On A Bus Ride With Governor Amaechi By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, how was your week? I spent three full nights and half a day of mine exploring the legendary Garden City, otherwise known as Port Harcourt in real name. The last time I had such an opportunity was about ten years ago, when Dr Peter Odili was still Governor and Mr Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi was the Honourable Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly. A lot of water has since passed under the bridge and the baton of power has changed in a most dramatic fashion.
I’m quite familiar with the great city of Port Harcourt which like most cities in Nigeria lost its old glory, glamour and colour to the vagaries and vicissitudes of power in the hands of our politicians. The battle for the jugular of the oil-rich state has culminated in the cataclysmic collapse of its original glint and attraction. While I will not apportion blame, I must say that it has become the unenviable plight of most Governors in Nigeria today to carry the heavy burden of our gross underdevelopment in every sphere of human existence.
My latest trip to Port Harcourt is about my fourth this year alone and about my seventh in two years. I had sneaked in and out without ever visiting the Governor on any of those occasions. The last time I did was when I paid a courtesy call on Mr Rotimi Amaechi during the Presidential campaign of 2011, in which I humbly but proudly participated. Interestingly, life was still normal in those days as Amaechi was busy campaigning for Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and everything seemed cordial between them. I will not bore you with tales of their love gone sour. Theirs had always been a patch-patch marriage of convenience which was bound to go bust at the slightest exposure to pressure.
The immediate cause of my visit this time was my chance meeting with Amaechi a few weeks ago in Abuja. An old friend, turned foe, of his had reacted angrily to an article I wrote and sent in a right-of-reply article to Thisday which we gladly published. In the said piece, the gentleman had accused me of being a victim of Amaechi’s media blitzkrieg. The writer said Amaechi had done nothing fantabulous to warrant all the accolades being heaped on him by the Nigerian Press. This was the background from which I ultimately aroused the Governor’s reaction when I saw him in Abuja. It was like touching the tiger by the tail. Amaechi instantly challenged me to visit Port Harcourt and go on a personal tour of his pet projects with him. I promised to accept the offer as soon as I returned from my marathon voyages abroad. That was our deal.
Even as I left him that night, I wasn’t sure he would ever create the chance or find the time to honour our proposed visitation. All that changed after I sent him a message last week Friday that I was heading back to Nigeria to commiserate with the family of my very dear friend and Brother, Deji Falae, who died the day before in our latest orgy of plane crashes. He promptly responded and told me to come over to Port Harcourt on Monday. On the eve of our departure, I called his Chief Press Secretary, Mr David Iyofor who told me they were in Abuja and would be there for the better part of Monday. I thought the journey would have to be cancelled or postponed but Governor Amaechi surprised me. He said we should still proceed as agreed and thus I landed with my crew of observers on Monday.
We met Amaechi eventually on Tuesday at the Government House but the whole place was a picture of bedlam. The first shock we got was the stupendous crowd we met at his main gate. I had hoped they were not some militants demonstrating and creating a blockade like they did recently. They turned out to be the 13,000 newly recruited teachers who had been disallowed from receiving their letters of appointment at the earlier arranged stadium for convenience of distribution. Also present in the Government house were hordes of politicians including some members of the embattled House of Assembly. I wondered how he was able to cope and attend to all those who needed his attention. I suppose, that is why he’s Governor. We barely managed to catch a breakfast as he got ready for a long day. We fixed our own project tours for Wednesday morning.
We set out at the appointed time on Wednesday and the Governor jumped on the bus to be with us rather than his official car. Give it to him, Amaechi understands the effect of populism. That must account for the reason he has become a walking brand and the most reported politician in Nigeria today. His opponents must have underrated this truism when they decided to try to bully him into submission. He has demonstrated an uncommon courage and resilience, the secret of which I discovered on this mission.
Our first port of call was the Kelsey Harrison Hospital equipped to handle complex medical conditions. I must note that healthcare is totally free in Rivers State to all residents. We went round the high-tech facilities and could not believe what we saw. Amaechi has engaged the services of accomplished personnel at home and abroad. We also visited the Maxillofacial Hospital and the Governor freely interacted with patients. Seeing is believing, I was awe-struck. We went to Primary Health Centres built to handle simple cases before being referred to bigger hospitals or in case of emergencies. All these centres have apartments to cater for resident doctors. The attention to the finest details in the Amaechi government beats my imagination. Nothing is left to chance. What struck me was that Amaechi designed the health facilities to uniform standards. It did not matter if they were in the main city or in far-flung villages. Not just that, he has quadrupled the number of doctors he met when he assumed power in the State. Amaechi’s humongous spending on health is a testimonial of his belief in the adage that “health is wealth.”
