Osita Okechukwu, the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria, recently visited the corporate headquarters of PREMIUM TIMES. During the visit, Mr. Okechukwu answered questions from Musikilu Mojeed, Festus Owete and Ebuka Onyeji.
PT: It is close to eight months since you were appointed the DG of Voice of Nigeria. But it does not appear to have created any impact in the past few years. How has the road been so far in terms of the challenges?
Okechukwu: I wouldn’t say we had not created any impact in the past. We were part of Radio Nigeria. But in 1961, we were carved out as the external broadcasting commission hence established. The first director general was Professor Chinua Achebe of blessed memory. Finally, in 1991 an Act establishing VON was enacted and we can boast today we have eight transmitters and we transmit around the world. But along the line we suffered small hitches, we lost about six transmitters. Today we have only two working transmitting stations located in Ikorodu and in Lugbe with studios in Ikoyi and Garki. So, we have come a long way. We’re trying to pick the pieces and trying to tell them to reflect on the experience I had from my late father who was a bicycle repairer in the 1950’s. He was located in Ngwo Enugu, a coal mining area. He said there was a young boy who comes during the holidays to visit his uncle a coal miner. Year in and year out, when everybody goes to the coal mine, he would stay in my father’s workshop. He came back yearly and became a darling to my father. So the last year the guy was to leave, he counselled and said ‘dad, you know what? Please it’s good you are doing well repairing bicycles, but try to learn how to repair cars because now or later the cars will be here.’ And my father regretted parting with the money he gave him. He said he gave him two shillings and regretted it. And by then in the old Eastern region, my father said he could count the number of cars and a small boy is telling him to abandon the coal miners that had over 2000 bicycles. So he couldn’t make any sense out of that. When he was now telling us this story was in the late 70’s before he died when cars were everywhere and you couldn’t find many bicycles. This is why he remembered the guy. So relating it to this, when I came in I told my staff that instead of repairing these six transmitters why don’t we go online and try to go digital. Then, what they had was elementary website and I said we can’t continue that way because the regions of the earth are about six with different time zones. If you look at it today, the whole of North America, 99 per cent of the people are not hooked up with any Short Wave radio, so is Southern America and so is Europe and Asia. Yes, part of Africa is hooked up. Yes, I agree that the Short Wave has an advantage, the advantage that you do not need to license it, but the audience has migrated. So the little that we have achieved now is that we have a website. www.von.gov.ng which our sister station, NTA, is helping us to advertise.
PT: So, has the online been drawing traffic?
Okechukwu: Yes. In fact, to be honest with you we made mistake earlier but we have been able to make amends. We are trying to go deeper into stories, give life to what we are doing as well as try to obey the Voice of Nigeria Act, which under section 5 subsection 3 states that our basic primary function is to promote and enhance the image and foreign policy of Nigeria. So we are partisan about Nigeria, nothing more.
PT: You are still on the short wave, where and when can you be received?
Okechukwu: We can be received on 7255. Part of why we are going online is because the audience are shifting online and to the internet. We want to start satellite broadcasting and satellite radio. We are not trying to adjust with Nigerian audience. We are trying to market Nigeria abroad. Our sister organization, Radio Nigeria, has exclusive preserve in talking about Nigerians in Nigeria.
PT: Apart from being the DG Voice of Nigeria, you appear to be a spokesperson of this government, can you say this government is doing well?
Okechukwu: In the actual sense of the word, I can’t call myself a spokesman of this administration. There is a minister of information and other spokespersons that speak for the administration. I am just a member of the ruling party.
PT: But you have been seen several times on radio and TV defending the policies of this government.
