As torrents of eulogies and wishes continue to flood the 59th birthday of CHIEF JAMES ONANEFE IBORI, one of his old allies and friend Erstwhile Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Comrade Ovuozourie Macaulay, in this chat with ITEVEH EKPOKPOBE, gave insights into the personhood of Ibori.
You have been an old ally of Former Governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, who can you say he is?
I have been associated with Ibori for a long time, even before I served under him. It is difficult to talk about the person Chief James Onanefe Ibori. It’s difficult because, like an octopus he is a man with many parts, it depends on where you are taking him from.
In a summary or in very simple terms, I will say Chief James Onanefe is an embodiment of humility and hard work, a man who believes in his people and a man whom his people believe in; a first class administrator and a very friendly person.
Can you please take us down memory lane on your relationship with him?
Talking about how I started with him is going to look a little bit personal, but if that is the question, I will try and put it the best way I can. When he came into politics under the Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM), of course his posters were everywhere. That was his first launch – let me put it that way – into politics. He wore this resource control cap.
Of course, I have been in Asaba before politics came. At that time,Ibori, Kragha, and the late Ibru were the people trying to blaze the trail. The late Ibru who had been in power as governor before but I think midway, Ibru stepped out and Ibori became the flag bearer of the party. That was actually after GDM. So Ibori became the flag bearer of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while Kragha became the flag bearer of the All Peoples Party (APP) as it were.
My first one on one encounter with him was when I interviewed him. That time he was led by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the flag bearer of the PDP. He was at Chief Sunny Odogwu’s Guest House, with his running mate then, Chief Benjamin Elue. In position then as the Head of Department, Current Affairs Unit of the Delta Broadcasting Service (DBS), I had to interview all the candidates, so I drove to Chief Odogwu’s house, trying to track him down. I met him there and took appointment with him. That was my first one on one with him and from then we struck a relationship, a few days later, I was in Warri to wait for him in view of the interview appointment.
After that interview, I told my colleague, Henry Uzor who was with me on that interview – I think he is still with the DBS now, I don’t know if he is retired – that Ibori looks like the man who will be able to governor this state, and that he is someone who knows what he is coming to do in government and he deserves some support. That was my personal confession after the interview. That interview was held between 1.30am and 2.30am in the hotel the then Bendel estate.
That was how we started the relationship and finally, I, too won as the State Chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) for my second term. My own election was in March, and two after the election, he assumed office in May. Because of that position again, it was going to be possible for us to work together. But ahead of that, something happened and that was in fact that the military was going to leave to allow room for a democratically elected governors. The relationship between the labour and the military was not cordial. So we resorted to a strike action not because salaries were not being paid, but because the military was not doing the right thing in terms of development, meeting of workers’ demands and these people were suffering. So we decided to seal off the state and of course I was at the helm of the labour movement.
So at the time, Ibori came in, there was no work in the state because we had gone on about four weeks strike, indefinite strike. My life was threatened and there were a lot of danger here and there; I had to delve underground, after so many attempts have been made and I give glory to God for survival. Two days after he came in, I came out, and we met. He was already looking for me because he needed workers to resume work, and he was anxious to commence work; so I made myself available.
So we met privately in Presidential Guest house in Jesus Saves road, that was my first meeting and that was how our relationship started and I gave him all the support throughout his first tenure. I did that because he was also listening to me. When I say listening to me, I never – he is alive – in the whole of that first tenure, as Chairman of NLC went to meet him for anything that was personal to me. Every discussion we had was either to discuss communities or workers welfare. In short, 80 percent of our chats were to discuss the way forward for his government, and that was when we secured the workers car loans, housing loans, the renovation and computerizing of all secretariats, and buying official cars because at that time the only people who were not boarding motor bikes were Permanent Secretaries.
At a stage, he said it openly that I was his unofficial consultant. So that was how we struck a relationship. Our chemistry was okay with each other and we helped him to succeed because he was doing what we wanted for the workers and also because if you don’t help your boss to succeed, you cannot ask for a better working condition. It has always being my principle; you must help your boss to succeed, you must be hard-working so that if you go to him for any demand. The rule is even that it is from the profit declared b an organization that you can make available for the workers.
Let me say that we were the first state to secure the same salary and wages with the Federal government, under the then new minimum wage. Why because he believed in us and we believed in him. And I made it clear to him that Delta State is getting so much as an oil producing state and the workers in Delta State cannot be treated less than the Federal workers and he saw reasons. And that was how we worked together until his first tenure ended.
Yes, Ibori did give me an offer to work with him but I told him that I already had a pact with workers and I will serve out my tenure. So by the time he came back for the second term, I had finished my two terms as State Chairman of the NLC and even decided to retire on my own to start what I have in mind. To summarize it he picked me to serve as a commissioner in his second tenure and gave me the most difficult task to go and settle the Warri – Ijaw/ Itsekiri – crisis which was then eight years old. That was how I came into his cabinet.
