A chieftain of the All Progressives Congress in Imo State, Chief Jerry Chukwueke, who suddenly withdrew his membership of the Peoples Democratic Party to support President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, says he took the right decision then. He spoke with Amby Uneze who presents the excerpts:
In 2014/2015 you were a strong guber aspirant under the PDP in Imo State. Why did you suddenly withdraw before the primaries?
I’ve heard concerns by many Imolites on why I withdrew from the primaries. I was chairman of PDP mobilization committee. I spent thirteen months of my business and private life time including funding to rebuild PDP and the record is there for all to see. For thirteen months, I brought PDP together, strong, united, and ready to win governorship and other elections. If anything, that is the most important track record I have politically.
There were two reasons why I left PDP and that has something to do with my withdrawing 12 hours to the primary election in 2014. One was the fact that the party leadership in Abuja strongly urged me to withdraw and to make my delegates available to the then Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emeka Ihedioha to emerge at the primaries. It is a known fact that the former deputy speaker leveraged on his position in Abuja bearing in mind that Jonathan’s administration needed stability. Being a good party man, I painfully obliged them. Secondly it was also the issue of Owerri Zone to produce a gubernatorial candidate under PDP in 2015 election as my delegates made all the difference. I have worked for the Buhari/Okadigbo campaign structure under APP as a member of the Finance Committee and that was when I got to know General Muhammadu Buhari at the time bearing in mind that late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo was my brother in-law. I also believed very strongly that Imo State should have a foothold in the government at the centre. Moreso, when it has the only South East governor of APC.
So now you can understand why I withdrew from the primaries 12 hours and left the party after Buhari had emerged president elect. I wish PDP well because it is important to have a strong and effective opposition party. I remain a member of the APC.
I was disrespected by the PDP leadership in Imo State after all the work and all the effort and value I brought to the party, to bring PDP within striking range of successful elections in 2015. And I have no regrets because, yes other parties are struggling but PDP is not struggling today. It is a testimony to the fact that there were missing links that required leadership and vision to resolve and were resolved then and those have essentially manifested, the different squabbles and mudslinging in the party do not exist today. I do not believe that zoning story because you just can’t zone a governorship position to a zone. I’ll come back to that.
So why did you abandon Emeka Ihedioha at last?
Well it was very clear that I was highly disrespected by the party in Imo State, and they lost the opportunity for me to have played a major role in the success of the party in the 2015 guber election. I was also influenced by the fact that I had worked for Buhari/Okadigbo. As the late vice presidential candidate under APP, Okadigbo was my brother-in-law. I am married to his younger sister. So there was pressure from that side which said “look, if you are not happy with what PDP has done to you, you shouldn’t stay”. I acted at that time bearing in mind that the presidential election had been held and Buhari had emerged president-elect. And that Imo being the only APC state in the South East, the governor has to win his second term so Imo would retain strategic relationship in the centre.
Do you believe in the Owerri zone Agenda?
I don’t know what that means.
I mean an Owerri zone person becoming the next governor of the state?
I don’t necessarily believe in zoning because you cannot zone a position to a zone and produce low quality candidate. That’s not the point. I believe strongly in equity and harmony. Imo is a large community and yet not so huge because we are brothers and sisters. But it is unfair that in the current democratic dispensation, it is only Owerri zone that has not produced a governor. Look at all the states around us. Look at Abia; see what is happening in Anambra State. Most Anambrarians voted to return Governor Obiano to continue the movement in harmony and equity. This is the issue. And it is something that has developed into a high level of acrimony in Imo State.
So I believe in harmony and equity. You cannot have harmony, which is an enabler for economic development without equity. So the argument is about equity and harmony which is more than zoning and that is all I can say about that. In the interest of Imo economic development and to have a sense of unity and justice we need an Imo governor of Owerri extraction at this time. When Governor Achike Udenwa emerged as governor of Imo State, his support base largely came from Owerri and Okigwe Zone even though he is from Orlu. It was the same case when Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Okigwe Zone. By the way, Engr. Charles Ugwu emerged in the pursuit of equity and harmony. Engr. Charles Ugwu didn’t contest eventually but Ohakim became the beneficiary of what Ugwu started. So talking about equity and harmony as an enabler for economic development, you need to reduce the high level of acrimony to achieve that harmony that is an enabler for economic activity.
One of the reasons why you decided to work for the APC is because you want something from the federal. Are you sure the state is taking advantage of that arrangement?
What I am talking about is opportunities because it is the political leadership that has to take the opportunities. If Imo State is aligned to the centre, what that means is that Imo has more opportunities than states that are not aligned. But Imo has got to take advantage of those opportunities. So do I regret the fact that aligning with the centre after General Buhari emerged as president-elect, giving Imo and South East the opportunity to achieve more for its people? Absolutely not, I don’t regret it because opportunities were there and are still there! But these opportunities still have to be taken advantage of, it is a different argument. So what is important is that Imo State is connected to the centre and we have to take advantage of those opportunities at the centre.
Your assessment of Governor Okorocha?
