Last November, a little-known group hosted a press briefing in the name of PDP presidential candidate, Mr. Atiku Abubakar, at the National Press Club in Washington DC.
As the group’s official designation – Atiku Diaspora Support Group – suggests, its members are Nigerian-Americans campaigning for the former vice-president’s presidential crusade.
Franklin Ekechukwu is a co-director of the group, he explains why he and his colleagues believe Mr. Abubakar is worthy of Nigeria’s highest office.
Q: What is your organization called, is it a support group for PDP or for His Excellency Atiku Abubakar?
A: We are called Atiku Diaspora Support Group, we are not PDP even though some of us are PDP members. It comprises all Nigerians who want a better government, who want Nigeria to start working again.
Q: Are you limited to just the United States of America?
A: No, no, no. In the United States we have coordinators in all fifty states of continental USA, then we have people in Malaysia, in China and we have UK branch. We have affiliates in Nigeria, those are working on the ground, we call them the champions of democracy. We have national body of champions of democracy in Nigeria, we created national coordinators, then we have regional coordinators. We have state coordinators, then to make it much better, we have local government coordinators. In a nutshell, we have 774 local coordinators.
Q: Atiku became presidential candidate this past October, given what you are telling me, you guys are literally spread across the world, is this something that started in October or was the support group there before he emerged PDP candidate?
A: It started before he emerged PDP candidate. I already know Mama Titi and of course my partner, Obed, knows Mama Titi. I have been working with the PA called Abdulrazaq. Se we knew since a year and six months ago, the work has been going on in Nigeria. I am also aware that he was going to run, Obed was also aware, we were doing our own part and waiting for him to win the primaries. So I can tell you that I know when Abdul went to Ogun State, when he went to Oyo State, that was way before the primaries. We have been existing, we have been planning long before he went for the primaries and won.
Q: This is nice to know but why have you all been planning? What is it about the candidate that spurred this movement, this support for him on your part long before he became the candidate?
A: Let me be frank. In April this year , I convened the U.S.-Nigeria investment summit that was held at the Embassy of Nigeria [Washington DC]. I planned it, executed it, dedicated four months of my life to it. I am the principal of U.S.-Nigeria organization, it is a company that is supposed to channel everything I want to do for Nigeria. The whole plan is to attract investment, investors to Nigeria. The United States Secretary of Commerce spoke at the event, that is the first time ever that Secretary of Commerce will attend such event at our Embassy. That was my effort to help my country regardless of which government is in power. But what attracted me to Atiku is this; when I read his life story, I found out that he has gone through all the things of life, people see him as a rich man now but they forget that the man went through certain roads of life before he got to where he is. As a child he found it difficult to go to school, he trekked for an hour thirty minutes to and from school, his father died at a young age, he had no uncles to help, he was able to build a house for his mum at the age of sixteen. These simply tell me that he went through hell as a child and he matured quickly. When he joined the Customs, he didn’t find things easier either but he managed to do all he need to do to get to where he is. Mama Titi told us that at one point they lived in a one-bedroom apartment. When you look at how creative he had to be at a very young age, to build a house for his mum and to survive, you know, taking loans, doing odd jobs, these are things most Nigerians don’t know about him. He was still finding other alternatives to have extra income while he was a custom officer. So looking at his life story, I came to understand that not only is he creative, he has vision and he was able to succeed. When you meet a leader who has a vision of tomorrow, then you know he can succeed at anything you give him because he makes things happen. That is how he struggled until he established Intels and he had a vision for the company’s success, he knew that for this Intels company to last for a long time, he needed to bring in some traditional leaders and some military people to be on the board of directors. And he was able to accomplish that by bringing in His Royal Highness Ado Bayero and General Musa Yar’Adua, that is a demonstration of his vision to sustain things. He has managed to make it to the point where now people call him a billionaire and all they see is the money. You and I understand that Atiku was a rich person before he got into politics, he climbed to the position of director general in the customs, knowing that he could not go any further, he resigned and entered into business full time before getting into politics. You also know that he was behind PDP’s success at the 1999 elections, he practically financed the party. So at this point, after reading his life story, I said this is a man that needs to come into power because he will know how to invest, he has the vision and then after I got to know him, talking to people around him, I knew this is a person I can support. And luckily for me a friend of mine who has been to Nigeria and found out that this man and his wife has this foundation helps orphans and fights against human trafficking, these are things you do to make life better for other people. Atiku has given so many scholarships to many people regardless of where they come from. These things, giving back to the society without looking to gain from it, that is actually one thing that made say I need to follow him.
Q: How were you able to get so many branches of the Atiku Diaspora Support Group going so quickly? I mean you said you are in all fifty states of the U.S., you are in Malaysia, the UK and all 774 local government areas of Nigeria, that must have taken a lot of work.
