Governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodimma, is 63 years old today. As part of events to mark this birthday, he presented a book, entitled “Reflections on the Igbo Question” in Owerri yesterday.
In an interview with ONUOHA UKEH, Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief; IHEANACHO NWOSU, Editor, Daily Sun and FRED ITUA, Correspondent, the Imo State governor told a story of his life.
He talked about his growing up, family life, politics, life as governor and philosophy in life, among others.
How do you feel marking 63rd birthday, especially knowing that you are getting older?
I feel very good. I am not afraid that I am getting older. Sometimes, you don’t die because you’re getting old. Our destiny is in God’s hand. However, I must say that when expectations are not met, it makes one feel bad.
The first thing is to thank God for life. No man is an island. When we were born, others were born too. Many of them were not lucky to attain the age I’ve reached. Many of them are still around, but don’t have the kind of opportunities that have come my way. I attribute everything to the glory of God. I feel strong and healthy. That special grace of God helps me always. It makes me happy.
Could you tell us about some childhood memories that left a mark in you?
I recall as a child, we used to see these research officers, who would come to our village to find out the kind of casava we were planting. They’ll check and tell us the type we can eat and others we shouldn’t, even the ones that were poisonous. That is to tell you the kind of society we had then.
I remember sanitary inspectors who would move from house to house to check our toilets. It is really unfortunate that we have been progressing backwards politically. Since 1999, I can’t remember any brand new road. Roads we’ve today were built by previous governments, yet, we can’t maintain them. Well, one new road I see in South East is the 2nd Niger bridge.
As I growing child, I knew about the Defence Corporation in Kaduna. The institute was licensed the same time with that of India and Malaysia. Today, that of India is talking of managing atomic energy and construction of missiles. We now go there to buy guns and other security equipment. The only thing our Defence Corporation can do now is to transform to a place furniture are made.
Things are on the decline. It is painful that despite our endowment, we are not progressing. Foreign countries only come here to look for raw materials. M.I Okpara established a palm factory. This gave a value chain. But crude oil which is over 60 years in Nigeria, is still being taken abroad as raw material, whereas in crude oil, you can get other petrochemical things. God gave us this natural resource and it appears we don’t know what to do with it. South Korea doesn’t have one barrel of crude oil, yet, it has 22 refineries.
At 63, you’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. What are those things you enjoyed as a child that are missing now in the country?
My father lived in Port Harcourt. As children, we would leave Port Harcourt around 5pm on Friday to my brother’s place in Lagos to spend the weekend. We will travel in the night without fear. We had social lives. There was nothing like unknown gunmen. Nobody was being kidnapped. Even armed robbery started like a small thing immediately after the civil war. We thought it was a joke.
Those days, you would graduate and get three different letters of employment from different companies. You’ll begin to consult, to know which one to settle for. These things are missing now. Those days in Lagos, you’ll go to a bus stop and see staff buses conveying workers to the office. In the evening, it was the same thing. Those things have disappeared.
Today, where are those industries? So many things have gone wrong. We had a sense of security and job opportunities. There was respect and value for human life. In 1978-79, if there was an an accident where two persons died, the whole country will mourn. Today, every hour, you see on television, 20 persons dead here, 25 there and 10, in another place. Nobody is interested or affected. People are getting used to very uncommon things.
We need to sit down and think about these things. If we don’t plan for tomorrow, it will forget about us. Just on Tuesday, I met with President Muhammadu Buhari to apply for additional security so that our people can come home for Christmas. Three years ago, the governor in Imo state didn’t do that. Everyday, things get worse in Nigeria. These things don’t encourage sane minds.
Can you recall when this descent started?
