Published On: Mon, Oct 23rd, 2017

OKOROCHA: Unveiling the Imo House of scandal

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Last week, the Imo State governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha caused national outrage when he unveiled a giant

Governor Rocha Okorocha of Imo State

statue of South African President, Jacob Zuma said to have cost N520 million, alongside other statues in Owerri, the state capital.

It is an event that left many in awe, including South Africans most of whom mocked Nigerians and sarcastically asked that he, Zuma, be kept back in the country since according to them, he is a “very corrupt” president who should fit a “corrupt” country like Nigeria.

“Well well!! Maybe Zuma is going to defect to Nigeria!” wrote Cherylynn Castelein. “He will fit right in. The most corrupt president and the most corrupt country.”

Another, Rudzani Thewhite Walker opined that it was not surprising as birds of a feather flock together. “The corrupt recognizing and honouring each other! nothing surprising. Like the old saying, birds of a feather flock together,” she wrote.

For the South Africans, the awe stems from the fact that Zuma who is facing series of corruption allegations in his own country, is being honored in Nigeria. But for Nigerians, especially Imo people, it is shocking especially as the government is owing over 24 months pension arrears while the active workers are still battling it out with him over outstanding salaries.

Amid the outrage nonetheless, he has insisted that he owes no one an apology as according to him, he is attracting investment in the state.

He was immediately supported by his party, the All Progressive Congress (APC). At a meeting of its National Working Committee NWC with its 24 state governors and principal officers of the National Assembly, the party’s National Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun said Okorocha’s efforts at attracting foreign investment to the country was highly commendable.

It does not come as a surprise. Okorocha has consistently demonstrated lack of emotional intelligence. At the height of his rift with the state civil servants last year over non payment of salaries, he allegedly spent N600 million to decorate a Christmas tree.

A few months ago, he celebrated his birthday with as many as 27 cakes and threw a huge party amid economic crunch. He has gradually turned himself into an emperor of sorts in Imo, some allege.

“It is surprising that anybody believed that a person like Okorocha will make a good governor,” wondered Ambassador Joe Keshi, former UBA chairman when analysing Imo in a chat with Business Hallmark.

But Okorocha had not always shown his colours to the public. And apart from those who may have been close, some of whom have noted that he has not had a good reputation, he has always had this aura of a philanthropist. Meanwhile, some of his close associates say he is called Miri Ojoo (bad water).

After unsuccessful shots at the presidency, he returned to Imo in 2011, dressed in the garb of a philanthropist who was deeply concerned with improving the lot of his people. This perception of him ensured that the masses in the state, who had turned against the then incumbent governor, Ikedi Ohakim adjudged to have performed poorly, rallied behind him.

Ohakim’s woes had also been compounded by the allegation that he slapped a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in a predominantly Catholic state (an allegation that was eventually proven to be false). But that was not all, despite being a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) governor, Ohakim was not also in the good books of the power that was at the centre, Goodluck Jonathan and his wife, Patience because of his unalloyed support for the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It was for this that Patience aided and abated his defeat by Okorocha while Jonathan looked away.

Thus, when the chips were down, Okorocha, strategically riding on the back of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) which was on the ascendancy in the South East at the time, and with the support of the grassroots as well as the Northern political class who regard him as their son, he got to power, beating Ohakim.

Once in power, he became populist, subtle, but mean. He introduced “free education” policy from primary up to university level (for Imo indigenes in state owned schools), announced that the government will pay scholarship of N100,000 to each student of Imo origin in Imo State University.

A breakdown of which was that each recipient would get N70,000 free and N30,000 as a loan to be paid upon completion of studies. For those at those at HND level, he said they will get N80,000, broken down into N60,000 free and N20,000 loan, while OND students in the state polytechnics, he said they will get N60,000, broken down into N40,000 free and N20,000 loan. But in all, the students had to pay N20,000 acceptance fee.

While pursuing this policy, he equally started roads and a few other projects in nearly every ward in the state, such that he further won and maintained grassroots support.

But soon, it began to dawn on many that it might all have been deception. A number of projects started were abandoned and roads constructed were said to be of poor quality.

