She misses her students in the Mass Communication Department of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University where she lectured. But there are other ways to render service to the people, she says. In the last eight years of Governor Peter Obi’s government in Anambra State, Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna, who was first appointed as Commissioner for Information and later asked to Head the Budget and Economic Planning Ministry which she runs concurrently as Chief of Staff to the Governor, in this interview, looks back and says that anyone who disagrees that the administration has not performed is crazy. She explains why her principal, ahead of the 2014 gubernatorial election in the state, will not anoint a successor.
How has it been in the last eight years that you have been in active politics?
It’s been good. At the beginning really, it was tough because I have always been a teacher all my life. And leaving the classroom was a big blow to me in many ways and it took me time to adapt coupled with the fear of politics. When I came in here, I didn’t know what to expect. I dreaded politics. At the beginning, the portfolio I was given was Information; back then, I was always afraid because there is this belief that Information Commissioners or Ministers are propagandists.
And if you are a Commissioner or Minister of Information; if your principal is not doing well, woe betide you because you will turn into a liar. You have to tell lies to cover their shortcomings. So, there was this fear I had when I came in here.
So, the first year or thereabouts, I was trying to juggle everything. But, luckily, the man I came to work with, Peter Obi, wasn’t a man you have to lie for. He was a man whom I thought had vision. So my belief in his vision made the work easier for me because I saw a good reason for leaving the classroom. But that didn’t mean I didn’t miss my students
because I believe in mentoring people particularly young women and being here for so long has not given me the opportunity to mentor as many young women as directly I wanted. But, all the same, I left the classroom, a little bit apprehensive in the beginning but what I saw here strengthened my resolve that my leaving the classroom was worth it.
Peter Obi gave me good reasons to believe that the move I made wasn’t in vain. He had a vision, policy direction, vehicle for reaching a destination. And I have done so much to support that vision and to make the vehicle reach its destination.
Would you say that the vision has been realized?
The vision is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs. Eight of those goals are practically basic goals and we are achieving them.
We chose a strategy for achieving that vision that is multi-sectoral. The MDGs cut across various sectors from poverty to education to health, water resources, the environment, women empowerment. And to achieve them, government must also adopt a multi-sectoral approach and we did that by adopting as a vehicle what we called “the Anambra Integrated Development Strategy” (ANIDS).
Specifically, can you mention those areas you have performed creditably?
I will begin with addressing poverty which is goal one of the MDGs.
Fortunately for us as a state, Anambra cannot described as a poor state that is in terms of its people because the Igbo person is entrepreneurial. The Igbo person abhors begging or being dependent on others. So, by our very nature, we are people who make an effort to pull ourselves out of poverty.
We are supporting that spirit of our people by also intervening in various ways to make sure poverty is not extreme. The very first thing we did was to do a poverty mapping as a state. You cannot fight a monster you don’t know what it looks like or hard to find. Poverty had to be identified to tackle it.
We did a poverty mapping of the state to identify the poorest LGAs. Once we identify them without neglecting others, we scaled up interventions in those areas. And we found out
that one thing that makes people poor is poor in those areas was poor access. The poorest LGAs had no access from the seat of power into the remote areas. They had no access to evacuate agricultural produce and they are also the food producing areas.
The poorest areas are in Anambra West, Orumba South, Awka North and Ogbaru and these are the food baskets of the state. Because there was no road in those areas, they couldn’t bring their produce to market here to earn better income. People couldn’t go in there to give agricultural inputs.
So, what we did was to work in those areas with good roads. And in Awka North, most communities did not have electricity not to talk of water supply. We are begging to build there now. And the governor’s wife undertook something that was unprecedented.
She began poverty intervention thing for women, vulnerable women, mainly widows and other poverty challenged women. She visited them personally. The governor also toured those areas to empower them and give grants. And right now, we are beginning something that I consider as the climax of our poverty eradication scheme.
We are a CCT, Conditional Cash Transfer, through the MDG where more than 2,000 poor house-holds were selected from five poor LGAs and the criteria are there and every month, we give each of them N5,000. And at the end of one year we give a bulk of N100,000 for them to begin an agric related entrepreneurial something. And again, these are those four local government areas that are mainly agrarian in nature. We have done well in education. Education here was in a very pitiable condition mainly because when the war ended, government took over schools from the Missions.
Most good schools in those days were Missions Schools and government took them by force, and, I think, they mismanaged them. When we can in, education was in a very horrible state, practically all the structures were dilapidated. So the governor did what was unthinkable, what other governments did not find the courage to do. He returned schools to the former owners, the Missions.
We did not just return the schools, we retained payment of salaries of teachers. Above all, we are still giving grants. So, almost every year, the government is disbursing billions of Naira directly to the bishops overseeing those schools.
Althogether there were about a thousand schools. About four hundred and something were Catholic Church owned, three hundred and something by Anglican Church and two hundred and something by
government. Go there now and see the amount of work, renovation, rehabilitation being done and the schools are beginning to come back to what they used to be.
Government came under heavy criticism because of that.
It was the right way to go. People normally think government property is nobody’s property. No body takes care of it. It is just there. But the church is eminently qualified to manage schools. If you recall Senator Chukwumereji speaking at Prof. Achebe’s burial, he counted and said if you know all those who became people in those days, they either went to Government College or schools like that. The difference is clear. There is this single-minded commitment by the church to their own school and they are doing well. Morality has improved.
Values have come back to school. Children are beginning to behave like human beings. We used to do school tours with the governor then and the kind of children we saw in school before the handover was
something else. And there is now competition between the schools owned by the Anglican Church and the ones owned by the Catholic Church. And even the government schools are beginning to sit up to try and measure up with the standard of Mission Schools. The difference is there. Anybody saying it was a wrong thing is not knowledgeable about school management in Anambra State. He should come home and we take him to the schools.
There is something most people consider a big minus in Peter Obi’s administration. In the whole of eight years, the governor did not conduct local government elections against the letters and spirit of the Constitution. Morally and legally, do you think that it justifiable?
Well, right and wrong are relative. Legally maybe, if it is in the Constitution, that means it is not legal not to have elected people at that level. But legality is not always morality.
There are reasons why we hadn’t done local government elections here.
Much of it, legal. Much of it, litigations. Much of it, opposition. Much of it, bad blood, so to say.
We have preferred to conduct elections several times and they were scuttled. First of all, there was this
reason that we shouldn’t do it with the existing voters list. When we got over that hurdle, people went to court to stop us from conducting elections. I don’t know what the legality is now. I am not a lawyer but I know our hands had been tied.
So, we struggled with all those issues and I think the governor himself said that if all those people who are in court against us could withdraw all those suits, we will do the elections.
Tell me about the opposition in Anambra. How has this administration been working with the opposition because you mentioned them earlier?
Some of them are just crazy, truly, truly crazy because even when you see a government doing the right thing and people know they are doing the right, some lunatics say they are not doing anything. You can see government is achieving things and you are trying to say we are not doing any thing. I think that is lunacy.
For me, democracy means even when you are opposing somebody, at least you should acknowledge where the person has done well. Look at what I just mentioned in education and you are telling me now people are saying it is not the way to go. They are merely opposing for opposing sake. Talk to the bishops where schools have been returned. Go the schools and see what was there before they were returned and see what is going on there now and you marvel at what has been done. The partnership between the church and the state is unheard of anywhere.