Interviews & Guests on African Outlook
‘We Could Afford to Enrich Ourselves and Go in 2015, But We’ve Chosen to Cry Out’ - Gov Amaechi
‘We Could Afford to Enrich Ourselves and Go in 2015, But We’ve Chosen to Cry Out’ - Gov Amaechi
In this exclusive interview with Festus Eriye and Femi Macaulay of The Nation Newspaper, Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi fielded questions on recent developments in the Nigerian political landscape. It was a free-rolling meeting with the journalists. Excerpts:
The NATION: DID you ever think the day will come when the discussion will be about you leaving the PDP?
Gov Amaechi: Yes, I knew. First and foremost, I didn’t think that PDP was progressive enough. Don’t forget that by the time I came back, PDP had already expelled me from the party when I was in Ghana. It was when I came that they now began to run around to reinstate my membership and by then the opposition was weak. But now the opposition is as progressive as they can be and beginning to build up.
So it won’t be a bad idea to join them in building a very strong opposition in as much as they will remain progressive. If they are going to be a replacement of PDP, then there is no basis joining them. I am not in this battle for what I can get. I’m governor. I am blessed enough by God. I have been the Speaker, I become governor. I should be able for the rest of my life by God’s grace, to fend for myself.
But the struggle is not about myself, it is about the society, it’s about the Nigerian community. Why should Nigeria that other countries used to come and beg for our assistance, be the one now begging other small countries around. Something is wrong and a wind of change is playing; so we should just support the wind of change.
The NATION: You keep talking in terms of struggle, but there are lots of people who don’t understand what this fight between you, the president and the PDP is all about. For many people it’s just a battle of egos. Can you distill it for the average person to understand?
Gov Amaechi: What ego do I have against the president? The president is the president of the county; he is the strongest Nigerian living. Who am I to want to compete? If it is ego I will submit right now and will go to the president’s office and lie on the ground. Do you know what it means to be a president? He has attained an achievement that very few persons can attain in Nigeria. So you must respect him for that and I respect the president for that.
No matter what anybody says about the president, the mere fact that he has gotten to the presidency by the grace of God and his hardwork, you can’t undermine that. But having said that, the struggle is not about President Goodluck Jonathan; it is about the system, it is about the country. It is about the kind of system he is running. He can change it and tomorrow see me being submissive.
So what the struggle is about is that the president must look at the system, see what is going on, the level of corruption and say ‘look there’s a break’. If I see the break I will support him for 2015. If I see a clean break from the past, if he can chart that course, I will support him. But I have not seen it and that’s the problem. There must be a total break.
The NATION: How did you find yourself in the PDP in the first place?
I found myself in the PDP because in Nigeria I don’t think there’s a party with ideology yet. It is now we are beginning to see APC looking as if it is becoming slightly ideological. What we had as parties were just platforms for elections and I chose the platform that everybody was running towards.
The NATION: What would it have cost you if you had not challenged the leadership that didn’t want you to run as chairman of the NGF? If you had played their way would you have lost anything?
Gov Amaechi: Yes, my sanity! I would have lost my sanity. I have told the president before… when am challenged the best comes out of me. The party didn’t even talk to me, they didn’t even say don’t run.
The NATION: But the signs were clear?
Gov Amaechi: What signs were those? So anybody who just says that I know the president, I know the chairman of the party, ‘don’t run’ then you’ll say that’s the party. There has to be a party meeting. I am a member of the national executive council of the party. They should have discussed it at the national executive council meeting where the governors will be present. If that decision was made and I disobeyed it, then you will say I went against the party’s decision. There was none.
The NATION: Did the president at any point in time make clear to you that he did not want you to run?
Gov Amaechi: No, he didn’t speak to me
The NATION: What about the body language?
Gov Amaechi: Am I a body language reader?
