Written by Bashir Abdullahi, Port Harcourt
Tonye Princewill is a former gubernatorial candidate of the Action Congress in Rivers State during the 2007 general elections and now a chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party. In this interview, he speaks on national issues, including the call for a national conference. Excerpts:
What is your take on agitations in some quarters for a national conference?
We need some sort of discussion. We need a dialogue. You see, me I love peace. I really love peace. Many people would agree that they like it too but I want to emphasize that I love peace. The way we are going now will not bring us sustainable, long-term peace and so we that love peace need to do something about it. The country, in my opinion, is now more divided than ever before and the trend is only going to continue. The term SNC suggests that the nation’s sovereignty will be on the line so I am not surprised very few political office holders will agree to it but this should not deflect the need for some sort of conference. The problem is the leadership doesn’t want to lead. If they did, it should be them designing what this dialogue should look like after consultation with opposing stakeholders. Activists cannot design it, only leaders can. They should therefore lead and set in place a Nigeria that we all can describe as fair enough for all of us. It is easier to maintain a course than to transform. Transformation is difficult. It requires courage. It takes leadership. The more I see nothing, the more I am convinced that the South – South will not give up the Presidency because the terms on which this country is proceeding cannot guarantee them peace. There is a lack of trust amongst ethnic entities and the 50 years of neglect has created wounds that are yet to heal. They may request another four years to attempt it.
There is this concern that intelligence reports on Boko Haram insurgency are not acted upon. What do you advise considering the Niger Delta experience?
They should learn that there are no winners. Every life is precious. You killed their leader extra judicially, they killed your policemen. You harass their wives and children, and they attack your markets and blow up your children’s schools. You attack their mosques, they attack your churches. When will the cycle of violence end? The only way to break the mold is to compartmentalize it. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution devised from the top and handed down to the divisions. It requires intelligence and it requires a multitude of approaches. Even footballers sitting on the bench do warm up before they start playing. Our local police force has not been serious players in the field of security all this while. They need to be kitted up, retrained, boosted morally and then sent back to play; properly guided. Boko Haram did not start today. There is a social element to it; a political element to it, a religious element to it and a global element to it.
Considering our current security challenges, do you think we need a foreign military alliances?
I am one person that has been very critical of the way we handle our security in this country. But I am beginning to see a little ray of hope. Thanks to Boko Haram, we have been reminded of the years of neglect of our security agencies, especially our police force. The low morale of the rank and file if not reversed will lead to anarchy. When I heard of the President’s commitment to security in the 2012 budget, I smiled because it was long overdue. If they spend it well and I suspect that they will, we will see improved capacity and a better ability to confront terrorism in any form. I am reminded by the words of the late Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, carry a big stick.” Mr President has got the first part right. Now he needs to get the second part right too. As for the foreign governments and military alliances, I see nothing wrong with that if the sovereignty of the nation is not compromised and in as far as we realize that the priority of any nation is to their people. Just as ours should be to us, theirs will be to theirs. We need to remember that in all of our dealings. As long as we do that, we are free to collaborate and build capacity in very many ways.
What is your assessment of the performance of President Jonathan?
The handling of his presidential bid when he started waiting for the moon to declare, his handling of the FIFA issue, his initial pace in addressing security concerns and the approach to the subsidy debacle are all examples of where he got it wrong. On each of these counts, he lost votes. But let us be fair, he has never been president before and for several years he has never been his own man; always grateful to a godfather who placed him, always subservient to a president who did not regard him, deputy to a governor who was larger than life and a man who had no shoes. Criticize him as you want, but accept that people voted him into power en masse. I think he is a good man who cares and I am waiting for his government to reflect his person. I have not lost hope. I used to think he was vindictive, now I am not so sure.
What is your take on the UNEP report?
It is yet another example of executive silence. A committee is set up to report back in two weeks and several months later, nothing. I hear some people from other regions saying that the President is favoring the Niger Delta over and above their regions. Please come and explain this. The report does not ask for the impossible, and does not require an act of parliament to implement. It is a template that can be used across the region and even the country. The devastation is still there till today. At least let the executive show some empathy; visit the place, highlight the problem and commit to some of the recommendations of the report. Right now, they have committed to nothing. That cannot be right. A Niger Deltan cannot do this to his people. I have to believe he has a plan.
Oil bunkering in the Niger Delta seems on the increase. What do you think is the problem?
Because people are unemployed; there is a dearth of jobs in society and they do bunkering because they can. I am what people in UK would describe politically as a Blairite. Blair, Clinton and Obama make up my political mentors. They appear soft but they get the job done. Tony Blair once said that he wants to be tough not just on crime but on the causes of crime. All three have a centrist ideology and so court opposition from both the left and the right of their political divides for abiding by it. But what they were able to do was create jobs and grow their economies in spite of a looming recession. They got the message.
Militants recently demanded implementation of the NDTC Report. What do you think?
It is a dead issue. The government has signalled its intent. They did that before and nothing in the body language of the President suggests that anything will change. It was my major grouse with the President leading up to 2011 and I made it clear. I understand there is a white paper somewhere but it has not been made public. It probably never will be. The President should remember where he comes from and the expectations of his people. Unless he addresses the issue of the Niger Delta, there will be no peace. Boko Haram can scare a few people and alarm the Northern parts of the country; the Niger Delta can cripple the country and starve everyone. When they made the mistake of bombing Gbaramatu, see what happened to production? I rest my case.
Why do you think corruption is so prevalent and what is the way forward?
It is prevalent because there are no consequences for it. Unless you can demonstrate that there is a consequence for it, then people will continue to do it and remain on the good books of government or below the radar so as to avoid prosecution. It is either we deal with people or we liberalize it and allow everybody steal with limits. Say 250 million per person. Don’t mind me o. I am only joking. But we have to take the bull by the horns. If you put me in a house of chickens and I catch one or two, which is not news. Nigeria is full of thieves everywhere you go. So catch them and put the fear of God in Nigerians. Political witch hunting does not do the trick. We all know the difference.
What is your ambition in 2015?
It is way too early to start talking about 2015. I want us to resist that temptation. In Rivers State we have an administration desperate to bring the so-called dividends of democracy to the people of the state and in Abuja I see the President desperate to do the same. My job as someone who is just as desperate to see my state and my region move forward is to pray for our leadership and to try and help where I can. As a PDP member, I am well aware of the President’s appeal to party faithful and our party’s reiteration of his request to remove the distraction of 2015 from governance. I am not about to go against the spirit of that appeal. If or when I decide to emerge from the shadows, it will be public knowledge, without fear or favour and it will be with the consent of a multitude of stakeholders. I think before I blink.