A: I was national coordinator for Jonathan support group and at that time I had a lot of friends in the whole fifty states. I was also the former regional director of Nigerians in the Diaspora (NIDO) in the United States. I was regional director of NIDO and a board member of NIDO at that time. I was also the director of membership and mobilization for NIDO, so I travelled to the whole fifty states, I met a lot of people in all fifty states of the U.S. Obed who is my partner in the Atiku Support Group, actually he is the national coordinator, I am the deputy national coordinator. Using the position I had before, what I did is I collapsed the JEG support group into Atiku’s and contacted all the people I’ve been working with in the past and we reestablished. In terms of Nigeria, I used a gentleman called Chris Ibe who is a national youth publicity secretary in Nigeria. Their youth organization is nationally known and nationally driven. I called on him to start off champions of democracy and he utilized the youth movement. Chris also has an NGO which fights against illicit drugs. I used his organization and the youth movement. We appointed national coordinators who are well-known within the youth movement, they selected the regional coordinators. We asked the regional coordinators to get state coordinators for us, it was more of a screening process. The only difficulty we had was screening them out, we wanted to know who is for Atiku and who can work hard. The we instructed the state coordinators to get us, in all the local governments in their state, local coordinators. It was a tasking process, we have formed the international one alright but we have to trust other people to get people they can work with, that can mobilize. It was hard work but it was also fun.
Q: So concretely, what is the diaspora support group doing to make sure Atiku is elected next president of Nigeria?
A: We have done a lot of things, as you know, we did the National Press Club event [in Washington DC]. And then there’s a lot of video we have made to highlight things that are not going well in Nigeria, things that are not going the right direction.
Q: So is the video being aired in the United States or in Nigeria?
A: It’s being aired in Nigeria …
Q: …on the TV stations?
A: We handed them over to the TV stations but I don’t know if they have aired them or not. We plan to do ten more videos this January, we will have two videos come up every week. We have done some jingles and in terms of mobilizing, we are mobilizing people on the ground, that is one of the reasons why we have the local coordinators. For instance, Atiku was in Lagos for the youth movement, most of our members were there, most of the champions of democracy. And, as a matter of fact, Atiku made one of our champions of democracy national special adviser on youths. So we are doing a lot but we want to do more. Here in the United States, if His Excellency decides to come to the United States, we are planning to be his local organizing group. Not only that, we have appointment with some senators and house of representative members. We want to speak to them on looking towards Nigeria and the elections as a priority in terms of rigging elections and for them to monitor what’s going on in Nigeria. Some of us are going to travel to Nigeria to campaign, those who don’t travel will be here to let the world know what is going on and call attention to Nigeria as a nation.
Q: Nigerians in the diaspora don’t vote in Nigerian elections, they don’t have the PVC and all that. So how much weight is the diaspora contributing to this campaign? All attempts to get voting rights for Nigerians outside the country has failed so why should we be concerned?
A: Nigeria belongs to each and everyone of us. And the betterment of Nigeria will bring progress to even Nigerians here in the United States and across the world. I can tell you this, the investors refuse to go to Nigeria these days because the present government is going around the world telling people that we are corrupt. No matter how you look at it, Nigeria being perceived as corrupt reflects directly on even Nigerians in the diaspora. If you are a businessman as I am, you cannot do business and investors don’t want to invest in Nigeria because they feel like the business environment in Nigeria is not conducive. The chief executive of Nigeria, the chief salesman is telling them don’t come because we are corrupt, that affects everybody. Now if Nigerians in the diaspora say they don’t want to bother themselves about what is happening in Nigeria, they are myopic in their vision. In terms of what we are contributing to Nigeria, we send money to Nigeria, our parents, our family members, everybody are still in Nigeria. In every family, one or two people may be in the United States but the rest are there. And all of them depend on you, on how much you are sending, they tell you we are dying send money. Many of them are truly dying because they have no jobs, no money, no hope of any kind. This election is the most critical election in our lifetime, this will either break or save Nigeria, we need to take it very seriously and engage. Whoever you are in the diaspora, we need to engage. As you know youths are dying just trying to get away from Nigeria. Those of us who are here have to engage. Yes, we don’t have PVC and I’ll remind people that the bill for diaspora voting rights, I was one of those that pushed it when I was in NIDO. We wrote it, we sent it in. I can’t say because I am not voting then I can’t participate in the affairs of my country, no. The reason why we are here in the United States, outside the country, is to learn and take that knowledge back home.
Q: President Obasanjo has come out in support of Atiku but there is also a history of the same man criticizing his former vice-president. A lot of people quote Obasanjo’s previous statements to characterize the candidate now. How is your group addressing this political baggage?
