I will not lie for you – Ex Commissioner & Chief of Staff, tells Peter Obi (Part II)

By Ibanga Isine & Ofofonono Emmanuel

PROLOGUE: Reader responses to the first part of our exclusive interview with Stella Okunna, Nigeria’s first female mass communication professor and former supper aide to Ex-Governor Peter Obi, have been varied, ranging from those who insulted us for the choice of headline and those who appreciated our work. In this second part, the amazon shares a fascinating story of how Anambra’s political godfathers were chased out of business and other unreported stories of the man who has captured the hearts of Nigerians of every ethnic, religious and political allegiances. Join us at the GuardPost Nigeria as our Editor in-Chief, IBANGA ISINE and Intern, OFOFONONO EMMANUEL, deliver to you another sumptuous menu. You sure don’t want to miss it…  

Now, let us move into another area. People have said a lot about his (Obi) character and integrity. How did you see him at that time? Was he someone who would say something in public and do otherwise in private? How would you judge his character, please?

Honestly, I do not want to sound like a praise singer because people who know me know I do not flatter. I am a very plain-speaking person. Peter Obi is in a class of his own. He is a man of integrity, honestly. Like I told you, the development partners stayed with us in government because they knew he was an honest man. All the money they brought; you could see accountability. And he is a man who stands by his words. When he tells you he is going to do something, he endeavors to do it and would even surmount challenges to make sure he did what he said. And honestly, the people loved him because they knew he meant well for them. His government was grassroots-oriented.

There was no community he did not visit and some he did several times. He went there to ascertain their problems and needs firsthand and visited primary and secondary schools. Most secondary school children had access to him. He gave his phone number to secondary school senior prefects so they could call or text him to tell him what was going wrong. He had town hall meetings even with children, so they could tell him what was going on in their schools. He was and is still a man of integrity. He meant well and he means well, and he is kind-hearted. He loves children and young people. He loves education. Even when he had left the government, he was still visiting schools until this presidential thing came up. He was visiting schools within and outside Anambra and even went to faraway places in the North to encourage students and to make sure they are doing well. I am aware he invested billions in education, so that young people could thrive. There were many ways he encouraged education at the higher level. For instance, everybody in Anambra who had a first-class degree received one-million-naira reward. You will not believe it.

Do you mean he practically gave a million naira to every student who got a first-class degree?

Yes. That is what I am saying. He paid a million naira to every graduate who got a first class in Anambra State. It was incredible. There was a time he gave a cheque for N160 million and that meant 160 students and other achievers were appreciated.

Again, working in partnership with the churches, he gave billions to them to run the schools that were returned, and to even church-owned universities. But he began with the state university where he gave N5 billion. When we came in, Anambra State University was called a glorified secondary school. It was like a dead end with a few accreditations, poor infrastructure, and no encouragement for lecturers. When he took it up, he changed the name to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University and people loved that. He began to fund the place and turned it around. He also gave money to privately-owned universities and each of them got N100 million besides other things. He was a man particularly prepared for leadership.

Former Anambra Governor, Peter Obi giving a cheque to one of the mission schools in the state with Prof. Stella Okunna and others watching
Former Anambra Governor, Peter Obi giving a cheque to one of the mission schools in the state with Prof. Stella Okunna and others watching

But many people will disagree with you on that

I have said it all the time and I will say it now. I do not think anybody can equal what Obi did in Anambra State. That is what I think.

People say he is frugal, and you have confirmed that. How were you and his other commissioners able to cope with him?

When we came in, it became obvious he was very frugal. If it were all about money, we could have left but we saw what the man was doing, and we believed in what he was doing. As a professor, they were paying me about half my salary in the government. My salary was about N250, 000 when we came in and I do not remember whether it even increased. We didn’t have a lavish lifestyle. All of us were flying economy. I remember (laughs) sometime when I was travelling or each time we travelled abroad, commissioners from other states would come from business class to economy class to laugh at us. They’ll say, ‘come and see Peter Obi’s commissioners in economy class.’ Peter Obi has always been a very modest person and very down to earth.

