Owelle Rochas Okorocha is no doubt the APC poster boy in the Southeast both as Imo State Governor and chairman Progressive Governors’ Forum. Okorocha spoke with Nduka Nwosu in Washington DC last year as a member of President Muhammadu Buhari’s team during his invitation by US President Barack Obama. In a recent update of that interview, Governor Okorocha spoke about why he is optimistic Buhari will take the nation to the Promised Land and the giant strides of infrastructure as well as institutional reforms that have become the hallmark of his administration
Owelle Rochas Okorocha is no doubt the poster boy of the All Progressive Congress (APC) in the South east. Not because he holds the party’s flag in Imo State or because at the national level occupies the position of chairman of the Progressive Governors Forum (PGF) but because he parades a track record of experience in politics resonating positively to the advantage of the ruling party. The three time Presidential candidate and founding chairman of Action Alliance (AA) has come a long way navigating the murky terrain of Nigerian politics. Add this to his millennial projects fast turning the heartland capital into the image of another Abuja; that explains why Okorocha has become a worthy ambassador of his party always ready to expound and defend its social contract with the people.
Okorocha back in Washington DC last year told this reporter his explanatory footnotes on the pluses and minuses of his party should be viewed from the angle that he was one of the authors of the APC manifesto and therefore was not just defending President Muhammadu Buhari for not delivering the material and visible gains of change in just one year as expected by the masses who voted overwhelmingly for the change mantra.
Okorocha further explained: every great change comes with upheaval, pain and in many instances suffering. His analogy: “Every woman wants a baby, but no woman likes a labour room but you cannot have a baby without a labour room, that’s the change, so the change of labour room is the joy of the baby that you have, but when people say change, they mean that they are going to have a baby without a labour room.”
After Buhari’s one year in office, can Governor Okorocha say the change mantra should not be equated with a programme of action as Eddie Iroh, a THISDAYcolumnist opined? He shot back asserting he was neither ready to play the defensive nor go on the attack but observed the expected silver lining could not have arrived after nine months. Not even the low hanging fruits that would have calmed frayed nerves?
That was earlier before Lai Muhammed admitted Buhari had delivered his promise on job creation and the celebrated achievements of one hundred days in office. While the reporter was bent on picking the issues with statistical references and performance indexes, Okorocha said he had no problems with cold statistics but insisted considering the victories achieved over Boko Haram and the war against corruption with billions of naira and dollars of looted funds coming back to national coffers, who would say the Buhari Administration was not on course delivering on promises? The dialogue progressed with the passion the APC big wig approached the issues, more like a marketing salesman of the party, but he admitted it was much more than that because his belief in the ability of the President to turn around the sick country was anchored on not just his personal and intimate knowledge of the man and his integrity quotient celebrated worldwide but also a track record of delivery that has been the hallmark of his previous assignments to the fatherland
The expectation of positive change in just one year would be asking for too much given the rot on the ground and not even the best magician in the world could have done better under the circumstance, Okorocha explained. “You recall that the oil price jumped down from $110 per barrel to about$38 per barrel, the worst it has ever come down to in the history of OPEC. Oil is our major source of revenue so what do you expect? Of course, we expect the people to feel this way especially with the revelation of the billions of dollars that were looted in the system.”
As the dialogue progressed, Okorocha seemed to be winning the argument persuasively, so the subject revolved on recovery of looted funds and how much of this has been deployed to visible sectors of the economy.
The governor lamented the fact that even when the looted funds are discovered, recovering them becomes an issue, what with a legal system that expectedly protects every suspect until you are proven guilty. It is one thing to identify those who looted these funds; it is another thing to recover them. The governor’s admonition was that although things may be getting more difficult for Nigerians, they should not lose confidence on the much expected change. All hope is not lost, he admonished. “I believe what President Buhari is trying to do is to fix Nigeria once and for all. His government is not one of window dressing of an economy that has been in recession long before now.
“This administration is out to build a solid foundation for this country, encourage the productive sector and make sure that people are gainfully employed and stop the importation of all kinds of rubbish into the country. People will feel the pain now but in the long run there will be positive returns.”
