By Yemisi Suleiman
Governor Rochas Owelle Okorocha of Imo State is one of the most criticised governors in recent times. For one whose every step is seen in the wrong direction, we sort to unravel the mystery and somewhat misconceptions about the governor and philanthropist who, no doubt, has contributed greatly to education in Nigeria and Africa via the Rochas Okorocha Foundation of Africa. As he clocked 55 recently, he reminisced on his indigent childhood and ‘rise to riches’, his recent partnership with the South African President and more.
How has life treated you in the last 55 years?
Well, talking about my 55 years in this world, it brings about a lot of memories of the past and how it all started. So, looking back, I can only say ‘to God be the glory’ because, in 55 years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
The bad being that I came from a very poor home. I wish I had come from a rich family but I didn’t. I grew up in Jos; that was where I had my primary, secondary and university education. Then, I came into business. From business to politics and here I am today. So, I thank God. The good side of it is that I have seen the mercy of God; coming from nothing to something. That, for me, is good. The ugly side of it is getting close touch with death and still being alive. The plane crashes and all of that.
You recently signed an MoU with Jacob Zuma, the South African president, who paid a visit to your state precisely. Could tell us about the MoU?
Yes, Jacob Zuma was in Nigeria for humanitarian purpose. It was the signing of an MoU and partnership between the Jacob Zuma Foundation and the Rochas Okorocha Foundationl a vision which aims at ensuring that every indigent child from Africa gets basic education. The vision came as a whirl wind in my spirit; to give back, for reasons of my background that almost could not go to school because of poverty.
I prayed to God to give me that I may relay in future. President Zuma and I share a lot in common: not privileged to go to school, Zuma taught himself to read and write. Today, I feel fulfilled that that which God had put in my heart has come to fruition. This partnership is about giving back; the visit talks to the problems of Africa, not just lamenting but finding solutions. It is a contribution to nation building.
You started advocacy for education with Rochas Foundation long before you became a governor. Are you into this advocacy because of the lack you also once experienced?
It’s just like asking me whether worshipping God is a good idea. It was something in my spirit. I cannot even tell that this was the reason I thought education was key. I went to school in a very difficult circumstance and I almost missed school completely. My education wasn’t quite regular because I had to combine street trading with schooling. I changed from morning classes to afternoon classes to make ends meet so I understand the importance of education.
I admired those who could speak good English and anytime I went to functions, I saw those who had gone to school standing out. And, I would see those who had not gone to school looking at the educated ones as though they were gods. That was where the inspiration came from and I believe it’s still the best inheritance you can give a child.
I said to God that if I’m educated, I will help others to get education because I understand the pains of those who couldn’t go to school. At that point, I decided that I must begin Rochas Foundation to give education to those who ordinarily would never have gone to school.
I started by going to Mosalashi Jimoh (jumat service in the mosques) to give them food but, immediately, I saw too many children coming around, I asked myself a question: “How long will I keep feeding these children before they become useful to themselves?” So, I built a school in Owerri, Kano, Jos, Ibadan and Ogboko respectively.Today, we have schools in Sokoto, Zaria, Yola, Adamawa, Bauchi and Enugu. Cross River is coming up.
We just built the Rochas Foundation College for Africa where we’re admitting five students each from all African countries. Right now, I have over 15,000 students and over 2,000 of them are graduates; over 1,000 are working in the Police, Army and these are children who just found themselves on the dark side of life.
You decided to extend your reach to Africa with the Rochas Foundation College of Africa. What informed this decision?
My concern is for the Black race, Africa. I, honestly, have wondered what can unite Africa. I used to be president of Red Cross. One of the challenges we had was that there was no common thing uniting us other than being Black. The only language we tend to sing is ‘poverty’. I don’t see ten years from now; I see 500 years to come. That’s the difference.
The children from across Africa are here with different stories and they are doing well. My idea is that, someday, some of these children would become African leaders and bring about prosperity in the land. There are children from South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Ethiopia, Sierra-Leone and we are expecting others.
At what point in your life did your political career begin and what informed it?
I didn’t come into politics to just make a name. I didn’t come for the glory of the job. I came into politics in agreement with my philanthropy. I would have no business with politics if not to reach the larger society. That is what brought me into politics because I was quite a comfortable person before I joined politics. I went into politics because I vowed to God that if he blesses me, I would be a blessing to others. And that if He honours me, I will honour Him because, on my own, I can do nothing but I can do all things through Him.
