Last week Monday, Chief Dr Elechi Amadi, a literary icon was the geust of The Tide Roundtable, a weekly personality interview programme of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation. He fielded questions on diverse issues, including his background, Niger Delta struggles, amnesty to militants in Niger Delta, amongst other things.
Here is the excerpts. Read On.
Were you captain in the Army or in the Airforce?
We were here in 3rd Marine Commando. I fought here with Obasanjo, and Adekunle in the Army.
A soldier becoming a literary Icon, let us share your background from your beginning as a child?
Well, I had the normal childhood upbringing. I went to village schools, elementary schools.
People like you are born with pen!
No, I wasn’t. I went to Isiokpo, first of all I went to elementary school in my village Aluu, you know in those days standard six schools were very few. Most schools were half way. When I got to Standard Two the school terminated, I had to go to Igwuruta. I did Three and Four there and then the school terminated at Standard Four I had to go to Isiokpo to do Four and Five, and after that I was lucky to pass to Government College Umuahia where I did my Cambridge School Certificate in those days it was Cambridge School Certificate after that I read for a survey course at the Survey School Oyo. I trained in Land Survey. I packed out of school and went to Calabar to work as a Surveyor Assistant then from there I passed to University College Ibadan where I did my degree in Physics. After that I went back to Land and Survey, Ministry of Survey at Enugu.
After a year or so, I realized that I was more intellectually inclined, I was a good Surveyor, we did the Kaloro Oil Palm Estate in Calabar, 20,000 hectares. We were three surveyors who did the job so I was quite good at my job but I realized that I was more intellectually inclined, I left them to teach and after a year or two teaching, at County High School Ahoada, I left for the Army. I had a Short Service Commission Course, The idea then was to get soldiers who were not just fighting men but who were trained scientifically, so they could appreciate modern weaponry, they can analyse situation easily, you know, education helps. That was why we were recruited to the school at Zaira.
The idea was that the students came in and did their normal secondary school training. We incorporated science, I was teaching them physics and mathematics. During the long vacation, we packed up to the bush to teach them military tactics so at the end of the day, in fact, they made better soldiers than the old system where you just had a little training and some of my students included David Mark the current Senate President.
People like Chris Garuba who used to be governor of Bauchi State, Amadi Ikweche, Tunde Ogbeha all these were my students, you can see that they stand out because they had these special training. After these I thought I have had enough of the Army and my Short Service Commission Course ran out, so I decided to leave and continue my intellectual life but unfortunately as soon as I went on my terminal leave, the war broke out.
So the war caught me here, while I was enjoying my terminal leave from the Army. When the 3rd Marine Commando came here, and naturally, I reported myself, I was in detention but I broke out of the Biafran cell.
If you read my book “Sunset in Biafra”, you get all these details, so I managed to break out from the cell at the Police Station here, the one near the Old Teaching Hospital. We broke out, I met my friends, people like Akinrinade, Col. Ini and of course Adekunle himself, he was my neighbour in Zaria at the military school. So they said Old Boy you are here oh. Thank God, pick up the gun. I said what do you mean? Look, I’m on terminal leave. They said pick up a gun. I told them well, the war is ended, with the capture of Port Harcourt and Bonny and Enugu, the war is ended. The rebels ought to surrender any moment if they have military sense. They don’t have a chance, so at the end I had to rejoin the army, and then I was assigned to 14 Brigade, with the third Marine commando, then we had to fight at the Etche front. After a while, I was withdrawn from the 14 Brigade to the Airport as Airport commandant.
Adekunle felt that the officer there wasn’t doing very well and you know Airport was a vital communication link during the war. That is where we got military supplies including guns and so on. So I was the Airport commandant for a while. I went round the trenches and I found most of them were not being well looked after. In the trenches, not much food, cigarettes and things like that, so I made sure they got all those things, I made sure they were well fed, I got civilians to clear the environs and so on. Then there were aircraft machines to work properly. When I got there and I saw the boys, I said now fire, they couldn’t fire that machine about 15 minutes, they were scrambling around, I said these were not anti-aircraft machines, you should fire under a minute, so I refurbished the machines, and they were able to deliver under a minute of alert with that the Airport became safer and then we were able to receive supplies including bombs and so on.
In fact during the whole episode, the governor, Diette Spiff was still in Lagos. He was in Lagos and the situation was that Port Harcourt was unsafe, that there was no real Rivers State government going on. That was the propaganda and Diette-Spiff was then in Lagos so we tried to persuade Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” you must have heard of him, we told him, “Oga”, look, let the governor come in here, let them start some kind of administration, to boast civilian life and so on and so forth.
He said, not yet, later he said O.K. I want civilian life to return to Port Harcourt so you have Col. Abubakar, you are his second in command, I want life to come back to the city of Port Harcourt, so I went back to the drawing board, I got people like Wobidike Wonodi, Robert Okara, Chief Oriji, a number of dignitaries like that key men in town who I had identified, it was a war situation and if you come to Port Harcourt, you won’t see anybody in the street, you just see bombed houses and so on, you dare not walk in the street, so there was no real civilian life.
I got these men and I called them Controllers, we got for Education, some for Health, another one for Communication, Post Office and so on I got about seven of them. Within a month, we opened some schools, we opened the Holy Rosary Secondary school, Harbour Road school, we opened Mile 1 Market, then we announced that people should move in, and traders should come in we were issuing Passes to traders to get their things without that pass, you will be deemed a looter, we had a strict law on looting, you could be shot at sight. My office was issuing that permit so that people could move in their things and they did. The market started, the schools started, we sent some people to Lagos to get the key to the Post Office so that mails could be delivered and so on and within a month, the town was swinging, so I reported back to Adekunle, I said the town is swinging, he said ok. We can get the governor in, so we invited Diette Spiff.
When Diette Spiff came in, there was a house, I think it was owned by Shell B.P. inside what is now Government House, it is still there that was where Diette Spiff was, then we got a platoon of soldiers to surround the place to make quite sure it was safe, I got Dikibo Daniel Kalio who was the first Secretary to State Government (SSG).
