By Ibanga Isine & Ofofonono Emmanuel
PROLOGUE: Peter Obi, the presidential candidate for the Labour Party, has made several claims while serving as Anambra State Governor from 2006 to 2014. Additionally, he has challenged people to go verify.
As part of its Public Interest Journalism, GuardPost Nigeria cornered one individual who, possibly, held the most positions in the Obi Administration, including Chief of Staff, Chairman, MDGs Implementation Committee, Commissioner for Information, Commissioner for Budget, Commissioner for Budget and Economic Development and Co-ordinating Commissioner for Development Partnership, at various times. She is Stella Chinyere Okunna, the first mass communication professor in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mrs. Okunna spoke frankly and passionately about #MrGoAndVerify in the first part of our exclusive interview with our Editor in-Chief, IBANGA ISINE, and Intern, OFOFONONO EMMANUEL. Has Mr. Obi been lying all this while? Skip reading if you can’t handle it…
Could you please tell us a little about yourself Mrs. Okunna?
Well, my name is Chinyere Stella Okunna. I’m a Professor of Mass Communication. I am the first female professor of mass communication in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa. I began teaching Journalism at IMT (Institute of Management Technology), Enugu. I’m sure you know IMT?
Yes, I do.
From there I went to UNIZIK (Nnamdi Azikiwe University), and that was years ago and while teaching in UNIZIK, I was appointed commissioner by Peter Obi, and I took a leave of absence from the university. I was there for eight years, and the funny thing is that when the appointment came, I didn’t even know him. I never met him. The first time I met him was at the swearing-in ceremony. I mean our swearing-in ceremony.
Wait Madam, you did not meet him until your swearing-in ceremony?
I’ll tell you. I didn’t meet him until that day.
Tell me something here. How did Mr. Obi find you and how was your first interaction with him?
(Laughs) He said he saw my CV and I don’t even know who gave it to him. He must have seen my CV somewhere. He said he saw my CV as he was trying to assemble a team of people who were going to work with him. You know in Nigeria, when politicians are in power, they usually appoint people they know. But that is not Peter Obi. He said when he saw my CV, he knew, ‘this woman is good and must work with me.’ I didn’t know him like I told you. It was at the swearing-in ceremony that I saw him for the first time.
You mean you accepted an appointment from someone you did not know just like that?
I almost said no. I was terrified. I’m sure you know in Nigeria when you are either the commissioner for information or the minister of information, if your boss doesn’t do well as governor or as president, woe betide you, you’re finished. This is because you’re going to become a propagandist. You will begin to lie to cover up his deficiencies.
I knew as a professor of mass communication; he was most likely going to appoint me as commissioner for information and I was frightened and almost said no. It was colleagues and family members who said, ‘go in there and give it a shot’ and I went. And that was because I didn’t know him. I didn’t know whether he was going to do well. I didn’t know whether I was going to be turned into a liar and a propagandist. After the encouragement of colleagues and family, I told myself, ‘Okay, go there and do your best and if he doesn’t do well, you can leave.’ Let me tell you something and maybe on a lighter note… (laughs). After we were sworn in, one day I walked into his office with a copy of one of the subjects I teach as a journalism educator. It was a book on the ‘Ethics of Mass Communication,’ which I taught for years.
You mean you wanted to teach him communication or journalism ethics or what?
(Laughs out loud) I walked into his office that day and he was looking at me. I said, ‘Your Excellency, I don’t know you and you don’t even know me. Let me just tell you, I’m not going to lie for you… If you don’t do well, I will not lie for you.’ As I said that, I gave a copy of my book, which I had already autographed to him and said, ‘This is my teaching area and if you don’t do well, I’m not going to lie for you.’ He laughed (she laughs too). He was startled somehow and said he was going to do well. I said ok, I’ll give it a shot. You know Nigerians hardly resign from appointments?
Yes, I know about that
Most of the things people do in government is driven by greed. People are there no matter how badly the governor or the president or their boss is doing. They stick in there because of the money. So, that was how we began. I was apprehensive until we began to work. He struck out his vision and it made sense to me and when we began working, you know information. I wasn’t comfortable in that job because the man didn’t want us to talk about what he was doing. He was doing quite well despite all the challenges. He was impeached. The house of assembly was filled with people in the opposition party. They were from the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party).
He had nobody in the house of assembly. So, it was a very tough assignment for him. But somehow, he was doing well. He had a brilliant vision. He had a strategy for living that vision. So, we began working and I began to relax. When we came in sometime in 2006, or thereabouts, there were so many challenges. Anambra was such a fractious place. We didn’t even settle down to work before his impeachment and removal from office because of money issues. The second removal was in 2007 when they had an election when his tenure wasn’t over yet. He went to court. People thought he was going to waste his time. Eventually, he came back, and we began working sometime in 2008. But I’m telling you he did well.