Governor Okorocha is my friend, and I want to separate the two; friendship and governance. I have a great respect for him and his family. His children are close friends of my children and so I have great respect for our families. I have supported Okorocha in so many ways which are not for public consumption and I encourage him to do more. If you are talking about the score cards, there are things he is doing very well, some he needs to do better and I am happy to have that debate. I’m not holding brief for him but it comes down to this: I believe in constructive engagement. Name calling, abuses and destructive opposition don’t quite get the job done for our people. We have a governor! We must leverage on our relationship with him to get more deliverables to the people of the state.
If you focus on all the perceived errors and mistakes you may not have helped the matter. It is to constructively engage till you are able to make the best of the circumstance. This is constructive politics. That’s what I believe in. I give you an example. You can fault the governor for many things, but you can’t fault him for infrastructure. We all remember the issue of demolitions and trying to expand the roads. Well go and look at those roads today, they are expanded, the traffic congestion is less, there is free movement around the city of Owerri. It is clear! What is right is right, what is good is good! Outside of Owerri has improved infrastructure, and that is very vital. On infrastructure you can’t fault him on it. There are many things you may fault him on but I hold the view that one of challenges he has faced is that the communication between him and the people have not been effective, it has not gone down well because you have to be able to have that flow of communication for your followership to be in line and the people who need that communication more than any segment of the state are those in the elite class. Imo is an educated state. We have one of the highest numbers of educated people. So communication with them is critical. You must have buy in by the people and there is clearly a communication deficit.
Communication deficit hampered the development of this state. The truth of the matter is, we have a governor, you can not be calling him all the names in the world and abuse his family. You figure out how to engage him constructively and leverage him to help him deliver more deliverables to the people of Imo State. You choose your pick. I choose constructive engagement.
You talked about renovation of roads. You look at Owerri Municipal, the indigenes have been complaining for years that they do not have any more lands. Is there anything the government can do for these people?
Well let me tell you. One of these areas that could have been handled much more successfully is the business of urban revitalization, and how do you do it? We know that one of the greatest challenges outside of road expansion and street lights and access to the city is that Owerri indigenes are living in slum communities and ghettos with no space. Families of eight, nine, ten in three rooms all sitting on top of each other, no space, no parking space, no space to sit out, total congestion, no drainage, disease, poverty-ridden slums of the worst order. What that required in my view was a strategic, affordable housing estates for the indigenes to move to more affordable communities within Owerri with basic amenities and structured in an affordable way and in so doing you have opened up the slums to bring in private investors to clean up the city, invest in it and all of a sudden you have more economic growth and IGRs and you have achieved a more wholesome urbanization. Roads are for the people. Housing is also for the people. Provision of pipe borne water and health care is all about people. So government must be about people and so you have to link these opportunities so you can have a holistic approach to governance. Every governor and government has the right to step in, withdraw C of Os, relocate , demolish, and expand whatever he wants as far as due process and blueprint is followed.
On the issue of Eke Ukwu market demolition, it is not whether or not the governor can withdraw C of Os and demolish the market if it was in the overall interest of the state. The issue was communication with the affected communities. In addition to that, equal opportunities should have been given to all other stakeholders to achieve harmony. For example, the abrupt relocation and demolition affected the financial sub-sector of Owerri. Banks lost deposits, financial credit organizations lost customers, loan and credit facilities were made available, all of a sudden they couldn’t find those they lent money to, the shops and the businesses no longer existed over night, one of the unintended consequences of that move was that it hurt the financial sub-sector of Imo and it will take some time to recover.
There was significant financial dislocation of the economy of Imo. Eke ukwu was one of the biggest commercial and one of the biggest trading centres in Owerri and Imo State. So it requires more careful planning particularly with regards to alternatives in a measured way, in a way that was fully communicated would have helped. Having said that, government has the right to act in the best interest of the people to clean up that part of Owerri. Everyone will agree that Douglas road and its environment had become a den of miscreants and insecurity and obviously that was an important fact but when you go out to a place like a den of miscreants, that also has to do with poverty issues, we’ll get to that later. The point is that there should have been a more holistic approach communicated properly, the alternative market in place, a transition that would also bear in mind the intended fallout particularly as I just mentioned to you, financial institutions suffered great looses as a consequence and when that happens it adversely affects the economy. The whole game as per governance is the welfare and improved care of the people! That must be the focus! It is also important tofollow due process, particularly law and order must be followed by government. I hope that answers that question? There’s a lot more to it.
You talked about imposition of candidates by parties. That is one of the factors that caused PDP’s defeat in 2005. Don’t you think the same thing is going to play out in APC?
Well there are many rumours and I don’t like to function and play with rumours and I know where you’re going. We hear the rumour that the governor is trying to put his son-in-law as the next governor of Imo State. We hear he had given him campaign headquarters that he is going for a third term, this is an extension and all this and all that considerations. Let me say this to you, it is important to keep a strong eye on APC as my party and the fact is that we are one party that has opportunities to take advantage of the centre. APC has opportunities. That remains important. On the other hand, the federal government has vested interest in doing all within the law to retain Imo as an APC state because that is one important foothold for the centre in the South East. So both sides have strategic interests in Imo State and I believe therefore that these two forces to achieve that. What Imo people want is to have a strategic interest to the federal government. That is the party in power to retain Imo. That would be the political dynamics that will play out in the next few weeks and months because it is all important.