I gave him a room, because civilians were very afraid of the situation, I gave him a room in my house, so I said you are safe here, there is no problem, then Adekunle said that I should hand over the Administration of Port Harcourt within 24 hours, I said yes sir, so I called Daniel Kalio, I said well, the GOC said that I should hand over the administration to you within 24 hours, ah: Daniel Kalio shouted what kind of 24 hours, he came I handed over the first few files of the state to him. I handed over a couple of files dealing with what was the need of the state, those were infact the first Administrative files of the state which I handed over to Dikibo Daniel Kalio.
They carried on. At the end of the war, Diette Spiff said he appreciated what we have done, he said look you have to join my administration, you have been helping us. I said no, no, no. I have to go back and teach, get me a school somewhere let me go and teach, he said, no, no, who will do the job, you know we need administrative officers, and you have shown that you are capable administratively so, come and join. If you don’t then who will do it. I mean everybody can say well sorry I can’t do it.
Then, nobody does the job so with that challenge, I said alright and that was how I joined that administration. I hated civil service work, I just didn’t like it but this came as a challenge after the war I joined the civil service, worked, there up to the Permanent Secretary level, in 1983, I retired then went on to teach in tertiary institution.
Along the line I was called back then I was at College of Education so when Col Ukpo called me and said look I want you to join the administration so he said I should be SSG I said no no no, I beg you, I have had enough of that kind of job, as Permanent Secretary so he later on gave me the post of Commissioner of Education which I accepted and then I did what I could and when Col. Abe changed Ukpo as governor, he took me over to Land I was Commissioner for Land, by the way while I was Commissioner of Education, I set up Bori Polytechnic, I argued that we didn’t have enough middle level manpower and that there was need for us to have a source of that kind of manpower so at that time my colleagues many of them were drawn from RSUST, they argued against it, fearing that it will erode the influence of RSUST I told them it won’t, so I had to submit my memo two times, eventually, they saw my argument and we setup Technical Committee I left the Ministry I went to the Ministry of Lands, one of the jobs I did was to demolish Marine Base. You know Marine Base was a slum. It was like one of the watersides settlement and so the governor felt the place wasn’t looking good and I got the people living in the Marine Base and we dialogued with them. We registered all the Landlords there who had houses whether, they were batchers or whatever. We took everybody’s name and we said look we don’t have money to pay but when we rebuilt the place, you will have the first option, we are going to give you the option to take houses in the place at highly subsidised rates.
You can buy the houses at very cheap rate and they were very much in agreement, some of them who were good had contract to build the place, we demolished the place and then first of all we did the roads and drainages, put on electricity then we started building. I got a field engineer to stay on site to supervise every processes when you pour concrete the engineer will come and check, and so on.
Eventually, we built up Marine Base, and the original owners were back. I think is still there in spite of the ravages of years, that place you can see that, it is a well planned and so on.
Is it difficult if you don’t have the talent particularly somebody who read Physics?
No there is noting strange. You have doctors, medical doctors writing. A lot of medical doctors have published novels. In fact what you do professionally has nothing to do with your writing productivity if you have the talent to write. When once you are that gifted and you have a bit of the language because writing is language also acquire some language skills and fortunately for me I attended a very good school, Government College Umuahia, we were very well taught, my English teacher was Mr P.J. Justin, in the United Kingdom (UK) he had a first degree in Cambridge, so he was very good.
The time I left Umuahia I was very good in English. I had A1 in English in Cambridge School Certificate, so I was very good. When I read what I wrote then there is very little difference. Because at the university I didn’t add to my knowledge of English.
So what I am saying is that if you are gifted then when the inspiration comes you find you can write, provided you have acquired some language skills, is just natural. Cyprian Ekwensi was a Pharmacist, but he was one of the most prolific writers, we heard he has produced so many books.
Knowing the level of piracy, how much money have you made from the sales of your book?
These days, you make very little if any. But in those days, my books were fortunately for me published abroad by Heinemann based in London. They published my first novel The Concubine and they were very good and I had an agreement with them and they paid me royalties depending on the number of copies they sold.
That was when I earned some money from my books and they were honest and you know, money had value. I was earning Pounds Sterling which they banked for me abroad. So it was something good until much later when they folded up and then we now had Heinemann Nigeria and the pirates started and my earnings fell
I’m not deriding Heinemann Nigeria, they were good but then the pirates had moved in. So for every copy of my book sold, the pirates sold ten and these pirates don’t pay any tax, they don’t pay you any royalties, you don’t even know where they are, they just print your book and sell and for a popular novel like The Concubine everywhere you have it you couldn’t get the original copy from the market.
So they crowded Heinemann out of the market. I had very little royalties right now throughout last year what did I have, may be N10, N15,000, or may be N20,000, but if without the pirates I should be a rich man.
Because if you take a school certificate year, and The Concubine, you know, it has been on the WAEC list for years, now let’s take a typical school certificate year, you have at least half a million students, right now if they sell half a million copies that is five hundred thousand copies and you get a royalty of even N10, you have Five Million Naira, straight away. If I earned that one every year, I would be a millionaire but nothing you find that even in a school certificate year, by the time Heinemann will print, say fifty thousand copies, the pirates have printed three hundred thousand and they flooded the market already. That is the problem when once you write a book that is popular and is used in schools, piracy will immediately move in, they have a way of finding out which books are selling.
In my case, they pirated my play Isiburu. They pirated Pepper Soup and of course The Concubine is the main victim of this piracy. That is the problem we have in Nigeria.
But does it discourage you from writing?
No, No. I stopped thinking about money. Because there was nothing anybody could do, so I just wrote for the joy of it. The fact that people enjoy what I was writing.
How many books have you written so far?
I have written twelve books and from what people say The Concubine appears the most popular.
There is this popular saying that in Nigeria we have an Ogbuefi of a Nigerian literature. Others argue that we don’t have an Ogbuefi, we have an Asiwaju, do we have an Amanyanabo or Nyenweli of literature?
Well if you think of prominence, as such, our Nobel laureate takes that place, because it is something that is world wide, the highest literary prize so if you have some body who have got that award, then naturally he stands out as the Asiwaju or the Ogbuefi, whatever, you know, so we are proud of Soyinka and we regard him as a leader in literature. Then of course coming immediately after that you have people like Achebe, but in literature you know people write differently so really comparison is very difficult. For instance Soyinka basically is a playwright so he is basically a playwright.
