All eyes were on the Senate as the upper chambre screened 37 ministerial nominees sent to it for confirmation by President Muhammadu Buhari over the last two weeks. But none of the nominees proved as controversial as Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, a former governor of Rivers State, whose screening had to be deferred at least once owing to the deluge of petitions against his nomination, and for which he had to face the Senate Ethics and Privileges Committee.
Finally, Amaechi was screened in plenary by the Senate on Thursday. The former governor tells his story in the course of the exercise. Excerpts:
BY HENRY UMORU & JOSEPH ERUNKE
WHO IS CHIBUIKE ROTIMI AMAECHI?
I happen to be one of the best Nigerians to have served as Speaker for eight years. In the period I served, Speakers were impeached almost on regular basis. I have also served as a governor of Rivers State under the PDP, but during my second term, I was governor of Rivers State under APC. Distinguished senators, it is a rare privilege to stand here today to address you. I believe that this is my first time of addressing the Senate and I thank you. I thank the President for this privilege. Whether I become a minister or I not, this will go in the history book of mine that I once addressed the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but truly at the mercy of the Senate.
And as you know, this is a hallowed chamber, so I am deeply humbled and honoured that I have been nominated by the President and to have been give the chance to address you on what I thought would be the little contributions I have made to the development of Nigeria. I told you earlier that my name is Chibuike Amaechi, I am truly a Nigerian.
As I said to you earlier, I am the immediate past governor of Rivers State and I was the Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly for eight year years, just like I was governor for eight years. I was Chairman of Conference of Speakers for two tenures and I had also the privilege of serving as Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum for two tenures too. Take it together, whether as governor or as Speaker, these two cases can tell the story of public service.
TENURE AS SPEAKER
During my tenure as Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly, we achieved a lot. Some key bills like the Anti Kidnapping Law and the Rivers State School Rights were passed. I drafted these bills myself. I was just pained that there were some of our children who couldn’t go to school and I had to ensure that the bills became laws so that our children, parents and teachers will have their rights and privileges and that government has the obligation to fulfill them.
However, my most fulfilling moment as Speaker was the passing of the Rivers State School Rights Bill. This bill clearly defines the responsibility of parents, teachers and parents to guarantee our children’s access to qualitative education. Education should not only qualitative, it must also be accessible.
WHAT I DID AS GOVERNOR
As governor, we inherited a state that was comatose and with the problem of insecurity. Our immediate task was, therefore, to restore security and improve the social and economic well-being of our people. These were the two pronged approach: physical and fiscal security.
By fiscal, I mean putting money in the hands of Rivers people. While we confronted criminality with aggressive enforcement measures, we embarked on what we called massive social and infrastructural development. They are there for record purposes; we declared emergency in education and guaranteed free and compulsory education up to secondary school level.
During my tenure as governor, we awarded contracts for the construction of over 500 primary schools and completed and furnished 3014 of these to 100 percent completion, while others were virtually completed by the time we left office in May 2015. We undertook the training and re-certification of teachers already on the payroll of the state and employed over 13,200 teachers.
Our efforts and investment in the education sector did not go unnoticed, as Port Harcourt won the UNESCO world competition in 2014. We competed against cities like Moscow and Oxford. In the area of healthcare, it is on record that our government built 140 health centres and we employed a total of 400 medical doctors. When we came in, there were only 200 doctors in the employ of the government and we employed a total of 400 medical doctors. Anybody who visited Rivers State when we served would testify that we worked to bring back the old glory of Port Harcourt as the Garden City and as a third leg in the economic tripod of Nigeria.
AS CHAIRMAN, NIGERIA GOVERNORS’ FORUM
I don’t know what I would say because whatever I I say may annoy my political brothers from the PDP. This morning, I woke up on the bad side of the bed and, as a Christian, I prayed and I opted to wear the dress I have never worn before; so I wore this, believing that in the spirit of peace, I would be asked questions that would be very peaceful.
The Governors Forum started as a check to executive recklessness. The Senate President( Saraki ) was the Chairman and headed it with other governors who are here today as senators, including Senator Goje. To make me the Chairman of the forum for the first time, it happened in Kwara State and we checked the excesses, including the expenditure of the oil subsidy. There is a case in court up till now stopping the Federal Government from drawing money from the account to fund oil subsidy because we believe that if we stop the Federal Government from drawing state and local governments money, the Federal Government will not be able to bear the cost and will, therefore, remove oil subsidy which would reduce the level of corruption. Unfortunately, the case is yet to be heard.
On the resource control question, I think the radical posture of the Governors Forum led to the former President asking me that I had turned the body into a union, so it’s no longer a Governors ‘ Forum, it was now a trade union and what we all were doing was to defend the lives of Nigeria and ensured that the money accruable to the country was judiciously utilized.
I think the former president didn’t like it and, when my tenure expired as Chairman, I was requested not to run for second term and I thought that, as a Nigerian, I had the responsibility to exercise my right as a governor. So, I put forward for the election and, if you saw the forces against me, you would think that I would lose. Let me quote my brother and friend, Senator Jang, who was the opposition candidate. He said, ‘But North East zone supported me, North West zone supported me, North Central zone supported me and South South supported me, how did you win? You did not win, you did not win’. And I said I won, I had 19 votes and the rest are there for history to judge.