The NATION: Did the party chairman convey to you that the president did not…
Gov Amaechi: I say nobody! I was just hearing rumors. Apart from rumors my colleagues – the governors – will come and tell me ‘President called me today and said I shouldn’t vote for you. Not that I shouldn’t run. Okay, yes! Liyel did visit me one day… he didn’t tell how he got it but told me ‘please don’t run.’ I told him ‘keep that to yourself.’ I left Liyel’s house at about 11:00p.m that night. I called three of my friends and I said I am leaving Liyel’s house by past 11 to Port Harcourt, if anything happens to me just have this information. I am driving back. I entered my car and drove that night… in fact I would have skidded off the road because I was extremely exhausted and I was driving and battling with sleep. But I still drove and got to Port Harcourt at 1:00 a.m and slept off.
The NATION: It is said that all politics is local. What is it about you and the First Lady Patience Jonathan – because she seems to be a major factor in this crisis?
Gov Amaechi: I have said it severally; she wants to control Rivers State government and I don’t think she’s elected. There can’t be two governors in a state. You can control the Minister of State for Education, that’s your…
The NATION: What’s do you mean by control? She wants to have a say in who you appoint or…
Gov Amaechi: She wants to have a say in the government. Just know that she wants to have a say. I don’t want to go beyond that; that will become too explicit. There are things that you have to keep as the governor. Just know that she wants to control the government of River State, that’s all.
The NATION: So that’s at the core…
Gov Amaechi: Beginning and end of the story.
The NATION: You look rather harmless but…
Gov Amaechi: (Cuts in) I am very harmless. (Laughter)
The NATION: Specifically Mrs. Jonathan has two charges against you: she said you are arrogant and have a bad temper…
Gov Amaechi: (Laughter) I have never heard that. I have never heard her say that. Are you sure you don’t …..
The NATION: And that if you could play down…
Gov Amaechi: (Laughter) She even accused me of beating my wife and I said to my wife: ‘you know I have never tried it before and you’ve never asked me why I would try beating you up. The reason I will never try this is because I don’t know whether you’ll beat me up. (Laughter) I don’t know who is stronger and the only way you can know who is stronger is to try it.
Supposing I have tried it now and I got beaten up, my ego would have been badly bruised (Laughter). I don’t want to find out so let us remain as peaceful as we have been. I have never beaten up a woman before. Never!
For so many reasons: the first is you don’t know whether I’m strong or not. The second reason is you must respect womanhood. She’s not a punching bag; she’s equally a human being like you. If she says I have a bad temper, what kind of temper? That you don’t agree with things that don’t go with your principles. If she has a superior argument, I will bow to that argument. But if it is not a superior argument, I will not bow to that argument.
The NATION: In the course of several interviews you have talked about how federal authorities took oil wells from River State and gave to Bayelsa. Just reading between the lines it’s almost as if it was the president himself who gave them to Bayelsa. Is that possible?
Gov Amaechi: I don’t want to discuss who took it or not. Just know that they have taken our oil wells to Bayelsa. If you see the documents that were filed by the Federal Government… if you looked at what the Federal Government filed they said it was a mistake that they made and they wanted to correct the mistake. So why haven’t they corrected it? They don’t need any of the parties.
If you come to court to say this 2007 map of Nigeria… there’s been a map of Nigeria since 1960 and then in 2007 you change the map and take part of Rivers State into Bayelsa. When we complained you said it was a mistake and you’ll correct it. Why haven’t you corrected it since? Do you need River State government and Bayelsa State government to sit down and correct the map? All we are saying is just go back to that map to be what it used to be; that’s what we are talking about. We are not talking about taking oil well or not taking oil well; go back to the old map.
The NATION: Could you be more specific as to your political philosophy? What actually defines your ideology if you have one?
Gov Amaechi: From the way I speak, don’t you think I have one? (Laughter) You don’t believe? Eh? You don’t think I have one? I’m asking you.
The NATION: (Laughter) I wouldn’t know…
Gov Amaechi: Then you have a problem. It is possible that actually politicians can just be speaking the way they are speaking because that’s what they think will attract sympathy for them. It is possible; a lot of people do that. I have seen people who theorise on Marxism just because they want to be part of a government and when they are appointed they are not able to meet that principle and standard.
You can even ask actually whether I live a Marxist life. I just believe that the ideas I have are progressive and I live that life. I believe that we have no business having the kind of resources that we have in the country and we can’t manage them well to turn the country around. I believe that we have no reason to… in 1970/71 the poverty index used to be 30 percent and by 2011/2012/2013 the poverty index is 70 percent. Something is wrong!
