- IPOB was overpriced
By Christy Anyanwu
The Governor of Imo State, Rochas Anayo Okorocha in this interview with Sunday Sun, speaks about his childhood dreams, life as governor, State of the nation, his family and life at 55 Excerpts.
What are the greatest challenges before you as the governor of Imo State?
I don’t have any challenge, at least none that I know. This is so because before I became the governor, I’d expected much more problems than I found. Remember I aspired to be the president and I’d pursued this ambition three times before I came back to become a governor.
Have you then dropped your ambition to become the president of Nigeria?
No, I’ve not dropped my ambition to become the president, I’m only respecting the gentleman called President Muhammadu Buhari who I think has what it takes to change leadership in this country. And I’m waiting for his declaration; if he’s running, then I should support him.
On the scale of 1 to 10, how would you honestly rate your performance as a governor?
I think I had scored 15 over 10. You may be surprised I’m saying this but you can ask me why and how. There’s no aspect of life in Imo State that I’ve not touched positively- infrastructure has been a lot better than what the state had, education is free from primary school to university, security is better, people now trust government unlike before, government is now closer to the people and so on. I challenge any governor in this country, dead or alive to dare say they’d performed better than me.
If these truly are what you’ve focused your energy and the state’s resources to doing, doesn’t it bother you that the narratives outside suggest something else?
It doesn’t bother me because to be great is to be misunderstood. I don’t want people to understand me. If they understand me I won’t be great. So those who write and say negative things about me help me a lot because if you know the real Rochas, you’d come closer and slap me because you know I would never harm you. If you know me well enough, you’d know that you could even take my property and I wouldn’t ask for it. So I find these things protective- my enemies have really created a good name for me. Of course, they’d say Rochas who destroyed Ekeukwu Market, I thank them a lot because I don’t even want them to know the true story.
You were accused of pulling down the market without making an alternative…
That’s not true. The whole of Ekeukwu Market had 3,500 shops, I’ve built 11,500 shops and nobody has talked about it. This is so because they don’t want me to take credit for anything good. Even my daughter feels very worried that her daddy is not getting fair publicity and that’s why I allowed this interview, otherwise I won’t grant it. There are always what we call fault-finders and most people you find writing negative things about me are not fact-finders. That’s how some people would say my wife and I have a chaotic marriage- I have the best marriage and family in the world. They think writing things like this will destroy me politically but for how long will I keep responding to those negatives? Most people come to Imo State and they’re shocked. If you were told in Lagos that there’s a State House like this in the East you probably won’t believe. But I understand bad news sell. If you say that Okorocha is a wonderful man, a God-sent- who will read it? In Imo State, I have over 1,700 projects going on and that’s unprecedented in recent history. I sound boisterous nowadays, it’s not my nature but sometimes you must tell it as it is.
A few states have done free education with primary and secondary schools, how were you able to make it free up to the university level?
It’s the same as asking me how we have survived with Rochas Foundation- it’s a vision and the bible says my people perish for lack of knowledge. How was the first aircraft built? Vision! That’s why I keep saying let visionary leaders lead, irrespective of where they come from. We always want our friends, kinsmen, relatives and so on to lead and that’s why we languish in this country. No country, okay, maybe one or two countries can do free education from primary to university level. Has anybody asked me how I’ve been able to achieve free education? Even the government hasn’t asked. I’m still providing uniforms, lockers, shoes, books and so with quality teachers to train these kids, but how many people have come to ask me how we’ve managed to achieve this? When I started with Rochas Foundation, the first news that greeted that development was that I was going to do politics and needed popularity. For 17 years now, I’ve run the foundation and I’ve been a governor and I had not jettisoned the programme. Instead I’m extending our reach to Africa and I’m sure the next thing you would hear now is that Rochas wants to be the president of Africa. So why should I waste so much time explaining that to everybody who fails to understand me?
Where do you see yourself in 2019?
I have so many windows open in 2019 as I wait for Mr. President to make his declaration, I want to be politically relevant and I have made the decision never to watch my country sink. This I would do without losing my Foundation which is a huge challenge on its own. If President Buhari declares to run for the office again in 2019 I will support him, because the man has a character to develop Nigeria. He has a thick skin that we need. We have a faulty foundation and I see President Buhari as that man who can build the foundation that we need. But I don’t see him as someone who will build this nation with a fantastic finishing with nice furniture. He’s just going to build a solid foundation upon which success and prosperity for the land shall be accomplished. And that’s where people like me would come in.