In 1983, a journalist asked Umaru Dikko why there was poverty in Nigeria and he gave him a sarcastic response. He said he had not seen anybody eating from the dustbin. Since the Second Republic, things started going down, like a child’s play. The public sector management was okay. Politicians then would get contracts and take only 10 per cent. From 1999, when the military handed over power, some leaders were no longer interested in inflating government contracts. They will go to government treasury and take out the money. Nothing has been able to serve as a deterrent. The kind of discipline that should be inculcated into the managers of our economy and leaders is absent. Chinue Achebe wrote that Things Fall Apart and the centre cannot hold.
What would say life has taught you?
Life has taught me a lot. In today’s world, if you don’t solve your problem, no one will solve it for you. If you don’t initiate a process, no one will do that for you. I’ve gathered so much experience to the extent that I’m more interested in what will be the end result of every action I take. I’m in a position now to separate my demands from my desires. I’m guided every time by these two factors. I’m also interested in knowing my needs. If only we can go for what we need, there will be some sanity in the country. It is unfortunate that even when some people get what they need, they still keep acquiring things they won’t need. If you can’t manage your greed, it means you’re unfair to humanity.
Experience is very important in everything. People should contribute their experiences to the central platform. I was in the Senate for eight years. During budget consideration, agencies will come with request of 21 computers year in, year out. The only thing that was different was the date. They were copying and pasting. Ministry of Power, for instance, will keep submitting request for 500 transformers every year. Nobody ever cared to ask how many were installed in communities.
When I came to Imo State and saw how they were managing payment transaction, it was surprising. I came into a state without credible payroll register. I decided to automate everything. Each step I took, they tried to bring me down. I insisted that I must have the automation completed. I insisted that every staff of Imo State must submit his BVN. They’re still blackmailing me that I don’t pay salaries. I’ve asked them to show me one genuine staff not getting his salary and I’ll bet my money. If you’re not receiving now as a pensioner, it means you were illegally getting multiple pay. It means you’re owing the government because you earned money illegally. Corruption in Nigeria is thick. There is no way you can fight corruption in Nigeria without working on attitudinal change. We must get the buy-in of the people. It appears that many people have been compromised. They don’t want anything to move.
For the number of years I’ve spent on earth, I’ve garnered so many experiences that shape what I do. I came from the private sector. I’m in the public sector now. The public and private sector administrators need to work together in order for us to move forward.
When you look at your life, will you attribute your successes to luck or hard work?
It is not even luck or hard work. The Canon Principle is faith-based. Everything about me is attributed to God. That’s my faith. If you call it luck, to say that out of about 200 million people, I’ve been lucky, well, well, well. I believe in providence. I ask and the only person I ask is God. Most times, God uses people. Sometimes, people want to help you pass through the gate. If it is not ordained by God, I can’t pass that gate. That’s why I’m friendly with everybody. That’s why I hardly have issues with anybody. Whoever calls himself my enemy, that’s the person’s business. Whenever I stand, I feel fulfilled. I’m not on a wheelchair. I can still exercise for minutes every morning. I’ve good health. I eat what I want. Some people don’t have the kind of health that I have. It is all about God’s grace. If it is not about hard work, I am nor working better or harder than those who push trucks on the street? They’ve more energy and engage in hard work.
From your story, it could be assumed that you started learning the political ropes from childhood. Kindly tell us the true story.
I learnt a lot from my father. We was a councillor. My father was an ordinary councillor. His followership was huge. He was nicknamed ‘chairman of uncommon man’. He was very popular. It was from my father that I learnt not to eat alone. Even in my house, I don’t eat alone. My mother had a large kitchen that was open to everybody. My father did his politics well. He was in Igbo Union. He was a prime minister and died as a traditional ruler. He taught me frankness. Anything I can’t tell you, I won’t gossip about it behind you.
Your book is Reflections on Igbo Question. What message are you trying to pass with the book?
Some times it is good to situate things. People forget easily. If you check, those materials aren’t new. These were my outings during my time in the Senate for eight years. There is none as a governor. Some were done when I attended Igbo congresses abroad or one programme or another in the church.