Achebe is basically a novelist. I’m a novelist so you have all these genres and is difficult to compare two authors.
To be continued
Honesty, Diligence, Performance’ll Take Any Individual, Entity Far – Isokariari
Today, Chief Okoma Kio Isokariari clocks 87 years on Earth. The czar of civil engineering and construction, and foremost indigenous contractor, though looking frail with age, had worked tirelessly to the zenith of the industry, with particularly iconic buildings dotted across Kalabari Kingdom, Rivers State, and Nigerian’s indelible legacies of his professionalism, competence and commitment to excellence.
Before he retired from active site works and supervision, O. K. Isokariari was a colossus of brick and tar. He could work and move from one project site to the other without resting. He traversed the length and breadth of the country snapping jobs and executing them with zest, finesse and dexterity. His footprints stand out like a diamond in the sky across many communities, and today, represents part of the positive contributions of Rivers State to the realisation of the Nigerian Project.
Ahead of his birthday, today, barely 123 days after celebrating 50 years of the existence of O.K. Isokariari Nigeria Limited(formerly O. K. Isokariari & Sons) as a corporate entity, on July 4, 2022, the legendary indigenous contractor sat down with The Tide Editorial team led by the Acting Chairman, Editorial Board and Supervising Editor, Nelson Chukwudi; Health & Metro Reporter, Kevin Nengia; and Photographer, Ken Nu-ue, to reminisce on the past and charta course for the younger generation who would want to leave a mark, as he has done.
Below are excerpts of the 35-minute chat with the Rivers State icon in the built industry.
Sir, can you tell us who is Chief O. K. Isokariari?
Oh yes, Chief Okoma Kio Isokariari is from Buguma, headquarters of today’s Asari-Toru Local Government Area. I was born in Buguma on the 4th of November, 1935, and was baptised at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Buguma. I attended St Michael’s School and graduated with distinction. After that, I proceeded to Kalabari National College where I was House Prefect. I graduated five years later with an Advanced Level General Certificate of Education (GCE).
Not long after, I went to Zaria in 1957, and got job with the Nigerian Railway Corporation as Station Staff-In-Training. In July, 1957, I was selected among about 30 others and sent to Nigerian Railway Traffic Training School at Ebute-Metta, Lagos, where we were trained for six months. During the training, I was made Class Prefect, flying the flag of the region. I came out of the training with sharpened skills and expertise in traffic and logistics management.
After the training, I went back to Zaria, and was deployed to Kuchi station between Kaduna and Minna as station staff, a serious position in the corporation. I moved to Kano, a major railway hub, in November, 1959. With comfortable earning and savings as a responsible Kalabari son, I began making moves to marry in 1964, and eventually got married to Grace, the daughter of Amanyanabo of Kalabari, King Abiye Suku Amachree in Buguma.
Following the social upheavals in the North as a result of the 1966 coup, I returned to Buguma in June, 1966. I went back to Kano in August, 1966 after normalcy had been restored. But tension soon rose again in September, 1966. This time, the national crisis was more serious and disrupted my career. God saved me during the crisis as a lot of us from the South were killed in Kaduna in the reprisal mayhem. I went into hiding for many weeks in Kano to avoid being killed. However, I escaped by divine grace by flying to Lagos on October 17, 1966. It was a very difficult journey of life and death. In fact, I walked in the valley of death. That escape has been my happiest moment in life and the driving force of my success. It was a turning point. From Lagos, I returned home to the warm embrace of my mother in Buguma by boat on October 19.When the crisis died down, I went back to Zaria and continued with my job.
Not too long after, the civil war started. During the civil war, I shuttled between Buguma and Port Harcourt, striving to eke out a living amid the unspeakable humanitarian tragedy, and ruins of war. I first worked as supervisor at the Rivers State Ministry of Rehabilitation. I served in the state rehabilitation committee. Before then, I had attended St John’s Ambulance Course, similar to the Red Cross training. With my experience in providing emergency services, I was busy serving war victims. After the war, I actively participated in the resettlement, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of displaced people in Port Harcourt.
Not letting go of my business instinct, I registered my first company – ISOYE Enterprises to explore opportunities in stockfish distribution business. But seeing the urgency in addressing the housing and rehabilitation needs of Port Harcourt residents, I ventured into engineering and construction with the setting up of O. K. Isokariari & Sons in 1970, and incorporated it on July 4, 1972.
After the war, I returned to Zaria to continue with my work at the Nigerian Railways. My exceptional performance on the job earned me several awards for my dedication and commitment to duty. But with the lessons of history hovering over me, I voluntarily resigned in 1969 after 12 years of meritorious service to Nigeria, and the management of Nigerian Railways paid me all my entitlements.
So, how did you start your construction business considering the fact that you retired as a civil servant?
After my resignation from the Nigerian Railways, I returned to Port Harcourt to join the concerted efforts at rebuilding the war-ravaged city. Having settled down in my state, I added the little savings I had made to my pay-off, and used it to start my business. But let me say this, the war provided me the opportunity to delve into the construction sector because many opportunities existed then.
After the war, I started business with my experience in the Railways by engaging in house painting, renovations and supply of workshop tools to Rivers State Ministry of Works. Many houses were in ruins and people were starting life afresh. With the conditions of the city, it was not difficult for hardworking Rivers sons and daughters to find good paying jobs to feed themselves and their families. So, with the good foundation I had, with high level of discipline, frugality, honesty and integrity, I started getting clients. Not long after, bigger contracts started coming in, including contracts from the Rivers State Government under its First Military Administrator, Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff, and the Federal Government under General Yakubu Gowon.
My first big contract was the Braithwaite Nursing Home (Memorial Hospital) Building renovation and reconstruction in Old GRA, Port Harcourt in 1970. I was one of those who submitted tender for the project and as God would have it, I was awarded the contract in the sum of £14, 700 at the time. We completed the job in 1971. My company also built the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation in 1972. Of course, that became the launch pad for O. K. Isokariari and Sons.
