I am not a native son in the mould of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Richard Wright’s novel, “Native Son.” Bigger, a black youth in white America, was an upside down man. He lived in utter poverty in a poor area of Chicago in the 1930s. He had a notoriety for criminality but Wright, while not absolving him of his crimes, explains that there was a systemic inevitability behind them.
But our story here is not about the native son of Wright’s imagination. Rather, it is about my rootedness in the affairs of my locality. I am something of a home boy who is fully abreast of issues and developments around me that those who may not be so grounded will find strange. Even though I have been a Lagos boy since the early 1980s, my locale here is Imo, my home state, where I have had cause to stay close for some four years now. My frequent trips to and stay in Owerri, the twin city that serves as the capital of Imo state, has brought me face-to-face with government and governance in the state. I hardly missed a moment of the action in the second phase of the Rochas Okorocha administration. I was never a part of it. But I was close enough to have a first-hand knowledge of the government.
As I have always pleaded, I do not find it fashionable to dwell on the affairs of my state in this column. That explains why I rarely stepped out to be part of the army of critics who found Rochas’s unconventional ways very revolting. I merely watched and grinned from the background. When, therefore, stories started making the rounds in the twilight of his administration that he and his henchmen were looting government property, I was hardly excited. I glossed over it because I thought the man was incapable of such lowness. In feeling this way, I recalled my experience or our experience in the hands of Rochas when he took over the reins of governance from Ikedi Ohakim in 2011. He came into office smoking hot with revisionism. He rewrote the story of the Ohakim administration in the way it suited him. Hardy had Rochas assumed the mantle of leadership than he descended on Ohakim and those who worked under him.
On assumption of office, Rochas approached the Department of State Services and put its operatives in charge of recovery of government property. That brashness was uncalled for since those of us who served under that administration were fully briefed on the return of government property. But the new government hardly settled down before it began to issue threats on recovery of government property. I was in faraway United States when information reached me that Rochas was on the prowl. I had no government property in my possession at the time except a Toyota Avensis whose keys I left with the driver attached to my office by the ministry. Every other vehicle attached to my office was left behind in the ministry. Upon receipt of the information about where to return the vehicles, I contacted the driver from my base in the United States and instructed him to return the vehicle to the designated location. That was done. In fact, the Ohakim team acted neatly and swiftly in that matter so much so that the new administration had no cause to threaten anybody anymore.
When, therefore, the story of looting by Rochas and his team came up, I began to wonder how a man who employed blackmail and intimidation in the recovery of government property eight years ago could have such a short memory. Has he forgotten his own admonition about and compulsion in the recovery of government property? But then I refused to jump to conclusions until I became a witness to the plunder.
As a native son who knows what is where in the state, I have used the roads and bridges built by Rochas. I visited Government House, Owerri, which he remodeled a couple of times. I could actually rate him on performance without relying on second-hand information. Generally speaking, the man made some impact. But what was sorely lacking in his projects was quality. None had any quality assurance of any sort. And the man was not bothered about that. He was somewhat impervious to criticism. He said he was not interested in due process for, according to him, such bureaucracies would slow him down and impede his developmental stride. And so he constructed his own system of administration and pursued it with single-mindedness. He established his own style of governance, and the people of the state, after the initial consternation and disquiet, allowed him to be.
But his exit from office appears to have exposed his fragile underbelly. A casual return to his projects, most of which I had encountered in the past, left me in shock. The tunnels are no longer passable. They have deteriorated to the point of abandonment. The roads have collapsed completely, leaving Owerri with pothole-ridden lanes. I really shudder at what has taken place. I was scandalised that the Government House that he vacated a few weeks ago has become a historical relic. The state of dilapidation negated what I saw there some six months ago. The Executive Council Chambers, which he renovated, is in a state of decay. The rot looks forced. It appears deliberate. The same thing is true of the new Governor’s Lodge that he built. The place has degenerated so fast. But what shocked me the most was the asset-stripping that took place. The Banquet Hall within Government House has no seats, no air conditioners. They have all been taken away. The International Conference Centre that he built is also in bad shape. And like the banquet hall, its seats and air conditioners have been removed. So, where are these facilities? Who took them away and for what purpose? If buildings and their furniture and fittings suffered this fate, you can then imagine what has become of government vehicles. Those ones have developed wings. The new government has nothing to work with. I thought that this was a fairy tale until I witnessed the plunder first-hand.
Generally speaking, Imo is in bad shape. But what rankles the most are the collapsing bridges in Owerri and Mgbe. The Nigerian Society of Engineers has raised the alarm over the quality of the bridges and tunnels. It has warned residents of Owerri to stay clear of them. The engineering body is also taking interest in the flyovers in Owerri that nobody uses because they are collapsing. Deep gullies on the collapsing portions of the bridges show that they were constructed without proper specifications. Iron rods were scarcely used in the construction. The Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria has moved in to save the situation. At the moment, the bridges are closed to traffic.
The new government of Emeka Ihedioha is grappling with this unenviable state of affairs. It is working assiduously to rebuild the dilapidated infrastructure in the state. Strangely, however, Rochas is still advertising his achievements on television even after leaving office. What then do the people believe? You won’t be wrong if you rely on this eye-witness account of a native son.