Imo: Before the Conflagration



Imo State needs help and urgently too, writes Mike Igbokwe
For the past four or more months, Imo State has been in the front burner of political discourse across the length and breadth of Nigeria. But it has been for the wrong reasons, indeed, as aptly captured by the editors of a national daily, who were bewildered at the turn of events in a state once reputed as one of the most peaceful in the entire federation.
If it were just bad news, perhaps, the good people of Imo State, together with keen observers outside the state, would have been less agitated than they are currently. The big worry is that the state is at a boiling point and according to even casual observers, may implode any moment from now.
Only a couple of weeks ago, a group of elders and seasoned professionals residing in the state raised the alarm over a looming anarchy in the state. In an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, the group, which went by the name, Concerned Imo Citizens Group (CICG), accused the state governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha, of taking precipitate actions that were capable of plunging the state into a conflagration of a dimension that is yet to be seen in the annals of the peace-loving people of the state.
In the letter titled, “Imo State Tilting Toward Fascism And Anarchy Under Governor Rochas Okorocha…”, the group accused the governor of imposing terror and tyranny on the people and urged President Buhari to intervene as a matter of urgency to avoid a total breakdown of law and order in the state.
Said the group: “We are aware that the hands of the federal government are full in trying to deal with various security flash points in the country, to add mass insurrection in Imo state to it when it could be avoided by the timely political intervention of the President would be ignoring the imperatives of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Such a development, if it is allowed to occur in Imo state, would surely help to compound the crises of instability in the already beleaguered federal republic of Nigeria”.
The group went ahead to list over twenty sub headings under which it itemised no less than 100 “evidence of the explosive state of fascism and looming anarchy in Imo state”. Principal among these are the destruction of the constitutional order of Imo State; rendering moribund the legal and administrative structures and organs of the state; rendering the state civil service comatose; imposition of hardship on the people; wasteful style of governance; breach of financial regulations etc.
Keen watchers of the Imo political terrain, both within and outside the state, however point out that the observations of the CICG are not entirely new. They point out that the people of the state have had to contend with the bizarre style of Governor Okorocha right from the beginning of the administration in 2011.
Initially, the people were taken aback over the way and manner the governor, who was supposedly elected on a popular acclaim, turned out to adorn an anti-people garb not long after he assumed office. But they preferred to remain calm and optimistic.
For a people known to be sophisticated, enlightened and understanding, the generality of the Imo populace decided to endure Okorocha’s high handedness, with the hope that he would turn a new leaf or that in the alternative, a possible change of government in 2015 would return things to the level of their collective expectation. But none of that happened. Not only did Okorocha refuse to change, he used the coercive apparatuses of the state to narrowly escape defeat at the 2015 governorship election.
But if the people thought that his victory at the very keenly contested election that went into a second balloting would make Okorocha soften on them, they were mistaken. For example, shortly after the election, the first thing Governor Okorocha told a bewildered people was that the state owed him over N6billion naira in salaries and allowances he claimed he did not collect for four years. He followed this up by introducing a policy of paying civil servants only 70 per cent of their salaries, even with arears of salaries of upwards of fourteen months.
Till date, pensioners are owed over 24 months of unpaid arrears while primary and secondary school teachers are owed over 18 months of salaries despite the N29.4 billion bailout fund made available to the state. As a matter of fact, Imo is among the states that were being investigated by the anti-craft agencies for alleged misuse of the bailout funds.
In the letter to President Buhari referred to above, the eminent group of Imo citizens noted that “the situation in Imo State under Governor Okorocha is like a time bomb waiting to explode”. The group is not alone.
Earlier, another group by the name Coalition of Imo Patriots had in a public statement on October 28, 2016 noted that “It is inconceivable that a man elected to protect and enhance the welfare of the people has turned to be a persecutor and oppressor of the same people”. In the statement titled, When Will Okorocha Stop Fooling Ndi Imo?, the group added that “besides waging war against Ndi Imo, Okorocha’s actions and inactions have completely destroyed Imo…”
If all of the above constituted the remote causes of the current boiling-point tension in Imo State, the evident immediate cause is the recent and indeed on-going massive demolition of both private and public buildings in the state capital, Owerri, as part of a supposed urban renewal programme, which began late July, 2016.
In an unprecedented and bizarre manner, the administration of Governor Okorocha put residents of the state capital to a shock when bulldozers were sent, unannounced, to demolish residential buildings, offices and shops.
Last count, the exercise has led to the closure of three three-star hotels in the state capital, resulting in the retrenchment of hundreds of workers. The exercise also saw to the uprooting of electric cables and water pipes that cost the state several years and over 1.5 billion US Dollars to install. Apart from that no compensation were discussed with the affected property owners, the people have had to grapple with the direct consequences of remaining without electricity and water supplies even as scanty as they were hitherto.
