IT WILL BE RISKY FOR DELTA APC TO IGNORE ZONING – O’tega Emerhor

Olorogun O’tega Emerhor, a financial expert, businessman and chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) will be 60 years on Saturday November 25. He speaks with LEO SOBECHI and SEYE OLUMIDE on the politics of Delta State, the APC chances in 2019 and life after 60 years.

How does it feel to be 60 years old? It is an interesting question; I still feel I am the same person. Whether you are 40, 50 or 60, you will just look back and see how time has flown. The truth is that it is worth thanking God for keeping you alive till now in god health. By His grace you have managed to achieve and you have more time to look and say in a long but short time, this is where I am and you will feel grateful to God.

There is this thing about 60 years in Nigeria, which has to do with retirement if you are in the public service, but you have been in private business. Does 60 also translate to retirement for you?  The truth is those who fixed 60 or 65 for retirement have some foresight. For me, I made some significant achievements early in life. I was a bank Managing Director in my 30s and I have actually planned for myself that by the time I am 50 I would slow down. But in this country you hardly can meet your projection. Here I am at 60. Truly, for over five, six years now, I have stayed away from day to day running of my businesses. I have taken the role of supporting the businesses that I have interest in either as chairman or as director or chief marketer and something like that. I have devoted more of my time to politics as you would have known and in politics, you don’t retire until maybe you become a statesman. For now I am very active in that area but I still feel I have a lot to contribute this time towards humanity, upgrading the society towards ensuring that Nigeria is better than what it is currently. That is the area I am looking up to now.

In Nigeria especially, politics is so vague one would have expected someone like you, giving your background, to stay away. How have you managed in the political arena? Truly, nobody should ask any businessman to stay away from politics because the truth is; it has been our shortcoming in this nation. If you look outside Nigeria you will find out that a lot of people who are into politics also have business backgrounds. It is true the variables are a lot more unpredictable in politics, I agree to that point. The variables in business are different because there are ways you can determine what you want and do not want but politics is different. You have to live with people that you know and don’t know in most cases and you need political solutions. In politics, people don’t usually tell you what is in their mind. You wait to find out what they are actually thinking about. In politics you really have to be more insightful and you have to know how to read people’s mind. You have to focus on where you are going and you are also going to use different people including those supporting and those not supporting you. Unlike in business where you have the authority to exclude those who are not with you to make it easy for you to go, that is not possible in politics because you just have to carry everybody along. It is lot more difficult.

Can we therefore say that the learning curve has been a little bit difficult, which is why you have not achieved the aspiration to become governor of Delta State?   There has been a group that seized power in that state since 1999 and you know when you have the machinery of power and you are already positioned and people are coming to take it off you, it is like you clinch your hands and say come and force it open to get it. So it takes a lot more to seize power in such circumstance. We have been trying to do this in the opposition. We have had near misses between 1999 and today to get this power back to the masses because those who are holding it, from what they have given the state, people can testify that they are not holding it in trust for the generality of the people. That has been the motivation.

Up till two years ago that we have President Buhari elected and we have a new direction in terms of anti corruption war, transformation of the INEC and the marching order to the security forces to be fair and allow a level playing field, election in a state like Delta, was just war. It is a man that has all the means to kill and maim and the financial resources to bulldoze his way that wins elections. Results are written, ballot boxes are stuffed and they will tell you to go to court to complain. You go to the court too and justice sometimes is subjected to the highest bidder. All these have played out as you can see but everything that has a beginning also has an end. We now have the best chance to uproot that system that has been there for the past 18 years, because we now have the possibility of a level playing field. We also do not have the PDP at the centre government, so we know that the votes of the people will count. They may have more resources than us but where they need to spend N100 million if we spend N10 million we will beat them. If we put all these together with the caliber of people that have been frustrated in their own system coming to join us, I think we have a clearer opportunity.

