The Executive Governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha’s grass to grace story reads like a fairy tale and so are the numerous strides of the enigmatic leader both in politics and philanthropy. His leanings already suggest he’s not one to be ruffled by a plethora of damning rhetoric. In this no holds barred interview with MediaRoomHub, the humanist of great repute and leader of note spoke about life at 55- the many travails and triumphs.
What are your life’s reflections at 55?
My 55 years in this world bring a lot of memories of the past. Looking back, I can only say, to God be the glory, because in 55 years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of life. The bad is: I came from a very poor home, I wish I had come from a rich family but I didn’t. I grew up in Jos; that’s where I had my primary, secondary and university education. Then I got into business. From business to politics and that’s where I am today. So, I thank God. The good side of it is that I have seen the mercy of God; coming from nothing to something. That for me, is good. The ugly side of it is getting close touch with death and still being alive. If you remember the Nigerian Airways plane crash in Kaduna that claimed over 64 lives; I was on the plane when it crashed, I survived it. The Bellview plane crash that killed many people, same week former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s wife died in 2005; I had gotten my boarding pass, I walked up to the gate before I turned back.
As one from a poor background, how did you make your money?
I was born in Imo State but because of poverty, I called on my parents to borrow money so that we could leave the city to avoid shame. We left for Jos where we were selling tomatoes and vegetables. That was the business that was thriving, so I saw myself hawking on a daily basis. I had to go to school there and changed from morning to afternoon school to make ends meet. While in primary school, I bought my first television set, a black and white TV at the age of nine. I also bought a commercial bus at the age of 14 and I bought a motorbike for my mother at the age of 12. When I finished my secondary school, I became a school proprietor at St. Mark’s Institute of Commerce and later a commercial college, those were institutions that I established. Although, the schools did quite well and they helped me a lot and after some time, I had a very challenging moment with the natives and the school was closed. There are ups and downs of life. What really gave me my real first money was the Balanga Alaphabetic Construction Company that had finished its contract of constructing the Balanga dam. We were to sell their used equipment. I was instrumental to selling the used equipment worth over N10 million when one US dollar equaled to N1. That was how I made my 10 per cent commission of $1million. I re-invested my $1million in the remaining goods. I bought most of the cars and equipment, I sold them and made a lot of money. I had so much money then. Thereafter, I engaged in proper car sales. I was selling used cars and I went from there to selling brand new Peugeot cars. That gave me the first opportunity to supply the first 1,000 pick-ups and 1,000 private cars to the Nigeria Police Force and they were dispensed across all the states in Nigeria. That was in 1993.
You were into all kinds of businesses, but what exactly was your childhood dream?
One day, I was taking my father from Barkin Ladi village to Jos, that was when I was in school, I just bought a Mazda bus and I remembered telling my father on the way that I was going to be the President of Nigeria. And he said to me, ‘I know and I believe in you’. So, I’ve always dreamt of where I am going and I honestly didn’t see poverty as a clog in the wheel. Though poverty was biting hard, it just wasn’t tougher than my will to be who I want to be. So, I’ve always had tall ambitions from childhood.
Did the story of the late MKO Abiola not resonate with you when you were veering into politics?
No, I’d never imagined any end in my life. I’ve always seen the prospects. And believe me, it depends on the motives, I didn’t get into politics to just make name, I didn’t do it for the glory of the job, I came into politics in agreement with my philanthropy. I would have no business with politics if not to reach the larger society. That’s what brought me into politics because I was quite a comfortable person before I joined politics. I joined politics because I vowed to God that if He blesses me, I would be a blessing to others. And that if He honours me, I will honour Him because on my own I can do nothing, but I can do all things through Him. That resolve is my driving force. I’ve always used this opportunity to serve the larger society. That’s why my style of politics is different from any other person’s in this country. I wasn’t scared and I never saw Abiola as a role model or anybody for that matter. I carved my own niche myself and my vision is to touch lives and make the society better.
You have driven the advocacy for education long before you became a governor, are you into this advocacy because of the lack you also once experienced?
