By Chidi Nkwopara
Some Imo leaders were in the Presidency recently on a courtesy call. This visit has been given several interpretations.
In thisÂ Â interview with our Correspondent, Chidi Nkwopara, the leader of the delegation and Champion publisher, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu,Â narratedÂ Â what actually happened and more. Excerpt:
We understandÂ Â you led a team of Imo people to the Presidency. What was your mission?
It is also true that I led the delegation. It was a select group ofÂ Imo leaders on a historic thank you visit to the President of Nigeria, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yarâ€™Adua.
Was the visit necessary?
That visit is in consonance with our culture in Igboland. You know that in our culture, when somebody has shown love,Â respect and some consideration for you, it is in our culture, in our habit to reciprocate. And that is why our Governor, ChiefÂ Ikedi Ohakim, undertook the responsibility to get in touch with the President to request for the courtesy call. I must tell you quite frankly that it is a very big achievement.
Because the President was very busy at the time. I am sure you can observe what is happening in the country. That the President even agreed that we should come is a very great achievement and we have to congratulate the Governor for it.
What did the President do for Imo people?
You want to know what the President has done. Since he assumed power, he has personally come to Imo State twice. He commissioned some projects the first time he came. Second time he came was a time we had a political realignment, which brought Chief Ohakim back to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the party he was a founding member.
And of course, the third time, the President sent the Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who actually represented him at the launching of Imo Rural Roads Maintenance Agency (IRROMA). On these occasions, the President obliged us. His wife, Turai, has also been here. His wife was here at the launching of Empowerment for Women and Youths Initiative (EWAYI), by our First Lady, Mrs. Chioma Ohakim.
These are manifestations of good gestures.
Is that all?
In addition to these, you know that for many years, government after government, Imo people had made repeated appeals to the Federal Government to take over the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, a premier institution.
This appeal failed since independence in 1960. But, you know that our President has not only announced the take over of the institution by the Federal Government but, has also converted it to a Federal University of Education.
As I am talking with you now, the contract for Owerri_Aba road has been awarded and I am sure that it must have been signed. If you look at the budget, you will see that there is a budgetary allocation already made for the completion of the Onitsha-Owerri road.
These are roads that are very important to us. The contract for grain storage, silo under the food security programme of the Federal Government has been awarded for Imo State. A contract has been awarded for the building of a seaport at Oguta. This again, is a project we have fought for, for many years but this government has taken the bull by the horn.
This government has done what past administrations failed to do . In the last 40 years or so… we have seen successive governments come and make pronouncements on efforts to revive our water transportation system. May be those of you, who are older will remember that many years ago, Inland Waterways was a major means of haulage of goods and materials in this country. It is a thing of joy that today; contract has been awarded by the Federal Government for the dredging of nearly 600 kilometers of water way along the River Niger.
How does this concern Imo State?
This contract passes through Onitsha and sections of this are within the vicinity of Imo State. So, you can see that we are benefitting from all these contracts. There are other areas. Contract for the dredging of the Nworie River is being funded by Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and it is all part of the Federal Government support for the state, the cost for dredging this river is about N8 billion! Frankly speaking, if a government can actually influence such a project, I think it is a very good thing.
This contract has generated a lot of controversy. What is your take on it?
Many people have given wrong impression about this project, but if the dredging is done, it will make available to us a nice real estate for tourism, housing development and other things. I think we all will enjoy the facilities and we would beÂ having nice holidays on the beach ofÂ Â River Nworie when completed. So, the Federal Government has helped us in all these and it has done quite a lot in other areas.
So all these, when put together actually activated our Governor to decide on going on the courtesy call. It did not mean that we didnâ€™t have other things to demand from the Federal Government. The truth is that an Igbo adage maintains that when anybody is commended for doing a good job, he is gingered to do more. When we made the visit, it was clear that the President was very excited.
How was the delegation selected?
What happened was thatÂ Â the Governor selected about 100 people representing the 27 local government areas of the state. And on Monday, October 12, 2009, we had a meeting/dinner at the Abuja House. This 100 people, who were at the dinner/meeting, discussed the visit and also examined the requests we should make in addition to thanking the President. We felt it wasnâ€™t necessary to just go and thank him without bringing to his knowledge many other problems facing our state. This was discussed by all of us there. At the end of it all, we analyzed everything that we needed to bring up during the visit.
What did you discuss?
I can tell you some of the issues we mentioned. We said that we must point it out to the President that Imo State is a Niger Delta State. Imo State has got militants and restive youths. And in fact, the first kidnapping of a white man was here in Imo around Egbema, but the difference between other states and ours is that the government here rose to the challenge.
The traditional institutions rose to the challenge. The autonomous communities rose to the challenge and we were able to control our militants. We were also able to control our restive youths. It cost us money. We made promises to them.
So, we believe that whatever package is being arranged for these other states, Imo must benefit since we have played a major role by controlling our own militants and restive youths without bugging the Federal Government. That was agreed.
Then it was agreed also that we should point out to the President that the Owerri_Omerelu road should be dualized. Already, the section of the road from Port Harcourt to Omerelu is being done by the Rivers State Government, even as we appreciated that this is a federal highway. It was also agreed that there is a contract already awarded for the East-West Road, a road that goes through East West to Benin.
We agreed that we should mention to the President that there should be an offshoot of that road from Ahoada through Omoku to Oguta and Mgbidi, that is making it a dual carriage way.
We agreed also to request the upgrading of Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, an airport built by Imo people, to be able to actually commence full international operations. Although the Airport is called International Airport but we require having all the other elements associated with such a status.
These include customs and immigrations posts.
Did you talk about the acute water problem in the state?
