Director-General of the Imo state Orientation Agency, Chief Ethelbert Okere, in this interview with a group of journalists urges the people to reject those who wear the toga of the messiah.
Sir, your agency, the Imo State Orientation Agency, was almost moribund before now. What is the situation now?
Well, the situation is that in accordance with the directives of His Excellency, we are putting the agency back to life. As you rightly noted, the agency was run aground by the Okorocha administration which probably did not realize the need to galvanize the people to work in the same page with government. Happily, Governor Uzodimma is determined to end the perennial alienation between the government and the governed and he knows that our agency is one the vehicles of reaching out to the people.
Your agency is also involved in information dissemination. So,what is the difference between it and the Ministry of Information? Is there any overlap?
My agency is not involved in the dissemination of information per se but you see, in the course of trying to turn a person to begin to look at an issue from another angle, you may need to educate or enlighten him or her on certain issues with the appropriate information. But basically, the job of orientation is to disabuse the minds of the people from certain fixations ornegative minds sets over issues, to more positive perceptions. If a people’s minds are made up on a certain matter, there is probably no quantum of information that government will push out that will change those stereo types. So, what to do is to help the people repudiate certain negative thinking about their environment, about the government, about those in government and, indeed about one another. There is where orientation comes in. Given the way governments has been ran over the years, the people tend to believe a lot of negative things about government but I can tell you that over eighty percent of what critics say about those in government are lie. But you don’t blame the people because they have been disappointed severally by those they elected or those appointed into public offices. But then, that is no reason we should believe anything including those coming from the pit of hell. So, we have to let thepeople know that inspite of some negative tendencies, government generally means well.
But the question is, how do you go about convincing people who have over the years become so pissed off by governments and its functionaries. The situation is worsening daily. We have issues of corruption, of unpaid salaries and pensions, poor state of infrastructure etc.
There is no doubt about that. But we cannot remain that way. We must help ourselves. At the end of the day, problems are meant for human beings to solve. The essence of life is to be able to overcome challenges.
Sir, before you were appointed into the current position, you had written a lot of articles happing on the rancor among members of the Imo political elite. But is it peculiar to the state?
Just a few weeks ago, you did an article under the title, “Imo And The Metaphor Of Aroman Mob”. That article struck me. Were you trying to indict the people?
Far from thatOur people are largely innocent but the whole essence of that article was to point out how vulnerable they have become in the hands of members ofthe political elite who manipulate their individual and collective psyche in pursuit of selfish partisan agenda. Igive an illustration. After the 2011 general elections, the fellow who emerged as governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha, came up with all sorts of brain washing. He came talking like the messiah and because of the circumstances of his emergence, many believed him. He came with this idea of liberating the people and the question people like us kept asking was, liberation from who? Before we knew it, he had erected a statue of a man who has a chain holding his two hands cutoff at Ware House round about along Bank road, Owerri. In front of that, he erected what he called Freedom Fall and an arena called Freedom Square. And I kept asking, freedom from who? Were Imolites hitherto under any bondage? Just because the election went the way it went with all the lies told. But unfortunately, our people allowed themselves to be told that they were under bondage. They allowed themselves to be told that they were under slavery. Slavery under who? Slavery in the hands of their own kit and kin? That was the type of psychological assault Imolites went through for eight years. I don’t know what that statue is still doing there? I have written a memo to the governor for it to 3be dismantled and for the painting tagged, Freedom Square,to be removed. My heart bled recently when I saw a posting on Facebook where somebody was praising a young lady for going to repaint the Freedom Square insignia and abusing the Uzodimma administration for neglecting it. I wept because thatshows that the psyche of a young lady is that of a former slave. That’s outrageous but you see some people employing the same idiotic concept to advancetheirpartisaninterests. This is just one example of how the elite has so battered the psyche of the people to the extent that they are no longer able to discern which of their own leaders are doing well and those whoare not.
