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PDP must address zoning controversies ahead of 2023 elections, Ebonyi Legal Adviser insists

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An indigene of Nigeria’s oil rich Delta State, Mudi Erhenede is a lawyer and a chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party based in Ebonyi State. Following a punitive transfer to the Legal Aid Council office in Afikpo from Owerri during his NYSC days in the early 90s, Erhenede, readily adjusted his mind to mutual friendships and eventually became a very active player in Afikpo and Ebonyi politics since the return of democracy- serving the first civilian administration and playing very vibrant roles in others.

 In this interview with CHARLES OTU, the PDP Legal Adviser bared his mind on the zoning debate, insisting that the PDP must address the issue ahead of the 2023 elections. He also spoke on the atrocious activities of Ebubeagu on opposition members and the reactions it has generated. Excerpts!

What’s your assessment of politics and democratic governance so far in Ebonyi having been an active player in the State since the past three decades?

You are right to say that I have been active player since 1990 when I concluded my National Youth Service programme. The progresses we made since the inception of democracy till about a year or two ago are clearly being eroded by the present government in Ebonyi State. Democracy for example, thrives on tolerance, freedom to express opinions, freedom of Association. But all those rights and privileges are now under attack in Ebonyi courtesy of the present government headed by His Excellency, the present Governor of Ebonyi State, Engr. Dave Umahi. So, democracy is not faring very well in Ebonyi under this clime.

But for those of us who still believe that democracy is the best form of government, we will continue to advocate at the risk of our lives and property that those basic things the constitution guarantees Nigerians should not be taken away so lightly by anybody, no matter how highly placed.

In specific terms, can you highlight some of those democratic ethos that you feel has been compromised by the present government of Ebonyi State?

Taking it from the most recent because they are legion is the passage of an obnoxious, wicked and subjective law Christened Cybercrime Prohibition Law 2021 by the Ebonyi State government. The law is bad, dangerous and undemocratic in all respects of the word. That is the biggest assault on democracy and democratic beliefs. The very essence of the law is to stifle all forms of opposition. Anybody who does not agree with the views and opinions of the Governor and ventures to position himself as a citizen journalist- in the sense that you can express yourself via any of the Social Media platforms would have committed a cybercrime offence in the State.

This is not minding whether what you have said is the truth, or whether you are just expressing an opinion in a matter of public interest, so long as what you are expressing does not favour or suit the desires, the whims and caprices of the Governor of the day, you must have committed a cybercrime. It is primitive, unfortunate and the biggest assault, the biggest challenge, the biggest threat to our voyage into democracy. Just an instance, one of our youth mobilizers, Ibiam Ibiam Junior is currently remanded in the Afikpo Correctional Centre, courtesy of that obnoxious law.

And what are his alleged offences? One of the count charges is that he published an opinion on his Facebook wall concerning the denial of salaries and allowances to the member representing him under Afikpo North East State Constituency, Hon. Mrs. Ngozi Eziulo by the Ebonyi State House of Assembly. It is a common knowledge that the said Hon. Eziulo is not receiving salaries from the House. Her allowances, funds for constituency projects and everything she should be entitled to are being withheld because she refused to defect to the APC with the Governor. And I have written several letters to the Speaker of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly on this issue.

And this said Ibiam Junior as a constituent of the lawmaker and as a citizen journalist simply expressed an opinion wherein he was very fair to the Governor. Paraphrasing what he wrote, Ibiam Junior after commending the Governor for his infrastructural development strides was simply however, that he was uncomfortable with the fact that his representative is not getting his salaries and fair dues as a lawmaker. He said he is aware that members of the National Assembly are in different political Parties and Buhari has never seized their salaries. He was simply asking if that is how Governor Umahi will rule Nigeria if he becomes the President of this country. That is one of the alleged cybercrimes committed by Ibiam Junior.

