INTERVIEW: “My motivation is to make a difference and bring development to my constituency”

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THUR, JUNE 15 2017-CHIKE JOHN OKAFOR: Chike John Okafor is an elected member of the federal House of Representative. He Represents Obowo, Ihitte-Uboma and Ehime-Mbano LGAs and he is currently serving as the House Chairman on Health. He spoke exclusively to theG&BJournal on an array of issues including his passion for developing human capital in the country and his constituency in particular. This is the continuation of the interview that we have been running since Monday JUNE 12.

At this point, It will be very important for people to understand where you are coming from and who you really are. May we get to meet you Sir and get to know your profile?

Talking about myself, where will I start from when I was born? I rather put it this way. I am one of those that were born after the war. To a couple that were too young at the time. My father was less than 25 years, while my mum was 22yrs. I happen to be the first child, grew up in an environment where both parents were still schooling at the time.

My father graduated from the University of Lagos in 1979 while my mother graduated from UNN about the same time. They both came out and started looking for job. Between 1980 and 1981 both of them secured employment with the Imo State Civil Service. My mum was teaching and my dad was a civil servant. He was into civil service proper.

So, I grew up in that environment and finished from Holy Ghost College Owerri. I started with St. Peter’s Seminary School but I could not cope with the regimented life in the seminary. Then my father saw the need to still continue with a Roman catholic owned institution because we are Roman Catholic. So, when I finished from Holy Ghost College, I gained admission into Imo State University Owerri in 1992 where we were the pioneer set of the relocated university, shortly after the creation of Abia State. So the government of Evan Enwerem saw the need to have a state owned university and so those of us who have already gained admission to other universities, like I got admission to study economies at the Imo State university in Uturu, Okigwe but before the Jamb and admission process was out, Abia has been created and then the university that was hitterto Imo State University became Abia state University and the then governor Evan Enwerem, at a time approached the NUC and got the license to relocate the Imo State University to where it was, the Owerri campus.

So, there was nobody who actually chose Imo State University Owerri as a choice. If any one says that, he or she wouldn’t be saying the truth. What happened was that the government had to persuade the Imo sons & daughters who gained admissions here and there to now come to apply to form the nucleus of the university, Imo State University. That was where I read economics and graduated in 1997 Dec, with second class honours. I did my national youth service in 1998/1999 in Osun State in Osogbo Ogun Station, that was how I started. I did the national youth service there and coming back home I had to go back to school to do my masters in between.

Barely six months into the programe, I got a job in the bank. I had always desired to work in the bank and so it wasn’t surprising that while I was serving, I was throwing my CV at banks. I started with All States Trust Bank now defunct. Well, they are part of what we have today as Ecobank, that was in 1999 July, having finished my youth service in Feb. 1999.

So, I am one of those Nigerian who didn’t spend so much time in the labour market. I didn’t really know what it means to be unemployed. So I got the job there as a graduate assistant in All State Trust Bank in Port Harcourt, one of the branches – Refinery branch, Alesia Eleme. We were the pioneering set at the time and then in 2001 when they opened Owerri branch of the same bank, I was also one of those who were asked to come to also set up the branch. So, I was among the set of staff who came to open up the branch in Owerri and then barely three months after I came home to All States Trust Bank. I left the bank to Oceanic Bank that was in Feb 2002.

I was with them till 2005 May, when I joined Zenith bank as a senior banking officer. As at 2007 I was a full manager in Zenith bank and then by 2010 I became a senior manager, the position I held until Governor Rochas Okorocha who just worn Election in 2011 beckoned on me and appointed me the commissioner for finance in June 22nd, 2011. The position I held till I was compelled rather persuaded to run election in 2015. So I merely resigned in May 2014 because election was to be held on February. You are supposed to resign any political appointment 60 days or so before election. So, I resigned and then ran the election and worn.

It is instructive to also note that while I was the commissioner the Governor dissolved his cabinet three record times and returned me three times to the same position. I was the only person who had that privilege of coming back to the cabinet as commissioner for finance till I resigned to contest for an election and won. I don’t know what else to add but at the period I held political office as commissioner.
So what lessons did you take away while serving as the commissioner for Finance?

I had opportunities, I will call it leverages. What I learnt from my Governor at a time was the major reason to hold a political office either elective or appointive is to develop your immediate constituency. So the first, assignment immediately you find yourself in a political office is to define your constituency and begin to look for the opportunities to impact lives or bring development to that constituency because that’s the major reason you are holding that office. I understood that clearly that is why today, it sounds modest to say I am a house hold name in Obowo. That’s where I come from.

I have to say that prior to that appointment I had nothing to do with politics. I have never plotted to be in it in my life, I have never registered to vote as I didn’t quite like or trust the process. When we were at the formative stage of this current democracy in 1999, was when I was serving at Osun State. Elections held while I was serving, and the process which included registration process while I was there wasn’t attractive to me. I didn’t fancy the idea because I knew that my stay in that state will be short-lived. I mean it was a national youth service so I didn’t participate in the processes which started in 1998. I didn’t even register.