We should be reversing the 30 percent downwards, not progressive growth. That’s what worries me. We can’t have reduced corruption a bit under Gen. Obasanjo and then we are at the apex of corruption in 2013. Something is wrong and the corruption is with impunity. Now you see politicians buy houses and go to inspect them in the day time with soldiers and police.
Under Obasanjo people were hiding to even buy bungalow where they would live after office. But now they buy it openly. And when they are going, they go with siren, they go with police, SSS and soldiers to inspect the house they are constructing! They build mansions street by street: something is wrong. I should be asking you as journalists what have you done?
While that is going on, the states are not able to receive their due. We are in court with the Federal Government on oil subsidy; we are in court with the Federal Government on excess crude. That’s why they fought the Nigeria Governor’s Forum because we asked these questions. By January this year excess crude account was about 9 billion dollars, today it’s 4.3 billion. What has happened to the 5 billion dollars?
Somebody has tampered with it and the Federal Government should be able to account. The level of impunity when it comes to corruption is something else. Imagine the case of the Aviation Minister … and then some people are queuing up and protesting in the street saying ‘she’s from our town, don’t prosecute her.’ So corruption has ethnicity? This country baffles me.
The NATION: Aren’t you embarrassed that you are in that company?
Gov Amaechi: I don’t have a choice. Someone has asked me before what prompted me to run for office; why did I join politics. They said other governors when asked said because they wanted to serve. I said ‘who told you I joined politics to serve?’ I told the person I didn’t join to serve. I finished university, no job and I thought this was where my bread would be buttered and I started the struggle. And my bread has been buttered.
So it is my turn to contribute to those people who have buttered my bread. I convert that desire to serve myself first to now begin to serve the people. So from day one, what propelled me wasn’t the service of the people but service to myself and then after that, I started serving the people. Having gotten to that point where… look I owe this nation, I owe this state; I owe the people who have helped me out of unemployment… Don’t forget that unemployment as we are talking now is 23 percent. Under Yar’Adua it was 20, under Goodluck it raised to 23 percent.
People are suffering, the way I was suffering before I got employed by the people. Not everybody can be this lucky; God has not blessed all of us equally. If God has blessed us equally then all of us by now would be sitting in this hotel as I am sitting and then that’s a wonderful world. You can be an agent in the hands of God to begin to change the lives of the people.
You don’t change the lives of the people by putting your hands in the pocket. That is why pressmen and people that follow me call me ‘Armstrong.’ It is because if I give you money now what will you do with it? But if I change the economy that you can on your own not depend on me, produce what will give you your daily income, then you don’t need me. But if I give you money you will be dependent on me, once the money finishes, you will want to ring again and say let’s go and visit the governor. Then you can’t question how badly or how well I am governing. Can you?
So it helps to give you that freedom to be able to question governance. I think that my contribution to the growth of the country will be to reverse this trend where people are dependent on governors and public officers.
The NATION: You touched on the economy and in the last couple of months governors like you have said that the country was virtually broke…
Gov Amaechi: I said it as chairman of the Governors Forum.
The NATION: The Finance Minister said Nigeria is not broke; we just have cash flow issues. Who should we believe?
Gov Amaechi: She didn’t say that.
The NATION: What did she say?
Gov Amaechi: She said Nigeria is not broke. Two weeks or one month after, Bright Okogwu, my friend, under cross examination in the National Assembly said we are not broke but we are cash-strapped. If you are cash-strapped what does it mean? I asked an economist what that meant and he said you can’t back you expenditure with cash. What is broke?
The NATION: You don’t have money (Laughter)…
Gov Amaechi: That’s one signal. The second signal is you are not able to pay the states their dues. Last month I was paid 14 billion and I was entitled to 19.
The NATION: How bad is it?
Gov Amaechi: I have just given you an example. I was entitled to 19 billion last month and I was paid 14. What does it mean? I have lost five billion. Do you know how many roads I would have done with 5 billion? My wage bill is 8.9. If you take out that, I would have been left with 5.1. So if you added the other 5, I would have been left with 10.1.
