In this interview with ONUOHA UKEH, IHEANACHO NWOSU and OKEY SAMPSON in Umuahia, Hon Orji spoke extensively about his life, politics and governance.
Mr. Speaker, we will start first by congratulating you on your birthday coming up on December 25. You were born the same date Jesus Christ was born. How does it feel to share the same birthday with the Saviour of the world?
Well, I feel special as a human being, knowing that there is reason for everything and even though nobody is perfect, I try to do things that will please people, being born on a Christmas Day. I see it as a rare privilege.
Would you say sharing birthday with Jesus Christ is a blessing or burden?
It is both a blessing and a burden. It is a blessing because everything associated with Jesus Christ is good. However, I think it’s more of the latter because nobody can equate himself with our Lord and Saviour. Your life should not be for personal aggrandisement but for the benefit of others. Christmas is a time you reach out to the less privileged in society; you try to make your environment better than you met it, whether you are rich or poor.
People say life begins at 40 and you are 50. How does it feel to join the golden club?
I feel a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment. I feel a sense of pride in the sense that I’m grateful to God that He has kept me alive up to this point. I feel accomplishment that God has granted me favour in His eyes. I am happy for the grace of God. It is His grace that has made it possible for me to achieve whatever I have been able to achieve.
Looking at your family background, could you share with us what your growing up was like and what life has taught you?
My growing up was very interesting. I was the only child of my parents for almost 16 years. Most people don’t know that. Because of that, my parents, especially my mother pampered me a lot. In fact, while growing up, when I walked in the street with my mother, people thought she was my sister; they never believed she was my mother. So, I was well taken care of by my parents because I was the only child for close to almost 16 to 17 years. In fact, when they put me in boarding school, I ran back home after one month. I couldn’t stay because as only child then I got all the attention. In boarding house, it was different; so I ran home. My parents didn’t chase me back; they allowed me to go to school, Government College, Owerri, from home. So, I was desirous of having other siblings around me, I was not happy being alone for almost 16 years.
By the grace of God, my parents were then blessed with two other girls and three boys, who came after me. I don’t have any other best friend; my wife, parents, brothers and sisters are my best friends.
Talking about what life has taught me, I would say that life has taught me resilience, loyalty to a cause, hard work and being generous to people. It has taught me many good things, which I imbibed when I was growing up. My father told me something that has helped me in life. He listed somethings I should avoid in life; they are about four . He said I should never allow quarrel to come between anybody and I based on four things.
The first one is land matters. I don’t get involved in land matters. I know you will be shocked to hear that. Two, money. If you and I do a business together and you decide to cheat me, so be it. I know that God has a way of sorting it out, in the long run. Three, my father told me not get into confrontation with my friend or anybody because of a woman. Then lastly, he said I should be careful how I drink. According to him, there is nothing wrong with socialising, but do everything in moderation.
With those four principles, my parents, especially my mother who is the stricter person, helped me to mould my attitude in life.
Life has taught me how to cope with such things as betrayal, envy and jealousy. I did not make myself to be the son of a governor, neither did my father wake up one day and saw himself as a governor. Somebody and some people made very big use of the man’s quality as a decent man and based on those attributes, he became a governor. So, for somebody to envy you or to betray you means that that person may not likely get to the position you are currently occupying.
How do you manage things like betrayal?
It is usually painful to be betrayed. I have had it in abundance. People will betray you when they feel that they need to be you. I have learnt to ignore them and move on in my life. I know that as long as there is this thing called conscience, such people do not eventually have peace because betrayal is very bad. It is sad that some people will instigate problem between you and somebody deliberately. That’s why we should not be too quick to judge. People cause crisis and fuel it for their own interest. So, it takes wisdom and God’s guidance to manage this. Always pray to God to open your eyes and help you to avoid such people, to stay on your own and allow nature to take its course.
Mr. Speaker, have you found yourself in a situation where you were close to death and what happened?
Yeah, once, when my father was Chief of Staff to the former governor of the state, he travelled overseas on a short break and I decided to travel to Port Harcourt on a domestic issue. I liked to drive and so as I was driving back from Port Harcourt, before Ntigha junction in Isiala Ngwa North Local Government, I fell asleep on the steering and entered into a ditch. The car somersaulted three times into the bush. The miraculous thing that happened was that I didn’t know how I got out of the car; the car was mangled and was looking like a Volkswagen Beetle. I found myself standing beside it. I can’t say how I got out of the car till today. I had a deep cut on my forehead. It was a miracle.
There was a truck driving behind me that day. Immediately that accident happened, the people inside it stopped and rushed towards me, thinking I was dead. When they found me standing beside the car, they were shocked. At first, they thought I was a ghost; they asking me how I managed to come out of the car. I didn’t know. It was a Mercedes Benz 911 truck that I entered from the place of the accident to Umuahia.
