Senator Athan Nneji Achonu is the Labour Party (LP) candidate for the November 11 governorship election in Imo State. In an interaction with select journalists, he speaks on a number of issues. ONYEKACHI EZE and JOHNCHUKS ONUANYIM were there
It is widely believed that you are just a placeholder. In other words, you are sponsored by Governor Hope Uzodinma for the governorship poll. How serious are you about winning the Imo State governorship election?
If I’m a journalist and they say somebody is a placeholder for the governor, it is my job to investigate the veracity of that claim. If Labour Party is said to be the party to beat in Imo, and Igboland for this election, especially in Imo, and I do a poll to try to gauge the feelings of the electorate to see where they are leaning towards, honestly, I will expect a Labour governorship candidate who wins the primary of his party to at least collect $20 million to sell out to Hope Uzodinma, not $1 million.
It is an insult; I expect that Hope Uzodinma will offer that candidate at least $20 million to step down for him because the man has almost won the election, without campaigning. Even in the last election, where did you see the candidate (the APC) won in the actual voting?
I am Athan Nneji Achonu, you can investigate me. You will find out my capacity, the level of contact I have in this country, which is more than his. The level of respect that I am accorded in this country, because of my integrity and my personality, which he (Uzodinma) doesn’t have.
How can I then collect only $1 million dollars to sell out as you claimed? It’s $100 million. If I’m that hungry now, if I’ve suddenly become hungry to be his placeholder, at least I should demand $100 million for God’s sake.
Why are you in the race for the governorship of Imo State? What do the people of the state expect from you, should you will this election?
To secure Imo for Imolites. I have to do that. I have often asked myself, why am I alive? Because I have been through so many things in my life. God protected me, saved me, kept me alive. I believe it is for this day. And I’m very very ready to take him (Uzodinma) on.
He doesn’t believe in voting. He has never really won any election. If you investigate properly, you see that he has never really won any election. I’m going to win against him in his local government. That I can guarantee you.
Can you give us a highlight of what your administration will do when you become governor? At least in summary. What should Imo people expect from your administration?
The first thing I’m going to do, I have been championing autonomy of local governments since Olusegun Obasanjo left the stage today. I have funded it; I have sponsored it. After being inaugurated, I will inaugurate a caretaker. The caretaker is not known to the Constitution, but just for six months to enable me, because I’m trying to set up an electoral umpire now for that purpose. So, I’m already working on it. So, they will work for six months.
We will have the freest and fairest election in black Africa, in Imo State. So, we need to lead by example, we will do that. Why am I insistent on local government autonomy? I have been saying that if you google so many interviews I have granted, go to YouTube, see a lot of them. I have always believed that it was since they hijacked the local government system that criminality came in.
You know the local governments used to build drainages; they used to grade roads and make money. But the moment governors started to pocket local government money, all hell broke loose. If you have a councilor elected by the people, because the people elected you to lead them as a councilor, they believe in you, that you have the integrity to protect their interests.
There is no way you will be an elected councilor and a criminal comes into that immediate environment and you will not notice; it will not be brought to your notice. That is why if you look at some of my billboards, I was advocating vigilante for communities and local governments. So, the first bill I’m going to send to the House of Assembly is to set up a vigilante, every local government will have their own vigilante, because N1 of their money, the state government will not know how it is spent.
Although we have to oversight capabilities through the House of Assembly. So I am going to work in partnership with all the arms of government, based on mutual respect. Now, I am going to, within the first one year, have gas obligations from the gas companies working in Imo State. Now they have just signed into law the act that state governments can produce their own power. So, we are going to go into partnership with power companies to give them the enabling environment. They will come and give us power 24/7 in Imo State, because without power, you can’t do anything.
We have mapped out six industrial layouts, two per geopolitical zone. Charity, they say, begins at home. So already my home is an industrial, agricultural processing zone. Oh, yes, I will use my personal resources. So, I’m going to enlarge it with government resources. So other people can come and invest. Some people can come and produce tomatoes, canning, and processing fish. I have a cattle stockade that can accommodate 5,000 cattle.
I’m now breeding Igbo native cows (ehi Igbo) because they are going extinct. So right now, I have 53; it is growing. I am buying more and more. So now my focus actually is job creation (and) industrialisation. That’s why I’m focusing on power. I have a license to operate a refinery. I will activate it, but now I’m going to sell it because I will not have the time for the next eight years, I will be busy. Running a refinery is not an easy business.
But I will encourage people to come and take it over, or get their own license, and have another refinery there. I’m going to create so many things. I have already completed plans with AfriExim Bank, and ADB, to support industries. I have the Imo Airport there, which I tried to take over as a private individual to activate, to become the hub for West Africa. I’m going to activate it.
