In this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU, former Minister of Transport and member of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, talks about the controversy over the selection of former Governor of Borno State, Sen. Ali Modu Sheriff, as the National Chairman of the PDP
Controversy is trailing the selection of Sen. Ali Modu Sheriff as the National Chairman of your party. Why is it so difficult to choose a leader?
That is part of democracy; democracy is about ‘you rub, my back, I rub yours.’ It was said that we were going to pick the chairman from the North-East geo-political zone and since Ali Modu Sheriff became chairman, that means he is qualified to contest for the office like other contestants. All the caucuses met but the ones recognised by the constitution of the party are the Board of Trustees and the National Executive Committee, the National Working Committee, then, the PDP Governors’ Forum. When they met, the BoT rejected Sheriff, the governors approved him, the National Assembly caucus approved him and the man won the election and he is now the chairman of the party.
But how could he have emerged chairman of the party without the approval of the majority of the constitutionally recognised caucuses?
The NEC, the PDPGF and the National Assembly caucuses approved him. But, again, we can also talk about which bodies are recognised by the constitution of our party. The BoT is purely advisory; we don’t take votes in the board, we are to meet to advise the party and its organs on how to get solution to problems. He won the NEC and the Governors’ Forum and he became the chairman. Apparently, the BoT rejected but the board would come to terms with the fact that he is the chairman of the party and we will do everything within our power to ensure that we give proper advice on how to move the party forward.
As a member of the PDP BoT, what roles did you play in the selection process?
I was part of the members of the board that met and decided that we would advise that Sheriff was not fit (for the office) but, interestingly, the Governors’ Forum supported him, the National Assembly caucus supported him. When they went for the NEC meeting, they won. In the NEC, the majority votes take effect.
What were the reasons gave the BoT gave for rejecting Sheriff’s nomination?
It was just a question of ensuring that the PDP was safe from image problem. We know the PDP has image problem now, especially with all the –gates they are talking about. Apart from that, we wanted to state that the PDP should have been able to manage the situation it had found itself in a way that would redeem its credibility and make it viable for re-election in 2019.
If the PDP BoT has such a strong argument, why then did members of the board reportedly change their position on Sheriff?
The BoT is affirming that (its earlier position); the BoT is not changing its mind. The BoT has not changed its mind in the sense that it has not stopped giving advice to others who want the advice. What is important is the future of the party and the fact that we want to make ourselves a very viable and effective opposition to the All Progressives Congress so that our people can begin to draw very useful conclusions on how we an about issues. As I told you, we have image problem but the problem will be solved with time; that is what the BoT is saying; that if the PDP is able to solve its image problem and be able to cement itself with the people of Nigeria, then, we can confidently go to them in 2019 and ask them to vote for us.
As the BoT rejected Sheriff, which aspirant was the board considering for PDP chairmanship?
We were not considering any particular person. The BoT was satisfied with the fact that the North-East, which was the zone where Mu’azu came from before he vacated (resigned) the seat of chairman, should produce the chairman. And then, the North-East nominated people for the position. What is interesting about Sheriff is that he was not one of the five nominees meant to vie for the post. The governors and some people felt he should be (chairman) and they nominated him. Today, he is the chairman.
Don’t you think the alleged back-door nomination of Sheriff will further worsen the intra-party crisis the PDP has been battling with?
No. We are going to resolve all issues. Like I said, what is important to the BoT is the fact that the PDP must sustain its political posture of being able to win elections. We want to win elections. Most of the elections held since the last general elections (in 2015) have been won by the PDP. It is very significant. And if we can put our home in order; if we can maintain stability and peace, then, the PDP will remain a credible political force in Nigeria and the people will give it the opportunity to return to power.
It was reported that one of the reasons Sheriff was chosen as PDP chairman was for him to spend his wealth on the party. Is funding part of the party’s challenges?