The NATION: How do we get out of this? There’s this criticism of governors every month going to Abuja to pick up a cheque. From your end what are you doing to …
Gov Amaechi: I have an IGR that gives me between four and six billion in a month. When I came it was 2.5. Now we get between 4 and 6 billion; it depends on how bad it is, but that is not enough. You are running a government which you have to do so many projects: you are into agriculture not because you want to farm but because you want to create an alternative economy. When we came we had said that we would try and run three different economies. We would run the education economy and you can see the investment we are doing in education. We would run an agriculture economy and an ICT economy plus the oil economy.
We are doing well in the education and agriculture. We are not doing too well in the ICT economy; oil is not within our control. If you check nearly all the states, the governors are now more patriotic than anybody. We are the only people shouting in this country that there is corruption. Show me any other person? The businessmen have joined. They are part of what is going on at the federal level. If the president is traveling to Ghana, every businessman will just move to Ghana. If he’s going to Cotonou, everybody will go to Cotonou.
So the only people who are now saying things are going wrong are the governors. Was it like that in the past? Things are actually wrong because ordinarily before, they used to accuse governors that they were stealing, but now it is governors that are now saying ‘no, no, they are stealing, they are stealing.’ Are you not worried?
The NATION: Aren’t you saying these things just because…
Gov Amaechi: (Cuts in) Please! Please! Don’t forget that we started saying that before they stopped giving us the actual amount. We went to court on excess crude more than two-three years ago. We have gone to court on oil subsidy. We filed our case on oil subsidy since December; Federal Government has not responded till today. Under Yar’Adua, the highest he spent on oil subsidy in a year was 300 billion.
The first year under President Goodluck Jonathan we spent 2.3 billion. The second year we spent 1.2 trillion. Only God knows how much is being spent now because they are no longer in contact with the Governors’ Forum; they don’t want to feed us. The only way we know now is when we get information like I had given you the information that the last we saw of excess crude oil was 9 billion. Now it has gone down to 4 billion.
The NATION: Which governors’ forum?
Gov Amaechi: There’s only one Governors’ Forum.
The NATION: Maybe the other faction is getting information…
Gov Amaechi: No. If they are getting information they are broke; they would have been asking them to pay them some money from the excess crude account.
The NATION: Let’s talk about security; how do you protect yourself these days that you don’t have a battalion of policemen around you?
Gov Amaechi: It is God. I will just kneel down and pray.
The NATION: Will God physically stand in the way of armed robbers if they are …
Gov Amaechi: God won’t let you go through the areas where the armed robbers will be present. God will just say my son use the other road and you will see yourself using the other road.
The NATION: Is it that you don’t have any policemen around you?
Gov Amaechi: Very few. They have taken everybody. That tells you the kind of government that we are running. It is not the president that says take away his policemen. The problem we have is that we have people who sit down and take decisions and you don’t know who is making those decisions. Minister of State for Education will go to Mbu; an ordinary Evans Bipi who was an ex-policeman, who was a militant, will tell Commissioner of Police ‘my mother, my Jesus Christ on earth says you must remove policemen from governor.’ Then Mbu will obey. Is something not wrong?
The NATION: You are sounding too sure that the president didn’t order…?
Gov Amaechi: I know the president very well, he wouldn’t have ordered that. I know what the president can order and what he can’t order. The president can’t order that they should remove your policemen. If the president wants to order that they should remove your policemen, he would say remove all the policemen. I know what the president can do and what he cannot do.
The NATION: But he hears when they remove them?
Gov Amaechi: He hears.
The NATION: So what does he do?
Gov Amaechi: When you see him, ask him. You should be able to interview the president. It’s like when they took away my aircraft, I called the president and he said; ‘My God! Who did that?’ I said ‘I guess the Minster of Aviation.’ He said ‘Amaechi, I will get back to you. Let me get to her and find out.’ Up till today the president is yet to get back to me.
The NATION: The local opposition in your state says you could have done much more given the amount of money you receive. They say your so-called performance is exaggerated?
Gov Amaechi: But they have not responded to what I accused them of. I accused them of corruption, I accused them of 'chop-I-chop' politics and they want to share in this thing that I refused to make them share. But let’s address the issues they’ve just raised.
