Foremost Journalist And Public Affairs Commentator,  Dr. Ethelbert Okere, In This Interview with our reporter expresses his view on some burning issues in the state.


QUESTION:
Sir, what is your take on the zoning matter? It is generating so much controversy so early.

ANSWER:
Well, the controversy is not new. It should be expected.

Q:
You come from Owerri zone, so what is your personal position. Do you agree on zoning?

ANS:
Anybody saying that there is no zoning is not being fair to the state and the generality of its people. It might not been cast on stone but it is something that should be engraved in the minds of people in order to ensure equity. There might not be a law on zoning but it is being observed inadvertently without the force of law. I love the brilliant argument put up recently by Hon. Uche Onyeagocha that it is because of the consciousness and imperative of zoning that you have a governor from one zone and his deputy from another. It is never on gun point but every governorship candidate knows that it is an imperative, that you cannot take your deputy from your own zone.

Q:
But the issue goes beyond just that. The issue is that Owerri zone is again laying claims to the governorship in 2019.

ANS:
This is not the first time. Since 2007, it has been like that. Of course, Owerri has a strong argument to the effect that out of 20 years, Orlu has taken sixteen years, with Owerri only 18 months. Okigwe zone has done eight years out of the twenty years. Ordinarily, it calls to question why Orlu zone should want to take the position again,  in spite of Owerri and Okigwe zones. I am really surprised that some elements from Orlu zone are saying it must remain in Orlu zone. That’s not fair. It’s most unreasonable.

Q:
But the argument is that the governor can come from anywhere; that what is important is to get the proper person with the capacity.


ANS:
That’s a selfish and escapist argument. There is no local government area in the state that you cannot get a fellow who can govern the state. What we are saying is that there is need to take deliberate steps to ensure equity. Even if every person from Orlu zone is a professor of political science and government, we are saying that there is need for the governorship position to go to another zone.


Q:
But there has never been a time when any zone had an exclusive right to contest for the governorship.

ANS:
There is no law to that effect but we are asking for what is reasonable and progressive.

Q:
In 2015, most politicians from Orlu zone stayed away from the gubernatorial tray. But the fact that Owerri zone had over thirty aspirants put it in a disadvantage. In fact, it is believed that Owerri zone people themselves scuttled its CHANCE?

ANS:
It is not true that Orlu zone stayed away in 2015. Governor Okorocha is from Orlu zone and he ran in that election for a second term and his candidacy was quite formidable being an incumbent.
?

Q:
Don’t you think that Owerri zone had its best chance in 2015?

ANS:
That is not true. Owerri zone was running against an incumbent governor.

Q:
But the PDP candidate, for example, was also formidable. He had power, resources and reach
?
ANS:
Not to match an incumbent governor who knew or knows how to wield power in its raw nature.

Q:
You talk about equity. Recently, some Owerri politicians formed what they call Imo Equity Movement and that has attracted some flak from Orlu zone elements?

ANS:
The truth is that the Owerri zone politicians played into the hands of some elements from Orlu zone who were looking for an opportunity to voice their opposition to the claim by Owerri zone to the governorship in 2019.

Q:
In what sense, Sir?

ANS:
In the sense that there already exists an Imo Charter of Equity which we can key into. We don’t need to form another equity movement exclusively for the people of Owerri zone. It is discriminatory. The equity we are talking about is one which every part of the state should uphold. If you make it an Owerri zone matter, it will fail. But having said that, I make bold to say that our dear friends in Orlu zone should be more reasonable in their reaction to the agitation by Owerri zone or Okigwe zone. Some of the Orlu zone chaps are using very uncouth and intemperate language. That is very wrong. Whether they like it or not, it is morally and politically wrong for Orlu zone to aspire to produce the governor of Imo state in 2019. The agitators from both Owerri and Okigwe zones may make mistakes in style or posturing but that does not negate the imperative of power shifting to another zone in 2 019.

Q:
You were spotted at the occasion where the Imo Equity Movement was launched. Was that not a tacit support?

