From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Senator Athan Nneji Achonu does not actually need too much introduction having carved niches in many ways as a politician, a professional, an entrepreneur, and a farmer.
Speaking in Abuja, he addressed a wide range of issues concerning the forthcoming November 11 off-season Imo governorship election, boasting that he will not only emerge victorious but will defeat the incumbent governor, Hope Uzodimma in his local government.
What is your response to the speculations that you are a placeholder for Governor Hope Uzodimma?
If Labour Party is the party to beat in Imo State and Igboland for this election, especially in Imo, and I did an opinion poll to gauge the feelings of the electorate and where they are leaning towards, honestly I will expect a Labour governorship candidate who wins the primary to at least collect 20 million dollars to sell out to Governor Hope Uzodimma, not one million dollars.
It is an insult. I expect that Uzodimma will offer that candidate at least 20 million dollars to step down for him because the man has almost won the election without campaigning. If you investigate me, you will know my capacity, the level of contact I have in this country, they are more than that of Uzodimma.
If you know the level of respect I am accorded in this country because of my integrity and my personality, which he doesn’t have, how can I, Athan Nneji Achonu, collect only one million dollars to sell out as claimed? It is 100 million dollars, if I am that hungry, if I have suddenly become hungry to be his placeholder, at least I should demand $100 million for God’s sake.
How do you intend to confront the problems given what happened at the last elections, and why are you actually in the race?
On my plans and strategy, I can only say that I am very much ready but I cannot expose my plans. Then why I am in the race is very simple. I want to secure Imo for Imolites. I have to do that. I have often asked myself, why am I alive? I have been through so many things in my life, but God protected me, saved me, and kept me alive. I believe it is for this day.
And I am very ready to take Uzodinma on. He doesn’t believe in voting. He has never really won any election. If you investigate properly, you will see that he has never really won any electio n. I am going to win against him in his local government. That I can guarantee you.
Can you summarise what your administration will do when you become governor and what should Imo people expect from your administration?
The first thing I am going to do is that I have been championing autonomy of local governments since Obasanjo left the stage till today. I have funded and sponsored it. After my swearing in, I will inaugurate a caretaker, it is not known to the constitution but it will function for just six months to enable me to settle down and set up an electoral umpire for that purpose.
I am already working on it. They will work for six months before we conduct the freest and fairest election in black Africa. We need to lead by example. Why am I insistent on local government autonomy? I have always believed that it has been long since they hijacked the local government system.
Local governments used to patronize these local warlords. These big men in the villages, the local government strong men used to be contractors. They build drainages, grade roads, and make money. But the moment governors started to pocket local government funds, all hell broke loose.
If you have a councillor, elected by the people to lead them, they believe in you, that you have the integrity to protect their interests; there is no way you will be an elected councillor and a criminal comes into that immediate environment and you will not notice.
That is why in some of my billboards, I have been advocating vigilante for communities and local governments. Immediately I am sworn in, the first Bill I will send to the House of Assembly is to set up a vigilance group in every local government. The state government will not know how they spend one naira of their money. We will be monitoring it, because we have oversight capabilities through the House of Assembly.
I am going to work in partnership with all the arms of the government on the basis of mutual respect. I was advocating that we have this vigilance group in every LGA. They have a DPO, the police, DSS, Civil Defence. Every local government has this structure already to provide security in the first place.
Within the first one year, we are going to have gas companies working in Imo State. Now they have just signed into law the fact that state governments can produce their own power.
We will go into partnership with power companies to give them an enabling environment. They will come and give us power 24/7 in Imo State because without power, you can’t do anything. We have mapped out six industrial layouts, two per geopolitical zone.
Charity, they say, starts at home. Already my home is an industrial, agricultural processing zone. Yes, I will use my personal resources and enlarge it with government resources so other people can come and invest. Some people can come and produce tomatoes and process fish. I have a cattle stockade that can accommodate 5,000 cattle.
I am now breeding Igbo native cows because they are going extinct. Right now I have 53. It is growing. I am buying more and more. So now, my focus is actually job creation and industrialization. That is why I am focusing on power.
I have a license to operate a refinery. I will activate it, but now I am going to sell it because I will not have the time for the next eight years, I will be busy. Running a refinery is not an easy business. But, I will encourage people to come and take over it, or get their own license, and have another refinery there.
I am going to create so many things. I have already completed plans with Afri-Exim Bank, and ADB, to support industries. We have the Imo Airport there, which I tried to take over as a private individual to activate, to become the hub for West Africa. I am going to activate it.
I asked Governor Uzodimma, when he was chairman of Aviation at the time, in the Senate to support me in that. But it didn’t work out. He didn’t give me any support. You know when I talk, I say go and verify.
I am going to activate it. Ghana is now the international hub for Africa. Ghana, as small as Imo State, gained the status because Lagos Airport has stopped expanding. The city has surrounded it, no area and no room for expansion.