What official cars were you driving as commissioners?

We began with the Peugeot 406. I hope you know Peugeot 406?

Yes, I do.

That’s what it was. Yeah, that was all we drove. It was in 2010, when he reshuffled the cabinet and brought in new commissioners that he bought us Ford Escape. Do you know Ford Escape?

Yes (laughs). So, you people were using Ford Escape  

Yes, and we rejoiced. We said it was an SUV and we were so happy because it was a big promotion. We began with 406. (Laughs) People like me didn’t mind, honestly, but nobody left because we believed in what he was doing.

What car was he driving as the governor?

It was a kind of SUV, but he didn’t drive bullet proof vehicles. They were not expensive cars, maybe Toyota. It wasn’t a lavish thing. He wasn’t serving champagne in the Governor’s Lodge. Unlike in other places, there was nothing lavished about the lodge. I’m sure you’ve heard the story about when President Obasanjo was going to visit Anambra. They said the President couldn’t come and sleep just anywhere, that he must build a Presidential Lodge (laughs) and the man said, “What?” He asked the advance party to come and see the lodge. He asked them to see whether the President can manage his bedroom. I hear they went there and said it’s manageable and Obi said, ‘Okay, my wife and I will go into one small hotel and stay there. When the President leaves, we will come back.’ I laughed (laughs). I know some governors would’ve built a mansion, using the opportunity. I don’t know how to describe Peter Obi, but honestly, I think he was a man ahead of his time.

Peter Obi signing agreement with UNICEF, with Stella Okunna, Anambra State UNICEF authorising officer watching
Peter Obi signing agreement with UNICEF, with Stella Okunna, Anambra State UNICEF authorising officer watching.

There was a House of Assembly that was antagonistic and there were godfathers who had been controlling the funds of Anambra State. How did Obi operate against the godfathers’ influence and handle the state assembly whose members were not from his party?

I think it was a tough job. When we began, people were just watching him and when they saw he meant well, they relaxed. When they saw he wasn’t stealing the money, they saw the developments and the projects in every sector, they knew how much money Anambra was getting as federal allocation; they knew he was using every single kobo for their wellbeing, they began to rally round him.

The traditional rulers believed in him because they knew he was honest. The church believed in him, and particularly the people believed in him. You can’t hide bad behavior. You can’t hide stealing. They knew where the money was going before he came, and they saw where the money was going when he became the governor. I think he conquered everybody with his lifestyle, with his frugality, his hard work, meaning well, loving the people, appreciating them, and involving them closely in what he was doing. I was the commissioner for economic planning and budget and every year, my ministry organised a Budget Forum, where we invited people from every sector of society to tell us what they wanted to see in the budget. So, every community will come in and say they want a road from here to here. We didn’t waste the money giving them what they didn’t want. Instead, we listened to them, gathered their requests, and made sure the money went into the needs of the people.

So, your budget approach was bottom-up?

Yes, it was demand-driven. It wasn’t like the government would prepare a budget in the Government House and impose it on the people. The people came to our Annual Budget Forum. It was a huge event. Even the physically challenged will say, ‘we want this,’ this community will say, ‘we want a road,’ others will say, ‘we want boreholes, we want water in schools.”  We collated everything and made sure their requests were reflected in the budget. So, people were allowed to make inputs to the budget and when the projects they expected were being implemented, they were allowed to go visit the sites and report to us. And our partners were watching us. We set our goals when we began every year, then at mid-year, we had an assessment. We had many development partners. At the beginning, we called them and told them this is where we’re going, mid-year, we had a review of what we were doing and at the end of the year, we had another review before going into another year. Peter Obi is a planning person. We were meticulous in planning, we were meticulous in implementation, we were meticulous in seeking feedback to confirm the budgets were being implemented and the development partners loved what we were doing, honestly.

What was his relationship with the godfathers of Anambra politics at the time?

