I want to see our people live better – Amaechi

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WITHIN minutes of meeting Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, you would notice he is impatient and wants to be in charge. His impatience with finishing things quickly has had to battle with traditional bureaucracy. There is so much to do that he fears there may not be enough time for him to complete the transformational projects for Rivers State.

He is always on the move, a fast meal even on his own table, a diversion at the airport for a quick snack, and fast-paced instructions to his aides to call a commissioner, a permanent secretary, a director-general: whoever needed to be reached, to quicken the pace of work. His appetite for more to be done appears insatiable.

At first you may think it is a show, to impress his guests. You would discover that is Amaechi, simple, demonstrating rather than explaining. He would rather show you what he is doing than sit in the office talking about projects.

Things do slow him down. Being a Port Harcourt boy means knowing many people, who he greets, gives an appointment on the spot, shares his snacks with their children, and enquires if welfare packages had got to staff at locations away from head office.

At a primary health centre, where the doctor had turned up late for work, he asked women, who were around to immunise their kids, whether they were getting adequate attention. A nurse who tried to defend the absentee doctor drew the governor’s anger.

Amaechi worked the phones, searching for a doctor to attend to the patients.  He reached a doctor on vacation, a member of the State Health Management Board and persuaded her to leave her Christmas shopping to attend  to the patients at the health centre.

On his way out, a nurse whispered the arrival of a baby to him. “They want me to give the baby some money. I don’t have money,” he said. Some of his friends on the tour pooled resources and handed the governor a pile. He headed to the ward to see the baby.

Gov Amechi

Gov Amaechi

Moments after, he was pondering about the absentee doctor. “Something serious must have engaged her attention. This is the first time I am here and she is absent,” he said.

The next day, the accident could have been fatal. A driver running against traffic panicked on noticing he was face to face with Amaechi, who was driving himself. He tried veering into a side street, the governor bridged his vehicle slightly to stop him. In desperation, the man reversed, brushed the governor’s vehicle, then zoomed off with such ferocity that he could have taken anything on his path.

It happened so quickly. Amaechi thanked God that no one was harmed and we continued the tour. “How would this have been reported?,” he asked, as passers by who witnessed the incident waved to him. He was shocked to learn that reports could have portrayed the driver as the victim of over-zealous security men in the governor’s convoy.

Amaechi hates sirens. He has a constant battle getting his security men to put it off. He prefers moving incognito, waiting for his turn at inter-sections, but the security men would have none of that. Having being denied of leading convoys and blaring sirens, they cling to their final vestige of power – they  jump down at the slightest excuse to clear the way. It  is not something to concede as they ignore the governor’s protests.

We were on the second day of seeing projects that were changing the face of the state. The previous day, the governor was at a project site by 3am. He woke the contractor and had him over to discuss issues about the road that would be an alternative route while work on Aba Road continues. Contractors are getting used to being summoned at such hours over their work.

“It is a good time to see what is being done. The streets are quiet and you can get a lot done without distractions,” he explained. “I also get a chance to see things for myself when I go on these inspections. Contractors do not know when I will get to their sites.” Not even those in his convoy know where he is heading as he leads from one project to the other.

The changes from the demolitions (his wife’s warehouse was among those affected at Abonema waterside), one of the earliest places that went down as Amaechi commenced the rebuilding of Port Harcourt to the Garden City, are reflecting. There is a lot of work to do, but Rivers State has a workaholic for a governor.

In this interaction with the Vanguard team of Ikeddy ISIGUZO, Chairman, Editorial Board, Azu AKANWA, Emma AZIKEN, Jimitota ONOYUME and Chijioke NWANKPA, who took the pictures, Amaechi, winner of Vanguard’s Personality of The Year 2012,  tells his story as he drove us round the State…

His Motivation
I BELIEVE that you cannot have public resources and not address the social and economic issues. I want to see our people live better. There are basic issues that, if  not addressed, society would not improve. One of them is education. You must recognise the fact that access to education and affordability are two key issues that you must address. In addressing access, you make the schools available for pupils and the citizens to use.

But in addressing access, you cannot divorce access from affordability. Where most people cannot afford education, they do not get their people educated and the consequences of non-education include the fact that ignorance inhibits the mind. So, you can see people who are educated trying to confuse those who are not educated.

You need to liberate the mind and what liberates the mind is education and, if people cannot afford education, then they would not go to school. So, that informed my decision to make it free at primary and secondary levels, which, to me, is sufficient to get the mind liberated. At the university level it is optional. I wish we could run a free education policy at the university level, but we do not have the money.