But the politics of Delta specifically involves some level of delicate balancing. The unwritten position is that it is the turn of the north. Right now the governor is from the north. In the next dispensation are you going to follow that pattern?   Speaking as an individual now and not for the party or as a leader in the party, I think we would have to play smart politics. Our objectives must be to win the governorship; it must also be to remove this dynasty and reign of 18 years of the PDP. So anything that we can do that will help us to pick the crown is what we should do. It is widely known that zoning is an issue in Delta State, we should not ignore it, otherwise we would be ignoring it at our own peril. So it depends on how much we really want to get the governorship.

The current zoning system whether it is PDP or other parties is what the people of the state are aware that exists and I am sure that the Delta North people know that they are doing four years now and they would like to do another term, it is known. Are we going to recognize that they exist, is it smart for us to recognize it? That is the decision that the APC would have to take. But on a personal note, I believe that if you don’t recognize that you will be creating a situation where you would have given out the whole north first away and then concentrate only on two zones. And they also have PDP people in Delta Central, who possible are waiting that after four years of Delta North, they are also coming up and they will fight tooth and nail to support that it goes to the north because they are already positioning to produce the governor in 2023. So you have a divided central and Delta South itself. They know if you don’t follow that pattern it would take longer to come to them. That is why I started by saying we have to play a smart politics in APC.

Taking Delta as a whole, what is the most challenging issue in terms of governance? The first thing is that leadership is missing in the governance of the state. Leadership means that you have a selfless leader because too many things are wrong. What would you pick today that you would say is okay? Is it education, employment, infrastructure, industrialisation and others? Nothing! 18 years and you can’t pick anything to say on this score, these people have done very well. For us in the APC, we are going to look for the best candidate under the circumstance who also knows how these things can be developed, whom we think have the capacity to do it. That is the kind of person that I will support. When you have leadership that everybody can see, such leader would look at various things and work within the parameter of the resources that are available. To prioritize infrastructure is very important to drive any economic development. Today, people going anywhere for business can’t transit due to bad infrastructure. Minimal infrastructure must be there, minimal education must be there at least there are basic things that ought to be in the state, which the resources of the state can support but are missing. If somebody goes to the government in Delta State and all he does is to put 80 per cent of the resources into education, it still won’t move the state. If you put same into employment alone it won’t move the state. We are going to be strategic in looking at those basic foundational things that are still not there. Delta State is like start again.

In the search for the APC right candidate that will not only win the election but also bring about development, can we for instance ask if Dr. Ibe Kachiukwu and Prof. Pat Utomi are in focus?  We cannot at this time begin to discuss individuals. Truly, the first thing is that we have opened up the path for people to come and play in it and we must cast out net within and without. But in a party like this, what you do is set up your objectives in a manner that is transparent and achievable. If finally we agree to play smart by allowing the north to complete its four years, it forces you now to look at the north. I know that is why you asked the question but that is also going to happen by collective decision. Let’s look at an individual who can win the state because in a big party like the APC, we are going to hold primary. It is the primary that will throw up the candidate. All these other factors like where you come from, would be built into that structure of the primary and ultimately our objective would be to meet the choice of someone coming from an area with the capacity and the vision to really do things that the PDP have not done for 18 years.

Whether rightly or wrongly, Nigerians are not too happy with the APC government. We may say it is unfortunate that the government came at a bad time when all the indices are down. It has been struggling and the only excuse it has been making is the sins of the past. Now there is a kind of national feeling that the APC should not continue beyond 2019. Are you considering that factor in thinking about the APC chances in Delta State?  Where did you get that national feeling that APC should not continue beyond 2019? It is amazing. What do we have today or are you suggesting that people are saying we should go back to the PDP that not only looted the house but also removed the roof? APC came in and rebuild the roof and we are struggling to repair the pillars and make it strong and make it more comfortable, and you are already giving a quit notice. Look, things have been tough and there is no gainsaying about that. You know from the depth of decay the APC is building from, it would have to be like that at least for some time. We also have an unfortunate situation that the president too, being a human being, also took ill for a long time. So if you take all these combination of what he met, what he tried to do and where he got to before he took ill and before he returned from medical trip, you will definitely appreciate what the party is currently doing. I think Nigerians are happy that he is back hale and healthy and he is working. People are expecting more from him so that by 2019, it will be clear to everybody that APC means business. You cannot, in any right thinking, believe that PDP will return to power.

