Theodore Orji, a former Abia State governor, is the Senator representing Abia Central at the Senate. In this interview with Solomon Elusoji, he discusses his time at the hallowed chambers and his love for empowerment
What is the difference between being a Senator and being a governor?
These are two different scenarios and templates. When you are a governor, you are in charge, at the apex. You give directives and the buck stops at your table. You take decisions that affect all the people in your state. But in the Senate, it is not like that. The Senate is structured in a way that encourages rank: the older you are in the Senate, the more prominent you are and the more respect you garner. Also as governor, you are in charge of state resources; you know its resources and its demands, but in the Senate you cannot do that except you are in a committee that you can influence.
But in such a short time, you already wield considerable influence in the Senate. You are, for example, deputy chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. How did you achieve this?
It’s all God’s doing and hard work. In the Senate, influence also comes with passing bills and raising motions, motions and bills that are people-oriented. The best of my bills that I am happy with, which is currently awaiting the President’s assent, is Food Security Bill. There is nobody who doesn’t eat. Even animals eat. So, I feel that the way to touch the lives of everybody, not just my constituents, is by passing people-oriented bills, not controversial bills. The last one I raised relates to the lack of security at the rail stations. I called on the federal government to deploy security officials and personnel to the railway stations.
Can you shed some light on your last two bills which call on the federal government to take over some tertiary institutions in Abia?
What generated it was a report presented by one of my colleagues in the Senate. There, it was said that the federal government made it as a directive that each state of the federation must have a federal university, polytechnic and college of education. And we don’t have that in Abia. So when that bill came and people were contributing, I said that we don’t even want new ones, just take over the ones we have so that the governor can have a breathing space. As a governor, I experienced the fact that the state cannot conveniently fund the college of education and polytechnic, and Abia State University, with our lean resources. So if the federal government comes to take over these institutions, the governor will have a breathing space.
After thinking it through, I decided to raise it as a bill which will send it on its way to become a law. So what I did was to raise the bill of the College of Education in Arochukwu. The structure is there. Then I raised the bill for the federal government to take over the Abia State Polytechnic. If not, it might reach a stage where it will be difficult for the state government to carry the burden.
You are involved in several empowerment programmes. A prominent one is the education scholarship scheme which has run for more than three years now. Why has it been so successful?
The secret is that I have maintained the tempo and people are seeing the impact. It is such that if 10,000 people apply for the scholarship this year, next year you will see 20,000 people applying. So the tempo has risen. I have awakened the consciousness of our people to the importance of education and they are happy about it. So with this scholarship, some of them have hope, that that is what will pilot them in the next academic session.
And you also need to take into consideration the system through which we disburse the scholarship. We have a committee designed specifically for this purpose and after they are done with the selections, which are done in collaboration with community heads, they bring it to me to give the final verdict and I do that. They explain to me, one after the other, how they arrived at the names. Once I am satisfied, I endorse it. And then we have a straight-forward system where everyone receives their cheque and go cash it at the bank.
Are you planning on exporting this model?
Of course. Anyone who wants to take this template is free to come and copy. In fact, the last one we did, the governor was here and he so admired it and saw the transparency and said that he will take it and apply it to the state scholarship scheme. That’s a clear example that we are doing good.
Is there a continuous engagement with the scholarship recipients?
Yes, we do have lectures. We also have empowerment programmes, where they are involved. They are willing to be involved in any programme that we organise because they trust our process.
Since your tenure as governor, Abia State has regularly come first in national examinations. What did you do to achieve this?
Apart from the fact that we have intelligent people in Abia, there was a need to fortify the structure to maintain it. If you don’t feed them and encourage them, the standard will fall. So we did that; right from primary to secondary school, we have free education. Then at the tertiary level, we try to pay for Law and Medical students. And we charge them that what they owe us is to come first in their exams; that’s the happiness we derive. It will encourage me.
So Abia State’s excellence in National Examinations like WAEC is as a result of the foundation that I laid as governor. I had a lot of trophies that those boys and girls in the secondary school and university won when they go for competitions outside. They came home with laurels and I encouraged them.
How do we encourage this trend across the country?
First, we have to make it known. I remember when I was governor and started youth empowerment programmes, when I will buy cars and give to people for free; it impacted on a lot of people after it was publicised. One of my friends, a governor, left his state and came to Abia to collect the template and I gave it to him. The same thing is happening with this scholarship scheme. One of my friends has come to me and confessed he liked it and wants to start his own, if even on a smaller scale. I encouraged him. So the thing is spreading gradually.
You place premium value on education. What is the philosophical drive?
There is a saying that says, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. There is another that says ‘the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr’. And another says ‘if we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children’s education’. I can also not forget this one that says ‘education is the best preparation for the journey to old age’ said by Aristotle. Also this one, according to Alexander the Great: ‘I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well’.
It is based on these superior arguments and postulations that I have resolved to contribute, in my little way, to the advance the cause of education. There is no doubt that education is the bedrock of all human endeavours. Take for instance what the GSM has offered to the world. Not too long ago, letter writing was a great art, the radio was a wonder and the TV, when it came to Nigeria the first time with Chief Awo’s WNBC in Western Nigeria, was a modern day miracle. Beyond gadgetry, our health and aviation world have been greatly enhanced through education, some highly infectious and incurable diseases of the past are now curable, look at laser in medicine, using radar for surgery without wasting a drop of blood. All these are possible through science and technology through education. I will urge all my friends and every family to invest in education.
During your campaign, you promised the people of Abia Central effective representation. How far have you gone with this?
I have done that very effectively. Within this period that I came home, I gave to each of the six local government I represent 100 bags of rice, because I know that most of them will not be able to have funds to buy. Right now, my wife is running a medical outreach where we have assembled a lot of medical specialists, attending to people, giving them free medicine and glasses and conducting eye surgery all for free. These are some of the things that we are doing to help our people so that they can live longer. The essence of governance is to impact on the people, to help them. And this is what I have been doing since I came home in December.
What is the feeling you derive from continually empowering people?
It is good to do good, and you derive joy in this type of thing. When you use your position to enhance the capacity of others who are less-privileged; when you use your position to make those who are under you happy, you also feel very happy, and that is how I feel. When my constituents rejoice, I rejoice, when they cry, I cry.