Impressed with what we did at BMH, the military administration at the time led by Commander Diete-Spiff selected me among other contractors to build general hospitals across the 21 divisions in the state. I was fortunate to be one of those awarded the contract to build the 30-bed Buguma General Hospital at the cost of £130,000 in 1972. Each of the general hospitals were awarded at Ahoada, Isiokpo, Bori, Abua, Bodo, Sagbama, Nembe, Yenagoa, and Brass, among others, at the same value. Of all the contactors, we were the first to complete and deliver good quality project at Buguma in March, 1975.That project later became a reference point for other hospitals. I earned a recommendation in March, 1975, for our quality job at Buguma during the commissioning.
Afterwards, we handled the PAN African Bank headquarters building at Azikiwe Road, awarded at N9million. We also got the NNPC zonal headquarters building at Moscow Road – a nine-storey building – and later, the NAFCON Village and staff quarters at Onne. We got that at N26million. The NAFCON building was worth $28million because at that time, the Dollar was little lower than the Naira in 1982.We delivered the project in 1985. We also built the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) staff quarters on Okporo Road at Mgbuesilaru in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area; NNPC awarded us contract to build the Japanese Construction Company’s staff quarters for the construction of Port Harcourt Refinery at Eleme. We built the Abonnema Ring Road and bridges; built the University of Port Harcourt’s arts theatre – The Crab – at Choba; DSS senior staff quarters in Port Harcourt; Nigerian Defence Academy senior officers’ quarters in Kaduna; Nigerian Army Command and Staff College school building in Jaji; NNPC’s 40 houses for new Finima Town; the Port Harcourt Cenotaph at Isaac Boro Park; NCDMB’s NOGAPS capacity training centre and Industrial Park’s internal roads in Bayelsa; Port Harcourt New Layout Market; Okochiri internal roads phase 1; among many others. In fact, I have seen the delivery of over 400 housing projects, school and hospital projects, and 150km asphalted roads that have continued to stand the test of time, in addition to many reclamation, sand-filling, canalisation and water projects, awarded by government at all levels, oil and gas companies, and others.
So, after all these iconic projects and achievements, how has life been?
I have retired long ago, and my children have taken over the business. Life has been good, though today, I am getting frail and weak. However, as a man with passion for adding value to society and impacting lives positively, I still make inputs to push the envelope further in the portfolio of my business.
Looking back at how things used to be, what would be your advice for young contractors of today?
I would advise them to be honest, steadfast, diligent and committed to delivering quality jobs to their clients. They need to have the stamina to overcome challenges as they come. Such problems include delay in payment for contract fees; navigating the financial system and economic policies, including the commercial and lending banks; even in the face of economic downturns. They also need to be patient and trying to meet clients’ demands without compromising job specifications, standards and best practices. That, to me, is very essential in sustaining contracts and winning the confidence of key stakeholders.
They should also remember that devotion is very important. I mean devotion, diligence and commitment. In our days, it was much more difficult to get contracts than what obtains today. Our work spoke for us at that time. Our legacies still speak for us today because our values, business principles and character remain the same. Anyone who has seen what we did before and what we are doing now, knows that our watchword is quality.
Like The Tide building on No 4, Ikwerre Road, which still stands strong even after a devastating fire outbreak in 2012?
Yes! And others like it. We built them with unmistakable commitment to quality, and desire to bequeath to our state enduring landmarks for posterity.
And these landmarks are major signature achievements that leave O. K. Isokariari in the history book of the state?
Our work spoke for us! They are known for their strength and unique structure. Anyone who sees our job could easily identify us. To some extent, we were far better than some foreign contractors. That is why I always emphasise on quality. That is what I am known for!
What is your take on the recurrent issue of collapsed buildings, most of them giving way while still under construction?
It is unfortunate. Most of the people involved in many of those cases are quacks and desperate individuals struggling to cut corners in order to enrich themselves at the detriment of the people. Such people should not get any construction contract, whether from government or any other entity.
So, what would be your advice to governments?
For me, prudence is the word. That might mean accountability, but the key thing is for government officials and decision-makers to be conscientious and determined to use only those contractors who can deliver quality jobs, knowing that they hold their offices in trust for the people, and also that the money expended on those projects belong to the people.
Unfortunately, most of the contractors today fall short of the standard. Most of them are portfolio contactors who are looking for government money to siphon. Yet, they are getting jobs! How can you award a contract to a company that has no wheelbarrow? No paid, competent staff? No reputation and track record of performance? So, government must be careful, meticulous and ensure due diligence so that monies are spent on quality, and for the best.
So, on your 87th Birthday, what do you like to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as that Rivers man from Buguma who touched and transformed many lives; whose legacies would remain a source of inspiration and motivation to generations yet unborn. I want my footprints in Buguma, Kalabari Kingdom, Rivers State, Niger Delta, Nigeria and the whole world, to inspire greater desire for service to humanity. I want to be remembered as that good father who gave equal opportunities to his children to be what they dare to be. I want to be a reference point for many young entrepreneurs, especially in the state, who want to add value to the overall development of the state. I want the projects I have executed to continue to speak for O. K. Isokariari Nigeria Limited, my children and grandchildren.
Madam, it has not been easy taking care of your husband and children all these while. What is that unique thing that has sustained your marriage? And to the young girls out there, what advice do you have to help them manage their marriages to be as successful as yours?
Well, the most important thing is contentment and love. You have to be satisfied with what you have, and love your husband and children equally. Patience is key to building a peaceful family. So, I will advice young couples to be contented at any level they are. If they are contented and work hard, God will help them grow to be successful.
I am happy that my son who took over from his father is doing well. He is trying his best. Humility pays! Often times, he seeks and gets advice from the Dad, who is the Founder of the company. And that is very important for the growth of the company.
‘Our One Year In Obio/Akpor Council Has Been Fulfilling’
This is the concluding part of the interview carried last Friday, July 22, 2022.
Mr. Chairman, there was recently an incident in Rumuogba where miscrants accosted workers at a property site claiming to be working for the council whereas their claim was not true. How do you handle the issue of touting in revenue generation in your local government?
Let me tell you the candid truth: my problem is not with the people that go about asking for such money. No! My problem is with those people like the property owner you just talked about. We have gone on air, we have announced severally on radio and TV: anything you want to pay that concerns the council; our offices are open from 8am to 5pm, which is when they close that gate, come to the council here, and make your payments and obtain original receipts from the council. Get your approvals and papers from us here. We do not exist in heaven, we are here at Rumuodomaya. Come and pay your tenement rate fees, operational permits and other taxes here.
