Last Tuesday, a former governor of Imo State, Senator Rochas Okorocha, marked his 58th birthday. In this interview with select journalists in Abuja, Okorocha talks about his philanthropy and why President Muhammadu Buhari remains the only tiny thread still holding his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) together. Emmanuel Addeh brings the excerpts.
At 58, you are still heavily involved in philanthropy. What’s the motivation for this?
I will simply say that being a philanthropist or being a charitable person or someone, who cares for the poor, I think it is something much more spiritual than physical. I think it is something that is innate with one’s spirit. I love giving, I hate injustice and I hate poverty and I try to fight these two evils of mankind.
Again given the fact that my background is not that of buoyancy, I came from the same class of people you consider very poor and so because of that, I took it upon myself. It is like a spiritual oath that any time I’m blessed by God, I will bless others, giving back to my world and making the society a better place.
Like I said, I hate poverty, I hate injustice. Poverty once dealt with me, and members of my family. So, I am easily connected to understand the pains of poverty, when it comes. I think this summarises my charitable life, my life of giving.
Rochas Foundation has been in the business of giving free education to the poorest of the poor, the less privileged, the vulnerable and we have over 22,000 children now on our records that have gone through Rochas foundation, some still inside the school and every year we take about 2,000 children into our schools.
Right now, we see young men with three stars in the police, in the army, air force, customs, immigrations, civil service and the banks. These are children, who would have ordinarily not had the hope of going to school but now becoming something. So the joy alone is worth more than what food and champagne will give you.
Will you say you are a fulfilled man at 58?
I feel very fulfilled in all aspects of life. First, if I don’t feel fulfilled, then I am not grateful to God. I feel over fulfilled I must say at 58. I have a very wonderful family at 58. I am proud to say I have a very beautiful family. My wife and children are just peace and joy, so I feel fulfilled.
In my business life, I feel fulfilled; in my political life I feel fulfilled; in my spiritual life I feel fulfilled as well though striving to do more in worshiping God and knowing my creator. So the answer to your question is that I feel fulfilled.
If you recall, three years ago, I turned 55years and at 55 I launched project 5-5-5-5-5. Fifty five representing my age, 5 represents 5 indigent children from all African countries, then 55 represents 55 African countries and today we have all these kids coming in every year, five of them from Africa.
You grew up in the north. Do you see any close connection between the north and east where you were born?
At a point, people thought my father was a northerner and my mother a southerner, all kinds of stories, I have heard all that. My identity is easily mistaken, most people don’t even understand me or know me.
But the truth is that the same story of poverty, the same story of the challenges of life took my parents to Jos. So, going to Jos wasn’t a fun thing, it was out of desperate situation for survival, many years ago.
That was in the 40s or 50s, I think, and that was where we were brought up, all of us in the northern part of Nigeria. So, that is the reason I can communicate in Hausa effectively and all that. I think on the other part, it must be the handwork of God. My growing up in the north made me understand that the unity of Nigeria is key. We have no other option than to make this nation a united, indissoluble nation.
I see myself a northerner, I see myself a southerner, I see myself a Nigerian and that is why when people argue, I tell them that Nigeria is my constituency.
Both my parents were Igbo, so it is not true that my parents are not Igbo, I can trace it back to where I come from but it was the north that gave me education, they gave me my childhood, they gave me my livelihood, all that I have.
But where I got my financial empowerment that made me Rochas was from the West. So, all my best business connections were with the West.
You see, now the Hausa have me my childhood, Igbo gave me my parentage and the West empowered me financially. So, tell me where do I really belong, I have to belong to the word Nigeria and that is the truth.
You seem to have anchored your philanthropy on education. Is there any special reason for that?
To me, education itself is life. I don’t know what we can do today without education in this modern world. This is why education is very key and that is why I have chosen the path to place emphasis on education. Yes, we run other foundations in my family.
All my children own their own charity organisation. All of them have one charity organisation, but for me I chose education, because once you give a child education, you have given him everything.
At 58, I have decided I want to give first free education to 58 Nigerians of different field of studies for university education and I would see these children grow to become something.
We are doing this in partnership with JAMB. This is the one coming from me to give to intelligent children, not poor children this time.
