At a time, you were the president of the National Union of Rivers State Students. What were the highlights of your tenure at that time?
That was a long time ago, so I cannot really recall what happened. I was very young then. I left the university at the age of 20/21. It was just a radical life in terms of what I believed in and I still believe in those things till now anyway. I believe that the poor are not properly represented by the government – whether it is this current administration or the ones before it. The poor are still here and I doubt if they would ever go away. What happens is that the elite – whether the capitalists or socialists – must manage them in such a way that they can be provided for.
At what point did you develop an interest in politics?
My father was a politician. He ran for councillorship during his time. However, I didn’t join politics because I wanted to be a leader or because I wanted to solve Nigeria’s problems. I joined because of unemployment. I also believe there is a part that grace played in it.
I actually got auditioned at the Nigeria Television Authority to be a broadcaster. I recall that I walked into their office then and said I wanted to see a certain person. But the person I met asked me if I had been auditioned because I had a wonderful voice. I told him I hadn’t and he asked for me to be auditioned. However, before the employment letter came, I was already into politics. That saved me. I would have been a broadcaster by now.
Considering that you had been exposed to politics at a young age, why did you decide to study English Studies and Literature?
I joined politics in the university. My father actually wanted me to study Law. A lot of people don’t know that he named me ‘Rotimi’ after the famous lawyer, Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams. My father never met him (Williams) but he admired FRA’s larger-than-life persona and the fact that he was a brilliant lawyer. So, my father believed that I would be a lawyer and I should be able to do as well as FRA. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get admission to study Law. The first admission offer I got was to study Secretarial Administration and we all laughed over that at home. At that time, in addition to the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, I also wrote an exam to get into the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. I had even started registration as a student of RSUT before I was offered admission (through UTME) to study English Studies and Literature at the University of Port Harcourt. I applied to study English at UNIPORT because the school had no law faculty then.
However, I have no regrets studying English Studies and Literature because it is all-encompassing. I would be glad if any of my children or those of my friends decide to study English. Most people think English Studies is about grammar but that isn’t so. There is an English language department in English Studies. I read Literature.
In what ways have your study of English Literature impacted on your career?
In the study of Literature, the society is presented to one like a mirror and one interprets what one sees. I can tell you why you behave the way you do even though I’m not a psychologist. I can interpret society the way it is. I can make decisions based on my knowledge of society, and I got a lot of that from studying Literature.
What was the reaction of your family members when you decided to go into full-time politics?
My father was indifferent. Don’t forget he was a politician. I’m not sure he knew I would get to the point I have got to, even though he died before I became a governor.
If you weren’t a politician, what do you think you would have been doing now?
I would have loved to become a broadcaster or a lawyer. If I didn’t go into politics, I would have gone on to study Law. Though how good a lawyer I would have made, I cannot tell.
Are there any broadcasters you currently admire?
Yes, there are a lot of them. In Nigeria, I love what the young men at Channels Television are doing.
How did you meet your wife?
It’s a funny story. We met at a friend’s wedding where she was the chief bridesmaid. We exchanged addresses but she gave me the wrong address. The address she gave me led me to a toilet in the university. I forgot about her until I ran into her one day in the estate where I lived in Port Harcourt. We actually lived on the same street but I didn’t know. By then, I was a special assistant to the governor of Rivers State. We began to interact and one thing led to another; today, we are man and wife.
What were the qualities that attracted you to your wife?
My wife is very pretty; extremely beautiful. She is also entrepreneurial. I needed a wife that I would be heavily dependent on. And till now, I’m still heavily dependent on her– financially and in other ways.
Whenever I’m broke, she usually bails me out because she is always buying and selling things. I even joke with her that I hope that someday I wouldn’t return home and find that she had sold our children (laughs).
She is also very prayerful. She fears God a lot and that is one quality I admire in her. She was very respectful to my parents and is caring to my siblings. She encouraged me to make sure that all my siblings were educated and today, they all are. She always reminded me that my family should also enjoy the kind of benefits I got. Even when I told her I had no money, she would ask me to borrow from her and pay back when I had. Most times, I never paid back. Basically, it’s a huge family managed by her.
You’ve been busy for a long time. How often do you get to spend time with your family?
