WE NEED ELECTORAL REFORM, NOT SNC -AGBASO, IMO DEP GOV
It was somewhat fortuitous that the day fixed by the Supreme Court to rule on the appeal brought before it by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) against the election of Imo State governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, fell on the day that late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was interred.
When the Court ruled that Okorocha was duly elected, the ambition of Chief Ikedi Ohakim to return to Douglas House was buried with the beloved warlord, who in his lifetime was like the driving force behind the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), the platform from which Okorocha emerged.
His election clearly demonstrated the desire of the people for change through the ballot box, and the need for the people's vote to be considered somewhat sacred and key to sustenance of true democracy in the country. With the benefit of hindsight, Imo State Deputy Governor, Sir Jude Agbaso says that the clamour for Sovereign National Conference is a quest that is 'neither here nor there' given that the present electoral system is fundamentally flawed as '419' politicians easily manipulate the process. He argues that what the country really needs now is a reform process that allows the people to freely elect their representatives to the National Assembly, which then amends the Constitution in an evolutionary manner to produce the most desirable provisions encapsulating all the issues being canvassed by proponents of SNC.
In this interview, he talks more on this and the strides made so far by the Okorocha administration. Excerpts…
The concept of the fourth tier in Imo State (community government) is somewhat alien to the Nigerian Constitution. What exactly is it and why did it become necessary to create the fourth tier?
The fourth tier of government is the brainchild of Governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha. The governance philosophy of Rochas is encapsulated in a document called 'Rochanomics'. In this economic blueprint, governance is centred on three core elements. The first is commitment, which is interpreted to mean the sheer will of the government and the capacity to direct things and insist on those things being done and to be committed to the cause you are following.
The second and extremely important component of Rochanomics is decentralization. What has happened in this country is that for a very long time, power has been centred in the hands of one person or a few people. The resultant effect is that the people are looking up to one source of power. And that source of power has to be 'omnipotent, omnipresent, ubiquitous' to be able to actually function. It is not human and proper for that single power to exist there and dole out largesse. Only God is omnipotent and omnipresent. So the system of governance is built on a simple principle that the bottom must be big and the top small. So there is complete decentralization. You will agree with me that the present local government system has failed us because it hasn't taken the dividends of democracy to the grassroots; it hasn't taken development there, it hasn't taken civilization to the rural communities.
So the fourth tier of government is an attempt to take development to the masses - the people who matter the most and live in our various communities, be they urban or rural. Every person comes from a community. The local government system is a creation of the colonial past. People now look at government as some entity up there while the people are down here. In Igbo land, everything belongs to the community. If you embezzle N1 billon belonging to the government, people will initially be angry, but after a while they will rationalize the wrong act and say the money belongs to the government. But if you misappropriate N5000 given to your community, the people in the community will never forgive you. They will pour scorn on you until you produce the money. You will lose face, be treated with contempt and face opprobrium. People take a serious interest in the affairs of their communities. Therefore, the fourth tier of government is actually community government. It is community-based, where the people in the community will be empowered to do things for themselves.
They will beautify their environment; fix their roads, take care of their schools and run their primary health facilities. Igbo people are an enterprising people; we can't wait on anybody. We have always had a communal spirit and that is being keyed into and it is yielding results. That's why you see roads coming up in all communities in Imo State. Then one day, all these roads will be linked together and we will have one huge 'community' called Imo State. It cannot fail. You will notice that crime has gone down in the state. Kidnapping is disappearing; you would wonder why it is disappearing - the simple explanation is that this is one of the rewards of the fourth tier of government. All armed robbers come from communities and are relations of people. Every community is now in-charge of their security.