It’s just like asking me whether worshipping God is a good idea. It was something in my spirit. I cannot even tell that this was the reason I thought education was key. I went to school in a very difficult circumstance and I almost missed school completely. My education wasn’t quite regular because I had to combine street trading with schooling. I changed from morning classes to afternoon classes to make ends meet, so I understand the importance of education. I admired those who could speak good English and anytime I went to functions, I saw those who had gone to school standing out. And I would see those who had not gone to school looking at the educated ones as though they were gods. That was where the inspiration came from and I believe it’s still the best inheritance you can give a child. I said to God that if I am educated, I would help others to get education because I understand the pains of those who couldn’t go to school. At that point, I decided that I must begin Rochas Foundation to give education to those who ordinarily would never have gone to school. I started by going to Mosalashi Jimoh (Jumat Service in the mosques) to give them foods, but immediately I saw too many children coming around, I asked myself a question; ‘how long would I keep feeding these children before they become useful to themselves?’ So, I built a school in Owerri, Kano, Jos, Ibadan, Ogboko and today we have schools in Sokoto, Zaria, Yola, Adamawa, Bauchi and Enugu. Cross River is coming up and again, we just built the Rochas Foundation College for Africa where we’re admitting five students each from all African countries. So right now I have over 15,000 students and over 2,000 of them are graduates, over 1,000 are working in the Police, Army and these are children who just found themselves on the dark side of life.
Why did you choose to open up to Africa in commemoration of your 55th birthday?
My concern is for the black race, Africa. I honestly have wondered what can unite Africa. I used to be President of the Red Cross. One of the challenges we had was that there was no common thing uniting us other than being black. The only language we tend to sing was ‘poverty’ and I don’t see 10 years from now, I see 500 years to come. That’s the difference. The children from across Africa are here with different stories and they are doing very well. My idea is that someday some of these children would become African leaders and bring about prosperity in the land. There are children from South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Ethiopia, Sierra-Leone and we are expecting others.
How really do you see life?
I see vanity. I see what is not worth it after all. That’s the reason I feel we should do things that benefit humanity. I think God created life to mean nothing. I work not for the profit but the glory of the job.
What are the greatest challenges before you as the governor of Imo State?
I don’t have any challenge at least, none that I know. This is so because before I became the governor, I’d expected much more problems than I found. Remember I aspired to be the president and I’d pursued this ambition three times before I came back to become a governor.
Have you dropped your ambition to become the president?
No, I’ve not dropped my ambition to become the president, I’m only respecting the gentleman called President Muhammadu Buhari whom I think has what it takes to change leadership in this country. And I’m waiting for his declaration, if he’s running, then I should support him.
On the scale of 1 to 10, how would you honestly rate your performance as a governor?
I think I had scored 15 over 10. You may be surprised I’m saying this but you can ask me why and how. There’s no aspect of life in Imo State that I’ve not touched positively, infrastructure had been a lot better than what the state had, education is free from primary school to university, security is better, people now trust government unlike before, government is now closer to the people. I challenge any governor in this country dead or alive to dare say they’d performed better than me.
If these truly are what you’ve focused your energy and the state’s resources to doing, doesn’t it bother you that the narratives outside suggest something else?
It doesn’t bother me because to be great is to be misunderstood. I don’t want people to understand me. If they understand me I won’t be great. So those who write and say negative things about me help me a lot because if you know the real Rochas, you’d come closer and slap me because you know I would never harm you. If you know me well enough, you’d know that you could even take my property and I wouldn’t ask for it. So I find these things protective, my enemies have really created a good name for me.
You were accused of pulling down Ekuku Market without an alternative. Is that true?
I don’t even want them to know the true story. But that’s not true. The whole of Ekuku Market had 3500 shops, I’ve built 11,500 shops and nobody has talked about it. This is so because they don’t want me to take credit for anything good. Even my daughter feel very worried that her daddy is not getting fair publicity and that’s why I allowed this interview otherwise I won’t grant it. There are always what we call fault-finders and most people you find writing negative things about me are not fact-finders. That’s how some people would say my wife and I have a chaotic marriage. I have the best marriage and family in the world. They think writing things like this will destroy me politically but for how long would I keep responding to those negatives? Most people come to Imo State and they’re shocked. If you were told in Lagos that there’s a state house like this in the East you probably won’t believe. But I understand bad news sells. If you say that Okorocha is a wonderful man, a God-sent, who would read it? In Imo State, I have over 1,700 projects going on and that’s unprecedented in recent history. I sound boisterous nowadays, it’s not my nature but sometimes you must tell it as it is.
