Imo State governor, Owelle Rochas Anayochukwu Okorocha, had his 50 years birthday anniversary and 10 years of his foundation on October 8, 2012. He took time out to field questions on his life, passions, and ambition.
You celebrated your 50th birthday on October 8, 2012. How was it like growing up as a child?
It was a worthwhile experience growing up. I found out that I was born into a home that is relatively poor from all the definition of poverty. So, I understand from the onset that I have a task ahead of me and the name of the game is survival. I had to work extra hard to make both ends meet by combining my education with street trading business. So, I didn’t have a straight school experience.
While growing up I was involved in street trading business at one point in time or the other. Honestly, there has never been a dull moment in my life. In fact, I engaged in too many things just for the sole purpose to survive.
At what point in your life would you say you broke even?
I broke even in two stages. The first one was at a very tender age of my life when I was selling used clothes. Then I was in secondary school. I guess I broke even because I was able to buy a bus. I was able to buy a bus in secondary school and I bought television set in primary school as small as I was from the sale of oranges, coconuts and used clothes.
What I do is that if I sell, I post some of the profits and at the end of the year I buy something with it. So, it has been aworthwhile experience but where I would say I made the first one million dollars, was as a commission agent from the sale of used equipment in Bauchi State where Balfour Beatty was constructing the Balanga Dam. When the company was winding up, I was one of the agents that sold used equipment and I made N1.1 million when it was equivalent to $1 million. I would say that saw me through my first break-even.
And I put the entire money into the business of used cars, then later graduated to the sale of new cars to what they called ‘Rochas Motors.” But what made me really rich was top real estate business.
How were you making these cross over from the sale of used clothes, oranges to used cars, new cars and all the rest of them?
It is opportunity, I don’t miss opportunities in life. When I was selling oranges, I was able to save some money from the sale of oranges. Take for instance, when you sell a bag of orange you use the money to buy four bags of oranges, and if you sell another four bags you can now buy 12 bags of oranges. That was how I was able to buy television set in primary school.
In secondary school I started selling Okrika (used clothes). I was virtually going to all the village markets in Plateau State, and I am very popular in those markets even today. For any market I went to, I found out that all my goods were sold and some people thought it’s a gift from God.
So, I have this power of conviction, to convince my customers to buy things from me. One white man once told me that I can sell ice to Eskimos. I have done the investigation really, and it was quite an interesting part of my life because the stages of development were quite sequential. At the age of nine I bought a television set, at the age of 14, I bought a bus, at the age of 19/20 I became head of a commercial school, at the age 22/23 I became a proprietor of a school, and I went into cement business (BBC) in Gboko, Benue State.
And at the age of 24 plus, I got married; at the age of 29 I became a member of National Constitutional Conference. I became a member of Federal Character Commission thereafter. Then I went to contest for governorship which failed, and shortly after that I ran for presidency. I became a presidential adviser and I ran for presidency again. You see, I moved on and on in life with hard work and challenges.
You said at your birthday celebration that at 50 you are no longer a small boy. Why?
Yes, at 50 you should be able to take responsibilities for whatever action you take in life and there is this notion by elders that young ones never grow. In the Nigerian context or in Igbo land ‘Obi is a boy’, “Eze goes to school,” but Eze must one day be a graduate and Obi must one day stop being a boy. I suffered that all my life; this small boy why would he want to be governor? This small boy why would he want to be president? He is over ambitious!
So, I am no longer a small boy now, and I am qualified to do any business in Nigeria or run for any office in the Federal Republic, and I am qualified to take decisions that can affect my people positively.
During the dinner party organised in Concord Hotel, Owerri to mark your 50th birthday, you also talked about your plane crash experience. Can you relive part of it, how you survived and some other bitter experiences you had?
The plane crash experience was quite an emotional one, because I had been involved in two plane crashes. One, I narrowly escaped which was Belview airline that I was about to board, and later turned back, because I was feeling dizzy, and I was not feeling very good. I was very sick instantly, and I was wondering if I was going to make the flight. I hope I was not going to run into problems either fainting in the plane or something; it has never happened to me before. That was how I got out of that plane. The one of Nigerian Airways was a messy one because we saw the plane crash.
It landed and caught flames in the bush and many people died. Where was that? That was in Kaduna. The Nigerian Airways was a big experience. We boarded the plane and I took the second row of the seat. I came in and everybody came in. The plane was too full that the air hostess had to give up her seat to use the captain’s cockpit seat.
And one lady came in and in the attempt for the air hostess to give her a seat, she said she was not going to go and she walked back. Then I said to myself, if something happens to this plane, then this girl will say she knows God more than myself.
