Imuekheme, Edo SSG: I wept openly at EXCO after a promising official was fired for misconduct
*’I served in every govt’
By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin City
If there is any man who can give you information about governance in Edo State since its creation 21 years ago, that person is Dr Simon Imuekheme, the current Secretary to Edo State Government. He has been visibly active since the inception of this democracy and has served under all the civilian administrations in the state since 1999. As the state celebrates 21 years of its creation, Sunday Vanguard spoke to Imuekheme in his office last Monday and he did not hesitate to relish his experiences under both the military and civilian administrations in the state. He also gave an insight into his personal life, declaring that contrary to the insinuation that he lives a boring life, “I relax too even more than most people. I am an all rounder”.
Edo State is 21 years old and you are one of the very few people in the state that have participated in the governance of the state right from the military and since this democratic dispensation began in 1999. Can you tell us how the state has fared so far?
I was in Sapele when the state was created so I had to come back to Edo since I am from Edo State and I was deployed to Central Hospital, Benin to head the Paediatric Department in 1991. I headed that department till 1994 when I was now appointed as Director of Hospital Services and Chief Executive of the hospital for five years; from 1994, June to May 31 1999. I became a Permanent Secretary in June 1999 and I was Permanent Secretary from that date till 2005 when I was appointed Head of Service.
I had worked in the office of the Deputy Governor as Permanent Secretary in Government House and also I have worked as Chairman Board of Internal Revenue for five years; so it is true, to a very large extent, that I have seen it all since the state was created because I was there from the beginning and I have had the opportunity of working with a military government and also a civilian government. From Head of Service in 2005, I worked for six years in that position.
I retired voluntarily in February 2011. After my retirement, I was appointed briefly as chairman Taskforce on Revenue Generation and by June 20 2011, I was appointed as Secretary to the State Government; so I have had the opportunity of working with military administrators starting from Lt Col Muhammed Onuka, Colonel Bassey Asuquo, Group Captain Baba Adamu Nyiam and Navy Captain Anthony Onyeregbulem. Then for civilian administration, I worked with Lucky Igbinedion, Professor Oserheimen Osunbor and then Comrade Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole.
There is no doubt that there have been significant development in Edo since the state was created in 1991; although there have been some stagnation especially during the military era, the last four years of Adams Oshiomhole has turned the table around because virtually all aspects of existence in the state have been touched. I am talking about the welfare of the people which is the basis for which government is existing and when you are talking about welfare, you are talking of access to good education, access to potable water, access to good roads, access to good healthcare facilities, access to light and an environment where lives and properties are secure. Edo has witnessed tremendous changes and I think what has happened is that every person has his own style of government but leadership is crucial and I think that one major difference that I have seen is the leadership of Adams Oshiomhole because he is not just a governor who sits in his office, he is there physically, he is inspecting projects, he scrutinizes everything, makes sure before he appends his signature to any approval that approval must have immense benefit to the people of Edo or the service generally. I think that there is no doubt in my mind that looking at where we were in 1991 and where we are in 2012, Edo has developed; it is just that there is still more to be done and having set the stage, I believe that we are going to witness further development.
The state suffered stagnation in terms of development from 1999 until the coming of Oshiomhole and you are part of those administrations , what went wrong?
I think that resources differ from one regime to the other, commitment also differs from one regime to the other.
The drive for change differs from one regime to the other.
During the military era, the command is from the military authority and we didn’t have the House of Assembly to oversee what was happening, and the atmosphere that we were in the military regime also dampened the participation of civilians in the regime but it is not like that during the civilian regime.
What is that that made you special that every administration retains you in and saddles you with one responsibility or the other?
People don’t understand my background, they think I just found myself here. No, my backround in the medical profession is basically labour oriented. For over 13 years in Edo State and, at the national level, I was a major actor in the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA). I was the President of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) in UBTH for four years. I was sole administrator of the doctors in UBTH for two years during the Idiagbon crisis when the management of that hospital felt that they could operate without doctors participating in the management; so all the doctors nominated me to be there. I was national secretary of NARD and you know NARD is the militant wing of NMA. Myself and four others pioneered the present delegates system of the NMA and, at that time, I was holding two positions.
I was state secretary of NMA and national secretary general of NARD. So for 13 years I was an activist in NMA and, outside my practice, the only thing I did was medical politics and I was for five years I was chairman and Medical and Consultants Association of Nigeria and it was from that position that I was appointed the Chief Executive of Hospital Management Board. So I understand labour, I know what they want and how to handle them. Once you consult with them, let them know the problems, let them see that you are really working; solve the ones that you can solve, you will find that they will believe in you; so my romance with labour over the years is because they see me as their genuine friend; we quarrel, we criticise ourselves, but at the end of the day, they know that if there is somebody who will tell them the truth, I am and when it is impossible I will also tell them. My experience as an NMA and NARD activist influenced my romance with labour and, for any government to succeed, there must be industrial harmony and, if you don’t want peace, then you quarrel with labour. So what we have been doing is to make sure that we dialogue with them, we discuss with them, make friends with them and make them see our reasons and, fortunately now, we have a general who is the governor; a labour man, so he knows everything about them and with the combination we have been able to ensure there is industrial harmony in the state.
The issue of being retained by successive governments, I think it is an act of God. I believe it is God’s work; if you give me an assignment, I want to do my best to make sure that you succeed, so when it comes to commitment to duty, I don’t play with it. I have been telling people that my brothers or my sisters are those who do their work whether you are from my community or not or from the same mother or not, if you don’t do my work, then you are not my brother or sister because it means you don’t want the system to succeed. And I don’t think any governor who appointed you as Permanent Secretary or HOS or appointed you as SSG appointed you because he wants to fail. He wants you to bring your cognate experience to ensure that that government is stable, that the government is focused, that the government is oriented and that is what has happened.