When I took over government, the wage bill was 2.5 billion, there was embargo on employment. Then Labor met me and said the governor just before he left approved 15 percent wage increase for them. I was new so I couldn’t say no. I approved that increase in the wage bill. The Federal Government increased the minimum wage from N7,500 to N18,000 – so that is part of it.
Then we began to look at the medical sector. We had only 200 doctors and our population then was 5.1 million persons. So I engaged another set of 200 doctors and I have increased it to another 200, I have employed 400 doctors. There were no nurses; I had to hire another set of 400 nurses. They didn’t have enough architects, land surveyors – all those people in Ministry of Lands. I had to hire them.
I looked at primary education and decided to take it over. In taking it over I had to also inherit the wage bill for the teachers at the primary school level. That is 2 billion per month, not per year. That blew our wage bill from 8.9 – from 2.5 to 8.9. I said okay, let’s take an average of 6 billion per month for current expenditure, multiply 6 by 12, 72 billion per year. Multiply 72 by 6? Close to 500… So you remove 500 billion out of their so-called 1.2 trillion. They say if you add my IGR it is 1.9; so let’s go by 1.9 – so you remove 500 billion from 1.9 as wage bill. Don’t forget that I didn’t go to 8, I took an average of 6.
Road construction… are they also denying that I have constructed roads? All the projects we did on Federal Government roads took us 1.05 billion. We’ve applied to the Federal Government. We named the road, the contractor and how much is the cost of the contract and it came to 1.05. So remove 1.05 from the remaining 1.4, you would be left with 1.295.
Then we have another 400 billion with road project that we have awarded and out of which we have paid 300 hundred. So remove 400 from the 1.29. We have completed 500 schools; we’ve not furnished but we are about to start commissioning of 350. We are waiting for Obasanjo; he is coming on the 10th. He would start the commissioning of the 350 primary schools. Some of them were at the cost of 112 million if it is in the mainland, if it is in the coastal area, it is 120. So let’s go by average of 112, let’s forget the 120, multiply it by 300? We built seven new secondary schools at 4.5 per school.
We spent between 120-130 billion for power. The power they are enjoying in Rivers State comes from us; nobody has asked ‘how do we enjoy this power.’ We are making between 15 and 18 hours per day. We promised 24 hours but unfortunately we are not there yet not because we have not put the entire infrastructure in place. We now have distribution which we installed by ourselves; we have transmission lines, we have new power stations. We are going to commission one as Obasanjo comes, then the second one he would lay the foundation stone even though we have paid for all.
Just for them to install, they are bringing the machine from Paris for installation so you are talking about between 120 and 130 billion for power. Monorail… we have done close to about 30 billion out of the 140 billion we are expecting. Health centers… at 140 million and we have done three new hospitals. Each hospital took us between 1.5 and 2 billion. We awarded new hospitals of international standard. I am not talking about furnishing yet, I am talking about completion of the project. This shows by far that we can account for the so-called 1.9 trillion. That’s not the argument.
You know they never accused me of corruption; they said he refuses to run an inclusive government. Ask them please to define inclusion. Look at the argument by Chibudom Nwuche – that he’s more educated than me because he has a master’s degree. Is that an argument? I replied him. I said I have a Masters as well and I am a registered PhD student in the University of Port Harcourt. So what is the problem? Education is not the degree you get in the university; education is much more than that.
The NATION: They have also said that the kind of frontal challenge you have taken to the president and the party, you will not tolerate. They say you are authoritarian and have dealt with anybody that tried to challenge you at the local level?
Gov Amaechi: If you know me, you will know that I am one man who believes in rule of law. They should call one person that I have dealt with or call one Commissioner of Police that I have told to go and arrest anybody.
The NATION: The First Lady mentioned a particular name…
Gov Amaechi: (Cuts in) Let her call the person. That’s what I told Mbu when he came the first time. I said please don’t be part of politics. I will never call you any day to do anything that is illegal, if I do please refuse. But we had already heard that Mrs. Goodluck Jonathan will remove our Commissioner of Police.