And it was during the period Saro-Wiwa (Ken) was hanged in Port Harcourt Prison. I saw it in the news that Saro-Wiwa had just been hanged and I felt very bad. Because anything about death is really worrisome to me and somehow I prayed that God should be with the plane. But few minutes after, the plane had problems and smoke was coming out of the aircraft everywhere, and some people knew there was danger.
The captain didn’t say anything to us, but all we heard was the noise from the cockpit and we knew there was confusion and we found ourselves hitting the ground at an unusual speed almost at the end of the run way. There was smoke from all parts of the aircraft and people were dying, and I noticed that those who were with me forgot to remove their seat belts and had all turned their heads to death.
So I was hypnotised somehow; I didn’t know what was happening and the doors refused to open for the few that were alive to come out. At a point I heard a voice say ‘Jesus Christ’ and my faith was rekindled and I remembered that I had seat belt on, and I removed my seat belt. I went to the door and hit the door. Miraculously that door opened and I cannot take the credit because I know that it was God’s doing.
So, I was the first actually to open the door, but instead of me going down I felt I could render help. So I started throwing people that were still living out of the door. But there was this young lady who looked at the depth of the aircraft and could not jump, and she held the two doors. So I had to hit her to create space for others. It was a messy situation. Eventually, feeling came to my mind. There was this chemistry teacher that I had, who taught us about the combustibility of gas especially the oxygen used by the plane. So, I remembered, and I said to myself ‘this might be serious’ so jumped out, and when I jumped out, the fire service brigade that was rushing to come and save lives in attempt to reverse crushed two persons lying down already who were still alive and they died. When the fire got to the fuel tank the aircraft blew up and what we saw was blood and smoke. Some ugly experiences I have had; I had been involved in car crash severally and I had my leg almost amputated for car crashes, so, it has been life of challenges and progress.
The challenges what have they actually taught you? Does it have any bearing on the charity work you do?
For me life is nothing; life is meaningless. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is what you are able to do for others. My happiness is what I am able to do for other people not in what I have, because life is really worthless if you look at it deeply.
So, what I celebrated actually was what God has used me to do for the poor people because if I achieved nothing at 50, it’s not worth celebrating.
What will you do for Imo State in terms of free education?
The issue of education, there is no going back on it and if it means making further sacrifice to make sure education is free for primary, secondary and university. It’s not a convenient thing to do, it’s almost shacking me on the neck that I have to do all these. That means for everything that has to do with even the fueling in the Government House, I have to be careful to the food that I eat, the water that I drink.
Everyday I do that, I remember I have responsibility to offer free education to people. So, with education Imo will be transformed. Infrastructurally, Imo has to be repackaged to make it so beautiful that the foreigners can look at it and want to partner the state. So, what I am doing now is repackaging the entire state such that people can be happy with it. If you look at the Government House you can see construction going on everywhere. This is not what used to exist here before, these are all new projects.
That is exactly what we are trying to do but we are going to achieve it and there is no doubt about that. How would you like to be remembered when you leave the Government House? Well, remember me for one that came and he impacted on the world and the society.
I want to change the world for better. I don’t want to leave the world the way I met it. So for me, the world must be better and that is why I say Imo must be better. Let me start with Imo first, Imo must be better and must leave a mark that will be an envy of the whole world.
That is my joy. It’s no longer in the primitive accumulation of wealth. I am not excited about cars. I am not excited about houses. I am not excited about champaign and drinks. Those for me are old fashioned; they are old model. The new model is impacting on the lives of others because I thank God Almighty that I lack none of this. So, I am not excited by houses any more, neither am I excited by cars, I am not excited by big living. I am not excited by being called a millionaire. Those things don’t excite me any more.
I am not excited by being observed by protocol as number one citizen, or a man who must take a front seat any time. I am not excited at all. What excites me now is to see the poor people have a smile, kindly reach out to have a handshake with them. Can I embrace them? That is my joy and especially children because I weep for our children who don’t have future.
I have passed through the situation where my nation could not help me, my state cannot help me, my local government will not help me. My parents did, the little they did, but they couldn’t help me that much other than birth. So, the Nigerian nation rarely provided scholarship and virtually everything I had to struggle to do so. I would not want our children to go through what some of us had gone through.
My nation owes me a duty of care my state holds me a duty of care, my local government holds me a duty of care, my community holds me a duty of care for as long as I surrendered my power to their leadership. But we are not getting that,that is why I don’t want the future generation to go through what some of us have gone through. If you say I am a citizen, citizenship means that you can claim right; but we couldn’t get it. Our founding fathers never converted to some of these things.
We were not brought up like American kids, or kids from Europe who have quality education, good medicare and all that. So, I want a situation where our children who are coming should not go to war like we go to. Let children not suffer what their parents suffered. It’s only a foolish man that allows his children to go through the pains of what he went through.