The challenges facing Nigeria are of unusual dimensions. Take security. It has never been this bad?
There is an Igbo adage that says “Mberede Ka Eji Ama Dike” (You know who is a real man when he is confronted with unforeseen problems). The current security problems were unforeseen. So, we need not chicken out.
Our only option is to face it head on. If we continue to look at the size or dimension of the problem, then we will never be able to confront it successfully. Even smaller countries in Africa have faced problems of bigger dimensions. And they were able to grapple with it or they are grappling with it. We should be expected to do better.
That’s the crux of matter. Smaller countries are able to grapple with problems and Nigeria, a bigger country, is not. Isn’t that a big irony?
It is not the nature or the size of the problem that even matters but the complexity of the society or societies in which they occur. Confronting security problems in a country as big and complex as Nigeria is certainly not an easy thing. Even handling political problems in a country of over 250 ethnic groups could be tasking.
It is not what you can compare with smaller countries that may be monolithic, their sizes so small that you can drive round the entire country in a matter of hours.
Let me tell you, much of the outside world still marvel at our ability to remain together in spite of the myriad of our national problems. I can tell you that that is why at the slightest excuse, you hear some so-called experts predicting that Nigeria will soon break-up.
It’s because our continued existence as one country, against the backdrop of the complexities and peculiarities of the composition of the different federating units, beats their imagination. But I can tell you that they will soon give up on predicting about Nigeria’s break-up. Just one more thing and they will give up.
What is that one thing?
The next general election. The moment we get it right next year, all these problems will be over. The moment we are able to show the rest of the world that the successful transition from one democratically elected government to another in 2007 was not a flash in the pan, then they will begin to take us seriously.
The entire world is watching Nigeria. It’s after the next general election that we will finally be admitted into the comity of democratic nations. And that should be our challenge.
It is for the political elite to understand it this way. And when once that happens, you see that the other problems, including security problems, will disappear.
You talk about political elite, what should we expect of it?
Less desperation in seeking for political offices. I think that is the root of our problem. The moment members of the political elite learn how to accept defeat at elections, then our problems in pursuit of democratic ideals will be over.
What is responsible for the pervasive resort to crime among the youth?
It involves a whole gamut of issues. The problem is a fundamental one and therefore its solution must be fundamental. That’s why we talk about creating an economy in the state so that the youths can have jobs.
But let me state that among the major causative factors is the lack of role models in our society down here in the South East. Our young ones do not have people to look up to again.
Before the kidnapping thing became rampant, how many of our Igbo big men were returning to their villages or even to the state capitals so that they can interact with their people?
Every Friday, if you call any Igbo Senator or Minister or Representative, he would tell you he is on his way to Transcorp Hilton hotel for a meeting. Or he is on his way to Kaduna or Lagos.
But enter any flight from Abuja to Lagos every Friday afternoon or evening, it is filled with Yoruba big men, Ministers, Senators etc. When they get to Lagos, they head to Ibadan, Ogbomosho, Ile-Ife etc where they will go and meet their people.
Most Hausa-Fulani big men head for Kaduna or Kano every weekend. But our Igbo men lock themselves up in hotels in Abuja or Lagos.
The people at home are left with nobody to talk to. Even when they come home, they organize armed youths and security details as body guards and drive at neck-break speed in siren-blowing long convoy of cars and in the process scare the people further away.
I agree that unemployment is a big problem but the alienation between our elite and the hapless youth also needs to be put in check. That one has nothing to do with government.
Even in terms of job creation, some Igbo politicians drive cars whose cost can build a cottage industry in their villages. Ask them how many of them have one single business in the South East, not even a fast food eatery or a shop.
Here in Imo, what most of them did was to use the money they got from the previous administration to build chains of houses in Owerri and Abuja. Not one of them owns a pure water factory.
What’s your own formula for a credible election?
If the politicians do not see the election as do-or-die affair, then we will have a credible election. It is desperation that leads to rigging and the attendant consequences. And as you know, rigging comes in several forms. It is not only through the manipulation of election materials that you can rig.
Rigging can be achieved even through legislation.
As far as I am concerned, the proper legal framework for a successful general election in 2011 is already there. What is left is just for us to eschew desperation and be able to accept defeat.
So, are you optimistic that the politicians will behave better in the next election?
