The Commissioner for Information, Imo State, Prof. Nnamdi Obiaraeri, in this interview with CHIDIEBUBE OKEOMA, talks about the establishment of the Ministry of Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment, the erection of statues of some African presidents by Governor Rochas Okorocha and some other controversies in the state
Recently, the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, appointed his sister as the commissioner for happiness and purpose fulfilment. Is the governor aware that what he did amounted to nepotism and an abuse of office or was it that he just didn’t care?
The reaction that greeted it was a manifestation of ignorance. The constitution is very clear. Section 42 of the 1999 constitution states that no one should be discriminated against, on grounds of sex, place of origin or status. What is the issue here? Is the lady qualified to serve the state? We are talking about a lady who is old and married. She has her life to live; she is from Owerri North by marriage and Ogboko by birth, and our law is very clear that she can fly a flag of confidence. So, if out of 30 commissioners that were appointed by the governor, a deputy chief of staff is asked to supervise a ministry, what is nepotistic about it? No law was violated. She is the deputy chief of staff and she was asked to oversee the activities in that ministry, or is there any law that stops the governor from appointing his sister?
A mild controversy followed the announcement of the establishment of the Ministry of Happiness and Couples Fulfilment and when it was later announced that it was meant to be the Ministry of Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment. Many people saw it as an afterthought given the backlash that trailed it. How do you defend that?
The government made an appointment and clarified it; I don’t think that should be a controversial issue. You see, life is all about happiness and purpose fulfilment, and how it affects the affairs of the state. We are talking about providing leadership that can be emulated. Just last month, the United Kingdom created the office of the minister for loneliness. So, that we created a ministry for purpose fulfilment was not something unusual. The essence of government is to make people happy; the primary essence of governance is to promote the happiness and the welfare of the people. And talking about a state that has 305 millionaires, a state where we have free and qualitative education at primary, secondary and university levels, a state that has over 4,000 women that have been empowered, a state where urban renewal has become the order of the day, why would purpose fulfilment be something to be laughed at, instead of being emulated? Like I said, the essence of governance is for people to be happy. So, the idea is to make sure that the government builds its projects and policies around happiness and purpose fulfilment. That is why you see a medical doctor that has a job jumping into the lagoon to commit suicide. That is a product of being unhappy. Hate speeches, the one we get from the social media and every imaginable public space, is a function of unhappiness. That ministry is a multipurpose ministry that would orientate Imo people, redirect the young people and make the elderly to begin to see themselves as fulfilled in life. So, it’s a very serious business. Other states should clearly emulate Governor Rochas Okorocha by creating ministry of happiness and purpose fulfilment.
Despite that a torrent of criticisms have trailed his tenure, the governor could still claim that his administration has done better than all past administrations put together. Is that not living in self-deceit?
These are issues that are in the public place. Before he became governor, this is a state where education was for the rich. So, when he came with the idea of free education, people thought it was impossible, but today it has become a possibility. By February 14 or sometime in the month, we are going to celebrate complete seven years of free education in Imo State. If you talk about infrastructural upgrade, for the first time, Owerri has become a cosmopolitan town in the real sense of it. Owerri is now the business destination of the South-East zone. Democracy has two sides; the tangible and intangible dividends. The tangible dividends are the roads, water, power supply, etc., but intangible dividends include the freedom of speech. This state is tolerant. There are no known cases of political suppression or killings. Clearly, this government has done better than all governments in the past.
While the dust raised by the appointment of his sister has yet to settle, there is already a move by the governor to make his son in-law, who is currently his chief of staff, the next governor of the state. How far can this government take its nepotism?
The first way any Nigerian should think is that; is this action legal? Is it constitutional? Is it moral? If it passes these three tests, then it has no issues and it would be mere underground rumour. What law has he violated? What is wrong with the governor putting his son-in-law (up for election as governorship candidate) assuming that is what he wants to do. Does the governor have more than one vote? What you see going on is vocal minority. The vocal minority wants to make noise and overwhelm the system. If a governor says I want my son-in-law to take over from me, what is wrong about that? Has he committed murder or has he stolen anything? The young man will go through the processes and if the party allows him, he gets the ticket of the party and presents himself for governorship election and Imo people will vote for him and he will become the governor of Imo State. Has he now become ineligible because he is the son-in-law of the governor? Are you not aware that there are people who are judges and their wives are also judges? What is the issue about it? Is the young man not a Nigerian? The wife of a former Head of State of this country is a judge. I’m talking about Abdulsalami Abubakar. Are there no Supreme Court judges who are wives of politicians? What are we talking about? We are thinking from a very narrow view and it’s making the thing look childish. So, what is natural justice? Are you saying that if you are the son of Rotimi Williams, you cannot practise law?
This government is seen to be controversial. Controversy also greeted the erection of the statues of the President of South Africa and ex-President of Liberia, Jacob Zuma and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf respectively. Others have yet to be unveiled. Imo indigenes at home and abroad said they were ashamed and embarrassed by that action in a place where many live in poverty. Does this government feel the pulse of the people at all?