What’s your take on some youths from IPOB agitating for Biafra?
IPOB was overpriced. These young men seeking relevance as a livelihood and to tell you how daft some people can be, any mad man can just rise one day and lead a senseless agitation and he’d get followers. Even the way IPOB was handled by the government wasn’t right. I kept telling the government that this young man, Kanu Nnamdi, is inconsequential in the matter- treat him like who he really is. But now he’d been given some national attention branding the whole Igbo as IPOB members and it’s the reason for the quit notice some gave our people in the North. The matter is laughable. You cannot imagine me, Rochas being asked by IPOB that let’s go to war and I follow. That’s the greatest insult to people of the east. Even if you come today and start a church you name ‘Kill Every Human Being Church’, some people will still join you. There are always people for everything you do. I would have handled it differently.
How would you have handled it?
First, I understand the problem that this is an agitation by a young man and I will make sure I circle him out from the rest of the society, I’d make him a loner within his area and I will not brand the entire people wrongly. There are no better people to stop IPOB than the Igbo. Even ordinary youth groups of south-east could have stopped IPOB. When you start something and a bigger force takes over, everybody relaxes. It’s like in political campaigns, when they’re going to campaign they carry a lot of people, 1000 people to visit a small village of 200 people. And when you get there, people would just fold their arms and start watching you dance for them. The South-east should be properly engaged to finish this idea because it’s a local matter.
What’s your take about restructuring?
What are you restructuring? It’s a poor workman that quarrels with his tools. What Nigeria needs is to get it right. Once things are right from the top, everything will be fine with the country. The agitation is a complaint about not carrying some people along. Anytime there’s insufficiency in the system, people must cry foul. Once there’s no poverty who cares about such propositions?
You’ve said a few times that you’re a Hausa man and by that what do you mean?
I’m a Nigerian first and foremost. I grew up as a northerner, I speak fluent Hausa, I write Hausa and I understand the Hausa culture, that way an Hausa man would. I’ve been in Hausa land longer than I’ve been in Igbo land. So why can’t I claim to be an Hausa man? My first thought was to run for governor of Plateau State or Kano. In fact, when I came to Imo State I was an unknown person because I never went to primary or secondary school here (Imo). Most people don’t know me and that is part of the problem I’m facing right now because the elite don’t understand me. If I had gone to the same schools with them around they would have known my behaviour from primary or secondary school. So they brand me with everything their minds conceive. Hausa people gave me my childhood, they trained me up to the university but Igbo gave me parentage. My parents are Igbo but my business success came from the west. It was a Yoruba man that was my partner who became a millionaire. Having been born an Igbo man, brought up by the north and empowered by the west, I’m a Nigerian. There’s no one that believes more in Nigeria than me. If there’s such person let him so speak of his activities. If I didn’t believe in Nigeria, I wouldn’t have built my schools in Ibadan (Rochas Foundation) with over 10,000 poor students there. Once upon a time, former president Obasanjo was shocked when I took about 87 students from his village, Owu (in Ogun State) area. He was surprised to see that those are the kids I call my children. I built in Jos, I’m not from Jos, I built a school in Yola, am I from Yola? I built in Bauchi, Cross River and so on. We don’t say we believe in the unity of Nigeria theoretically, we must do something practical to prove it.
As I speak to you, there’s no single northerner with meaningful investment in Imo State. No northerner has a million naira investment in Igboland, no Yoruba man has a million naira worth of building here. That’s why I say if there’s any region that is Nigerian it’s the Igbo. Go to Lagos you’d see Igbo, does it mean they have no land in their own states? You go to Kano, Kaduna and everywhere you’d see Igbos- they’re more Nigerian than anyone else. They should be given kudos for that. Where will the Igbos go? Would they leave those property there and come home?
Why did you choose to open up to Africa in commemoration of your 55th birthday?