Okechukwu: Yes, I have to defend the government that I am a part of. And also to be honest I have been part of the APC right from the scratch. I was in the merger committee. I have been with Mr. President for over 13 years. In 2002, when the late Chuba Okadigbo was impeached as the senate president – he was our lecturer so we happened to be among the people with him as at that time – so we were always brainstorming about the country. Suddenly one evening, the news in the air was that President Muhammad Buhari, then General Buhari, had joined partisan politics and he joined the All Peoples Party. Okadigbo now told us that this was a turning point and that we were going to leave the PDP and join Buhari in the APP. We asked why? He said that his reason was that then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was not only advocating for a one-party state but was working round the clock to demolish democracy itself. He said all Obasanjo was trying to design is a one party state and there is a man who had joined the APP and that it was important we join forces with him. One, because of his integrity quotient, and secondly and more importantly that he had the stamina to run the marathon race of opposition in a Third World country. Okadigbo said that with Buhari the issue of one party state would be killed because he was not the type that would deviate or be bought over by Obasanjo or his machinery. So that was the beginning of how we joined Buhari. Then within the Buhari circle we call it The Buhari Organization. Buhari was never self-centred. So we aligned with him from day one. Luckily for us, when he contested in 2003 he picked Okadigbo as his running mate. Unfortunately, he (Okadigbo) died of gas poison he hailed at Kano post-election rally. After that, some of us left but some still remained within the Buhari circle. In 2007, as luck would have it again, he contested for the presidential election again. It was an election we were sure we won. We were voted by the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen, Oguntade and Aloma- Muktar, in the famous 4/3 Supreme Court judgment. I’ve been with Buhari since then. We later formed the Congress for Progress Change. It now came to 2011, we even tried to form a merger with the Action Congress of Nigeria, but it didn’t work. In 2015 however, all these indices and factors gave birth to the APC and we came together and we formed a stronger coalition.
PT: So, it’s because of your long term relationship with Buhari that made you to always defend this administration rather than focus on your job as DG Voice of Nigeria?
Okechukwu: No, it’s not about focusing on my job, if there is no Nigeria, no job. What I am saying is that Nigerian people gave us trust and their votes. It is not about Buhari alone. It is a movement. We have confidence in this movement and along the line we have our own bridges. The price of oil suddenly started crashing and at a certain point, it was $28 per barrel. Here was something that was sold in 2014 for $145 per barrel. So, you could see the difference. It had to impact on what we are doing. We are aware that the PDP government was highly corrupt but we didn’t know the level of the corruption. So much so that somebody will pocket and buy a warehouse in what is called the ‘Southern Kaduna Bank’ and stashed away $9.7 million there; that a first lady will build a hotel in Bayelsa that runs into billions while the hospitals in Bayelsa cannot accommodate herself. We never knew it was that bad even when they were not implementing the budgets. What are we defending?
We are defending that comparatively if we had met the kind of money they met on ground, we will not be where we are today. The companies that are off the streets will all be working. The rail line, the little they did was Lagos to Kano, a distance of about 1,300 kilometres or thereabout for $8.3 billion.
PT: But what has really changed since you came in? Nigerians say it is the same old story. In fact, Nigerians say that things are even harder now.
Okechukwu: Why won’t it be harder when the record shows where the money went? If a farmer fails to save in the bounty years and here comes famine, he will definitely go hungry. There’s no doubt about it. If you have no money in your house, what do you do? Do you beg your neighbours? If you are ready to borrow, you prepare for the borrowing. What we are saying is that if you spend $4.8 billion you collected from the Chinese and in the next three years you are producing over 3,000 megawatts of electricity, that’s the intendment of Mambilla Power plant. The totality of what we are running at Voice of Nigeria, the cost of diesel is more than the salaries. We spend N16 million every month for diesel. Today, the diesel price has increased exponentially and therefore payment of staff and cost of diesel now run hand in hand. So if we have steady power supply, the cost of running Voice of Nigeria will run flat, so is Premium Times, the hotels, the schools, hospitals etc. The rickety privatisation of government-owned companies that the PDP did in the power sector is not even competent, sorry to say that. So these are the things we are saying. When the rain is beating you, you will remember where it started. Yesterday is today’s architecture.
PT: So, when are things going to get better?
