In an interview with reporters, Abia State Governor, Chief Theodore Orji, spoke on the ongoing process of rebuilding the state. Olawale Olaleye was there. Excerpts:
What has it been like rebuilding Abia as you've always claimed?
You see, Abia needed to have a foundation. There should be some basic infrastructure on ground to allow government take off properly. But those facilities were not on ground. I'll give you an instance with the secretariat. There has not been any secretariat in Abia State that can accommodate all the civil servants. The one you saw there was built by the Federal Government. Ministry of Agriculture is on this road. Ministry of Works and Housing is on this road while the Ministry of Lands is on St Finbarr's Road. So, the ministries are all scattered. We wanted to have a composite building that would take all civil servants because they are the engine room of government and you have to provide for them.
Let me also give you an instance with the International Conference Centre. What we have here is the Michael Okpara Auditorium, which was built more than 20 years ago when we were in Imo State. It can only accommodate 500 people. Now, when you are holding a conference here, you have about 2,000 to 3, 000 people. That place has become very, very inadequate. We said no. The best thing we can do is to have an international conference centre that can take at least 5, 000 people- one that is modern. These are permanent structures that will outlive us; that any other person coming after me will not think of.
You are here. I am happy that you are here. This is the Government House. This is Abia State Government House. I am sure you went to Rivers State's Government House. You have gone to Akwa Ibom, Imo and Delta States because last time I went to Delta, my colleague in Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan took me to the new Government House in Asaba. But look at our own. This is my sitting room. If you are many now, some of you will be standing. This has been in existence since the creation of Abia State. If you go upstairs, it doesn't contain my family. I have been doing demolition and adding. But the land is there and this is the state capital. It has never occurred to any of those governments that have been here to build a standard government house for Abia State. I said no, this is the time for me to build a new government house.
Moreover, I am from this town and my people have come severally that if you don't do this now, it is going to be difficult. So, I decided that I will build a new government house and I am praying that I will be the first person to open it, so that other governors can live here. These are the basic things that a government is supposed to have.
What of the health of the people? I am sure you went to the diagnostics centre. I don't know if you went to Amachara General Hospital. If you go there, you will see things for yourself; how we are expanding that place to make sure that the people are healthy, including you people because you can come here and fall sick. As journalists, you have to be healthy to be asking me questions. So, Abia people must be healthy in order to enjoy dividends of democracy.
If you look at the road network, we have opened up many areas. As we are doing in Umuahia, we are doing in Aba and other places. As you are going out now, outside the gate, look by your left hand side, you will see compactors, refuse vehicles. We just bought two before Christmas. We paid for them and all of them are going to Aba, to help the ones we have there and keep the place clean all the time. So, in all the areas, we have brought out a template that a house must have a foundation. When the house is not solid, the House will collapse. I want to put on those foundations for the state.
We are building a housing estate, the Ohobo Housing Estate. They are clearing the site now. We located them to a new site. The same thing will happen to the Central Market, the one occupying the centre of Umuahia. We have reached 75 per cent completion in relocating it to Ubani Ibeku. There, we have over 6, 000 stalls against the 3, 000 stalls in this market now. So, once we finish with that, this market will move and in its place, we find something that we will build to befit the town. And just close to the market, the place we had Gariki before, we are building a Shoprite. Shoprite is coming to Abia State. They have cleared the site and it is only this festive period that delayed it. We have completed everything, paid our own counterpart funding to them and it is left for them to come onboard. As we are doing here, we are also doing for Aba and all the other local government areas of the state.
That brings us to the question of funding. How are you funding these projects?
We are in haste. All these projects I am taking on are the ones I can finish before I leave office. Like the Shoprite, it is partnership. I bring my own fund and they bring theirs. Some of the housing estates are partnerships. But the one we realised at Amokwe, I don't know if you went there, we did that. We were disappointed by our partner there, who absconded and we had to do it ourselves. Out of annoyance, we have started building it. We have finished and people are living there now.
But if you are just rebuilding as claimed, what then has happened over the years in the state in terms of development. Besides, what happened in your first term that everything is now happening fast in your second term?