How were you able to make education free up to the university level?
It’s the same as asking me how we have survived with Rochas Foundation, it’s a vision and the Bible says my people perish for lack of knowledge. How was the first aircraft built? Vision! That’s why I keep saying let visionary leaders lead irrespective of where they come from. We always want our friends, kinsmen, relatives and so on to lead and that’s why we languish in this country. No country, okay, maybe one or two countries can do free education from primary to university level. Has anybody asked me how I’ve been able to achieve free education? Even the government hasn’t asked. I’m still providing uniforms, lockers, shoes, books and so with quality teachers to train these kids. But how many people have come to ask me how we’ve managed to achieve this? When I started with Rochas Foundation, the first news that greeted that development was that I was going to do politics and needed popularity. For 17 years now I’ve run the foundation and I’ve been a governor and I had not jettisoned the programme. Instead I’m extending our reach to Africa and I’m sure the next thing you would hear now is that Rochas wants to be the president of Africa. So why should I waste so much time explaining that to everybody who fails to understand me?
Where are your plans for 2019?
I have so many windows open in 2019 as I wait for Mr. President to make his declaration, I want to be politically relevant and I have made the decision never to watch my country sink. This I would do without losing my foundation which is a huge challenge on its own. If Buhari declares to run for the office again in 2019 I will support him because the man has a character to develop Nigeria. He has a thick skin that we need. We have a faulty foundation and I see Buhari as that man who can build the foundation that we need. But I don’t see him as someone who will build this nation with a fantastic finishing with nice furniture. He’s just going to build a solid foundation upon which success and prosperity for the land shall be accomplished. And that’s where people like me would come in.
What’s your take on the IPOB youths agitating for Biafra?
IPOB was overpriced. These young men are seeking relevance as a livelihood, and to tell you how daft some people can be, any mad man can just rise one day and lead a senseless agitation and he’d get followers. Even the way IPOB was handled by the government wasn’t right. I kept telling the government that this young man, Kanu Nnamdi, is inconsequential in the matter, treat him like whom he really is. But now he had been given some national attention branding the whole Igbos as IPOB members and it’s the reason for the quit notice some gave our people in the North. The matter is laughable. You cannot imagine me Rochas asked by IPOB that let’s go to war and I follow. That’s the greatest insult to people of the East. Even if you come today and start a church you name ‘Kill Every Human Being Church’, some people will still join you. There are always people for everything you do. I would have handled the issue differently.
How would you have handled it?
First, I understand the problem that this is an agitation by a young man and I will make sure I circle him out from the rest of the society, I’d make him a loner within his area and I will not brand the entire people wrongly. There are no better people to stop IPOB than the Igbos. Even ordinary youth groups of South East could have stopped IPOB. When you start something and a bigger force takes over, everybody relaxes. It’s like in political campaigns, when they’re going to campaign they carry a lot of people, 1000 people to visit a small village of 200 people. And when you get there people would just fold their arms and start watching you dance for them. The South-East should be properly engaged to finish this idea because it’s a local matter.
You’ve said a few times that you’re a Hausa man. How do you mean?
I am a Nigerian first and foremost. I grew up as a Northerner, I speak fluent Hausa, I write Hausa and I understand the Hausa culture, that way I’m a Hausa man. I’ve been in Hausaland longer than I had been in Igboland.So why can’t I claim to be Hausa man? My first thought was to run for governor of Plateau or Kano. In fact, when I came to Imo, I was an unknown person because I never went to primary or secondary school in Imo. Most people don’t know me and that is part of the problem I am facing right now because the elites don’t understand me. If I had gone to the same schools with them, they would have known my behaviour from primary or secondary school. So they brand me with everything their minds conceive.