ANS:
Yes, I was there but I never knew that was the purpose we were invited there. There is this association known as Owerri Zone Political Leaders or something like that. I had attended the meeting once in the home of Barrister Kinsley Ononuju. Then one day, I got a text massage from him that the next meeting was to be hosted by Dr. Uzoma Obiyo in Ikeduru. So, I went there but they ended up launching an equity movement. If I had known, ab initio, I would have advised against it. But again, let me repeat that, that does not invalidate the demand by both Owerri and Okigwe that the governorship should shift from Orlu zone.


QTN:
Governor Okorocha is fond of saying that his administration has eliminated sentiments over where the governor should come from. What do you say?

ANS:
That is not correct. He is saying so probably because he has his own agenda. It is even politically incorrect for a governor to make such a claim. My view is that it is not even necessary to eliminate sentiments. Orlu zone is Orlu zone, Owerri Zone is Owerri zone and Okigwe is Okigwe. Yes, we all belong to the same state but there are basic affinities. All the talk about eliminating sentiments is balderdash. It is both unnecessary and impossible. Why don’t we have a state without the three senatorial zones, or a state without local government areas or the different federal constituencies? Our leaders should stop deceiving the people.

Q:
Your article on the recent chance meeting between Governor Okorocha, Eze Ilomuanya and Senator Hope Uzodinma drew angry reactions from the governor’s camp. What is your reaction to that?

ANS:
Angry how, what did they say?

Q:
The governor’s Chief Press Secretary, Sam Onwueneodo, in his column claimed that your article was in bad faith?

ANS:
Well, the Press Secretary is doing his job or don’t you think so?

Q:
But he expressed very strong views about you?

ANS:
Strong views about me? I thought it was not about me but the issues I raised but if the governor’s press secretary saw that as an opportunity to attack me personally, then I would say that that is an admission that he lacks the capacity to take on the issues one on one. So, he would find excuses with resorting to personal attack. That was not the first time. The other time, he left the issues and accused me of sleeping with people’s wives. Can you imagine that? How can a top government functionary employ such a language? This time around, he said I am an evil man, wicked man, a “one chance” man. What has my being an evil man got to do with the issues I raised? I had noted in my article that much as I loved the chance meeting between the governor and Eze Ilomuanya, that the governor should not forget that there was still an issue between both of them and which the people were looking forward for resolution. Besides, I advised that what the people would have loved to see is a situation where the governor proactively and regularly invites other stakeholders to meetings, not just chance meetings. If that was my offence, I am sorry. But did it not strike them that just the next day after my article, an Imo state high court gave another ruling, a ninth one, to the effect that the purported dethronement of Eze Ilomuanya was null and void. I think that is what should pre-occupy the governor and his handlers; how to address that issue. Apparently, they do not want to hear that anybody wants the governor to obey court rulings on the matter. This is a second or third ruling from the state high court. So, writing a full page article to call me an evil or wicked man is not helpful to the people of the state. My advice is that if there an issue, address it and worry less about personalities. I feel quite reluctant to join issues with the governor’s press secretary for obvious reasons.

Q:
In the latest article, Onwuemeodo noted that at a point you were in romance with Governor Okorocha and his rescue mission but that suddenly you started attacking the governor and that there is a reason for that?

ANS:
First, as a habit, I don’t attack people with my write up and I have never attacked the governor. I respect truly constituted authority and I have been conscious of that since 2011. Outside defending the administration I served at the highest level which Governor Okorocha wanted to discredit by all means, I have never written anything against the governor. Go and see all my articles. I was brought up by teachers. My parents were both teachers and through them I learnt the ideals of respecting dully constituted authority. You know teachers. Yes, I have written articles that people saw as patronizing to the governor. There was nothing behind that other than the need to give the governor the benefit of doubt. For example, when he embarked on the road expansion programme and everywhere was in shambles and people were complaining, I said he should be encouraged to complete the roads rather than shouting him down and possibly making him to abandon the projects. I also said that I could imagine how beautiful Owerri will look if the roads were completed. In spite of setbacks here and there, there can be no doubt that there is a face lift. I didn’t need to have anything in mind to say those things. I am a stakeholder and even the governor does not have the interest of the state more than I do. I have enough exposure to see things in proper perspective.