Another is that he wrote on the same Facebook, asking Ebubeagu why should brothers be killing brothers? That two have died in Akpoha, another was killed in Ugwuachara and many others killed by the group. These are factual statements. Is it deniable that Eric Joseph Ukpai of Akpoha died a few weeks back and one Elem Ama from that same Akpoha also died and everybody in this Afikpo North Local Government knows that it is Ebubeagu that triggered these killings. But because somebody now said it on Facebook, he has committed a Cybercrime.

Because we all felt there was too much powers concentrated on the central government, and to that extent some of us were contemplating the idea of a State Police. I used to be one of the advocates. But with the activities of the Ebubeagu militia, everybody now knows that it will be the most dangerous thing to allow in a democracy. Nobody should think of it because from the killings, the ordeals and encounters that we are now experiencing in Ebonyi State on account of this untrained persons, who have been armed with all manner of dangerous weapons that State Police will be as good as handing over our lives, property and everything to whoever is the Governor.

Considering the fact that some of the PDP stakeholders were warned about some of the antecedents of Governor Umahi during the 2015 election, yet they gave their support. How would you react to this vis-à-vis the current turn of events against your Party today?

Like I said, the freedom of speech and association are considered fundamental in our constitution. And that is because they form the bedrock of any other rights the citizen should enjoy in any civilized society. Therefore, if Governor Umahi brought himself out as it were in 2015 that he wants to govern this State, I would think people did no wrong in supporting and voting him to power irrespective of the fears others may have expressed. But you remember also that some issues like zoning played a major role in his emergence because people, particularly those from the South felt that it was their turn. You will recall that Umahi was not Chief Martin Elechi’s choice. And on account of that, there was so much division that even led to the formation of Labour Party as a breakaway from the PDP.

When the guber flag-bearer of Labour Party in that 2015 election later turned out to be an Abakaliki man in the person of Chief Edward Nkwegu, the horizon was distorted, nobody could see clearly and so the dusts of sentiments blinded everybody. It didn’t really matter again to people whether this person will do good or not. The general sentiment was let it just be that we have also taken our turn. These are some of the sentiments that played out and if I were Governor Umahi, knowing that people were skeptical about his Governorship will pan out, I would have acted differently. It is unfortunate that some of the fears people raised have been confirmed today.   Good enough, today he is running for Presidency of Nigeria and Nigerians should learn from the Ebonyi experience. Once bitten, they say, twice shy!

Many people generally feel your Party is not doing enough to protect and fight for its members held under this Cybercrime law as most leaders were not even in Court when he was arraigned. What’s your Party doing to secure freedom and justice for its detained and attacked members?

In the particular case of the Publicity Secretary of the PDP in Ebonyi State who is currently being remanded, the fact is that it is accidental, not intentional that most leaders did not show up in Court when he was arraigned. If you remember very well, the incident took place immediately after the Christmas and New year celebrations. So, most leaders had just returned back to their base. Myself for instance as the Legal Adviser to the Party, I was already outside the State. Having spent Christmas here in Ebonyi, I felt it was time for me to visit my family in Delta and these things happened so fast.

In fact, until Chika’s ‘abduction’ by the dreaded Ebubeagu militia, nobody knew about this law (the Cybercrime Prohibition law) in Ebonyi State. These are some of the things we are raising; a man can only take steps to prevent the known, not the unknown. Until Chika’s case, it is perhaps only the Governor and the Speaker that knew about this law in the State. But now that we have the privilege of seeing that law, we now know that it was assented to sometime in September 2021. In all civilized places where people make laws, members of the public are allowed to make inputs.

But in Ebonyi State House of Assembly, we don’t know what they do there and what they don’t do. We have asked all the PDP members in that House and none could tell us when that law was passed, none had a copy of that law until Chika was abducted.