We got a similar feeling when we arrived at the Primary schools. It won’t be an exaggeration to describe these schools as some of the best I have seen at home and abroad. I can safely declare that I have never seen anything as good even in schools where parents cough out millions of Naira per annum. Not only is education completely free, students are entitled to free uniforms, sandals, feeding and so on. A lot has been invested in creating a modern and aesthetically attractive as well as conducive environment in these amazing structures. All the schools have well-stocked libraries, computer centres, colourful play-areas, massive sports complexes, elaborate Assembly halls, sick bays, and so on. Only 30 pupils are allowed per teacher in Primary schools and 25 in secondary schools. There was no difference in the ones we found when we drove through the famous Ogoniland. I’m reasonably assured that these students are exposed to superior conditions of learning than most of university students do anywhere in Nigeria.
The model secondary schools are even more ambitious. We visted a school where all the nearly 1,000 students live on campus and teachers have their own apartments, 24-hour electricity, feeding and so on, unbelievably free. These schools are powerfully equipped with separate state-of-the-art laboratories in various disciplines including Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Agric-Econs. I never saw anything that grandiloquent in my entire schooling career. No one but a vicious soul would suggest Amaechi has not surpassed himself in the provision of excellent services in education. I would be delighted to see the Federal Ministry of education replicate Amaechi’s vision nationwide.
Amaechi’s determination to get electricity to every nook and cranny of Rivers is legendary. He has taken the power projects that were started by his former boss, Dr Peter Odili, to a higher level and different stages of completion. The state is lucky to have a Governor who’s not noted and notorious for abandoning projects. Our visit to Afam Power Station was an eye-opener on how the power of determination can achieve wonders. By the time all the power plants come into operation by the end of 2014, as envisioned by the Governor, Rivers alone would have access to over 700 megawatts, much more than it would require for many years to come. The State is already generating and supplying its own power and should be self-sufficient in due course.
Amaechi is obsessed with job creation and poverty alleviation. Everywhere we went, he emphasised that all his pet projects have one intended purpose, how to keep the restive youths busy and away from trouble. This was amply demonstrated at the Songhai Farms and the Banana plantations in Tai Local Government area, where the target is to employ at least 4,000 youths. At Songhai Farms, I saw a resort that was still in its pristine state but being tendered with care like the Garden of Eden. The fish tanks were enormous with Tilapia and catfish in abundance. We saw the bush-meat called grass-cutter living and procreating in utter majesty. There were different sections for rice, okra, pineapple, pawpaw, cows, and so on. It was gratifying drinking the various fresh juices produced on the farm. From here, we went to the Banana farm. But we encountered a little mishap in Ogoniland where we saw many people with buckets going to have a free scoop at the overflowing crude oil from a suspected pipe cannibalisation. We had to make a quick detour for both security and safety reasons. It was my first ever experience of oil theft even if this was on a much smaller scale to that of the real buccaneers.
On our way back to Port Harcourt, I could not believe the terrible state of the East-West Road as we approached the city. Amaechi noted that it was the innocuous request he first made to the Federal Government to repair the road that pitted him against the powers-that-be in Abuja. He said he had had to fix some roads that were under the jurisdiction of the Federal just to make life less tedious for his people. A lot of the State roads have been earmarked for comprehensive repairs or total overhaul to prevent being washed away effortlessly by erosion. We came down to see the level of work currently going on in Woji. It is a very ambitious project that would gulp a lot of money to complete. One of the road construction projects was actually awarded to the same man who wrote that Amaechi had done nothing in the State. The names of those who had benefited in various contracts read like that of who is who in the State but it seems their insatiable appetite for more largesse is the major source of friction between him and these privileged elites who see him as being too radical and standoffish.
At the end of the day, Rotimi might not be a Saint but he can’t be called a non-performer either. His work speaks volume about a man whose name Rotimi confers on him some toga of mysticism. Rotimi, according to Yoruba cosmogony is an unusual child who is capable of all manner of stunts. It is usually given to an Abiku or Ogbanje. Anyone who’s familiar with Yoruba and Igbo folktales would remember how this type of child would die several times and return to the same parents over and over again. This child puts the efficacy of the herbalist and his charms to waste and shame. Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark captured the mysterious nature of this enfant terrible vividly in their poems titled Abiku. Amaechi is probably acting out the true character of someone whose appointment with fate cannot be altered by mere mortals.
It is for that reason that I appealed to President Goodluck Jonathan to embrace this young man warts and all, during the press conference I addressed before departing Port Harcourt. Amaechi is without doubt one of the golden boys of this generation. A father should be proud of such a man and should not voluntarily throw him away. A father who donates his child to the devil should never complain when he adopts the name Esubiyi, meaning “the devil gave birth to me.” A rejected son on account of sibling rivalry is bound to seek other parents, as a matter of expediency.
This is what may happen if this political debacle is not resolved soon and speedily.
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