Let me ask you a question here. He was removed about two times, right?
Yes, that is true. First, he won the election, and he was not even declared and so he went to court and got his mandate. That was number one. I’m sure you know that he won the election in 2003, and somebody else was declared the winner.
Tell me about it, Ma’am.
He was. And yes, he went to court for three years and more.
Were you aware when he was in court after the 2003 election?
No, I didn’t know him at all. I didn’t know him before we came into the office. He had won the election in 2003. I’m sure you’ve heard about this.
Yes, I did.
They swore in Chris Ngige of the PDP at the time. Then he (Obi) went to court to recover his mandate. He was in court for three years. So, from 2003 he was in court until 2006, that was when he recovered the mandate and came into office as governor. So, when I saw that the vision was okay, I’m sure you know at that time the world was trying to implement the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). He adopted the MDGs as his vision and each time people asked him, he said he looked at the MDGs programme and saw that they contained all he wanted to do for Anambra State. You know MDGs had eight goals? And those eight goals delivered dividends of democracy
So, you mean that he used the MDGs as his blueprint?
He developed a strategy called ANIDS (Anambra Integrated Development Strategy) which was also multi-sectoral and adopted the MDGs and began to implement them in all the sectors. He was delivering the MDGs in all the sectors. Honestly it was an awesome, awesome government. I’m not saying this because I was part of it.
I don’t want you to sound as if you’re doing praise and worship. This is a serious interview.
(Laughs out loud) Okay. Let me tell you. Let me tell you… You know I began as commissioner for information?
That was what I found out while researching you.
We started in 2006 and by early 2009, he said that I was a very meticulous planner and that he was going to take me away from information and put me somewhere else and I said, ‘look at me, I’m a Professor of Communication, where will you put me that I will be relevant?’ And as we were talking, he created a new ministry of planning and budget by merging planning and budget and made me commissioner. While still working there, he made me the Chairman of the MDGs Implementation Committee. Achieving the MDGs was his vision, remember?
You said so
I was made the Chairman of the Implementation Committee and that was from 2009. He removed me from information, even our Anglican bishop and some of our priests were saying, ‘This is the one person we have in the government that was visible, how can he change her? What is Economic Planning? Nobody ever heard about that kind of plan, and they are taking this woman away from a very high-profile ministry and they are putting her in a dead place.’
You mean religious coloration also came into it?
They said it was very obscure… ‘What is planning? What is Economic Planning? How can they remove this woman?’ People were even saying it was a demotion. A Professor of Mass Communication moved from information at that time. I think he sent one of his frontline commissioners and said, ‘Go and tell those that are talking that if they know where this woman is going to, they’ll calm down.’
I told the man, ‘Well, I’ll go and give it a trial, if it doesn’t work, I will leave. As a professor I can always return to the classroom.’ Immediately after that, the next exco meeting or thereabout, he created this new ministry that he took from Economic Planning and added Budget to it. At that time, we were a very poor state. Many people were very wealthy but as a state, we were not oil producing, and IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) was very low. As soon as he (Obi) came in, all the bad blood in Anambra ceased, so to say. He brought back peace. There was restorability to good governance. He brought back tranquility, and so, the donor agencies that had left the state all came back. By the time we left, virtually every development agency globally was working in Anambra State. All of them. So, they brought in their money, and I tell you, every single kobo was used.
They trusted him with the money, and he delivered the dividends of democracy and accounted for every single kobo he collected. At one point, he made me the Co-ordinating Commissioner for Development Partnership. You know the MDGs programme was a partnership between the state and Federal Government? So, I was coordinating development partners in UNICEF, European Union, World Bank, DFID (Department for International Development), you name them. They were all there, bringing in their money and he was managing the money well. I was also eventually made the Chief of Staff. It was an awesome experience, but you know our boss. He was such a frugal person. Upon all those names na one salary o (laughs). But we worked because we…, people like me believed in his vision. And after the first term, he was re-elected by, I will call it a landslide. By the time we left, Anambra had been elevated to the top of everything. For instance, when we began, Anambra State was the lowest in education. If you see what we met in the educational sector – dilapidated classrooms, very poor performance, we were about 24 or 26 in NECO, you know NECO?
I do please.
The same was the case with WAEC. Our students were performing so badly, and morale was low. He (Obi) began to take education up and eventually he partnered with the churches. That partnership really did wonders in the education sector and the health sector, and before we knew it, Anambra rose from the 24th or 26th position to number 1 in external exams – NECO and WAEC. He equipped schools. We renovated old buildings. We built hundreds of classrooms in every community and teachers were motivated. The students rallied, rose to the occasion. Anambra became number 1 in education.