That resolve is my driving force. I’ve always used this opportunity to serve the larger society. That is why my style of politics is different from any other person’s in this country. I wasn’t scared and I never saw Abiola as a role model or anybody for that matter. I carved my niche myself and my vision is to touch lives and make the society better.
What are the greatest challenges before you as the governor of Imo State?
I don’t have any challenge; at least, none that I know of. This is so because before I became the governor, I’d expected much more problems than I found. Remember, I aspired to be president and I had pursued this ambition three times before I came back to become a governor.
Have you dropped your ambition to become president of Nigeria?
No, I have not dropped my ambition to become president. I’m only respecting President Muhammadu Buhari whom I think has what it takes to change leadership in this country. And, I’m waiting for his declaration; if he’s running then, I should support him.
On the scale of 1 to 10, how would you, honestly, rate your performance as a governor?
I think I had scored 15 over 10! You may be surprised I’m saying this but you can ask me why and how. There’s no aspect of life in Imo State that I’ve not touched positively – infrastructure has been a lot better than what the state had; education is free from primary school to university; security is better. People now trust government unlike before; the government is now closer to the people and so on. I challenge any past governor in this state, dead or alive, to dare say they performed better than me!
If these, truly, are what you’ve achieved so far, are you not bothered by the criticism and negative comments about your person and government?
It doesn’t bother me because to be great is to be misunderstood. I don’t want people to understand me. If they understand me, I won’t be great. So, those who write and say negative things about me help me a lot because if you know the real Rochas, you will understand that you can slap me because you know I would never harm you. If you know me well enough, you would know that you could even take my property and I wouldn’t ask for it. I find these things protective – my enemies have created a good name for me. Of course, they would say Rochas who destroyed Ekuku Market; I thank them a lot because I don’t even want them to know the true story.
You were accused of pulling down the market without making an alternative…
That is not true. The whole of Ekuku Market had 3,500 shops. I built 11,500 shops and nobody has talked about it. This is so because they don’t want me to take credit for anything good. Even my daughter feels worried that her daddy is not getting fair publicity and that is why I allowed this interview. Otherwise, I won’t grant it.
There are always what we call fault-finders and most people you find writing negative things about me are not fact-finders. That was how some people said my wife and I have a chaotic marriage. I have the best marriage and family in the world! They think writing things like this will destroy me politically but for how long will I keep responding to those negatives? Most people come to Imo State and they are shocked. If you were told in Lagos that there is a state house like this in the East, you probably won’t believe. But I understand; bad news sells! If you say that Okorocha is a wonderful man, a God-sent, who will read it? In Imo State, I have over 1,700 projects going on and that is unprecedented in recent history. I sound boisterous nowadays. It’s not my nature but, sometimes, you must tell it as it is.
A few states have done free education with primary and secondary schools. How were you able to make it free up to the university level?
It’s the same as asking me how we have survived with Rochas Foundation. It’s vision. The Bible says: “My people perish for lack of knowledge…” How was the first aircraft built? Vision!
That’s why I keep saying let visionary leaders lead irrespective of where they come from. We always want our friends, kin, relatives and so on to lead and that is why we languish in this country. No country, okay, maybe one or two countries, can do free education from primary to university level. Has anybody asked me how I’ve been able to achieve free education? Even the government hasn’t asked! I’m still providing uniforms, lockers, shoes, books and so on with quality teachers to train these kids. But how many people have come to ask me how we’ve managed to achieve this?
When I started Rochas Foundation, the first news that greeted that development was that I was going to do politics and needed popularity. For 17 years now, I’ve run the foundation and I’ve been governor for just a few years and I have not jettisoned the programme. Instead, I’m extending our reach to Africa and I’m sure the next thing you would hear is that Rochas wants to be the president of Africa! Why should I waste so much time explaining that to anybody who fails to understand me?
Where do you see yourself in 2019?
I have so many windows open in 2019 as I wait for the president to make his declaration. I want to be politically relevant and I have made the decision never to watch my country sink. This I would do without losing my foundation which is a huge challenge on its own. If President Buhari declares to run for office again in 2019, I will support him because the man has character to develop Nigeria. He has the thick skin that we need. We have a faulty foundation and I see President Buhari as that man who can build the foundation that we need.
I don’t see him as someone who will build this nation with fantastic finishing; with nice furniture. He’s just going to build a solid foundation upon which success and prosperity for the land shall be accomplished. And, that’s where people like me would come in.