Hausa people gave me my childhood, they trained me up to the university but Igbo gave me parentage. My parents are Igbos but my business success came from the west. It was a Yoruba man that was my partner who became a millionaire. Having been born an Igbo man, brought up by the north and empowered by the west, I’m a Nigerian. There’s no one that believes more in Nigeria than me. If there’s such person let him so speak of his activities. If I didn’t believe in Nigeria, I wouldn’t have built my schools in Ibadan (Rochas Foundation) with over 10,000 poor students there. Once upon a time, former President Olusegun Obasanjo was shocked when I took about 87 students from his village, in Owu. He was surprised to see that those are the kids I call my children. I built schools in Jos, I’m not from Jos, I built a school in Yola, am I from Yola? I built in Bauchi, Cross River and so on. We don’t say we believe in the unity of Nigeria theoretically, we must do something practical to prove it. As I speak to you, there’s no single Northerner with meaningful investment in Imo State. No Northerner has a million naira investment in Igboland, no Yoruba man has a million naira worth of building here. That’s why I say if there’s any region that is Nigerian it’s the Igbo. Go to Lagos you’d see Igbos, does it mean they have no land in their own states? You go to Kano, Kaduna and everywhere you’d see Igbos, they’re more Nigerian than anyone else, they should be given kudos for that. Where will the Igbos go? Would they leave those properties there and come home?
What’s your take on restructuring?
What are you restructuring? It’s a poor workman that quarrels with his tools. What Nigeria needs is to get it right. Once things are right from the top, everything will be fine with the country. The agitation is a complaint about not carrying some people along. Anytime there’s insufficiency in the system, people must cry foul. Once there’s no poverty who cares about such propositions?
How did you meet your wife?
Meeting the first lady is the best thing that has happened to me. Believe me, she’s God’s gift to me and I’m very blessed to have her. The reason I say I’m blessed is not because I have the financial resources but because I have the best family you can think of in the whole world. Most people don’t even know I have biological children because you won’t see them behave like governor’s children. They even behave like visitors in their father’s house. My wife is equally blessed. She had built over 170 homes for the poor. She doesn’t believe in gold and all these frivolous things most women flaunt. Our life is life of service. So meeting her was a great honour. I was quite young, I was like 24 years old and my father fell sick and my mother was working in a school as a cook. My sick father slumped in the bathroom and I looked for him everywhere for about 30 minutes and when I saw him, he was quite heavy with diabetes. When I went to give him a hand, he told me he wanted me to go and marry. He said he wanted to see my wife before he dies. He was quite young too because he was just a little over 50 years old. I promised him that I was going to marry, so that was how the search for wife started.
President Jacob Zuma deserves the honour- Gov. Okorocha
The visit of South African President, Mr. Jacob Zuma, and the unveiling of his statue standing magnanimously at the Heroes’ Square in Owerri, Imo State by Gov. Rochas Owelle Okorocha, stirred a whirlwind of onslaughts more prominently on the social media these past weeks.
But the governor insists that celebrating an African leader like Zuma and honouring him with a statue shouldn’t cause such uproar if there were no political undertones to the saga.
Through his Chief Press Secretary, Sam Onwuemeodo, the governor reminds his critics and nay-sayers that some unveiling of notable Nigerians like the former vice president, Alex Ekwueme, had preceded Pres. Zuma’s but wasn’t greeted with commensurate funfair.
He submits that three politicians (though unnamed) are behind the social media trial which he’d shrugged off and regarded as dead on arrival. Okorocha believes that they are eyeing his seat in 2019 and their overriding goal is either to install the next governor or become the next governor.
The governor believes that the MoU signed by the Jacob Zuma foundation and Rochas Okorocha foundation would better the lives of indigent children willing to have a qualitative education and it’s one of the legacies the critics found too profound and consequently seek to ruin.
Another significant intervention downplayed is the serious meeting President Zuma had with Imo businessmen and others from outside the State at the Ikemba Ojukwu Centre, including Leo Stan Ekeh of Zinox Computers, Dr. Pascal Dozie of Diamond Bank, Chairman of Innoson Motors, and a host of others which will not only benefit the entire South East region but the country at large.
As a precursor to the unveiling of the statue was an award handed the president and Gov. Okorocha explains why he deserves the honour; “Today, we have decided to honour you for your love for education. Though you were deprived education in your early days in life, you are working to make sure that every poor Child went to School. Your love for education is the connection between you and the government and people of Imo State.”
The occasion was also to finally put to rest the remains of Xenophobic tendencies resulting in needless deaths of Nigerians in South Africa. And in Pres. Zuma’s speech, for the very first time since the serial attacks, he remarked; “No South African must kill a Nigerian and no Nigerian must kill a South African. The relationship between Nigeria and South Africa should be stronger than any other part, for the sake of the Continent of Africa. Africans must come together to address African problems. We are the same people”.
Among several other reasons highlighted for the honour bestowed on the President Zuma are the aforementioned.