The vigilante groups in the community know everybody - you cannot come in and do anything without the support of the people there. So the fourth tier government has strengthened community policing. Self-policing is the best way of maintaining security in communities. If you say armed robbers won't rob your community, of course, they won't rob you because you will close ranks. Community governance is happening smoothly; it is yielding results and our people are happy. We are a community of people who like to do things by ourselves and for ourselves anyhow. These communities are not just for the rural enclaves. We have organized even the urban centres in communities. Examples are Ikenegbu, Aladinma and Federal Housing estates, all in Owerri metropolis. If you visit these places, we are building gates to enhance community policing.
There is a growing clamour for Sovereign National Conference. How do you feel about this?
As an individual, I subscribe to the fact that what should be done is to strengthen the electoral system - make every man's vote count. If you freely elect your representative to go to the Senate or the House, you have legislative representation already. Besides, you already have a document, the Constitution. It might not be the most perfect document. But we will continue to amend it.
It is a matter of taking out what we don't need and adding what we need - amend as much as you can until you achieve the perfect document. If you now say Sovereign National Conference, my question is, who goes to the SNC? Who represents who at the SNC? If you want Imo or Ogun State to come to the SNC, how do they get the people who go to the conference? Do you start another round of elections to choose people to go there? Meanwhile, you have chosen people to represent you. If you don't like the process that produced these people, if you don't like what they are doing, if you think that they are not the proper representatives, then create a situation where proper and correct representation is ensured. Look at the present government of Imo for example. The people came together in 2011 and elected a government of their choice.
And insisted that these people will be their representatives because they chose the people they want to govern them. That is why we can make sacrifices in Imo State. That is why we are committed, because we are in tune with the people who elected us. Once you create a situation where the people's choices are representing them, then those so elected can go to the centre, make good laws for them, change old laws if need be, work with the document that is our Constitution, and continue to improve on it till we get it to the point where it serves the need of giving us good governance. That is my take on that. Look at America, from where we borrowed the presidential system.
The electoral system is open and transparent, right from the primaries to choose candidates and up to the actual balloting; they went through a process of amending their constitution several times until they got to where they are today. If we go through the same process by electing the right people into the National Assembly to amend the Constitution as we want it to be, then the clamour for the SNC is neither here nor there. My position on this matter is quite clear - any form of national conference that requires mandatorily as it were, the participation of all federating units of our sovereign entity, must be grounded on proper and legally accepted representation. If you must have another gathering of the nation outside the National Assembly, how do you ensure proper and equitable representation? How can all voices and concerns be heard?
I think that we should focus more on getting to the root cause of the problem and solve the problem. As I said earlier, who represents who at the SNC? How do you choose your representatives? That will throw up its own problems whereby the wrong people will be chosen to represent the wrong people and achieve the wrong result again. So the answer is not in convoking sovereign national conferences. How many of them are you going to convoke and to what effect? So the clamour for sovereign national conference in my opinion is not Nigeria's biggest problem.
Do you therefore feel that the call for SNC is a dead idea, ab initio?
I do not know if it's dead or alive. I merely gave an opinion.
The Okorocha administration claims that it came to rescue Imo. In practical terms, what has it achieved in the last eight months or so?
During the electioneering campaign, we had the opportunity to traverse the whole length and breadth of Imo State. Even prior to that His Excellency, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, went all over the state and assessed the state of infrastructure in the state - in terms of roads, hospitals, school system, housing and the general urban and rural situation. All these were in very serious state of decay and dilapidation. And of course, the outcry of the people for change was quite loud. The people yearned for a rescue intervention, a call that Okorocha took up.
As team members, we joined in the crusade. I must say it has been extremely infectious and the result is what you see today.
In real terms, we have moved from one physical expression to the other. In the beginning the problem was: now that the rescue has taken off, what would happen? Every one knew that the roads were bad, the schools in bad shape, etc. The question on everybody's lips last year was when the re-engineering was going to start? Today, the question we hear from people is, how will the government get the money to pay for what it has undertaken? Because we are building so many roads, so many schools are being built, hospitals and new development centres in the rural communities. Construction of all kinds of infrastructure is going on. The question is, where is the money coming from? Today, there are credible indicators that you can physically see on the ground.