But in Imo, we have land. Ngor Okpala has a lot of land. You can have phase one, phase two, phase three, and phase four. I brought the people who built the airport, I engaged them, I paid them millions to do a study for me, to take it over. Jonathan gave me the go-ahead. But before you know it, all the land around it has been acquired by the government just because I was involved. I just kept away.
All those things, all those ideas I have, I am going to bring them into play to create a lot of job opportunities. Look at Orlu. They are pharmaceutical people. I had wanted to do a pharmaceutical pack in that area so that we create the enabling environment, investors will now come.
All those things are in the kitty and I don’t want to say everything. Once I have explained in detail that the government is already trying to latch onto it. If it can be done in these remaining months, I will be very happy. What we are after is development and ways to create opportunities for young people.
For example, as a private person, I have set up a musical recording studio in my village. We invite young musicians who are talented but don’t have money to record themselves when they play and we like their music. We record them on credit. After the sales, we collect our cost of recording and then give them their profit so that they can grow from there.
We have plans for sports as well because that is what is making our young people generate incomes that are not direct employment. We can train them, give them the opportunity to excel and then they grow from there.
So sports academies, we are working on it now. We are going around to the whole of the state to sensitize the youth, football clubs, and sports activities, towards that so that once we take over, we hit the ground running.
What is the volume of the debt profile of the state?
That is one question they have been asking me everywhere. That will be a very big headache for any incoming government. Then the money that has been borrowed is unbelievable.
The huge debt profile of the state is unbelievable. There are people who have been owed six years’ salary from the last regime. Then when this government came, they said that they have found a lot of ghost workers; as a result there are so many people who have been laid off, people who have been working all their lives, and three years now going to four years, no salary, two years for the pensioners.
With the huge debt profile of the state, only a mad man like me can go there because I know what I can create. For me, as a private entrepreneur, I make money from the air. I use my brain, I create businesses. I am going to do that for the state. I am going to find a way for the state to survive.
But I have told the pensioners and workers that we can’t pay it overnight. We will start a gradual process with a timeline to pay all the debt. But it has to be gradual. And look, we are now 24th in education. From the first three, we are now 24th.
Education will be our major focus because if you are not educated, you can’t have workers. You have to go outside to bring your workforce. We even have to first re-educate our teachers, because all of them have run away. They are in New Zealand and Australia. We have to re-educate and retool what we just have there.
How will you describe Uzodimma’s administration, his achievements in the past three to four years with any empirical evidence to support your claims?
The only thing people say he did is road projects. But those roads are tax credits, not state money. So where is his state money? The road that then-president Buhari came and commissioned has collapsed.
There is no road anywhere inside Owerri. No road, no internal road in the entire Owerri. Just drive from IMSU to Mbaise-Owerri road. Try to connect and see the road Buhari commissioned. It doesn’t exist anymore. It has washed out.
So, this road now that he is building, they are tax credits. This is something these big companies do. For example, let me tell you what they do like this Owerri-Umuahia road that is ongoing, information available to us says that it is Seplat. It is their own tax credit.
I don’t know what he has done. He has not been able to protect lives and property. In a society, when somebody commits a crime, you arrest and prosecute them. You don’t come out with a helicopter gunship to bomb them and bomb their houses. It’s not done anywhere in the world.
If they are accused of oil bunkering, what about people mining diamonds and lithium elsewhere in the country? Look at the mine sites; it looks like something you see in the Old Testament. Thousands of people, yet nobody is arresting them, nobody is bombing them, and nobody is attacking them.
What’s your response to the accusation that you embezzled the money running into billions of contracts awarded to you to build health centres in Nigeria?
I saw it in the media that I embezzled the entire budget. I am sure Tony Nwulu forgot when he was talking about 26 health centres, the hospital we have built and equipped right now, I think there are health centres.
They are like mini hospitals, cottage hospitals in Imo State. There is only one local government that we have not concluded. All of them are fully equipped. Why they abandoned them is because I built them. In fact, there was one in the Owerri Municipal, when Rochas Okorocha was governor of Imo State, Mrs. Jonathan wanted to come and commission it. He said that there was no health centre, and that I didn’t build anything because she can’t come without clearing from people.
So she didn’t come for that commissioning. But it is running. The Centre is there behind my hotel, behind Owerri Municipal Council. It is there, fully equipped, with doctors’ quarters, some domestic quarters. All of them are the same, same design across Nigeria’s 774 local governments.
And about the embezzlement, like I said earlier, if I had embezzled any money, the governors have been fighting me over the project because they believe that LGA money is their pocket money.
The EFCC has investigated me three times. In fact, they have seen the colour of my underpants. If I had taken one kobo, I am sure I would not be here talking today. That also shows that the government of the day is scared of my emergence because immediately I emerged, all manner of rumours started flying around.
I sympathise with my good friend, the Executive Governor of Imo State. He is a very handsome man but he has lost half of his weight. Honestly, he needs to start sleeping some more so that he can enjoy his retirement.