From George Onyejiuwa, Owerri
Dr Ikedi Ohakim, one of the ex- governors of Imo State, whose administration was also investigated by a judicial panel that probed land matters between June 2006 and May 2019, in this exclusive interview relieves his own experiences on the current face-off between the state government and another former governor, Senator Rochas Okorocha over the implementation of the recommendations of the panel, among other issues.
Your Excellency, recently you presided over a stakeholders meeting in Imo State during which the matter between former Governor Rochas Okorocha and the current administration in the state was put on the crucible. Why did you accept to preside over that meeting? Was it an opportunity to get even with Okorocha over the rift you had with him earlier?
First and foremost, I am a bona fide indigene of the state and the gathering was that of stakeholders of which I am one. A stakeholders meeting is for all to put heads together on how to move the state forward or to deliberate on a particular issue. The issue between Senator Okorocha and the state government is a development for which every matured and well-meaning indigene of the state feels quite concerned about. I did not accept to chair the occasion because of Senator Okorocha. Since I left office, I have presided over occasions in the state. Everybody in Nigeria knows where I stand or stood as far as Okorocha and his administration are concerned. I had spoken and written severally on that long before now.
The general impression in the state is that Okorocha misgoverned Imo. But what did leaders like you do when he was committing the offenses now being alleged against him even though there might have been no love lost between both of you because of events of 2011.
First, let me make one clarification. My position on what Okorocha did during his tenure as governor had nothing to do with what transpired before and during the 2011 governorship election. I think that is what you were indirectly referring to. I put the events concerning that election behind me immediately after, but when I began to notice that the trajectory he was taking was in reverse of what we had envisioned and actually set out to do during the period we were on the saddle, I spoke out. For example, after Governor Okorocha’s maiden broadcast to the people on June 6, 2011 during which he dismantled nearly all the institutions of government, including those that had been in existence before I became governor, I wrote him a letter just the next day, June 7, to draw his attention to my handover notes and asking him to seek clarifications from me on any areas that he was finding difficult to handle. But he ignored me and continued; so I had to go public. Unfortunately, some of our people felt that I was doing so because he was purported to have won the 2011 governorship election. Of course, Okorocha deployed his people to abuse me each time I said anything whether good or bad. It was that bad. But we were undeterred. I can even illustrate what I am telling you with the very matter that caused the current rift. I mean the Royal Spring Palm Estate and Hotels recovered from him by the current administration. In one of my subsequent letters to Governor Okorocha, I had advised him to respect the Owerri City Master Plan. As usual, he ignored me. Then I had to go public. As expected, I was thoroughly abused. The same thing happened when I advised him to construct real bridges like I did instead of ordinary culverts over the Nworie and Otamiri Rivers. Today, most of the culverts have collapsed apart from that the flow of the rivers are now constricted and we are at the verge of losing that body of waters and nature’s gift. I can go on and on. On the Royal Spring Palm Estate and hotel issue, the Owerri City Master Palm is specific that the green verge on which it is situated, must not be built upon because anything built there will discharge its waste into the Otamiri water scheme and that would endanger the lives of our people. All the 13 state chief executives, both military and civilian and including my humble self, before the arrival of Okorocha in 2011, respected that provision religiously. Yet, by 2013, buildings began to spring up on that verge. The other one that made me cry was the destruction of a project known as Forest of Indigenous Trees in Owerri capital city. The forest had trees that were indigenous to Ndigbo, and which were no longer in existence in most parts of Igbo land. All the previous administrations before mine respected the forest and I also did and even added over two thousand tress to it. But we woke one day to see bulldozers clearing the trees and before anybody could say Jack Robinson, buildings began to spring up there. That damage cannot be quantified in terms of naira and kobo. You see, in town planning, there is the concept of connecting the old and the new. Unfortunately, in our case, all the heritage buildings like the old Douglas House and the Imo library complex, including the forest of indigenous tree etc, have been demolished and our creative dialogue between the past and the present may have gone forever.
But Senator Okorocha is insisting that he is being witch hunted?
