After months of tension, suspense and controversy, Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State, last week, returned to the state. Though, official government position was that the governor was away on vacation, it later turned out that Chime travelled out for medical treatment. In this interview with some reporters, the governor told his story, which confirmed THISDAY exclusive report on how he discovered he had cancer. Christopher Isiguzo was there. Excerpts:
What really happened that made you stay for so long?
It's indeed heart-warming to be in your midst today after four and half months outside the country. I decided to meet with you for us to have opportunity to clarify a few issues because I read so many embarrassing publications; most of them conflicting, almost all of them false. I've decided to clear the air because when I came back, I got all sorts of messages from strange people thanking God for my return. I've therefore decided to meet with you with the hope that after this meeting, we would have put to rest everything that bordered on rumour.
In August last year, I was privileged to be one of those nominated by the Nigeria Governors' Forum to go to Germany to study their federalism; I was to represent the South-east zone. I had to use the opportunity of the trip to pass through London to do my medicals since it was the only opportunity I had to do that. After my medicals, I was certified fit by the doctors, but I noticed that I had a little growth beneath my jaw. Ordinarily, nobody could see it but I felt it seriously and asked the doctors to carry out further investigation on it.
I was later referred to a GP who after examining me said there was nothing wrong with me. I still asked for further investigation. I even made arrangement with them to help me set appointment for closer investigation. I left for Germany and had to still return to London to keep the appointment for proper screening of the growth. It was after the screening that it was discovered that the growth in question was cancerous. It was also discovered that the main tumour was behind my nose; it was simply called cancer of the nose.
Cancer is such thing that when you hear it, the person involved will even declare himself dead instantly. I was subjected to further scanning at the nose and neck and was told that it was curable, not manageable. When I asked how to go about it, I was told it has to be as early as possible before it spreads to other areas. Accordingly, I arranged for it to be done. I had to cancel further trips and agreed to be back to London in two weeks. Within the period, I came back to Nigeria and made arrangement for transmission. I wrote a letter to the speaker, informing him of my decision to proceed on leave and sought his cooperation to work with my deputy who will act as governor. We even held two executive council meetings within the period where I informed members of my exco that I was proceeding on a long vacation.
I left for Abuja the next day and attended the Governors' Forum meeting and the next day I left for London, settled in and saw the oncologist the next day. By Monday, I commenced treatment. Cancer is a deadly disease and the cure is also deadly. It's not like panadol, not drugs we buy off the counter. You go through different stages. The treatment altogether lasted for 12 weeks and throughout the treatment, I was an out-patient. I was never admitted in any hospital in London. During the period of the treatment, I had challenges and these were challenges I will not even wish my enemy to go through; it's not easy to imagine.
When I read in the papers that I had died in India, it was a source of entertainment; each time we wanted to laugh, we looked for Nigeria papers online but what became worrisome, was the deliberate and sustained attempt to undermine the government of Enugu State. If you've been following events, over the years, we've invested a lot on infrastructure but I've always said that one thing I would like to leave behind is a workable system. When we came in, there was no system in place and I felt there was the need to build one in order to encourage continuity.
This was therefore an opportunity to test the system we had put in place. You must have observed that we have something resembling a system in place now. While I was away, the government kept on functioning, everything kept on moving as if I was around. Nobody talked about strike over non-payment of salaries, no contractor complained that he was not paid. We even had increased activities in my absence.
I can beat my chest that the Deputy Governor who led the team indeed ensured that the system worked in my absence. I'm happy we've almost reached that height, it gladdened my heart. Of course, we were in close contact and we didn't have problems in spite of attempts by some of our brothers and sisters who live in the Diaspora to undermine the system and were publishing all sorts of nonsense. Our local media even joined in spreading the falsehood but in a nutshell, the Enugu State Government under my administration has come to stay. The treatment ended on December 14 and the period of recovery commenced.
Why did you stay behind since your treatment ended in December?
I was asked to stay away from office for six months but by late January when we went to review my state, they were shocked with my recovery rate which showed that the tumour had gone. I was almost declared cancer free. I will be required to be going there from time to time, but I can assure you that they succeeded in curing the disease.