Anybody who had the opportunity of being in Owerri city about 18 months ago would have noticed that there had developed traffic jam in the city centre. So when the administration came in, we intervened to alleviate the situation. That's why we created bypasses at strategic points throughout the city, to ease traffic in the city centre. Take for instance, the Warehouse Junction (Orlu road by Assumpta Avenue), which is like the convergence point for all vehicles coming into Owerri from Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Orlu. We had to open a new road from this point that cuts across the old Imo Hotel, through Nworie Street to Aba Road. This will take all the traffic of traders and businessmen commuting between the commercial centres of Aba, Onitsha, Orlu and Port Harcourt. Automatically, it eased the traffic. Besides, we have continued with the ring road project initiated by the last administration.
Are you saying that this administration did not abandon the ring road project?
Oh, no! Why would you abandon it? It was a good project; the thing was just that the past administration paid lip service to it. The ring road actually existed during the Sam Mbakwe administration. It was not a new thing. It had already been cut open by the Mbakwe administration about 30 years ago. The ring road is a road span of more than 30 kilometers. The past administration only did 4km of asphalting. When we came into office, we invited the contractor and re-negotiated the contract because the original contract was awarded at highly inflated rate just like all the others.
That's not the rate of the present administration. We are doing things more efficiently. We are pricing properly; there is no bribery involved; there are no kickbacks; there is no 10, 15 or 20 per cent involved - a malady that was prevalent in the past. You cannot bribe me; I have no business taking public money; you cannot bribe the governor either. And if you cannot bribe us, that means you can't give money to the civil servants. If you do that and you are caught, the full weight of the law will come down on you. Besides, you would be wasting your time anyhow because the buck stops at my table. So even if you bribe the civil servants, it is a waste of resources because eventually you will get the work done to our satisfaction.
So why would you throw away your money? We have drastically cut down on the cost of constructing roads and this has reduced the excess profits contractors used to make in the past. Now, having that at the back of our mind, the contract for the ring road was re-negotiated and we continued working on the project. A lot of progress is being made. Moreover, we started re-constructing several of the old roads that were long neglected from the Buhari-Babangida-Abacha military era up to the Udenwa-Ohakim period. The roads in housing estates like Aladinma, Federal Housing and Trans-Egbu had completely failed and become almost impassable. So we started reconstructing the myriad of roads in the metropolis. Today, drivers now have alternative routes to use to reach their destination. And what you do to one neighbourhood, you must also do to the other neighbourhoods. While many roads and side streets in Owerri have been attended to, work is ongoing on many others within the metropolis.
The same is applicable to Orlu. About 18 months ago, it didn't look anything like a city in the Third Millennium, in terms of roads. And something drastic had to be done. You can't just make roads to join villages; rather you build roads to join cities. In fact, the massive road construction work being done in Orlu today is aimed at speeding Orlu city into the Third Millennium. We are entirely re-constructing the roads. There are no quick fixes as far as Orlu is concerned. We started by earmarking some roads for dualization; we brought a new plan and that is what we are executing. Doing this meant that some structures in the alignment of the roads had to be pulled down. And the people freely and warmly welcomed the demolition exercise. At one time, Orlu town was one huge ruble that took us months to clear up. But we are excited that work on road construction is in progress. The same thing is happening in Okigwe.
The average road that we are building is going to last for more than 15 years. These are no quick fixes. I told you earlier that all the tricks played with respect to contracts have gone. We make our roads well. There are specifications given out to the contractors with which they construct the roads. There is serious supervision on a daily basis to make sure that those specifications are adhered to by the contractors. And of course we are instituting a road maintenance regime.
The extensive demolition of structures has thrown up the issue of compensation. How soon will the government start compensating people whose buildings were demolished to make way for these new roads?