These days, some people claim to be more Igbo than others, but contributed nothing in the past. I believe that the Igbo are special and talented breed. I have checked the history of great men in the country. Igbo men were leading. I’ll liken the qualities of an Igbo man to that of the Jews. I’ll like to compare it with the Manhattan project, when Israel never hoped they will become a nation. They didn’t go to any war to get their independence. They sat down and entered into a negotiation. Compromises were made and three years after, the State of Israel was created.
Since Ojukwu tried with his military experience and his father’s money to confront government and was not successful, we shouldn’t think that route. We may not know that what happened before led to a lot of envy for our people. Our neighbours feel highly threatened because of our capacity. But before we are relegated to the background, we can adopt two strategies.
Power can be likened to a lion or a wolf. Those are the only two ways through which you can get power. Like a lion, if you’re sure of your strength, you can pounce and get power. If you’re not sure, you’ve to behave like a wolf. The wolf will befriend you and get what it wants. We can create another system of addressing the inequalities or marginalisation. We tend to always think of war. We can’t even afford it. We need to study our environment and know those we are competing with. If we do that, we will know the right steps to take. Are there those benefiting from our marginalisation? If a particular vehicle can’t take you to your destination, you don’t sit down and wait for it. The most auspicious thing to do, is to get into the next available vehicle and move since the intention is to get to your destination.
I think that the book is another humble way of letting our people know where I’ve always stood. Not because I’m a governor now; this has been my position. Consistently, I have maintained my stance. When we organised a send- off party for Ambassador George Obiozor in Lagos in 1999, though I didn’t have a written speech, I spoke off the cuff. My contribution was about fiscal federalism. I argued in favour of making states semi-autonomous. If a responsible leadership implements all the laws we have in this country, the issue of marginalisation won’t come up.
Some people have talked about denying Igbo major appointment. What’s your take?
We should look at ourselves well. Sometimes, our inability to be strategic is responsible for the marginalisation. Let me ask some hypothetical questions. As a president, if, for instance the Igbo carry guns and are threatening to secede, would you be comfortable? If there is a vacancy to appoint a Chief of Army Staff, will you, in your good conscience, give the position to an Igbo man? I am just raising posers, but think about that.
If I’m the president, I’ll be reluctant. I’m the governor of Imo State and I took an oath to protect the people. If somebody starts killing people, do you expect me not to talk or to fold my arms? Sometimes we do things that are actually against us. They’ll think it is in the interest of the Igbo, but certainly not.
I don’t know who determines the interest of the Igbo. In all the meetings, I’ve not heard where the Igbo decided to throw away what they have in anticipation for something they don’t have. The Igbo agenda should be carefully crafted. We should have a summit, where Igbo leaders from different areas of life, will come together and develop a roadmap on how to create an economy. If we use economy as a banner, everybody will join.
Is it safe to say that Igbo are their own enemies?
No, it is not safe to say that. You remember when Ojo Madueke said those calling for Igbo presidency were idiotic. It took the grace of God for him to get out of it. We need to work. Igbo interest must be collectively designed and defined. It will help us implement.
In Nigeria before now, we Igbo were the first. We used to take the lead and others would follow. We established the Stock Exchange and many other things. We were the best. We have Zinox, Innoson and others. With a small push, they’ll go far. Our people should be more diplomatic and realistic.
There are claims that governors are not defending the aspirations of the South East. People believe that there is no confidence in the leadership. What do you think?
I don’t want to blame the people or say that it is wrong. I don’t want to also criticise a governor because I’m one. But our governors should find courage to be tactical. I told you that I was with the president. I told him I needed a dam in Imo State that can give me 10 megawatts. He approved it immediately. If it works, the entire Owerri township will not need to remain with the national grid. We will have a constant power supply. Even if you want Biafra, do it in such a way that your brothers and sisters will be alive to benefit from it, when it materialises. If it is our decision, brains will be put together on how it can be realised.