What is the need for being embarrassed that Imo is now a cosmopolitan state, or that Imo is now a prominent part of Nigeria? We have moved beyond the mundane city that we were and now we have become a state that is being mentioned immediately after Lagos and Abuja. During the Christmas celebrations, Imo was a tourist site, so when people are not knowledgeable about something, they say things. But it is our responsibility to enlighten them because the governor has opened up Imo State to the outside world. It is not easy to get the giants of Africa to visit a place. And I maintain that Zuma is not a President that you disregard his presidency in the world’s protocol. Former President Sirleaf is the first African woman to have become president, and we are trying to drive leadership from Imo. President Zuma’s visit has given us impetus for the Imo cargo airport, among other benefits that would accrue from that visit. People like Prof. Maurice Iwu, Pascal Dozie, Jerry Chukwueke, Leo Stan Ekeh and (the owner of) Innoson Motors had breakfast with President Zuma and you can be sure of the outcome of such. But instead, people are making noise about the Zuma’s statue that was erected. Therefore, it is not enough for the ignorant person to begin to chastise government programmes, but we know where the aspersions are coming from. We have overtaken leadership from other states in the country. We created the ministry of happiness and purpose fulfilment, we opened up statues in the Ikemba Ojukwu Centre for the world to see that we are not looking at Nigeria as our competition; we are looking at the outside world. There is nothing to be ashamed of and there is nothing to be bothered about.
Since these leaders came to Imo to partner the Rochas Foundation, why would the government use state facilities and funds to host and honour foreigners to give support to the foundation of the governor?
We must distinguish between charity and governance. Nigerians must begin to commend what is commendable. Governor Okorocha has become an African icon and philanthropist. To be able to attract presidents, the Rochas Foundation College of Africa has received a mention from across the globe. I don’t want to think that the South African president is inconsequential, that a Ghanaian President is inconsequential, or that a former Liberian President is inconsequential. I don’t want to believe that former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is the Chairman of Rochas Foundation, is not an eminent person in the world. Nigerians must begin to give respect (to people) and do away with this idea of petty jealousy, exhibited by those who go out to gossip. Rochas is elevated and he is now a global icon and there is nothing anybody can do about it.
But the people he governs have described his administration as the worst in the history of the state.
How does it work and how did they arrive at that? I don’t want to pass comments on irrelevant opinions because freedom of speech is not an opportunity to say things that are false. Have you looked at our rejuvenated civil service; look at the dualisation of roads in different parts of the state, and you know the difference between Anara Road and Amaraku Road before and now that Governor Okorocha is there. He has removed the garment of shame from Okigwe zone. Look at the Malaysian market and Okigwe Stadium. These are the things we need to see, because even when an Okigwe son had power, he could not do it for our people. But now, somebody else has done it and is doing much more. As I speak to you now, there are road construction works going on in every ward in the state. When he appointed the last set of commissioners, 27 came from each of the local government areas in the state, and so the cry of maginalisation in the state has stopped completely.
But why is the government intolerant as some groups that held a protest against the administrative style and state of affairs in the state were allegedly intimidated by security operatives on the order of the governor? Why was the governor against a peaceful protest?
That was another comic development. Which group? What is the name of the group? Democracy is all about the majority, but some people believe that the vocal minority should rule. It is impossible in a democracy. About four or five people will gather somewhere, make noise and run away at the sight of police and they would blame the governor for that. That was why we erected the Freedom Square; go there every Friday and complain. The Imo Broadcasting Service and press are there to listen. This idea of ambushing the mentality of our people should stop. It is foolhardy to believe you can just gather people and say what you want to say and get away with it. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, and police are there. I would want to see a situation where a formal complaint is made against the governor to either the EFCC, ICPC, police or any of the anti-graft agencies. I want to see where a formal complaint is made against a commissioner. Granted, a governor has immunity, do I have immunity? Let them present a formal complaint. Activism is not the same as rascality. This is a bunch of rascals that have no integrity. If you mention their names, I may be able to dismiss them with a wave of the hand.
Can you give us the name of these persons you refer to as rascals?
I don’t want to put their names on the newspaper, but they are a bunch of rascals.
People see Governor Okorocha as one of the most controversial governors in the country. Do you think that is good for him?
People who say that do so because he is pan-Nigeria. He is a nationalist. He is an Igbo by birth, raised in the North and had his business exploits and breakthrough in life in the West. He is the only governor who was into clear, genuine charity before he became governor and before he even thought of politics. That is the controversy they are talking about; being positively controversial. He has his opinions very clear on national issues and he believes that every Nigerian deserves fair treatment in the affairs of this country. He believes that there is no superior Nigerian. That is his controversy and I like it. I wish other Nigerians would copy his style of controversy. He was the first Igbo man to embrace President Muhammadu Buhari and he told us clearly in 2015 that President Buhari represented the best in this country and he supported him. When he joined the All Progressives Congress, people said it was a Hausa party and that the whole idea was to make Nigeria an Islamic country. Today, as I speak to you, the Peoples Democratic Party has zoned its presidential candidacy to the North. Is the PDP now an Islamic party? When people who have vision are speaking, lesser people should listen. The controversy is that he is a Nigerian. He is a nationalist.
