This piece first appeared in Business Day (Lagos), Thursday, December 20th, 2012 with the title, “A Week in Governor Okorocha’s Populist Republic.”
The now deeply unpopular and loathed governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, dancing while the state burns
By Okey C. Iheduru
Until someone obsequiously intoned ‘Good Morning, Your Excellency,’ I didn’t know the person standing behind me on the bus conveying us from the gate to the aircraft was Owelle Rochas Okorocha, the Executive Governor of Imo State. Before boarding the 10: 25 a.m. Abuja-Owerri flight last week Tuesday, Okorocha passed through the same security checks like every passenger. There was no spectacle; no obtrusive aides in devilish dark glasses harassing passengers. No wonder he’s hailed as ‘the People’s Governor.’
The Owelle’s entourage heading home from the airport encountered an auto accident on Wetheral Road, Owerri. Okorocha, who was driving a coaster bus himself, stopped and invited the hapless victim whose banged up sedan was still stuck in the median to Government House, ostensibly for some ‘empowerment’ to get his jalopy back on the road again.
On Wednesday afternoon, traffic on the same Wetheral Road came to a halt, amid raucous drumming and dancing, marching bands covering much of the one-mile stretch from the Government House to the Dan Anyiam Stadium. The lead dancers were Governor Okorocha and his wife, en route a ‘homecoming’ reception by the Owerri senatorial district for their ‘adopted son,’ Governor Okorocha. Men, women, the youth, Keke drivers and shopkeepers all trooped out to see the spectacle.
Indeed, Okorocha is hugely popular across the board in Imo State. Even those who voted for his opponents last May confess that, in retrospect, Imo people made the right choice. They cite the numerous road projects in Owerri and other major cities and localities in the state. There’s a feeling of co-ownership of governmental processes by many people here. Okorocha sometimes jogs in the streets and stops to buy and eat ‘akara’ along with ordinary folk. People still talk about the monster block parties that erupted after his electoral victory, as well as the cans of petrol they had purchased, ready to burn the whole of Owerri had he lost.
Unfortunately, Okorocha’s populist rhetoric and style is morphing into a monster that could devour his administration and even make it difficult to govern Imo State in the future. Populism as an ideology of mass mobilization generally pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice. In the end, populist mass movements tend to be irrational and introduce instability into the political process.
Mass mobilisation (of especially the youth) without robust institutional politics to channel this surge in political participation can lead to system breakdown. There’s a surge in democratic distemper or popular distrust of the very political institutions Okorocha needs to govern. Today, the youth has been told there’s plenty of money in politics. We should worry when plumbers and painters know more about the ‘allocations from Abuja’ coming to the state than the rudiments of their trade. To be a governor in the state in the future, you must henceforth ‘answer the call of the bishop’ (i.e., a public debate moderated by the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri). Any governor who fails to ‘perform’ will be confronted with cans of petrol and matches.
The biggest casualty of Okorocha’s populism is the democratic link between state and society. Okorocha dares not demand taxes from his petrol canister-bearing foot-soldiers. He’s unlikely to dislodge them from all the nooks and corners of Owerri which they’ve now converted into one massive messy bazar. The environmental protection programmes of his predecessor are perceived as elitist attack on the poor. Most major roads in Owerri are blocked to traffic because they have been ‘occupied’ by Okorocha’s supporters. ‘Double parking’, a serious violation with severe penalties just six months ago, is the order of the day. Similarly, with Okorocha’s otherwise laudable free education policy, the children of his supporters will soon have to live with large classroom sizes, unmotivated and underpaid teachers, massive failures in terminal exams because there was no serious thought or debate about a credible universal primary and post-basic free education program.
Okorocha’s ‘Imo Rescue’ project has yet to impress neither armed robbers nor kidnappers who still roam unmolested. The government is clueless about the continued abduction and periodic murder of medical doctors in the state. While Okorocha was dancing along Wetheral Road last Wednesday, Alpha Clinic in Orji, Owerri was burning. The state’s fire service made three trips to the inferno—the first without water in their truck; the second with less than 50 gallons of water, and the third with two trucks after the second floor of the building had been completely razed and after neighbours had miraculously evacuated all the patients. Fortunately, by the time the two trucks arrived, some petrol canister-carrying youth—‘those who voted for me’ a la Okorocha—who had come to burn the fire trucks had left.
Governor Okorocha must de-emphasise his populist antics and develop concrete policies focusing on Imo State five to 15 years from now. He is missing a golden opportunity to structure the attention of the youth away from ‘allocations from Abuja.’ No society can survive, let alone develop, without order. Contrary to populist rhetoric, it’s the poor, not the rich that benefits the most from law and order. We will all lose if Imo State fails. The Owelles will always do well, but the petrol canister squad will always find demagogues urging them to ‘burn baby, burn.’