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Argument About Upland/Riverine Dichotomy Is Unnecessary – Chief OCJ Okocha (SAN)

CHIEF OCJ OKOCHA is a prominent legal practitioner in Rivers State and an icon of the  profession across Nigeria. He is a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with JAMES FEBEBEBO,  OCJ Okocha, a Chieftain of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in Rivers State, says that the argument of Upland/Riverine dichotomy in the politics of Rivers State is not necessary. He also says that Governor Nyesom Wike is entitled to run for second term in the forthcoming 2019 General Elections and also gives his opinion on other issues.

CHIEF OCJ OKOCHA is a prominent legal practitioner in Rivers State and an icon of the  profession across Nigeria. He is a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with JAMES FEBEBEBO,  OCJ Okocha, a Chieftain of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in Rivers State, says that the argument of Upland/Riverine dichotomy in the politics of Rivers State is not necessary. He also says that Governor Nyesom Wike is entitled to run for second term in the forthcoming 2019 General Elections and also gives his opinion on other issues.

Excerpts:  

Rivers State Governor, Chief Nyesom Wike, has said that he is going to run for a second term. As a chieftain of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Rivers State, what is your reaction to this announcement?

I'm very happy that he has finally answered the call. I am among those who have through several organizations including political groups, including socio-political groups, including religious and political groups, including friends of his, who have since been asking him to answer this call. We have visited him on a number of occasions, in delegations, in groups and he kept telling us he will wait until he is certain that he has the support of the people. So, I was quite happy when sometime last week at a forum organized by youths, he made that statement that youths are the future and if this call is coming from them, he will gladly accept. So, I'm very happy and I believe that all of us in Rivers State will join hands together to support his second term re-election bid and you know this second term is something which he is entitled to and on the basis of the track record which he has established of excellent performance, I think that most Rivers people are also yearning for him to do a second term.

Now the Amaechi faction of the APC has endorsed a billionaire businessman, Tonye Dele Cole, as the governorship candidate of APC for the forthcoming 2019 General Elections and most people feel that it's going to be a big fight this time around because APC also have a very saleable candidate.     

I don't know about they having a very saleable candidate even though I want it on record for the world to know that Tonye Cole is my friend.
He's my younger friend, much younger than I am but he's my friend and I respect him for what he has achieved in his own niche in society in the world, successful businessman, technocrat. His father was like a big brother to all of us, Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, who was sometime the editor of the Daily Times Newspaper and later became Nigeria's Ambassador to Brazil, so, I have a long relationship with the family. One of his uncles, Late Justice Wither Jacks, who rose from being a magistrate to being a Justice of the Court of Appeal was my father's very close friend and so I'm closely associated with the family. It is entirely up to the APC to choose who their governorship candidate will be. They are free to choose but I understand as a fact and we read and hear about it that they are factionalized. I will not determine for a party to which I do not belong who should be their governorship candidate but you know, I think that they too are Rivers people, all of them in the APC, Rivers State Chapter and you know, when you have a winning team, you try to support that team to victory.  By constitutional provisions, Governor Nyesom Wike is entitled to do two terms of four years in office and I've seen societies in the world where opposing parties do not seriously oppose the continuation in office of a performing executive like a chief executive governor or executive like a President. Even in local councils, everybody agrees that this particular individual has done well for both sides, indeed for all sides. So, I believe that they too have the interest of Rivers State at heart and you know what they say,  use their tongue to count the teeth in their mouth. So, while they are free to choose their candidate, while my young friend, Tonye Cole, is free to vie for the position, I think that they too should remember that Rivers State has a governor now who is performing and allowing him to do a second term, I think will be the best for all of us as indigenes of Rivers State and citizens of Nigeria residing within Rivers State.

But some persons see that it is going to be a personality contest between the former Rivers State Governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and the current governor of the State, Chief Nyesom Wike, that what they think could happen is that it's going to be a very tough battle because these two personalities are involved.

Well, you know, everybody is entitled to his own opinion. A governorship election, indeed a presidential election, indeed any other election should not be a tough battle. Election is not war and we have been singing this refrain for so long. Election is not war. On the record and for all intents and purposes, our former governor, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, is not on the ballot and cannot be on the ballot. So, how it will now be a tough war between two of them, I cannot fathom. So, I don't believe so and I hope that the Rivers people will understand that this cannot and ought not to be a war.

Sir, you said that Governor Wike was waiting to be sure of the support of the people of Rivers State before declaring for his second- term bid, so, are you saying that by this announcement the governor is certain that the people of the state will support him for second term?    