A sickbay in one of the primary schools

A sickbay in one of the primary schools

 Education
WE flagged off the free education on 1 October 2010 – free text and exercise books are distributed every session to pupils in all state primary and secondary schools. Free education in the state’s standard educational facilities is expected to give children from Rivers State an edge in academics, particularly those from poor homes who ordinarily may not have been opportune to have such educational upbringing. Out of 500 new model primary schools being built across our 23 local government areas of the state, 254 are 100 percent completed, 92 are fully functional while the others are being furnished and equipped.

Our initial plan was 750 primary schools by 2015. We have had challenges with getting land to build; there has been an increase in the number of pupils. We would do 500 schools, but a storey-building with 25 classrooms, instead of 14 and not more than 30 students per class. These primary schools are each equipped with ICT facility, modern library, science laboratory, football field, basketball pitch, volleyball pitch, a sick bay, nursery playground.

Twenty-four model secondary schools are being built across the state with standard boarding facilities (two students in each en suite room), free feeding, and free uniforms, fully equipped laboratories for all required subjects, language laboratories, and sporting facilities.

The model school in Eleme will admit its first students, 1,000, in January 2013. Two others, Etche and Saakpenwa, will admit students next academic session, while Emohua, Buguma and Oyigbo are almost completed. The secondary schools would be managed by an educational consultant Educomp Solution. Overseas scholarships and scholarship in schools within Nigeria are awarded yearly to Rivers indigenes at all academic levels, secondary, and tertiary – Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees as well other scholarly studies.

New teachers have been employed in the primary schools while training and re-training of teachers is now a regular affair.  Government is paying an Indian company to manage the model schools. Staff quarters are fully. Each of the schools will have a governing board with representations from government, community, labour and Parent Teacher Association, who would run the school.

Health
160 model health centres are operational in our 23 local government areas. The free health care programme has contributed to a decline in the mortality rate of Rivers people particularly maternal and child mortality as the health centres are located to serve every part of the state.  All indigenes and residents of the state are beneficiaries of the programme. People in the remote villages or coastal areas no longer have to visit the city for medical care.

For secondary health care, there are three new hospitals all completed. They include the ultra modern Rivers State Dental and Maxillofacial Hospital on Aba Road. This facility is completed and being furnished and equipped. The Kelsey Harrison Hospital, formerly known as New Niger Hospital  on Emenike Street, Diobu, is fully equipped and ready to take off. The General Hospital at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology is also completed.

Agriculture
We have four fish farms-buguma, Andoni, Opobo and Ubima. Banana Farm in Ogoni-100 hectares have been done out of the total 250 hectares. Therefore is among the big farms we have started to create jobs for rural dwellers. It will employ about 500 workers. Rivers Songhai learning initiative  has a centre for training, agricultural production, research and development of sustainable agricultural practices. The farm project sits on a 314-hectares land in Bunu-Tai, an agrarian community in Tai Local Government Area of the state.

It is about 20 times the size of  the Songhai model in Porto Novo – an integrated farm which combines livestock, arable farming, fishery, snail farming and poultry.  There is a 2,000-hectare farm in Etche with a total available land space of 3,000 hectares. The farm is projected to cost $140 million. The state is investing $100m; the foreign partner $40 million. The farm would have 300 farming houses, agro processing and 3,000 hectares for cultivation.  The 300 houses would accommodate 300 farming families who would live and work on the farm.

Most Important Project
ALL of them are important. Education is the most important based on the reasons I have given. But I think if you do not have road network to move goods and services you would not be able to run the economy because you need to run the economy by providing good road networks. People have been complaining of traffic and the reason is not because there are too many cars, but it is because the roads are not enough. We are building more roads and expanding existing ones.

There is a road that would take you from the heart of town to the airport and, even though it is not up to 17 kilometres, it would cost us about N200 billion. I do not have that money, but, if I do not do it, Aba Road would continue to be the major trunk road into the city and we will continue to have traffic crisis. We need to deal with the issue of road network.

Health is also important if we have to govern people. If the people are not alive, you cannot govern any person. So we have to provide quality healthcare. But,basically, the most important is education.

Inspiration
WHEN I move around, I see many challenges that are opportunities to improve the lives of our people. Once I discuss them with relevant teams and we can find the money, we design projects that can take care of the situation. We have an option of mechanising the modern farms we have set up with partners. We adopted the manual option to create jobs for more people, who are also learning modern farming skills. They can set up their own farms or continue working in our farms.