I can assure you that the BoT never took into consideration whether somebody was rich or not. Yes, wealth is important for anybody who wants to play politics but it is not the ultimate thing; you have to consider many other things. I mentioned image problem and credibility. I also spoke about attachment to the people because they have the power. Money or no money is not significant at all. If he has money, he cannot claim that he bribed BoT members. That is important. We were mindful of the image of the party; we were mindful of that fact that we wanted our party to return to power in 2019.
How does the PDP plan to redeem its image if its chairman having a case with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and is being accused of having links with Boko Haram?
I want to say this and I will say it with all seriousness and utmost respect for Nigerians and the democracy we are operating: We are not concerned about somebody having a case with the EFCC. Why is it now that the EFCC is coming out to say Sheriff is having a case with them? We must stop regimentation of politics. It appears that the EFCC is regimenting politics such that when somebody comes out and they (APC) feel that he or she should be brought down, the commission will come out to say he or she is having a case with it. As far as we are concerned, we feel that the image credibility of the party is very important at this time and that is what we have been using in the BoT to assess the coming of Sheriff to the party.
In any case, Sheriff has only three months to work and return the party to where he found it. Three months! By May, Sheriff must vacate office. If by May he doesn’t vacate office, a new show would have been created and then we will know that the PDP has a problem that must be confronted.
Are you aware that there is a plan for Sheriff to remain the chairman of PDP for more than three months, perhaps till 2019, which allegedly made the ex-governor to boast that he would help sack President Muhammadu Buhari of the APC from government and reinstate your party in the next election?
I want to assure you that the majority of the organs of the party have opted that he remains in office for only three months and leave the place. He should forget about returning the party to power in 2019. It is for the party and its constitution to decide that. If he is a party man, he should stay in the party after leaving office to support whatever decision the party will take. He cannot tell us what to do, he can’t. He knows that he cannot tell us that.
Based on the zoning formula of the PDP, which zone will produce the next chairman of the party in the forthcoming national convention?
We don’t know the zone yet but I am from the South-West and the geo-political zone is very much interested in running for the post of chairman in May 2016. I am not running, you can be sure about that; I am not campaigning for myself. The South-West is very concerned about the fact that the party has to concede the national chairmanship to it. We are going to contest in May and I don’t think anybody can take that position from us.
Is Sheriff eligible to contest for the party’s chairmanship at the convention?
He cannot be eligible because the rotation would have gone over the North-East zone. If he is now representing the North-East, that Mu’azu should have occupied in the party, he cannot put himself forward as a candidate again. He cannot.
What will the PDP do about individuals like former Minister of Aviation, Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, and former Senior Special Assistant to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, who have continued to voice out their displeasure with Sheriff’s chairmanship?
We want to appeal to them; these are very strong party men – Okupe, Fani-Kayode and others. We want to appeal to them, ‘let this man serve for three months and leave the place.’ When he leaves, we will reorganise our party. Based on our constitution, we must have a convention.
Fani-Kayode publicly accused Sheriff of founding and sponsoring Boko Haram, an allegation for which the PDP chairman threatened to ‘punish’ the ex-minister. Is this kind of confrontation expected from a leader who was elected to restore peace to the party?
I don’t know much about that but if it is true that Sheriff threatened Fani-Kayode, I want to advise him not to do so because in democracy you must respect the opinions of others – you must! You cannot shut them up. Fani-Kayode is a young man that is well loved by many people in the PDP. If he said he wanted to get back at Fani-Kayode, he must be careful. I have not read much about it, so I can’t judge him. But if he has such in mind, he should withdraw it and face the work he is doing as chairman of the party.
How is the PDP going to manage its forthcoming convention such that a repeat of mass walkout staged by aggrieved members in 2013 will not occur?
We hope and pray that people stop this question of pulling out. When they are pulling out to join the APC or whatever party, how do they know what they are going to meet over there? We are appealing to them to please allow us to use all the provisions of the constitution of the party to deal with the situation. I am not Sheriff’s man even though he is a member of the BoT. But since he won the hearts of those in other organs of the party, let him use the three months we have given him and let him get out. When he finishes in three months, organises a ‘good’ convention and form a convention committee that will regulate what we are going to do there; when we elect a new executive, he will bow out.