Since that time, I stopped driving myself; it’s not as if I like to be driven. Anytime I try to drive, that accident comes to my mind. I stopped driving to avoid getting into trouble.
Let me bring you back to your upbringing. You said your mother pampered you and was a stricter person. You also told us about the four principles of life by your father. Between your parents, who influenced you more?
I will say it is a very difficult question. Well, in terms of discipline, in terms of control over my actions, most times, it’s my mother. My father, as you people know, is a very quiet man; he is quiet, inside and outside. However, one thing you should avoid about my father is his words, because it is better for him to use cane and flog you than to talk to you when he is angry.
My father is like my friend. I don’t call him daddy. I call him ‘Dee.’ We have a close family. If you are opportune to be around when he is with his kids, you will understand what I mean. You will see us making jokes about my father and he will be making jokes about us. But there is a line he has drawn on the sand and you don’t cross it. We are all aware of that. If I’m angry now, my father will try to calm me down. He will believe that I will do the right thing after talking to me; but my mother is the kind of person who will tell you that you must not do this and that.
Who influenced you the more between them?
Politically, I will say it is my father that influenced me the more. In terms of my relationship with people, I will also say it’s my father. But in terms of morals, trying to imbibe in me the quality of a man, it is my mother. To my mother today, I am a very stubborn person; so, in terms of that control over my personal life, over my attitude to people, it is my mother.
My father is somebody that thinks that at the age of 18, you are wise enough to do the right thing. He has never used a cane on me since he gave birth to me; never, but one thing I’m afraid of, as I said earlier, are his words.
When your father was governor, your image was larger than life sorts of. There was a myth around you that people gave you the nickname, Ikuku. What really happened?
When my father was governor, for those eight years, I only entered his office once; it is on record. The difference between my father and his predecessor was that his predecessor was a younger person when he became governor, so, his tolerance level as a young man was very short; but when my father was governor, he was an elderly person, a civil servant, a technocrat. His tolerance level was very high and because of that a lot of people took advantage of his tolerance level.
I stayed in my house for eight years. Most of the people saying all those things passed through my gate to seek one favour or the other. When they came, they expected me to help. I did help sometimes. So, they found it convenient to come to me to help them to get one or two favours to be done, which I didn’t consider to be a bad thing. I felt I was doing favour to some people. When I couldn’t help, the same people told stories about me; they painted me black.
The issue of my entering certain places and doing some funny things were all lies. It never happened. It was mere propaganda, but I have had to live with it. If not that this interview is an official engagement, I would have worn a short and come out here so that you could see if there are stitches they claimed are on my legs, from alleged beating I got from soldiers.
The story was that I entered a supermarket, cleared everybody and slapped an army officer. Do I look like somebody who will slap an army officer and still be alive today? An army Captain? Me? They said I stayed in that place and the Army Captain made a call to Ohafia and soldiers came to deal with me. From Umuahia to Ohafia is about one and half hours. So I stayed in the shop, still shopping and soldiers came all the way from Ohafia to Umuahia to beat me to pulp? Can’t you see that it does not add up. All were mere propaganda. It never happened.
Remember that this happened at the period we had misunderstanding with my father’s predecessor. People took advantage of it to say so many bad things about me. There is no way I was trained to enter a place and chase out every other person. It’s not possible. I don’t even go out. I don’t think anybody will say he has seen me in most places in Umuahia. So, the myth around me was created by some people for their own selfish interest. They demonised me to give my father a bad name. There was nothing they did not ascribe to me just to bring me down.
I am not arrogant. I am the humblest person you can meet. It’s just that I turned myself to a hermit when my father was a governor. I decided to be alone, but they still came and looked for me for one favour or the other. The name, Ikuku, came about because God has been with me. So many things people tried against me didn’t work. That name was given to me by one of my uncles. Ikuku means breeze. You can’t catch it; you can’t see it, but you can feel it.
I am telling you that those things said about me then were untrue. Within that period it hurt me, but these days it doesn’t. There is nothing you will say now that will hurt me. Perhaps, the only thing you will say now that will hurt me is that I’m pregnant at FMC (Federal Medical Centre), Umuahia. (Laughs).
Now that you have decided to clear the air on the incident that happened at Capital Supermarket, Umuahia, could you let us know about the incident that led to the shooting to death of one of your aides, John?
Yes, John Ndubuka was my first cousin, very hard working young man. Immediately he finished his youth service, my father gave him a job and I found him a very resourceful person. I encouraged him and he got married, built a house and I gave him a car. He was my brother. The best form of security is to take care of your immediate family. He was very hard working, but unfortunately, there was an event that held at the market square. In a bid to control the crowd, a policeman who was at the venue was pushed and his gun went off and it was John that was hit. That officer has paid the price for the accident. The police authorities took care of it. He spent several years in prison here in Afara and I don’t think he is even in the police any more.
