Athanasius Achonu : I’m an Ideas Distillery, Passionate About Development, Integrity, Nation-Building

Athanasius Achonu, businessman, philanthropist and politician is consistently driven by an intrepid aggressive mindset to succeed and excel all the time. Beneath his seeming outer calm is a volcanic restless energy constantly in search of new problems to solve, thus capturing and conquering new frontiers. Scarred by vestiges of war, the one-armed General is not showing signs of slowing down. In a chat with Adedayo Adejobi, Achonu, a Senator in the 8th Senate speaks on how he made his money, the big issues facing his beloved Imo State, why he is running for the office of the governor under the Labour Party in the forthcoming election, his long-drawn battle with Okorocha and Uzodinma and why Nigeria needs to restructure

Who is Athanasius Achonu?

I am a Nigerian, an ideas distillery who is very passionate about development, integrity, young entrepreneurs, and nation-building. Some say I‘m a  successful businessman. I simply say I thrive on ideas that create solutions. I work hard for my money. I like the good things in life. All the money I have made all my life are a result of struggle, sweat, and dint of hard work.

At the time fraudsters were pumping counterfeit notes into Nigerian banks and taking good notes out, I fought the racket by selling counterfeit money-detecting machines. My first million was made selling counterfeit-detecting machines, and the late Chimezie Ekeazor played a very big role in it. He brought in some damaged pieces of equipment which his first son and I repaired, sold, and made some good money off. The first Military governor of Rivers State and His Royal Majesty, Alfred Diete-Spiff, also helped me by asking Pan-African bank to buy from me. That business got me on a good footing in life, and since then, my life has been real activism in business.

You were a staunch member of the PDP, why are you in the gubernatorial race on the platform of the Labour Party?

I quickly left the PDP at the time, because it was mainly my colleagues in the PDP that sabotaged my election. I’m not going into details because that’s a matter for another day. It’ll be in my memoirs. It was indeed a sad thing, as I was demoralised by the level of treachery within the party. The PDP never gave me any support. I was crying out all alone and felt abandoned by the party.

Over the years, I have championed local government autonomy, and, so, last year when President Buhari assured Nigerians that money meant for the local government system would be going to them directly, I was happy because that is the only way you can secure the country and have an efficient local government system.

Because I am building health centres all over the country, I then joined the APC so that they would give me the support to complete the health centres. Not too long, there was a clamour for me to run for Senate since I was in the APC and the Senatorial seat was vacant. Because the person who took the seat from me died, there was a bye-election and I offered myself. The late Senator’s sister came out to contest. At first, I was disqualified, but I did not challenge it. How can you challenge a Senator who hasn’t committed any crime before and since he left the Senate? It was funny, but we all ran again and I won with a landslide and they declared someone else the winner. I didn’t challenge it, because, by then, I had become tired of the system. I immediately resigned from the APC and partisan politics to focus on my family and business.

Years down the line, Peter Obi and Datti happened. Obi is my kind of leader and someone I would like to associate myself with politically. I started and got back into politics. That was how I joined the LP

What do you see as the biggest issue facing Imo State today?

Everything is not right in Imo. Bloodshed in Imo since Hope Uzodinma assumed power is unprecedented. The only infrastructural development taking place in Imo today are the responsibility of the federal government. Instead of building state roads, the governor has abandoned all state roads, and he is busy doing federal roads because he will get refunded. If he is really close to the president as he claims, he should be able to attract the Ministry of Works to do those roads while he concentrates on the state’s road networks.

For over 20 years, I have been championing ‘Aku ruo ulo’, meaning Igbos should go home to invest in, and develop their place. We are the ones developing Kano, Abuja, Lagos and Nigeria for Nigerians, to the detriment of our homeland. Since the war ended, there has been a deliberate policy to choke the Southeast. If you come to the Southeast, there is a Customs checkpoint every kilometre. We are being treated as a conquered territory and our governors are not doing anything about it. So, that has been stifling trade and development.

