By Ochereome Nnanna
Chief Pini Jason Onyegbadue, ace Vanguard columnist now on â€œsecondmentâ€ to Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State as Special Adviser (Special Projects), in this interview, reflects on topical issues surrounding governance in his state, especially the activities of the volatile opposition.
After three years in government, do you miss your famous column which you did for almost 30 years?
Certainly, I miss not being able to put my thoughts down on everything happening. That is one of the costs of taking up a government appointment. That reminds me of how my senior, Chief Duro Onabule, used to feel in those days in Dodan Barracks. Whenever something profound happened, he would be lamenting what he would have done if he wasnâ€™t here. But you know that there are not many journalists who have completely turned their backs on that profession, forget about the invasion of viruses, as I call them, who bring bad name to the profession. I canâ€™t wait to finish this assignment and go back to my first love, which is basically why any time I am in Lagos and I have a spare time I come around Vanguard to smell the newsroom and take part in the editorial debates on Mondays. There are issues I would like to address but I cannot do so right now because I am playing the ventriloquist for someone else.
And you heard about Stanley Macebuhâ€™s passing?
I am very bitter after reading some of the effusions from some of those who betrayed Stanley Macebuh. I am sure during his burial they will make grandstand there and sound very eloquent. It is one huge loss to the intellectual community and to the journalism profession in Nigeria. Working under him in The Guardian for a brief moment was one of the most glorious moments of my life. He was ingenious, affable, and I learnt that in life you donâ€™t need to take yourself too seriously. We will all die some day but I would have wished that Nigeria gave back to Stanley something in return for his contributions. He loved Sir Warrior of the Oriental Brothers so much. I remember when Warrior died and he saw me he challenged me and said: â€œMy friend, Warrior died and you did not write anythingâ€. If you know where he was coming from you would understand.
When Eddie Iroh was editing The Guardian Supplement, Stanley, Eddie and myself were in Eddieâ€™s office and we were discussing Warrior. All three of us were tussling to be the ones to write on Warrior. We argued and argued and when he saw my own bent about Warrior, he said to me: â€œbo, na you go write amâ€. It turned out to be one of my best articles in those my flighty days. There are many ways to remember Stanley.
Let us address issues concerning the government you are serving. There is this perception that the Ohakim regime is slowing down, especially in the area of infrastructural development. How do you see the perception?
There are 27 local governments in this state where things are going on. If you had time I would have organised for you to go with our project monitoring department on a tour of the state. At one time they say we are slow on the projects. At another time they say nothing is going on. We never slowed down. What we did, which was clearly stated in the 2010 budget address to the State House of Assembly, was that we were not going to start any new project for this year. We will complete all ongoing projects. There were regimes that started ten kilometre roads and abandoned them. We had problems with such projects because there were some scams going on around here which is one of the things we are addressing. You give a contractor a job. He does it halfway. And for one reason or the other, he abandons that job. When we came in 2007, we decided that we were not going to abandon abandoned projects. It is in our interest to complete the abandoned jobs, and then we will get some mileage. We mobilised all our contractors to site and money was released. Some of them collected the money and vamoosed. What they are waiting is for you to put another contractor there. Then they will show up with a court injunction, which will stymie the job. Meanwhile, the community in which the project is sited is not going to wait. They want the job done. The government wants the job done, but the man who abandoned it is not interested. They are expecting to be called to settle out of court.
What it usually means is that the man who abandoned the job will be able to make some good money for doing nothing. It is either that or the project remains abandoned, the people suffer and the government turns the accused. That is the problem on ground here. Some of those who are criticising the government were those who abandoned projects or those they recommended did not do the work. It is the same people that take false pictures and circulate among the various publications here saying that nothing is going on on one site or the other. That was why we constituted the Imo Stakeholders Forum and took them to our various project sites to see for themselves.
