have never done that and I would never do it.
Why do you want to wait until after he’s out of office?
I don’t want to talk about him. He was a member of my staff and I don’t want to talk about somebody whom I helped to be governor.
Is it true that things fell apart because you wanted to become his godfather?
Forget about the role I wanted to play. I have told him to be with his conscience. Let him rule with his conscience. I am not going to talk about Abia State. It is not an issue for discussion. My aides can do it but I’m not going to do it. The day the man was sworn in, I told him to rule with his conscience. Everyone knows how he came into power. There is no doubt about how he came into power. Talking about him would be a fundamental error on my side. I leave him to rule us with his conscience.
Your return to PDP came with controversy. Some people have, however, said they’re not aware of your return to the party?
Are the people who are saying this owners of the party? The party was formed in this room you’re sitting. They are not the owners of the party and they are not democrats. If they are democrats, they will know that a political party is free-in free-out. That gives you an example of a fundamental error in Nigerian politics. They are trying to be authoritarian. They want a situation where they can be taking decisions from their rooms. There’s nobody that is not wanted in any association. If you want to join the PDP, PPA or APC, it should be your choice. Those who are saying that they are not aware must have ulterior motive. They are not democrats and I don’t have respect for them.
When you were governor, you had a running battle with the then President. A similar thing is playing out between Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State and President Goodluck Jonathan. What does this tell you about PDP and conflict?
It tells you that some governors still have their conscience. I’m neither for Amaechi nor for President Jonathan. Amaechi has every right to express his opinion. The Presidency should not see the governors as appendages of government. It is never done. This is the beauty of democracy.
Is there a difference in how the NGF is being run, compared with how it was when you were governor?
NGF is a mere association. I was disappointed that 35 of them couldn’t elect one person. This is a very wrong signal to our democracy and an indication of what it would look like in 2015. It is a big problem if governors who are supposed to have sanity in their heads could not resolve the leadership problem of their association. It shows that there is fundamental error in the leadership process in Nigeria. We are in for a very big problem.
Do you see the hands of the presidency in the crisis?
I cannot say because I don’t work with the government. I have been facing my businesses since I left office.
But you’re an insider, as far as PDP is concerned and you have friends among the governors.
Yes, I have friends but I don’t discuss their personal affairs with them.
As a businessman, how are you coping with the challenges facing businesses in Nigeria, especially when multinationals are moving out?
There are a lot of challenges. When I was a governor, they took over my bank, Hallmark Bank, in which SLOK Nigeria Limited held 70 per cent stake. They took away the SLOK Airline and Southgate Bank. This shows that the people in leadership do not create jobs. I have not seen any Nigerian president talking about creation of jobs, which is more important than anything. They kill jobs instead of creating them, especially if you disagree with their political ideologies. People are taking politics too personal in Nigeria and this is wrong. It is difficult to do business in Nigeria especially if the government sees you as its enemy. If you are a friend of the government, you are not corrupt but if you are seen as government’s enemy, then you are seen as corrupt. And if you’re an enemy of government, they will kill your business. The natural resources of Nigeria are owned by all Nigerians, whether you’re in PDP, APC, PPA or SDP. Nigeria should create a level playing field for all businessmen to operate because they are employers of labour. The envy in Nigerian society is too much. Nigerians are so envious of one another – the political class and the business class. The Senate wants to pass a law that will make Senators receive pension throughout their lifetime. Do they really like this country? It is not good to say this but if the poor do not see food to eat anymore, their best food will be the rich. And that will be the day of Armageddon. If care is not taken, it will happen with the way the elite are treating the country.
Being the proprietor of a national daily newspaper, how would you rate freedom of the press since the return of democracy and especially under the current administration?
To be honest in terms of that, President Jonathan has done very well. Out of every 12, there must be a Judas. He has done very well by keeping fundamental human rights. Although there have been cases of abuse of journalists from the Leadership, PUNCH and Sun newspapers. The abuse has reduced under this administration. Since they have passed the Freedom of Information bill, people should take advantage of it. If you don’t like what journalists have written about you, then go to a court of competent jurisdiction. Government should not resort to harassment or illegal detention of journalists. In doing their job, they face a lot of risk and they should be protected.
When precisely did you become a millionaire as an entrepreneur?
I was far below 21 years old when I made my first N1m. I multiplied it and that’s why you see my industries everywhere.
It was learnt that you got a certain amount of money from your mother as capital for your business.
My mother gave me N5, 000 and I started buying palm oil from the East and would take it to the North. From the North, I would buy dry fish and beans and take them to the East.
