*Explains how Rivers handled militants
*Says South South Governors Are Behind President
*Reveals development strategy
Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi has his own way about things. Sometimes you wonder if his status as a state governor is either yet to catch up with him or he remains just his own person – this relates to his sense of simplicity in appearance and approach to issues.
In this encounter, Amaechi, whom many say is turning Rivers State into a huge construction site, spoke about the issue of militancy and how his administration was able to succeed and return life back to Port Harcourt city. Hear him: I am more assured of destroying them because I have the federal government, I have trained soldiers, I have the Navy, I have the Air Force and I have the Police. These are young boys who are not even up to 100,000 holding everybody to ransom.”
Then this: “I don’t want to become Nigeria’s President but if I were, just give me one week I will rout out these boys. That is the basis of the Nigerian economy and, therefore, we can not begin to negotiate with anybody. It is a thing that you let people know that I support the Niger Delta struggle. But I will also let everybody know that we as a people cannot make the same mistake that the Nigerian nation made against the people of the Niger Delta. We should sit down and say to the Nigerian people, we are going to secede and they work out ways of doing that but if you are not going to secede and the Nigerian nation has visited (and is visiting violence) on the Niger Delta people, why should the Niger Delta people continue to visit violence on themselves again. That’s my only anger”. And if you think President Goodluck Jonathan was the only one who had a rough up bringing, listen to Amaechi speak and break down:
“I was speaking to some people (NUPENG and PEGASSAN) and I remembered my background and I remembered how poor it was and how bad things were and I broke down and wept – a 14-room house, where everybody in that house used the same toilet. My father had two rooms so you could even say he was the big man there. Those who had one room had their wives and children in that one room and you can imagine when you have to wake up to go use the convenience before school or work. That is the motivation for the free education and the free health care but that is not what motivates the vision”. Then what motivates it? He also discloses what President Jonathan told him about the 2011 elections.
Read these and many more in this interview
By Jide Ajani, Deputy Editor
Talking about generational shift in the leadership of Nigeria and the person of the incumbent President and Commander-in-Chief, Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan, vis a vis the South South clamour for the presidency next year, what are those suggestions you would want to put on the table for President Jonathan regarding how his campaign is going?
Well, that question pre-supposes that some things are not being done properly but I do not think so. They did not called our attention to come and contribute and I believe that the people who are there are quite capable of doing the right thing and manage the campaign properly
But I’m sure you’ve heard people say that some of the points being presented in public domain do not do appropriate justice to the person of President Jonathan, that things could be better for the campaign in terms of making more conciliatory gestures to the North?
The President is aware of that and I want to believe that he is making the right gestures and right moves and they are taking care of it. Talking with him I know that he is aware.
You earlier said you believe that President Jonathan is determined to bequeath a culture of free, fair and credible elections to Nigerians but then there appears to be a disconnect: For instance, there is a proposal before the national assembly allegedly from the presidency, to amend the Electoral Act so that party caucuses would nominate candidates for election. How fair would you say that is coming from the office of an individual who wants to deliver on the promise of free and fair elections?
My view is that even if it were to have come from the presidency, there should have been a team in the national assembly that would be used to ventilate such sentiments and make the presentation than from the office of the president. I do not know the reason behind the proposal but I thought there should have been a team to do that.
Like the leader in the senate, he’s the spokes person of the party and government in the senate so he would have been eminently qualified to do that and they would have made it more like a stake holders’ position and not one from the presidency.
I’m not saying that the proposal is right or wrong but what I am saying is that they shouldn’t have allowed the President to be linked to it because he symbolizes free, fair and credible elections so he shouldn’t in any way be seen to be linked to such a proposal.
Your party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, when people talk about the problems of Nigeria from 1999 to date, how does that make you feel as a major stake holder because things are not going on well? What defence would you put up?
I have no defence for what has happened or is happening.
But I also hope that people would be honest enough to agree that there are positive developments in the country which they should credit PDP with.
I agree with you that people appreciate the fact that you can point to one or two things here and there but on balance…?
No! Not just a few things here and there but there are a lot of things you can point to.
On the scale of balance you would say that we’ve done so terrible or we’ve not done anything at all.
But Nigerians want change and some people believe that the only way change can come is by removing PDP from power?
What I want Nigerians to appreciate is that good governance has become a very important issue in Nigeria today and that is on the table of PDP. Now, people hold governors down to a particular standard and PDP is an apostle of that.
Once you have good governance then you have solved quite a lot of problems at the same time.
One thing you must also understand is that PDP governors in their various states now know that they must work and they are working for the people in their states. Nobody should compare me with the governor of Zamfara. We should be able to compare him with the resources he has to work with and then you can say whether he is doing well or not and not to say go to Lagos State or Rivers State and see what the governor is doing. The PDP governors, for whatever anybody would say, are improving things in their states. We do pair review now in the country among the governors and there is healthy rivalry among the governors.
