By OBINNA EZUGWU
At 73 many political actors are either at the peak of their careers, or just starting out as budding players of the power game: 46th US president, Joe Biden, got into the oval office at 78, his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari ascended the throne in 2015 at 73, while his predecessor, Donald Trump who joined the game at 69, and became president at 70, is warming up for another run in 2024. But for ex-Abia State governor and Senator representing the state’s central senatorial district, Theodore Ahamefule Orji, CON, 73 is the retirement age; an age to draw the curtain on an illustrious public service career, and take the seat of an elder statesman to mentor the younger generation.
“Your future as Abians is bright,” he had assured Abia youths at a wedding ceremony in December, having affirmed, after winning a second term in the Senate in 2019, that he would be leaving the stage in 2023. “I have since decided to quit politics in 2023 so as to give way for you. If I don’t quit, there won’t be space for you. I have to quit so that you can take over. I’ll support you in every way possible. You have all been supporting me since the inception of my political career, thank you so much for that; it’s time for me to support you in your own careers, too.”
Chief Orji evidently knows how to groom the younger ones. His son, Chinedum, the current speaker of the state house of assembly, has followed in his footsteps; groomed by him. And as the 71-year-old 8th governor of ‘God’s Own State’ prepares to leave the stage, it is perhaps time to look at the career he has had, which all considered, has been nothing short of illustrious.
Though Ochendo, as he is fondly called, is obviously not the most charismatic leader around – he is not one to hug the spotlight, and he rarely grants media interviews – but he has proven that sometimes tact can outwit charisma. Often unassuming and calm, he has, through an effective deployment of tact and humility, accomplished enviable political feats; one that even his staunchest critic would admit is astonishing. And without a doubt, when he calls it a day in 2023, by which time he would have attained the age of 73 – having been born in 1950 – and registered in the league of elder statesmen, he would look back at his career with some sense of pride and fulfilment, and it would evidently be well-deserved.
“Chief Orji is quite an accomplished public administrator. He was an accomplished civil servant before the former governor of Abia State, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu invited him and made him chief of staff. He did very well,” said Chief Abia Onyike, chairman, publicity bureau, Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF).
“His civil service career also brought him close to one of the super permanent secretaries of those days, Chief Francis Orji. Chief Francis Orji who is from Ebonyi State was his mentor. He was a super permanent secretary in Imo State from 1976 to 1984 when he retired and later on, became deputy governor of Imo State and then a minister. Chief Orji has tried to maintain reasonable level of friendship with his friends from across the entire Southeast. Though Chief Francis had left for Ebonyi State, as governor of Abia, he appointed him the pro-chancellor of Abia State University.
“Looking at his trajectory, up to the time he became governor for eight years and now senator for another eight years, I think one can say that he gave a very good account of himself as a liberal politician, even when he may not be the kind of politician that many people expected him to be. But he was able to give a very good account of himself in terms of political stability and relevance. His decision to quit in 2023 also means that he is one of those leaders who know that it is better to leave the stage when the ovation is loudest.”
Indeed, Chief Orji’s place as the most successful Igbo politician of the present generation is hardly debatable. He had a successful career in the civil service, and now a impressive one as a politician. Holder of a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from the University of Ibadan in 1977, he became an Administrative Officer in the Cabinet Office of the old Imo State in 1979, and subsequently in the Ministry of Lands and Survey, and Ministry of Agriculture, before moving to the Government House, Umuahia where he served in the Bureau of Budget and Planning and Ministry of Agriculture upon the creation of Abia State in 1991. He subsequently moved over to the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), now Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), before beginning a new chapter in public service with his appointment as Principal Secretary, Government House, Umuahia and Chief of Staff to the Executive Governor during the administration of Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, which marked an interesting new chapter in his career.
“It’s when he was with INEC that his path crossed with that of Orji Uzor Kalu. And apparently he was nice to OUK, he made him chief of staff,” said Mr. Okey Kanu, analyst and political observer. “I think one aspect of him that has worked for him is that he offers help instead of asking for help.
“So while many of those who were with OUK or who were coming to him at the time were interested in asking for favours, he was instead more interested in offering help without asking for reward. So, maybe OUK felt impressed with his attitude and carriage and invited him over to come and work with him. And immediately that happened, it marked the turning point in his political career.”
Mostly against the run of play, Orji has gone on to serve as governor of Abia for eight years, and by 2023, would have completed another eight years as senator representing the Abia Central Senatorial District. No other politician has managed this feat in his zone, even as he has bucked the trend as the only former governor who has remained politically active in his state while still maintaining cordial relationship with his successor, as seen in his rapport with the current governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu. And Ikpeazu’s government has only words of admiration for the man that was governor before him.
“Chief T.A. Orji is an achiever who delivers more than he is willing to talk about,” noted Chief John Okiyi Kalu, the state’s commissioner for information. “He is a very disciplined person, a stickler for rules and due process and a man who is driven by the greater good at all times.”
From Kano, through Edo to Imo, Nigeria’s political battlefield continues to witness intense duels between serving governors and their predecessors. But the opposite has been the case in Abia, with Chief Orji and his successor maintaining a quite cordial relationship. This, observers have attributed to the former’s sense of justice and a live-and-let-live attitude to life.