So, it took everybody by surprise but I can tell you that our leaders are not sleeping. The nature of our federation is such that these things cannot happen overnight and we don’t want to play it the way the people we are accusing are playing it. Shouting, ranting and making noise all over the place is not the only way that you can bring certain plights to the attention of the public. I am very sure that Chika Nwoba’s matter has very much been a public discourse and you all also have a role to play because apart from being the Publicity Secretary of the Party, he is also a citizen journalist. What himself and Ibiam Junior I had mentioned earlier are passing through are sad ordeals and persecutions meant to frighten them out of speaking truth to power and I am sure that the leaders are not resting.

What relevant aspects of this Ebonyi Cybercrime law makes it obnoxious and draconian as you had earlier expressed?

I have described that law as the most subjective piece of legislation in history. Sections 4, 5, 6 and may be 8 of that law is highly subjective because the law was made to protect only an individual, not an institution. Therefore, how that individual for whom that law was made perceives whatever anybody does is what will determine whether you have committed a crime or not. For example, Ibiam Ibiam Junior has been arraigned in court and the man that they are alleging was offended and insulted by some of the things he wrote is Engr. Dave Nweze Umahi. Yet, he is not a witness in any of those trials. You see the trick and treachery in the whole thing.

You wrote about a governor. There is no law that says the Governor cannot come and testify in a matter where he is a complainant. But if you go through any of those charges, they are all in the public domain, that beneficiary of that law- (Governor Umahi) has never been listed as a witness in any of these cases. So who is fooling who? Secondly, it is all about how he perceives it. If as I am sitting here as his former friend and former Party member, if I write now that this Governor Umahi is a very good man and he feels that I am just cajoling him, I would have committed a Cybercrime. So, you see that the said law is not objective. It is all based on how he sees or perceives things.

It is not about how the ordinary man in the street, like they will say in England, the man on the Clapham omnibus will see it. It is all about how a man who is on top of his skyscraper is interpreting what is an offence and what is not. Section 8 of that law specifically states that the Police cannot prosecute anybody on account of any infringement of that law without the written consent of the Attorney General. If you look at the Constitution, the Attorney General is the Chief Law Enforcement officer of either the State or the federation. He has powers to continue or discontinue any criminal proceedings whatsoever that anybody may have commenced. Why did they put that section there? It’s because even if I start a proceeding, the Attorney General can on his own, bring the proceedings to an end and he can on his own initiate criminal proceedings.

The implication of that Section 8 in the law is simply because if I say let me take advantage of that law against those who may have also written against me, that for instance, A, B, C or D who is a sympathizer of the government or a media aide of the Governor has written that which I perceive to be offensive, in the letters of that law, I can guarantee that no such person will be prosecuted because the Attorney General will not give his consent to prosecute any APC member. You and I know that none of such person will be prosecuted so long as that person is in the good books of the government.

For instance, there is one Damian Okafor whom I heard has been compensated with Ohaneze Youth position who wrote on his verified Facebook wall and other Social mediums that His Excellency, Dr. Sam Egwu, the first Executive Governor of Ebonyi State is defiling female students in the wife’s School, Hope High and that parents should go and withdraw their daughters from that School. We won’t even bother reporting anything to the Police in Ebonyi State because it will end nowhere so long as that person is in the good books of the Governor of the State.

And that’s why I insist that the law was only made to witch-hunt PDP members and to intimidate them from speaking. In a democracy, a leader who cannot subject himself to public criticism, what is he?  A dictator, an Emperor? Even in the Fascist regime, people were still speaking. Decree 4 that people went to the streets and demonstrated did not have provisions as bad and as dangerous as this law. Fact is that you don’t even need to be a Lawyer to know what Cybercrime is. It does not require rocket Science to know what it is and it does not apply to Nigeria alone. It is a universal nomenclature for a certain class of internet crimes such as child pornography, Advance Fee fraud, fishing and so on. We still have extant laws in Nigeria that deal with defamations such as libel and slander, sedition and so on. They haven’t been removed. How then does a mere expression of opinion on Facebook become a cybercrime?