Do you see anything happening differently at the polls next year?
I would be biased with whatever I tell you because I will see it from a PDP point of view
It is that bias that I want to hear? And that ties with the proposals for amendment to the Electoral Act 2010?
The only thing I would say to that is that we should let the people’s votes count at all levels. Democracy in its crude definition is government of the people and by the people and for the people – it is government of the people by the people and that relates to the process of elections.
The process must be people dependent, it shouldn’t be elitist. Let my father, who is late be satisfied that he helped to vote in his son. Or, let my late father’s enemies be satisfied that they helped vote me out and let it not be that a few of us will sit down and decide what will happen to a majority of Rivers people or the nation.
The President has promised a free and fair election and I believe the President.
But other Presidents, too, have promised free and fair elections in this country?
Look, I have had discussions with the President privately and he has assured of the fact that he wants to give Nigerians free and fair elections. I have had private discussions on this with him and you need to be there to feel his passion and how determined he is to give Nigerians free and fair elections. Forget all these that people are saying about him. He is determined to deliver on that.
I’m not lying and he has told me that if there is one thing he wants to achieve, it is the fact that he wants Nigerians to be proud that they can organize elections that can be free, fair and credible.
Now, the President is not the one who would go and tell people how to vote. He has set up INEC. We expect the National Assembly to play their part, too by legislating for free, fair and credible elections. Nobody should be seen to deny the people the right to choose who would be their governor or President.
Oh! He is popular; that may be phantom. The only way is when the election is free and fair
The story of the militants started with the blowing up of petroleum products’ pipes and some other acts of sabotage. They were also said to have been equipped by the politicians preparatory to the 2007 general elections. Suddenly, you came and said they were criminals. Now, firstly, do they have godfathers? Who are their godfathers? And in routing them out of Rivers State, have you also been able to do the same for their godfathers – that is if they had?
Let me start from the issue of what the boys were actually doing without prejudice to the issue of the boys having sponsors or not.
If what the boys were doing was based on ideology, you can not suppress it, whether they had sponsors or not, whatever the boys were doing couldn’t have been suppressed if it was ideological. That is the first thing you should know because anything based on ideology can not be suppressed because the idea germinates and it would be difficult to deal with. So, the fact that it was not based on any meaningful ideology makes it possible to be suppressed.
That has always been your position but the question to ask now, even while you didn’t answer the first one satisfactorily, what actually went through your mind in the early days of your administration which made you decide from the outset that you were going to confront the boys head on. Even at the Vanguard summit…?
(Cuts in) The one where the boys dealt with you people and everybody took off and started calling me saying Oh we agree with you now (Laughter).
No, not that one in Warri! I mean the one in Port Harcourt here, where you said the boys must be confronted but some of your other colleagues did not buy into that idea. What gave you that steely disposition?
The specialization in my first degree was on violence.
If you study violence, and if you don’t – using the Nigerian word – quench violence by going after it but instead you come in and say I am for peace, I am for peace, they will shoot at you.
The only thing to do is to let the man know that you are fully equipped to take them on.
Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD?
Not completely so because I am more assured of destroying them because I have the federal government, I have trained soldiers, I have the Navy, I have the Air Force and I have the Police. These are young boys who are not even up to 100,000 holding everybody to ransom.
I don’t want to become Nigeria’s President but if I were, just give me one week I will route out these boys. That is the basis of the Nigerian economy and, therefore, we can not begin to negotiate with anybody. It is a thing that you let people know that I support the Niger Delta struggle. But I will also let everybody know that we as a people can not make the same mistake that the Nigerian nation made against the people of the Niger Delta. We should sit down and say to the Nigerian people, we are going to secede and they work out ways of doing that but if you are not going to secede and the Nigerian nation has visited (and is visiting violence) on the Niger Delta people, why should the Niger Delta people continue to visit violence on themselves again. That’s my only anger. It’s not about Nigeria but it is about the people of the Niger delta. My father and my mother are both from the Niger Delta so nobody can lay better claim to being more Niger Delta than I – that is the truth so people should stop all these.
You don’t just sit down somewhere and say that your oil is more than that of the other person. I have the statistics that I can show you and there was nowhere we ever sat down as a people and say that we are going to start carrying guns and shooting or kidnapping people. At least I was Speaker and if there was any meeting where we agreed that we were going to carry arms against the country. The first point is for the interest of the country.
I disagree with Nigeria on a lot of issues but there was no time that we agreed to go our separate ways.