Apart from that, it will be the worst day in this country when good governance is judged by the number of kilometres of roads constructed. It is on record that in two and half years we have done more roads than many regimes put together. But what about those other areas that you can walk the length and breadth of this state and you will not see them? Areas that directly affect people? Take, for instance, the University Teaching Hospital, which was put in the middle of nowhere in the guise of bringing facilities closer to the people. It is inaccessible and uncompleted. Medical students had been in the university for ten years without graduating, until the governor came here. He immediately provided the funds and facilities for accreditation and the students were able to graduate. What of pension arrears? The governor has made salaries top priority because if salaries are not paid the people are not interested in anything else. The pension being owed people who served this state was up to four billion naira. If you want to see the effect of clearance of those arrears, go round Owerri. You will see buildings that the owners abandoned for six years, eight years, have been completed. What it means is that the construction activity ensures that more artisans get jobs to do.
We have about the largest water project on ground here. It depends on where people are looking at. But people must be warned that development is not about structures alone. Welfare matters most. What about education, our largest industry? What about employment. There was a fifteen-year embargo on employment here. The governor recently lifted it. We are in the process of infusing 10,000 young graduates in the service. The average age in the civil service of Imo State is about 55 to 60. What can you do with them? We Igbos quarrel about our injection into the federal system. If you donâ€™t have the peopleâ€¦ if you sent a judge to the Supreme Court at the age of sixty four and half years, six months later he will retire. What have you achieved against another state that brought a judge to the court at the age of thirty? We are not just employing people; we are putting them in the right places so that they will become agents of change. What about the job centre? When we mooted the idea of a job centre people misunderstood it. It was not necessarily a labour exchange. The question was raised: who do we know that we want to plan jobs for? What are their competences? What are their qualifications? What are even their desires? So we decided to collect the data. In the first year about 522 engineers were fixed in various jobs. We went beyond that. We set up a finishing school. Some of these graduates cannot even write their curriculum vitae (CV). Some did not know how to appear at an interview or how to prepare themselves. The finishing school repackaged them, giving them computer literacy, self-marketing skills and so on. By January last year, the first 68 of them that graduated were employed at the graduation venue at the multipurpose hall. They were snapped up by employers. People are not talking about it.
There is this perception in some quarters that Governor Ohakim was once a fraudster or 419 conman. Some even say he was one of the Otokoto people who were driven away from Owerri in a riot in 1995. What will you like to say on it?
Years ago, when General Salihu Ibrahim was retiring he said he was leaving behind an army of â€œanything goesâ€. If you thought we have hit the rock bottom you find out that we are still going down. When was Ohakim a fraudster? Was it the time he was in the university? Was it when he was a commissioner here, when he wrote the blueprint for the development of the state? Was it when he was in an aluminium making company? Was it when he was a director of the Kaduna Refinery? One thing with this country is that if you are not a noisemaker and you are doing your thing quietly, by the time you come to limelight and they cannot explain why you are this solid; you are this young and you have already done so much, you must be 419. I challenge anybody to come forward with the facts of the allegation of Ohakim being a 419 fraudster or forever keep his peace. Let them come and say what they know, with facts and figures. Where did it take place? When? Who was the victim? 419 must have a victim who will be ready to say yes, I was duped by this fraudster. Who were other members of the 419 ring?
The security situation seems to taken a sudden twist for the worse in the state. What happened to Operation Festival?
There is hardly any part of the country today that is not experiencing an upsurge in crime of violent nature. The threat of kidnapping is in two dimensions. There are people who have done things here to ensure the governor cannot secure the state. The Operation Festival is still the best thing that ever happened to the state. It is still effective. The time that people fear most is the Easter and Christmas holidays. Miraculously, that is when we are having little or no incidents.
The fact is that Imo suffers from the influx of people from surrounding states. We are neighbours to the volatile Niger Delta. We are a part of the Niger Delta with our own riverine areas which produce oil. But we were able to keep them calm from destroying national assets. It is because of the security measures that the government put in place.