“Another thing that has worked in Orji’s favour is that he’s a very humble person or at least, appears to be humble,” Kanu noted. “I met him once as a banker when I had to go and hand over a bus that my bank had bought for the Abia State Universal Basic Education Board (ASUBEB). I came in contact with him as chief of staff then. He came to represent the governor. The impression I had of him was that of a very humble person who greeted you profusely. That is what has worked for him.
“He ended up being the engine room of the OUK government because of his experience in the civil service. He knew the ropes very well and OUK left everything in his hands.
“When it was time for OUK to hand over, a lot of other people made efforts to ensure that he did not choose him, but OUK insisted it was him and the rest is history.”
Chief Orji’s predecessor, Orji Kalu, no doubt, played a huge role in his emergence as governor in 2007, ensuring, through his support, that he won the April 14 governorship polls that year under the novel Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), instructively while being detained.
But the duo haven’t always remained best of friends, though they appear to have made peace with each other. Indeed what’s even more remarkable about Chief Orji’s political dominance in Abia for the last decade and half, is that he had been “destined” to serve only one term as governor, but he not only survived the spirited attempt to stop him in 2011, but also ensured that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which he subsequently joined prior to the 2011 polls, remained the dominant political party under his leadership in the state till the present day.
It is expected, however, that when the history books are written, there would be some questions raised about his legacy by less friendly historians, pertaining, particularly to his eight-year stewardship in Abia. But it depends on who you ask. Abia, like every state of the federation, has had challenges meeting the burgeoning infrastructure and overhead needs of a surging population, with increasingly lean resources. The critics have always found their points regardless, but so have his adulators. And perhaps his firm grip on the political structure of Abia for more than a decade speaks to the fact that those in the latter category are the overwhelming majority. For his admirers, only his popularity explains the prevailing state of affairs.
“Two things in my opinion stand him out. One is his kindness. Two, is that he has this ability to give,” noted Onyebuchi Ememanka, Chief Press Secretary to the Abia State governor. “Personally, I believe that giving opens the door for people. As you give, you also receive. You know, when you render help to 20 people, at least 10 will pray for you, and out of those 10, at least three would have their prayers answered.
“Of course if you look at his career, you would agree with me that he is an extremely successful politician. Even as a senator, he has not stopped being the man he has always been; responding to the yearnings of his constituents. Since he went to the Senate there is no year that passes that he does not embark on some programmes or projects that touch people directly. If it is not constituency projects, it is scholarships or various empowerment programmes. He is always reaching out.”
Chief Orji is particularly noted for his promotion of justice and equity, and willingness to assist others at every point in time. Many of his admirers say these qualities are particularly what have seen him achieve tremendous success as a politician.
“Ochendo is a trailblazer, a quintessential gentleman that has proven to people that politics is not all about self-interest; that it is about collective interest. He is humane, he is fatherly. He treats everyone like a father. He is a man of principle who doesn’t take rash decisions,” said ex-Speaker of the State House Assembly, Mr. Emeka Stanley.
Stanley argues that the reason Orji has remained loved by his people, is that he is a friend to everyone, and treats even his employees with fatherly courtesy.
“He is a friend everybody would like to have. He would advise you like a father even if he is your boss. He does not bother you but teaches you what you should know. I give him all the credits. Today, he is easily the most revered and the most accomplished politician in Abia,” Stanley noted.
“His legacy in Abia remains intact. It was him who pushed for the establishment of the Abia State Oil Development Commission, popularly called ASOPADEC, with a view to ensuring that oil producing areas derive benefits from the oil in their land. He ensured that the oil communities had 30 percent of the 13 percent derivation that comes to Abia.
“His ideology of politics is live and let live. He is a proponent of equity in politics which he demonstrated by giving Abia South, the Ngwa bloc of Abia State, their first governor ever.”
However, the debate over Chief Orji’s legacy will most likely continue and may indeed be unending. But perhaps what is not debatable is that he has had an odd defying career in politics. Given his largely laid-back disposition, his tenacity is not always immediately obvious. But in almost always being positioned as a seeming underdog, the transition becomes quite swift when he makes very strategic choices. And those have seen him become the political juggernaut he is today.
“I have been privileged to know him closely. He is a man of many parts. His life portrays strength of character. He is a man who started life as a civil servant and rose to the highest echelon of public service,” Ememanka said.
“If he had retired as a civil servant, he would have retired as a successful man. But I think fate played a hand in his life. And after working with NECON, now INEC as administrative head in Enugu State, he served as chief of staff to the then governor for eight years and moved on to be what he is now.
“But beyond all of these, for me what I consider to be his greatest legacy is his insistence that power must shift to Abia South; and indeed not just insisting that power must shift to Abia South in the interest of equity, but he also made sure he chose somebody he knew would deliver.
“Now he has decided that after 2023, he has had enough; that age is no longer on his side and that God has been very gracious to him, I completely agree with that. He should take a bow and become an advisor and source of inspiration to younger aspiring politicians.”