We also agreed to request the reactivation of the Regional Water Schemes at Owerri, Orlu and Umungwa. We also requested that the dam project at Uboma should be actualized because it is a plan by the Federal Government to build a dam at Uboma.
Did you discuss anything related to any court action?
Generally, people discussed the problem of instability in the state due to frivolous court actions, as well as attacks on the Governor without basis. We discussed all these things at the meeting of the 100 people.
What happened after the meeting?
After the meeting, all the people there resolved to set up a committee. A committee of five was set up, headed by Chief Emeka Ihedioha, the Chief Whip of the House of Representatives. They were charged to go that same night after the dinner, to take up all these points we had agreed and put them in a report we were going to present to the President.
Sorry, I forgot one other point. I forgot to tell you also that we put in the railway because we wanted Imo to be linked with the railway grid.
Imo is virtually the only state now that is not linked but the plan is there.
So, these five-manÂ committee member went in that night and produced the report.
I had earlier been selected to lead the delegation since it was Imo peopleâ€™s affair and not the state government affair. They unanimously selected me to lead the delegation.
That was how I accepted to lead the delegation.
The following day, this committee gave me what they drafted and I took some time to readÂ through it carefully. What they drafted reflected all the discussionsÂ made.
What is this story about the removal of a Minister?
I have found out that aÂ lot of stories are going about. I want to point out clearly that the delegation did not request the removal of any Minister. There was no such request. Nobody mentioned any such thing to anybody, not to talk of the President.
The story is false. We didnâ€™t tell the President to remove anybody. It is important for me to mention this. It is also important to let you know that the President himself was overwhelmed with joy by our visit. He was quite excited. He even told us that he was happy to host that delegation.
Did all the 100 people make the trip to Aso Rock?
Out of the 100 people, only 20 eventually went because we were told that same night that the hall can only take 20 people and not 100. So, 20 people were selected that night to go on the delegation. When we went there, I read the statement. So, my duty in this exercise is to let you know that the visit was a huge success. I think it is not fair to castigate a governor who has made this type of effort.
How do you see your position in the state?
I have a difficult position in the state. I must confess to you. I am perceived as a leader and I think one of the qualities of a leader is to make sure there is peace and harmony in the place. If you have been closely watching events, there are some states today in this country that are burning and in serious crisis. This is because perhaps, the leaders are not courageous enough to take a position.
I am not the type of leader, who would not take a position. I am addressed as a leader. People accept me and I appreciate that they are giving me that honour. I have at every stage played that role.
I want to bring your mind back to 2001 to 2002. Here in Imo State, Chief Achike Udenwa was the governor. People leveled all sorts of allegations against him during that period. Some of the allegations were unprintable. I investigated and later found out that most of the allegations were false. When I found out that they were not correct, I had no choice but to go to support him.
And if you still remember, I had to come in that time and my support for him killed the opposition. If I didnâ€™tÂ support him, the type of crisis we would have had in Imo State could have been terrible. But I stood up and took a position, which I took in spite of all the pressure to act to the contrary.
I was accused of all manner of things. I was insulted. Even at a point, there was assassination attempt on my life. You see, I regard all these as a price of leadership. A leader must be able to stand firm.
What is your take on the recall of Senator Osita Izunaso?
Recently, there was the case of Senator Osita Izunaso. He is a serving senator. Suddenly, some people started saying that they were going to recall him from the National Assembly. Well, I asked them what he did to warrant his recall. The protagonists of the recall agenda did not give me any concrete reason why he should be recalled. Of course, I fought very hard to stop it. So, Izunaso was not recalled.
Is the crisis not over?
Today, I can see the whole thing replaying exactly itself. Now, we have a Governor in place. I have heard a lot of stories. Frankly speaking, if I stay neutral, as some people want to, things will go bad. A leader cannot stay neutral. A leader must have the courage to take a position. If I stay neutral, the crisis here will be terrible. If I stay neutral, it will not help the situation. It is important that I take a position.
Can you be a little specific?
For example, I have heard a story. Some people said to me that the contract for the Nworie River is N8 billion and that N3 billion had been paid to the contracting firm up front. What I do as a leader is to ask questions. Immediately I heard this, I investigated.
I called the contractor and asked him what was happening in theÂ project. I also told him that I had been told he was paid N3 billion up front and yet there was no commensurate job for the money paid out.
The contractor told me that he had not been paid a kobo. He insisted that no money had been paid for the job and the payment was coming from Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
You know that the impression was that the money had been collected.
This was the information disseminated to everybody. I want you to realize that I will be the last person to support anybody who comes to defraud our people. I will never support it. In the sameÂ way, I will also not support a situation where political opponents raise false stories about people, forge documents and they want me to use my position and join. If people commit offence, there are processes to follow.
Is 2001/2002 replaying itself in the state?
I have found myselfÂ in a similar position in 2001 and 2002. I have continued to support the government in position because there is a government in power in Imo State. And if we donâ€™t support the government and it has distractions, it will spend all the time and all the energy in tackling distractions. I think every government requires a minimum peaceful environment to function.
Those who say I should be neutral missed the point. I am not going to be neutral. I cannot be neutral at any time. At every stage, I must take a position. A leader who doesnâ€™t take a position is a weak leader. A leader requires courage to take a position and that is what I do all the time.
That is why I have maintained peace in Imo State. If I donâ€™t do that, Imo State will be in crisis all the time. I hope I have tried my best to give the little information on what happened in Abuja because I believe that the media should not be left to speculate on any issue.
Was Chief Achike Udenwa part of the delegation?
His name was announced as part of the delegation. But he did not eventually go with us. There was equally no explanation as to his absence but we took it that the exigency of duty did not allow him to join us on the visit.