He dismissed everybody. Who were you to become a godfather? Where was the money? He didn’t give ‘Shishi’ even at that time (laughs). When the godfathers’ looked (laughs) they saw that the squandering and everything had vanished. He had no godfather at all. He was working and everybody gave him the space because they knew… What are godfathers for, if not to force you to maybe appoint people and force you to give them money? When they saw, he wasn’t going to give them money, they left. What will they do? Moreover, their own people had already left – those who were giving them money. They knew he wouldn’t give, and if you stayed around and what you were looking for didn’t come in, what would you do? You leave. And that was what happened, all the godfathers just disappeared and then we started our work.

Peter Obi is married to an Akwa Ibom woman but there was no…

Yes, my son’s wife is from Akwa Ibom, you people are good.

Thank you, Prof., You know every governor’s wife wants to be identified and given the position of first lady. How did Obi operate with the wife relegated to the background?

No, your sister is a wonderful woman. Anambra women loved her, and her husband also loved her seriously. But he said, ‘my darling wife, there is no provision in the Nigerian Constitution for a First Lady or Office of First Lady.’

Wait, did Obi say that publicly?

Yes, he said it. He said there’s no position for you and you cannot find the Office of the First Lady in the law. He said, ‘It was only me who was elected. You were not elected and you’re not my deputy. You’re my wife but you were not on the ballot. I love you but I cannot create, I cannot put you on the budget. You can, if you love the women, work through the commissioner for women affairs. You can support her work. For me to come and put you on the budget and create an office is not possible…’ You know when the last governor left, there was a building titled ‘Office of the First Lady’ with a full complement of staff and budgetary allocation. Peter Obi said ‘No, it was illegal. It was unconstitutional. You’re my wife and you’re not a member of the government, as such.’ She worked with the Commissioner for Women Affairs. She did grass root tours, but she had no budgetary allocation and no office, so to say. I’m sure she didn’t like it at the beginning but eventually, she got used to it and she did well, and the people loved her.

As a woman and particularly a wife, do you think he was fair doing that when every other state in the country had offices for first ladies?

Well, some of us intervened but we knew that he (Obi) was right and because there is no Office of the First Lady in the Constitution.

So, you people intervened to ensure he created the office of the First Lady?

I am sure one or two people said, ‘How can you treat your wife like this? When everybody else is lavishing money anyhow, why are you treating this woman like this.’ His reason was correct. There is no constitutional provision for the Office of the First Lady. It was a smart thing for her to work through and support the commissioner for women affairs because she wanted to be with women and support them somehow. But for you to come and build a whole office and put everything there including budgetary allocation and complement of staff when that thing is not constitutional, I think I agreed with him because the reason was correct.

We love his wife, and we were quite close to her but when the man insisted it was not in the Constitution, there was nothing we could do. And Peter is headstrong when he is in the right position. And especially when he knows that what he is doing is right, there is nothing you will do to shift him to do what he thinks is wrong. When we all saw that he meant well and that he didn’t want to do anything unconstitutional, we let him be. And I am happy he did really. I am sure the wife understood and accepted the position and did what she could do to support her husband. She used to tour all the communities with the commissioner for women affairs, meeting women.

Mr. Obi giving a cheque to a mission hospital while former Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyaoku,Stella Okunna, and others watching
Mr. Obi giving a cheque to a mission hospital while former Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyaoku,Stella Okunna, and others watching

They say Peter Obi was a billionaire before he became governor. Did he exhibit any tendency as an extraordinarily rich person at that time or did you believe he was a billionaire?