But while the PDP is reorganizing there seems to be no cohesion in the APC especially at the national level … No. I can say that the APC has its own internal issues but it is nothing out of the normal. But if you see what has happened since we have our caucus, NEC meetings and all the tours that the President is doing, you will see that we are now together. People thought that when we hold those meetings, all these issues you are talking about would come up but we came back like a family because we realized the need to work together because 2019 is also very close.

You should even give the credit of the PDP coming together to the ruling party because if it were in time of the erstwhile ruling party, it would jump into the problems that the opposition had and ensure it did not come together. APC is not afraid of the PDP. The party is yet to get its acts together. Look at the crises it is going through in trying to get a national chairman. This country cannot forget what PDP has done. PDP is no alternative today. The game is still for APC to win because President Muhamadu Buhari’s credibility is still intact and he is ready to do what is required. You will see in 2019, Nigerians will still ask for him to continue.

But a school of thought believed the problem of the PDP was created by the APC and it was only the judiciary that saved the party… How did APC create the problem in the PDP? The ruling party did not recruit Sen. Ali Modu Sheriff in the first instance. We know the governors in the PDP that recruited Sheriff fell out with him. PDP was trying to rebuild from the massive fall that they took. They took this country for granted thinking it will rule for 60 years or more. They were not giving a damn about what happened. It opened the treasury and stole it blind and created a lot of havoc. Look at the revelations that are going on. People were just grabbing money and taking it away. You expect Nigerians to allow them to continue the way they were going. It is not possible for the PDP to return and that’s why I am querying your point about a school of thought that would not want the APC to go beyond 2019.

You are a man of many parts; you are a political leader just as you are an Urhobo leader, talking specifically about the Urhobo where you come from, what are your articulations towards solving some of the issues in Urhobo land? As an Urhobo from the Delta Central I will say we have not really got our fair recognition and one of the things I can do is to mobilise and promote our interest within the larger Nigeria contest and a larger APC family. Part of what I do in APC is to also carry that flag of where I come from and work within the system to ensure that my area is fairly represented and accommodated.

These are the roles I think I can play and I believe that if I am well positioned than what I am today, I cannot run away from the fact that this is where I come from and to ensure that their participation in national government is well represented.

In business, whenever your name is mentioned, what comes to mind is banking, insurance and lately hospitality. What are the other things that we don’t know? I have played in banking and that sector seems to have a circle of 10 years of issues that always come. Ultimately, the last bank where I played was First Atlantic, which merged with Inland Bank to become First Inland Bank and now part of First City Monument Bank (FCMB). So all I have in banking today is passive shareholding in banks. In hospitality, I am the chairman of Transcorp Hilton Hotel, owner of Abuja Hilton and a director in Transcorp PLC, which is the owner. I still have a sizable interest in insurance but I have conceded management to younger people; I am a general investor and still spending my time to combine some businesses and politics

There was one challenging moment in your life as a father when you lost a son. How did you manage to overcome the tragedy? That was one of the toughest periods in our life. It happened in 2006, almost 11 years ago. It was something that no family and parents would want to remember. A 19-year-old boy who returned from abroad, having finished his first degree and about to go for his Masters programme, and he never returned back to school. It was tough; it took family support to overcome it but thanks to God who has also given my wife and me more children.

I know you have given out children in marriage; are you a grandfather now… Cuts in… A big grandfather, I have three grandchildren, two boys and a girl.