There are consequences for every action. If we are saying we are resisting the injustices of the federal government I join the people of Niger Delta, my people, to resist that. But what I will not join is for some young men who did not go to school or even understand what injustice means to start carrying arms against the federal government and inflicting great pain on its people. I will not support that.
You talked about consequences?
Oh yes! There was a time in Port Harcourt here that businesses, up to 70% had relocated out of Port Harcourt because of these boys and Port Harcourt used to have life. What you can not take away from a Port Harcourt boy was the night life. It had gone. We had to act swiftly and the Police, the SSS and the armed forces said they could restore Port Harcourt back to its days of glory if I had the political will and I donated the political will in double portion.
The paradox is that there was an Amnesty proclamation which appears to be working in its own way but this approach of yours has also worked very well. What does that say of the Amnesty, which in any case was granting pardon to criminals?
I didn’t say the Amnesty did not succeed and if nothing else, the Amnesty has succeeded in taking the boys out of the creels in a way.
What I’m saying is that while we applaud the federal government on that, the message we may have sent to millions of young men is that it pays to do evil, join the gangs and then you’ll be pardoned at the end of the day so it becomes a bit confusing how to manage the situation.
But the Amnesty was also a mix of carrot and stick. The boys sought an extension…?
(Cuts in) An extension which was not granted!
I was oversees and the President called state governors to a meeting in the Villa.
But I told my deputy to represent me. It was about a possible extension of the amnesty for the boys and our position was simply NO. October 4 or nothing!
Other state governors said we should grant the boys more time but we were clear about how to deal with the situation.
The President, surprisingly, agreed with our position and the amnesty deadline was not extended. It’s either you’re out on October 4 or you face the Federal Government of Nigeria.
On the projects and their gargantuan nature, what is the motivation because they seem so massive? Then there was this talk of you making a presentation to some people and you were said to have broken down?
Those who talk about my background as the basis of whatever it is I am doing in Rivers State would only appreciate it from the point of poverty but that would be missing the point because I know what I went through growing up. I was speaking to some people (NUPENG and PENGASSAN) and I remembered my background and I remembered how poor it was and how bad things were and I broke down and wept – a 14-room house, where everybody in that house used the same toilet. My father had two rooms so you could even say he was the big man there. Those who had one room had their wives and children in that one room and you can imagine when you have to wake up to go use the convenience before school or work. That is the motivation for the free education and the free health care but that is not what motivates the vision. I went to Australia in 2011 and I saw a school there and I got fascinated and asked why can’t we do these things or build these things in our own country? I believe we can do these things. I believe we ca
n do it and manage the schools very well. There is nothing between these people and us as Nigerians. Each of those schools you saw would have its board of governors made up of labour, teachers, parents and the communities and. We already have the laws backing thee projects. The school fees would be paid by the state government and the fees would be managed by the board of governors.
When you say fees would be paid then it’s not outright free education?
It is free to the point that the parents are not the ones paying the fees. There would be 1000 students in each of the schools and the boarding facilities that have been provided are excellent – two persons per room. We are building 24 of such and the construction is on going. What we also plan to do with those old government schools is to get the data and see what the annual enrolment is and look for a way of phasing them out. If we can build another 24 in our second term and that brings it to 48. We do not want more than 25 students per class.
How do you intend funding these projects and maintaining them afterwards because they are massive?
The idea is that by the time you finish construction, what would you then use the funds you are using now, for? We are working out modalities for that but in terms of funding, if you have money and you do not use it for productive ventures, then it is being wasted by just keeping it – that is the truth. We are not deluding ourselves but we know we are working on the figures. Each child is to be taught with a computer and as the teacher is teaching on the board, rather than look at the board, you look at your own computer and that brings a total learning to the children.
Meanwhile what you may not know is that there is benefit to all these. Two years ago did you know that we came first in the education sector in the South South zone and the following year we came first in the country that is in terms of affording the people qualitative education!
And in terms of sustainability what is my problem. I have done my own work let somebody come and continue – that might be a care free talk. But beyond that we are building institutions and we are making laws to back them up but in Nigeria anything goes. Once there is a law in place for what we call the social welfare contributory levy. At least that will take care of just a fraction of the contribution because what the people are contributing is only about a third of the cost of education, not to include health – some are paying N400, N500 and nobody pays more than N5000; except, of course, the commissioners and state governors who will pay more. We are also looking at ways of including companies in the programme that is why we do not call it a tax, it is just something you contribute. And that way it would be difficult for whoever is going to come after us to just scrap the scheme. You never can tell, the next person who will take over may have brighter ideas than I and he may device a better way of handling the sustainability of the schemes but I think we have plans on ground for maintenance and sustainability.