When Ohakim came, he tried to redirect the vision of the state toward tourism. And I remember when he was a commissioner, I made a proposal to him that the state should be a major tourist destination. The moment he came, I keyed into his vision. I invested in it by buying the Progress Bank building in Owerri. I started eyeing 60% owned by Nze Maduako of blessed memory because the government was divesting. I was lucky. I was afraid of approaching a fellow hotelier with the news of acquiring his property to match my own with a view to having a bigger investment.

So, I went to pay a condolence visit to the Late Vincent Ogbulafor, when his father died. He asked me to come to his bedroom. I carried cartons of champagne I came with to the bedroom, and to my surprise, I met Nze Maduako. I have been looking forward to meeting him. I have been hesitant because I didn’t know how to broach the conversation with him to sell his investment to me. I also did not know his plans for the place. After the introduction, he broached the conversation with me on acquiring the Progress Bank building and asked about my plans. I gave him my vision and tourism potential in Imo State. I made him see reasons that without partnering with him over Imo Hotels or selling to me, it will not become a reality. He said, ‘My son, I have been watching you. Many people have requested to buy the place from me, but I have refused.’

He said, any day I was ready, I should come and he would sell to me. I almost peed in my pants because I was unprepared for that shock. And the day I got to his house to close the sale, he and his lawyer brought out a file, calculated every penny spent on the facility and only added legal fees of the transaction between us, and told me to refund him. He went ahead to tell me not to give up on my dream. I don’t know how I left the place without breaking down and crying like a baby.

When Rochas Okorocha came at the time we were building the hotel, my Lebanese engineers would always call me to ask why the governor was interested in this hotel, because every day he takes a seat and would be looking at the building from Imo Hotels. I thought, perhaps, he wanted to approach me to buy it from me because he’s property-crazy. Not too long, an anonymous caller phoned me to say Rochas had set up an eight-man committee to find reasons to bring down my hotel. I told the man who refused to give me his name that there was no reason to bring down my hotel. The man said he believed in what I was doing and I should go ahead.

Suddenly, Rochas put a ‘stop work’ order on the building and the reason he gave was a 1977 law that says that any floor above a certain height is not a basement. Because we have two basement floors and eight floors, he said the two basement floors exceeded by about half an inch and, by so, we contravened the approval and built 10 floors. Funny enough, it was the state government that built it for Progress Bank and we just acquired it from Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) and submitted the specifications as it was and they approved it. Because it was an open plan, all we did was partition into rooms, restaurants, lobby, etc.

So, we went to court and he made sure the case wasn’t heard at the State High Court. Because he wanted to commercialise Imo Hotel, I went to court and got a judgement against him on the grounds that I own 60% and he can’t do anything there without my consent, and I won.

The female judge who gave the judgement was under a lot of pressure, but she did what was right. She was supposed to be the next Chief Judge. They threw her into a village and made somebody else the Chief Judge. That case was never heard until he left office. Immediately Emeka Ihedioha became governor, I petitioned him. He couldn’t believe it and quickly wrote a letter of apology that we should complete the hotel. The jobs the hotel would have created for countless indigenes over the years are immeasurable.

Iheadioha wrote a letter of apology, and I told him it was not enough. Since we were in court, we must have an out-of-court settlement so that nobody comes to disturb me again. He agreed. In fact, the State Attorney General came to Abuja with the agreement for us to sign. On that day, the Supreme Court removed Ihedioha from office.

Immediately Hope Uzodinma took over, and in the company of his associate, Chief Tony Chukwu, he said to me he wanted me to come and finish the hotel during his tenure. I was happy, but very suspicious and didn’t believe him. He said I should do an integrity test. The last integrity test was done during Ihedioha’s few months in office, and they said it would last another 100 years because it was concrete cast from the floor to the basement with supporting pillars. The only thing left to do was to check blocks damaged because of rain and sun, change them, roof and complete the structure.