I dedicated the THISDAY award I won to my wife and kids because of their understanding. It got to a point when they asked me to resign (my appointment) or retire (from politics). They said they were tired and needed spousal and parental attention. But 30 minutes later, they came back and said maybe I didn’t need to stop. I asked them why the change of mind and they said it was because of the passion I have for what I do and they recognised that is what makes me happy.
Before then, my children had asked me about what I would do if I retired from politics and I told them I would spend time in their rooms discussing with them. But they said they were young men now and didn’t see what we would be discussing for so long, so I had better stay in politics.
Are any of your children showing interest in politics?
I have a fear that my first son may do that because he has friends everywhere. I have been shouting at him but he doesn’t listen. He has very high leadership qualities too. Sometimes in the past, I have told him that he is deceived by the fact that he has leadership qualities. I told him those qualities were different from brilliance and intelligence. I asked him to read his books, as that was the way he could be brilliant. He is studying Medicine and he would soon graduate. I have told him that immediately he graduates, he must leave my house. It is only his two younger siblings that can stay in my house. The reason is that my second son wants to be a musician but we told him to get a degree first. Now that he has a degree, he would come back into the family as a child and we would support his music career.
My two other kids are quiet and homely. If they want to make a noise, they do that at home.
Why do you have a ‘fear’ that your first child may go into politics?
Nigerian politics is not something one would want one’s child to go into because there are no rules. One can be easily destroyed. One must have the grace to survive. I don’t know if he has that grace (and I’m not talking about tact or sagacity) to survive because it is a man-eat-man world.
You can see what is going on in Rivers State now– young men, who God used one to help rise in politics are now turning against one. If God wasn’t by my side, I may not have been standing till now. There is a lot of betrayal and I don’t know if he can survive that because he literally grew up in Europe. One has to be a hard man to survive the betrayals in Nigerian politics. Imagine someone you used to sleep on the same bed with and have given both financial and political assistance to selling you out because of his ambition. One of them said he helped make me! Meanwhile, when we were in court, he wasn’t there with us; he ran away. Meanwhile, these are men that used to literally prostrate themselves on the floor for me. But because I’m a simple man, I always told them not to do all that. I told them they should only do that for God and not for people like us. So I ask myself, can my son withstand these intrigues?
Beyond what you just mentioned, what are the other factors militating against the success of young people in politics?
They need to work hard. Beyond prayer and fasting, I also work hard. They also need to be bullish. Don’t just accept that it’s not your right. Rather, assert and protect your rights. Also, it is important to be at the right place at the right time.
Looking at your career trajectory, you’ve had a steady rise in politics. What would you ascribe that to?
It has been more of grace. Though I work hard, there are millions of Nigerians who do that as well. If it were about hard work alone, what about the man who is pushing carts on the streets? God has actually been there for me and that’s why my rise in politics has been quite steady.
I cannot also ignore the contributions of Dr Peter Odili and Chief Rufus Ada-George to the growth of my career.
You were the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly for eight years. How were you able to last that long and also maintain a good relationship with the executive arm of government?
It was simply a function of management. It could be quite complex to explain to you now. One has to accommodate both sides. There are expectations from members of the House and if you don’t meet them, you would be impeached. There are also expectations from the executive and you would be impeached if you don’t meet those as well. One is practically between the devil and the deep blue sea.
But if one pleases the two parties, they would both be happy and one can remain Speaker for as long as one wants. Let me tell you some of the things I did. I realised that majority of the members of the House at that time didn’t have cars. I then asked the government to provide cars for everybody but the government said they didn’t have money. I insisted, yet they refused, so I devised another means. I asked the government to buy fairly used vehicles for the members and the government eventually agreed. We then bought fairly used Peugeot 505 cars for everybody and they were all excited. Though the cars were not new but they were happy that they had cars and could hire drivers.
Also, we passed budgets easily and the government was happy about that. And that made development to go on smoothly.
Over time, we then changed the vehicles and bought new cars. So, you can imagine someone who used to ride a motorcycle but now had a brand new car and a driver; such a person would not upturn the apple cart.
At different times, members of the House also went on study tours to learn from the legislative houses in different countries. And with that, we had better relationships.
On one occasion, we went to California in the United States of America. When we got to their legislature, the person that addressed us told us of the many benefits that were accruable to their members. Then, Magnus Abe, who was the Minority Leader of the House at the time, turned to me and said I only used to talk about probity and transparency but they weren’t enjoying that many benefits.