What is your Party’s expectation towards the motion sponsored by the PDP Rep. Members from Ebonyi calling on the IGP to investigate the activities of this Ebubeagu?

We commend our members in the House who sponsored and moved that motion. Like they say, a man who invites the Police or goes to court to come and look into the cause of disagreement between you and him is seeking for peace. So, it is the most civilized thing to do. Even in opposition, we don’t want to divorce ourselves from the very principles we hold dear as a political Party. The PDP is a responsible Party and that is why it has chosen to tow the path of the law even amidst these provocations. We don’t want to consider any other alternative which is self-help and can lead to anarchy because if Ebubeagu is killing innocent members of our Party using this obnoxious law to hound us and put us in prison, do we take up arms so that we begin to engage them in the streets? The answer is no!

So, what the NASS members did was to call on the IGP, the NSIA and the DSS to come and investigate these issues of security concerns in the State. They didn’t draw conclusions. They remain allegations. But you can see that they are already dancing naked in the streets and sponsoring people to counter what they (the lawmakers) have said. What is wrong with the Rep. Members making that demand? They are our representatives and thank God they cut across the State. That is why we elected them in the first place. If your constituent cries to you, it is your responsibility to protect them by doing what they did. They have done their part and those already dancing naked in the streets over that motion should have been advised to save their energies for the day the IGP team will visit. They can put their positions in writing by way of memo to the investigation team. No amount of sponsored attacks will change that resolution.

Zoning has become a topical debate in Nigeria and Ebonyi State in particular ahead of the 2023 elections. Do you consider it the best for your Party, PDP especially considering your earlier analyses on its current implications?

First and foremost, zoning is not in our constitution. Zoning is a product of convenience, equity and the need to be your brother’s keeper. These are the things that gave birth to zoning. The closest thing to zoning is the federal character principle that is enshrined in our constitution.

But I think that we have reached a point where we are almost becoming slaves to zoning. Integrity, qualification, competence, character and every other thing that should count first are being sacrificed on the altar of zoning. The situation is also the same in our nation today. Coming to the Ebonyi experience, I will speak as a PDP member. I was lucky to be part of the Sam Egwu administration both in his first and second term in office. And the question of zoning was very much in discourse. At the time Dr. Sam Egwu was wounding up his tenure as Governor, some of us who were his appointees and his boys were of the view that power should come to the South. That was our agitation and we predicated our argument on the blocs that made up the State- Abakaliki and Afikpo blocs.

And I want to be quoted that we had argued that Dr Egwu had taken the turn of the Abakaliki bloc. But His Excellency, the then Governor had a different opinion. He advised that there was nothing like blocs. That we should go by what can be clearly defined which is the zones and that they are three Senatorial zones recognized by the constitution. And that it is safer to work with that arrangement. Therefore, in his wisdom, he handed over power to the Central and that was what brought about the emergence of His Excellency, Chief Martin Elechi.

And following the same premise, after his tenure, the South now felt it was their own turn. And today, we have His Excellency, Engr. Dave Umahi on the ‘throne’. Now, the three zones have enjoyed this rotation on the basis of what His Excellency, the first Executive Governor had introduced. But my worry today is that it does appear as though somebody somewhere is trying to cut corners. I have heard in high and low places, even in my own Party people talking about blocs and I am worried. I am worried because there is no time we met to say that power will now be rotated between Abakaliki and Afikpo blocs.

In one of our caucus meetings, I was the one who moved a motion that the State Chairmanship of the PDP should be allowed for the South on the basis that we were going to follow that zoning arrangement which would have meant that power will go back to the north, return to the central and ten, back again to the South. But thereafter, I began to hear even the APC ‘superman’ saying power will go to the Abakaliki bloc. And this has set my mind agitated whether we have gone back to blocs again? And if we have gone back to blocs, when was it discussed, so that thereafter, the Abakaliki bloc after doing their eight years again, are we going back to bloc or zone?