I asked Hope Uzodinma, when he was Chairman of the Aviation Committee at the time, in the Senate to support me in that, but it didn’t work, he didn’t give me any support. So, you know when I talk, I say go and verify. So now I’m going to activate it. Look at Ghana, it is now the international hub for Africa. Ghana, as small as Imo State, because Lagos Airport has stopped growing. The city has surrounded it, no area, no room for expansion, unless you build somewhere else.
But here in Imo we have land, the Ngor Okpala has a lot of land. You can have phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four. I brought the people who built the airport, I engaged them, I paid them millions to come and do a study for me, to take it over. Jonathan gave me to go ahead. But before you know it, all the land around it has been acquired by government just because I was involved.
So, I just kept away. So now all those things, all those ideas I have, I’m going to bring them into play to create a lot of job opportunities. Look at Orlu, they are pharmaceutical people. I approached Or- ange Drug, he doesn’t support me, he is there to answer this, for people to go and verify. I approach him, I got banks to finance it. I wanted to do a pharmaceutical park in that area, so that we create the enabling environment, investors will now come.
And I approached him, I told him about it, I invited him to talk about it at that time, long time ago now. So, all those things are in the kitty. There are two things I have said, that I explained in details. Government is already trying to now larch onto it. But that’s fine. If it can be done in these two months, I’ll be very, very happy. Honestly, I will be very very happy. What we are after is development, a way to create opportunities for young people.
For example, as a private person, I’ve set up a studio now in my village. We invite young musicians who are talented, who are experts with instruments, talents, who don’t have money to record themselves. When they come and play there and we like their music, in fact, I engaged one of my Personal Assistant in the village n o w f o r that purpose. When we like the music, we record them on credit. So, we now, after sales, we collect our cost of recording, then we give them their profit so that they can grow from there.
Also, we have a plan for sports as well because that is the thing that is making our young people generate income that are not direct employment. We can train them, give them the opportunity to excel and then they go from there. Sports academies, we are working on it now, we are going around to the whole of state to sensitise the youth, football clubs, sports activists so that once we take over we hit the ground running. That is why we are doing all these things now, sensitising the people and so on.
Distinguished, you will be confronted with what people regard as ‘huge debt’ profile of Imo State, if you secure the people’s mandate on November 11. How are planning to handle this?
This huge debt profile of the state is unbelievable. There are people who have been owed six years’ salary from the last time. When this government came, they said that they have found a lot of ghost workers, as a result there are so many people who have been laid off; people who have been working all their lives.
And three years now going to four years, no salary. And then pensioners. That will be a very big headache for any incoming government. Then the money that has been borrowed is unbelievable. The huge debt profile of the state, only a mad man like me can go there because I know what I can create.
For me, as a private individual, I make money from the air. I use my brain, I create businesses. So, I’m going to do that for the state; I’m going to find a way for it to survive. But I’ve told them, those pensioners and workers, I said we can’t pay it overnight. We will now start a gradual process with a timeline to pay all the debt. But it has to be gradual. And look, we are now number 24 in education; from third, first three. We are now 24th.
Education w i l l be our major focus because if you are not educated you can’t have workers. You have to go outside to bring your workforce. So, we even have to first re-educate our teachers, because all of them have run away. They are in New Zealand; they are in Australia. Teachers have jappered. So, we have to re-educate, and retool them.
A lot of promises have been made about women empowerment, but you find out they are mere lip services. Are we going to see anything different if you become governor?
Our women are very hardworking, very, very resilient. In my life, I have had that experience. I have had to trust women a lot; I have had to rely on them for survival in my business. I am sure of that. Do you know why I always work with women? They carry out problems, even though we suffer a lot.
I was giving somebody an example of what men go through, but women carry a lot of pain. These children that we have, it’s always their headache and their pain. When the children go out, from the moment they leave the house, the concern of the children will be in their brain until the moment they step back into the house.
That is the same way they see us, their husbands. When they love you and you bring food home, when you step out, you will be stuck in their head, you will be their headache until you come back. I have lived with that as a young man growing up. I understand that. And that is why they boss us. Yes, they are very bossy. I allow them to boss me in my business, I will also allow them to boss us in the government. So, I’m going to give women a lot of opportunities as governor.
Related to this are the youths. What plans do you have for the youths of Imo State?
We have plans for the youths. Someone has mentioned the sports academy. In addition to that, we also plan to develop our youths, especially in the area of ICT. What we have planned for them is to see that we turn Imo State into the next Silicon Valley of Africa, which is very doable. A whole lot of us are aware of what the young people are doing now from home, even with their phones.
We see that are happening in Yaba, and nothing stops us from bringing that home and ensuring that we are able to mainstream our young people in ICT. And part of the initiative is actually what the current administration has attempted to steal, which is not working, but because we have the original manuscript, which is to develop 10,000 coders. What we call the IT E-Kiosks where every local government will be interconnected, even amongst themselves.
There is going to be a peer- to-peer connectivity and interaction amongst them, and we hope to get the very best of. Those in the IT software companies and the rest of them to come in and help our young resource develop that. By so doing, we would also think of how much that will add to our GDP, especially coming from the young people, because yes, we talk about restiveness amongst the young, but you don’t expect them to do anything when you have not created an enabling environment for that to thrive.