Where are your children inclined, towards business or career?  My children are doing a mix of things. My elder daughter is more of a socio worker, she runs an NGO called Fair Life Africa. She has this disposition to help humanity, which she has chosen as a career. She is also a writer, she just wrote two books. My second daughter took after her mum in the business line. She was an executive director of an insurance company but resigned to pursue business. She is running her property business in addition to event management. The younger one is working. She just got married.

Back in your hometown, Evwreni in Delta, a place that is much bigger and more comfortable than the one in Lagos, is that an indication of your retirement and return to the village after 60 years? The truth is that as you get to this stage, you will begin to realise that it is time to give back to the society and one of the reason I went into politics is that I realise I have to make so much money to be able to impact directly on the people. But the best way to impact on the people is to run government very well for the citizens. I thought the experience I have in business, I can deploy in politics.

For my 60th birthday, I have decided not to have a huge party in Lagos like I normally do. I have moved it home this time to enable more empowerment and community outreach. For example we are going to do medical outreach in four communities. We want to give people eyeglasses. We are going to empower about 100 youths and 100 women to support them with a working capital. We are doing novelty football match to raise funding for some projects within my village. We are also doing a cultural show on my birthday. It is going to be a competitive cultural show and the winner will get some award. That’s my plan. It leads to your question if at this stage I would want to identify more with your community, society and create a link back to your home. The answer is yes because ultimately that is where I will end up.

At a time you were also very enthusiastic about intervention in Urhobo land, you had issues, for instance when you wanted to intervene in Sparkling Breweries limited in Ughelli. Were you frightened by that experience in trying to intervene in business investment in Urhobo land?  I don’t want to use the word frightened because that was a very rude and discouraging incidence. In terms of establishing businesses at hone, the truth is that unless you are establishing businesses for charity purposes you must at least ensure that they are viable business. What has happened in this country for a couple of years have not really encouraged anybody to be aggressive in establishing business. I have played more in the financial industry and what I have tried to do since then is to key into businesses that are more liable to be viable in order to help to bring them up by providing working capital. That has been my background but I have not really gone into establishing new businesses either in Lagos or in Delta that cannot stand.

At 60 how do you relax? I used to play golf. I used the word I used to play because I am not putting enough time. What I do now is more of exercise but the time is really not there. When you are doing both business and politics, you hardly have time for other things. I did a lot of travelling between Lagos, Abuja and Delta. Politics is a full time business. In Delta, we are trying to build what we call a coalition of forces, which takes understanding. The same way we built APC at the national level is what we are doing in Delta and it is taking a lot of time.

In all these how has the home front been? That’s is very important to me. I can’t end this without talking about my home and my wife in particular. In the first place, my wife has been a pillar of support. We are married for over 30 years. She is a well experienced businesswoman and she knows my combination of politics with business is a very tough endeavour. God has blessed us with good children with godly upbringing and they didn’t give us problem. I have three children and they all got married one after the other. Our boy is still growing and I also have three grandchildren.

You made First Class in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in those days. How would you look at the university system today? Generally it is clear that because of failure in infrastructure, funding and so many things, you cannot expect the same quality of education we had in those days now. University population has increased and infrastructure is not increasing, so things are a bit tougher for students today. I don’t think it is the intelligent quotient that has fallen. What we need to recognise as a country is to continue to focus on improving the system because there are variables degrading the system. If I am the Minister of Education I will know what is wrong with the education system.

Are you sure you will have the temperament and patience to handle people in politics? I tell you, for most professionals that are being attracted to politics, they know the terrain they are going into. Because to even get elected, the people you will rely on are not going to be the same people around you when you win. You must have the tolerance and the wisdom to walk with them to get there. And if your call is to come and improve the circumstances of the people, you will have to relate. There is no need for anybody to be afraid of any intellectually endowed person coming into politics. The challenges of those who don’t know much but were fortunate to rise through the ranks to rule, are that they only know what is in their environment. To rule a place successfully, you need combination of knowledge and exposure.(GUARDIAN)

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