By Collins Ughalaa
Prince Bob Njemanze, popularly called Dee Bob Njemanze, is an elder statesman from Owerri Zone. He prefers to be called a leader and not a politician. A prince of the Njemanze Royal Dynasty, Dee Bob spoke with Collins Ughalaa on Thursday, December 10, 2020, the day the people of Owerri Zone organized a civic reception for the Governor, on sundry issues in the polity, especially how Owerri Nchi-Ise fared with the administration of former Governor Rochas Okorocha over lands, the demolition of Ekeukwu Market, efforts to destroy Douglas Road, and the relationship between Owerri Zone and the Uzodimma Administration. Excerpts:
The people of Owerri Zone are hosting the Governor today in a grand civic reception they organized for him. As a leader from Owerri Zone, what does the reception mean to you?
The organizers of the event are confused. There is nothing like the governor of the APC or the PDP. Senator Hope Uzodimma is the Governor of Imo State from the APC extraction. When you talk about leadership in Owerri Zone, it does not come from the APC or the PDP alone. You get to a certain stage to be qualified as a leader. The chairman of the occasion, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, has played his politics as a staunch member of the PDP. But he has over-grown partisan politics. That is why he would accept to chair an occasion that was predominantly an APC event. So, those who were arranging the event and saw the reasons to make Iwuanaynwu the chairman equally should have seen the reasons to involve other leaders from other parties, for it to make sense. But that was not what they were looking for. That was a group of people who were looking for a way to bring themselves to limelight. They may have been in the forefront of politics and leadership within their own political parties and what have you, but that doesn’t make them the zonal leaders across the bar. Owerri Zone is not made of the APC alone. The governor is not the governor of the APC alone. If APC leaders and people wanted to use the occasion to showcase themselves and pursue their personal and selfish interests, they should not call it an Owerri Zone affair. We have basic problems in Owerri Zone which the Governor has not been able to resolve yet, which he is trying to address anyway. Such occasion compounds such issues the more. If I were to advise the Governor, the event should have either been deferred or suspended. But if you make that contribution, you stand the risk of being branded a saboteur or enemy of the government, or a spoiler. Well, the event, like wedding and burial, would come and go. There is no wedding that is better than the other, and there is no burial better than the other. Same people would get there, shed tears, eat your food and go. Next minute they forget they had just interred a human being and they would thereafter be looking for what their other benefits would be. There are some people who were at the event and were just looking at the vacancies created and how to benefit from them.
You talked about the issues in Owerri Zone which the Governor is yet to address. Can you name some of them?
You see, when you talk about Owerri Zone, there is nothing like Owerri Zone without Owerri itself. Government has been in conflict with the Owerri people over their lands. We were in conflict with the Okorocha Administration over our market. That Government was in conflict with Owerri people over traditional rulership in Owerri, and what you may call the balkanization of the place. These are issues that require dialogue. It mustn’t go the government’s way and it mustn’t go the people’s way. The essence of war is peace. Get the people together and distil these issue and move ahead. I have said it: government is transient, ephemeral, but the people remain. The people are the northern star. When you are in office, and in government, you live with the delusion of perpetuity. You may imagine that you could be governor forever. You don’t see tomorrow and there is no Nostradamus in your life. When you look at people like Rochas Okorocha who rode roughshod here, when you see them now they are trying to humble themselves. That is the deceit of office. And you don’t blame people who are in the position, because those of us they rule create that situation for them, by making them see themselves as gods and no longer human beings. Governors have always been the most brilliant, the most handsome and richest individuals in their various states until they leave office.
Talking about the issues in Owerri Zone, few months ago you were seen with the governor while he was commissioning the Douglas Road and you commended him. Recently the governor also commissioned the reconstruction of Ekeukwu Owerri Market. Are these tokenism? Do they not show that the governor is willing to address those issues?
Beautiful. I like the word “tokenism”. They ought not to be tokenism. Government is service to the people. Owerri people broke down in tears in appreciation of the governor for bringing back Douglas Road to life. Douglas Road is a very sensitive and sentimental road to all of us. That was where my forefather, Njemanze, received Douglas. This was even before the amalgamation in 1914. Rochas came, because he had disagreement with Owerri people, Douglas Road was converted to a dumpsite and adjourning roads made impossible so that no one could use Douglas Road. That is not how a human being with authority behaves to a people. Well, Emeka Ihedioha came and indicated interest in redoing Douglas. He never got over to doing it, but Hope Uzodimma came and opened up Douglas Road, put street lights and brought life back to Douglas. Is that what is called tokenism? No. It was a good gesture, a right way to start the administration. Government should not give baits to the people. They are entitled to those things. I am among those who said that the governor should be appreciated for what he has done. But don’t let those things compromise you. You don’t give me a bribe for what belongs to me. I give Hope Uzodimma credit because for the length of time he has been in office, which is about the same length of time Emeka Ihedioha was in office, you can judge them. There is no way Emeka’s period would match what Hope has done so far. But there is something they say: as you move forward, you should stop, think, before you leap.
