Eminent historian and Chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) during the Interim Government headed by Chief Shonekan, Professor Okon Uya, was invited by the South East, South-South Professionals to chair the plenary session of their conference held in Calabar
Eminent historian and Chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) during the Interim Government headed by Chief Shonekan, Professor Okon Uya, was invited by the South East, South-South Professionals to chair the plenary session of their conference held in Calabar on Saturday, July 23rd, 2005. A member of Dr. Samuel Cookeyís Political Bureau set up by the General Babangida administration to draw up the blueprint for the regimeís transitional agenda, Uya was also Nigeriaís Ambassador to Argentina, Peru, Paraguay and Chile during his foreign service for Nigeria. He had a brief discussion with OCHEREOME NNANNA in Calabar.
How has life been treating you since your exit from the National Electoral Commission, NEC, where you served as chairman?
I have been doing what I did before I became the Ambassador for Argentina, and thatís teaching. My first love has always been teaching. I enjoy interacting with my students. I have been back to the University of Calabar and helping to raise the next generation of educated Nigerian people.
Donít you feel like discussing your days at the Electoral Commission?
Not really. You want to put this kind of thing behind you as soon as possible. The fact was that I was asked, for reasons best known to them, in the history of this country to come and be at the head of the National Electoral Commission, NEC. I believe in the survival of this country. I saw that the country was drifting towards possible disintegration, so I accepted the appointment, in the belief that it was a job that would help to arrest the drift.
After searching all the options before me, I agreed that the best option was to conduct another election. My focus was to arrange for another national election before March 1994. We had to compile a votersí register, which is very critical. We had just concluded it on a Saturday and the following week General Sani Abacha took over government. When you offer yourself and your experience to serve your country and the thing is just truncated like that it can be very devastating. The country went through many years of another military rule, which would have been prevented if we had been patient enough to complete the holding of another election. It is not that I donít like to talk about it. It is just that it is one chapter of my life. Funny enough, most people know me by only those three months I spent as the NEC Chairman. They donít know that Iíve been an ambassador for six years; a Deputy Vice Chancellor and an acting Vice Chancellor of a university.
Compare the transitional politics of the Generals Babangida and Abacha times and this civilian Obasanjo time. Is there any improvement or even change in style and the people who have been involved in it?
You will realise that the last part of the Babangida transition was being managed by technocrats and not politicians. I have refrained from making any comments on the Obasanjo administration because of the experience I had. In 2001, I was invited by the Presidency, specifically Dr. Stanley Macebuh to contribute to the writing of a book to assess the first two years of Obasanjoís administration, and our team did an excellent job. We looked at every socio-economic and political sector and commented on what was happening, the direction in which things were going and suggested alternative ways of doing them. They didnít like the book. The impression was that they did not like being told that things were not going the right way. The way to assess Obasanjoís regime is against the expectations of Nigerians. Nigerian people had gotten used to having everything done by decree.
They expected democracy by decree, forgetting that democracy is a very difficult system. It takes time, hard work, commitment and experiencing. Mistakes have to be made and corrected. Secondly, I donít really think that the politicians who are still there now have learnt any serious lessons from Nigerian history. I was a member of General Babangidaís Political Bureau. Everything we documented and warned about, our politicians are still repeating them, which means we are not learning anything.
Thirdly, I believe that the most important aspect of democracy is to improve the welfare of the people, by focusing on the basic needs of the people. But it has become the habit of our elected political leaders to announce everything they have done in the media as if they are doing the people a favour. And there is so much talk about structures, forgetting that structures must be based on values. Some of the most basic values of democracy we have forgotten, these include equity, fairness, being able to be magnanimous in victory and valiant in defeat and ensuring that elections are based on the true choices of the people, and change is possible through the polls. Trouble will always arise in human affairs. If we have the right type of values in place you will be better able to manage complications rather than when you use structures to tackle them. I had thought that the National Political Reform Conference would address its mind to some of these issues.
They tried at the beginning, but they later went into things that were not necessary. I donít think that there was no idea that the Political Bureau did not examine and recommend solutions to about the problems of this country. But we have never been able to implement them. We keep on recycling these things and recycling the same people and the country keeps going around in circles and not moving forward.
I hope they themselves have realised that, for instance, you canít have a democracy without viable political parties. Right now, we donít have any real political parties to anchor our democracy. We have a monolith, something called the Peopleís Democratic Party, PDP, very large but without anything you can identify it for as the basis of its being a political party. I am persuaded that initially, the President did not know the complexity of the situation he was being faced with. And now that they have dawned on him he is trying to handle them in a military way. If we are to have a democracy based on values the civil society becomes very paramount because that is where you shape ideas, that is where you can train leaders and deal with issues dispassionately rather than politically.
How do you see this South East/South-South Professionals initiative, to which you have been invited as a session chairman?
It is not a new idea. And I am not new to it at all. I am not new to ideas to pull Nigerians together. I have never been attracted to parochial politics. Given the way things are going in our country, what we need is a rethinking of alliances. The problem of Nigeria has been the Tripod - Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba. The rest of us have just been trying to shift allies among them. And when you are choosing allies, the more distant the ally the more attractive to you, because you donít know them, and they donít know you.
They have no direct effect on you. If there is anything that has happened, it is that we have to rethink strategy. And you will find that in any meaningful and rewarding political relationship, your neighbour is always your best bet. You may quarrel among yourselves. You may disagree. But when you know that there is no way you can talk about the South-South without talking about the South East, I mean it is impossible, then you will have to rethink. Igboland is, more or less, landlocked. Sea access to Igboland must be through the South-South. The South East is the hinterland of the South-South.
So, it is important to these two zones to come together to make their whole number complete, otherwise they will exist in half and half, with attendant consequences. There is an economic imperative for this kind of relationship. There is also a political imperative and a socio-cultural imperative. The alliance is a step in the right direction if it becomes properly managed. The way forward is to start, link up with the communities, the political class, and you will wake up one day and find a very solid political and economic bloc holding all the aces. I am a historian. There is something called South Eastern Nigeria, which consists of what we call the South East and South-South geopolitical zones.
The term: South Eastern Nigeria connotes a unity, a historic unity of the area even before the dawn of contemporary politics. It is an idea that will be to the good of the people of the two zones, but it needs to be properly managed so that it does not go the way of the others. It was my support for the initiative that brought me here, because I was only contacted to be the chairman of the session last Sunday. I donít think anyone can run away from the fact that the South East and South-South constitute a historic unit, and have no choice but to unite.