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MY BOSSES USED JUJU TO SCARE ME - OBUEKWE

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Obuekwe
Mr. Chike Obuekwe is Head of Local Government Administration, Awka North Local Government Area in Anambra State. In this interview with our Corresspondent, Obuekwe, who had consistently declined accepting any other title in order to stick to 'MR.', speaks about his life, his work and Anambra State local government administration. Excerpts:

Tell us about yourself?
My name is Chike Obuekwe, Head of Local Government Administration, Awka North, and I am from Awka town in Awka-South Local Government Area of Anambra State. I was born in Northern Nigeria, precisely in a town called Azare, currently in Gombe State.

I did not attend any nursery or kindergarten. Actually, my father wanted the best for me and I was taught at home. He engaged a teacher to teach me. So, my kindergarten and nursery education was at home. I started formal education at primary school level.

I attended the Ibo Union Primary School, Kano, in 1966, but no sooner I started my primary school than the war broke out and we came back to the East in 1967. I did not experience any hardship as a young man. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I acknowledge that, and I thank God.

So, I principally grew up in the North. Then my father was working as a UAC factory worker in the then Northern Region. We lived in Kano, but then he travels to Azare and Jamare to organise groundnut purchase for UAC. I grew up and noticed the great groundnut pyramid behind my father's UAC quarters. I used to play on top of the groundnut pyramid in the North.

When we came back to the East during the war, I participated because I was in the Boys' Company. After the war I continued with my primary school education at St. Paul's Practicing School, Awka, it's a government school. I proceeded to the Merchant of Light Oba School where I did my school certificate. I came out with good result and I proceeded to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, for a degree in Accounting. From Zaria I went for my youth service in Ondo State and back to the University of Benin for my Masters in Public Finance. I worked briefly in the North before joining the local government as the first set of qualified Accountants. And I am here today as the head of local government administration.

How did an accountant become head of local government administration?

Actually, I started as an Accountant in the local government service and I went through the various departments - pay roll, market office, main Accounts - before being appointed as Internal Auditor at Ihiala Local Government in 1988. From there I was made Treasurer of a local government in 1989 and was posted to Aguata. And I have been treasurer of virtually all the local government areas. I have worked in some local governments twice.

I have worked twice in Aguata, Onitsha North and South, Anambra East and West and I opened up Nzam. I was there for four years, but in 2008 I was appointed Head of Local Government Administration, which is the apex in the local government service. You can be appointed as an administrator, whether you are an Accountant, a medical doctor, an educationist, Agric officer. This position is the apex in the Local Government Civil Service. It is just like a permanent secretary and anybody can be appointed a permanent secretary from engineering or anywhere.

Why didn't you pursue your career to become a Chartered Accountant?

I pursued it and I am a fellow of the Certified National Accountants (FCNA).

Why didn't you join the banking system then?
Actually, I had a brief working experience in the bank, but I was not comfortable. Why I wasn't comfortable was because my master's degree dissertation was on the profitability of banks, where I looked at five merchant banks and five commercial banks and their profitability ratio, and I discovered that the banks were not doing normal banking practice. Actually, banks are supposed to be the engine-room of development of any country, but I found that the country was going down while the banks were making profits, which was a misnomer. Banks were set up to be the engine-room of medium and long-term investments.

They were concentrating on short-term investments. They were making money through sale of foreign exchange and other non-banking practices. So, I concluded that any single government's policy would see these banks falling like a pack of cards. So, when I joined the bank I was not comfortable and I asked myself what I was doing there, and for the fear of being caught in the web, I told myself that I should leave because they were not doing normal banking job. And immediately I left we started having banking recession in which I would have been caught up. I knew what was going to happen.

Was there any difference then and now?
Sanusi is doing a lot because he is trying to sanitise the banking sector. Soludo tried by building a large capital base for banks, but even then, some of them had a false financial statements and I don't believe in all those statements. Sanusi is doing a lot. The latest thing he is proposing is for the banks to do their normal banking practice. But you find out that most banks are into insurance, buying and selling everything to survive, but Sanusi is proposing that banks face their normal banking service and leave the others to institutions concerned. I think he is restoring confidence in the banking sector.

Before you came to Awka-North, it appeared that everybody was complaining of neglect and marginalisation of the local government; how come since you assumed office everything died down? Is there any magic?

There is no magic. It is a question of doing what is right at the appropriate time. Actually, before I came there was this issue that I shouldn't come. They wanted business as usual, which I am totally against. When I eventually came to Awka North, I saw that there were no infrastructure and I resolved that we must rebuild infrastructure and change the way the administration was being run.