I believe he is because when people have accepted you unconditionally and have supported you unconditionally to record the successes you have recorded, and for him, the successes he has recorded within the last three and half years or more, I think that nobody needs to tell him that people want him to continue not just in office but to continue with the good works he's doing and has been doing and we pray will continue to do.

But those who are against his second term bid are saying that the Upland people have been governor of the state for a long time and that the Ogonis and the riverine people have not produced the governor yet. What is your take on this argument?  

First, if you heard on the airwaves in the last two days, I've been singing this song that we as Rivers people should begin to downplay this issue of Riverine/Upland. I've also said that we should unite. You know, that thing of riverine/upland was rife when we were Rivers State as previously constituted until Bayelsa State was created in 1996, and then, virtually every serious political office even political appointments were occupied by the majority Ijaw ethnic nationality from governor up till ministers in the federation and also commissioners in the state. So, we had that dichotomy but then in 1999, Dr. Peter Odili was elected into office. By this time, Bayelsa had gone and you know, Bayelsa was the majority of the ethnic group from Rivers State and they are one homogeneous group, everybody in Bayelsa is Ijaw… A lot of things as I said were going to the Ijaw people: federal appointments, talk about the Ministers of the Federation that were being appointed at the time, talk about persons who were being appointed to important political offices. I remember my deputy governor when I served on Cabinet in Rivers State, Sumner Dagogo-Jack became the Chairman of NECON, National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, Ambassadors were all mostly Ijaw people, Ministers were all mostly Ijaw people, so, the upland people felt that, no, no, no… when we clamoured for the creation of Rivers State, it was supposed to be for that area called the Old Rivers province in the defunct Eastern Nigeria. Even before it was created, people like Udo Udoma, the late Justice of the Supreme Court, famous lawyer, had formed the core state movement that comprised the Cross-River area, the Ogoja area and Rivers Province, Calabar Province, they called it, Ogoja Province and Rivers Province, COR. So, when we finally got Rivers State, we were constituted with what is now Bayelsa and the population figures indicated that the Ijaws had the majority of the population of Rivers State and that syndrome continued. Federal appointments, elective offices were dominated by the Ijaws because they had the numbers. Politics is a game of numbers.     

But now that Bayelsa has left, some people feel that the Ikwerres are dominating in the politics of Rivers State.

No, Ikwerres are only four local governments. Of course, Ikwerres are more populous because Ikwerres are predominantly occupying the metropolitan area called Port-Harcourt but they are not dominating. Ogonis, for instance, have four local government areas. The Kalabaris have three: Degema, Akuku-Toru and Asari-Toru and you know that Kalabari people are very populous. I cannot sit here and tell you which is the most populous ethnic nationality now in Rivers State.

But with the departure of Bayelsa Ijaws, the riverine people think that they should also become governor of Rivers State.              
Yes, I don't deny that, don't forget and this is the thing I want Nigerians and indeed my fellow brothers and sisters in Rivers State to know: A political office has no ethnic nationality… Is there any qualification in the Constitution that says that governor must be from say Ijaw or Ikwerre? No such thing! It stipulates age, educational qualifications and then other conditions that show that you do not have any antecedents: You've not been convicted of a criminal offence and so on and so forth or indicted by a commission of enquiry, other conditions that show that the person being fielded by any political party is fit and proper for the office. Again, the political parties do not draw their membership based on tribe or ethnic nationality. Everybody is entitled to join PDP. Everybody is entitled to join APC, APGA, whatever. There's no qualification there that says you should be from this tribe and when anybody is contesting for office, there's no qualification that states what tribe you will belong to.

So, what do you say about this argument by the Riverine people?