So, coming back to my former base in Port Harcourt before the election of 2003, the process was on just like it happened in 1999, I knew I was not from River state so, I didn’t get involved. This man here talking with you have never been a part of any electoral process.

I never attended a party meeting, hardly got interests in who gets what.  Even in my immediate community when they said they were doing local government, I didn’t like the idea.

Let me say this, when the Governor won election in 2011, working in a bank here and becoming a manager and managing branch and branches at a time, you cannot run a branch of a bank successfully in a market like Owerri without having some of the support of the government. So, my niche at the time was the public sector.

You wouldn’t do well as a manager of a branch of a bank if you are not patronized by the government. For this reason, I got as close as possible to the government between 2002 when I came back to Owerri until my appointment. I got reasonably close to the government. Between 2004 and 2007 it was Achike Udenwa’s government, in 2007 Ikedi Ohakim took over.  There was this thing about you having to run rings around the government and government officials so you can get business. So, I did so well in that between 2005, 2006 to 2011 when I left.

At what point did you get involved with politics and government?

I was always winning MD/CEO awards for either the best performing staff or branch because I was doing very well in the public sector and still didn’t fancy having anything to do with partisan politics, like it was as bad as never voted, never have even registered to vote. I thank God there was no time they made it compulsory. There was no time, I mean that’s the only thing that would have compelled me to go out to register to vote. Otherwise, I didn’t like the idea of going to file and register under a hot sun.

The reason was simple, my apathy, if you can use that word to politics generally. So in 2011 when Rochas suddenly worn election, I looked at it that If I don’t go after this man I was going to be out of government business for 4 years so I started going after him and then, I realized that his son-in-law, Uche Nwosu was in the same university with me. I got that bit of information, called him and then he took me to him. And so, I was going to position myself and my bank for banking business that was the idea. I met him and he asked me a couple of questions because somebody who was going to be sworn in as the Governor needed to know one or two things about the treasury, how the government treasury was managed. Surprisingly he didn’t know I had some facts until we met I started telling him. I couldn’t just ask him for business or the business he will give me, not if , he will give me when he became the Governor after the swearing in. I was more like schooling him on what I knew from where I served as a commercial banker who had and was managing government business. So, I was more like not only to sustain the business of the government that I had but also to see the possibility and chances to get the core business, the main account of the government that were not domiciled with my bank, Zenith bank. That was with other banks, and then it was disclosed to me, favourably disclosed to me.

I didn’t know why he was asking me a couple of questions. It got to a point he now ask me what I studied. I told him I have a masters and professional qualifications in my field of studies. Needless to say that I had become a little bit of authority in financial management, financial engineering and particularly treasury management.

So most of the questions he asked, I knew. He was more like interviewing me. Before his inauguration, he invited me and said I should set up a meeting between him and the MD of the bank Zenith bank. Who is now the CBN Governor.

So, I set up that meeting in Abuja. That was before his inauguration. So I set up the meeting that lasted less than 3 minutes. I had already briefed the MD and told him how far I had gone and what the business opportunities were, what we had and what we could go for, so that he could know exactly what to ask from the Governor. And then incidentally when the Governor stepped into the meeting and the MD wanted to start up he said no that’s not why am here. I am here to ask you to release this young man for me, I want to make him the commissioner for finance. So, it was a shocker to me and to the MD and also to the few people who came with the Governor and the MD was like take him and a couple of days later he was inaugurated and two weeks later, he announced his first executive council and I was in the list.

That marked the beginning of my political life. Then coming into government with the man I hardly knew I felt that the basic thing to do was to win his confidence and trust. You know just like you own a business and hiring an accountant. That’s the way I looked at it, and him becoming the governor and appointing me the commissioner for finance. So I looked at that and I felt the need to not only to serve the state but also look at the man who hardly knew me to repose that much confidence in me, I felt there was the need to work up to him as much possible as to earn his confidence and trust, and just to be modest, I think I did earn that.

And here I am as we ran the election, it was the most difficult time in my life. Having to have a brand, a political party that was largely unacceptable to us as a people considering that, we had a president who was running for a second tenure and they called him EBELE AZIKIWE, one of us. So, it was difficult, but I happen to be one of the two law makers that won from the whole of the south east.

There were thirteen ballots in Imo in that election. Three senatorial seats, 10 federal constituency seats and the rest, apart from mine and that of the governor; his federal constituency, the rest PDP won overwhelming across the State. However, they did it. But in Okigwe federal constituency where I contested, I won overwhelmingly.

What would you then say accounted for your victory given the overwhelming presence of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state?

I tell you, what accounted for this was the fact that as the commissioner I did build bridges and boundaries. I didn’t look at the political party when I was procuring transformers and giving to communities and giving them money to install them and in some communities in Obowo where I come from who didn’t have light, I had to undertake and give them electricity. I can mention some: Umuosochie, Okwuohia, Ehume, Umuoke, Umulogho.