We talk about unknown gunmen in South East. I’m the person who came up with the phrase of unknown gunmen. I realised that those caught weren’t Igbo, whereas, people were saying that IPOB and ESN were behind the killings. They were giving us bad names. We needed to find out what was going on. Was it sabotage? Was it because the South East decided to move to the national party to make us strong? Who were behind those killings?
It was when we worked with DSS that we realised that many of them came from the Niger Delta region. Some were into illegal bunkering business and others worked for politicians to create a false impression. I had to cry out to the president on what I saw. People are killed in villages, but does it make sense that those being killed still turn around to resist an attempt by the Army to intervene? It was just propaganda. When you sit where I’m now, you do what is noble, you don’t fall for sentiments. Sometimes, you’re guided by findings from professionals. You weigh the options and take a decision.
Someone attacked police headquarters, released prisoners and then someone will oppose us bringing in the Army. That’s nonsense. Those against the Army coming should tell us where these criminals released from prison are. Sometimes, if you listen to people, you’ll derail. Four years will be over and you’ll become a governor who didn’t do anything. You need to be a leader who does the right thing even if people will not see it initially. It is better to hate me when I am doing the right thing than to be blamed for life after leaving office. It is not blackmail. If you follow social media, I won’t do anything. They fabricate things a lot.
Before you came to office, you knelt down and asked God for help. It is left for you and your conscience. In governance, there are two things. One is ensuring that your people benefit from your policies and the second one is managing public perception. The right thing to do is to ensure that these people are satisfied. Then adopt a strategic communication. You may say Hope didn’t perform, but when you come to Imo, you see good roads. You’ll see all the things I’ve done. Gradually, those funding the propaganda will get tired. I won’t be there forever. That’s the idea.
During the Anambra governorship election, there was a new political lexicon, ‘Anambra is not Imo.’ This was said to denigrate Imo people because of the manner you came to power. How do you feel when you hear such statements? Can you tell us the story of how you became governor?
There is a proverb in my place. As kids, whenever our parents sent us to the bush to fetch firewood and one of us brought the best and biggest, others who couldn’t, will conclude that you entered the wrong bush. The case in Anambra is pathetic. If you remember, when I was made chairman of the campaign council, I deployed my contacts and goodwill.
When I got to Anambra, I created a structure. Out of 30 House of Assembly members, 12 joined APC. These people campaigned and won elections before. Was it the Supreme Court that put them there? No. In the House of Representatives, I convinced eight out of 11 members to join APC. They were members of APGA and the PDP. We got 130 excos from various wards of APGA to join us. We got a serving senator to join us. We were able to talk to the deputy governor and he joined us. If there was a free and fair election, how can we not win? People should think twice.
I don’t want to join issues with anybody. Let anybody come out and say that these people who defected worked against us. I don’t want to join issues with anybody. Let the institutions do their job.
You can’t liken my case to the Anambra case. I didn’t go to court after the elections to say I was rigged out. I only told the court that INEC conducted elections. We deployed our agents in 388 units. Even in my area of popularity, where I come from, 388 polling units’ results were excluded. Our party agents came back with the results stamped by INEC. We saw clearly that we won the elections. We approached INEC and it didn’t deny the results. It didn’t give us any convincing explanation why the results were not included. We went to the tribunal. INEC came and confirmed the serial numbers on the results. They were the same with what they had. We issued a subpoena to the police. Every polling unit result is distributed to the police. That of police tallied with our own. INEC didn’t deny it. It was only the PDP lawyers that said it was not from INEC. They can’t speak for INEC. They said they were fake and we asked for the original, which they couldn’t tender.
The lower court admitted the evidence, but it was ignored during judgement. We went to Appeal Court. They used their contacts to get their way. But one of the Justices wrote a minority judgement. He said INEC erred to have excluded our results. It was not a case of just that we overtook the man who claimed to have come first, but we had the spread required by law. But the announcement by INEC came from only five local governments. The PDP man didn’t meet the spread. The votes he used in “winning” the election came from one local government. I have refrained myself from talking about this issue, but blackmail won’t stop. They’re looking for a distraction.