And he gave back schools to the missions. You know that after the Civil War; I don’t know how old you’re, but I’m sure you were not born then. There was a time after the war, the Federal Government took over all mission schools. It was mission schools in those days that were doing well. When they took away the schools from them, it demoralised members of the churches and the schools collapsed academically, in discipline, and morally. So, what His Excellency did was to return the schools to the missions, and I tell you it was a battle at our exco meeting. Even his commissioners rejected it, NUT (Nigeria Union of Teachers) rejected it outrightly saying how can he do this? But eventually, he is a very strong-willed person. He went ahead and returned the schools. Come and see the progress. With the partnership with the churches, education went to the heights. Something happened in the health sector. We partnered with the church, and we fully implemented the MDGs. He was acknowledged as the best governor in MDGs’ implementation.
And even when he had left office, when the MDGs were giving way to SDGs and the programme was winding down, he was invited by the United Nations to New York to come and share his MDGs experience. First, he won the best governor in MDGs. Then, globally he was recognised. Because I was the chairman of MDGs I went with him, and it was an awesome experience. They asked him so many questions like what did you do? How did you achieve so much in MDGs? Honestly, I look back on those years and I think Anambra was at its most brilliant and shining in all sectors. And because AIDS was a multi-sectoral strategy, we were working in every single sector. We had the best network of roads because he thought if he didn’t open-up the rural areas, things wouldn’t go well. So, we had the best network of roads. We had the best schools. And we had the best healthcare sector.
You said it was about six months into the administration during the first tenure that he was impeached, right?
Yes. That is true. But do you know why?
You can tell us now.
Well, I think it was frugality. Sometimes people say he is stingy. But for those of us who knew what he was doing with the money, it wasn’t miserliness. He was just a very accountable and frugal person. He utilised every kobo of government money for government work. So, when we came in, there was so much fighting. They had burnt the Government House; burnt the Governor’s Office and I hear they budgeted so much to rebuild them. Over N400 million or thereabout was budgeted to repair the Governor’s Lodge and the Government House. And this man came from nowhere and got the job done. He repaired everything with less than one-tenth of what they voted. The House of Assembly said he didn’t go through due process, but remember the House was all PDP? We didn’t even have one single House member. So, that was it. So, they said he didn’t do due process, why can he just come in and cut the budget without approval. That was the reason we heard for the impeachment.
Can you tell us what happened after the impeachment?
When they impeached him, everybody expected that he was going to leave. The day he came to say goodbye, we were in an exco meeting and he came in and said that he was going. He told us to keep working with his deputy.
You mean Virginia Etiaba?
Yes, Mrs. Etiaba and we were having an exco meeting, he (Obi) came in to say goodbye. We were weeping because we said ‘Oh! My goodness, what kind of thing is this? A man who was beginning to do well and they removed.’ He said, ‘No, no, don’t cry, I’m going to fight this thing. I will come back.’ Some of us laughed. I mean some of the commissioners laughed. They said, ‘We’re not sure he knows where he’s going.’ Nobody expected him to come back. It was unheard of, but he went to the court and the case went all the way to the Appeal and the Supreme courts in Abuja. He won and was reinstated.
Now, let me ask you a question here.
All through the time he was in court, did he ever come back to you people or did the Etiaba administration support him in any way?
Honestly, I don’t know. He asked all of us not to leave and that he was coming back. That’s all I remember now. I don’t know who supported or who didn’t support. There was a lot of rumor mongering about who impeached him and so many allegations.
I mean, as commissioners who were appointed by him, did he ever come back to you for any form of support or anything or he just went away and fought his battle alone?
No, he just left and said we should go on working with the deputy governor and that he was coming back. Many people didn’t believe him, but we stayed on. So, he eventually won the case. I think the case took three months. And by the time he came back, the 2007 election preparations were in top gear. They said he had already spent four years. So, they began preparing for an election. I think he even wanted to contest the election, but they won’t allow him. That was how the election went on and Andy Uba was declared winner.
You mean they did not allow him to contest?
No, he wasn’t allowed to contest.
Even in APGA?
In APGA, yes. He was in APGA, and by the time…
Wait. So, APGA did not allow him to contest?
No. Maybe it was INEC because they had already submitted the list of candidates. I think the contestants were already there. I don’t remember who it was that was going to contest for APGA. But it was Andy Uba of PDP that was declared the winner. At that time, everybody said this man is finished because there was a new governor. He went back to court (laughs). My goodness! He went to the court and said, ‘can you interpret this action here? I was elected for a four-year period; it wasn’t my fault that anybody denied me my mandate. I had four years to serve as governor and that’s what the Constitution says.’ Soon after, the court interpreted the law and ruled that he had just done less than one year, and he must go back to complete his term. That was how he came back.
To be continued ….