•Reason Anambra has low COVID-19 cases

Burden of being Obiano’s spokesman — James Eze
Governor Willie Obiano

By Fred Iwenjora

Ace journalist, Public relations practitioner and poet James Eze is the Spokesperson for Anambra state governor, Chief Willie Obiano.

In the wake of the controversy over the only Anambra state COVID index case, Eze whose book of poems, Dispossessed, is reigning strong both locally and internationally speaks to FRED IWENJORA on a wide range of issues from the COVID19 situation in the state to his many challenges and burdens as well as his triumphs on a job in which according to him one is required “to sleep with eyes on the last headlines and wakes up with their eyes on the breaking news”

What is the true position of COVID-19 in Anambra State?

The true position of the Covid-19 pandemic in Anambra State is that as at Wednesday the 6th of May, 2020, Anambra State has recorded only one Covid-19 case and the patient has been successfully treated and discharged.

The Index Case was reported by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) on Friday, April 10, 2020. He was moved to the Protective Care Center in Onitsha where he was treated and managed back to good health once again.

Following the negative results from the two mandatory tests recommended by NCDC, Governor Obiano ordered that he should be discharged on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Since his discharge, Anambra has been on red alert.

The Special Task Force on Covid-19 which was established by Governor Obiano at the early stages of the pandemic has since commenced what is called an “Active Case Search” across all the communities in the state to take more samples from the people for testing. The exercise is going on smoothly. As at Wednesday, May 6, 2020, Anambra has sent 76 samples to NCDC for testing and only the Index Case came back positive. The rest all of the results came back negative.

Why do you think Anambra recorded low COVID cases?

Anambra is one of the first states to take the grave threat posed by Covid-19 very seriously. It is a known fact that a large number of traders from the numerous markets in Anambra State transact huge volumes of business with their Chinese counterparts. Consequently, there is a great deal of traffic between Anambra and most commercial cities in China. But, Governor Obiano showed acute sensitivity when Coronavirus broke out in China late last year. What did he do? In the third week of January this year, he directed the Ministry of Information to roll out a special campaign targeted at traders, advising them against travelling to China. Then, subsequently, Obiano directed the members of the Anambra State Executive Council to take Covid-19 awareness campaign to the 63 markets in the state where traders were sensitized on the threatening pandemic and what they must do to avert the looming danger. All these were pragmatic steps taken in the state at a time when the pandemic was still a distant, improbable fear.

Could you make an assessment of six years of working as a spokesperson for a Nigerian state Governor?

It has been a challenging but exciting experience for me. It is challenging because I actually wear two hats; I am both Spokesman and Speech Writer. I would be telling a lie if I told you that it is an easy job. But I would also be lying if I said that it hasn’t pushed me to the edge of a new and exhilarating drive for personal excellence that I didn’t quite know I was capable of. I came to this job with what you might call a rich private sector experience.

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But the public sector trumps all experience in intrigue, gamesmanship and clandestine politics. Nevertheless, the challenge remains the same. A governor’s spokesman must understand the personal philosophy of his boss; his outlook on life, his passions and obsessions as well as his unspoken thoughts. He should be able to communicate these with the greatest clarity to the larger audience without running the risk of being misunderstood by his boss or his audience.

It may sound a little complex but it is easy once you are ready to roll up your shirtsleeves and demonstrate appropriate sensitivity to your job. And for me, after six years of working closely with a leader that is largely seen as one of the brightest hopes of our country, I think I have gained a lot of experience in how leadership works. On the whole however, the job of a governor’s spokesman is a delicate one. It places one on a kind of tight rope from where one is constantly negotiating for understanding and acceptance.

What’s your routine like? Anything changed?

My schedule is essentially determined by the routine of my boss.  But in between, I have to come up with initiatives that will keep my team busy.

There are moments when everything gathers a blistering speed and you find yourself gasping for breath. I remember our first four years in office and I shake my head sometimes when I think of the enormous pressure we endured.