Can you tell us about some occasions where he displayed those traits that endear him to you?
When you say a man is reliable, it starts from his words. His words are his bonds. Ibori is one man who, if he tells you to go to sleep, you should go to sleep. If tell you to meet at that junction by 9am, by 9am, he is there waiting for you. So when you say a man is reliable, his words are his bond and if he makes a commitment, he keeps to it. If I start siting instances, it would be going too far.
I like to look more at the years that I was supposed to be an opposition to him, when he was the governor of the state while I was the chairman of the labour congress. I cherish those years more because if I start talking about the years when I joined his cabinet, it will like a servant and master relationship. But I am talking about the years were he was the boss this way and I was the boss that way; those are the years I cherish more in my relationship with him, and now the years after government that we are still able to relate as willing as we relate.
You speak so well of Ibori even against media sensations following his incarceration. What informs this stand?
You see, God does not give it all to anybody. God will bless you and give you almost everything, but there will always be somewhere he will remove so you are not him. Because if you are given everything then you become God; you know James is larger than life.But at the same time, James is so much misunderstood. He has gone through the incarceration so we can talk about it. But there are other things we can still not talk about even for some of us who know a little more detail about him. We will leave those details for him to tell someday in his life when he thinks the time is right for him to talk about them.
When you see the way the media has attacked him, you will think this man, nobody should eat with him without holding the longest spoon, but that is not James. I am sure nobody and I repeat nobody will say what happened when he came back to this country was an organized thing. Till today his house has remained a Mecca. I don’t think the James they talk about in the media or some part of the media talks about is the real James Ibori, if you go and observe him, you will see it is a very different thing.
The news that the man stole and all that. You see the problem with this country is that even before you are labeled a thief, people are already stoning you. Nobody wants to investigate if truly you stole before the castigation. The media itself does not help matters. Because yes, I agree that once there is an agenda, they take it up, but the media should do thorough investigation first. Some of the question they should look at are who was James Ibori before he became governor in 1999, who was James Ibori after his tenure as a governor.
Before I became a commissioner I had my house. All my years as commissioner I never lived in government quarters one day, I never took diesel from government. I was on my own and serving government. When I was sworn in, we were only two people who owned SUV cars; I own a Mercedes 40ML as a commissioner in 2003. I had not less than four cars in my compound parked. Now, 13 years after, I am petitioned for owning cars and houses. Would I have lived backwards? Until the flood of 2012, I use to have the largest palm farm in this state; my farm was bigger than even the government farm and you think such a person should not have a source of income. When I left the service of Delta State voluntarily, it was not to serve in government but to go and improve on my business.
I am trying to tell you the way they are not looking at James. James owned properties. He was a rich man before he became a governor in this state. Should he have being poorer after becoming a governor? Did he abandon his investment when he became governor? Is a man not supposed to move forward? What i mean is that when God has blessed you, he has blessed you and you keep going forward unless you do something that will annoy God.
Today I can say that nobody can beat James footstep in Delta State. The way he impacted on human beings, the way he impacted on communities. I don’t think James went around giving people money to go around talking good of him, or to receive him. Am sure himself like it does happen to me must have forgotten such things.
Eulogies to James transcend the shores of Nigeria. I have been to North America. I was asked by someone are you a Nigerian? I said yes. Do you know Ibori? I said yes. He said Ibori is a good man and God will bless him. That was in North America. I almost shed tears that day. That this man we are destroying at home, people are here praying for him.
Today there are some people who are being paid in the media to destroy some people. Fortunately, I belonged to that profession as well but that was not the way we practiced. You wake up in the morning and make up you r mind about the particular character you want to talk to and you go and do it. not somebody coming to wake you and saying, ‘I want you to destroy this man, I will pay you so and so amount.’ And you go ahead to do it especially in the social media. I think the national Assembly should be fast about the social media issue if not the whole of this country will be torn into pieces.
As Ibori marks his birth day, what do you think the future holds for him?
Like every other human being who believes in God and I know he believes in God, he will live more in God. And for everybody who believes in god, you don’t plan for yourself. Of course from what he is coming from, he cannot run for public office for now. So I think he will want to continue his life serving people in any capacity he finds himself because even now he is still impacting on people.
I don’t want to be too political. But James incarceration has had a negative impact on the politics of Delta State and Nigeria because people who are so broadminded and who can chest out for truth like James are not many. So when you have a few of them and you destroy them, we all suffer the consequences. But at the end of the day, God had a reason for many things. There are some of his colleagues who didn’t go where he did, but he didn’t meet them alive when he returned. The society did not despise him. Yes,some people may have written some columns saying this and that, but the majority of the people whether high or low are still with the man and that is why I keep saying there are more reasons to give glory to God.
On his birthday, I wish him many more years. I wish him graceful ageing and healthy living. More years of commitment top the service of God and the service of man.
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