Imagine… She is not the Commander-in-Chief but she could transfer a Commissioner of Police and post another commissioner. The wife of the president, not the president and I have said this severally, nobody has denied it, the police has not denied, the president has not denied. I have been saying this since they posted Mbu. I said to Mbu: ‘look, I don’t mind who posted you. I don’t mind whose bidding you’ve come to serve, don’t be part of politics. Just do your work.’
I am being told today what has not happened before in Port Harcourt is beginning to happen: three persons were shot between Saipem and Agip because the woman has helped to compromise security. She brought back the militants into Port Harcourt. We are not able to hold Security Council meetings because she held a Security Council meeting at Otuoke. Wife of president calling Brigade commander, Commissioner of Police (though he said he didn’t attend because he wasn’t well) and the service chiefs.
But I heard they didn’t go that day but the rest went: SSS, army. I don’t know why the naval chief didn’t go. Imagine she calling them, JTF commander, they all had a meeting with her at Otuoke. We didn’t even know that it was all of them we thought it was only the Commissioner of Police. So when the press reported that she had a meeting with the Commissioner of Police she denied and rushed to Port Harcourt that day.
When she got to the airport my wife was there, the deputy governor’s wife was there to receive her at the airport. She excused everybody into the presidential lounge and asked the Commissioner of Police ‘Did I meet with you? Did I meet with you?’The Commissioner of Police said ‘No, ma! No, ma! You didn’t meet with me, ma.’ She said ‘Is it not four of you that I met with? (General laughter) It is ridiculous.
The NATION: If you were asked to do a characterisation of Mrs. Jonathan, what would you say?
Gov Amaechi: I have no say in that. I can’t do that because you must respect the wife of the president as you respect the president because if you don’t do that you are undermining the president. As for the president, I hold him in high esteem. He is a wonderful man. You need to stay with the president; you will know that he is a very wonderful man.
The NATION: So you mean you can’t say one or two words about his wife?
Gov Amaechi: No! She’s not a public officer. I can’t go there. The best I can tell you is the president. The president will disarm you; he appears when you see him to be harmless.
The NATION: He appears?
Gov Amaechi: Why I said he appears is that with the actions that happen outside, you will be wondering if this is the same president I saw last night.
The NATION: Someone likened him to a snake?
Gov Amaechi: Somebody said that he said that; the president said that there are two animals in the bush: one is the tiger, the other one is a puff adder and that he is that one. He said the tiger makes noise. If it is coming to attack and you hear the noise you should be able to run. But the puff adder just stays and strikes. That is what they said the president said; I was not there. I don’t want to mention the person’s name.
The NATION: With regards to the idea of inclusiveness, they said you have been highhanded over Obiakpor local government…
Obiakpor Local Government… I wasn’t involved; it was the House of Assembly. He was found wanting in the areas of financial management and he was suspended. They said okay we are investigating but we need you not to tamper with the documents so we suspend him. When we finish, if you are not guilty, we will reinstate you. It is between him and the state House of Assembly, I have no business with them.
First police takes over the place; he goes to court. We went to court, police was directed to quit the place, they refused. They don’t obey court judgement. If you liken what is going on to a military government, you wonder whether the president is running a democracy, a civilian government or military government. I used to accuse him of running a civilian government, not a democracy.
But now I don’t know whether to say it is a civilian government or military government because a civilian government has a similarity with a military government. The difference is that the person in charge is a civilian in attire not in military uniform. But sometimes you see Abacha wearing French suit or you see President Babangida who also was a military head of state wearing agbada. So the fact that they wear military uniform is not what makes them the military government. What makes them the military government is first: they are military officers, secondly because the orders they issue are by fiat and not by democratic process. So what is the difference between the current government and Abacha’s government?
The NATION: Then they said there was a meeting where one local government chairman came late and you first of all fired him and later reinstated him. Some people say the fact that you did that shows that you are devious…
Gov Amaechi: Not one chairman… we have what we call inter-governmental meeting where we bring everybody together and say ‘listen, the fact that I am governor does not mean that I am an expert in governance.’ So let’s hear your view. We take up the issues one after the other. Council chairmen will not come; if they did, they would come 2 to 3 hours into the meeting. So that day we needed to set an example. It wasn’t one; they were nine.