It was intimidating. But to answer your question more directly, in this day and age, everyone goes to sleep with their eyes on the last headlines and wakes up with their eyes on the breaking news.

In my position, you don’t ever want your boss to be the first to hear what is happening out there before you. You must be a step or two ahead of the matter else the standard verdict would be “you are not on top of it.”

And that is a large statement.  Again, if you lead a team of bright men and women like I do, you must be adequately prepared always. You must be on your toes, mentally, psychologically and emotionally. If you are not, just one niggling question from any member of the team might make you look like a ridiculous imposition.

What stands as your biggest challenges on the job so far?

The biggest challenge of any governor’s spokesman in Nigeria today is the deliberate use of social media by mischief makers to circulate false reports about people in leadership positions. It is commonly known as the Fake News phenomenon. That is the nightmare of every governor’s spokesman. Unconscionable people who are restrained by neither morality nor good taste have often misused social media to circulate false and sensational stories about leaders on different platforms.

And because there’s hardly any regulation, many uninformed people have no way of telling which story is fake and which is factual. Sometimes you chuckle at how some of the most grotesque and outlandish stories are easily believed by people. You wonder how eager we sincerely are to believe the most implausible stories about other people. Sometimes you can’t help but shudder at the hammer blows our humanity has taken. This menace is a constant threat to my peace of mind.

What about the triumphs?

The triumphs are many but I’ll stick to the major ones. The biggest one is the unprecedented electoral victory my boss recorded in 2017 when he ran for re-election. It is a watershed in the political evolution of Anambra State. In the run-up to the election, we had listened to a lot of tough talks. Some political elements in the state had even sworn that Governor Obiano could only return to office over their dead bodies. But not only did the governor win his re-election, he actually made history by winning in all the 21 local governments in the state.

Now, you wonder why I consider it my own personal triumph. Never mind. The truth is that I took my boss’s re-election as my own personal challenge. I believed that he had done enough in his first term to be given a second chance. I thought that it would be a grave injustice if he was denied re-election. I went to war in my own way.

We had a very brutal media war. I threw in everything I had. I made enemies of course. In the end, my boss won. I remember that the columnist, Ebere Wabara said in his column after the election that he was certain that I was one of the few people that would have fled Nigeria into exile if my boss had not won his re-election.

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Ebere was absolutely right. I had no doubt that I would have been targeted if the result had gone the other way. Another little triumph that I must mention here is the repossession of my creative writing gift which culminated in the publication of my first collection of poems titled ‘dispossessed.’ I think my writing struck a magnificent new rhythm when I returned to the South East. The book was well-received and has been doing well at home and internationally. It is sold on major online stores in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Russia, South Korea, India and South Africa. It is also listed on Goodreads. So, there you have it. That’s a great personal triumph there.

As someone who was in media, PR and advertising, anything changed in the work schedules?

Yes, of course. A great deal has changed. The environment of work is totally different. The strategies are also different. While I didn’t have to worry about the corrosive power of propaganda in the private sector, I now have to sleep with one eye open. There are always some loose cannons lurking around, looking for missiles to hurl at the political leader. They inundate the people with ridiculously unintelligent lies.

The trouble is that you must almost always discredit those lies and fabrications. And if you don’t balance things, you might find yourself responding to virulent attacks all the time. In the private sector, I fought against blackmailers. They are also a troublesome bunch but there are not many of them out there. Now, don’t get me wrong. As a journalist and Public Relations professional, I am fully aware of the imperatives of constructive criticism in a democracy. A healthy democracy should in fact pray for constructive criticism which keeps the leader on his toes. Unfortunately, much of what we get nowadays can hardly pass for informed criticism let alone constructive criticism. All we get is unintelligent propaganda and ridiculous fabrications against people.

However, for me personally, the fundamental change is the understanding that as a governor’s spokesman, you are accountable to the people. You must pay keen attention to the sensibilities of the people.

You are one of the few who have become mouthpieces of principals not from your state of origin; has it been of benefits or burden? What are the basic benefits and basic burdens?