I am quite optimistic. Very optimistic that Nigeria will get it right and our democracy will be deepened.
What’s the source of your optimism?
I believe many politicians will see that certain attitudes they put up in 2007 and after will no longer be tolerated by the people. This is especially because we had cases where politicians were deceiving the people with lies.
We had cases where those who lost elections held their supporters in captivity by inundating them with lies about the imminent winning of their cases at the courts.
Others would return from Abuja on weekends to tell their supporters that the powers that be there have asked them to take over. Now the people are wiser.
Another way of looking at it is that the people have also seen that most of those who lost elections are merely out to distract those elected. And in such cases, the people discovered that they were at the loosing end.
I don’t think the people will be ready to tolerate such things again. That’s why I believe that the era of political desperadoes may have gone.
Are you talking from experience?
Well, I am not the only person who was confronted with the problem of distraction from the antics of desperate office seekers. The important thing is that the people stood by me and today they are wiser.
I believe that they now realize that if I didn’t face the barrage of needless litigations and other forms of sabotage, we would have done far much better than we have done in three and half years now.
Your critics say the Wonder Lake Resort and the Refinery projects are only on paper.
I hope that you will have time to visit the sites. Such criticism are of course what we call arm-chair criticism. The people mouthing such things have never visited the sites. Most of them live in Lagos or Abuja and merely come on weekends to intimidate the people with long convoys of cars.
But more important is that our people are not used to such gargantuan projects that require intricate and vigorous planning. We are used to seeing road construction or rehabilitation and sinking of bore holes. Anybody can do those things. It does not require any mental rigour to have roads constructed.
You can mobilize a contraction today and tomorrow he gives you ten kilometers of roads. But that is not so with a refinery project, for example. There are many studies and processes involved. You conceive the idea, you put it on paper, you begin to assembly experts to begin the necessary studies.
After that, you begin to look for the necessary approvals from the relevant authorities.
At the same time, you have to look for funds. So, the question is, when can we say that such a project has began.
Is it at the conception stage, or at the stage of doing the necessary studies? Or is when you begin to see concrete buildings at site. Obviously, what our people look at is the latter, when they see a big complex spring up. But I can tell you the erection of building is the least challenging aspect.
Many abandoned projects you see are because their proprietors began by erecting building, without first doing the necessary homework.
The truth is that projects of huge dimensions and complexities like our Wonder Lake Resort And Conference Centre and Refinery require a lot of planning right from the conception of the idea.
When you say “paper work”, it is even an admission that something is going on. Such projects involve a lot of paperwork. All the processes I have enumerated earlier require paper work. It may take years for the first block to be moulded at site. That does not mean that no work was going on.
Take the refinery project. Some of the investors with whom we signed Memorandum of Understanding initially suffered some setbacks due to the global economic crisis.
Besides, they had difficulty getting approvals from their home governments to remit necessary funds, with the spate of insecurity within the Niger Delta region, then, posing a big threat to such potential investors. When we noticed that, we decided to work on other options and that led us into a new arrangement that has seen the NNPC now partnering with us in the project.
All this took quite some time. That does not mean that no work was going on. Or take the Wonder Lake Resort project. It’s another gargantuan project. We went to the capital market with a Bond. Some people went to court to stop it and that made the process longer.
These are some of the unnecessary distractions we have to faced in the last three and half years. The Wonder Lake project requires intricate planning. Right from the onset, we agreed we must get it right so as to get the maximum the benefits for our people. To put it more succinctly, all our mega projects, particularly those two, are very much on course.
You are warming up to contest the 2011 governorship election for a second term. What is your message to the people? What will you be telling them as you solicit for another mandate?
The good people of Imo State already know why I want a second term. They know that I am a performer. As I told you earlier, they have seen that in spite of sabotage and distractions we have made steady progress.
You see, one thing going for us is that we were able to make the people come with us in one page. My message to the people is that together we have achieved a lot but that we can do more. This administration is steadily laying a solid foundation for a model modern state. Part of the New Face of Imo philosophy is to make Imo a one-city state; that is, you can access Owerri, the state capital, from any part of the state in less than forty minutes.
In pursuit of that objective, we embarked on massive road construction, rehabilitation and maintenance. As at today, my administration has awarded contracts for a total of 4022.40 kilometer of roads.
