By OBINNA EZUGWU |
The hitherto simmering political war between former Imo State governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha and the incumbent governor of the state, Senator Hope Uzodinma reached a crescendo on Sunday last week, turning Owerri, the state capital into a battle field of sorts, as loyalists of both men went at each other in a tit for tat, at the end of which Okorocha was taken away in police van and placed under arrest.
Uneasy calm has since returned in the state capital, but the battle between the two prominent members of the All Progressive Congress (APC) rages on the pages of newspapers and in the law courts. Always obvious, however, is that Okorocha, a former governor now senator representing Imo West District, is holding the wrong end of the stick.
Okorocha has since vowed that Uzodinma cannot win the war, but the governor with executive powers and obviously the stronger party in the conflict, appears determined to make the predecessor, turned political adversary, pay for “his sins.” It is a conflict the former governor’s supporters believe is simply about personal vendetta.
But for many residents of the Eastern Heartland, it’s not particularly a battle between good and evil, but a clash of ego between a man they consider a failed governor and another they consider to be failing, perhaps even more spectacularly.
“It is hard to have sympathy for Okorocha because he turned the state into his personal property when he was governor,” said Emeka Duru, a business owner in Orlu. “But at the same time, Uzodinma has not done anything meaningful since he became governor. He has not built any road, and those started by Ihedioha has been abandoned. So, maybe he is just using his fight against Okorocha as a distraction.”
For some members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, the party to which the duo belongs, the fight is an unnecessary distraction.
“The ruckus is unnecessary and completely ill-advised,” argued a chieftain of party, Prof. Nnamdi Obaraeri, “How does that help the fortune of APC in Imo State and South East at large? Is it not counterproductive?
“How does that disagreement address the crying need for a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction in 2023? How does that solve the critical issues of insecurity in the South East and the agitations by the IPOB and recent military actions and bombings in Orlu Zone?”
For the gladiators, however, Obaraeri’s concerns can wait. The physical confrontation of last week was triggered by Okorocha’s desperate move to recover a priced estate, the Royal Palm Estate on Akachi Road, Owerri, allegedly belonging to his wife, Nkechi, which was sealed by the state government. It had followed the take-over of Eastern Palm University at Ogboko in Orlu, built by the former governor, with a warning that “all those it called fraudulent claimants” of same university should stay away from it.
Okorocha, however, has insisted that the university could not be taken over because it was established under the Public Private Partnership, agreement between Imo government and Rochas Foundation, when he was the governor of the state.
Okorocha through his Special Adviser on media, Sam Onwuemedo, noted that “The general public should disregard the claim by the State Government, with Chief Hope Uzodinma as governor, that it has recovered the Eastern Palm University, Ogboko.
“And the only reason the government gave was that, a Whitepaper, that has not been released, recommended for the recovery. The claim was only aimed at distracting the public from the total collapse of governance in Imo. The Eastern Palm University was a creation of the law. It has a law establishing it. It is a legal entity. So, it is not a kiosk or market store one could wake up one day, to claim or announce to have recovered.”
The battle, an obvious escalation of the rivalry between the duo, which started in the lead up to All Progressives Congress (APC) primaries in 2018, has continued to without relenting. Okorocha, who used his time as governor to build a political dynasty in the state, had sought to consolidate his family’s hold on power by imposing his son-in-law, Uche Nwosu as his successor.
The ensuing battle between him and Uzodinma for the party’s ticket, divided the party into factions, with Uzodinma ultimately emerging the party’s recognized flag bearer; an outcome Okorocha blamed on betrayal by then national chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole.
When the contest ensued, Okorocha who was governor deployed the resources at his disposal to discredit Uzodinma. And when it appeared to him as though he was having an upper hand, he chanted that “Hope Uzodinma is Hopeless.” But ultimately he lost out in the ruling party, with the party’s national leadership backing Uzodinma.
Although the actual governorship election later in 2019 saw his son-in-law, Nwosu who subsequently defected to Action Alliance, came second, with Uzodinma coming a distant fourth behind Ifeanyi Ararume, candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) who came third in the election won by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, the absurd Supreme Court judgment of January 14, 2020, declared Uzodinma as governor.
Though the court judgment seemed initially to have brought the duo together, with Okorocha congratulating Uzodinma on his victory and promising to work with him, and even the then chairman Oshiomhole singing in ecstasy, “We are reconciling; we are reuniting; as victory comes our way, we put the past behind,” Uzodinma apparently saw it differently.