In the health sector, the former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha started something. The health system he did across the 27 local governments would have actually turned Imo State into a medical tourism center. That would have done a lot of good. It would have revolutionised healthcare in Nigeria. That vision was amazing but the implementation was flawed.
One would have expected that successive administrations, if not for what we have always had, where a new person goes in and then jettison everything the other administration has done, even if it was a good project. But in this case, looking at that project, most of you would agree with me that Imo would have been the center of medicare in Nigeria if that project saw the light of the day; one would have rationally thought that other former governors or successive administrations would have worked on it, probably you know, rejig and make it work.
What would it have taken getting world-class health management firms hand it over, concession it to them? By so doing, you could have a renal center in Obowo; you have heart transplants in Mbitolu: different, specialised facilities you know; you have ENT, and specialists in different parts of the state. What we record in the country as medi- cal flights is a whole lot, and that revenue alone would have been coming to Imo State.
I mean, Imo is already a place many people want to come and see. So, adding up all of these infrastructures would have been amazing. And I can tell you that the team we have, we have commissioned an erudite team of professionals that are already working on all of this area. So, we are hitting the ground running about our youths.
And when we talk about our youths, women are also included in the youths because we are going to have our girls also doing a whole lot of things. We want to see what is happening in Yaba and replicate it in every local government, we will have a software developer and start earning in hard currency.
How will you describe the administration of Governor Hope Uzodinma in the past three to four years? And do you have any empirical evidence to support the way you describe it?
Number one, the only thing people say he has done is road. But those roads are tax credit, it is not state money. So where is his state money? Where is the state money? The road that Muhammadu Buhari came and commissioned has collapsed. There is no road anywhere inside Owerri; no road, no internal road in the entire Owerri. Just drive from IMSU, to Mbaise-Owerri road. Try to connect and see. That is what Buhari commissioned.
It doesn’t exist anymore; it has been washed out. So, this road now that he’s build- ing, they are tax credit. You know, this is something this big companies do. For example, let me tell you what they do like this Owerri-Umuahia road that is ongoing. Information available to us says that it is Seplat (that is doing it); it is their own tax credit, you know it, Dangote, all these big companies (do that). Instead of paying tax, they bring the money, you apply it on road.
But the companies are allowed to do that, and they do it well. They choose the construction company. But I hear that in this case, the other ones were started before he took over. You know, they were initiated before he took over. Now, this one that was initiated under his watch, see the progress there.
I hear, I’m not sure, but I hear that the money was given out, that is the rumour mill, and that state themselves awarded it. And you can see the progress on that road. Even the small places that have been done, they have all failed. So, I don’t know what he has done except not being able to protect lives; not being able to protect lives and property. In a society, when somebody commits a crime, you arrest them and prosecute them.
You don’t come out with helicopter gunship to bomb them, bomb their houses. It’s not done anywhere in the world. If they are doing oil bunkering. What about people mining diamonds and lithium (elsewhere in the country). Look at the mine sites, nobody is arresting them, nobody is bombing them, nobody is attacking them.
There is the news going round that you were awarded contract to build health centers in Nigeria and it was embezzled, and this, they said runs into billions?
I saw it in the press that I have embezzled the entire budget. I’m sure Tony Nwulu (his running mate) forgot when he was talking about the health centre, the hospital. Well, we have built and they are equipped right now. I think there are 26 health centres. They are like mini-hospitals, cottage hospitals in Imo State.
There is only one local government that we have not been concluded. So, the idea, like you said, is we will not have these centres we are talking about in senatorial zones; in each senatorial zone, we will not have a referral hospital. All of them are fully equipped. And why they have abandoned them is because I built them.
In fact, there was one in the Owerri Municipal, when Rochas Okorocha was governor of Imo State, Mrs. Patience Jonathan wanted to come and commission it. He said that there was no health center, and that I didn’t build anything, because she can’t come without clearing from people. So, she didn’t come for that commissioning. But it’s running. The (health) centre is there behind my hotel, behind Owerri Municipal Council.
It is there, fully equipped, with doctors’ quarters, some domestic quarters. All of them are the same design across the 774 local governments. And about the embezzlement, like I said earlier, if I had embezzled any money, the governors have been fighting me over the project because they believe that LGA money is their pocket money.
If I had embezzled any money, they will be using microscope. The EFCC has investigated me three times. In fact, they have seen the colour of my underpants. If I had taken one Kobo, I’m sure I would not be here talking today. That also shows that the government of the day is scared of my emergence because immediately I emerged, all manners of rumours started flying around.
And my good friend, oh my God, I sympathise with my good friend, the Executive Governor of Imo State, very handsome man, he has lost half of his weight. Honestly, he needs to start sleeping some more so that he can enjoy his retirement.