Well, that’s for Governor Uzodimma and his handlers to provide answer for. All I know is that the judicial panel was mandated to cover three previous administrations including mine. I was invited by the panel and I appeared before it on October 15, 2019. My administration was thoroughly investigated before and after my appearance. All the allegations Governor Okorocha and some of his administration’s insiders had made against me concerning property were investigated by the panel and found to be false. Shortly after I left office, Governor Okorocha went on live television to say that I owned half of Wethdral road, Owerri. All this were false and the judicial panel confirmed it. The only property I own in Owerri is where both of us are now, this three-bedroom bungalow which I acquired in 1992 while serving as commissioner under the late Governor Evan Enwerem. I make bold to say that some of us in our own little ways try to live up to the ideals of our great leaders of the past; people like M.I. Okpara who concerned himself more with development and welfare of the people than with acquiring property. Okpara’s friends and associates, led by the late C.C. Onoh, former governor of old Anambra State, had to rally round to build a house for him before he could return from self exile abroad. But today, what do we have? Your answer is as good as mine.
During the seven-month long administration of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, you were believed to have worked closely with him. Now, with Governor Uzodimma, you are also said to be working closely with him. Does that not…?
(Cuts in) What is wrong with that? As a former governor, my obligation to the people transcends partisan boundaries. After elections, governance begins. Once somebody has been declared winner, you are bound as a leader to eschew partisanship and support whomsoever emerges. In the case of Ihedioha you referred to, I threw in my support for him even before he was formally declared winner. I had to do that because I didn’t want the election to go for a second balloting because I knew the implications. In the case of Governor Uzodimma, as soon as I discovered that he was not out to destroy institutions and legacies left by his predecessors, unlike what we saw under Okorocha, I decided to throw my weight behind him. It was quite a pleasant surprise for me when Governor Uzodimma decided to continue with the judicial panels set up by his predecessor without uttering their compositions. Not even one member was replaced. I could remember some pro- Okorocha APC people accusing him of doing the bidding of PDP by retaining panels that were set up by a PDP administration. Government is supposed to be a continuum. Uzodimma continued with the projects initiated by his predecessor; unlike what we saw in 2011 when Okorocha terminated every project initiated by my administration even when most of them were over 70 per cent completed. Even newspapers wrote editorials questioning why the projects were stopped. One of the newspapers was the Leader, a highly influential newspaper in the state owned by the Catholic Church.
But you did not support Okorocha or should I say that both of you were at each other’s neck?
That of Okorocha and I was an aberration. I was being hounded out of office even after I had won the 2011 governorship election. And because of the way things went, I became the biggest enemy of his administration and they were determined to obliterate everything I did. So, there was no opportunity to extend any hand of friendship to a fellow who felt so bitter to the extent that he summarily dismissed 10,000 innocent graduates and over 20,000 non-graduates whom my administration had absorbed into the state public service after a rigorous recruitment exercise. And as I earlier mentioned, he dismantled nearly every institution of government. For example, the 46 development centres created by law were scrapped overnight. The state electoral commission was scrapped; the traditional rulers council was scrapped. Twenty seven democratically elected local government chairmen and 305 councilors were sent packing. The Imo Road Maintenance Agency, the Judicial Service Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Imo Environmental Transformation Commission, ENTRACO, were all scrapped.
He renamed the Wonder Lake project which had the potential of creating over 20,000 jobs and abandoned it even when I handed over to him the sum of N13.2 billion from the project account, and which was part of the N26.3 billion we handed over to him. We had a legacy road project which we named the Inner-Outer-Outer Ring Road in line with the Owerri City Master Plan and which would have completely eliminated the problem of traffic in the state capital, Owerri. That was also terminated. The Ekwema Layout, which was developed and allocated by my administration following due process, was terminated and the land re-allocated to other individuals. Incidentally, it is one of the layouts the white paper on the judicial panel’s report has asked the state government to recover from the beneficiaries of that perfidy. In fact, Governor Okorocha began to deal with us even before he was inaugurated as governor. He set up what he called office of the governor-elect and began to issue directives including freezing the state’s bank accounts.