He insisted I do another integrity test. I spent money, did another one, and submitted the plan and reports. Till today, that document is being archived. I now approached the court because Imo Hotels was supposed to settle with Ihedioha, and we didn’t settle it. We were holding meetings with the Ministry of Justice to share the property because since the Secretary to Government had taken the other side as an office, it will not be wise to commercialise it. All we needed to do was share the property with me taking 60% and Imo State taking 40%.

There is a subsisting judgement that Rochas should set up a board so that we can determine the relationship. The relationship gives me 60% and them 40% of the profit. To date, he hasn’t set up a board for him to give the account and for us to share proceeds from the venture. Neither has he obeyed the court judgement mandating him to pay me N100 million in damages. To make matters worse, the dual carriage road Rochas divided has given the state more properties- well above its 40% threshold. For peace to reign, I’m willing to just take what is left, get it over with, and build my hotel. But he will not have any of it. Hope Uzodinmma is now clearing that space to build another structure in spite of the court judgement.

I even went ahead to accuse Imo elders of being mean to me, because they didn’t ask why the place hasn’t been developed over the years. Instead, they were whispering behind my back that, ‘how can only a one-armed General own all these things?’ That’s envy! I have never worked in government before, and neither did I steal any public funds. It is my sweat. The elders called and said Hope Uzodinma has asked them to meet with me so we can resolve the matter. I laughed because he wouldn’t resolve anything. He wants to keep me engaged so that I would not run the 2023 governorship race in the forthcoming elections. I initially didn’t want to run, but support a strong candidate who can remove him. But the clamour by indigenes that I am the only person who can run, and take him out, further gave me the resolve to run.

He wanted to pretend to be in my good books, pretending to settle the Hotel issue. The G-Plaza that I don’t own with the government, only to sign an out-of-court settlement has taken him three years. Is it the one I co-own with the government he will resolve? So, immediately I had a meeting with Ohakim and Ilomuanya, I met with his emissaries and told them he was not serious and trying to hoodwink us. The deal is off the table and I will take my chances with the court. They had told him my response, and so he started demolishing the International Conference Centre. At first, I thought they were trying to clear the place because it was really an eyesore, the next thing I heard, he has awarded a contract. I don’t know what they are trying to build. So, I’m returning to court to enforce my rights. 

With such a tough opposition and many attacks, are you still going ahead?

Imo State needs a government that is development-oriented and that’s what I have done over the years. I had a license to operate a refinery. I bought 47 hectares of land from Ohaji Egbema. We were looking for about 100-200 hectares so that when we build the refinery we can have an industrial park beside it, such that the same power firing the refinery can power the industrial park. With lots of gas deposits in that area, we can have 24-hour electricity. The idea went into the cooler because Rochas was attacking me over the hotel, so my partners pulled out.

When I go to convince people to invest in the Southeast, they ask me what of the ‘Aku ruo ulo’ I took to the Southeast 20 years ago, and ask where I am with it. Truly, how can I ask them to come and invest when I have not realised my investment? So they said, if I am serious with this ‘Aku ruo ulo’ mantra, I should go and contest governorship because they know I am development-oriented. They trust and can vouch for my integrity. So that when I become governor, they know there is an enabling environment to bring their money, and their investments are safe.

Luckily for me, Alex Otti has emerged in Abia and I know him to be a man of vision, integrity, and love for Igbo land and Nigeria. I know he will bring development into his state. With men like that, we can bring development. I’m looking forward to taking over Douglas House and turning Imo State and Igbo land around. We’re all dreaming of a great Southeast.

Considering that your party is relatively new and has gathered momentum in the last general elections, how do you plan to clinch the seat with the quality of opposition in your state?

That is the mistake people make. It is because of the people we have in the political class, that is why they have had the notion. There is no difference between the PDP and the APC. They are the same people. The only party that thinks differently, and has moved away from the traditional mode of doing things, is the Labour Party. And it is so because the youths who have suffered and are tired are now involved. By the way, I have supported the youth movement over the years, so much so that the Youth Council of Nigeria (YCN) made me their patron. I have been a quiet activist supporting the Nigeria Labour Congress over the years. If you look at the businesses I have involved myself in, they are all development-oriented.