I like to be underrated. Many of my colleagues in politics don’t know me. I’m one of the most blackmailed politician in Nigeria. That’s the kind of politics we play where we come from. I’m concerned about legality and legitimacy. I can’t remember any guber election from anywhere in the South that didn’t get to the Supreme Court. The man saying that Anambra isn’t Imo, did he not get to the Supreme Court in his own case? Getting to the Supreme Court is part of the electoral process. When you win, your opponents will take you to court. So, if the Supreme Court has confirmed us, is it now an offence?
Let those whose elections were confirmed by the Supreme Court tell us why they accepted the judgement. We were here when a governor in Rivers State was declared by the Supreme Court. The man didn’t even participate in the election. He ruled for eight years. Nobody made issue out of it. The people saying these things today are confused and not truthful to themselves. I think that God must take glory for giving the judiciary the wisdom to give us justice.
Are there things you’ve done that you regret as a person and if given another chance, you do them another way?
I’ve no regrets coming to be a governor. In the Senate, I had a different kind of challenge. I had to think through to get a bill to work. Coming to Imo State, I didn’t imagine that I’ll meet the kind of mess I inherited. The things we thought were on ground were missing. We have limited resources. That’s why we can’t accommodate any distractions. If I come back as a governor, I’ll do the same things I have done so far. No regrets.
As a handsome man, how do you cope with women?
I’ve told you about my faith in God. As a Catholic, womanising isn’t part of our creed. I lost my first marriage many years ago. I had to wait to pass through the Catholic process before I could remarry. During the period of waiting, if you are seen living recklessly, they’ll not grant the request. All my five big children, I trained them as a single parent. I did school runs in Lagos. I was able to manage that. Today, those five kids are doing well. I trained them all alone.
Enjoyment is a relative thing. You know with the kind of charisma that I have, people will conclude easily that because I always wear white, I like women. Those close to me can attest to my struggles and good way of life.
You said you don’t keep enemies, but your relationship with Rochas Okorocha isn’t pleasant. The way it is going, Okorocha may feel you’re his enemy. Why has it been difficult to resolve issues with Okorocha?
That’s not true. The day I was sworn in as governor, Okorocha was there. A few days after, he made a private visit to me and asked me to disband the commission of enquiry set up by Emeka Ihedioha. I asked him if there was a problem. I told him that the people wanted the job done and that we should let it stand. He said as a party man, I should disband it. He came back and sent people to call me.
I’m the man on ground. So much injustice was done to our people. You saw the jubilation that greeted the return of land to people. That’s what he considers as an issue. The white paper came out and we saw everything. He wanted to forcefully gain entry into one of the property and he was stopped by security agents. There is a difference between private and public interest. Okorocha is not my enemy. But my relationship with him should not make me sin against God. I don’t need anything. The only land I have was bought from a family. Government didn’t give it to me. By January, I would have spent two years in office. I’ve not allocated land any how. Those I’ve given are for government institutions. I’m not fighting Okorocha. You know I’m older than him. As his elder brother, he should consult from time to time, according to the traditions of our people.
You said after one year in office, people will be shocked at what you’ve done. Can you still say that now?
During my one year anniversary in office, Catholic Archbishop of Owerri, Obinna, said something. The bishop disagreed with all former governors, but publicly, Bishop Obinna said I had shocked him. Many speakers said the same thing. It is not in my place to assess myself. I would have done better if not for this insecurity. I have awarded two major contracts worth over N60 billion to dualise roads from Orlu and from Okigwe, just like the one in Epe, Lagos. No governor since the creation of Imo State has been able to allocate such funds for road construction.