But as the speaker continued, he mentioned that there was always an ombudsman who monitored proceedings in the House. It was the ombudsman who would ensure that rules were not broken. For example, he said that members couldn’t use their official vehicles for anything other than legislative duties. I then told my colleagues that though they were not enjoying as much benefits as their counterparts in the US, the law in Nigeria was more lenient with them, as they often went with their official vehicles to weddings and other personal engagements.
Who are your role models and how have they influenced your politics?
Both Dr (Peter) Odili and Chief Rufus Ada-George influenced my sojourn in politics a lot. They are both good men. Unfortunately, at some point, they both fell apart and I don’t know why. I don’t believe it’s a matter of ambition because Dr Odili was once offered the governorship of Rivers State by Tom Ikimi but he rejected it, that he would rather be deputy governor to Ada-George because that was the agreement they had earlier reached. Most Nigerians would have done otherwise but he refused.
As someone who has followed the both of them for a long time, I honestly don’t know what caused their falling out. They have the same spirit. They are both very benevolent and caring. As a matter of fact, my father was practically buried by Dr Odili because I had no money when my father died. Both men have greatly influenced my politics. My politics is very benevolent and my children are like that too. I am willing to share all I have and go hungry rather than see another man suffer. I hate to see a sick person and not be able to help. If the person dies, I would feel like I killed the person. Though it’s also part of me, a lot of (those qualities) came from Dr Odili and Chief Ada-George.
Also, (I admire) the discipline of Muhammadu Buhari. I wish I was that disciplined. People think it is easy to be disciplined but it’s not. If you want to know what discipline is, try to stay hungry for one month. I’m not talking about fasting. Or imagine someone craving chocolate (or any other thing) and not taking it, even if it is right in front of you.
President, (Major General) Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) is so disciplined that he is able to resist temptation to reply his critics when they abuse him.
Also, I admire his love for the country. That trait can also be found in (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo. They have fierce love for the country. However, the difference between both men is that Obasanjo thinks his idea of growth for the country is better than anybody else’s own. But there can always be alternatives. And maybe Buhari’s own could be another one.
What are some of the most memorable experiences of your childhood?
There was no silver spoon. I didn’t even know there was anything like that. My father was a very strict man and he went through a lot to raise me. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. If one broke the law in the house, one had better not sleep at home because once the person got home, he would lock the door and give the person a beating of a lifetime.
I asked my children recently if I had ever beaten them before and they said I did that once. You can imagine I had beaten them only once since they were kids till now. But while I was growing up, it was a regular thing with my father. But they (my children) said my screaming and the way I stared at them when they broke laws were enough to keep them from straying.
My father also had a habit of locking one out when one had committed an offence. One would then have to sleep on the ‘passage’ because it was a tenement building of about 12 rooms. If one was unlucky to have slept off by 2am, that was when my father would come out with a cane and flog the person.
I also remember the celebration that occurred when one did well in school and broke academic records. Don’t forget that we were studying under harsh conditions then. We had no books (because our father couldn’t afford them) while others had.
I recall when I used to follow my father to the (oil) rigs and I would meet white men. It used to be so exciting. When my father worked as a dispensing pharmacist, I used to enjoy going with him to the hospital and meeting doctors.
What are some of the greatest lessons you have learnt in politics?
I used to be a very carefree person. Though I’m still one, I have managed to keep people, no matter how close, away from my private life, because one could be betrayed at any time. I have learnt that from politicians. If I had let them (politicians) into my life, I am sure by now, they would have been claiming that I own one thing or the other. The politicians in Rivers State have betrayed people so badly that one cannot trust anybody.
How will the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price slump affect the delivery of the ongoing rail projects?
The paucity of funds has been worsened by COVID-19.
How would you assess Governor Nyesom Wike’s handling of the COVID-19 lockdown, enforcement of the interstate travel ban and hotel demolition?
I choose to remain quiet and focus on transportation.
Why have you chosen to remain quiet on Rivers State?
Because they won’t know the difference.
What’s the future of the APC in Rivers state?
The future is great when we work hard.
What are your expectations of the transport sector post-COVID-19?
It is difficult to say until it has come to an end.