Yet, in his much touted free education programme, the real trick was soon in the open. The governor had upon assumption of office, increased school fees of the state owned tertiary institutions by 30 percent. In Imo State University (IMSU) for instance, the school fees which had been initially increased from about N40,000 to N70,000 by Ohakim amid public outcry, was further increased to N100,000 by the governor.

Therefore, while students of Imo origin were given scholarships, students from other states were made to pay more. But the most telling aspect was that prospective students of Imo origin were now mostly denied admission as the government reduced the number of intakes in preference for the non indigenes who paid fees.

Having led a faction of APGA to join the All Progressives Congress (APC) upon its formation in 2013, the governor fought hard to retain his seat in 2015 in an election alleged to have been characterised by irregularities. Once he secured his second term, he rapidly unraveled. The pretence about free education ended as sources in the state said he suspended it last year.

Few months ago, his government embarked on demolition of the popular Eke-ukwu Owerri Market in the name of urban renewal in spite of a subsisting court order. Justice S.I. Okpara had restrained his government from demolishing the market, pending the determination of a suit filed by the stall owners, but he ignored the court’s order.

He deployed hundreds of soldiers and policemen to pull down the market and by so doing, not only demolished the means of livelihoods of the affected families, but also ended the life of a 10-year-old boy, Somtochukwu Igboanusi.

The governor, many have said, has emasculated all other arms of government, effectively turned Imo into family business, with his immediate and extended family members occupying strategic positions in government, and he is now allegedly grooming his son in-law, Uche Nwosu to succeed him in 2019, and his wife, Nneoma as senator representing Orlu Zone.

Earlier in the year, he performed his biannual ritual of dissolving his cabinet. But this time, he made an exception that fuelled the suspicion. He spared Nwosu who serves as his Chief of Staff (CoS). He had appointed him into the position after a similar cabinet reshuffle in 2015. Prior to his appointment, he was the Commissioner for Land.

The governor had in December boasted that his wife was in control of four ministries in the state. He had also appointed her as chairman of the state’s amnesty programme.

“He has emasculated the legislature, we do not have any House of Assembly in Imo,” said Ikechukwu Ikeji, lawyer and public affairs analyst.

“His wife is the director of the state’s amnesty programme, his brothers and sisters are having portfolio in government, he is running Imo as a family business.”

Apart from Nwosu who is married to his first daughter, Uloma Okorocha Nwosu, being Chief of Staff, and his wife, Nkechi Okorocha being in charge of the amnesty programme, his  daughter’s father in-law, Prof. Anthony Anwukah is Minister of State for Education after serving as Chief of staff and secretary to the government.

It is also being alleged that one of the governor’s sisters serves as Deputy Chief of Staff, another sister as Special Assistant on Domestic Affairs, while his son-in-law is the leader of the All Progressive Congress (APC) in Orlu Zone. Yet his elder brother is in charge of collecting commercial vehicle tolls in the State, while his elder sister is the sole collector of all market tolls. Another of his son-in-law is allegedly in charge of all allocation of land in the State and his younger brother is in charge of Imo Transport Company.

“You know, a lot of us sit down and blame Buhari for nepotism, but I don’t think there is a more nepotic government than the Rochas administration in Imo. A government where only family members and in-laws run the government from the beginning to the end,” said APGA chieftain and one time governorship aspirant in Lagos, Bar Okechukwu Okoroji.

Imo is one of the oil producing states in the South East, but it’s economy under Rochas has been in tail-spin. The recently released state viability index for 2016 by Economic Confidential put the state at 27th, making it the second least viable state in the South East after Ebonyi State. Yet the state owes N120 billion in debt making it the top three in the country.

The state’s N5.9billion internally generated revenue represents only 8.7 percent of its N68 billion federal allocation. The governor has been in a running battle with the state’s civil servants and pensioners over non-payment of salaries and pensions. He had owed months of arrears, insisting that the state does not have money to pay due to the economic situation in the country.

“There is actually no economy because there are no meaningful economic activities going on in the state. All the aspects of governance are either wholly or partially occupied by Rochas and his family.” Okoroji says.

Sometimes last year, the governor said he was considering reducing the number of work days in the state from five to three to enable the government cut salaries, noting that the reduction would enable workers to attend to other activities that would generate money to supplement their monthly salaries so that they can take care of their families.

He also suggested that he would review the state’s salary structure downwards, claiming that it was the highest in the South East zone.