A: The relationship between Obasanjo and his vice is one that is between them to settle, thank God they have settled it. What transpired between His Excellency and his boss is common knowledge. He made those statements out of anger and frustration, but he has come to realize that as of today, that his vice-president is the best person to lead Nigeria to the next level, to make Nigeria work again. That is why he is supporting him. People can use what OBJ has said in the past against him (Atiku), there was even a time when he (Obasanjo) said Atiku Abubakar will not rule the country while he (Obasanjo) is alive. But you see, in life, we sin then we repent. If we decide to dwell on every statement we made in the past then that means God should not forgive us for the things we have done then. We are made in God’s image, we behave like God meaning that we can do something and then we redress it. OBJ made those statements out of anger, out of frustration, he probably felt insulted. In that situation, people cannot take what he said to heart. If you watch carefully, his excellency Atiku never took those statements to heart, because he understands where the man is coming from. He respected his boss and remained so till his boss forgave him. I don’t see why other people consider what OBJ said about Atiku as something that cannot be forgiven. If the man who made those statements now says he has forgiven the person he spoke about why do we keep blaming the same person for those statements?
Q: Okay, but here in the United States too, there have been negative press against the candidate and some other negative developments which I’m sure you know about. Does that bother the Diaspora Support Group?
A: No, emh …
Q: …there is the issue about Jefferson, the former Congressman, who I believe is still in jail, which resulted in the raid on Vice-President Atiku’s former residence in Maryland. How has your group addressed and moved beyond that?
A: We, my group, did a criminal background check, I worked with some lobbyists here to look into those allegations, we didn’t find anything. I even communicated that to His Excellency. We didn’t find nothing at all that is incriminating with regards to His Excellency. Not only that, what we found is the legislative report that was compiled about some African leaders and I can tell you clearly how that legislative report came about however I don’t need to go expressively to explain that because then I will point fingers at some people. But in that legislative report, they mentioned His Excellency Atiku, it is just because of the fact that His Excellency was trying to bring American University to Nigeria. The forty million dollars that was mentioned, or that people are going around talking about, is simply that the money used to bring American University to Nigeria, the reason why it looked like it is something criminal is simply because of the fact that the money came from sources. You know, as a businessman, your money cannot be in one particular area, it can actually come as transfer from different areas until the money is complete. Every businessman does that, every man has an offshore account and so when the legislators were looking into that and they found out that it was from different sources, normally it would raise a red alert. But after all that is done, they looked into it and found out that it was nothing so they let it go.
Q: So what would you, as a diaspora Nigerian, say to Nigerians back home who are aware of that case? How would you explain it to them?
A: Simply put, I would say that there was never a case against His Excellency Atiku Abubakar. That innuendoes and propaganda cannot add up to a case. If there is a case against him, His Excellency travels out of Nigeria every time, believe you me, Interpol would have picked him up once he is outside that country and bundled him into United States. But there is no case against him and you cannot pick something that has never existed and force it against a man who is just doing good for his country. I believe a lot of people have gone through that American University in Yola, people have passed through it, a lot of them have graduated from it, there is nothing there so all these innuendoes should not continue to arise. And the financial affairs of an individual should not be held to scrutiny when a person want to do something good for his country.
Q: Finally, what is your background? Why are you living outside Nigeria when you are so passionate about the country?
A: Well you know my name, Franklin. My background, I was born during the Nigeria-Biafran war in 1967, I’m fifty-one years old. I came to the United States in 1986, I went to school here in the U.S., my degree is in Biochemistry and Mathematics. I’ve founded different businesses, I worked in pharmaceutical sector but after a while I moved on to work for myself. I owned other businesses to the point where I owned my own bank, Key Financial Bank, a mortgage bank. When I became the regional director of Nigerians in the Diaspora (NIDO), we did a lot to move Nigeria forward. I worked hand-in-hand with late Ambassador Adefuye, may his soul rest in peace. That’s one ambassador I know that worked very tirelessly for Nigeria, it is unfortunate that he passed away. I worked hand-in-hand with him, at that time things improved. You remember back then when people say Nigerians are scammers, they say that about Nigerians in the diaspora, that all we do is scam people. That was affecting Nigerians here, even at their work. When Ambassador Adefuye came, we launched a program, a massive PR program to change how Nigerians are perceived. We went from being viewed as scammers to being appreciated as the hardest working immigrants in America. It’s unfortunate that now it seems like we are going back to those days, we have to work hard to re-build the image of Nigeria. From there, when the stock market and the market fell, I decided to open the business of trade and investment promotion which I am doing now, moving investors to Nigeria and some other African countries, creating government and inter-governmental relationships. I am also creating a mentorship program for Nigerians which involves American businesses to mentor young people from Nigeria.