For instance I didn’t even know how Lucky (Igbinedion) spotted me when I was Permanent Secretary in Deputy Governor’s office because since 1999, I have been very active in the system. I have held very sensitive positions, I have carried out very sensitive assignments and there are so many sensitive things that I have done that only the governors that I served know.
What were your happiest moments and sad moments in the course of your career?
My best moment is when I see obstacles and I overcome them because people have been wondering how I have survived so long in the system but I just believe that it is an act of God. I am not a loud person and I also appreciate that power is centered around one person in the presidential system of government and at the state level, power is centered round the governor and he alone distributes the power; therefore for you to be relevant, you have to put in your best to make sure that the governor that appointed you succeeds.
And nobody will see somebody that is hardworking and say let us throw him away. In the Bible, they say no one lights a candle and put it under the table; it will shine for others to see. When I was sworn-in in 2005, I made a statement that the civil service that I want to run is not the civil service of I am directed. My own civil service is before and after I was directed, what did I do?; so if I am directed and I find that directive unusual or abnormal, by the position I occupy, I should be able to tell the principal that this directive, there are some anomalies, let’s look at it again. And what I found out over the years is that most Chief Executives, they listen but a lot of people are frightened because they want to protect their office and, because of that they are disloyal. I once told a governor that ‘if I know the truth and I don’t tell you the truth, I am disloyal because the oath I took is to be loyal to the system, the constitution and to you so if I see you wanting to do something that is not okay and just because I don’t want you be annoyed with me, I don’t want you to sack me from my position, that means that I am disloyal’. Over the years, I have developed my own attitude to say certain things the way I see them, the final decision is that of the Chief Executive but, in the process, he is availed of the various sides of the issue so that he can take his decision from the opinion because the Service is very deep and the reason why it is in place is to guide the political class who are there. I think one of the problems we are having in this country is that people are not bold to say this is how things are supposed to go and most time, for me, the Chief Executives tend to listen. Sometimes they may have a superior argument because they have a larger field of information more than you have. They have political information, they have economic information, and they have social information but as a technocrat, avail them of your own experience and let them have a pool to take decision from.
How have you been able to cope with the pressure of keeping government secrets?
I am loyal to the governor that appointed me, the oath of office is very very clear. I remember the governor saying publicly that the only sin I have committed is that I am a loyal civil servant.
It seems you had no problem transiting from Perm Sec to Head of Service and now to a more political position of SSG.
Well, the office of the HOS is also political. From the Permanent Secretary to the HOS is political because the law says the governor shall appoint Permanent Secretaries, the law says the governor shall appoint Head of Service from among Permanent Secretaries that is why the governors can decide to do away with any Permanent Secretary or Head of Service who is not productive. People don’t face the reality; so, for me, I have always known that those offices are political but the thing is that there is a difference between partisan politics and politics of the Service. What you do to guide yourself against as a Permanent Secretary or Head of Service is not to be actively involved in partisan politics but you cannot say you are Head of Service and then shy away from giving support to your governor and even now, there is nothing that stops any civil servant from being a civil servant and at the same time holding a party card.
The Supreme Court has long given that judgment that as a free citizen of this country, you have a right to belong to a party. I didn’t have any problem transiting from HOS to SSG because this is a system that I was already very familiar with. The day I was sworn in, I met that system and I told the governor that the character you represent both in the society and Edo State and in the country and international body, at least, my commitment is to make that character to be visible and to be successful.
In all of these, how do you relax?
The thing is that people think I don’t relax but they don’t know me very deep because, right from my secondary school days, I have been an active person, even in the university.
The university passed through me but the thing is that when I come to the office, I project official looks that portend me to be somebody who doesn’t smile, who doesn’t laugh and things like that but, outside the office, if you meet me when I am relaxed, you will wonder if this is the same Simon. Everybody has to adopt some self defence mechanism to survive.
My look in the office is my own self defense mechanism to survive a hostile, an extremely tricky environment but that doesn’t mean that I don’t relax. I have been in Rotary Club, I have belonged to several clubs, I am president of social clubs, I am a life member of NARD, I am a Knight of St Mulumba in the Catholic Church and several others.
What was your relationship with women before you got married?
I told you I am an all rounder. What else do you want to hear. I had fun and you will even be surprised now. (wild laughter).
Do you play games?
I played competitive lawn tennis, I am also very good in table tennis, I played football. I am an addict to the game and I watch various leagues and my club is Chelsea. I played chess, I played draught. I am an all rounder. I weep easily, I am very emotional. There was a time I wept openly in the EXCO because there was somebody I thought was very good and I thought she could be very good for future assignment just messed up and she got retired, it was so painful that I started weeping. I also read a lot. Vanguard is my best paper, it is like a Bible; even when I don’t buy other papers, I must buy Vanguard.
What is the Edo of your dream?
The Edo of my dream is already emerging where there will be opportunities for everybody, where the social infrastructure will be comparable to what we have in developed countries like road, water, electricity and things like that, Edo where there will be reduction in crime rate. There is no society that is crime-free. We want a situation where the level of crime is reduced because it is affecting our brothers, our children outside this country.
They want to come home and invest but they are afraid that when they come home they will be kidnapped and it is not too good for development. But I believe that if the current momentum of Adams Oshiomhole is sustained, the future will be very bright for us and, like I have been saying, at the end of the day he would have set up a standard which nobody coming after him could afford to drop; at the worst you try to maintain that standard.
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