Within that period, a lot of things were said; some even said I came out and gave instruction to shoot him. It’s not true. It is my brother we are talking about here. It was a very traumatic period for me; it was within that period I knew who were actually my friends and those who were not. Somebody would laugh with you today, but you will not know he wants you off from the face of the planet earth for reasons best known to him. But today, all those people who were trying to create crisis concerning the death of John have all ran away. Who is taking care of John’s family? You go and find out for yourselves. They have achieved their aim and ran away and I’m still here, not perturbed by those propaganda.
Some people at a point said you were controlling the present government in Abia and that you compelled the governor to make you Speaker of the House. What’s your reaction?
I will answer this question by asking you this: does this man, the present governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, look like someone you can control? I will tell that the answer is no. The problem that most people have is that they don’t have conscience. The man has conscience. My father had conscience to realise that his predecessor, the former governor, played a great role in him becoming the governor, but people were hell bent on causing problem so that they can be rich. They are still trying that today, but Ikpeazu has refused because he has conscience. How do you control a governor? Is it by writing the list of his commissioners for him or by appointing TC chairmen for him or you control a governor in the award of contracts? Go and check those three things. Do I tell the governor whom to make chairman of Obingwa Local Government? Do I tell him whom to make chairman of Umunneochi Local Government? The fact is that I have a lot of friends here and the same people that are my friends are also friends of the governor. If they happen to be picked to become something, people will say it is me. Of course, I will take it; after all, who doesn’t like to take credit for good things? If you say I am controlling the governor, it is not true. I respect him a lot because for a man to have conscience, is the best thing to do. I cannot come and start dictating to a sitting governor. What I do is that I plead and I request. Based on the conscience he has, he could oblige or say no.
About Speakership, most of the people do not know that this same governor insisted that I became Speaker in 2015, but I refused. He is alive. You can confirm. Go and find out. I told him no, Sir, I don’t want to be Speaker. I told him that if I became Speaker at that time, people would make him to sleep with one eye open.
He even suggested Majority Leader and I said no also. I wanted to be an ordinary member; but he did something remarkable that shocked me. We were sitting at the assembly one day and a letter came from the then party chairman, Senator Emma Nwaka and my name was announced as the majority leader. The party recommends who becomes the majority leader.
Who is the leader of the party that makes that decision? It’s the governor. So, I knew it was coming from him and I had no choice than to accept it and as the majority leader, I moved motions. I never moved motion for his removal or for anything against him for one day. I worked for four years, and there was no problem.
In 2019, I approached him. I didn’t send anybody. I said Oga, I think by now you must have known me better than any other person, let me enhance by CV a little and he obliged. I went to the floor of the House. I was returned by my colleagues as Speaker unopposed. My colleagues came together as a unit and said that I was the man they wanted to be their Speaker. They didn’t do it because I was the son of the former governor. I have personal relationship with almost 80 per cent of them. They know me. Since we’ve been there, there has not been any problem and there will be no problem as far as I remain the Speaker of the House. Nobody will use me against anybody.
There was nothing sinister about my being Speaker. I, Chinedum Orji approached the governor and he obliged me. All those things they say about it are part of the propaganda I have been telling you about. Anything I do will be misrepresented, misinterpreted and turned upside down; but they don’t bother me.
You alluded to the fact that some people played sinister role in the rift between your father and his predecessor. What happened?
There was no problem between by father and his predecessor. The thing was instigated and it was not handled properly. My father is not a troublesome somebody. He served him for eight years as Chief of Staff. I think what happened was that a lot of people did some things, which brought about what we saw. There are a few politicians in this state that I will tell you have good conscience.
When your father’s predecessor, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, was released from incarceration, you visited him in Abuja and some people back in Abia were not happy with that. Are you regretting that visit and what’s your relationship with the former governor
Regret? What kind of regret? I am used to criticisms; in fact, the perfume I take every morning, the name is called criticism. I don’t listen to criticism. I don’t have any regret whatsoever making that move and if there is any family issue to be sorted out tomorrow, I will still make such move. People don’t understand my relationship with the former governor of the state. They don’t understand it. He did nothing to me personally; absolutely nothing.
The only way he offended me was my father and I do not joke with my father. If nobody took heed to the propaganda then, we wouldn’t have gone to the level we all went. Out of anger, a lot of things would happen. When he was released, the Senate president visited him, even some PDP people went. I was his Chief of Staff and I went. When I went there, I made my statement and some people decided to twist it, but what they did not know was that before I went, I informed the governor of the state. When I came out, the issue of leadership came up, but everybody knows that by virtue of his position, the governor is the leader; but that should not take away the honour that should be accorded former governors and other leaders in the state.