This include the very ambitions 150-kilometre Boulevard called the Imo Interconnectivity Multilane Freeway that will cut through 19 local government areas and 500 communities and markets with arterial roads leading to the remaining local governments. The cost is put at N35 billion.
The objective here is to open up these communities to each other while making their products and services available to each other. But the grand master plan for the opening up of the rural areas in the state is the Imo Roads Maintenance Agency (IROMA) which was launched on November 2, 2008. Within the first month of its establishment, IROMA rehabilitated over 300 rural roads, thus opening up parts of the hinterland.
Apart from roads, IROMA is also proving jobs for over 3,000 people. Taken together, this administration has constructed more kilometers of roads than all previous administrations put together. But even as important as providing roads and other physical infrastructure are, we have put in place other transformative programmes whose effect may not be dramatically visible as say a newly constructed road. Yet, the impact of such programmes and policies is being felt by every Imo citizens.
We have taken tough decisions that were capable of making us unpopular. But today, the people know better. When we banned the operation of commercial motorcycles in the state capital, Owerri, some politicians wanted to capitalize on the initial set backs.
But today, go and tell Owerri residents that you want to bring back Okada. They will see you as mad.
By that bold decision, we have saved the lives of many people. If you go to the hospitals, you no longer see people with their legs hung up. Before, traditional bone setters were establishing clinics every day and at every nook and cranny of the state. Not any more. Those young men who used to operate Okada are now happier and safer.
Besides, they have acknowledged severally that they now make more money with the tricycles then with Okoda.
We didn’t just ban Okada. We over hauled the public transport system in Owerri metropolis. For the first time, we introduced a Municipal bus service system. We brought in brand new air conditioned taxi cabs.
That scheme is being expanded to make for more participation. Some critics have come up with the argument that the introduction of tricycles has increased traffic conjunction in the capital.
That is a temporary problem if it actual exists. The problem is that many of the road users lack discipline. In any case, it was in anticipation of this particular problem of traffic that we embarked on the construction of Inner Ring roads within the Owerri metropolis.
The ring roads will divert much of the traffic coming from outside the state capital so that they do not have to pass through the main city. We still have trailers and fuel tankers driving through the city. That will soon be a thing of the past by the time we complete the ring roads.
It also took courage to confront the filth and decay in Owerri and the other urban centres in the state. Our Clean and Green Initiative brought back Owerri to the status of the cleanest city in the country.
With courage, we took the most radical decision since after the Nigerian Civil War by returning 44 secondary schools to their original missionary owners. Now, we are still paying the teachers in those schools as a deliberate policy to give the proprietors time to put their houses in order.
More schools will be handed over before May 2011. We have also embarked on massive rehabilitation of schools in each electoral Ward in the state.
We have established the Imo Children Education Fund (ICEF) that is aimed at raising 50 billion naira for the rehabilitation of schools. We made all political appointees to contribute 25 per cent of their salaries into the fund. At the first launching, we raised about N650 million.
The second stage is coming. And the necessary administrative machinery has also been put in place for the fund to be independently managed. This is in addition to tackling the problem of unqualified teachers head on. In the last three and half years, we have discovered over 1000 teachers with fake certificates, from elementary school to university.
We did not limit our efforts to primary and secondary education. We created a Polytechnic out of the Monotechnic that used to be Michael Okpara College of Agriculture. It is now called Imo State Polytechnic with 18 accredited courses.
Unknown to many people, we have mapped out strategies for the proper funding of the state University, Evan Enwerem University. It will soon be unveiled and I can assure that the problem of funding in that University will soon be a thing of the past.
Overall, our strategy on education in Imo state is to impart skill. We discovered that many young people in Imo lacked skill to fit into the 21st century environment.
Many graduates are not even computer literate. You discover that the Engineering graduates lack practical skills. You see a graduate of Electrical-Electronic Engineering, he cannot even fix a transistor radio. So, we set up a Finishing School to address all that.
Before I became governor I was to do a job that required Argon welders. I came home to look for people and discovered that there was not a single soul in the state that knew anything about Argon wielding, which is a very lucrative area.
Today, we have set up an Argon Wielding Training School. The state Polytechnic will be made to run practical programmes for craftsmen. In Imo state the average age of plumbers, Masons and other categories of artisans is 50.
The younger ones are not taking to craftsmanship. One of the things that encouraged us to do away with Okada in Owerri was that we discovered that with Okada, our young men were not thinking of vacations that would give them skills.