The truth is that people deliberately fail to do the right things, believing that when those boys come knocking, they will just pay a little token, and they will give them adulterated documents claiming to be issued by us. And by paying them that money, you are encouraging them to do same to another person or come back tomorrow. We are aware of all these. They patronise the touts at the detriment of the council. That is what they do!
For instance, if you want to develop your property, you come to the council to pay the land rate and fencing permit levy. Outside of that, before you start your building, you bring your drawing here for approval. And most of our people do not do that. They don’t! Like I said, my problem is not with the boys who tout around, but the people that are giving them the leverage to continue to exist. Because if you come to the council, and you get the right papers, as a right-thinking Nigerian, you cannot get your papers and somebody will come and tell you to pay again for the same papers. You will not accept it because you know that you made your payment at the right source and place. All you need to do is to come back to the council, and complain, and your grievances will be resolved. If it is not what you are supposed to pay, when you go back, and the people come again, you arrest them with the police. Inform us, and we will come there and tell the police that we did not send these persons. And they will be prosecuted.
But what do we find here, we find people who will stay back, they won’t pay what they are supposed to pay, and then, when the boys come, if they fail to settle as per price, maybe, they will tell you the boys are coming to harass them. But in your conscience, you know you have not paid what you were lawfully meant to pay. That is what we see. And that is the problem we have! The council gates are open to all who have any legitimate business to transact with us. If we said this is the levy you are supposed to pay, first and foremost, if you get the remand notice, and you are too sure, get across to us at the council for clarification. We have designated bank accounts, go and pay what you are due, and come and obtain original receipts and your papers from us. Do they do that? The answer is no! Then, at the end of the day, when they are not able to pay the touts whatever they are asking for, it becomes an issue of complaint: they are coming to harass us. That is the problem we are facing.
Nobody wants to do the right thing, but they sit back and then, they make so much noise only in the guise of wanting to tarnish the image of the local government. That is what they do. Most of them don’t pay. It is only when the boys go to their sites, and seize their material, that is when you see them bring their drawings here for approval. That is when they come here to pay if they are not able to pay those people there. And for the ones that think they are smart, that is when they will give those boys money there, and they go. Then, when we set up our own monitoring teams to go and verify, they now say… they gave this much; meanwhile they did not come to the council to pay and obtain their original receipts and papers. You gave the money to who? When we ask them, they look for one story to tell. So, that is the problem we are having! If the people, out of their own volition know that this is their civic responsibility, and do those things expected of them to do, you can now come back and tell us that we are the richest local government, and we will tell you, yes, we are because we are seeing the money. But we are not!
Don’t you think that is one of the reasons why you are not because a large chunk of what is supposed to be coming to the local government council is not coming?
That is what we are saying. We are saying the same thing. You can’t just assume it to be so. Alright! It is like the misconception about budgeting. You hear that they have budgeted N50trillion. Is the money there? The money is not there! It is a mere projection. Most times, they will not even get up to half of that amount. Most times, they will spend above that amount. It happens because we are all human beings. That is how it is with what you are trying to assess now. So, that is what we are passing through. And the best way to it is to still appeal to those who are doing business in our local government to do the right thing.
Because the only option left for us now is to set up a task force team to go and verify whether you have paid or not, and get our money for us, if you have not paid. And you see those people who patronise the touts are the same people that shout the most. Before you know it, they have gone to social media; they have gone to conventional media, claiming that Obio/Akpor officials are harassing them and breaking into their shops or business premises. But we have given you enough time; we have announced in the media the timeline and deadline for you to pay. Early January to mid-February, we are on air all-through making announcements for people to come to the council and make their payments for the year. What else do you expect us to do? The moment we set up task forces now, they will start shouting to high heavens, they have come again; they are harassing us; they don’t want us to do our business. But you that was supposed to pay your obligations to the council; you have failed to do that, and you are blaming us for taking steps to recover our money. Because if you have come here to pay, we do not have any reason to set up any task forces that sometimes, are confrontational, to recover our money. And then, it becomes the issue of complaint. That is the problem we have! And when you say, let me avoid these complaints, and not set up any task force, they still won’t come on their own to make the payment so that we can have money to work for our people. Or is it my personal money that I am going to use to work for the people? Is it my own money that I am going to use to pay for the Postgraduate grants? Or pay for the skills acquisition training for beneficiaries? Or for the projects we are doing? It is this money from levies, taxes, etc, that we are using to do them! And they make it look like if it comes, you put it in your pockets: it is not for personal aggrandisement! It is for the delivery of democracy dividends to the people. It is only those who do not have initiative that will not utilise the council’s money prudently to deliver quality services to the people. We are focused and resilient, and we know what to do to make our people, who elected us to serve them, happy.
But we are still reaching out to them. We will continue to appeal to business operators to come and do the needful for the good of all in the local government, because without that money, we cannot work. Let them stop patronising touts. They are the ones encouraging them. So, these are part of the major problems we experience in trying to harness our revenue for you to have the foundation to tell us we are the richest or we are the largest. There is no statistics to back that up! That is what it is.
Chairman Sir, you have said a lot concerning your achievements in the past one year. I know it requires a lot of money for you to carry out these development projects in the local government. So, what are you doing to shore up the revenue base of the council by way of diversification of the economy of the local government?
Well, how do we diversify? Unless you are talking of it from the point of view of investments! But like I said, as it stands now, our core investment is in the area of human capacity development. The law allows us to provide support for health; education; build markets; parks; property approval and building permits; and collection of tenement rates and derivable levies. That is all the diversification you can talk about. Except you are talking of venturing into agriculture! We don’t have that capacity.
What we do is to see to what extent we can add value to improve the lives of our people directly. That is what we see as our own diversification or what we can call investment; because we believe that by tomorrow, it will yield positive dividends. The multiplier effects arising therefrom can also count for us.