Let’s talk about the Ekeuwku Owerri Market. Many people considered the Market to be the biggest commercial centre in the state. In 2017 when the Okorocha Administration pulled it down, the people felt it. Now, what do the Owerri people want?
We want the Market to be rebuilt. We have got an understanding with the government to do that. We are not opposed to the market being rebuilt, and we have an understanding with the government on how to accommodate the interests of the indigenes. That should not be glossed over. You don’t go to a home and see that the children are almost dying of hunger, and you give them poisoned bread to eat. You haven’t done much for them. They would eat the bread, get satisfied and die. What have you achieved? So, it is not a question of just rebuilding the Ekeukwu Owerri Market. It goes beyond that. The market is the sustenance of the people. That is what their life is hinged on. How did the Ekeukwu Owerri Market even start in the first place? When you go to Benin, you have the Oba’s market. You go to Calabar, you have the Duke market. You go to Kano, they have their own market. Most of these markets are institutions for supporting the various traditional houses. Ekeukwu Owerri was the support base for the Paramount Ruler of Owerri. Although it was an ancient development, it has now become where they collect toll for the various local government councils. When you talk about Ekeuwku Owerri, provision must be made and retained for the women, where they go and do their food business. The indigenes must be sustained by what is generated from that Market. The money used in rebuilding the market must be recouped and the market must be well managed. Parties should understand this and none must overstep its boundary.
We have seen the criticism against the governor for demolishing the structure Okorocha erected at the market. What do the Owerri people say?
That was stupid really. Okorocha was…I don’t want to call him a fraudster. But there is nothing he has done in his life that was done straight. He put a structure for a plaza at the market. When he was challenged he put up another thing at the front. You could see that it was an unfinished structure. The backside had not even been plastered. He brought the Vice President of this country by 7pm and he did not go round to see what he was commissioning. They painted the front side and called it Somtochukwu Hospital, and made the Vice President cut the tape. It is a shame the kind of country we are running. And then, when the structure was knocked down, we saw the inferior rods as tiny as wires that were used to erect the structure, with half-mixed cement. The building could have collapsed on its own. And Okorocha had the effrontery to make public statements about it. It is unfortunate the Uzodimma administration seems not to be encouraging their own arm of publicity to react to those criticisms, or perhaps they decided to leave it the way it was designed, that is to say that the best answer to a fool is silence.
Let us talk about the issue of land. I understand that the people of Owerri had issues with the Okorocha Administration over land acquisition….
No. Okorocha was a land speculator. We didn’t have any issue with him over land acquisition. He was a land rogue.
Now, the Uzodimma Administration has directed that the lands be revoked. Are the leaders of Owerri Zone, people like you, pleased?
What did the Uzodimma Administration come out with, that they call 3R?
That is: Recovery, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation.
You have answered the question.
Looking at Owerri, one could notice that it was the Okorocha Administration that balkanized it into five autonomous communities…
No. He thought he balkanized us. Can I explain something to you? In the Igbo Language, we are Owere Nchi-Ise. What does that mean? We are Owerri with five villages. We were before known as the Five Compounds of Owere, which later became five villages. That is from compounds to villages. But we have always had one central rulership. Because Njemanze was the one on whom most of the land revolved as the Paramount Ruler of Owerri, when Rochas Okorocha entered into our various lands and we resisted him, he descended on the family. And the way he thought he could do it was creating what he called autonomous communities. That doesn’t matter to us. The autonomy of the communities does not matter to us because we have always been autonomous in our native sense, Nchi-Ise. Each of our five villages had always had village heads, or traditional ruler. So, we have always had five traditional rulers in Owerri with one Paramount Ruler. Even in the village where the Paramount Ruler came from, there was a village head. Okorocha thought he was destroying Owerri, but he ended up formalizing what had been existing in the name of villages. He gave it a formal backing. That was why I said that he cannot balkanize Owerri by calling them autonomous communities. We have always been that way. The common ties we had, like the Ekeukwu Market – when you say five autonomous communities – let Umuonyechere get their own Ekeukwu; Let Umuorornjo get their own Ekeukwu; let Amawon get their own Ekeukwu. It is a central thing, isn’t it? We have the Oru Owere, a festivity of all those that make up Owerri. Then, Amawon would have their own Oru, Umuonyechere would get their own Oru, etc. I am just using these to show the stupidity of what Okorocha did. What is in issue is not what you call balkanization – in fact, we want the Governor to sustain it. But you cannot come to a village and without reference to the people, remove the traditional ruler and replace him as well. It cannot happen in Agwa where you come from. But Okorocha came to Owerri and handpicked people he called traditional rulers for purposes of signing the land issues for him. Now, Uzodimma has come and found out that that thing won’t fly. Because, before you sign away someone’s land, you must prove your ownership of the land. In fact, Uzodimma called these masquerades that are parading themselves as traditional rulers and asked them whether they were parties to the matter in court. They said no. So, the reception they are doing today for the Governor – and to show you that government is a continuum, Okorocha’s traditional rulers are there. Of course, on the face of it, they are the people the Government has recognized until Uzodimma gets into the nitty-gritty of the whole thing and tries to distil it. Up until he does this, the people won’t see him as having done anything. Nobody survives in a suffocating situation.