My concern is for the black race, Africa. I honestly have wondered what can unite Africa. I used to be a President of Red Cross. One of the challenges we had was that there was no common thing uniting us other than being black. The only language we tend to sing is ‘poverty’ and I don’t see ten years from now, I see 500 years to come. That’s the difference. The children from across Africa are here with different stories and they are doing very well. My idea is that someday, some of these children would become African leaders and bring about prosperity in the land. There are children from South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Ethiopia, Sierra-Leone and we are expecting others.
What are your life’s reflections at 55?
Well, talking about my 55 years in this world. It brings about a lot of memories of the past and how it all started. So, looking back, I can only say to God be the glory because in 55 years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The bad is: That I come from a very poor home. I wish I had come from a rich family but I didn’t. I grew up in Jos; that’s where I had my primary, secondary and university education. Then I came into business. From business to politics and that’s where I am today. So, I thank God. The good side of it is that I have seen the mercy of God; coming from nothing to something. That, for me, is good. The ugly side of it is getting a close shave with death and still alive. The plane crashes and all of that.
Can you recount some of the plane crashes?
The Nigerian Airways plane crash in Kaduna that claimed over 64 lives. I was in the plane when it crashed. I mean the same Bellview plane that killed many people in the same week Obasanjo’s wife died in 2005. I had gotten my boarding pass; I walked up to the gate before I turned back.
As one who came from a home that knew abject poverty, how exactly did you make your first million?
Actually, I was born here in Imo state but because of poverty, I called on my parents to borrow money so that we could leave the city to avoid shame. We left for Jos where we were selling tomatoes and vegetables. That was the business that was thriving so I saw myself hawking on a daily basis. I had to go to school there and had to change from morning school to afternoon school as well to make ends meet. While in primary school, I bought my first television set, black and white at the age of nine. And I remember that I also bought a commercial bus (Hiace) at the age of 14. I remember I bought a motorbike for my mother at the age of 12.
When I finished my secondary school, I became a school proprietor in Jos. St. Mark’s Institute of Commerce and later a Commercial College. Those were my institutions that I established while there. Although, the schools did quite well and they helped me a lot. After some time, I had a very challenging moment with the natives and the school was closed. There are ups and downs of life. What really gave me my real first money was the Balanga Alaphabetic construction company that had finished its contract of constructing the Balanga dam.
We were to sell their used equipment. I was instrumental to selling the used equipment worth over N10million when one US dollar equaled to N1. That was how I made my ten percent commission of one million US dollars. I re-invested my $1million in the remaining goods. I bought most of the cars and equipment. I sold them and made a lot of money. I had so much money then. Thereafter, I engaged in proper car sales- I was selling used cars and I went from there to selling brand new Peugeot cars. That gave me the first opportunity to supply the first 1,000 pick-ups and 1,000 private cars to the Nigeria Police Force and they were dispensed across all the states in Nigeria. That was in 1993.
But what exactly was your childhood dream?
One day I was taking my father from Barkin Ladi village to Jos- that was when I had my school, I bought a Mazda bus and I remembered driving my father and on the way I said that I was going to be the president of Nigeria. And he said to me, “I know and I believe in you.” So, I’ve always dreamt of where I’m going and I honestly didn’t see poverty as a clog in the wheel. Though poverty was biting hard, it just wasn’t tougher than my will to be who I want to be. So, I’ve always had tall ambitions from childhood.
You’ve driven the advocacy for education with Rochas Foundation long before you became a governor, are you into this advocacy because of the lack you also once experienced?
It’s just like asking me whether worshipping God is a good idea. It was something in my spirit. I cannot even tell that this was the reason I thought education was key. I went to school in a very difficult circumstance and I almost missed school completely. My education wasn’t quite regular because I had to combine street trading with schooling. I changed from morning classes to afternoon classes to make ends meet, so I understand the importance of education. I admired those who could speak good English and anytime I went to functions, I saw those who had gone to school standing out. And I would see those who had not gone to school looking at the educated ones as though they were gods. That was where the inspiration came from, and I believe it’s still the best inheritance you can give a child. I said to God that if I’m educated, I would help others to get education because I understand the pains of those who couldn’t go to school. At that point, I decided that I must begin Rochas Foundation to give education to those who ordinarily would never have gone to school.