For instance, the computers the students will use came with the solar panels so that effectively takes care of the challenge of power supply. At the primary school level, the pupils would have access to the computer but it is at the secondary school level that the internet facilities come in. The license fee you pay for internet facilities, some 750 primary schools, would be too much.
With all these investments in education how would you take care of the private schools?
Those ones, they will close down just wait and see what would happen to them. Some people are talking about laws and I said we don’t need laws to set any standards for them. What is going on now is that we had to shut down the admissions process in one of the primary schools we built. Elikayah Primary school is an example. I was passing through the school one day and I saw many big cars parked in front of the school and I thought teachers had bought cars and I was told it wasn’t so, that people were enrolling their children and I said to myself that the purpose was being defeated because we built the school for the poor who would trek to school and not for the rich men who were withdrawing their children from private schools. All we need to do is to provide good schools for our children and see what will happen to the private schools.
But there is this feeling that with what you are putting on ground, don’t you think parents should be made to pay just a token?
Look at you! You are talking like a middle class now.
The reason is because it might affect the standards and quality. You are also getting involved in big government which people are running away from?
It would not affect the standard. If I were in the United States or United Kingdom, I would not run big government. Meanwhile this is a country where people don’t even thank you for what you have done.
Don’t forget that when we came in, even you won’t be able to go out at night. Now people can drive on this street at night. The same thing now, people are complaining about the standard of education but once you get it right people just forget what it used to be like. If I want to do Ámeachi has tried’, I won’t be bothered about the content and I’ll just do things that people will merely see. How many people in this country has built 24 secondary schools at the same time and over half a thousand primary schools at the same time.
This issue of South South governors and their support for President Jonathan! Even when a meeting was held in Prot Harcourt, some people still read some meanings into that meeting?
We had taken that decision even before the Abuja rally. What we said as South South governors was that Jonathan is our son and we agreed to back him. We also agreed that one of us should speak on our behalf and that was that. But you people intimidated some governors to speak. So, if others now have to go out and start talking how does that become my business.
But some people still feel that some of the South South governors are not with Mr. President may be except two or three. Cross River, Akwa Ibom and …?
Let me tell you, that the meeting of the South South stake holders meeting we had here in Port Harcourt was initiated by Governor Uduaghan of Delta and I opted to host it.
Excellency, you MUST not use the word MUST AGAIN. I’ve been watching and listening to you. You have not used the word ‘MUST’ today?
(Laughter) We no longer use the word ‘MUST’ again in Rivers State.
That word is no more in my lexicon.
In Rivers State, we no longer use ‘MUST’. In the place of ‘MUST’ we use the word ‘SHALLL’; and in the place of DEMOLITION, we now use the word REDEVELOP.
So, the government of Rivers State shall redevelop the water fronts.
But on the local front, what is happening? When will all these in-fighting stop between you and some of the political leaders in the PDP? And how do you handle party faithful?
For me, I am ready to open talks with anybody immediately. So long as the discussions do not involve money or the sharing of it, I am very ready because the impression people have is that Rivers State is very rich but we are not. Look at all these things we are doing we will need to pay for them. I told them at the exco recently, whether we like it or not, they will begin to deliver the mono rail that we’re trying to do from next year. You are talking about some N49billion where are am I going to get the money from. Then we have the other projects too.
We are also building a 180 megawatt power station, that is $195 million dollars and we’ve paid about $120 million out of that, so where are we going to get the remaining from? These are the things bothering me and not about sharing money.
They are about to complete the power station so we have to look for money for them. The schools that we’re building, they are about to complete them too and we must look for the money to complete them. The same thing goes for the health care centres. We must complete the remaining primary schools as well as the secondary schools.
For your information, I shy away from borrowing. We have a N30 billion facility which we have to complete projects for us by December. We would still have paid the money to the contractors but what we have done is to fast track the process and then we commence the repayment from March next year. Already, we have approval from the state assembly to go for bond but we are yet to. We haven’t drawn from the facility yet but we would shortly.
Our internally generated revenue used to be N2.5billion but we have been able to move it up to N4.6billion.
And mind you for over a while we never touched our excess crude. We do not have money but we have been very prudent. So, when you here EFCC talking about corruption in Rivers State I ask myself where is it coming from. We are going to be commissioning so many projects as we celebrate our third year anniversary. People say I am stingy but before I became governor was I stingy. I am faced with the realities of governance and we have to deliver. At this stage in our lives we are building primary schools as if we are a new nation.
On the issue of party faithful, if you engage in just patronage, you can only win party ticket but lose the general elections but our party members appreciate what we’re doing and they have keyed into it.
Even the case in court, we are prepared for whatever the court decides.
But it’s just about five months’ difference?
Let me tell you, five months in government is good (laughter)