On January 15, Senator Hope Uzodimma was sworn-in as the Governor of Imo State following the earlier judgement of the Supreme Court on January 14, 2020. That led to the removal of a Governor of Owerri Zone extraction. What does Uzodimma’s emergence mean to Owerri Zone’s quest to produce the governor of Imo State?
It does not in any way subtract from the quest by Owerri Zone to produce the Governor of Imo State. Any time election goes on, all zones in the State are free to participate. If it was something that was agreed on, we can now say, Ok, let the people from Owerri alone contest, whether in the PDP or the APC. But if Owerri people cannot come together, support somebody and pursue that course, then they should not blame any circumstance. Uzodimma’s emergence was providential. I can tell you, it has turned out to be the better thing that happened to Owerri Zone. I am not sentimental about where the Governor comes from. The reason some people want a Governor from their zone is because they think they would personally benefit from it. The Governor should cut across the bar.
We have seen the Governor take certain actions that seem to be in tune with the aspirations of Imo people, such as the revocation of the illegally acquired lands, rebuilding Douglas Road, reconstruction of Ekeukwu Owerri Market and recovery of looted properties, etc. Do you support the argument in some quarters that the Governor is fighting his political opponents?
No. No. No. Let me tell you, Rochas did much more than that. In Rochas’ case he was being vindictive. What Hope Uzodimma is faced with now is to implement the decisions of the panels he did not set up. If perhaps he set up those panels some people could have argued that he did that for a particular purpose. It was Emeka Ihedioha that set up those panels, but appreciating that government is a continuum, Uzodimma allowed them to continue to do their work. So, why do they want to blackmail him? You see, when you are doing anything, keep your hands clean. Okorocha cannot be crying wolf. His administration was destructive, and he himself acted like a human beast.
Going by what you said about the Okorocha administration, one would ask: where were leaders like you all the time Okorocha was Governor?
I was there. I spoke. When he was doing well, I was with him. When he derailed I shouted. I needed more people, younger ones like you, to talk as well.
Governor Hope Uzodimma will be celebrating his 62nd birthday on the 12th of December. I want to ask: how long have you known Hope Uzodimma?
I have known him for a very long time. I have known him since when he was a little boy.
Can you tell us what you know about him as a little boy?
He is a lucky fellow. He believes in himself. He navigated the waters. He has his good, bad and the ugly. When you go to swimming, there is something they call the free style. He has had a free style growth. Those who are envious of him find ways to deride him; those who are jealous of him find ways to attach themselves to him. And those who are appreciative of him give him all the support.
One of the things the Uzodimma Administration is doing in the State is the automation of payment of salaries and pensions…
Yes. It is a very good thing, but he has been criticised by some people. But I can tell you, it is not just about automating the payment of salaries and pension. Government must learn to adhere strictly to the system of verification. In the civil service nobody is doing that, but in Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), for every six months you would go and do verification. Because in six months some people would have died or retired. We must learn to do verification every six months. If we don’t do that all this automation will be meaningless. That is why they are accusing the Government. But you see, they have been quiet because apparently a lot of people have been captured by that verification exercise. It is not a one-time thing. It is something the Government must be consistent about every six months. There should be a system of knowing those who have died and those who have retired. If you leave it for one year or two years, there will be a build-up, and that is what the man at the pay-point wants. Let me ask you: in six months, would there not be any dead civil servant or pensioner? Would there not be any retired civil servant? So, it should be something the Government does on a regular basis. If you allowed me I would do it every three months, because our death rate here is high.
As somebody you have known the Governor since his childhood, what advice would you give him, especially considering that recently a member of his party, Senator Ifeanyi Araraume, accused him of not developing the State?
That was a political talk. I like Araraume. He is an astute person, well domesticated, and decent in the running of his home and businesses. But he is a man of vaunting ambition. Because there was no reason for him to get back into the murky waters of politics.
Did you mean he should not have vied for the Senate again?
What for? Half tenure? It shows he is a man of vaunting ambition. He should not have vied for the seat. As for developing Imo State, it is a challenge to the Governor. There is no alternative. He has to develop Imo State, so that he would leave a legacy when he leaves office. I am not his adviser, but I would tell him that.
Thank you for your time and the thoughts you shared.
Thank you, Collins.