The Rotimi Amaechi they do not know

Politicians evoke an interesting stereotype in Nigeria; corrupt, greedy and heartless individuals who care less about the society. They are said to be driven by self, ambition and money, with few moral scruples.

As Chimamanda Adichie succinctly stated, the danger with stereotypes is not that they are not true; it is that they are often incomplete. While all these traits constitute the general behaviour of most politicians, there are a few exceptions, like the current governor of Rivers State, Mr Rotimi Amaechi One politician that has been unfairly dragged into this stereotype is Mr. Amaechi who has been forcefully but inaccurately painted in three dimensions in the hearts and minds of many Nigerians. The first is that he is a proud and arrogant man who has no respect for his elders. The second is that he is a jet loving and aristocratic person who does not connect with the poor people. The third is that he is an argumentative and vindictive person who does not take advice from anyone.

Like many stereotypes, those who peddle these stories either do not know the man in question well or have continued to encounter him from the lens of what is said on the pages of the newspapers. As someone who has come to know Amaechi fairly closely in the course of my research, I wish to share with the public, the little I know of him.

Despite many contentions to the contrary, my take is that Mr. Amaechi is a very modest person. Two events that took place during the 2011 elections, gave me additional insight to the reality of his person. I was part of a team that was in Rivers State to observe elections. I joined a journalist in the entourage of the governor to his village in Ubima. When we arrived, I was expecting to see a mansion or country home as it is often the case with politicians, but I was shocked to see a modest house- a little unbefitting for a person of his status. Amaechi 'shamelessly' took everyone round the house and introduced us to his relations before he went to cast his votes. I hear that the house is still the same till date, not because Mr. Amaechi cannot build a mansion but either because he feels he currently lives in government house already paid for with public money and so does not need to build another or maybe he believes in modest living or modest acquisition.

A few of us later joined the governor and his supporters to the government house for lunch. Something else happened. As we were chatting among ourselves, I noticed a man in police uniform soaked in his own blood and badly injured heading towards the governor's house. I watched him curiously. At that time, Mr. Amaechi was strolling around when he noticed the policeman and asked what the problem was. The wounded man narrated how he was attacked alongside the President of Trade Union Congress, Mr. Peter Esele, allegedly on the instruction of the gubernatorial candidate of All Progressive Grand Alliance, Mr. Celestine Omehia. I was watching the scenario closely and Amaechi's response shocked me. In his words 'Inspector Udo, I am very sorry for this. They will take you to the hospital now. Report the matter to the Commissioner of Police to investigate. Whosoever is found guilty will be prosecuted'. Then he turned to his aides and supporters and said 'no one should retaliate on my behalf. I promised God that we will never shed blood in this election, so please no one should attack anyone for my sake. Let the law take its course'. From that day onwards, my positive perception of Mr. Amaechi quadrupled.

I have also listened to Amaechi talk about his background even on live television. He does not mince words when he explains how he was raised in a 'face-me-I-face-you' accommodation and how he struggled his way through school. He is always quick to express his gratitude to God, his former boss, Dr. Odili and his wife Judith. Amaechi's background and unique experiences in life, unlike other politicians, made him develop compassion for the poor and needy early in life, as can be reflected in his free education and health programs. Probably the most exemplary thing about this man is the fear of God in him. I am not sure that there is any Nigerian politician who has respect for the clergy as much as the Rivers State Governor. But that is by the way.

I must admit that he could be impatient with lies and those who cheat others but that is far from being disrespectful. As his friend, if he discovers that you even cheated another person, he will immediately start avoiding you. That is Amaechi for you. He is also a very prudent man. He knows pretty well that he is managing public resources and so he lets you know that there is no money to throw around. Those who consider him arrogant may actually be referring to the fact that he does not 'share' public resources to 'empower' people. One must consider that in all the scholarships awarded by Rivers State Government and even the admissions to the new schools, Amaechi ensures that the children of the poor are given priority. I once learnt of how he drastically cancelled the names of some beneficiaries on a scholarship as soon he noticed that they were children of the rich.