Come again Sir, you complained about the statue along Bank road Owerri, but it has been there since 2011.
That’s exactly the point I am making. What is it doing? Why should we allow such a thing?
Freedom from who? I have written at least three articles on the statue and the Freedom Fall but that’s all we could do because the people who put them there were then in charge. Now, I feel quite embarrassed each time I drive pass there. The statue and the Freedom Fall should not be there so that we can begin to orientate our people towards believing that the state belongs to them, no matter which party is in control or who is the governor or which part of the state he comes from. The immediate past administration of Governor Ihedioha talked about rebuilding Imo. That was ok but rebuilding cannot be about physical infrastructure alone. We need to go beyond that to rebuild the psyche of the people.
You think the current administration is doing that?
I can categorically say yes and I have just one simple, illustration arising from what I have just told you about the freedom statue and falls. Believe or not, Governor Uzodimma’s Shared Prosperity mantra has the potency of liberating the people, both psychologically and economically. Infact more of the first. The key word there is “Shared”. This means that unlike some who came before him, he does not arrogate to himself the exclusive knowledge of how to improve the well being of the people. He is talking about a shared vision, unlike the one who only saw Imolites as people he liberated from slavery. If you believe you liberated somebody from slavery or bondage, the tendency is for you to always feel superior to that person, always expecting him to be grateful to you. That was the psychological setting under which the state was governed for eight years. But now we have a governor who says, come let’s share my vision about how we can all prosper together. Governor Uzodimma is not telling people that he will dash them prosperity, but that he has vision which, if pursued jointly, can make us prosperous. I laugh each time I hear some people say the governor is not sharing prosperity because of the current challenges with salaries and pensions. That is a very cheap way of looking at things. Prosperity is not about payment of salaries because it is a routine matter in government. What the governor is saying is that, I will create an atmosphere wherein people can on their own create wealth. That is what economic prosperity means. And you know that it takes time for such an environment to be created, moreso given the experiences of the present time. But some people talk as if once you mentioned the word “prosperity”,then the next day, the streets of Owerri will begin to flow with milk and honey.
You can see how low the quality of public commentary in the state has fallen. Through my agency, we want to see an Imo where people talk about themselves and their state with more elegance and confidence. Okorocha told Imolites, “I want to dash you Freedom”, but Uzodimma is saying, “Come let’s share in my vision of collective prosperity”.Unlike some of those who came before him, Governor Uzodimma does not see himself as the messiah. A person who sees himself as a messiah does not “share”, he “gives”,like we had in the one who was dashing us freedom. You cannot beat such an uncommon humility.
You are coming from a media background, what role do you seethe latter playing in all this?
Quite a lot, of course, provided the proper things are done first and foremost. Asa matter of fact, part of my worry is that the media in Imo state is the worst victim of the shenanigans by politicians and that has infracted on its ability to play its traditional roles. Ordinarily, the media should be at the fore front of reorienting the peoplebut honestly speaking, you would discover that many of ourcolleagues need to be oriented or re-oriented,before you can even mobilize them.
Can you explain more on that Sir?
