Governor Rochas Anayochukwu Okorocha, of Imo State, is an interesting character. Call him a self-made man and you won’t be far from precision. He struggled his way to comfort and decided to gave part of his wealth back to the society. He set up the Rochas Foundation which runs Rochas Foundation College in major cities in the country; offering free education to indigent students. In 2011, he realised his dream of becoming governor of his home state in 2011 after an acrimonious battle with the then incumbent, Ikedi Ohakim. Since then, Okorocha has been running an unusual government. Check this out: he has not stepped into his office for over two years. Very early in the life of his government, he decided to give up his security vote. And today, he is the only governor who runs free education up to university level. In this interview with Dipo Akinkugbe, he speaks on his government, his lifestyle, why Imo must be changed and how he will like to be remembered by his people. It is vintage Okorocha. …
Imo State has many prominent indigenes with big political egos. How have you been able to handle this and at the same time trying to get the job for you were elected done?
Imo is a unique state. You have to know that education is our main industry; therefore you have so many educated and enlightened people who know their rights and know when such rights are being trampled upon. You equally have a lot of political juggernauts in the state who have made their marks; either positively or otherwise. It is in this state that you have the likes of Iwuanyanwu, Arthur Nzeribe, Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory, Senators Ararume, Uzodinma and Chris Anyanwu, ex-Governor Achike Udenwa and so many others. What I have tried to do is to show the difference between what it used to be and what we wanted it to be when we came in. It was obvious that the past does not represent us well and that is why we came with what we called the rescue mission. We have to stop the old ways of doing things and imbibe new ways. We have to provide good things for our people and in doing so it might lead to the retiring of these old politicians who must not be allowed to hold things if things must change in Imo State. That is where we are right now. It has been quite wonderful and not as difficult as most people think and the fact is that they also know the truth and they have accepted it; though they swallowed it like a bitter pill which is not always palatable. From time to time, they can make statements that we are on the right track now but the question is how will they be part of the team and also the scheme of things.
With dwindling government revenue, how have you managed to fund free education to university level in Imo state?
Free education in Imo State is a product of sacrifice. I believe that funds to every state are enough to manage the affairs of each state if judiciously utilised. What has always happened is misplacement of priorities and primitive accumulation of wealth which people call corruption. Yeah, Imo State gets an average of N3.5 to N4billion monthly with huge recurrent of almost N2.9billion but even one billion is a lot of money of judiciously utilised. So what has happened is that we have made sacrifices. Take for instance the issue of security vote which would have gulped almost N1.5billion annually and put together with other allocations would have been up to N5billion. What do I need that for? In a state where so many people cannot pay school fees? What I decided to do was to forfeit my security vote and plough it into free education and that has helped a lot. There are so many areas of leakages we have blocked to free funds that we are using for the free education and it is working out well. Another point is that we got our priorities right and cut down on government expenditure. Take for instance. People will spend N100million to commission a project; inviting drummers and dancers to come and entertain, do you need that? Sometimes, people spend so much on things that don’t add value. But I said let me provide free education for my people. Sometimes they say they are going for conferences and seminars and if you know how much these cost in a year but they are all gone now so we have funds for free education.
As a politician, plugging these avenues where people make money in government could not have gone down well with some politicians; even within your party…
(Cuts in) Yes, I know that but every bad thing must come to an end. We should not be encouraging evil in the land. Yes, they are complaining but they are also getting used to it and they are now looking for other means of livelihood and not depending on the little resources coming to the state. That’s what has happened. Take for instance, you have situation in the past whereby you have thugs made up of youths who were kept somewhere and given N5000 and a bottle of ‘kainkain’ and they would go on rampage and be attacking and killing people and maim them. But that has come to an end in Imo State because I am not promoting it. You would not get N5000 from me neither will I give you ‘kainkain’. I tell you what you can go and do like going into agriculture and make life for yourself. People who were doing this thing in the past were short-sighted; they used these means to get into power and after they dumped these children and after they constituted nuisance and terrorists in the nation. That has all gone now in Imo State. So it is never a question of whether it goes down well with them; it is a question of whether it is good and fair to all concerned and acceptable. I think we are on the right track that people are not allowed to take government resources for private use. In fact, it is a sin to do this; taking government money and giving it to the privileged few because government is about the poor masses and not the privileged individuals.