Before we came, if you went into a tailoring shop, you see a 65 year old man on the machine. The youth refused to learn trade because Okada was there to give them quick money. All that have changed.
It was also in pursuit of the objective of making our youth acquire modern technology skills that we set up Enterprise Zones. Two are now functional within the state capital territory but there will be one in each of the 27 local government areas of the state.
Our programmes in health targeted at women and children have earned us a pride of place in the MDG projects. Today, Imo State in polio-free and we have the lowest maternal and child mortality rate in the country.
We lifted the 15-year embargo on employment in the state. Our critics went to town that it was a hoax but today we have offered 10,000 jobs to our unemployed graduates to join the Teaching and Civil Services in the state. This is apart from over 20,000 other jobs in other sectors like the Clean and Green Initiatives IROMA and our Commercial Agricultural programme.
When we came here, the state was isolated from the rest of the country. The first thing we did was to break that insularity and hooked the state to the national grid. Through engaging the federal government in constructive dialogue, we have attracted projects worth over N200 billion to the state.
You spoke so much about crime. What efforts have you made to check it in Imo state?
The first two committees I set up upon assumption of office were on the Environmental and Security. The Committee on Security was headed by a retired Army Colonel and one-time Military Governor of Anambra state, Herbert Eze. We followed that up with the establishment of observation posts in every work and cranny of the state.
That was followed by the launching of Operation Festival in December 2007. That outfit is under the direct command of the Brigade Commander at the 103 Artillery Brigade in Obinze. And the result has been tremendous.
The crime rate was so drastically reduced that in 2008, the federal government sent the then Inspector General of Public, Mr Okiro, to come to Imo to find out what formular we were using so that it could be recommended to other states. In the initial phase of our security measures, we spend over three billion Naira. The state is still savouring in the benefits of those measures.
Agreed, we have had few cases of kidnapping within the state but it may interest you to know that there is no single kidnap cell in Imo, that is where kidnappers keep their victims. The reason is because they are found out immediately.
So, even if when they take people here, they get out of the state immediately because they know they will be tracked if they remain here.
Of course, our main target is to make it impossible for any kidnapping to take place on Imo soil in the first place. But I do not want to sound unrealistic because we do not have all that it takes to do it.
That’s why we co-operate with the security agencies which are federal outfits. The state government tries to maintain a cordial relationship with security agencies in the state and they have been wonderful.
Many people had expected that by now, you would have been able to make up with your predecessor, Chief Achike Udenwa. Even Chief Ifeanyi Araraume who ran against you, many thought that your people in Isiala Mbano should have been able to reconcile both of you.
But that has not happened. Instead, he has come out again to run for 2011, with Chief Udenwa’s active backing. What happened?
We are in a democracy. And everybody is free to exercise his or her democratic rights. Yes, I have extended an arm of brotherly love to them but they reserve the right to accept it or not. That I come from the same place with Senator Ifeanyi Ararume does not mean that he should abandon his own political ambition.
The late S.G Ikoku once contested an election against his father. What is important is for the people to be discerning enough to elect those they know can deliver. I am not afraid of competition.
It is not late for the two gentlemen you mentioned to change their minds and support me in my re-election bid and ultimately join in the effort to build Imo. It is not difficult.
Only recently, Chief Araraume’s running mate at the 2007 governorship election crossed over to New Face to work with us. He came with all the 19 co-ordinators of Araraume’s Destiny Organization, his campaign outfit.
Please, note one thing, I am by the grace of God the governor of all Imo citizens. I respect our people and all our leaders, even those who seem opposed to us. Our heritage is rich and our future is bright. To realize our full potentials as a people, I need the support of all. Therefore, it is always my desire to be at peace with all our leaders.
Therefore, it is a painful thing for me personally when it appears some of our leaders have chosen to take political differences to the level of jeopardizing the task at hand, which is to give our people a new lease of life.
We will always have disagreements but as brothers or as children of this land called Imo we must stay true to our people and work for their progress at all times. To that extent, I will continue to seek peace with all our leaders including the ones you have mentioned with a view to getting them on board the Imo Progress train.
Reconciliation is neither too late nor ruled out. Let me probably use this opportunity to ask the two gentle men to sheathe their sword and let’s work together to build our state.