Don’t get me wrong, the media isnot to blame because as I said earlier, they are the first victims of the antics of politicians and second, their industry has become very vulnerable. I will illustrate further. Politicians take advantage of the current precarious stateof the media industry today to price their products down. For an advert rate of say, one hundred thousand naira, which the Owerri-based newspapers put out for example, Imo politicians price them as low as N10,000.00and in most cases, the editors or publishers reluctantly accept it because they need the money to publish the next edition. You don’t talk about salaries. As a media consultant, I quarreled quite often with many Imo politicians who would tell you, “go and give it to them. They will accept ten thousand naira. So, so and so is my boy”. And I would tell them that because I am their senior colleague, who is supposed to understand their plight, I would not take ten thousand naira to an editor for an advert that is rated for N150,000.00.And the next thing you hear is, “you journalists like money”. Such nonsense. But even of a graver implication is that for the same reason, any non entity can,f or a peanut, find his or her face on the front page of some of the local newspapers, either abusing the so called opponents of his principal or praising him to high heavens. You see even political appointees or party men taking one full page of advertorial which they bought for only ten thousand naira praising the governor to high heavens. It doesn’t happen elsewhere because you have to pay through your nose for even half a page of advertorial, or as an appointee, you have to explain how you got the money with which you embarked on such vain glory. The result is that Imo state has today become the headquarters of sycophancy in Nigeria. Which is an irony because the existence of several newspapers in the state is supposed to elevate the standard of public discussions in the state, but on the contrary, what I may call an ubiquity of newspapersin the state has brought the quality of public commentary to an abysmal low. The same goes for the electronic media. Imo perhaps has the highest number of private radio stations just as with the print, but you can see that the content of most of the programmes cannot even go beyond the worst standup comedy. It’s all hate, hate and hate commentaries. In fact, I have a hunch that if the hate speech laws become strictly enforced, Imo may produce the highest number of people that will be prosecuted and the highest number of radio stations that would be sanctioned. Or we have a situation where journalists keep on complaining that they are not happy with the governor for whatever reason. But journalists are not supposed to be happy with the governor in the senseyou and I know they say it.
You don’t have to be happy or angry with the governor. Report what you see disinterestedly.
So what do we do? Is the situation so irredeemable?
Far from that.Inspite of what I have said, some of the individual practitioners are among the best in the country. A few of the Owerri-based newspapers are doing quite well in terms of editorial choices and graphic presentation. But there is always room for improvement and my agency will seek for ways of collaborating with a few of our colleagues who have also expressed their own worries to see what could be done to improve the image of our trade and those practicing in it.
Sir, you have written quite a number of articles defending the administration and this has made some to wonder whether you are also a spokesman of the administration.
I am not a spokesman of the administration but I do not need to be one to be able to make critical interventions. What is orientation if not intervening to disabuse the minds of people on certain stereotypes as I earlier stated. The media is the most conventional way of changing attitudes. Personally, I employ what I know how to use best: Writing. Any day, I don’t write any article I feel awkward.
Sir, some of your interventions, as you put it, have a lot of political contents whereas … (CUTS IN)
Political content? What else is at stakenowapart from politics? It all about politics. Ninety percent of the fixation or paranoia suffered by the people is about politics. Are we talking about marriage and divorce? When a so-called opposition element says that the governor is deliberately withholding pensions because he is simply a wicked man what is that other than politics because they want to tell you that their party produced a better governor. So, if you write to enlighten the reading public on the danger of listening to such things, is that politics? But what prompted you to write is politics. Anyway, call it whatever you like.
Why do you qualify opposition that way? Why so called opposition.
Well, I feel that we do not have opposition in Imo state in the real sense of it. I don’t know what is happening in other states but as they say, you start from the
known to the unknown. It is an unfortunate situation because a state like Imo is supposed to have an opposition that is deliberate and methodic, not the cacophony on Facebook. As far as I am concerned, what we see are Facebook activists or practitioners. Simply because youcan write a few sentences and post on Facebook,you brand yourself as an opposition. So ridiculous. Itis just like in your journalism trade. Anybody who can post a commentaryon Facebook,even with the worst of tenses,becomes a journalist. Opposition as we know it means when a party articulatesan alternative agenda from what the rulingpartyhas and puts it across the people most probably through its members in the legislature. Now,tell me how many members of the opposition party intheImo state legislature have come out to say anything let alone articulate issues in such a manner that could seetheir party as a credible alternative. The few of them who stayed back are either not able to put anything coherently together or theynurse a secrete desire to be in the good booksof the incumbent governor. All they do is to paya few boys with some pittanceto be abusing the governor or and other government functionaries on Facebook. There is so much glib talkabout opposition in Imo state, so I always usedthe word with caution.