What’s your take on some youths of IPOB agitating for Biafra?
IPOB was over-priced. These young men seeking relevance as a livelihood and telling you how daft some people can be; any mad man can just rise one day and lead a senseless agitation and he’d get followers.
Even the way the government handled IPOB wasn’t right. I kept telling the government that this young man, Nnamdi Kanu, is inconsequential in the matter – treat him like whom he is. Now, he’d been given some national attention, branding the whole Igbos as IPOB members, and it’s the reason for the quit notice some gave our people in the North. The matter is laughable! You cannot imagine me, Rochas, asked by IPOB to go to war and I follow. That is the greatest insult to people of the East! Even if you come today and start a church you name it: ‘Kill Every Human Being Church’, some people will still join you. There are always people for everything you do.
Recently, you have been labelled a ‘Hausa man’ by the likes of Nnamdi Kanu and Femi Fani-Kayode, who both stated that your Igbo parentage is questionable. What do you have to say about that?
I’m a Nigerian first and foremost. I grew up as a northerner. I speak fluent Hausa. I write Hausa and I understand the Hausa culture. That way, I’m a Hausa man. I’ve been in Hausa land longer than I’ve been in Igbo land. So, why can’t I claim to be a Hausa man?
My first thought was to run for governor of Plateau State or Kano. In fact, when I came to Imo State, I was an unknown man because I never went to primary or secondary school here (Imo).
Most people don’t know me and that is part of the problem I’m facing now because the elites don’t understand me. If I had gone to the same schools with them, they would have known my behaviour from primary or secondary school. They brand me with everything their minds conceive.
Hausa people gave me my childhood; they trained me up to the university but Igbo gave me parentage. My parents are Igbos but my business success came from the West. It was a Yoruba man that was my partner who became a millionaire. Having been born an Igbo man, brought up by the North and empowered by the West, I’m a Nigerian. No one believes more in Nigeria than me. If there’s such person, let him so speak of his activities.
If I didn’t believe in Nigeria, I wouldn’t have built my schools in Ibadan (Rochas Foundation) with over 10,000 poor students there. Once upon a time, former President Obasanjo was shocked when I took about 87 students from his village, Owu area (in Ogun State). He was surprised to see that those are the kids I call my children. I built in Jos; I’m not from Jos. I built a school in Yola, am I from Yola? I built in Bauchi, Cross River and so on. We don’t say we believe in the unity of Nigeria (for nothing)!.
Theoretically, we must do something practical to prove it. As I speak to you, there’s no single northerner with meaningful investment in Imo State. No northerner has a million naira investment in Igboland; no Yoruba man has a million naira worth of building here. That’s why I say if there’s any region that is Nigerian it’s the Igbos. Go to Lagos, you’d see Igbos. Does it mean they have no lands in their states? You go to Kano, Kaduna and everywhere, you’d see Igbos. They’re more Nigerian than anyone else; they should be given kudos for that. Where will the Igbos go to? Would they leave those properties there and come home?
What’s your take about restructuring?
What are you restructuring? It’s a poor work man that quarrels with his tools. What Nigeria needs is to get it right. Once things are right from the top, everything will be fine with the country. The agitation is a complaint about not carrying some people along. Anytime the system is insufficient, people must cry foul. Once no poverty, (nobody) cares about such propositions?
You have a peculiar dress sense with a signature cap and muffler. Why the muffler?
Of all my clothing, the muffler is the most important to wear because it’s a symbol of my stewardship to the state. It signifies my love for the ordinary people; if I don’t have it on, I feel naked. As long as it’s on me, I remember that no poor person should ever be left unattended to. If I see little children, I must carry them; if I see widows, I must hug them because it’s the essence of life. I worship with it; I just raise it up to God of all flesh.
Do you have favourite meals?
I love vegetables a lot. I don’t eat rice. I don’t eat beef. I don’t eat garri. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke. I eat beans.
What are the likely five items you would take along with you to a get away?
My clothes, muffler, Bible, toiletries and toothbrush. I’m not a phone person so you may be surprised that I may not even go with any.
How do you relax after all the day’s work?
Ask my son; he’s been with me for the past one week. I work till I climb up my bed; every day, I close like 2:30 am and wake up at 5 am. I hardly have four hours of sleep in my life. I like it because it keeps me alive. I don’t do strenuous exercise. I believe that we should not sleep now because when we die, we will sleep well. Those who sleep almost all day are the ghosts you see when they die because they’re still wandering around.