And from my background as an Accountant, I know what it means to have value for money. When I came in I pursued those things that were lacking for our people. First was to make the secretariat a befitting one, there were no accommodation, no facility, and there was low work morale. So, we put back the lacking infrastructure and accommodation to make the workers enjoy their workplaces and you can see what is happening now. There are offices. We completed the secretariat that was started during the time of Chief Shedrack Anakwue, who laid the foundation of the two-storey building.

We completed it before going into other amenities in the local government. We also went to the communities to put in place what the people needed, like educational and health facilities, we have built health centres in virtually all the communities. We have even gone to the extent of building secondary health sector like the General Hospital at Amanuke.

Are you comfortable that people do a merry-go-round to come to the local government headquarters because of lack of access roads in the 10 communities of Awka North Local Government?

Honestly, I am not comfortable. The truth is that what remains in Awka North is the construction of roads. We have not been very fortunate to have good roads, but Governor Peter Obi keeps promising me, assuring that come this dry season he would tackle Awka North, and I believe him. He said he doesn't want to make the mistake he made during the construction of Amansea-Ebenebe-Awba-Ofemili road because they started without a good bridge, so when the vehicle conveying the materials sank on one of the bridges it took more than one year to bring out the vehicle.

The bridge is now being constructed and that is why that road has not been completed and it looks like it has been abandoned. He promised to do the other road from Okpuno-Isu-Aniocha-Urum-Amanuke-Achalla, but he said he wanted the bridge at Obibia to be completed before embarking on that. You find that the bridge is under construction now, which the contractor promised to deliver this month. He said once that bridge is delivered he would now flag-off the road network linking Achalla from Awka so that we have a shorter road to Achalla from Awka than the merry-go-round across four local government areas.

Do you have any regrets for not working in the banking system?

There are no regrets actually, because the only thing I would have made in large quantity is money. But that money could put one into trouble, but I am happy that I am contributing to the lives of the rural populace. Majority of the downtrodden are feeling the impact of good governance in the local government. So, I am satisfied even when there is no money.

But were there frustrations along the climb to the pinnacle of your career?

The frustrations came initially when we joined the job as graduates, very young. We met people who were executive officers, who had been on the job. And because it is always difficult to introduce change, they were like, look at these young people who have come to take our positions, and they did everything to frustrate our coming in. We had no offices, no tables.

They even used all kinds of 'juju', which some of us don't believe in, but some others left, very few of us who remained were quiet, patient and for three years we were just roving around before they started seeing us as part of the local government and allowed us to take over the job. Even when we took over, there was no cooperation. And if there was job to do, they would say, 'you are a graduate, an Accountant, go and do it'. We were doing everything. But after sometime the sky was our starting point, having overcome the initial frustration.

Have you realised that elected local government chairmen connived with treasurers to deprive the populace of development by embezzling the funds?

I don't believe treasurers and chairmen connive to deprive the rural communities of development, but I believe that because of the cleavages, the hangers-on around the local government chairmen - the PAs, the HAs and godfathers and so on - deplete the resources they should have used to provide infrastructure and development to the grassroots. If they don't achieve much, don't blame them, it is because of the political challenges. Many of them have godfathers whom these works were given to do without them actually doing it. The society itself is a bird of that same feather; let me just go there and make money, and they make unnecessary demands.

But the public servant has a lot to protect because, if he messes up, all he has worked for 35 years would be messed up within a twinkle of an eye. That is why it may be difficult to compare public servants and the politicians. It has been like that, the old DOs and SDOs achieved a lot in the local governments.

In other words, you are advocating that the 3rd tier of government be abolished?

I have not said that, and it is a constitutional issue. There must be democracy, but the fact remains that there will be a difference from the achievement recorded this time around. If the politicians are coming in, there is a benchmark for them to look at and if they do anything less than that people will question them. People are becoming more and more aware of what is happening and will ask questions to know if it is not the same local government they were operating.

But as a matter of policy, we have done projects that affect the people directly in each of the 10 communities that comprise the local government, not one not two, but as many as the people request or suggest. Our service delivery is people-oriented so that they would enjoy it and protect it, be it water, hospital or school projects, whatever.

Never before had a governor won two terms in office in Anambra State, Governor Peter Obi has broken that jinx. How do you describe his administration?

Governor Peter Obi has performed marvelously. There is nothing to hide about it. Anambra State has never had it so good. The workers are happy and payment of salary as and when due, payment of allowances, staff claims too. Look at what he did the other day, paying pensioners who were owed since 1999, he cleared up the arrears up to March 2010. And look at the structures and amenities he is putting in place everywhere simultaneously. He has surpassed every other governor in this country, with no oil money.

But why are you now the darling of the governor and commissioner for local government, to the extent that nothing happens without you?

I am not the darling of anybody, please. I don't think that assumption is right, because every HOA is important and deals on equal strength with our Hon. Commissioner, Mr. Dubem Obaze.