Now let me play the devil's advocate and talk about the little I know about the jet issue. Investing almost 50 million US dollars of public funds to purchase a private jet is not the best use of resources. It can never be. The point has to be made that the opportunity cost of such colossal amount in terms of more roads, schools and hospitals is huge. It is not a priority for a state where a majority of citizens are poor. I am sure Mr. Amaechi knows this. However what many people do not know is that Amaechi actually inherited three aircrafts from the previous government in Rivers State. He sold two of them and retained only one to cut down government expenditure. Those who argue that he should have sold all may also have a point. However there were circumstances leading to a purchase of a new aircraft. It was reported that while Mr. Ameachi was returning from a trip in Accra , the old aircraft was affected by lightening, hence making an emergency landing in Cotonou, Benin Republic. The governor reportedly escaped death by whiskers. After that incident, the aircraft was considerably damaged and was scheduled for refurbishing. The report further stated that when the cost estimates were sent to the Rivers State Public Procurement Bureau, a suggestion was made. The Director General of the Bureau investigated the estimates and suggested that the cost effective thing to do was to trade in the old aircraft and add up money to buy a new one. People are unaware that it was the Due Process office that suggested this in order to save money for the state government in the long term. The new aircraft literally serves as a taxi for most of the governors today as it serves a good cause for the Nigerian Governor's Forum. Could this be the grouse of Mr. Amaechi's antagonists? May be it is.

I stumbled on a web-based article by one Mike Ramidden who did an interesting cost benefit analysis on private jet travels. He emphasized time management for busy executives, efficiency and convenience which are relevant arguments considering the unending delays witnessed with commercial flights and the cost of chartering an aircraft in Nigeria. As a Chairman of NGF, Mr. Amaechi often travels to Abuja and would be rightfully considered as busy executive in the governance sector of this nation. May be this may not be justifiable enough but it is something we must consider if we must look at the matter objectively.

The third point is about his being argumentative. That is either flimsy or exaggerated. I have engaged the Governor of Rivers State severally. He is quite exposed, talks a lot and has strong views. However he bows to superior argument. The problem many people have with him is that they often come to engage him without having their facts correctly. I must admit that I find some of his Marxist views a bit anachronistic but whenever he is confronted with something superior, he concedes joyfully.

I would prefer a leader who is thorough and critical because he/she is likely to condone criticism. Again, one must add that the chop chop dimension of politics means that many people come up with bogus proposals to hoodwink government. When such people show up in Rivers State, they can be rest assured that they will meet an informed Amaechi. This I interpret as being vigilant and unduly argumentative as others may reckon. Some people have opined that Mr. Amaechi's personality is one of the challenges affecting the NGF. However, I will imagine that the NGF takes all their decisions by consensus and the Chairman merely announces them to the public. How can one man be held responsible for a collective decision of an association? For instance if the members of NGF collectively decided to go to court on the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) or anything for that matter, who is Amaechi to stop them?

Rotimi Amaechi has done well for Rivers State but there are still a lot that need to be done. He has just spent public money for public purposes. That should not attract any applause except in Nigeria where public money is converted to private uses with reckless audacity. Yet there are many roads yet to be constructed, more schools to be built and many poor people yet to have access to health care and quality education. Until Port Harcourt begins to compete with Houston, Doha, Baku and other oil capitals of the world, my friend's job is not done. My counsel to Mr. Amaechi is that he should consolidate on those pro-people programs, as they will etch his name on gold and history will judge him fairly for those achievements. He should be himself. Every leader has got style as well as imperfections. Those who insist on labelling him wrongly must strive to get a balanced story before arriving at their conclusions. Candidly, I can only provide unadulterated facts and insights available to me. I might not have contributed so much in changing your perspective, but I needed to put a few things in perspective and allow you to make up your minds.

Uche Igwe is a Doctoral Researcher based at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex, England. He can be reached on [email protected]

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Uche Igwe