I started by going to Mosalashi Jimoh (Jumat Service in the mosques) to give them foods, but immediately I saw too many children coming around, I asked myself a question, “how long will I keep feeding these children before they become useful to themselves?” So, I built a school in Owerri, Kano, Jos, Ibadan, Ogboko and today we have schools in Sokoto, Zaria, Yola, Adamawa, Bauchi, Enugu, Cross River is coming up and again, we just built the Rochas Foundation College for Africa where we’re admitting five students each from all African countries. So right now I have over 15,000 students and over 2,000 of them are graduates, over 1,000 are working in the Police, Army and these are children who just found themselves on the dark side of life.
What has life taught you as a person?
I see vanity. I see what is not worth it after all. That’s the reason I feel we should do things that benefit humanity. I think God created life to mean nothing. I work not for the profit but the glory of the job.
How exactly did you meet your wife- the First Lady of Imo State?
Meeting the first lady is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Believe me, she’s God’s gift to me and I’m very blessed to have her. The reason I say I’m blessed is not because I have the financial resources but because I have the best family you can think of in the whole world. Most people don’t even know I have biological children because you won’t see them behave like governor’s children. They even behave like visitors in their father’s house. My wife is equally blessed. She’d built over 170 homes now for the poor. She doesn’t believe in gold and all these frivolous things most women flaunt. Our life is life of service. So meeting her was a great honour. I was quite young, I was like 24 years old and my father fell sick and my mother was working in a school as a cook. My sick father slumped in the bathroom and I looked for him everywhere for about thirty minutes and when I saw him, he was quite heavy with diabetes. When I went to give him a hand, he told me he wanted me to go and marry. He said he wanted to see my wife before he dies. He was quite young too, because he was just a little over 50 years old. And I promised him that I was going to marry. So that was how the search for wife started. Then I met my wife one morning while I was driving a car I borrowed somewhere. I was driving early in the morning with my friends; we were coming from somewhere as early as 6am. We had just finished from a friend’s party and were returning home. Then I saw a young woman packing tomatoes by a van. So I told my friends that was my wife. I asked them to stop the vehicle. I was with my two friends, one of them, James said, “you like big things too much. What makes you think this lady would even agree to talk to you?” So, I left the matter.
But somehow I was convinced that I’d seen my wife. The second time I would see her, I was in a bus and I saw the same young lady standing with her sisters. But anytime I see her there were stars that would pop out of my eyes as if I’d seen something that wasn’t normal. That was also a time my schools weren’t really doing well, I had some challenges. And one of the ladies that I’d helped was a student who got a visa to travel out of the country.
She invited me to her send-off at her uncle’s place, she told me she was also inviting her cousins, but when I got there. The same pretty girl I’d seen earlier who I said was my wife was also the cousin she invited. That was the end of the story.
So when I went to her sister’s shop, I saw her knitting and she gave me a shirt. I offered to pay but she said no. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have the money. So our courtship didn’t even last up to one week before we married. It’s the fastest marriage I’d ever known.
You have a peculiar dress sense with a signature cap and muffler…
Of all my clothes, the muffler is the most important to wear because it’s a symbol of my stewardship to the state. It signifies my love for the ordinary people and if I don’t have it on, I feel naked. As long as it’s on me, I remember that every poor person should never be left unattended to. If I see little children, I must carry them, if I see widows. I must hug them because it’s the essence of life. I worship with it, I just raise it up to God of all flesh.
How do you relax after all the day’s work?
Ask my son, he’s been with me for the past one week. I work till I climb up my bed and every day I close like 2:30am and wake up at 5pm. I hardly have four hours of sleep in my life. I like it because it keeps me alive. I don’t do strenuous exercise. I believe that we should not sleep now because if we die we will sleep well. Those who sleep almost all day are the ghosts you see when they die because they’re still wandering around.
Do you have favourite meals?
I love vegetables a lot. I don’t eat rice, I don’t eat beef, I don’t eat garri, I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke. I eat beans.
You’re wearing a nice Frank Muller leather wrist watch, you must have a collection of beautiful time pieces…
Most of these items you see on me are from friends. This particular one you’re admiring is a gift from Emeka Offor, people give me gifts.
What are the likely five items you’d take along with you to a getaway?
My clothes, muffler, bible, toiletries, tooth brush, but I’m not really a phone person, so you may be surprised that I may not even go with any.