But out of that, we have the intention of building one or two new markets, or renovate one or two. We also plan to develop one or two more parks, because even if you do so, we have parks and markets already existing. You see those ones in those communities, even if you build more, they won’t allow you to come and collect the rent. By the time you want to press it, they will say you are confrontational. It is something when you come to experience it that you know better. If not, these are the little openings the law allows us to get involved in, in order to raise revenue for the council. Because we cannot on our own get involved in things the law does not permit us to do. What the law provides for us is: you establish markets; you establish parks; you collect daily tolls; and all of that. The diversification you are talking about now can only be in the area of investment. I think we are doing all we can outside our monthly allocation to boost our revenue and add to accelerate quality service delivery. It is what we have in our place here, that God has blessed us with, but the problem is how to harness it to enhance our revenue base because of the bottlenecks I have explained to you. That is what we are exploring.
We have our agents, and we are doing everything possible to tap all available options to increase our revenue base. I must also acknowledge that they are some companies and business operators in the local government that within the period given to them, the moment they receive our demand notice, they come to pay their due. But we still have some big companies that connive with these touts to evade payment of what is due the council.
Are you planning to digitise revenue collection in the council to check corruption and other sundry sharp practices?
We are working towards that. But one thing you must understand is, even at that, like I know how many filling stations that are operating in Obio/Akpor. I know how many hotels. In fact, we have a record of how many companies that are operating in our area. But no matter how you look at it, it takes a willing mind to pay what he or she is statutorily obligated to pay to the government. Anyone not interested in paying will not want to pay voluntarily. Majority of the people always wants to be forced to do the right thing. We do not have difficulty collecting the money. The issue is: are they willing to pay? Because it is a willing mind that will do what you are saying, whether automated or not. I hope you understand me? Those that are paying will be the same ones that will pay whether you automate the process or not, because it is a voluntary thing. What they hear is that one that officials will come and lock up their shops or business premises or carry their goods or wares. That is the problem: lack of people’s willingness to discharge their obligations voluntarily. Even when you spread the annual payment over a period of time within the year, those not ready and willing to pay, won’t pay.
Interjection! Chairman, let me step in here. Let us leave that issue, enough has already been said about it.
Chairman, I know that this is not your problem, but a lot of motorists have been complaining about the bad gullies and craters near the entrance to your council’s gate on the Port Harcourt-Owerri Road. Why don’t you try to do something to rehabilitate those bad spots to ease free flow of traffic around this axis?
Oh! The one in front of the council secretariat? Somebody told me they talked about it on radio the other day. Well, two weeks after I assumed office, we tried to do something around that. But I have listened to some of the commentaries on radio. Some people actually feign ignorance on who has the responsibility to address that challenge.
You know that we have three tiers of government: The federal, state and local government. That responsibility falls squarely under the purview of the Federal Government, because it is a federal road. It is not even the duty of the state government to intervene, except it secures the go-ahead of the Federal Government.
If you are saying it as a suggestion, fine. We can consider it based on available resources to us. But it is not my responsibility as a council. It is not! We have a lot of competing needs that we are obligated to address as leaders at the local government level. Our people elected us to serve them, and we have to judiciously spend the scarce resources available to deliver for our people. It is not just something you wake up one day and throw yourself into. Do we have the money to do it? The answer is no!
And more so, they have given the contract to LCC, a construction company to handle. They are in the process of providing drainages on the road. It is a gradual process. They are doing the work! It is not as if vehicles are not passing the road. It is just that some people are just idle, and do not know what to say or do with their precious time. Some journalists just want people to listen to their stations, so they look for just anything to say to engage idle minds.
Chairman, every job has its own risks and exposures. This job, for the past one year, has also exposed you to certain risks that you may not have anticipated. A case in point was early this year when your task force team on illegal crude oil refineries was accosted at a point around Rumuolumeni, and there was a near combat situation between some armed personnel of a Federal Government security agency and your team. My instinct tells me that you were physically present while the fight was raging. How did you feel about your safety during that confrontation?
Well, let me start it this way. You know that one of the questions you asked was that my local government is the richest. That is part of the risk. You won’t understand.
Well, that is what leadership is about. You can’t come here and just think it is a bed of roses. There are attendant risks associated with the job. That situation on that fateful day is one of such risks. Even in the job you do as a journalist, there are risks you face on a daily basis. It is what comes with the job, and you should be ready to face it. We are here to solve problems; we are here to face challenges first and foremost. This place is not a party hall; it is not a place for luxury. You that made up your mind to become council chairman must have also made up your mind to frontally tackle whatever challenges may arise during the course of your tenure.
So, it is not the team I sent. I was physically present there, and I was the one they were attacking for leading a team to disrupt and dismantle their illegal business activities in my council area. It was the confrontation I had with men of Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) at Rumuolumeni. I was the one with the guy that had a gun; I was the person in the video that went viral on social media. It is what it is: it is governance! It is leadership! You must confront issues as there arise. Because: what is democracy? It is all about the people! What is governance? It is all about the people! The centrepiece of it is the people.
So, whatever it is that is affecting your people that you have sworn to govern, should be your personal challenge. We knew the effect of the soot pandemic everywhere in the state until the governor intervened and took the proactive step, and ordered the chairmen of the 23 local government councils to ensure that the operators and sponsors of illegal oil bunkering activities in the communities are identified and reported to appropriate authorities for investigation and prosecution while their sites should be closed permanently. He ordered the chairmen to join the fight because there is no way he can do it alone. After all, we relate more closely with the people at the grassroots. It borders on our people. The soot was affecting the health of our people.
So, for you to be a leader, no matter the level, you should be resilient; your mind should be made up to confront most of these challenges head-on. Some people have lost their lives in the course of defending their people. That is leadership! And if you are not ready to sacrifice for your people, then, you do not deserve to be a leader. So, that is the motivating factor that we have to keep pushing because it is in the interest of our people.
Chairman, you talked about what you were doing at Rumuekini: the Fish Farm. I will like to know: what is the state of that farm, today? Is it producing? Are we earning money from the farm already? Secondly, Obio/Akpor has a serious challenge of refuse disposal. We understand the challenges, especially when the issue of refuse disposal was handed over to you by the governor when Rivers State Waste Management Agency (RIWAMA) had problems. What is the situation now? And how are you coping with that to ensure that the local government is free of filth?
Well, we thank God that as it stands now, a task force has been set up by the governor to take over that responsibility. But while it lasted, it was a daunting experience. A big one at that! It was an intervention that we got involved directly. But experience has shownthat refuse collection and disposal is a serious business. Very serious business managed by very serious-minded people!