Back in his state, the APC chieftain was sad seeing young men roaming the streets of the state capital, playing the bo-peep and act as court jesters, with vain appellations to the chief executive, some money bags and stakeholders if only some peanuts would drop from their pockets. That he summed as the posture of an idle mind, something he has largely taken care of and would be glad if it would be replicated at the national level. What Okorocha is pointing out is that politicians by hiring young men as thugs during elections and dumping them when they ride to power are breeding Frankenstein monsters who keep themselves busy the wrong way, what he calls a government of deceit that has made many Nigerians dependent on begging.
How does this connect to the issue on ground regarding the long awaited promised deliverables from the APC and the chief driver? The party, he argued, is not out to deceive the people by offering them deceptive dividends that approximate to window dressing when there are fundamental and foundational issues in nation building, which is what Buhari is trying to do. Initially there will be turbulence because the old order is giving way to the new. His easy example refers to the arrival of the GSM with the network providers coming with tariffs that were initially typical of a monopolist but as the revolution unfolded and other networks joined the MTN, the market became competitive dragging costs downwards.
In the same vein, pump price of petroleum and the price of many imported goods which ultimately he insisted constitute a challenge to young men and women in the import business to reverse the habit in favour of the productive sector; ultimately this would drag prices down and make this moment something for historians to talk about, that there was a time Nigerians were challenged and they seized the momentum to re-write their history from a dependent import economy to a productive, industrialised export economy. This is the Buhari script for the emerging new corporate Nigeria.
Buhari is not running a negative government, he asserted, repeating again and again that things must go up to come down. Does it not constitute an insult to the emerging generation that the naira has to be devalued to buy dollar so that we will continue to import rice and other commodities produced in other countries of the world, Okorocha queried while insisting any government that supports this trend is not only deceitful to the people but is not facing the realities of the time. This is the change APC and Buhari are talking about and it does not happen in one day, Okorocha lectured his guest. “This is hand over, that is the change we are expecting.”
Back to Blair House and the Washington Mandarin Hotel when Okorocha was a part of President Buhari’s team, during his White House visit. Should we consider that visit a success story now that it has been reported the US is willing to support the Boko Haram fight with assault weapons? Okorocha said it went beyond that because Buhari was recognised and still is as a veritable salesman of the new Nigeria. Viewing the polity abroad from the lenses of those who call us a fantastically corrupt nation, Okorocha was exposed to a global community which in that visit seemed to say this who you are rather than what we think we are.
The cheering news however was the celebration of a new dawn, the coming of a man who was recognised as an epitome of exemplary leadership. The mantle bestowed on Buhari has not changed and for Okorocha what is more important is that the real silver lining at the end of the tunnel is the emergence of Nigeria someday as a country whose leaders have passed through a baptism of fire to join the comity of nations with decent leaders. That is why Buhari must succeed and that is why Nigeria must not be made a laughingstock.
Buhari, he acknowledged, has given the country a sense of respectability amongst the comity of nations and Nigerians must carry that script and re-write their story. “This is just what I think because sometimes people want me to assess President Buhari in terms of how many roads he has built or how many schools he has set up or renovated but for me that’s my assessment. I just cannot judge him by that, I want to judge him by the integrity he has brought back to the nation; I want to judge him as the man who has come to stabilise the country probably for subsequent leaders to build on in terms of infrastructure development.
“Infrastructure development is a key securing voter confidence in our many electoral promises however, I am looking at the first things first and the integrity of this nation must be upheld and I think we have recorded some success by way global respectability, the way we are being seated among nations now tells you that our relevance is on the rise; no nation can grow above its leader as the leader decides the height of every nation.”
The reporter would not capitulate to a dialogue that had devolved to an argument insisting in the political space there is real anger that the APC rode to power claiming it had an immediate answer to all of Nigeria’s problems only for its flag bearer to deny there was ever such a social contract with the voters blaming his party for making impossible promises. Okorocha would not take any of that wondering why the reporter was like the average person down the road looking for a magical wand, an American wonder which in any case would remain just that, a magician performing his art to entertain a curious and un-focused band of idle on-lookers. A focused, revolutionary style of governance such as the APC has proposed, goes beyond that, Okorocha stressed.