How do you feel whenever people say the PDP has yet to recover from the loss it suffered in the 2015 general elections, owing to the internal crises in the party ever since?
We must expect what we are seeing. We were a party in government for 16 years and we lost election to a party that now formed the government. You must expect so many things; there will be reactions, contradictions and problems. We know that we will surmount these problems and build a formidable party that will be able to return to power in 2019.
Some people believe the PDP has yet to learn from its defeat. What are the lessons your party has learnt from its loss?
We have learnt many lessons but we can’t start cataloguing them now. We have learnt many lessons; even Mr. Sheriff himself is learning lessons from what is happening. And if he wants to make himself a very effective politician, he must use the lessons he has learnt from the current crisis to arm himself in his participation in the PDP affairs. When the time is right to come out and talk about the lessons, we will do so.
What I know is that Nigerians now know that that the APC government is selective of political opponents; when I say ‘murder’ I am not talking of practical murder, I am talking of murder in the sense of getting rid those considered to be opponents. The PDP, definitely, will not relent in its effort to ensure that it gets into power in 2019. And for as long as the APC and President Buhari continue to lynch with all these –gates and do selective justice to Nigerians, the people will say no and they will put a halt to the excesses of the APC and ensure that the PDP returns in 2019.
Why are several leaders of the PDP leaving the party recently at a time it is struggling to get back to its feet?
As a democrat, I think they have every right to join any party they want. They can move from the PDP to the APC or any other party but what is important is that those who are leaving, I hope they will not regret in the end that they left because they don’t know what is happening on the other side. Why are you digging your head into something you don’t know anything about? I want to appeal to them: ‘Don’t move. Any movement you make now will prove disastrous to your political ambitions and existence.’ I have no other option than to appeal to them. But if they want to go, let them go.
Why does it appear that the present crop of PDP leaders care less about the departure of founding fathers of the party, with recent examples of Dr. Dalhatu Tafida and former Senate President, Sen. Ken Nnamani?
I have tremendous respect for Ken Nnamani; he is a good friend of mine. I was badly hit when he left the party because I know him very well. We contested together on the platform of the United Nigeria Congress Party in those days of (former military ruler) Gen. Sani Abacha. I will love to see Ken Nnamani and Tafida back in the party. Up till now, they have not announced the party they are going to; they should come back. What they are saying is being examined and what is happening as regards Sheriff is part of what Ken Nnamani, Tafida and co have been struggling for.
Would you agree that what these ex-PDP leaders expressed as their grievances with the party are true?
I don’t want to go into debates with anybody. All I am saying is that we are not concerned about what they said; we are concerned about the forward movement. That is why we are appealing to them to come back. All I know is that the PDP has learnt sufficient lessons from the happenings of the past eight months. We will go on from there and ensure that the PDP is returned to power in 2019.
Have you considered approaching some PDP founders who have either remained or left the party for a way out, especially the likes of former Vice President Alex Ekwueme and former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
I believe that we should reach out to as many people as possible. I believe we should reach out to Dr. Alex Ekwueme; he is a gentleman and he has not announced that he has officially dumped the PDP. For ex-President Obasanjo, he is free to go to anywhere he wants to go to – very free. He cannot injure us more than the political and moral injury we have suffered in the last eight months, he can go. He is a man of experience; he knows what is good for him and what is not. But I am not particularly concerned about him. He has decided to be antagonistic to the PDP even though he had said he was not joining any party. He opposed us during the election, why must we go cap-in-hand to go and beg him to come back? I won’t do that. I won’t be part of those who jump to his house in Ota or in Abeokuta to beg him. If he wants to come back, he is free. He is an experienced man; he governed Nigeria two times. Since he has all the experience, let him decide what is good for him.
As for Alex Ekwueme, he is practical politician; he is a man one will respect any day. If he is opposed to the PDP, he will not say it the way Obasanjo said it. That is why I am concerned about all those of Ekwueme’s type; I will appeal to them not to go. For Obasanjo, I will also appeal to him but if he wants to go, let him go.