Coming to your question on whether government can undertake this free education, it is not something difficult actually. As a governor, I introduced free education from primarily to secondary to university and I built six universities, four polytechnics and two colleges of education and I made all of them free. It is doable.
In the north the issue of almajiri and out-of-school children remains a major sore point. What can be done to solve this problem?
I must say that first and foremost, I am not happy; it disturbs me that in this our time and generation that we will be talking of about over 14 million children out of school in a country called Nigeria. I think that is not good news at all and if there is any one problem I have, one challenge I have, it is this particular issue and it has given me sleepless nights.
Talking about this 14 million children not going to school, people forget that some countries in Europe are just 2million people, while some are even less than two million, so we are talking about over 7 countries not going to school and we can’t fold out hands and watch this happen.
I always tell Nigerians that Nigeria cannot get better until these issues are resolved, because these are time bombs of tomorrow. We are talking about ending boko haram, ending kidnapping and yet children are not going to school, we are rather creating more problems for the future generation than solving it.
Take for instance now, if these 14 million children do not go to school and have nothing to do, in the next 10 years, when most of us in government will not be in government anymore, those 14 million will be giving us 10 million boko haram and 10 million kidnappers.
What that then means is that we need about 100 million police to check these 10 million people. So you can see that we are creating more problems for our future generation rather than solving it.
When the governors spoke that they should be returned to their various states, I was against it because it is not right and it is not proper, because these are Nigerian children and they should not be made to go back to villages where the situation is also hopeless.
But what I suggested was that, these children where you have the Quranic schools, we can also put side by side a school there for them, so that they can at least learn how to speak and write English. It will help the society.
Can we also say that their parents failed in their responsibilities?
If their parents were educated and understood the importance of education, probably they would have done something differently. So, there is no time to push any of these to parents. Government must take responsibility. Why do you elect leaders, it is because we know we don’t know, they should come and lead us and tell us what to do.
The Igbo have always complained of marginalisation. Is the Southeast ripe for the presidency in 2023?
Well, I really don’t understand whether people run for presidency of the federal republic of Nigeria because of where they come from or because of what they can do for the nation. I think these are two different things.
Sometimes, it looks like when you talk about presidency, the only qualification is where you come from, the religion that you belong to and not what you can give to the people. This is where I differ. If I am running for president, I am running for president, because of what I can do for my people and not necessarily where I come from and this is the mistake we have made in this country in choosing leaders at all levels, these sentiments have all been there.
So first and foremost, we must begin to allow leaders that have track records and their vision for the people to come and lead the people and not necessarily, because you come from A, B, C, D.
But in a competitive life, the only credit I give to the quest for Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, for me, would be more of a competition thing. If you like, you say listen, the Yoruba have governed this nation and we saw how the economy did.
The South-south has ruled the nation and we’ve all seen how the economy did. The north has governed this nation and we have seen the economy, let’s try Igbo now and see how the economy will look like. I think that is the angle we should be looking at it like a football match.
In essence, would you support Igbo presidency in 2023?
I have just said it. A Nigerian president of Igbo extraction is what we are talking about and I have just said that if other places have done, let’s see when the Igbo come in what they can do for the nation.
In Nigeria today, you have some ethnic groups in the north, who prefer that power should come from the south, because they believe that anytime a southerner is in power they enjoy government the best. You also have she southerners, who believe that a northerner should be in power, because when they are in power they enjoy the best. Who is deceiving who?
Will you contest in 2023?
Having contested in 2003, 2007, 2015 and you are asking me at this time if I will contest, that is very interesting.
My contest for presidency and what has kept me wanting to run for president is not just because I want to be president and if I am going to be a president of failure, who won’t succeed, I don’t want to be a president and I pray God I don’t want to be.
But if my presidency will unite this country, then I want to be president. If my presidency will address the issue of poverty and insecurity, I would want to be president.
If my presidency will address the economy of this nation and we will begin to talk like other developed nations, then, I want to be president. If my presidency will guarantee free education to the poorest of the poor, I want to be a president. Other than this, hold your president and your presidency. I am fine.
Your party, the APC, seems to be on life support. Is there hope as elections and actions build up towards 2023?
You see, when injustice comes into a matter, the centre can no longer hold. That is a problem of the party. I forewarned about what is happening today in our party. It means we don’t have APC in the whole South-south.
