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Okorocha As Imo One-Chance Bus By Azu Ishiekwene

August 4, 2016

If it were left for workers to choose between a government run by idiots and a state run by governors, they would not hesitate to choose the former.

After going on for months without being able to pay workers, it appears some governors are finally losing it. They are either genuinely confused about what next to do or have become desperate beyond redemption, reason and common sense. If it were left for workers to choose between a government run by idiots and a state run by governors, they would not hesitate to choose the former.

News from some of the states these days is so extraordinary you don't know whether to laugh, cry or get mad. Six weeks after Benue first broached the subject, Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, announced that workers in the state will now have a three-day working week. 

They will go to work from Monday to Wednesday, take Thursday and Friday off to work on the farms – or do whatever they can to eke out a living – and then stage their social events, including weddings, burials and moon sightings, on Saturday.

Governor Okorocha apparently has it all worked out for state workers and is urging them to take the plunge without fearing any loss or reduction in pay. Unlike his Benue State counterpart, Samuel Ortom, who gave only one off-day for workers to go to their farms, Okorocha, out of the goodness of his philanthropic heart, is giving workers two days, with the promise of making Imo Nigeria’s next food basket.

I have always envied Okorocha’s sense of humour, but I never thought the day will come when he would offer the public hemlock as humour. Is he really serious about making Imo the country’s food basket by creating the imaginary agric capital? 

His actions suggest that he’s taking the state on a fool’s ride. What happened to Ada Palm, the once-thriving oil palm business that was perhaps the state’s greatest agricultural asset, which was set up in Ohaji in 1962 by the former Premier of the Eastern Region, Michael Okpara? At the height of its glory the nine-square-mile plantation employed tens of hundreds of workers from Ohaji and environs and was one of the cash cows of the former Eastern Region. Neither Okpara nor any of the governors, military or civilian, who came after him – up till Okorocha – proposed any weekday off for farming to make the state agriculturally productive as signified by Ada Palm in those eras.

In fact, in 1983 former Governor Sam Mbakwe extended the value chain by setting up a mill fed by the plantation. The mill, at some point, produced up to 40,000 tons of fresh fruit. In a recent interview with Daily Trust, a former general manager of the mill, Don Okwu, said while he was there only ten years ago, he paid staff salaries without any government subventions for two years.  

Okorocha, the latter-day patron of emergency and unwilling farmers, had barely settled down in office five years ago when he leased out the Ada Palm. The lease to a company called Roche was mired in controversy over questions of its transparency and whether or not Roche was Okorocha's shell. But at that time, Okorocha, like many of his governor friends, was too much into cheap oil money from Abuja to care.

Now, the chicken is home to roost. Money from Abuja is drying up and Okorocha has suddenly remembered that government workers, who make up a small percentage of the state’s 3.8 million population have to “find something additional to do to support their families.” 

The way things are going in Imo and any of the other 26 states pushing for a second round of bailout after the first tranche of N414billion from Abuja failed to clear their salary arrears, workers do not need any governor to tell them how to survive. It is particularly disheartening that a governor who has committed multiple outrages against his own people still finds the audacity to preach to them about prudence.

How can Okorocha whose only take away from a US trip was to reproduce life-size billboard photos in Owerri of himself with Obama talk about cutting working hours to save cost? How can a man who has turned Imo into a virtual one-man state, crowning the insensitivity by naming a government building after his daughter, talk about anything edifying with a straight face?

While communities in the state’s hinterland, where the bulk of the population is, remain inaccessible because of bad roads, how can Okorocha talk about sending workers to the farm? How will produce from the farms be transported to the cities for sale? Even if farmers rode on the back of Okorocha's wishes to the market, how will workers in Owerri who have not been paid for months be able to buy? 

Where did Okorocha get his leadership lesson from? Benue? Neighbouring Anambra, where the government’s sensational claim of exporting $5 million worth of vegetables has caused a stir? Or from faraway Turkey where he took over 100 people, including traditional rulers and his in-laws, on investment tourism? 

Someone needs to tell folks who obviously want to make farming the new 419, that nothing much can be achieved under the present land tenure system/Land Use Decree, a situation worsened by incoherent and inconsistent policies by states and the Federal Government. I’m all for farming and whatever we can do to reduce the scandalous food import bill. But we cannot put the cart before the horse and expect a harvest.

Wherever Okorocha got the idea to send people off two days a week, he needs to return there to ask them if the specimens of such experiment also had to give up 30 percent of their monthly salaries at the governor’s behest for infrastructure, outside the state’s budget – a budget which in Imo is beyond scrutiny. 

It must be a very strange version of the Imo Formula indeed, the Okorochanese variety, that not only insists that workers should do more for less, but that they should, in fact, expect less for more. And to think that unending gubernatorial shenanigans are the icing on the cake!

Why? Perhaps Imo deserves it – like a number of states in the country today where governance is a one-chance bus (the popular phrase for commercial vehicles that ensnare unsuspecting passengers). Okorocha, the smart politician that he is, benefited from the misfortune of his predecessor who was framed by zealots as a hater of the clergy and voted out after four years in 2011. When religion gets in the way – or the promise of stomach infrastructure as was the case in Ekiti – reason and common sense are the first casualties.

After electing the Okorochas of this world, voters wake up the next day feeling defrauded and wishing for what might have been.  Whether in Imo, Ekiti or Benue, they’ll have to live with it until the incumbent’s tenure expires, and learn that their vote could alter their destinies.

For now, it’s a one-chance bus they must endure.

Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network