The deception theory is still there, the reporter returned the salvo, so what will you tell Nigerians that are highly disappointed in the APC? The former APC Presidential hopeful said it was a matter of mindset. If you have decided to believe your opinion counts, no argument would win you over on the path of good judgement, he explained. “I tell you what, let me again say the truth probably because once there is a mind-set about certain questions, you might not even be hearing what I am talking about because what you want to hear is that APC has not done well and I should accept we are going to improve; that’s not my answer to you if that’s what you’re expecting.
“Let me go straight to the point and say, for instance, today Nigeria imports fuel; we have what we call ‘deregulation’ and all kinds of terminology being attached to a straight answer. Straight questions demand straight answers. The question asked could be, ‘must the government import fuel? Why should it be involved in the importation of fuel? No, it should not. At worst, six months from the day we lift the ban on this measure and everybody imports fuel, after six months, the price would fall below the price that it is being sold now. The idea of getting government to give you money at an official rate that encourages round-tripping and minimum or no imports is wrong. That’s what’s happening, so government needs to gradually pull out of businesses and provide an enabling environment for things to correct themselves.”
Does this enabling environment also include the establishment of functional refineries rather be engaged in this business of exporting our fuel only to import them as finished products? The governor countered that right now the doctrine of necessity made it imperative for this government to continue with what it met on the ground, which is the importation fuel while in the long run it would work towards a free market economy where government would only play the role of guiding that economy wth a set of rules. Government, he insisted, has no busness in the building or construction of new refineries.” Government is known for social service, in fact the key social factors that government should get involved in are health and education. Every other thing should be publicly owned with government control.”’
Back to politics and the place of the Igbo or South easterner in the Nigerian experiment especially under the APC led government, where so much is expected of Okorocha as the voice of that part of the country. The question resonated: is the governor optimistic that for his people, who belong to the category of five percent, there is a ray of new hope to look up to? He had no doubt infrastructure development in the South east would receive greater attention under an APC led government more than the Goodluck Jonathan administration even if he at all did anything other than a Niger Bridge project that remained moribund until he left office. Of course Okorocha has been a strong voice that speaks for them.
In a mood of sarcasm he reminded the reporter that the PDP from inception had no room for the Igbo man after Alex Ekwueme , its founding father was denied the flag for the Presidential race. Even after the Igbo had claimed Jonathan to be an Igbo, did it prevent the PDP from not marginalising the Igbo, he asked?
“President Jonathan was made an Igbo man so that the Igbos will never get their share of the Presidency. It was a smart attempt to make sure an Igbo man didn’t become anything in this country. They adopted President Jonathan to become an Igbo man and now, PDP has taken their presidency to the North. There has never been a time in the history of Nigeria for the sixteen years of the existence of this party, that they have thought it wise one day to say an Igbo man can become the President.”
Agreed, which means the APC will offer the Igbo nation what the PDP failed to give him? Okorocha was emphatic about it and nodded his head in the affirmative. “Of course, they will change it,” he affirmed again, “because it is obvious now that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is from the Northern part of this country. I don’t believe in this rotational presidency quite frankly, I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe that power should be given to a region, just because it is a region. Let the person who has the brightest ideas become the President irrespective of his region of origin, that is my strong belief but if we go by the other sentiment, then Igbos are closer to becoming something in APC than in PDP.”
Okorocha was reminded that in spite of his obvious rather than cautious optimisms, the Igbos were not happy when the political offices were distributed down to the service chiefs; some very top positions in government were shared among the North, the West, and the South south and the South east was not given anything and even with all the efforts he made campaigning for the President, he only got a Minister of State’s slot. Are those things supposed to be evidences of marginalisation?
He took it from there running a list of prominent Igbos who were appointees in the Jonathan Administration: Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minster for the Economy, Pius Anyim-SGF, the Aviation Minister et al. “What did we get for all that? If giving people key political appointments brings development in the zone, which single project did PDP execute in the South east, for this period? We had a Deputy Senate President, a Deputy Speaker of the House and the Inspector-General of Police; we also had a Chief of Army Staff and DG Immigration and we had everything going for us in terms of appointments; show me a single project in those sixteen years in your locality that was a federal government project.