If you want to know what happened in the past, I think the question is better directed to those people who were here before me. I was not here then. We've had two civilian governors before I came. Ogbonnaya Onu was here, the former governor, my friend (Orji Uzor Kalu) was here. You better ask them what they did because anything I say here will be twisted and misinterpreted. But you can now see the difference between this government I am heading and the previous ones.
For my first term, you see this issue of godfatherism is a useless thing. I was constrained as a governor. Things I was supposed to do for my people, I could not do them because there was a godfather somewhere. We are not hiding it. Why we could not do the much we are doing now was because we were in PPA and PPA was a political party owned by one family and they used it to emasculate the government in power.
They were actually dictating what was happening. As a governor, I would like to appoint my commissioners, but they would bring a list for you and tell you to announce. Will you tolerate that as governor? You want to embark on a project and they will tell you no. Perhaps, I do not shine more than any other person. The major constraint I had was being in PPA. That's the way I want to put it.
Abia used to be famous for kidnapping which has been contained considerably. How did you get around this?
Thank you, but that magic is my secret and like we say, it is security. You don't discuss it before journalists else, these hoodlums are all around. If I say it and you write it, they will say, Oh, is that it? And they will go and find another means of countering it, bringing back another method, which will make me to start fighting back. So, those secrets are what they are- my weapons. Except maybe, any of my colleagues, who come to me and ask me how I did it. Of course you know it is difficult.
Everybody has his own ego. One or two people have come to me and I said do this or that. You remember we were the first persons in the South-east to ban commercial motorcyclists as a means of transportation. We saw that it was Okada that was used by kidnappers to run into the bush. Yet, it was a means of livelihood for our people, when we have not provided alternatives in tricycles. People said all kinds of things; newspapers wrote all sorts of things against me.
Today, it has paid off because those who were riding Okada are happier today with tricycles and it is safer too. Since we stopped Okada transport, go to Obioma Ward at the Federal Medical Centre, you don't see people with their legs hanging for months. One doctor congratulated me for making their jobs easier for them. It is going round. Other states are doing that. That one you cannot hide but there are secret ones that we can't reveal.
What was the period of kidnapping like?
You see, that kidnapping era was my worst period here. In the first instance, I didn't cause kidnapping. It was unknown to us in this part of Nigeria. In Abia State, what we knew before was things like armed robbery, murder or the like. But kidnapping, we have never experienced before. It came when I became governor and it became a serious challenge for me. You know, kidnapping is a bit sophisticated. It is a technology crime. By the time it came, we hadn't gotten the technology or wherewithal to handle it and it became a serious challenge. Abia's own was out of proportion to the extent that they were using Abia as an example and our enemies cashed-in on it.
Those who didn't want this government to stand and those who said they would make governance uncomfortable for me cashed-in on it and started writing. At that time, if a rat misses in Abia, it was front page news, even in a newspaper owned by an Abia State indigene. If a mosquito misses in Abia, it becomes front page news, just to discredit this government. The thing was blown out of proportion and criticisms were coming from everywhere and as the man in charge, you will feel highly demoralised, especially that time they kidnapped those kids - 15 of them in Aba and the journalists.
For the first time kidnapping went on the CNN. Who went and put it there? How many kidnapping incidences have we seen on CNN? It was just to discredit the government. But then, it brought out the fighting spirit and the indomitable spirit in us. God came and brought ideas. Tactics were coming; methods were coming in numbers and we were using them one after the other. Some were working, others were not. But today, you see our state is a model. Anybody who wants to do any case study on kidnapping comes here to learn from us. It is one of the achievements we have made that has elevated this state and myself to the highest pedestal.
That we are able to forestall kidnapping because another cankerworm that is worse than kidnapping, Boko Haram, has come and is facing all of us. I am sure that the situation I was then is what some of my colleagues with Boko Haram are in now. So, the fact that we overcame this kidnap saga is a plus for this state. That's why I said I can stop all projects to invest all the money I have here on security to make sure that we are safe.
What's your take on the agitation for council autonomy?
There was a time local governments were given autonomy during Babangida's time. Did it work?
At the Specialist Hospital were ambulances donated by a senator from the state, could it be part of the new vision to integrate the so-called Abuja politicians into the system? Second, do you buy into the clamour for additional state in the South-east?