Okechukwu: What we have is a four-year plan. Before the four-year tenure is over you will see the fruit. We are limited because if you tell President Muhammad Buhari tomorrow that you want to retrench anybody, he will not agree because for him government is about the people.
PT: But retrenchment is going on in the country currently, particularly in the private sector. There is retrenchment in the banking sector. So, why can’t it be so in the public sector?
Okechukwu: Let’s be honest, do we actually have banks? What makes us not to keep our money at homes is because of thieves. They are not doing banking job in Nigeria. For the past years, interest rate has been below 1 per cent in Britain, Europe and North America. If I want to set up a hotel and I borrow 10 million pounds and I work out that I will pay back in a certain number of years, now what is 1% of 10 million pounds? But in Nigeria it is over 20% interest rate. So we don’t have banks. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no bank that the community will benefit from if it does not lend investors at a very good interest rate. They even buy dollars and market at a high rate and you call it banking. Sometimes state governors even connive with bankers and sell dollars abroad.
PT: Let’s go back to the question we asked earlier, what has changed?
Okechukwu: Democracy is not a revolution. The growth in democracy has been incremental but why it is not so visible is because it is slow and steady. The fact is that if you go to any ministry today you will notice the change, it’s a gradual process. For people who have been stealing openly, they can no longer steal. It’s a pervasive and unbridled corruption that we are fighting. The point of the matter is that we have demonstrated that even we ourselves should be probed. Today we are probing former Petroleum Resources minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke because she occupied that office not because we hate her. Everybody who is there today will be checkmated tomorrow because the standard has been set. The day I saw Supreme Court justices being arraigned, I said yes, President Muhammad Buhari has raised the bar. It passed a message that any other person handling any office in this country should be careful because no other office is higher than the office of the Supreme Court. Even if you have a case today, nine of the 10 judges that might have accepted bribe from you will say no. If I am caught tomorrow, the same President Buhari will probe me.
PT: You listen to radio, you use the social media extensively, and you will see the lamentation across the land as people regret they voted Buhari. Given all this, do you sincerely think Buhari will win the 2019 election?
Okechukwu: Yes, of course. Ask me why. Unless there is any other volcano that will kill all of us but if it did not happen and Mr. President remains alive then he will win. What you are seeing today are solid foundations and it will definitely germinate. The National Assembly has seen reasons with him. The $500 million awarded for the East-West Road will be completed. Mr. President will not allow it to enter anybody’s pocket, no matter who you are. The over $11 million for the coastal rail line, Mr. President will not allow it to enter anybody’s pocket. Let me tell you, our members in government who are accused if they are able to prove themselves I thank God for them. But if anyone thinks that President Buhari will cover up for him then it is a lie. So what I am telling you is that before the fourth year of this government, most of the seeds we planted will germinate. From the analysis we did, the Lagos – Kano rail line will cost $1.5 billion to standardise and it will employ over 5000 Nigerians directly and indirectly. The little that came, we gave the contractors to start work. What I am saying is, why are the people angry? It is because they are hungry and I am saying that hunger won’t continue till fourth year.
PT: Like you said you are part and parcel of the APC and a core member of South East APC. What is the political arrangement of the Igbo people in the 2019 elections?