What’s your relationship with the former governor?
I have respect for him. I have never granted any interview where I said anything against him. If there is, let the person provide it, let me see. I have not said anything against him, even when your newspaper wrote things against my family, I felt bad; it did hurt me, but I still kept quiet because you have to, in this world, be grateful for any favour that somebody has done for you. Once in your life time, you must be grateful.
I pray that people should stop listening to gossips as not to destroy a well packaged and built relationship. They have tried it with the incumbent governor; every other day they continued trying it, telling him all manner of stories about me. In fact, they told him that if I became Speaker, that I will impeach him. That was mere blackmail. By June next year; it will be two years; yet no impeachment.
It is all this myth and I believe it will soon evaporate. The best thing that happened to me was being in public office for people to know the kind of person that I am. If I had left without contesting and winning election, I would have been one of the most misunderstood human beings on the face of the planet earth.
There is the rumour that you are planning to move to APC to actualise your governorship ambition. Could that be true?
I want to ask, why is it that 90 per cent of all the rumours in Abia is centred on Chinedum Orji? APC is a party. PDP is a party. If they say APC is wooing me, there is nothing wrong with it, but we have people contesting the governorship in APC. I have APC members in the House of Assembly who are my best friends. If there is that rumour going on, it’s part of politics, but the truth remains that as we speak, I’m still a member of PDP.
What about your governorship ambition?
Did I tell you I have any governorship ambition?
The rumour was all over the place at a point.
It is all rumour. We are still less than two years in office and people are going about talking about governorship. The way Abia is configured now, it is the people of the state that will say who they want.
Mr. Speaker, could we say that politics found you or you found yourself in politics? Could you tell us the story of how you become a politician?
It’s a very strange story. My father became Principle Secretary to Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of the state, before he became his Chief of Staff. It might interest you to know that throughout those eight years, I was never close to the former governor, except a month to the end of his tenure. He usually came to my father’s lodge, close to his own lodge after jogging. He would come in and I would walk past him. He didn’t know me; there was no need for him to know.
However, I was understudying him and my father. My father transited to become governor and I now became close, very close to the former governor for three years. So, I learnt a lot of things from them.
I would I say I learnt 70 per cent of whatever I know about politics from my father and 30 per cent of the other one was the foundation from the former governor.
I was close to him for three years after he left office. From there, I started developing interest in the art of politics and the things I know about politics are two: infrastructure and human empowerment. Any other thing you are talking about, I am not interested.
If I say politics found me, it will be a perfect answer because I was in the midst of politicians. My formative period was in the midst of politicians and I learnt fast.
I learnt hard work, brinkmanship, empowerment and all that from my father. When he was leaving office, I never wanted to contest election, but my father advised me to do so, to clear some misconceptions. That’s the story of my political life.
After 29 years of its creation, how would you assess the progress of the state?
For me, based on the resources available to the state, I believe that those who have been in charge have done their best. I am not saying this because I am involved. Why do I say that? The art of destructive criticism has been elevated to such a height that if you type in Abia State, all you will see are negative things. You type in the names of either former governors or the incumbent one and all you get are destructive criticisms.
So, it doesn’t give room for them to be fairly assessed. If we start with the former governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, are you telling me he didn’t do one kilometer of road in this state?
Are you telling me Ochendo didn’t do anything in this state or the present governor has not done anything at all? It’s not possible, but because of the level of destructive criticism that goes on here, these people are not fairly judged so to say. I prefer constructive to destructive criticism.
How do you feel about politics in Nigeria today?
For me, politicians in the country have become endangered species because people are expecting too much from them; it is very, very important that politicians up their game. We should behave like the Americans, who when they elect their president, the whole country rallies around to make sure he succeeds. If we up our game and become more transparent in what we do, the people will have more confidence in us.
There is the belief that state Houses of Assembly are mere rubber stamps. What are your experiences?
It is unfair to assess lawmakers that way. The assembly is an arm of government. Its duty is not to fight the executive or governor. The House duty is to make laws for good governance, to exercise some oversight, to complement the governor. The Assembly screens and confirms the governor’s nominees. The assembly approves budget. The assembly makes law. You know that in screening governor’s nominees, the assembly sometimes says no. This is not a mark of rubber stamp. The House rejigs budget. Is this rubber stamp? Certainly, not.
What legacy would you want to leave behind as a Speaker?
By 2023, by God’s grace, when my colleagues and I will be driving out of the gate, we will be leaving a House of Assembly complex more beautiful than we met it, that will be handed over to the next batch of legislators.
That is number one. Number two, we would have made good laws. You are not judged by the number of laws that you churn out but the quality of the law. After all, the laws we need in this country have already been made. The imporant thing now is to perfect the law for the self sustenance of the state.