There is this allegation that you always over-emphasise the fact that the buck ends at your table and that is why you always micro-manage things; that is wanting to see to virtually everything going on in government. How do you react to this?
It all depends. This micro-managing that you mentioned is about ensuring that there is no leakage. Therefore, I admit that I manage them myself. I ensure there are no leakages. There is this law that says that in some areas, you cannot give contracts exceeding N4million but you now give N4million in a thousand places. This has gone on in Imo State before. How do you think I am able to pay teachers? When they were there, were they able to pay teachers? Pay civil servants and pensioners? Money in the hands of any holder of the office of a governor must be treated as if it is his own blood and hold it in trust. How do you think we were able to build 27 general hospitals? How were we able to build 205 schools and construct about 1000 kilometres of roads? How were we able to change the cities of Owerri, Okigwe and Orlu? How have we been financing the universities? Polytechnics and running of free education? It means we have been extra-careful in the management of resources.
You have introduced something called Community Government Council, CGC. What is the idea all about?
It was an innovation that is capable of changing our third world to a first world. You see, democracy cannot be complete without it being truly seen as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. In every part of the democratic process, the people count and where are the people? They are in the rural areas. If Nigeria wants to practice what I will call monocracy, that is government of the privileged ones for the privileged ones only, so be it. But this one, let the people participate in the process. There cannot be power if the people are not involved. Therefore, for the first time, we brought the Douglas House (the the Government House of Imo State) to the people and they became part of the government. They can make suggestions and they can take their own destinies in their own hands and fix the schools, their roads and water system. These are things the state government does not even remember at times. So the CGC is about the government of the people, by the people and for the people at the grassroots. It is all about empowering the grassroots to be able to contribute to the centre and that is what is called ‘Ohashearism’. In Ibo words, if the ‘oha’, that is the people or the crowd, cooks for one man, that man can never be hungry; but if one man cooks for the entire crowd, the crowd will be hungry. So it is about bottom-top approach.
You have this strange way of getting contractors to work. If a road is awarded to a contractor for one community, you take the contractor to the village and you will tell the people how much he has collected from the government and if he did not do it, they have the right to hold him to account. How effective has this unusual practice been?
Oh, very effective! We have even arrested one in a local government and I exposed him. But if he had given me even one naira from the contract sum, I would not have been able to do that. But in the real sense, the profit is not much; therefore, do it. I also ensure that no one collects ten per cent on the job. That is why I report you to the people and ensure that they monitor you and ensure that the job is done. So it is not really blackmail but when you signed for it and took the job, you must do it. If you don’t do it, we get you arrested.
There is this programme at the Freedom Square called Speak Out. It is one programme where people are encouraged to talk and express their misgivings about government and governance.
I also noticed that the state-owned newspaper criticised your government and your party over the Ekiti election. How much have you gone to entrench the culture of free speech and freedom of expression?
I created that place for Imo people to be able to express their anger. If they want to come there and abuse me, let them abuse me. All I want is a place where people could have their say. If a big man knows that there is a place the poor man can go and express himself and it will be run live on the radio, he (the big man) will be careful. It is a way of checking crime and terrorism. In fact, some government officials are being criticised.
I learnt that someone went there to criticise the deputy governor over an issue (Cuts in)…
Yes. It is freedom and no one can arrest you for whatever you say there.
Learnt also that you were told to face your job and stop disturbing them with your siren.
They can even say worse than that. They can tell me not to be with my wife. (general laughter). One of the problems of our nation is that there is so much bottled anger. When people are allowed to abuse one another; I abuse you and you abuse me and angers are vented, everyone feels good.
