Former Imo State Governor, Chief Ikedi Ohakim, finally broke his silence after over one year of leaving office. In this exclusive interview with Amby Uneze, Ohakim bares his mind on issues that cut across board. Excerpts:
Nigeria is 52 years, does that mean anything to Nigerians?
What that should mean to Nigerians is that we have come a long way as a people. And having stayed together for 52 years, it means that our collective destiny is irrevocably tied together. It has been a long and tortuous journey but the beauty is that we have not left anybody behind. On the weight of the several challenges facing us as a nation, it is common these days to hear some people query the continued existence of Nigeria as one country. For me, that should not arise. A break-up of Nigeria is inconceivable. It is like somebody suggesting that your parents who have been married for 52 years should divorce? Can you image that? So, for me, 52 years of independence means that Nigerians are now inseparable and that whatever challenges we face can best be tackled by remaining and working together.
But there is deep-seated bitterness out there?
I acknowledge the fact that there is widespread disaffection among Nigerians for reasons that are quite obvious. And of course, the grievances are quite legitimate especially for the youth who are facing a bleak future for no fault of theirs. The situation is unfortunate but I am also aware that every well meaning Nigerian realises the need to address all the factors responsible for the distortions in the system. Having said that, I hasten to add that the situation calls for caution; we should avoid things that would deepen the socio-economic crisis that is currently confronting us. We have what it takes to overcome the economic crisis. Since we have been able to get a handle to our political problems by being able to sustain our democracy for thirteen unbroken years, we should find a consultation in that. The fact that our democracy is working should afford us the impetus to face our economic problems with the hope that we shall soon overcome them. Yes, I agree that people are not happy but we should not write-off our country.
What do you consider Nigeria’s biggest challenge?
As far as I am concerned, there are two major challenges facing our country today. One is the pervasive lack of respect for the rule of law and non adherence to due process in governance. These two factors make it difficult for us to build strong democratic institutions. And without strong democratic institutions we will not make progress. Once we make our system to be such that those in authority become less idiosyncratic in their style and approach to public administration by respecting the rule of law, then we will make a quantum leap into sustainable socio-economic development. The other major challenge is that of unemployment. But I think the two are related because I believe if we do the proper things by obeying the rule of law and observing due process in governance, we will find ourselves in better position to create job opportunities for the younger ones.
What is your take on the current security situation?
My take is not different from that of every other well meaning Nigerian; which is that it is so unfortunate that we have found ourselves where we are today.
But do you think the right approach is being taken to addressing the issue?
You see, I laugh when I hear people say the federal government is not doing much to solve the problem. Nigeria is like a big petrol tanker, not a car. It is difficult and even dangerous for any driver to try to turn it away or maneuver it easily on the road in the face of danger. Any attempt so to do will portend calamity. The world not only Nigeria is going through a great change, the type never seen in the last 50 years. The truth is that no president or Head of state would be happy to preside over this type of situation. President Jonathan, I am sure is having sleepless nights. I sympathise with him as much as I sympathise with every Nigerian especially in the areas that are so vulnerable. I believe the Federal Government has shown enough concern over the matter. All we need do is to co-operate with it. My view is that we are being too harsh and hasty in our views about the current regime.
My position is that the more we give the impression that government is not capable of solving the problem, the more impetus we give to those perpetrating the mayhem and all other acts of criminality. We should be able to repose confidence in our government. We should be able to make it have the confidence to lead us. A situation where we find pleasure in rubbishing the leadership of the country is most unfortunate. Go to the internet and other social media and see what is posted about our leaders on a daily basis.
It’s been over one year since you left office. Unlike some of your colleagues, not much has been heard from you; even when issues bordering on your tenure are raised by those at the helm of affairs in the state. Are you so much into the silence is golden rule?
Yes, silence could be golden but to an extent. I chose to remain calm and watch events generally. There are so many people talking at the same time over the same issues. We cannot all be talking at the same time. You will notice that because of “me tooism” in this country, people end up re-echoing what others have said to the extent that original views are most often drowned by those who think that it is their prerogative to be listened to.
Besides, having served a full term of four years as governor, I had opportunity to make inputs into how the country should be generally run. My tenure gave me opportunity to see and be seen. So, let those at the helm of affairs now talk. I don’t miss anything in government or governance because I had a wonderful outing. It was really great and I thank God almighty for giving me that opportunity. I may not have been the best but it pleased Him to choose me to lead my people for good four years. In those four years, I ended every of my address with the footnote: Imo is in the hands of God. Above all, He gave me the grace to prove my mettle; to serve my people satisfactorily. I am quite contented. These days, I prefer to listen than talk. Let those there now prove their own worth.