The welfare of our people inspires these projects.

New Aircraft
MUCH has been said about the aircraft. It belongs to Rivers State government. We had three aircraft when I came into office. We sold one  to acquire a more modern craft that is also more economical to run. So mischief makers said we bought the aircraft while the state was flooded. The aircraft had been purchased before the flood and it is meant for more efficiency in the operations of the state. We can save time, keep our schedules, if we are not stranded at airports.

Security Challenges
WE have done a lot about security. We are doing more. Before we came to office, kidnapping was a serious challenge. We have dealt with it substantially. We are finishing December without a single report of kidnapping or armed robbery. We have specially trained policemen handling security. By February 2013, our security helicopters would have arrived to give the state 24-hour security coverage.

Governors’ Forum
BEING the Chairman of the Forum is a big distraction to me. There are many issues that need my attention in Rivers State, but I have to share my time between the Forum and Rivers. However, it is a privilege having to serve in that capacity and enjoying the support of my colleagues. My tenure as Chairman runs out in May. (He was silent when told that his colleagues may want him to continue.)

Governors’ Forum Anti-People
I SUPPORT the removal of fuel subsidy because we are throwing money away. The beneficiaries of the subsidy are a few people who the probes have revealed are making billions of Naira at the expense of the people. The Governors’ Forum is accused of supporting removal of subsidy so that governors would get more revenue from the centre. Our position is that removal of subsidy would stop the wastes, make the sector more competitive, attract investors to build refineries and create jobs. Without removal of subsidy, we doubt if these could be achieved, so our position is actually pro-people.

Opposition To The President

 Operating theatre of Kelsey Harrison Hospital, formerly New Niger Hospital

Operating theatre of Kelsey Harrison Hospital, formerly New Niger Hospital

MOST of the governors are from the same party with the President, but there are several grounds for disagreement. Some of them border on interpretation of the Constitution. We are not opposed to the President, we are opposed to violation of the Constitution which we swore to uphold.

Appropriation of federally-generated revenue must be in line with the Constitution. We are opposed to the Federal Government accumulating resources that belong to other tiers of government for its use. We are not opposing the President as an individual, but the government.

We are elected to serve our various states. Where the Federal Government takes resources that should go to the states, we would be starved of funds to develop the states. Where we cannot resolve these matters on our own, we head to court to interpret the Constitution. We are in a democracy and must sustain it through the laws.

Challenges Of Federalism
THE Federal Government is wasteful. What does it do with the trillions of Naira it budgets annually? How many houses has it built? Where are the roads it is constructing? We want more powers and resources for the states whose projects affect the people directly. I will use two examples to illustrate how federalism, as we practise it today, is hampering development of the country.

Rivers State is building its own transmission lines and sub-stations to distribute the power it is generating. The state has been told it has no powers to do these, they are federal responsibilities. Rivers trained 500 policemen in Israel with the understanding that their special training would assist in tackling the security challenges in the state.

The Federal Government transferred them to different parts of the country without telling the state. We have to train a new set.

Support For State Police
IF we have state police, Rivers would be able to train its police the way it wants. It would not have suffered the loss of those 500 policemen it trained. Most states are spending a lot of money improving the police which are not under their control. States can use the same resources to fund their own police. Only those with something to hide are afraid of state police.

Due Process Delays
WE have a law setting up the Due Process Office. It vets our contracts and issues certification for us to proceed. Some of the delays that we have with contracts are because they are going through due process. The delays are inconvenient, but they help check abuses in our processes.

Collapsed Airport Road Bridge
WE are re-constructing most of the roads we met. They have defects. Some have no drainage or the job was shoddy. Airport Road is one of many examples. Some months back the bridge there collapsed and worsened the traffic  on Aba Road. We are re-building the bridge. We had to create an emergency route to ease the traffic while the work continues.

Relations With Peter Odili
HE is my boss. I refer to him as my boss and benefactor. We had political disagreements and they have been resolved. I did not set up the Truth & Reconciliation Commission to embarrass him. Many people had grievances when I became governor, the Commission was to reconcile people. He remains my boss. (He refuses to comment on Dr. Odili’s book, Conscience and History – My Story, saying he had not read it.)

Allegations That He Has Stopped Working
PEOPLE are used to seeing me on the road, at project sites and they think that is all the work there was for me to do. I have things to do in the office and the strategy for getting things done keep changing. In the early days, I needed to be out there more often. I was 42, and had a lot more strength.

Most of the projects I was running around then have been completed. They are in use. It is not true that I am not working. I still inspect projects, more at night, and in the early hours when people are asleep.