What led to the Nigeria National Merit Award you received in 1986 as the youngest Nigerian to be so honoured?
That was when I built the first SLOK vegetable oil industry. The members of the Nigeria Institute of Strategic Studies, Kuru, were on a tour and they came to my factory. They could not believe what they saw when they got to my factory. Patrick Onoja, Air Vice-Marshal Ernest Adeleye and then minister of industries, Muhammed Haladu were there. They recommended me to the then Head of State and a national award was given to me. You can see where we started from. At every point in my life, I think positively to create jobs for others. Our leaders don’t think about job creation.
If you claim you received the national award on merit, would you say those being churned out by government annually still have the value?
That is why I have not applied. Some people have three to four awards. They have MON, CON and CFR. I’m satisfied with the one given to me in the 80s. It was given to a few people in those days. I don’t think most people given the awards these days merit them.
What is your assessment of the APC, which would be the second biggest party in the country?
I don’t have anything to say about it. PDP remains the king.
Are you saying it poses no threat to your party?
It’s a joke.
Under a free and fair contest don’t you think APC will pose a threat?
It’s a joke. PDP remains the only dominant party.
Even when some governors are about to defect to APC
Those governors are not going to defect. They are full members of PDP, they will not leave.
As a businessman into oil and gas, how would you assess the petroleum sector, especially on the dysfunctional state of national refineries and importation of petroleum products?
If I were in government, Nigeria will not export a gallon of crude oil. All the oil will be refined. SLOK has applied over a hundred times for a refinery licence. We have ties with companies in America, India and China. We can put up a refinery worth over $5bn (N807.8bn) tomorrow, if they give us licence. Let Nigerians and the government stop playing politics. They should leave the economy to develop and flourish. They are playing politics with the humans they are ruling. It is not right. Liberate the market, which is what Okonjo-Iweala is preaching. She wants the market to be independent. Let them implement it and give us the opportunity to refine oil. I’m sure few Nigerians can refine all the two million barrels being exported daily. It will be more helpful to the economy.
How can you do all these without stable electricity supply? Even the government doesn’t know the full power requirement of Nigerians. The full requirement should be about 65,000 to 70,000mw. When they say they are doing 4,000mw, I laugh. The need for energy is expanding daily. Our government has not even started. The possibility of refining the oil will also help power generation.
Do you think the current administration has made any progress on power?
I am not going to rate President Jonathan. He has said people should give him till December 31, 2013. I’m not going to say anything about this until December 31. I will seek an appointment to tell him what I know. Thereafter, I can make it public.
You’ve been the chairman of two banks. How would you assess the banking reforms, especially under the leadership of Lamido Sanusi?
I was the youngest chairman of a bank in the history of this country and nobody has surpassed that record. I was made the chairman of a bank at the age of 27. I am so proud of Nigerian banks today. They can broker and finance any deal; they can form a consortium to be able to do mega businesses. Prof. Charles Soludo started the reforms. I’m proud of Soludo for making the the banks bigger. I’m also proud of Sanusi for sustaining what Soludo left. It is easier to do something but to sustain it is very difficult.
It was learnt that world acclaimed novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe, shared some of his last moments with you. What were the things you knew about him?
I was with Prof. Achebe, and some people, including his nephew, Dr. Obi Achebe shortly before he died. He was to come for a colloquium of Njiko Igbo in July (2013). It was planned for July 20. He told me specifically, “Do you think I will be alive till then?” That was in Rhodes Island, in his house. And that was the last time I visited him. He was very close to me. When he wanted to start building his house in the village, the first money used for the project was sent to me through his brother, Obi Achebe. The money was in dollars and I had to change it to naira. I was one of his best and closest friends. He felt that I was a person misrepresented by the Nigerian public.
How would you describe his last and controversial book, ‘There was a country’?
Achebe only wrote his opinion and I don’t want anybody to attack him on that. If you have a contrary opinion, write your own. There is nothing new in what Achebe wrote in his last book. I was very close to Chief Obafemi Awolowo when he was alive. Those who are defending Awolowo and attacking Achebe are just doing so to be relevant in the political scene.
If I’m fighting you and I decided to starve you to death, it is a strategy and nobody will blame me for that. In time of war, you use what you have to win the war. Achebe did not say anything new. When Awolowo was alive, he did not say anything contrary to what Achebe said. All the defence of Awolowo now is unnecessary. Achebe has written his book and I think those capable of writing a contrary opinion should do so. We will buy their books also and read. It will increase our knowledge about Nigeria.
-Culled from Sunday Punch.