It would start very soon. Let me tell you this: for every structure that was demolished, detailed photographs were taken. Inventories of the items destroyed were taken. The people whose properties were demolished were also identified; everybody was carried along. There was no arbitrary demolition. The people agreed with the intention of the government and gave their total support. We have mapped out ways and means of ensuring that everybody is taken care of. That is going to happen. We are working towards a win-win situation. One thing this administration has enjoyed is the confidence and support of the people, including the contractors working in the state. I can tell you confidently that there is a renewed spirit to build Imo State. It is almost like the excitement that came with the creation of the state in 1976.
What are the details of the free education scheme and how will the government sustain the cost of running this huge programme?
If you ask me, I think that we are running the leanest government in the country. The whole rescue agenda is based on three major stands: sacrifice, commitment and decentralization. At the inception of the administration, the governor sacrificed 4 billion that could have accrued to him as security vote so that free education can be funded and Imo children can go to school wearing their own sandals, school uniforms, etc. When that was saved, it was carefully handled. The contracts in Imo are not frivolously given. The profit margins might not be the highest in the world, but the contractors are happy with it. And they are performing; jobs are being created in the process and efficiency is heightened.
I can tell you that roads which the last administration could have awarded at a cost of N250 million per kilometer, we achieve the same result and even better with just N100 or 120 million per kilometer (depending on the nature of the terrain). So there are huge savings everywhere. Everyone understands that all those frivolous seminars, daily travel allowance (DTA) and all kinds of expenses the politicians and civil servants took in the past are dead. If you travel now, the purpose must be essential to government business. That is absolutely necessary. You don't just wake up and start doing any of those things. The cost of government has been reduced. And the savings are being directed to the cost of doing good by the people - buying school books, sandals, school bags, paying teachers, providing desks, new school buildings, etc. That is what government is meant for and the savings are being deployed accordingly. The same goes for roads, health, etc.
For more than three decades, Adapalm was unproductive, and never made profit at anytime for the government. When this administration came in, probably because it had the favour of God and the astute managerial acumen of the governor and his team, we were able to negotiate a concession for 15 years to an Irish firm that paid N3.2 billion for Adapalm. For the next 15 years, the government will be paid every year and employment will be created at the same time. Adapalm is being modernized with new equipment brought in by the Irish firm. Today, Adapalm is up and running and has made money for the government.
The Achike Udenwa administration renovated Concorde Hotel at a cost of N480 million and then concessioned it to Rhas Nigeria Limited, which ran it for 12 years all through Udenwa's and Ohakim's tenures. But at the end of the day, Imo State was owing N450 million to the company. So instead of making profit, the government was losing money. But right now, Concorde is already making money while it is being renovated. This time around, the government is managing it directly.
Let me take you back to Adapalm, and note that Malaysia, the world's largest producer of palm oil, earns far more income from processing raw palm oil into all kinds finished products (toilet soap, margarine, esters for industrial application, etc).
Are we likely to see Adapalm move beyond the primary level of producing palm oil?
That is exactly where the government is headed. If you bring a company with the processing capacity, that is what happens. We cannot just ship out the raw material and continue in that mold. I have just given a few examples of how money is being realized and how it is being properly managed. It is not the paucity of funds that is the main problem, rather if people in governance are honest and transparent, a few naira here and there will definitely have a good mileage.
The government talks about industrialization, but how would it succeed without a reliable independent power project in the state?
At present the government is not pursuing any independent power project. But we understand that there is real need to generate electricity. We understand that the absence of regular power supply is the bane of our economy. We are very industrious people; we know what regular power supply will do to an economy populated by a people like the indigenes of Imo. The independent power project is something that is still on the drawing table and we have continued to think and tinker with it.
Several states have tried to build independent power plants with very little success; so IPP is something we are treading very carefully so that we can benefit from hindsight and the experience of people who have gone into it in the past. Of course with everyday that passes, there are more sophisticated and better ways of achieving stable and adequate power supply to drive industrialization of the state. We are working assiduously at it.