MY POSITION ON CORRUPTION AND PANEL OF INQUIRY THAT ALLEGEDLY INDICTED HIM
Corruption is very difficult to define. If you are a public officer and you don’t take bribe, I’ve never taken bribe in my life, but if they send a girl to you and you sleep with the girl and do her favour, you are corrupt. Corruption is a very wide concept. If people are contesting for a position and you offer your son, brother or sister an opportunity to hold that position, probably the person is not qualified, you are corrupt. So, it is difficult for me to define corruption.
The reason it was difficult in my political carreer is that I was trying to test my right and fight for my right. I was once a students union leader and, believe me, if there is one man who doesn’t like corruption, I don’t like corruption.
I have come here with a copy of the so-called panel report and there is no where the panel indicted me. I am here to tender the report before the Senate; no where, I repeat, there is nowhere the report indicted me.
However, because there are challenges, people in Nigerian politics believe that there is the need for a compromise. I would do that, but where it clashes with my principle, I find it a bit difficult to do what people may want me to do. If you ask me to advise politicians, I find it very difficult because most politicians will want to survive and so, because I don’t do that, I face challenges.
In October 25, the Supreme Court declared me as governor; don’t forget that I was facing similar challenge I am facing now. I was chased out of the country to Ghana; my family was chased out of the country, we were living in one room with my children just because I stood for my right, but God and the Supreme Court found me worthy and declared me as governor of Rivers State.
HOW WE SOLD THE BUHARI BRAND
We sold to the public the fact that there was massive corruption in the system. And there was the need to fight that corruption. And the only way to fight that corruption was to put a new government in place. And we had to get a signpost candidate. The signpost candidate is a man who the Nigerian public has seen as an incorruptible President. And that was why the party had to put President Buhari forward. And we thought that there was a need to do things differently. I thought that as good as the former President may have been, I don’t think he was suitable enough for the growth and development of Nigeria. So, we needed to offer opportunity to somebody we believed was better than the former President.
BLUEPRINT FOR NIGERIA
When you deal with the issue of massive unemployment, you deal with the change in the economic mantra. The mono-economic situation that we have cannot survive. Nigeria cannot continue to be what we are if we continue to rely on oil. I agree with the President that there is the need to invest in agriculture.
When we went to Germany, there were no natural resources that we met. If we invest in agriculture and technology, you will hire as many workers as possible. In the course of the campaign, in Borno, we saw water melon that grew naturally. If you plant just 100,000 hectares of water melon in Borno, you can be sure to engage more than 30,000 workers. You can do a similar thing around Kano and other parts of Nigeria. Look at what crops can be instituted in which area and you encourage the farmers with funding because the problem is fund from the banks and the interest rate. So, government must invest in that regard.
We must diversify the economy. Mining is another area that God has blessed us with. And we also need to invest in education because some of our people are unemployable. We need to invest hugely in education. We did that in Rivers State. For four, five, six years, our budget was highest in education in Rivers State. So, if this happens, we will employ quite a number of workers.
Secondly, we must improve on the social rights of the people. If you improve on the social rights of the people, there will be peace. If you have peace, there will be investors. You must have power. If you don’t have power, there will be no industrialisation. We don’t need rocket science in solving power supply. We should just look at what the problems are, remove corruption and invest in power. The reason most people don’t invest in Nigeria is that the cost of production by far outweighs the benefits you will make from your business.
So, I usually say that a Nigerian is a government of his own. He hires his own security, digs his own borehole, hires his own generator, so what is government providing?
ON ATTACHING PORTFOLIOS TO NOMINEES
Portfolio issue is a constitutional matter. Mr President has the power to do whatever he wants to do. The Attorney General in my predecessor’s government, Dr Peter Odili said that one may be a man, but if they say you are a woman, then you are a woman.
If the legislature wants ministers to be appointed with portfolios, then they must make that amendment in the Constitution. If it is not there in the Constitution, then the President can only apply his powers as allowed by the Constitution.
I will be glad if I see a list with portfolios; that way, everybody knows where he is going, but now you don’t know where you are going and you don’t know if to ask me about my expertise in education or health or Niger Delta.
I remember when my friend and former colleague, Danjuma Goje asked me if I had been a senator or a minister before; now I want to be a minister; after that, I will be a senator.
ON NIGER DELTA RESOURCES
In my former view, I believe that the resources are in the Niger Delta and their fair share is necessary; that is why there was militancy. I believe that if you don’t address social justice, the country will not be the same. When we went to Germany and we saw how they raised their fund, I felt therefore that our dependence on this natural resource is unnecessary.I believe that we should draw a poverty line that no state should collect anything less than five billion naira from the national revenue. If any state goes below five billion, then all of us should contribute to ensure that the state gets up to five billion. That is my real position on that.
On the East-West Road, it is not just for the Niger Delta; it is an economic rule that will lead to economic prosperity for Nigeria. If I become the minister of Niger Delta, that will be first road that I will address.