There are rumours that Governor Hope Uzodinma is behind your campaign, how true is that?

When I heard that, I wanted to laugh my head off. Even though the man whose voice was in that tape had denied it, he is now saying they used artificial intelligence to clone his voice. Ohakim was very angry and the boy refuted it. It’s a shame people can go to that extent. Is it Hope who couldn’t pay me N100 million in damages, is now ready to give me a credit of $1m?  In fact, he should offer me up to $10 million, so I can add it to what I have to throw him out of Douglas House.

What would you say has been your role in nation-building over the years?

When I found out that the killings in Zamfara were a result of the mineral resources, I spent N7.5 million to investigate what was happening there as a Senator. I introduced a bill that no mineral resources should be exported out of the country without processing first. We must process them to a certain degree because it will add value. We acquire the technology for processing, we create jobs and more wealth. Everything I think about is how to add value, more progress and stop waste. And that is what I will bring to bear in Imo, that is why they are clamouring for me to take over. I can’t judge myself, but those who know me personally, know I have integrity.

  What do you think your chances are in the November elections?

I don’t think I’m competing against anybody in the November elections. The Imo people are the ones deciding who will govern them. And the brazen rigging in the last elections will not be allowed any longer. Everybody believed in the BVAS because it worked in the legislative elections, so they felt it would work in the House of Assembly elections. Nobody knew that the governors would do what they did in all the states. But all of them are going to lose all the seats because it was so brazen. Whatever they talk about in the judiciary, no judge can give such judgement in their favour. My expectation is that Hope Uzodinma should start making arrangements on how to wind up his administration, vacate Douglas House, and go home to his village. He should prepare to hand over so that the Imo people will take back their government so that sanity and peace will reign.

Will you adopt a targeted employment strategy for physically-challenged persons?

I want to encourage physically-challenged people like myself to believe that they are better than those who are not physically challenged. There will be no special preference. But I will encourage them massively, personally and privately. There will be no barrier to their development and progress. Every public building in the state will be accessible to everybody. There will be inclusion of women and the physically challenged in the employment of government workers. I have plans, but I wouldn’t reveal them so they would not copy them before the elections.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

I can’t call myself a businessman but I look at where governments are making mistakes, I bring ideas on how to correct them and then I make money. That is how I made my money. The only business I would say I have heavily invested in is tourism and hotels and I have not really made money from it. I own a microfinance bank. In fact, I don’t make money from it. The loans I gave the rural women, from my place, have not been paid back.  Now, I’m a farmer. I own a farm in Kuje with 50 greenhouses, a cattle stockade, artificial flowing river with the capacity to produce 150,000 catfishes monthly and export to the international market.

I also have another farm in Imo State. The farm has 260 greenhouses, a hatchery, a feed mill, cattle stockade that can accommodate 5,000 cattle, and we can produce over 1 million catfish monthly. We are accessing other funding opportunities with a view to building a poultry, piggery, and slaughterhouse so we can have a full cattle processing value chain for the local market.

What do you think sets you apart in this race?

I have a track record of having created jobs across major sectors of the economy. I will open up the rural areas and turn them into cities, by setting up factories and housing, schools, and hospitals for workers. This will engender reverse migration. We will build power plants that will support all the industries and factories.

Nigeria is at the moment polarised across ethnic and religious lines. What is your advice to the President-elect on unifying the country?

Unless they unite Nigeria.  I granted an interview when at the Senate where I said it’s either Nigeria restructures or we go our separate ways. And it’s leading up to that. Any incoming government that does not unite this country immediately, will run into a lot of trouble. I have hope for this country if we restructure. Restructuring is the only way forward to having a stable country. I believe we should have a government that is competent and has integrity. That is why I supported Peter Obi and Datti Baba Ahmed. I also believe it’s the turn of the Southeast to be given a chance to show what we can do.                            

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