When he eventually met Okorocha and the duo shook hands in reconciliatory mood, he quipped in pidgin English, “I don catch you now,” (I have finally caught you). Though the remark was laughed off by the crowd of cheerful party members at the venue, it turned out he meant what he said.
Uzodinma has since taking office as governor, devoted much of his efforts on Okorocha, whom he accuses of converting state properties to personal use, and has set out to recover same. Okorocha who apparently had welcomed the sack of Ihedioha who started the push to recover properties from him, soon discovered that Uzodinma was even a more determined adversary.
The latest round of seizures, had started with the “discovery,” on Wednesday January 20, of the equipment of Nsu ceramic and tiles industry established by the then administration of Sam Mbakwe, in a warehouse owned by Okorocha, along Owerri/ Aba road in the state.
The state Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Simon Ebegbulem who led the discovery team, had said that some patriotic citizens of the state revealed the hidden warehouse to government, stacked with various public-owned facilities.
But in a swift reaction, Okorocha, through his spokesperson, Onwuemeodo, described the claims as false and misleading, even as he accused the governor of vendetta.
“Administration is not an easy business. If the governor is finding it extremely difficult to break even or break through, he should consult his brother, Okorocha, to tell him how he did it and to a large extent, succeeded, in spite of the meager resources of the State. The best approach is not destroying Okorocha’s legacy projects or chasing shadows, but to ask questions,” he had said.
“The governor should have known by now, that, demolishing Okorocha’s Signature Projects could have been one of the reasons for the anger of Imo people against him and against his government. So, his embarking on recovery of non-existent or imaginary Properties only showed that the sound of bitter kola in the mouth does not reflect the taste.”
The governor would go on to take over Eastern Palm University, citing that it was accordance with the decision of the state executive council at its weekly meeting of Wednesday, February 10, 2021, presided over by him.
It was however, the subsequent sealing of Royal Palm Estate on Akachi Road, Owerri, allegedly belonging to Okorocha’s wife, Nkechi that drew the ire of the former governor, prompting him to lead his entourage, to unseal the property; a development which resulted in a fracas between him and Uzodinma’s special adviser on special duties, Chinasa Nwaneri, whom he later accused of using over 1000 thugs armed to the teeth to attack him.
The incident ultimately resulted in Okorocha and his aides being arrested by the police, but he was later freed and he flew back to Abuja, while his aides were charged to court in Owerri and subsequently granted N70m bail.
Amid the raging crisis last week, Uzodinma on Tuesday, flew to Abuja and met with President Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Rock. After the meeting, he addressed the press stating that his government’s action was in accordance with a report of a judicial panel set up by former Governor Ihedioha before he left office.
“You will recall that before I became the governor, the Ihedioha administration set up a judicial panel of inquiry to look into acquisitions of lands and conversion of government lands to personal property. The judicial panel of inquiry chaired by a judge met and they concluded their job. And a white paper has since been raised,” he told reporters, noting that Okorocha went with thugs to unseal the property.
“He went there with thugs himself physically, wounded the policemen there, and wounded the civil defense people and the civil defense officer is currently in the hospital.
“He then broke in and entered. Of course, you must have heard him say he is richer than the government and that he is above the law. I am not directly involved. It is a position taken by the government. There is a difference between governor and government.
“The government of Imo State sealed a property. And I think that if there is anything anybody considers that is not right, the person should go to court to address the issue. Not to take laws (into his hand).
“I remember that under Ihedioha, there was a recovery committee, chaired by one Jasper Ndubaku, when they tried to visit Okorocha’s house, they were beaten to stupor. And the same man who did that is now also doing the same thing.”
Okorocha’s personal aide, Ebere Nzewuji, however, denied that the senator tried to unseal the property, explaining that, “When he arrived at the premises, they were confronted with thugs who had guns and machetes, and they were attacking him and his entourage.”
The governor who appeared relentless, late last week, allegedly listed properties and monies to be recovered from the former governor to include, N59.6 billion taken from the local government, Eastern Palm University built with Imo money, N96 billion stolen portion of Imo’s IGR for eight years, N40 billion siphoned through the unexecuted 27 general hospitals projects, Old IBC premises at Orji, Nekede and Orji Mechanic Villages.”
Other properties mentioned in the trending list are, “vast expanse of land on the Sam Mbakwe Airport road was acquired by the Government for the purpose of attracting a Naval Base, Adapalm in Ohaji which Okorocha said was leased out to investors and left in ruins till date, Westbrook Hotels which was built by Okorocha’s son-in-law, Uche Nwosu.