Mbakwe brought the water scheme. After about 27 years, I’ve revived it. We are trying to do reticulation. It is servicing Owerri now. We want to replace the pipes with new ones. Ada Palms is running, doing over 100 tonnes of oil everyday. Efforts in agriculture, infrastructure, and others are going on. We are building 305 health centres. They’ll start working next year. I’ve paid all the counterpart funding of UBEC. We are working on new 105 model primary schools in 305 wards. When people have access to healthcare, good roads and schools, then there is prosperity.
Did you ever think you could be governor before now?
All the roads in my community and electrification were done by me as an individual. I was just a businessman. At a time, I discovered that the best way to help people was to have a responsive government. I supported Governor Achike Udenwa. What an individual can do in 200 years, a government can do it in two minutes. I started sponsoring people. Sometimes, if you’re not there, there is a limit to what you can go. In 2003, I tried and it didn’t work under AD. I’m 2007, I qualified for a run off and I was not successful and went back to Lagos. In 2011, I contested for Senate and won. I defeated a sitting senator and a former governor. My people know me. Those who are surprised that I convinced people in Anambra to join APC don’t know me. If that election was done properly, we would have won. Sometimes, it is not about the product, but the ability of the salesman to sell.
Do you think the Electoral Amendment Bill is what the president should sign?
The role of the Parliament is to make laws. We don’t make laws just for today. Based on my experience as a parliamentarian, we have to make laws for today and tomorrow. The Electoral Act should guide our elections. If candidates must be sponsored by the political parties, it means the current amendment will be in conflict with the provisions of the constitution. Going to tell political parties that they must settle for direct primaries without minding if the parties can fund it is wrong. Many political parties can only afford indirect primaries.
The Electoral Amendment Bill is a good job, but restricting political parties to just one mode of primaries is undemocratic. They should open the political space for a broader inclusion. Not all parties can afford direct primaries. Political parties should be left to decide the mode of primaries they will take. I’ve restrained myself from commenting on this matter. I think that the rights of political parties to field candidates in an election shouldn’t be conditionally determined by a law. This action maybe null and void. People should not come and abuse positions given to them by the people.
What informed your fashion style of white and what are the things that make you happy and sad?
White represents purity. It means I want to be pure. When I see this white, I remember that I need to work toward being pure.
What makes me happy is accomplishments. When I see expectations being met, I’m happy. Disappointments make me sad. I believe that Nigeria can do better.
What are your thoughts about how other countries treat Nigeria?
Imagine me in London and we were placed on a red list by the British Government. Why the rush? We are not treated fairly. I was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Aviation one time. I did an investigation then on the disparity between airfares to Nigeria and other countries. I discovered that a first class ticket from Heathrow to Accra was cheaper than an economy ticket from Nigeria to the same place. Whereas, from Accra to Heathrow is six hours, 40 minutes, from Nigeria, it’s about six hours or less depending on where you are taking off from. It was during my time that the managing director of British Airways appeared before our Senate panel. I threatened to shutdown their operations in Nigeria. I wrote a letter to British Airways, which they sent to the British Prime Minister. The British PM sent it to President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan invited me and I explained to him why this was important. He obliged me.
The managing director of British Airways landed in Abuja with two senior lawyers from Lagos. I asked him why the charges were higher. I asked why there was no Nigerian pilot or a co-pipot in his fleet. There was also no building of British Airways in over 70 years. No investment. No major employment. It was just extortion. That week, they reversed it. I removed the 25 per cent aviation tax they charged. Two, three months later, they reversed again to the old order.
Foreigners did everything to kill Arik Air. Airline business is a combination of social service. No airline makes more than 12 per cent profit per annum. That was how Arik had problems.
Our people don’t think. Foreigners treat us like this because we rely on them; but it shouldn’t be like that. We were here when General Abacha grounded British Airways. That’s how it should be, when necessary. Nigeria is destined to be a great nation. It’s unfortunate how things are.