I think it has been a journey of self-rediscovery for me. It is a huge growth period. Until my appointment, I had worked only in the private sector. I had always been suspicious of the political leadership. So, I have a richer professional resume that cuts across both private and public sectors at the management level. Another benefit to me that might not mean so much to some people is the experience of working in Igboland among my own people. I left Igboland as a young man after graduating from university.

In a sense, I didn’t know much about my people before I left. But with this job, I have gained a great understanding of Ndigbo. I say this with a great sense of responsibility. I think I know my people better now.

And in knowing my people, I have gained an amazing self-knowledge that would have eluded me if I hadn’t come home to live and work with my people. You asked about the burdens of working in my present position. I don’t see any burden other than the menace of fake news and vile propagandists. Any other thing you might consider as a burden comes with the territory as the saying goes. Every professional must be ready to face the challenges that come with his job and the personal choices and decisions he has made. So, I have no burden that I wasn’t adequately prepared for. I have no challenge on this job that I did not envisage right from the onset. But who can grow without challenges? Challenges are what turn you into a seasoned professional.

What in your opinion gave you this very important and tasking job?

I am an undeserving beneficiary of God’s amazing grace. I am not better qualified or more experienced than those who might want to be in my position but are not lucky enough to get it. The Grace of God put me here and the same Grace will sustain me until the fullness of time when God will take me to a rock that is higher than I am.

Now tell me, would say that your principal has performed creditably well in the past six years?
Absolutely! My principal has changed Anambra State in a very profound way. And I am not being hyperbolic here.

How do you feel when your critics say Gov Obiano has not performed well?

I feel that people who say that Governor Obiano has not performed well are either not well informed or they simply want to be mischievous by living in denial or they are members of the opposition parties that are unhappy that contrary to their expectations, Anambra has leaped into the future under Obiano. I say this with every sense of sincerity because anyone who has observed Governor Obiano in the past six years could not have missed the milestones of his administration. And they are many and widely distributed across the state.

What do you tell such critics especially those who are saying that developmental projects recently commissioned were not evenly distributed across board?

I will point such critics to just a few key development projects – One, Awka was a glorified local government headquarters with dilapidated roads and devoid of landmarks before Obiano. Today, Awka is the fastest growing Nigerian city outside of Lagos and Ogun States with three iconic flyovers that can compete with the Ikoyi-Lekki bridge in Lagos.

Two, Anambra was a gangster’s paradise before Obiano where cutthroat kidnappers and blood-in-tooth armed robbers held sway. Today, Anambra has been repeatedly declared Nigeria’s safest state by the Nigerian Police. Three, Obiano’s agrarian revolution has placed Anambra on Nigeria’s agricultural map. Nigeria’s most sophisticated end-to-end agricultural value chain is located in Anambra with Coscharis Farms and JOSAN Integrated Farms working wonders with hi-tech agro machinery.

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This has slashed unemployment in the state and knocked crime out of its hitherto comfortable perch among the many old nightmares of the state. Four, under Obiano, education in Anambra State has undergone a tremendous revolution. Anambra girls from Regina Pacis Secondary School Onitsha defeated the US, China, Uzbekistan, Spain and Turkey at the World Technovation Fair in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, USA. Anambra boys from St John’s Technical College Alor also won Bronze at the World Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Challenge that took place in Tunisia in March 2019. These are great feats never achieved before in black Africa.

Who has ever left Africa to defeat the US at home in a technological contest before? No one. Anambra has been also a dominant force in all external exams in the country like NECO, WAEC and JAMB. Finally, Governor Obiano’s Community-Choose-your-Project Initiative which enables every community in the state to choose a development project that is of utmost interest to it has ensured an even distribution of government presence in all nooks and cranny of the state. It is a bottom-up development paradigm that has won the admiration of all development agencies. So, it is so easy to see that anyone who claims that Governor Obiano has not done well is not speaking from the vantage point of knowledge and facts but from abysmal ignorance and mischief.

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