When somebody in Abakaliki bloc, as they are using it now, has done 8 years again for instance, will you now say depending on which of the two zones in Abakaliki (North and Central) that produces a Governor that we are going by bloc or zone? As a PDP member, not as a Legal Adviser this time, I will be calling on the leaders and stakeholders of the PDP to convene or convoke a meeting as quickly as possible where stakeholders will agree on the arrangement that we are taking into the 2023 elections. Are we going to do zoning as per the three component parts of the State or are we doing blocs because as it stands today, let me make myself clear that I am not against anybody. I am not fighting anybody.

I will support anybody that my Party produces as its flag-bearer. But by my training; I know that if the foundation is weak, whatever you put on it may not stand. We cannot be talking about equity, justice and all of that and yet not have the courage to either say or do justice. So, let the Party leaders come and say we are doing bloc for instance. The implication of that will be that anybody from the North and Central zones are free to participate which by implication will disqualify the south. But if you are not doing blocs but going by zoning as introduced by Dr. Sam Egwu, the Party should define whose turn it is to take now in PDP.

Remember I said the Party started from Dr. Sam Egwu in the North and after which it got to Chief Martin Elechi in the Central and now south. If we are going to keep that rotation, somebody from the South can even be the first this time to take a shot. And if you say it is bloc, we sit down on a table to agree because eight years will soon come and go. Today, we may think it is far. Let us prevent that argument that will come in 8 years time. Afterall, what is wrong in deciding that in PDP today for instance, we are no longer going by zoning but we are now doing bloc.

In the absence of that, I am of the view that whoever has capacity in the State and think he can run for Governorship and win it should be allowed to participate, irrespective of which zone that such a person comes from. My argument is very clear, if it is the turn of the north, there is no reason anybody from the Central should declare interest or be participating. And if it is the turn of the central, somebody from the North should not participate. Same thing should go for the South. I know that as at today, Engr. Fidelis Nwankwo who is from the north has indicated interest and he is indeed consulting in the PDP and so also is Hon. Sylvester Ogbaga.

In the Central, my good friend, Hon. Anayo Edwin has indicated interest and Sen. Igwe Nwagu has indicated interest too and so also has Senator Obinna Ogba. They are all from the Central. Therefore, the question must be asked and answered whether we are doing blocs or zones. I want to be quoted clearly that if PDP does not come out to make themselves clear whether in Ebonyi State we are now doing rotation between the two blocs; Abakaliki and Afikpo, it should be by zones. And if we are not doing any of these and if the Party cannot come out to take a stand on any of these because we are not APC but PDP and therefore must define these issues.

Outside these two situations, I will very much oblige the Party to allow everybody to throw their hats into the ring. Whoever wins the primaries becomes our candidate. We will work for him, we will support him. You know why this has become very imperative? At the creation of the State, we had a big issue in this part of the State, which is the South. People talk about a charter of equity which nobody has been able to produce or see. And at the end of the day, we have continued to blame our leaders at that time that you are telling us about a charter of equity which whether it was written at all, nobody knows. And whether it was actually signed, nobody knows. Are we going to go back to that debate again?

So, this is the ample time to define it. There is no harm, unless somebody somewhere has something to hide. But if it is not discussed and agreed upon, I will also encourage a lot of people from the South to show interest in the Governorship race. And if after our primaries, anybody emerges from any of the zones, we will work for him. But if they want to prevent that as a matter of urgency, the matter should be discussed! Even at the national level, the PDP as a Party must also do its best to address this issue of zoning because leaving it in the dark will affect the chances of the Party in 2023.

But don’t you think that not taking a clear position on zoning now could be a strategy that could favour your Party?

Why won’t it favour our Party? There is nothing as powerful as the truth and justice. We do a lot of things for political convenience, political gains and personal interests. And these are the things that have put our democracy in jeopardy in the country. For example, today, you will a Tinubu loyalist say there was an agreement between him and Buhari that he would hand over power to him after his tenure. When we are opaque about certain transactions, we run into this kind of crises. Do you want to tell me that if Nigerians were brought into to the extent of knowing at the time that agreement was struck, if there was actually such an agreement between the both camps, that Tinubu will be having a tough time trying to get them to implement it?