The roads where the bulldozers visited have been rendered impassable with no provision for alternative routes, thus making life extremely difficult for motorists and commuters. Big trucks and articulated vehicles, including petrol-laden tankers, have to wade through narrow, pot holes infested routes to pass through the state capital, enroute to their destinations within and outside the state.
Urban renewal experts insist that the programme is bereft of the needed consultations and professional touch. They point out that the purported urban renewal programme is effectively destroying the existing master plan for the Owerri capital city without a replacement.
“The Owerri capital city has an original master plan which is being destroyed without an alternative master plan”, said Mr. Chima Eze, an Architect based in Owerri.
Eze pointed out further that given the current economic situation in the state, the road expansion project of the Okorocha administration “is uncalled for”.
According to him, nearly all the roads being expanded have reached the permissible limits of their expansion under the existing master plan. “Now that they are being expanded without a new master plan, it means turning the Owerri city into an urban dungeon in no distant time”, Eze said.
Apart from the concern over the architectural sanctity of the Owerri capital city, the road expansion programme, regarded as “needless” by a majority of the citizens, has inflicted untold hardship on the people. Besides sudden loss of means of livelihood, many families have lost their homes, with some indeed broken. As expected, condemnation has been trailing the exercise which many observers have described as “insensitive”.
From abroad, Imolites living in both the United States and Europe have condemned Okorocha for inflicting hardship on the people in the guise of development. From the United Kingdom, the Imo Union in a recent statement described the rate of destruction of the Owerri master plan as “callous and unprecedented”.
Rising from a meeting in London, the union, speaking through its President, Elder Adolph Agbasonu noted that all the legacies left behind by past administrations in the state have been destroyed and replaced with “non-viable or non-profitable projects”.
But given the way the administration went about it and its antecedents, there was palpable fear that it would entertain no opposition to its urban renewal programme that has been nonetheless described as bizarre, uncoordinated, half-hearted and haphazard.
The fear became real following the decision of a prominent citizen of the state, Captain Emmanuel Ihenacho, to enforce his right over his property along Orlu Road, Owerri and which had been earmarked for destruction. Ihenacho, a former Minister of Interior and governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) at the 2015 general election, had sought and obtained a court order barring the Okorocha administration from demolishing, his property at No. 6 Orlu Road, Owerri, which he has lived in for over thirty years.
But the Okorocha administration in its characteristic manner disobeyed the court order and went ahead to send the bulldozers to the property. In fact, the governor supervised the operations himself. After the destruction, the ex-minister waited for over two months to see if there would be further developments. When he saw none, he made moves to recover his property by putting up remedial structures in order to ward off the erosion that was eating away the foundation of the building.
To his surprise, however, Okorocha’s deputy, Eze Madumere, led bulldozers to personally supervise the destruction of the new structures even when there was a subsisting court order. The task force led by Madumere dug a six-foot trench in front of the house, thus making it impossible for anybody to have access to the property; and for more than three months, the marine expert and business mogul could not enter this house.
Angered by this, Ihenacho had in an interview with a national daily, which sought to know how he felt over the incident, described Imo State as descending into a dictatorship.
“A situation that gives the impression that we are under an authoritarian leadership and when the dictator himself does not really know what he is doing, then, confusion of the type we are seeing now continues to reign”, Ihenacho had told the newspaper.
In answer to a question, Ihenacho had asked rhetorically: “Do you see that the people are consulted? Do you see that the feelings of the people are taken into account? Do you see people’s houses being damaged, broken into without anybody talking to them, without any talk of compensation?”
Naturally, hell was let loose, Okorocha and his aides descended on Ihenacho, raining abuses on him. Unruffled, however, Ihenacho returned to court to look for ways of enforcing the earlier order, after going to the state Ministry of Lands to ascertain the limit he could erect a fence and an erosion control structure. The court granted an injunction to the effect that the proposed erosion and flood control structures should not be destroyed and which was duly served on the governor.
Highly dependable sources disclosed that on Saturday November 12, 2016, the ex-minister had a meeting with the chairman of the state environmental control agency (names withheld) and that the duo agreed that the builders should continue with the flood and erosion control structures. Yet, two days later, precisely on Monday November 14, 2016, the state deputy governor, Madumere at about 5pm led bulldozers to destroy the structures for a second time.
Some observers believe that the fight between Okorocha and Ihenacho may provide an opportunity for the people of the state to test their will to resist a growing tyranny in a democratic dispensation. Ihenacho happens to be an “Owerre man”, though he does not come from Owerre Nchise, whose people are locked in a war of wits with the governor over his proposed relocation of the famous Eke-Ukwu Owerri market.
There are fears that even with a court restraining the government, Governor Okorocha is hell bent on the relocation. With an Ihenacho reputed for being highly influential in the entire Owerri federal constituency, observers believe that the governor may be touching the lion’s tail. How the entire thing will play out lies in the bowels of time.
-Igbokwe wrote from Owerri