Towards the last Yuletide, the governor gave workers in the state about 14 days’ holiday. Some people described that as a waste of time. Why should holiday be that long?
There is nothing like a long holiday. The truth is that you must not begin to play with the idea of rest. We mustn’t pretend that we do not know that during the festive period, all logistics are complicated. Transportation fares go up, there is traffic congestion and you cannot tell a Christian of Igbo origin not to travel home. Looking at these, it was realised that Imo workers needed compulsory rest. That was the idea behind the rest; so that people could go home and rest and come back rejuvenated to carry out the affairs of the state. That is why the holidays have come to stay. It didn’t in any way affect the economy of the state because those on essential activities were exempted anyway.
Some people have described it as ridiculous and as a sign that the state government does not have a productive mindset. Does that argument not have a merit?
I would have dismissed such insinuations; but I am sure that even you the interviewer operates as well from Imo State and you saw that moving from point A to B in the state during that period was a problem. So, if somebody is pretending that the holiday was not necessary, they should have seen the serious impact.
Then is it true what some people say that the governor is using the long holidays to compensate the workers since he owes them salaries, especially as the break could afford some time to work for money elsewhere?
That’s not true. Imo workers were paid their salaries. It was announced that their November and December salaries had been paid and we didn’t have issues where people were being owned. Nobody complained, so there was no reason to compensate. With the records that I have, we do not owe arrears of salaries as I speak to you.
Some residents of the state say the governor spends more time out of the state than he spends at home and that he is often in Abuja or out of the country. Is that fair?
There is no such record anywhere. This is a governor who embarks on physical inspection at project sites; a governor who presides over meetings, lives in the state and that is clear to people. If there are meetings he has to attend in Abuja, definitely he will go to Abuja. Imo is part of the Nigerian state and we belong to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If there is a reason for the governor to travel out of the country, definitely he will and we let people know. It is not that it is true that he travels often, but (when he is not around), he has an able deputy governor, coupled with his aides and appointees that he can delegate functions to. He is the chief executive and not a police officer who must stay there and take charge. He can govern the state, even while in the aircraft because he has appointed very functional and knowledgeable minds to man different departments and agencies. Governance is not suffering and like I said, there are no records that he travels all the time.
It is assumed that the governor got away with some of the things he did due to the absence of vibrant opposition, except those on the social media.
You can’t oppose the governor only on the social media; we want to be opposed live and one-on-one. So, there is no opposition in Imo State, except those you see on social media. If you go to Imo State University, where there is free education, you are not going to see any building in the name of opposition political party leaders, past or present, in Imo. If you go to the library, you will not see any textbook that is worth N100 donated by them. If you go to the markets and schools you will not see any upgrade by any of these opposition characters. You will not see primary and secondary schools adopted by these people, including the ones they attended. That is how to constructively oppose government; to be able to show how it can be done better, not by word of mouth. Today, we have relocated Ekeukwu; this is what was thought to be impossible. The opposition is only good at manipulating results. When you want to oppose, you should be able to oppose constructively. They should go to Imo State Polytechnic at Umuagwo. I want to see a building standing in the name of an opposition party. I want to go to the School of Nursing, Amigbo and see buses donated there by opposition parties. This is how opposition is done. Opposition is not all about a group of lazy men or politically displaced people sitting together, writing rubbish, allowing young people to share it in the name of Internet. Opposition in Imo only exists on the Internet; they are not on the ground. Otherwise, where is their headquarters; where do they operate from?
The governor seems to have lost grip in the APC and that is affecting the growth of the party in Imo State. Do you agree that it is a problem?
We are talking about a two-term governor; the only southeastern APC governor and the APC Governors’ Forum Chairman. That is rubbish. How will you sideline a two-term governor, a performing governor for that matter? Last year, when the wife of the governor celebrated her birthday, the Vice-President came here and slept over. The wife of the President slept in this state. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation came here and slept over and said to the public that the President for the first time called him and said he must go to Imo. As if it was not enough, he said “the President still called, through the chief of protocols, and said you must leave whatever you’re doing and go to Imo.” And one local man is trying to tell you that there is no love lost between the governor and the President. Even as we speak, he has been appointed into the Southeast Zonal Campaign Council of President Muhammadu Buhari for his re-election. You cannot talk about the APC in Nigeria without talking about Governor Okorocha. All those who believed that the APC was a party for the North are now coming because they have seen that he is big-hearted and observed the way he accommodates people in politics. He is allowing everybody to come in and that is the way it should be. What will make the President to hate him? He recently released the list of appointments and we (Imo) got almost all we want from that list. I don’t understand what any lazy person will be talking about regarding that.