That is a bad sign and signal. And in the Southeast, literally, we can say we don’t have APC, we just managed through the “Ben Johnson” way to get one seat and that does not make our image good.
The same clean party under the leadership of President Buhari that we consider a clean man, honest man, a patriotic man and these things are happening, then, it is unfortunate. But the truth is what I have been talking about has come to play.
I will not congratulate the PDP, I will congratulate Edo people for standing up against injustice, because the people that were voting for Obaseki is not only PDP, even APC voted for him. They want to stand up against injustice.
Edo people are not docile; they are not docile. They know what they want and how they want to get it. So, I would want to congratulate Edo people rather than congratulate any party because it was a mere dramatisation of the fight against injustice in that state.
But when I saw Adams Oshiomhole with Governor Hope Uzodinma, then I knew that Gulak will also be there, because when these three people are leading the campaign, then it either had to be a Ben Johnson way or there will be no victory. And so we must begin to learn.
I think what has happened is that people have taken advantage of the nature of the person of President Buhari, who most of the time chose to keep quiet and trust people without asking questions.
People have betrayed the trust he has reposed in them in governance and have taken advantage of it to mess up a lot of things in this nation. So, President Buhari’s kind of trust in his lieutenants is a major issue and that is what has ruined our party.
Nigerians are groaning under the burden of various tight policies of government. What is your message to the common Nigerian?
Like I said before, it is very unfortunate. Globally speaking, there are economic challenges. We must accept these facts. But what is more important despite the terrible poverty situation we have and out of school children and all the insecurity that we face, is that there is a huge communication gap between the government and the governed.
I will give you an instance. If as the head of a family with your wife and children, if you earn N20,000 a month and you have seven children, definitely the money will not be enough to take care of them.
But if there is communication between the husband, the wife and the children, and the children are made to see how this little resource can be used, there can never be a problem in the house.
This is the best way to describe the situation now. There is a huge communication gap and so people are not properly informed of the situation and that is why you have this anger, pain everywhere.
But if people are communicated and they understand the problem, they are reasonable, people are reasonable, human beings are reasonable and Nigerians are the most reasonable set of human beings anywhere in the world when it comes to being considerate.
Be with the people; don’t stay far from them. Let them understand when there is and when there is not. That makes for a good family; that makes for a good government; that makes for everything. And so I think there is the need for government to communicate more with the people and let them understand. If you hide your account from your wife, she will demand more. If you hand over your account to your wife, she will not ask any questions.
Your party recently sacked its National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole and now there is a caretaker committee. What do you think the leadership of the party can do differently as 2023 approaches?
Let me give you an insight into the APC, which most of you do not know. This word APC was formed by four major parties. One, CPC led by President Buhari came in, ACN led by Bola Ahmed Tinubu brought in their structure, ANPP led by Ogbonnaya Onuh and the rest brought in their structure.
APGA led by me brought in their structure and every other person fell in these four structures before the nPDP group came in and joined us. I came up with the name APC. I designed that logo and that was the beginning of this party. Unless we get back to where it all started, APC can never see the light of day.
You cannot rule out the role of these four parties. Then CPC had only one governor which was Nasarawa, APGA had only one governor, ACN came with a chunk of governors and ANPP had very few and that was how this party was formed.
And when we shared the positions, we shared them equally among these four parties. Then the founding fathers of the party are now relegated to the background and people are coming in with different interests, making us play the same type of politics that PDP played.
Talking about the sack of Oshiomhole, it came too late and for the interim committee to succeed, they must go back to the basics because those were the four legs upon which this party was built and if any of these four legs is shaky, the party can never stand, no matter how we decorate it.
It can never stand and I do hope President Buhari would remember this and we should all keep to the promises that we made ab initio as we formed this party, by showing that leadership and taking us back to where we all started and begin to re-plan and reform this party.
Do you see the APC disintegrating before 2023?
Let me tell you the truth, which is that there is no APC. What we have is respect for the person of President Buhari. That is what is keeping us together. But we still believe that something can be done. That trust and belief and respect is what we still call APC.
Outside that respect for President Buhari, the trust and belief that he could wake up one day and correct all these injustices and make things fine. That is the only thing that is keeping APC. If not, I don’t think that there is any APC and people are beginning to get fed up.