What is your immediate family like?
I am married to Mrs. Rita Chike Obuekwe. My wife is an Admin Officer in the Local Government Civil Service Commission. She is the Director of Training. I have four children - two boys and two girls.

Why did you stop at four?
When we married, we planned to have two kids. God blessed me, we had a boy and a girl and after three years, with all the pressures from my maternal aunty, who even told me that she saw a vision where my kids were telling her that they wanted a brother and a sister. We pleaded with God to forgive us, because we were breaking our vow. We had another boy and a girl. That's why, if you look between the first two and second two, there is a gap of four years. So, I am enjoying my family. Thank God.

As HOA, with a wife that is superior, so to say, in service, what do you think when a woman takes a better pay than the man?

My wife doesn't take home a fatter salary as you insinuate. She is only an Acting Director in charge of training. But does it matter in families whether the woman takes home a bigger salary or not? You see, the office work is different from the home front. When it comes to the homefront, the man is the head of the family, even if the wife is receiving fatter salary. There should be love in marriage.

They don't have to look at the social status. It is the same thing even abroad. A woman can be a minister; head of state, whatever, but when it comes to the family front, the man takes charge, although the man should not be a bully or a tyrant. There should be that love flowing, everybody should have his or her own respect.

How old is your marriage now? And any regrets?
Twenty-one years, and very soon we will celebrate our silver jubilee. I have no regrets. I have a happy home. You need tolerance and understanding to succeed in marriage. My wife tolerates my excesses and that's what every man should pray for, to get a tolerant wife. A wife who understands and tolerates gives longevity to her man, but when it is otherwise, the man's grave is near. I count myself lucky and I am happy to have an understanding and tolerant wife.

What are your excesses that she tolerates? And what do you think of a man who beats his wife? Have you ever beaten yours?

Maybe staying late in the office; drinking with my friends, nothing moreā€¦

So, how come your children enjoy your role as a father?

During the holidays I try as much as possible to be with them. I am lucky they are all in the boarding school, but at home when they come back during the holidays even if it is four hours, I will be at home, I will stay with them. We sit down, talk, dance, play music, watch movies even till 2 a.m. And mostly on weekends, I do sports with them because I have a gym in my house, share jokes with them, among others. They enjoy me whenever I am around, and when they are around, because they are not always around.

Are any of them taking after you as an Accountant?

For now, those of them in the university, one is studying law and the other is studying Engineering. I didn't dictate to them what they should study or not, even the one studying law said I influenced her and as soon as she finishes law she was going into Mass Communications. That's my first daughter. But Somtochukwu, who has done a lot of writing in the media and at home, said she would study Medicine or Pharmacy even though she appears to be a born writer. She still writes and would continue to be involved in writing.

Soon, you will retire from local government administration, what next? Politics?

Soon? I have nine years to go. I don't know, because I have not given it a thought. I am not cut out for politics and it is not the best consideration. My first consideration is to go home and relax and look for a higher institution where I would go and lecture, share my experiences with them and read the books I have kept. There are so many books I bought abroad I kept unread. The greatest knowledge a man has is the one upstairs, because no one will take it away from you. You can buy a car today and tomorrow it crashes, you can build a house today and tomorrow it is not there.

I always told my children to store their wealth upstairs as nobody can take that away from them. I have more than 250 books I bought that I have not read. I only read some in scratches.

What legacies would you like to be remembered for? Your advice for the youths?

My advice for the youths is that they should cool down because Rome was not built in a day. We started as nobody, quietly and lonely, but if you see us today you will think we accomplished this things in a day. It is not. They should take it coolly, work hard, and look unto God for He would surely grant your heart's desires. Quick money is not the best for anybody, because your own life is in danger. Cool down, work hard and you will achieve whatever you want in life.

For the legacies, I want it to be on record that I served humanity, my immediate environment and I hope I have left my foot prints on sands of time. My legacy is simply found in simplicity, accountability and transparency at all times, as much as I can.

How do you relax?
I relax even at work, that is my nature. I do my own work coolly without hassles. I work and share jokes, listen to music, walk around, laugh off tension and come back to work. In between work, I relax.

Last words?
My appreciation goes to Nigerian journalists who remained vibrant and dynamic in 2010. They exposed a lot of ills bedeviling this society, but I challenge them to put our democracy in proper perspective by not only defending democracy but celebrating those who are democratised. After x-raying the happenings of 2010, I gave the year to journalists, the Nigeria Press have come of age and I thank you for visiting our local government to interview me as Head of Local Government Administration.

We would continue to do our best at our level in promoting better life for our people in the spirit of ANIDS strategy of Governor Peter Obi, while urging you to continue to be a better watchdog in 2011.