That they do not see me doing the inspections does not mean I am not working. Contractors handling our projects know I am working. I call them up most times I am inspecting their work.

New Port Harcourt City
THE New City Project is aimed at depopulating Port Harcourt and it is a public-private participation project. People are to buy and build and it is envisaged that the new city would generate its own 24-hour electricity. Part of it would be an entertainment centre that would be spectacular for its difference to others anywhere in the country. The centre is a private initiative.  The new city has a 1,000 bed hospital a new campus of the Rivers State University of Technology,  and a Sports Centre, with a 36,000 capacity stadium and facilities for  sports.

A 1,000 housing unit that a German firm is building would commence early 2013. Next to the New City is the expressway that links the export processing and industrial zones of Onne with all the opportunities that lie there.

His Fears
NOT security as you may think. My life is in God’s hands. We passed the security scare when we used to chase criminals in the bush. (A birthday painting with him jumping obstacles in the bush from one of thee military commanders testifies to his adventures.) The biggest fear is that there may not be time for me to complete the model secondary school projects in all the local government areas, nothing more.

Mono Rail
THE mono rail is meant to decongest Aba Road, our busiest route. It is only 7.1 kilometres long, but covers the busiest sections of Port Harcourt. If we had money, we would have liked to extend it to other parts of Port Harcourt. The beams are being set and we should deliver that project soon.

 Funds For Projects
WE have improved Internally Generated Revenue. IGR used to be N2.5 billion, now it is N6.5 and our target for 2013 is N7.5 billion so that we can ensure that we fund all the recurrent expenditure from the IGR. I think our recurrent expenditure in 2012 is nearly N100 or so billion out of a total of N490 billion. Even if we are not able to get N100 billion and get up to N88 or N90 billion as projected by us, then we would have done more than two-thirds of our expectations.
Our recurrent expenditure is exactly 30.9 per cent of the budget. (The Federal Government’s recurrent expenditure is over 72 per cent).

Peer Review Mechanism
WE have a peer review mechanism that Justice Muhammadu Uwais chairs. Different governors face different challenges. You cannot compare any governor with the governor of Rivers State because the amount of revenue we get is quite different from each other. If you want to compare, you have to compare orange with orange and apple with apple, you do not compare orange with apple. In that setting, it is challenging to use the work that is being done in one to compare another state’s. Even with all the money we get, construction cost here is high. Imagine a 17- kilometre road costing N200 billion. As I was pointing out to you, we excavate up to six metres, removing clay before we construct roads. Peer review mechanism must reflect challenges peculiar to each state.

Autonomy For Local Governments
LOCAL governments in Rivers State have autonomy. They are elected and run their administrations. I have heard allegations that some governors appropriate the allocations of local governments. It is different here. They run their councils. I do not deduct anything from their allocations, instead I pay N2 billion every month to the local governments for their teachers’ salaries.

Rural Rivers
WE are being accused of concentrating on the urban centres, but we are getting to the rural areas. They are included in our educational and health programmes which are progressing at the same pace as the cities. In case of electricity, we are considering other ways of generating power for them. Transportation is still challenging. We are dealing with them. Our mandate is to improve lives all over Rivers.

Less Than Three Years Left
I HAVE two years and five months to go. I count it everyday.  I am grateful to God that He has brought me this far. I am looking forward to finishing the tenure and resting.

Sustainability Projects
I AM not worried about what would happen to the projects when I leave.  Whatsoever gave me the idea would also give the next governor the idea to do better than I. He would even have an advantage over me. While I am mobilising resources for new projects, most of his job would be to maintain or complete projects. I think he would have enough resources to carry on very well.

The Next Governor
I HAVE to be God to know who would be the next governor. I do not know, but I hope someone who would work for the people of Rivers State would emerge.

His Presidential Ambition
THE speculation must have come from my visit to Sokoto. The university was awarding an honorary degree to me, I decided to pass a night there. Some say I want to be a Vice President. I have no such ambitions. At the Governors’ Forum we joke a lot about these things. We are friends. One of the governors sent me gifts for the Christmas celebrations. When I call him, I will ask if he is lobbying for a presidential ticket, that is how we treat these matters. I am busy trying to fulfil my promises to Rivers people.

His Legacy
THE legacy that I have left behind is still on education. When I travel abroad, I meet children say, “Sir, my name is XYZ from Rivers State, I am a scholar, I am on that State’s scholarship. We send 300 students  every year to Canada and the United Kingdom for different courses.

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