But there have been allegations bothering on alleged financial impropriety during your tenure. Do you still feel you needn’t stand up to those allegations?
If you also listened well, you would have noticed that it is Imo people themselves that have risen to challenge the people making such allegations and asked them to substantiate them. What could be better than when the people you served are the ones defending you and challenging those whose pre-occupation seems to be that of casting aspersion on my personality. Surprisingly, apart from my party, the PDP, other parties like the ANPP and ACN have consistently challenged those making the allegations to substantiate them. But even more note worthy is the fact that the people of Imo state have since discovered that those making allegations against me were on a mission to deceive them by bandying lies against me. Over one year later, the people have discovered that those lying against me have no proof over their allegations. That’s why Imo people react the way they do each time anybody opens his mouth widely to say something against Ikedi Ohakim. I give it to Imo people. They are very discerning. They are not a people who can be deceived for long. They have now seen the truth.
What about the Rev. Father you allegedly flogged and the allegation that there was no such thing as Wonderlake Project and that you did not create any 10,000 graduate jobs? There is also the controversy over the local government election. As a matter of fact, it is generally believed that you lost the election mainly on account of those issues?
Before I go into that, let me quickly correct you. I did not lose the governorship election held last year. I did not lose. So, have that in your mind but I shall return to that. Now, you talk about the Reverend father issue: Yes, the people of Imo state have also discovered that it was all lies; that I didn’t touch any Reverend Father. The man has told his colleagues and his superiors that he never set his eyes on Ikedi Ohakim. I read an article where one prominent Imo citizen said that may be the people may have to wait until Fr. Okorie becomes a Bishop or Arch Bishop, when he will have the power and authority to come out boldly and tell his congregation what really transpired. May be until then, Ikedi Ohakim will continue to be the martyr. Between me and my God, the truth is that I never touched any Reverend Father.
The people I worry for are the hapless citizens who were mentally and psychologically enslaved to believe that such an abomination happened. The real tragedy is that up till now, those who so enslave Imo citizens have refused to free them from that psychological bondage, so that they can see the truth and engage in the necessary pertinence that is required of our Christian faith.
With regards to the allegation that 10,000 jobs, was a hoax what you should do is to follow the ongoing litigation between the recipients of the 10,000 jobs and the Imo State Government. That project was a well researched and thought out project targeted at addressing the issue of employment.
But it is believed that none of your projects saw the light of the day?
You are wrong in saying that.
May be I would have said that the projects were not completed?
Which project? Let me tell you, anybody can award contracts for the building of houses or roads. It is the easiest thing to do. And from what we have now seen, you do not even need to pay contractors any money for them to start building roads and houses. So, you see, anybody can ask people to go and demolish houses and build new ones I am not saying refurbishing houses is not good but that was not our priority. Our priority was to do projects that will create jobs and lay a foundation for the economy of the state. Economically viable projects take considerable time to materialize.We felt we should pre-occupy ourselves with things that are deep and as the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, would say, only the deep can call to the deep.
Are you not worried that some of your projects have been abandoned?
Naturally, I am worried, not because I feel anybody has succeeded in rubbishing my legacy but because I am aware that Imo people have been denied huge benefits that would accrue if those projects are completed. Personally, I don’t like talking about that because I am aware that Imo people are themselves taking up the matter. The other day, the Owerri-based newspaper owned by the Catholic Church carried an Editorial that was querying why the projects we began, majority of which were already over 70 per cent completed, were abandoned.
Again, it is left for Imo people to determine whether those projects should have been abandoned simply because they were stated by Ikedi Ohakim. I am under no illusion that I am a genius but our people know that I had bright ideas and that I meant well. We were prudent and creative with resources that were available to us. We had the capacity and discipline to go to the capital market for N40b multiple tranche debt issuance programme to part finance projects like the Wonderlake Resort and Conference Centre, Oguta designed to create over 20,000 jobs and we raised the first tranche of N18.5 billion which had 167% subscription. Of that amount, we left N13.3 billion in the project account which we handed over to my successor. At the time we went for that bond, hell was let loose by opposition, that Ohakim had borrowed N100 billion. Two court actions were taken against the bond which invariably delayed our access to the fund thereby delaying the project.
Are you going into opposition?