Q:
But Onwuemeodo said you wrote or said those things for a reason and that he will expose them if you challenge him.

ANS:
Let him go ahead and expose them. I can even help him.  What he will say is nothing else than that I once made a request to the governor to assist me financially to pay my medical bills abroad. I underwent a heart surgery in 2011 shortly after we left office and thereafter, I had to travel to India every year for a review. I was to do that for five years. In 2015, I developed some complications because I couldn’t travel at the stipulated time and I was worried. I met a top official of the administration who advised me to write the governor. I did but I did not hear from them until I was able to travel. In February last year, I went to see my family in London but while I was there I developed some complications and had to undergo another medical procedure that cost me a lot of money. While I was still in the hospital, in London, I called one fellow from my local government area to inquire if he could help me tell the governor that I would like him to assist me. When the fellow got to the governor, he told him that he had just recently given me N1million. When the fellow called to inform me of the governor’s response, I was shocked and I told him that I never got any kobo from the governor. I even called this same Onwuemeodo and told him the story and requested that he should let the governor know that I did not receive any money. To cut the story short, I stayed in London for three months and came back in May last year and I forgot the matter completely.

One day sometime in October last year while I was waiting for a flight to Owerri at the Abuja airport, I met the top official through whom I had sent a letter to the governor in 2015. She said, Okere, where have you been? We were looking for you. And I asked, how. She said the governor had approved one million naira for me then and that when she inquired, she learn that I had travelled abroad. I now asked if I could still get the money because I still needed it. She said she gave the approval document to the Chief of Staff and that I should try and reach the Chief of Staff. I made some efforts to reach the Chief of Staff. I even told the deputy governor who said that he would follow it up once it could be confirmed that such an approval was made. The deputy governor later told me that he had confirmed from the other functionary and that he will follow the matter up. I also went to the secretary to government. But all that effort yielded no result. I didn’t hear from any of them and I have since forgotten about it.

Q:
Could that be what Onwuemeodo is referring to?

ANS:
What else? But it is silly to insinuate that I am attacking the governor because of that. If anything, I was full of praises for the governor for making the approval in the first place. If the people he is working with felt I should not get the money, that’s a different matter and their own cup of tea. I had a bill of over 13,000 pounds but by the mercy of God, I have paid nearly everything. Any moment from now, I am going back to London for a review and to observe a short holiday with my family. So, if that is what the press secretary wants to reveal to the world,  let him go ahead. Is it an abomination for a citizen to seek for assistance from the government for medical treatment? It is done in other parts of the country. It is whoever bungled the governor’s good gestures that portrayed him and the administration in bad light. I once worked in government; some of such requests came through me as an aide to the governor on public affairs. I would hand carry such requests got the governor to approve the ones that were feasible and followed it up until the money was released.

But come to think of it, the government of Imo state is still owing me my severance allowance that is over five million naira. Imo state is the only state that has not paid appointees that served between 2007 and 2011 their severance allowance. The court has ruled in our favour three times but the governor has refused to pay. We are not begging for it because it is our entitlement. Very soon, Onwuemeodo will disengage and I will see if he would not like to receive his entitlements. I know that somebody would dismiss this as an entitlement mentality but that’s bunkum. It’s sheer pretence. If it were where things are properly done, the governor would have liked to know what happened to the approval he made. But I have forgotten about all that except that Onwuemeodo is looking for a cheap thing instead of addressing issues.

Q:
Are you deterred by such reactions from the government side?

ANS:
I cannot be deterred because we have a duty to carryout for our people. I left office six years ago as special adviser to the governor on public enlightenment. It is not for nothing that we are still very much around making our modest contributions. With all modesty, I am a must read. The vendors selling newspapers in town tell me that quite often, people will come to the news stand and ask, did Ethelbert Okere write anything today? If the answer is in the affirmative, the fellow would just pick the particular newspaper, fold it into his or her armpit and walk away, to read  Ethelbert Okere.    

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