My affection for, and bond with, Imo State and its people run deep. In providing the background to my fated encounter and love for a state which I consider the pride of the Igbo nation and the country in general, permit me to make a useful digression. This aside will provide the context to why the people who are among the best educated, open-minded and sophisticated people I have ever met deserve the best than the present crop of leaders that have governed the state since the pioneering and visionary leadership of the Second Republic governor, the late Sam Mbakwe. Mbakwe, for me, is unarguably the father of modern Imo.
In the 1990s, after graduation, I had received my mandatory National Youth Service Corps call-up letter with apprehension. I had been posted to Imo State. I stood rooted on the spot in my university’s Students’ Affairs office in Lagos, confused, sad and dejected. Here was I, born and bred in the South-West with a call to serve my country in the South-East. My situation was not even helped that prior to that time, I had not ventured out of the South-West. So most of what I knew about the history and idiosyncrasies of the Igbos were from the history books.
Nonetheless, I headed for Owerri, the capital city in one of the longest road trips of my life. But the rest is history. My one year sojourn in Imo and the adventurous foray into the vast heartland remain the best moments of my life. My primary assignment with a local newspaper in Owerri afforded me the rare opportunity of visiting virtually all the local government areas and other states. The fond memories still endure and are deeply etched in my subconscious. Today, I still reminisce on the good old days in the Land of Hope now called the Eastern Heartland. The hospitality, tolerance, openness and worldview of the average Imo indigene distinguish them from others. Since then, Imo has become my adopted home.
Owerri bears all the imprints of a modern state capital. The inner city roads that connect the streets built by Sam Mbakwe are asphalted and clean. The interstate roads that link Owerri with major towns and neighbouring states are well-networked. The houses are planned. I remember strolling with fellow corps members on broad roads such as Amakohia, Douglas, Wetheral, Royce and Okigwe. The residential estates such as Aladinma, one of the many in the town, are also well-planned.
An average Imo is crazy about education. This explains why Owerri alone boasts a dozen higher institutions of learning. We walked freely in and out of the Government House without molestation (even under the military!). The serene areas around Alvan Ikoku, Shell Camp, Police Headquarters and Government House and the massive Catholic Cathedral were tourist attractions. Though I had arrived in the thick of military dictatorship, the enduring traces of good leadership which Mbakwe provided long after the thieving buccaneers came to wreck the state still endured. Like many other states in the federation, Imo, also bore the brunt of the long years of military brigandage. The military years are best forgotten. Those were the years when civil servants in the state were owed for months. All the good works done by the Mbakwe regime were left to rot. Concord Hotel, the Aluminium Smelter Plant Inyishi, the Paint factory in Abor-Mbaise, Avutu Poultry Farm and the Amaraku Power plant all became moribund.
I have visited the state in the last few years of democracy and recently during the incumbent, Rochas Okorocha’s leadership. In 2011, I was shocked that the two terms of former governor Achike Udenwa could not restore even Owerri to its former glory. The state of infrastructure was in a sorry state. Roads within the metropolis and those connecting the hinterland were impassable. The waterworks had dried up. I was especially scandalised by the state of inner city roads especially Okigwe Road and the agonising hours it took to navigate the Nkworji-Mbieri enroute Mbaitoli, my host’s village. The Ihedi Ohakim years did not fare any better. Apart from the much-vaunted beautification project, his tenure was largely defined by its many controversies.
Thus my joy knew no bounds when the current governor, Rochas Okorocha, was sworn in May 2011. His emergence was particularly inspiring, given his projected national image as a man that cares for the plight of the common man through the charity he founded. I tuned in to the TV to listen to Okorocha’s agenda to transform the state. His many speeches on national platforms portrayed him as a leader who will make a difference having been established in business and public altruism. Sadly, my joy has turned from disappointment to despair. I had dismissed the criticisms of the incumbent as one of the many antics of disgruntled political opponents until my recent visit. I had expected the city to be turned into a huge construction site. But nothing has changed. It appears the situation has even gone worse.
To me, Imo is a classic example of expectations gone awry. What struck me during my last visit about Owerri is the filthy environment. Mountains of refuse dot the landscape. What does it take to remove garbage in a compact city like Owerri? The roads in the capital and its environs are in a state of disrepair. Apart from the Government House, other parts of the city cut a picture of neglect. Okigwe Road leading to Orji is in a parlous state. Roads leading out of the state are either neglected or haphazardly done.
Now my joy of a new Imo has been dashed. Governance in the state has degenerated into chaos. Executive recklessness that defined the Ohakim years has found its way into Okorocha’s government. Hardly a day goes by without news of abuse or the other involving the governor and his aides. If they are not allegedly beating up an opponent, the convoy is ramming lesser mortals off the road. For me, it does not matter who is in the right or wrong. The governor has built a name over the years that should not be associated with any form of impunity or rascality whatsoever. He should be a peacemaker, bridge-builder and rallying point for leaders in the South-East.
A worrisome trend is his quixotic ideas and approach to governance. In Imo, the lines between philanthropy and governance are blurred. Why, for example, will the governor declare a two-week holiday thereby shutting government business down? Even Barack Obama had to interrupt his holiday to attend to the ‘Fiscal cliff’ imbroglio in the United States. The state needs every second of serious governance to revive moribund industries, address distressing poverty, infrastructural decay and the growing crime rate. Why, for instance, would the governor descend so low on national TV sharing rice, money and Indomie personally? Why waste state money so frivolously in the name of bonus? The governor’s so-called Imo Rescue Agenda is at best Utopian. Instead of the white elephant agenda, Okorocha should address concrete issues such as education, roads, urban renewal, potable water and health care. Job creation strategy must include efforts to revive moribund industries, attract new investors and encourage local production. The people of Imo did not vote for the governor to be more of the same. They voted for him to make a difference in their lives.