Let me start with the issue of ambulance. If it was before, I don't think either Senator Nkechi Nworgu or Enyinnaya Abaribe, will make that donation because we fought a common battle. It was a battle everybody was involved in. We fought against the type of roguery that was here before. It was a personalised roguery. We were not practising democracy. I am sure that the Commissioner for Information is here. He is the one who brought that word into our lexicon- mamacracy. That was what we were practising here: government of one family, by one family and for one family.
So, the people and stakeholders stood away from governance. If I don't respect you, you will not respect me. So, the stakeholders stood away. No contribution, no collaboration, no advice. When we took over, all those people formed opposition camps, not against me. At least, Chief Onyema Ugochukwu has said it many times. It was against what was behind me. I am telling you honestly. But eventually, we liberated ourselves from that type of bondage. We had a war here and the doors were thrown open for people to contribute and know that they are a part and parcel of Abia; that they own Abia and benefit from what is here.
When that happened, participatory government started and that brought together, every person. We are united here. That's why a senator can now donate ambulances to Abia North, South and Central. When you go to Okpara Auditorium, you will see 17 of them there, which we are going to give to each local government to complement what we are doing in the health sector. Having said that, for sure, we are desirous of having an additional state before you give us more. We are disadvantaged. We have only five only five while others have six or seven.
What about the viability of the state?
Give us, it will be viable. All the states are viable and if all the states are viable, the ones you create will also be viable.
But some of your colleagues held that some of the states are broke?
No! There is no colleague of mine that will say that his state is broke. You try as much as you can. You cannot have all the resources. It is the capacity to manage all that you have. We will like to have more states. But then, the other part of that question is that will states be created? When you look at all things, from the Constitution to what other states are saying, you have to go and get the consent of all the Houses of Assemblies. That has been the reason civilians cannot create states. No civilian government has created states here. All these states were created by the military.
The way out is for people to go across and lobby and some aspects of the constitution that are constraints can be set aside to allow the states to be created. But if you go by the dictates of the constitution, it will be difficult. The hurdles put by the constitution makes it difficult for states to be created.
Are you thinking of a successor, given your legacy projects?
Right now, what we are thinking of are the projects we are doing. A lot of people are showing interest and you sit quietly and contemplate on those people who are showing interest. At the right time, because you have to study each person- they are not foreigners - they have been living with us. At the appropriate time, you make up your mind. If you are doing a good thing, it will be difficult for somebody to come and avoid a good thing. It is only if you are doing a bad thing that the man will come and say let me do it differently. If you are doing the right thing, the man who will come will fall in line and work towards maintaining the structures because they are in the interest of the people.
Coming from this background, what then comes to your mind when critics dismiss you as non-performing?
When you say my critics, you know the person who is saying it. You know him. When you say my critics, it will seem as if everybody is doing it. It is coming from a certain publisher of a national daily and the people he is sponsoring. I want to place one thing on record. I didn't know the said Publisher before and he did not know me. I have been a government man all along. Because the government knows I am capable, they were giving me sensitive appointments. And because I had a sensitive assignment, an important position, where he felt I would be of use to him, he started looking for me.
It was the mother who came and opened the corridor before he now surfaced and we became friends. I want it to be on record that I never knew him before; I never went to him before for anything. It was because of my position which the government gave me because of my competence that he felt I would be in a position to assist him and he started looking for me through the mother. It was the mother who came in company of one boy known as Douglas, who is now dead. He used to be their orderly. They came with a ram and we became friends. Because we were friends and he saw sincerity in me, after the election, he first made me Principal Secretary and then made me the Chief of Staff. I remain the only appointee that worked with him for the eight years that he was here.
The others were sacked, today and tomorrow. That I remained the only appointee who was with him for eight years means that I was an asset to that government because if I was useless, they would disengage me. I devoted myself to working. I didn't look at contracts because the first thing he told me was, don't look at contracts. There was no day I went to him and said give me this contract so that I can pay my children's school fees. We never discussed anything about that. I did my job with dedication for the eight years. If I was an asset for the eight years, how come, you now see me as a nuisance? So, it is now that I am a governor that I am no longer an asset. That's the question I want you people to go back and give me an answer.