So, it was massive infrastructural investment which one had to do over the period as the commissioner. I built schools too. I will tell you that the largest ward in Obowo Amuzu ward had two of their schools taken over by the mission and the community locked up those schools and they are still locked till today. So at a time they didn’t have any secondary school. So they came, the three Eze of the communities that make up the ward came and approached me and I started building a brand new secondary school for them and completed it in less than two years and handed it over to the  community. Today, it is the only school they have in the whole of that ward. Then in Amainyi-nta and Amainyi-ukwu the same, I built six classroom blocks and donated to the communities.

So these are the things one was able to do, and these things spoke volume at the polls.  And I will tell you clearly that some laudable personalities who are not of my party APC said if Chike does not win this election, then we wouldn’t have reasons to tell our people that if you hold political office, that you should use it for the benefit of your people.

Religious leaders, bishops stepped out to say no. If he doesn’t win this election then there is going to be a problem. For them to be able to tell our young ones that if you find yourself in a political office at some point, help people, help the community. So, Chike had to win the election against all odds because we needed to make that statement so that’s how far we have come and here I am.

What has been your experience at the National Assembly as a lawmaker?

I went to the National Assembly as a first timer and didn’t have problems in aligning properly. I will tell you, if you go and check that fateful day June 9, 2015, after Yakubu Dogara was nominated by Jubril, I was the one that seconded the nomination of Yakubu Dogara. It is on record that at that time 360 members of the house shut the doors to elect the presiding officers, it had already been agreed at the caucus when we met that Jubril will nominate Dogara and then Chike will second the nomination. So, because I told my people back home, one of the promise I made to them was that I was going to be a strong voice in the National Assembly for the reason that they have complained that those who were there before me with the exception of one or two were not quiet visible there and I was coming in with some private and public sector experience. So I didn’t think I will have any reason not to hit the ground running from the onset because what you see in that chamber in National Assembly is about you bringing your experience there.

CHIKE WITH ROCHAS at a function

Okafor speaking during a constituency function-(Top) with Rochas, Imo State Governor
Okafor speaking during a constituency function-(Top) with Rochas, Imo State Governor

Once you are able to let them know that you are coming well prepared, I don’t want to say well read but well prepared, coming schooled, when you speak they want to listen, your education is not half baked, your exposure is not tilted to rather one side of life. Maybe you had all your life in organised private sector no stage in public life and then you are coming into the chamber with that imbalanced experience. I was with the organised private sector for years, working in different banks and ending up in one of the biggest banks in sub-Sahara Africa, Zenith bank running on that position of a senior manager, coming into public service working as a commissioner and a member of the executive council and then handling a very sensitive state assignment and also member of FAC (Federation allocation account committee) of the federation and sharing committee at that level handling a couple of committees over the four years and assignments at that level of finance commissioner and coming to run election for national assembly, I was coming prepared. So from contributions and all that happened prior to the inauguration and after the inauguration, I mean, I wasn’t surprised that I got chairmanship position.

As a matter of fact at some point if was a second term person probably chairman of finance or appropriation, but those committees are exclusive reserves of ranking members. So we have members who are second and third term. Then I got a sensitive committee, health. I am over sighting such vital agencies like the Ministry of health, like the National Health Insurance, like NAFDAC, UNICEF, WHO, NCDA, Centre for Disease Control among others and I interact with these people.

I go on over sight functions to these agencies and sit to see things in these agencies. Remember that these agencies are specialized agencies that handle specialized control, handle vital issues that borders on the health of the nation so that’s where we are.

In this current year, I am going to make sure that all the primary health sectors in my constituency are revitalized and made functional, that has already been put into the budget and by God’s grace also, I am going to attract investor. There are plans also to upgrade the Federal Medical Centre to a Teaching Hospital.

FUTO wants to start medical studies in September that has already been concluded it’s just for the minister to make the pronouncement because in the current budget that provision has been made. The Federal Medical Centre will be converted into a Teaching Hospital, we are very much interested and kin to also make sure that we do not lose the Federal Medical Centre if and when the Federal medical centre is upgraded to a teaching hospital. There are cases of states that have both, the teaching hospital and the federal medical centre. So it wouldn’t be a bad idea if during my time as the chairman of the committee on health, the Federal Medical Centre is upgraded to a teaching Hospital and we also have the federal medical centre somewhere in Imo state and possibly in my federal constituency.

These are things we are looking to do and what has also enabled giving me some support, which is my relationship with the current Governor. So, it is not difficult to get the Governor in particular to also put in words across to the government where he’s the key player being the chairman of APC forum. I think he is a voice in this country that you cannot but listen to. So that has helped me a lot. We would want to do more down the line. We want to do more.

Remember that I said that the reason for every political office either appointment or elective is to bring development to your constituency. So that is the driver, which is the focus and that is the motivation.

To be concluded tomorrow.theG&BJournal exclusive

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