I found out that you run an unusual government where you can hold your state exco meeting anywhere. In the same vein, there is no secrecy: a commissioner can discuss with you in the presence of others. Don’t you think that is a bit antithetical to the way normal governance is done?
If anyone does not have anything to hide, he or she should be free to discuss openly. I know many people come to me and they go back because they have something unclean to say; either destructive or mere gossip. What is secretive about government? It is government of the people, by the people and for the people. In fact, when you are a public official, you should deal openly. This is my office and I can tell you that I have not entered my official office for the past two and a half years. I stayed there for about seven months and I discovered that I was being caged. They would tell me people were waiting to see me and I would be there till six o’clock and people would come to tell me different things. I just asked myself: is this what I would be doing? And I said no. This is my office (a shed like structure inside the government house called the Bush Bar) and this is where I operate. There is no file on this table. People come here and I discuss with them openly and they go. I will sit down here and I will be discussing the cost of a road with someone and another person will just say, oga, I can do it for that amount sir and I will face the man I am discussing with and tell him: can you hear that? The other man might be saying N50 and the other person will say N40 and that is it. I will save N10 for the state. But if they have taken me inside one room, bring one carton of wine and Rolex watch and create sympathy and emotions around me, and say oga, it is N300million for a kilometre instead of N60million. And because of the emotion they have created, I sign and the idiot would not do the job and run away with the money.
You established the Rochas Foundation where you provided free education to indigent students well before you became Governor. How much of this have you brought into government?
A lot of it. We are already replicating that in government. Civil servants have been persuaded to give one per cent of their salary and I also gave all my salary last year and we now have what is called the Imo Foundation. We have taken people to India for kidney transplant. We are also continuing also in other directions. There cannot be any ‘big’ man without giving.
In all these, do you have time for your family? Do you create time for them or have you prepared them for this?
I have trained my children the way I trained myself. I see my wife in the morning. Before I come back, she is sleeping but in the morning by 4 o’clock, we wake up and we pray and then start discussing and my children will join us. That is how we relate. But they are equally busy; trying to be like their father if not surpassing him. I don’t go for holiday…
(Cuts in) For the past three years?
No. Even since I was born.
How do you unwind then?
Unwind? I am unwinding now as I am talking to you. This is the best way to unwind. But you saw me when I was having my lunch here. Who says a governor should not eat outside? I don’t want to go to the dining table; they will cage me there, serve water, serve wine and that will take about three hours. So I don’t want people to cage me. This life is short so go and work because if you are not working now and sleeping, when you die, you will be awake instead of sleeping. So work now and stay awake so you can sleep when you die. If you sleep now, instead of working, when you die, your ghost will be going around disturbing people instead of sleeping.
Going by your words, you have blocked ways through which politicians can make money and you are governor who wants second term. How will you finance your second term campaign if politicians don’t make money?
Even when I wanted to become governor, I did not spend up to N200million to become governor and it was given to me by my wife and one other man. In fact, I have announced now that I am not going to put out posters and bill-boards; if what I have done cannot bring me back, I quit. Must I be here? Is it my father’s throne? If Imo people want it, I am happy but if they don’t, I quit. This governorship thing is a burden. I don’t even know if I am happier or just happy as President of Rochas Foundation. The only thing is that this has helped me to touch the larger society. But in terms of stress, I have more stress doing this job. If they are happy with the way I am doing this job, they should beg me to come back. I have told them that unless they give me N100 each, I mean one million people with their voter’s card, I would not run. If they don’t give me, I would not contest. And let me tell you that they are already doing it. That’s the truth.
Are you sure?
Oh, you don’t believe me?
I don’t believe that, Your Excellency.
Ok. Come to Imo State and you will see. If they give me the money, I don’t need to campaign because they have given their words by giving me the money. That is it.
At the end of it all, what will you want Imo people to remember you for?
I want my name written somewhere as someone who remembered the less privileged.