“I encourage Imo workers to find additional things to do to support their families because of the economic situation we are facing in Nigeria.

“We are considering reducing the working days from five to three in Imo, so that workers will use the rest of the days to work and support their families,” he said.

Faced with criticism however, he backtracked on the decision, but his rifts with workers continued.

During his interaction with the Imo chapter of the NLC on May Day this year, he insisted that the request made by the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) for him to pay 100 percent pensions to all categories of retirees in the state was unrealistic, insisting that only retirees from levels 0 1 to 06 would receive 100 percent, while levels 07 to 17 would be paid 50 percent.

For the state’s workers he insisted that there will be a new salary structure. “We have to agree what is 100 percent.

“Is it what Anambra, Enugu, Abia and Ebonyi workers are paid? There will be a total new salary structure in Imo. We will make sure no Imo worker gets more than what he should get and ensure that no worker gets below what he should get.”

He claimed that workers wage bill had been over N4 billion, while pensions rose from N352 million before he assumed office to N1.4 billion every month, which has made the state government unable to pay 100 percent.

Okoroji however attributes his inability to pay workers to financial recklessness, noting that his government has been a disaster, and his election a mistake that Imo people regret.

“Okorocha is a disaster, an irreversible disaster. Electing him was a mistake that Imo people regret with every fibre of their being. A disaster was chosen as a governor, and the consequence has been disaster all the way.

“Rochas is what the Bible spoke about the devil, that he came to steal and to destroy. In the last five or six years, what has been happening in Imo has been killing. The Imo economy is worse than it has ever been in its entire history.

“Kidnapping rate in Imo has driven people of consequence out of the state – business men and politicians alike. There are two levels of kidnapping going on in the state. One is the upper level kidnapping that is targeted at politicians who are looking to vie for offices, they can’t return home. The other is the lower level targeting those who are kidnapping for ransom.

“There are a lot of killings that are not being investigated. The police institution in the state has been bought over. It is an unfortunate development, but we are certain that in no distant time, Rochas and his cohorts will be driven out of Imo State by popular movement of the people in Imo State, by popular democracy.

“The election of 2019, however he tries to subvert the will of the people, it is but a matter of time. He will meet his Waterloo. Not only will he be driven out of the State House, none of his cronies will enter there as his successor,” he concluded.

“We owe no one apology. Rochas made a promise to open the doors of Imo to the rest of the world, for good and he is doing that and we cannot be deterred by these enemies of our people,” the governor said in a statement by his chief press secretary, Sam Onwuemeodo.

“And in case these “Galatians” do not know that all we need to do to attract good things or investments to Imo is erecting statues, then, we have no option than to erect as many of such structures as possible,” the statement read.

“If it was in the days of PDP, schools and markets would have been shot down. And roads closed because President Zuma was coming. But none of such things was done because Rochas and his government have human face.

“The PDP for the 12 years they held sway never attracted any meaningful visitor to the State except PDP NEC members who were coming to loot the state.”

Also speaking in support of the governor, speaker of the state House of Assembly Dr. Hon Acho Ihim, dismissed insinuations the assembly had become his rubber stamp, insisting that the cordial working relationship between the Legislature and the Executive in the state should not be seen as a sign of weakness on the former.

Ihim, who said this while addressing newsmen in his official residence in Owerri also insisted that the governor was right to erect the controversial Zuma status.

“The only way to appreciate anybody who does or did well is to appreciate him when alive or dead,” he said. “I wonder why nobody raised an eyebrow when a similar honour was accorded to the Ghanaian President, Addo Akufo and Second Republic Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme.”

Apparently, he has his supporters. “Rochas is trying,” said Mrs N. Njoku, an indigene of the state. “See the amount of work he has done in Owerri, he has done so many road projects across the state. Many students have also benefitted from his free education policy. What did (Ikedi) Ohakim do during his own time? Nothing.”

The governor is known to be nursing presidential ambition. Recently, he boasted that being governor does not fit his status, as according to him, he ought to be president. He would be looking ahead to 2023 having himself conceded 2019 to the North, but his dream would seem improbable.

He is easily the most hated governor in the South East, his primary constituency, with many accusing him of supporting the killing of Igbo youths who are holding pro Biafra rallies. But no doubt, he has his own supporters and is quite popular, especially in the North.

 

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