I say it is not necessary. My own perception concerning it is that people are using it for political reasons and… this issue of upland/riverine ended with Dr. Peter Odili.
Indeed, when he came on board, Odili comes from Ndoni, it became clear to us that Odili is both upland and also riverine. So, he's used to the conditions of living of riverine people, so, and he came on board and in his cabinet, in his advisory council, people from every ethnic nationality in Rivers State and that has continued since then and Governor Nyesom Wike has come. Of course, at that time, people felt, Oh, he's an Ikwerre man. Yes, he's an Ikwerre man. Nobody denies that but he was not chosen because he was an Ikwerre man. I had an argument with two of my friends who are Kalabaris, both of them from Abonnema: Fafadam Princewill and Odein Ajumogobia (SAN), who used to be our Attorney-General here and later Minister of Petroleum and our argument was oh OCJ, they were telling me, will Ikwerre man stay there perpetually? After all, Amaechi is Ikwerre, Omehia is Ikwerre, Wike is Ikwerre, why is Wike coming to run again? I said to them, look, we have a serious battle on our hands. Amaechi took a substantial number of members of PDP to which party he and they also belong and moved to the APC and we do not want. Our State has always seen itself as a PDP State just like Bayelsa and Delta States. So, I said all of us see ourselves as PDP States. We in the South-South generally see ourselves as PDP States because we identified with the PDP when it was founded and the PDP produced our first governors, second governors under what we call the fourth republic regime. So, we are happy where we are and for me, as I said, we should see ourselves as brothers and sisters.
In Rivers State now, if you look at it, it's only Bonny and Andoni and Opobo that you cannot drive to by road and you know as a fact that roads are now being constructed, first, of course, they are federal roads too, first to Bonny through Bodo. Another one to Opobo. Another one to Andoni, one again through Ogoniland and then building a number of bridges to link those far-flung riverine communities of our state. So, sooner or later, all of us will be Upland because you can drive to your village just like I have no difficulty, I don't cross too many rivers, I don't have to go by canoe to get to my village but I can tell you, if you know the history of Rivers State, (that) there was a time when some Ikwerre people could not come to Port-Harcourt by road. Emohua people, Ndele people used to come to the waterside and use a canoe to cross Choba river before they will come into Port-Harcourt. The alternative was to go through Elele, long circuitous journey through native track roads, Native Authority roads and all this was before the East-West road was constructed. So, there was a time when even those places like Ndele, Emohua were also using river to move themselves and move their goods. So, my position now, and which is what I'm trying to appeal to my fellow brothers and sisters from the far-flung riverine areas, all of us should accept that we are all Rivers people. Let us eschew this politics of upland/riverine and it goes on to the Nigerian society when we have North and South. These things are things that divide us. We should also eschew this issue of tribal sentiments. No Ikwerre man can claim that he doesn't have relationship with riverine people. They inter-marry with Ijaw people. They inter-marry with Kalabari people. They inter-marry with Bonny people. They inter-marry with Andoni people. Same with those that I’ve just mentioned. So, we should see ourselves as brothers and sisters. I think we should copy what is happening in international communities, Europe, for instance. In America, the Gorge Bush family, the Senior George Bush and his son who became President, their home is in Connecticut, their grandfather, George Bush Senior's father was a senator from Connecticut. He went into politics. After he had gone to Texas and settled in Texas, a different state, and made his millions in Texas before he went into politics. Same with his son, lived in Texas, one son moved to Florida, two have been governors. George Bush, the second was governor in Texas, his younger brother Jeb was governor in Florida, a different state. This is where I want us to see Nigeria and as I was growing up as a young boy, an Hausa man was a mayor in Enugu… and an Igboman went to sit in the Sultan's  Cabinet in Sokoto… so that's how Nigeria used to be. Zik left Enugu and went to contest election in the Western region and had nearly won with the assistance of the man they call  Adegoke Adelabu… and Zik went there and ran election and would have become Prime Minister in the Western region until that syndrome of carpet-crossing when Awolowo moved a lot of his people to cross over to what was then the Action Group. So, I want Nigerians to see themselves as Nigerians and Rivers people to see themselves as Rivers people.
 
Sir, away from that, the PDP has so many Presidential aspirants for the 2019 General Elections and people think that they are all qualified. So, how is the party going to resolve this issue?

You know, I'm a democrat and long time ago, I adopted a saying by one famous Chinese ruler called Dao San Ping. He's credited with the Great Leap Outward by the Chinese that are seen where they are today. Chinese used to be monolithic, Communist under Chairman Mao Zedong but that famous Chinese ruler came and said, no, we must begin to adopt some capitalist properties so that our societies can prosper. China is now everywhere in the world, doing contracts, doing humanitarian activities, doing commercial activities. They are now the second-largest economy in the world. They've overtaken Japan which used technology and human intelligence to get to be the second- largest economy after America before China came and overtook them. India was even after Japan. China was way down until they now achieved this their Great Leap Outward. We must, you know, open up to ourselves. Dao San Ping said let a thousand flowers blossom. I modified it and said let every flower blossom. Everybody who believes that he has something to offer Nigeria by way of service as President, as Governor, as Chairman of a Local Government should come forward, pick nomination form and let the people decide who will be the candidate of their party, that is to say, the people will belong to the political parties and let the people, namely the electorate, this time, decide who will be their President or Governor or Chairman of Local Government.
It's democracy. Everybody must feel free and be given that opportunity, what we call a level-playing field, to contest. First, you have to emerge through a process to even be a candidate at the primaries. So, if that democratic system plays out, I'm sure that the PDP will have no difficulty in selecting among all the numerous candidates that have indicated interest who will be their presidential candidate.