Okechukwu: The Igbos have been raped since 1999. If you know the Igbo people well enough you will understand that we have been marginalised. Yes, we didn’t get the kind of appointments we got in the past regime under this current regime, but the Igbo people know that there was a time we have our brothers as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Governor of Central Bank, and our sister coordinating the whole economy as the finance minister. We had deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and deputy Senate President but still everything collapsed. The hospitals and all the federal roads collapsed. The 2nd Niger Bridge was never touched; the Enugu coal was not revamped. There was a time we had two Enugu sons, one succeeded the other in a five-year chain in the power ministry, but they didn’t revamp the Enugu coal to generate power which it was meant for. One was Professor Bath Nnaji the other was Professor Chinedu Nebo. The roads were abandoned. The 2nd Niger Bridge was arranged under the PPP arrangement where the federal government had 30 per cent out of the N117 billion for the project. President Muhammad Buhari has paid N14 billion from the federal government side to start work there. From 1999, Obasanjo promised Enugu coal, promised 2nd Niger Bridge, promised federal roads, promised gas power plant in our soil, but nothing came out of it yet we voted for him. We also voted for him in 1999 in spite of the fact that our son, Alex Ekwueme, was mangled out of the primaries. We voted for him in 2003, voted for him in 2007, and refused to vote for Buhari yet we got nothing. But now under Buhari, we are finalising the arrangements on the Enugu coal while the 2nd Niger Bridge has gotten take-off fund. Before Buhari completes his four years, most of these things will be done. Those our roads that collapsed, in the next four years, Igbos will tell a different story. Buhari got only six per cent in the old Eastern region, but as the saying goes once the Igbos start seeing the change in their lives, they will vote for the change.
PT: Even though this change is in process as you claimed, why are the Igbos still agitating for Biafra?
Okechukwu: It is very easy especially with the media. These same Igbo people came to Abacha conference between 1995/96 and we tabled the issue of zoning. Enugu, Ebony, Lagos, Ogun and most southern states voted against zoning. What did we go with, a symbolic geopolitical zone that is not carved in law? We came to the Jonathan constitutional conference, we in the APC rejected and denounced it but those who went are those who are backing the same MASSOB but they still voted against region. They voted against it, the same people who backed MASSOB, so they are the minority.
PT: So you are saying that the Igbos who rejected Buhari in 2015 are now happy with him?
Okechukwu: What I am saying is that they have seen a difference.
PT: But there are still only a few Igbo leading politicians in your party?
Okechukwu: No, they are not the voters, they sit on the bench waiting. We are talking of the main people that vote. In 2011, Jonathan got about 1.3 million in Imo and Anambra, 800,000 in Enugu, over 600,000 in Ebonyi and almost one million in Abia. Did you ask yourself why they didn’t get that in 2015? No development. It is because they came with a vile propaganda that Buhari is a president for the North and the Muslims that they even won. But now I don’t think they can say that again.
PT: We are talking about a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction in 2023 but are you aware that some Igbos are insisting that 2019 is their turn. How do you respond to that?
Okechukwu: It is democracy, everyone has freedom of speech, freedom of thought. At 62 years of age, it is wrong for me to deceive my people. I will never deceive my people; I will never deceive humanity. The northern political elite in their own wisdom and patriotic interest in 1999 said if they take this presidency again there will be trouble and because they wish the country well, they instituted the zoning convention. For them, the agitation for secession will increase. I was there in Jos when late Abubakar Rimi insisted he must run and they postponed the convention. Late Olusola Saraki, the father of the senate president, insisted in Kaduna that he must run and the northern elites said no ‘let’s leave the south to run’ and it went south. Obasanjo contested with Olu Falae and the whole country voted for the south for eight years. Forget what Obasanjo is saying. I have great respect for him but he can’t give what he doesn’t have. From his own statement, he is not a member of any party. He is just an agent provocateur. I don’t know what he gains in causing problems in the country. He wants to derail democracy but it is not going to happen. So, what we are saying is that in the public domain there is law with its legal teeth which can put anybody up or down. There is a convention in Nigeria with its moral weight which can shoot anybody up or down. The APC constitution has no adherence to zoning in words but that process had been instituted in 1999. Part of why Jonathan lost in 2015 is because of his breach of the zoning convention. We in the defunct CPC or the Buhari group didn’t win Benue, Kogi, Kwara and the rest earlier but we won them in 2015 because the people despite Buhari’s integrity quotient understand the process of zoning. We just told Jonathan that because of the accident of Yar’Adua death to complete a term and he wants to go for two. No, that is not possible was the vote of Nigerians. So, there is a convention in place. Those who want Igbos to come in 2019 have every right to do all within their power to see it comes to pass. It is their constitutional right, but they are not being pragmatic, they are being sentimental.