“WODDI Wellness Center owned by Okorocha’s wife, Nkechi, built on the former Imo State Secretariat Annex, a land forcefully acquired from the State by Uche Nwosu as Commissioner for Lands. The Reach FM owned by Uche Nwosu, without any known legitimate means of owning such huge property.
“The multi billion Naira Farmers’ Market built by Geraldine, Okorocha’s sister, on a land belonging to the State. Over twenty-five plots State land acquired by Uche Nwosu upon which El Freeda Foundation was built. This is the Foundation through which billions of Naira had been laundered out of the State.
Extervia Mega Supermarket opposite Civic Center Estate owned by Ogechi Ololo, Okorocha’s sister. Municipal Plaza owned by Nkechi Okorocha built on a land forcefully acquired from a civil servant by Uche Nwosu. Twitter Bites acquired by Geraldine Okorocha forcefully from Mr. Fans. Spibat Estate most of which land was forcefully taken from Mbieri people by Okorocha.
House of Freeda Malls in Owerri, Abuja and Lagos built by Uloma, Uche Nwosu’s wife, among many others. On Thursday, the government obtained an interim forfeiture of all properties allegedly ‘acquired illegally’ by Okorocha, while he was in office.
Justice Fred Njemanze gave the order following an application brought by Louis Alozie, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, on behalf of the state government.
The properties to be forfeited according to the judgment include: “Eastern Palm University, Ogboko; Royal Spring Palm Hotels and Apartments; IBC staff quarters said to have been illegally acquired for the purpose of Rochas Foundation College, Owerri; magistrate quarters, Orlu road/cooperative office/Girls Guide allegedly converted to private use housing market square, Kilimanjaro eatery.
Others are public building plot B/2 Otamiri South Extension Layout given to the ministry of women affairs for establishing a skills acquisition centre for women, allegedly acquired for the benefit of Nneoma Nkechi Okorocha’s all-in stall, Aba road.
“Plot P5, Naze residential layout, initially part of primary school management board but now annexed to All-In Stall, Aba Road, belonging to Nkechi Okorocha, and all the properties contained from pages 226 to 272 of the government white paper on the recommendation of the judicial commission of inquiry into land administration in Imo state from June 2006 to May 2019.”
But reacting to the court decision, Onwuemeodo told BusinessHallmark that the Interim Order of forfeiture was “belated, an after-thought and deceitful,” and, “further exposed the double-standard of what we have in Imo today as a State Government. And equally strengthened our consistent claim that, what is happening in Imo is a clear case of vendetta, envy, hatred and Conspiracy by the State government against Okorocha and his family.” He argued that Uzodinma’s government “deceived the Court to give them an Order of interim forfeiture because they never let the Judge know that there has been an existing and valid High Court judgment on the properties.
In Suit No: HOW/947/2019, Hon. Justice T.N. Nzeukwu gave judgment on these Properties on Monday, September 7, 2020. We are not talking about Interim Order, but judgment, and after looking at the facts on ground, restrained the State Government and its agents over these Properties.”
Attempts to get the governor’s spokesperson, Mr. Oguike Nwachukwu to respond to the allegations fell through as his known phone lines did not go through, and he was yet to respond to text messages as at time of writing.
Meanwhile, some notable political figures in the state under the aegis of Stakeholders from Imo State met on Saturday and mandated Uzodimma to use all legal means to recover every property, including money belonging to the state which was stolen by any public official regardless of the status.
Prominent among those in attendance were a former governor of Imo State, Chief Ikedi Ohakim, who was chairman of the stakeholders gathering, three deputy governors, such as Eng. Ebere Udeagu, Ada Okwuonu and Jude Agbaso, former Speakers Kelechi Nwagwu and Chiji Collins, current Speaker, Rt. Hon. Paul Emeziem and his deputy, Rt .Hon. Amara Iwuanyanwu, former Ambassador Greg Mbadiwe, retired deputy Inspector General of Police, Hilary Opara, Prof. Maurice Iwu, Dr. EJK.onyewuchi, OK 2000, among too many others.
“We the stakeholders from Imo State from the 305 wards in the state, after a meeting in Owerri on Saturday February 21, 2021 do hereby resolve to mandate the state government to recover every property, money or wealth stolen from Imo people by any person, no matter how highly placed,” they resolved.