Let’s go beyond Imo. The spate of insecurity in the country has become quite alarming. If you were at helm of affairs, how would you tackle the matter?
I think the matter has gone beyond individual pontifications through media channels like this. It requires more positive and proactive action. The recent abduction of over 200 girls from a school in Zamfara State for me shows that some people are out to embarrass and sabotage the entire nation. I can see that there is sabotage. Take it from me. Yes, it borders on criminality, but I like to think that there is now a deliberate effort to bring shame to us as a nation. But I would caution that we should leave partisanship out of it. This is not the time for partisan grandstanding. It is no longer a PDP or APC matter. The problem is fundamental and as such requires a fundamental solution.
Should the authorities negotiate with bandits or criminals?
I think we should not blackmail ourselves out of being pragmatic in ways of looking at the issue at stake. Negotiation or no negotiation would depend on the circumstances. A carrot and stick approach should be used. If we discover that the only option available is to negotiate, why not since lives are involved. On the other hand, it is also a well-known fact that our security forces most of the time have an upper hand and are able to deal with the criminals with military precision. So, it depends. The carrot and stick approach is a well-known leadership strategy that cannot be over emphasized.
Recently, it was rumoured that you have joined the All Progressives Congress (APC) but you denied it. Don’t you think that your role at recent stakeholders meeting in Owerri may refuel that speculation?
I have told you earlier that I took part in that meeting as a stakeholder like others and that as an elder statesman and former governor; I cannot be indifferent to matters that have to do with the wellbeing of my people. There is nothing sanctimonious about joining or not joining APC. When the time comes, it will be unmistaken where I am and it will not be the subject of any speculation. For now, I believe I have an obligation to support the incumbent governor whether or not I am in APC and I have earlier explained to you how I got endeared to Governor Uzodimma’s administration. I keep saying that every incumbent governor has the right to get assistance from those with institutional memory. I did the last proper handover on the affairs of Imo State and I know what was where before I left. It is not about which party you belong to.
Sir, recall that last January, you went to court to challenge a group of people which was apparently trying to constitute a stumbling block to the last Ohanaeze Ndigbo general election during which Prof George Obiozor emerged as President General. In spite of a subsisting court order to the contrary, there is a parallel executive of the Ohanaeze headed by one Chidi Ibe. What is happening?
We know about all that. And I have called some of those involved in this shenanigan to advise and warn them about the legal and political implications of what they are doing to the Igbo nation. Unfortunately, they have continued. You just watch out and see what will happen soon. I can assure you that I will never shy away from any necessary measures to ensure that nobody desecrates the collective integrity of Ndigbo.
Going back to Imo, there is tension in the state and people are worried. What is your take going forward?
The tension is a needless one as far as I am concerned because what to do to avoid it is there for all to see. On the part of Senator Okorocha, the courts are there to approach. Resorting to self-help will be an ill wind that will blow no one any good. There can even be a political solution provided such do not go against the general expectations of the people. I would advise that he does not drag the government into a media war. A media war will scare investors, traumatize the people and further injure the already comatose economy. Also, a media war is not to his interest because right now, an increasing number of indigenes of the state are beginning to believe that they were robbed. If I may play the devil’s advocate, they may become more restive even hostile to him. I would also like to seize this opportunity to caution real estate developers in the state against cutting corners. The current issue seems to suggest that there have been so many scam on land matters in the state. Therefore, I would advise developers to always follow due process and deal officially with the government, not just individual functionaries even if that person is the governor himself. What we are witnessing now should teach our people a lesson to be able to differentiate between the governor and the government. On the part of those currently in offices, the big lesson is, of course, that tomorrow will also come. The resultant effect of some of the bold steps the current administration is taking is that we are widening the eyes of the people or as they say, the people are having their eyes shined. So, when these current office holders step out, they should also be ready to account for what they did while in office. But I think that in all this, the people expect the government to be firm. Lastly, as an environmentalist, I would advise the current administration to bring back the Forest of Indigenous Trees to connect with our past for the benefit of present and future.