What is going into opposition? If trying to make sure that things are properly done is what you call opposition, well I don’t have an answer to that. Even if it is opposition, it will be one with a difference. It will not be one that will feed the people will lies. The problem we encountered was that some people took advantage of the easy going nature of Imo people to deceive them with lies. Unfortunately, that has continued. We will not say anything that is not backed with facts. That is the difference between me and many politicians.
Back to Nigeria, there’s the belief that the political situation accentuated the insecurity?
I don’t know what that means. Even if it is politics, why don’t we wait till the next election to decide on an alternative? If everybody gets killed before 2015, who will be there to vote or be voted for? Just the other day, a Senator died in Jos during the recent crisis there. So, you can see that anybody could fall victim to the situation. I believe that in spite of the current problem, Nigerians should find solace in the fact that we have managed to run our democracy non-stop for 13 years. It has never happened before. We should have confidence in our collective ability to grow our democracy. Even those of us who are victims of deliberate sabotage of the democratic process have put that behind us and chosen to work for a better Nigeria.
How are you a victim?
You said earlier that I lost the last election and I corrected you by saying that we did not lose that election. I am surprised you even said that. You were here in Imo. You saw what happened. We won the election on April 26, 2011. INEC cancelled the election in Ohaji-Egbema, Oguta and Mbaitoli. Those are the areas we got votes that off-set what happened in other places where result was written in favour of our main opponent. We protested but INEC refused to listen. It went ahead to conduct the so-called supplementary election even when our main opponent was in court challenging that decision. Up till today, three parties are still challenging the so called supplementary election.
Your colleagues from different media that covered the event have given a vivid account of what happened. It was clear that some officials were acting out a script. My party went to the Tribunal to challenge the declared result by INEC. Our major argument was that we won the election once the result from Ohaji-Egbema, Oguta and Mbaitoli are taken into account. Even after INEC had had a rethink and brought certified true copies of results from those areas, the Tribunal went ahead to dismiss our petition. We went to the Appeal Court and you are aware of the drama that played out there. We went to the Supreme Court and another drama played out there.
The apex court refused to hear the case due to technicalities. But today, what do we have? Just last week, the PDP candidate for the Oguta state constituency, Hon. Eugene Dibiagwu, was sworn as a member of the state house of Assembly. Dibiagwu is a product of the April 26 2011 election which INEC said was inclusive. But the Appeal court had ruled that the election in Oguta was not only conclusive but that the PDP candidate won in seven out of the eleven wards in the LGA and ordered INEC to conduct election in the remaining four. That election was conducted about two months ago and PDP candidate, Dibiagwu, won decisively. If you remember that INEC had declared the entire result from Oguta, Ohaji-Egbema and Mbaitoli non-existent, you then begin to appreciate the matter. It was the same results that the Appeal court has now said existed. And mind you, the voting for both the State House of Assembly and governorship took place the same time, in the same booths.
The judgement on Oguta, and subsequent swearing in of Dibiagwu as a member of the state House of Assembly is the most eloquent testimony that a particular official was part of the plan to stop me from returning to office. But like I said, I have put all that behind to work for the progress of my state and Nigeria in general.
Do you nurse any fear about the 2015 presidential election?
That’s what we keep on hearing everyday. Nigerian will break today, it will break tomorrow. Some of us are fed up with all that crap. This is a country that the outside world never gave a chance of nurturing its democracy for even four years. By the year, 2000, there were already prophesies that Nigeria was going to break. But here we are, thirteen years after. As I said earlier, I am a personal victim of political rascality and gangstarism but that does not in any way vitiate my belief in the country.
Of course, 2015 will come. There will be struggle for power which is what democracy is all about. Some will win, some will lose but Nigerian will move on. Those making prophesies of doom are not helping us. You talk about the North and fears but I wonder why the North would want Nigeria to be torn apart because if that happens, which country will they now rule over? So, I see that as a big fallacy. It doesn’t hold water. Nigerians should not be scared from competing among themselves.
Healthy rivalry is good. We have demonstrated to the whole world that we have what it takes to sort ourselves out. The other time, it was the South-west because of June 12 but Nigerians came together and decided that the presidency should go there. Later, it was the Niger Delta. Today a Niger Delta man is there. So, why can’t we give ourselves a pat on the back for always being able to find a way out of our political logjams?
So, how do you think the Igbo fits into this template?
If I understood your question, my answer is short and simple. The Igbo will be similarly factored in one day. We didn’t need to break Nigeria for the South-west if you like the Yoruba to occupy the presidency. We didn’t have to break up for the Niger Delta people to go there. So, in the same manner, the country will not break up for an Igbo to become president of Nigeria. It is both imperative and imminent.