All the attacks on my staff about hoarding information were unfair. They didn't know the problem because I only told them I was going on vacation. It didn't concern anybody because I complied with the law by transmitting a letter to the speaker. I ensured that the ship of government remained on course; I didn't abandon anybody. All those attacks were mischievous and it equally exposed the ignorance of some of our people even those that were supposed to know the law. I can tell you that I was officially discharged that's why I had to return. I'm still in the process of recovery and as such, you don't expect to see me running tomorrow but I'm free to resume duties to ensure that activities are running on full speed.
Don't you think your decision to keep the whole situation away actually heightened tension, making it look like a return to the Yar'Adua days?
Let me also make it clear that when I was leaving for London, I left a healthy man. I voluntarily submitted myself to have the tumour removed. To further buttress this point, I left the shores of this country without a single aide. Most times, cancer kills because of late discovery; it's curable. Anybody that discovers that he has cancer should go and treat it and not allow the opinions of people to dissuade him or her.
The people that ought to know about my predicament actually knew. Let me make it clear to you that there is hardly any public officer that travels out on vacation only to go and rest. Most of them go out to attend to health challenges. I didn't travel sick; it was a tumour. I wasn't grounded. I decided to nip it in the bud. I actually chose that period to do it because that was the only window of opportunity that I had. That was the first time I was spending four months together outside Enugu since maybe after the war. It was never an emergency and it can never be likened to that of Yar'Adua. While Yar'Adua travelled out sick, I travelled out a healthy man and let me also tell you that the attacks started about two weeks after I left.
With your experience, do you have plans to build a cancer screening or even treatment centre in the state before you leave office?
This government is not about my person; it's not about personal experience. Right from when I came on board, we set out to build an ultra-modern diagnostic centre; but after three years, we were not properly treated by the contractors but I can say we have engaged another contractors that would build a diagnostic centre for us. We need to have a centre in place for proper diagnosis.
Once one is properly diagnosed, you would now have the opportunity to treat yourself. We want to provide the basic things. We are building infrastructure in order to attract investors. We are trying to establish an enabling environment for investors to come and establish a mega hospital. For now, we are interested in providing basic medicare.
Also, coming from that experience, what message have you to the people of the state?
I want to thank Enugu people for their patience, prayers, belief in the system, for being able to rebuff all entreaties by those who wanted to cause trouble. We promise to deliver as many goodies as we can afford. We'll continue to use the available resources the best way we can. We are working towards ensuring that by the time we are through, no single community would complain of having not seen a single government presence. We'll work till May 29, 2015. Nothing like playing politics by next year and abandoning our duties, because we will ensure that whoever that would take over from us would be part of the system. We are going to work round the clock to continue with our programmes
Can you quickly explain why you chose to keep mum when you returned, despite the fact that people had trooped out to see you? Again, when are you planning to transmit a letter to the House of Assembly on your resumption?
I couldn't talk when I got into Enugu because of the chaos that played out at the airport. When I looked through the window of the aircraft, I saw the deputy governor and the wife, I also saw our own local service chiefs, but by the time I alighted from the aircraft, I didn't see anybody again. The whole place was taken over by people. And I told them, I would not leave the place except I see the Deputy Governor who was the Acting Governor, they had to make way for him to come and welcome me officially before we took off.
At that point, you don't expect me to start talking to the press, but anyway, all that is gone now. As I said to you, I've already transmitted a letter to the speaker and my resumption is automatic. It is one ticket; when the Deputy Governor goes on vacation, I also take over his duties. I am back to the state and let everybody know that I am back and if for any reason I have the opportunity to repeat what happened, I will do it over and over again. Nigerians should equally know that we the governors are not super human beings; we are like any other human.
No human being travelled with me when I left for London. What ailment wasn't ascribed to me, some even said I have AIDS, and I only laughed it off. Even when members of the Nigeria Governors' Forum visited me, some still didn't believe them when they said they met with me and that I was in good health. They visited me at my apartment, not in any hospital. We ate and drank and had good time together and that's the truth. I was reading everything on the papers and getting every detail of how people were responding to my absence. Even when I came back, some people still said I came back three to four days earlier and that I was moving about in Abuja, yet they didn't see me.
Let me tell you now, when I came back, I knew a lot of people will be waiting for me at the Transcorp Hilton but I decided to go to Protea Hotels, Asokoro, where nobody would find me.
There at Protea, they have two apartments at the pent house; I took one while Governor Peter Obi took the other. It wasn't arranged but was coincidental for real. Anyway, I thank God I am back and all these issued would have to be laid to rest once and for all.