But when you try to hide it, you lose out because secret things end secretly. What will PDP lose if it convenes a meeting and asks if we are working on the basis of zones or blocs? If they answer that question and the next is whose turn is it to go will be discussed. Does it not put us on a stronger footing than hiding and pretending that yes, we know that this thing could be a problem but we can’t discuss it now. Then, eight years from now, it will arise again. So, for me, I don’t think that shifting the goal-post or preventing the proverbial doomsday solves any problem. It doesn’t. So, let us discuss it and say this person (s), you can wait and the other, you can go.

If you allow everybody to buy forms, consult and campaign and then go to primaries and somebody wins, then after looking at the millions or billions you has spent in the process, it is always difficult to accept. But if things are discussed, it will save the Party a lot of energy and fortunes too. I am making this argument very strongly because I know too well that Dr. Sam Egwu has said it is the turn of the North to produce the Governor of the State and people have been attacking him. And yet he is one of the key pillars and major stakeholders of our Party. If he has expressed that view and some people in some quarters are attacking him, don’t you think it should be discussed?

So, can we sweep it under the carpet to say whatever Sam Egwu has said doesn’t matter, let’s just continue to forge ahead? It doesn’t work that way. We will come together. We will discuss and we will come out of it stronger. Anybody who fails to speak up now cannot complain later. And that’s my candid view that we must lay a proper foundation. I have reminded you that I was the first to say that South will not participate. But if it is a free for all, in fact, in the traditional way of sharing things, if the three zones have taken their turns as it is the case right now, in fact, it should now start from this end and in that reverse order again. For me, I have nobody in mind. All of them who have expressed interests in the Governorship so far are my friends and I have nothing against them. But let the right thing be done.

Do you see prospects of your Party- the PDP now as an opposition reclaiming power from the ruling APC in Ebonyi come 2023?

Without sounding immodest and being boastful, I will answer this question by posing a question; if APC does not believe that the PDP has the potentials; capability and ability to take back power that truly belongs to them, do you think that they would have passed all these obnoxious laws that they are passing and forming all these militias that they are forming. It is because they recognize the fact that the people are with the PDP. To use the worn out cliché, a tree does not make a forest. Only Umahi left the PDP and that is the irony of our democracy. One man leaves a Party and that Party becomes the opposition. And that is one man who did not win election for himself. He leaves and Ebonyi is now an APC State.

Meanwhile he left alone. All the NASS members who were elected with him on our platform are still in the Party with him, yet Ebonyi is now an APC State. So, if Buhari decamps to the PDP today, automatically, Nigeria becomes a PDP nation. Such view is only but a creation of journalists and public commentators. The Governor of Ebonyi State is an APC man but Ebonyi is a PDP State. In law, that is what the position truly is because if you look at his certificate of return, APC did not appear there. And I know that INEC has not amended that Certificate of Return till today and it still reads Engr. Dave Umahi of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. So, how do people tell me Ebonyi State is now an APC State simply because our flag-bearer who is holding that power in trust for us left our Party?

So, let’s correct it and let me reiterate that those who have been winning elections for the PDP since 1999 are still in PDP. And barring rigging, I don’t see how anybody in APC will win election in this State. These are all unwilling Apostles. A lot of people who are there do not even know what APC is all about. They are just there because their paymaster moved. Ask yourself; if Umahi had remained in the PDP, a lot of all these people who are dancing themselves lame now, will they have gone to APC? The answer is NO! And it is even more laughable that it is those people who joined from the PDP that are making the loudest noise. If you call them and ask them about the philosophy and ideology of the APC, what they will tell you is that our governor has connected to the centre. It makes nonsense of the entire thing.

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