Of course, refuse is produced in seconds. And you know that it is human beings that produce waste. So, it follows that where you have high concentration of the population, the tendency is that you have more refuse produced by the seconds within that area. Like Obio/Akpor, if you talk about population concentration, it doubles that of Port Harcourt City. That is why we seem to have more waste than any other local government in the state.
It has always been the responsibility of RIWAMA. But through the directive of the governor, we intervened and did what we were able to do to help. The job has reverted to RIWAMA, and the task force is incharge now. We even attended a meeting at the invitation of the task force, yesterday, to ask us on what experience we have garnered and what suggestions we could make to help them do even better. We had very candid conversations around the issues, and we also made suggestions for seamless refuse collection and disposal in the capital city through a strategic synergy that works for the good of all in the communities.
Of course, the local government council must be involved; just as the communities must also be involved, because they are the ones generating the refuse. So, they should also be involved in all-round monitoring and supervision of evacuation at the receptacles and compaction at the dumpsites, because we have the manpower at this level. We know that most of the refuse contractors, if you don’t supervise and monitor them very closely, they won’t do their jobs diligently. So, we need to work with RIWAMA for them to succeed. All the same, we thank God that we were able to do that job, but it was very overwhelming, I must admit.
Now, back to the issue of the Rumuekini fish farm. Yes, as it is today, it is not functioning optimally. We are trying to work out modalities for its efficient and effective operation. But we said, if we finish securing the place first, to be sure, then, we can begin the next process. We want to set up an agro-based business there outside of the fish farm in partnership with interested investors. We are talking with some people already, and we believe that by the time we are done, we would have bequeathed a thriving agro-based business portfolio that will not only employ a lot of our people but also generate income for many families and the council as well.
If we are to continue with the facility, we may have to totally renovate and expand it. Our intention initially was to, because it is in units, just to add extra units, make them modern, and then, in each unit, raise like two or three women, give them money to run it as a business. They will manage it, sell and make returns to the council, no matter how little. We are working that out. Now that we have been able to secure the place, it will now give us that platform to work out something. My supervisor for agriculture is working out the modalities. We are talking with a team from Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and two or three other organisations to see how the place can be optimised for the good of the people of Obio/Akpor.
Going forward, what are we expecting from you in Obio/Akpor?
Yes, we have hit the ground running. Like I said, in the area of human capital development, we will continue with our post-graduate grants. We will also continue with our vocational skills acquisition programme. We will do another two sets. The PG programmes, we will do another two sets of 50 for PhD and 50 for Masters. So, at the end of our three-year tenure, we would have produced 150 PhD and 150 Masters degree holders.
We have other very important projects we want to embark upon. First among them is the Secondary School Block we promised to build for Woji community. We are thinking about one or two important link roads in the two constituencies of Obio and Akpor that make up the local government. If it is not something that can go round all the 17 wards, we do it constituency-by-constituency. If it can go beyond the constituency but not up to the ward level, we do it by clans, like what we did with the Charkin Academy admission. We could not carry the burden at the ward level by choosing 17 persons, as to one from each ward. So, what we did was use the nine clans as a basis for the selection of beneficiaries. In Evo, we have three clans – Oro-Evo, Oro-Esara, and Oro-Opotoma, that is in constituency one; in constituency two, we have three clans – Akpor, Apara, and Rumueme; then, the remaining, we gave to non-indigenes of Obio/Akpor. That was how we distributed the slots for the Charkin admission. So, we had a balance in the selection process.
All we can say is that Obio/Akpor people should expect more from us. And above all of these is the programme we want to start for our women petty traders. You know that we do not have farm lands anymore. Our women used to be very industrious and hardworking farmers, but with the lands gone to urbanisation, the only available space they have now, they display pepper, tomatoes, vegetables, and all those foodstuffs. So, we think we can encourage them by giving seed money to improve their trades; maybe, N10,000 to N20,000 revolving facility, so that we can reach as many women as possible in the communities. That way, we will help them boost their small businesses to support their families, and also help the council grow economically. So, that will be our focus too in no distant time.
The moment we are sure that it is workable, and will impact positively on the people, we will kick-start it, maybe, towards the end of the year, and nosedive into next year. We have already told them that it is not going to be business as usual. They have to be judicious and frugal in the management of whatever they are given, because it is not for free; they have to pay back the money. The structures have to be in place to make the scheme sustainable.
We also have a scheme for the youths. We will identify the ones that are ready to be engaged, and want to eke out a living for themselves, if they get any support. Then, with the scheme, we will support them to be useful to themselves and the society. That way, we would have strengthened the economies of our communities; and built a more resilient and peaceful society.
We are going to do all these because we have the interest of our people at heart. We promised to address their challenges when we come on board, and we have to keep our promise. We will not disappoint them.
‘I Want To Be Remembered For Laying RSUTH Foundation’
The Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH), one of the newest in Nigeria, has come a long way since it came into being four years ago. The change from a comparatively obscure Braithwaithe Memorial Specialist Hospital (BMSH) in the country to its present status as a Teaching Hospital has not yet ceased to baffle close watchers. How did this happen? Who made it happen? What is it that has so turned things around in it that has made it the bride of genuine good health seekers within and outside the State? To respond to these and other nagging questions, The Tide’s Business Editor, Soibi Max-Alalibo, and Deputy News Editor, Sogbeba Dokubo, sought the answers from the Chief Medical Director, RSUTH, Dr. Friday E. Aaron, on whose shoulders the responsibility was placed. The interview turned out to be revealing as it was assuring.
Since 2018, when the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital was birthed from the then Braithwaithe Memorial Specialist Hospital, Rivers people, residents of the State, and those from other neighbouring states have never had it so good in terms of accessing medical care for which they hitherto had to travel very far.
Beyond easily accessing the right medical care, patients can now walk in, get necessary medical attention, and walk out with little or no stress as it was in the days of BMSH.
Staff, from the bottom to top, are more dedicated to their responsibilities due to high motivational standards, better equipment to work with, and incentives, which have given them more reason to put in their best in their jobs.
The result is that from being an institution that rendered only health care services, it now renders the same services at a more higher level, trains health care practitioners, and also carries out researches.