The development of a state is not dependent on the person who has been given the best political appointment,” promising the Buhari Administration has the constitutional responsibility to develop every part of the country including the South east, which is adequately represented in the 2016 budget with the construction of the 2nd Niger Bridge positioned in bold relief. Of course Okorocha did not fail to point out that he got the International Cargo Airport to the state and would do more.”
The governor advised this is not the time to pop champagne but to fasten the seat belt of austerity. “I think so far, so good, Nigerians should have faith, but I must tell Nigerians that it will get hot before it gets cool. That’s our party’s mind-set; I think what our party hasn’t been able to do and I think we should do it quickly is to tell Nigerians the actual ugly situation we have found ourselves and there is no point pretending about things being bad. I have told my people in Imo State that things are bad. We are entering what is called, “poor economic weather of serious turbulence and lightening.”
Back in Imo State Okorocha is celebrating 40 years of the state’s creation and he has so much to crow about including his claim that after Abuja, Imo may be the next modern tourist destination in the country in terms of infrastructure layout with good roads, an International Conference Centre, a rebuilt Government House and Executive Council Centre, the Odumegwu Ojukwu Park and a new layout with state of the art infrastructure, the pride of Imo people.
Okorocha’s flagship legacy, seems to be his free education project from the primary to the university levels, which he notes has overtaken Chief Awolowo’s free education programme which stopped at the primary school level. In addition is his fourth tier of government concept called the Communty Development Council (CDC).
What does that mean? He explained: “Community government is just about making the community a government just like the local and state governments. The idea is to add value to security consciousness because every security challenge we have is local. The CGC is the most transparent form of governance because you cannot appropriate community money. Once every body hears that the money is coming, all eyes would be on the road. It is the best form of government that checks itself; It is an African type of government that gives us a sense of belonging because what we have been practising all along is that type of government that does not get down to the grassroots; government is hanging only at the state and federal level with the citizens feeling like spectators. This community council makes people participants in the day-to-day running of government.” Is he constitutionally covered operating the Fourth tier? He said the state law gives him power to run the CDC.
The loser in this new dispensation however is the Imo civil servant who in the past was sustained on a deficit budget that involved bank loans. Okorocha cannot imagine why a non-productive sector of the state’s economy should be gulping the entire federation allocation including the IGR to the detriment of capital projects development. So Okorocha was able to broker a deal with the Nigeria Labour Congress, a sharing formula that leaves him with 30 percent of the state revenue for capital development and 70% for recurrent expenditure that goes largely into paying salaries.
“If I have thirty percent of money that comes to Imo State, Imo State would look like London in the next five years. I don’t need more than two thousand workers in the civil service of Imo State. I need more than a hundred thousand in the agricultural sector of Imo State. I need money to develop the agriculture sector where these people can work and even earn better income. If this nation makes one trillion dollars daily and end up paying salaries with it, there would be no progress, but if this government earns one million naira and N700,000 is used for the productive sector, there would be development. Reversing the downturn in the economy means getting people to work in the productive sector of the economy outside welfarist sentiments.
How does this address the allegation that Okorocha was one of the governors who diverted the bailout funds from the federal government?
He said the allegation was weird. “Is there money missing?” The answer is no money was and is missing. It is a matter of perception. So what happened? The bailout money was supposed to take care of salaries up to September and within this time of the registration of bailouts, he had to take money from other government projects to pay salaries to cushion the effect of non-payment of salaries. “When these bailout funds came, it was only normal to replace the borrowed funds for capital projects. Now, I had paid every worker in Imo State up to December, a period not covered by the bailout. Therefore the balance went back to projects, and that’s what happened; so there is nothing like misappropriation because the fund for capital-projects were appropriated for salaries when the pressure demanded it.
For all that, Imo State has so much to celebrate to pop both champagne and local brew and more importantly be showcased as an APC brand among the top five fastest developing states in the country.