(Laughs loud) Some people were even saying that he was disgracing the office of the governor. Many said he wasn’t behaving like a governor and didn’t use sirens and didn’t show off. I remember because I occupied several positions, and I was travelling with him a lot. There was this time we were going to see one big man who had requested for the governor to visit him in his village. The man had assembled the whole village. Immediately we drove into his compound, people went and told him that the governor was there. He said, ‘how can the governor be here, and he didn’t hear the siren?’ (Laughs loud). The man said, ‘Please I beg you in the name of God, go back to the junction there and blow the siren so the people will know that the governor is coming to my house.’ He was that kind of governor. If you saw his convoy, it was made up of, maybe his vehicle, the backup vehicle, and the security vehicle. I have seen governors with convoys of about 20 vehicles and because we didn’t blow sirens to drive people off the roads, people wouldn’t know when the governor was passing. Honestly, I tell you he was very down to earth and somehow, Anambra people loved him for that. He didn’t show off. He didn’t intimidate people with his money. I think being a billionaire wasn’t the only reason he didn’t steal public money; it was his character that made him not to. And what was he going to do with the money anyway? He has only two children. So, who would he be stealing for?

There was this issue of bags of money that were found on his aides and people have questioned why he had to carry such an amount of cash. As someone who was in that government for eight years, you should have known what happened?

He had explained what happened and we understood it and even the man whom the money was being taken to also agreed that it was his money. You know we are talking about 2007 – 2008 and that is almost 16 years ago when he got into government. I don’t think electronic banking was the way it is now. He was buying vehicles and there were quite a lot of them, and we saw the vehicles. We learnt that the man wanted cash. You know Nigerians at that time weren’t really banking. People used to hide money under their beds, and we were told this man wanted cash and didn’t want to be given a check. Maybe he didn’t trust the government because of what was happening before in the state. I don’t know the reason, but he wanted cash. And with security, a big man like that could carry cash around. That was what we were told, and I believed that. Where would he (Obi) be taking the money if not to the person who needed it?

He was working very closely with heads of security agencies and the vehicles were donated to security agencies and that was how peace returned to Anambra State at the time. Didn’t you hear about Anambra before he came in? It was a story of kidnapping, beheadings just like what we are having now. By the time he was done with equipping security agencies, the crime wave and insecurity were almost zero. He gave so many operational vehicles to security agencies all over the state including the Army and the Police. Every community in Anambra State received a security vehicle and some even got more than one. The vehicles were given alongside money oh! The Army Barracks in Onitsha alone had over 100 vehicles. He didn’t want his government to work at cross purposes with the security agencies.

During that time, every school in Anambra got a bus. Every tertiary institution received vehicles for security and logistics. I believed the money was spent on vehicles and there was no question about it. No one has ever said that Anambra State Government funds were missing under Peter Obi. This is a man who was accounting for every single kobo he spent. He was a successful businessman before he came into government and then he handed over those businesses to his brothers to run.

There seemed to have been a controversy over the money he handed over to his successor. What can you say to that?

What was the controversy about? Someone gave you a handover document, you read it and signed it. If he didn’t see the money, why did he sign the handing over note which indicated the money was there? Even the bank managers confirmed the monies were in their banks and the investments made were there for all to see. As his commissioner for planning, I used to accompany him to the National Economic Council (NEC) meeting when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was Finance Minister. When they were talking about savings, many governors said they didn’t believe in savings. They said, ‘you’re asking us to save for the rainy season and its already pouring. The rainy season is here, we are not saving.’ But Obi believed in saving and what happened in Anambra was because of that belief. He was putting money aside for the future. My argument is and this should interest any person who is saying there was a controversy – someone wrote a handover note which I saw and read. On the day of handing over, the new governor came in and he got the documents and signed them. Everything was listed and he was given an idea of what was left behind and he accepted. I don’t believe he wouldn’t have protested if it wasn’t true. And like I have said several times, the banks where the monies were kept confirmed through their managers publicly. I am sure you remember that it wasn’t long after his successor came that they fell apart and everybody knew about that. Maybe it was the denial that made them turn against each other. I don’t believe any money was lost. I knew so much money was left behind and was received by the new administration. Whether they used it to work for the state or work for themselves is what I don’t know. Obi didn’t lie about leaving savings for Anambra people and if he did, the banks could have said so. It wasn’t necessary to lie. END

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