Photo Caption: 64 slice CT Scan, used for Radio-diagnostic imaging.
The person at the centre of this phenomenal change is the State Governor, His Excellency, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, who, as part of his NEW Vision, extended his midas touch to the hospital by appointing a technocrat in the fold of Dr Friday Aaron as the pioneer Chief Medical Director (CMD), who has turned out to be the engine room or the development of one of the foremost Teaching Hospitals in Nigeria.
As the CMD puts it: “I have not just been in charge, I’m the pioneer CMD of the hospital. So, that places on me a huge assignment of laying the foundation, and then building on it”.
This eventually became his driving force, which is “to be remembered as one that came, laid a foundation that people should build on, sustainably”.
In order to attain this quest, Dr. Aaron acknowledged what he called the “incontestable magnanimity” of the State Governor in according him the privilege of not just appointing him as the pioneer CMD, but also providing the wherewithal in terms of provision of manpower, equipment, and key Infrastructures required to turn the tide of the hospital around to what it is today, preparatory to what it will be years to come.
“One thing that’s outstanding is the overall change in the hospital, the overall repositioning of the hospital that was just mainly rendering health care services, to a Teaching Hospital with capacity to manage very complex cases.
“And that change is obvious for us to see in terms of infrastructure, change in mindset of staff, quality of services, in terms of overall patient experience “, he said.
On assumption of duty in 2018, the first thing he did to set things in motion was to develop a Mission, Vision, and Core Values for the hospital, and also ensure that staff adhere strictly to achieving them as spelt out in their various responsibilities.
“In all our meetings we remind ourselves of these core values and take one of them and remind ourselves of how to go about it”, he explained.
To encourage staff in being at their best in their jobs, various awards have been instituted for outstanding staff in various departments, “and this has changed their mindset for better and quality service delivery”.
The result is that four years down the lane, RSUTH has not only recorded tremendous achievements in areas that fall within its mandate, but has also kept on improving in all key three areas that comprise the mandate: rendering medical services; training of medical personnel; and carrying out researches. These three are what the CMD called the “Trypod Mandate” of a Teaching Hospital.
In service delivery, RSUTH now renders services beyond Rivers State up to the South-South and South East States.
“After we became a Teaching Hospital, we now render services up to the South-South and South East because of the level of equipment we have “, he stated.
Dr Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon, said the result of the upgrade to a Teaching Hospital, among others, is that the environment has turned into a beehive of activities: from the gate through all the various departments, every staff is usually on their toes, and does so with a mindset of responsibility to serve, and in all happiness to do so.
“When you talk about services, you see that anytime you walk into the hospital, you see how busy it is, because of the level of services we render”, he said.
Beyond attending efficiently to all who come to the hospital to seek treatment or service, by ensuring that they get to the right place to get the required attention, the hospital has also improved in clinical care services, where diagnostics stands out tops.
As the CMD captures it, “we have the best radio diagnostic equipment East of the Niger “.
Such diagnostic equipment include: Magnetic Resonance Imagine (MRI) 1.5 Tesla Machine, for general body imaging; Computer Tomography (CT); Mammography Machine, used for breast imaging; Fluoroscopy Machine, for dynamic imaging studies; and Plain Radiography Machine, which is used for static imaging.
These and other essential machines for a Teaching Hospital that are not commonly available in most tertiary health care institutions in the country has turned RSUTH into a Mecca of sort, attracting people from outside the State, most especially from the South-South and South East.
Such States include Enugu, Umuahia, Owerri, and Bayelsa. People Troup into the hospital for one form of diagnostic investigation or the other on a daily basis.
Following the upgrade also, there have been non-stop and all round power supply from 2018 up to March 2022, when it had to be rationed to departments that necessarily require it all through the day, such as the radiology department where equipment has to be on 24/7.
RSUTH also has Dialysis Machine, which has the capacity for Renal Transplant, popularly known as kidney transplant.
Currently, personnels have been trained, and more are still undergoing trainings on how to operate and use the machine.
What this means is that in no time, kidney transplant and other related diseases, for which patients are flown abroad, can be done and treated in RSUTH. Ultimately, this will attract more patronage from far and near.
In training, RSUTH, by its status as a Teaching Hospital, is a training ground for both the Rivers State University, and private owned Pamo Universiy of Medical Sciences.
“It is because we have a functioning Teaching Hospital that the regulatory body approved RSUTH as a training ground.
“The Collage of Medical Sciences accredited RSUTH to train doctors. They come from time-to-time, for every level to check what is on ground. For training, we have supported at the undergraduate level, student nurses from RSU are also being trained here”, he stated.
RSUTH, Dr Aaron continued, “serves Rivers people primarily, and also Pamo Universiy of Medical Sciences who are one year ahead in terms of students. They come for their orientation, medical experience, and have also received accreditation because of their relationship with us.
The implication of this is that RSUTH has not only been carrying out clinical trainings, but also provide manpower for both the public and private sectors, and most of these students are of Rivers origin.
The hospital trains doctors, nurses, cardiographers, medical laboratory scientists, etc. from the public and private sectors.
In order to fulfill its mandate on research, RSUTH is registered with relevant national bodies and is licensed on health ethics and bio-ethics.
“This has helped us because more of our lecturers and staff write to the ethics committee, receive approval and do researches”.
This, the CMD said, has given RSUTH global visibility.
“Now, you can just Google researches and publications done here. You’ll see quite a lot of our publications. We have data, unexplored data, because we have been working for sometime.
“That’s why we started by upgrading our records because it was an issue in the past. Now that we have electronic records, it is easy to get data”.
Though these and many other successes have been recorded in the first four years of RSUTH, Dr. Aaron said the feat was achieved amidst challenges.
He, therefore, called for partnership with well-meaning individuals and organisations to partner the hospital in order to serve the public more, saying hat Government alone “cannot do it all”.
So far, the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) seem to have taken the lead in this wise by building the Infectious & Disease Unit of the hospital, which is under construction.
“The Governor has done a lot. The story of this hospital has changed for good. Patients should utilize the hospital and also be friendly, show loyalty, commitment in the hospital, by using the facility in such a way that they see it as belonging to them, which is taking ownership, in order to sustain it”, he said.
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