Tuesday, March 28

I bow out as Governor Obiano’s Chief Press Secretary with my head held high…James Eze

Before relocating to Anambra State to work with Governor Willie Obiano as his media aide, James Eze had had a robust career in public relations, corporate affairs and media, including The Sun, where he flourished on the literary beat. With less than a week before the expiration of the Obiano administration, which he has served, Eze, the author of the award winning poetry volume, ‘dispossessed’, said he was bowing out with pleasant memories both on the political front and literary scene. He was interviewed in Awka by HENRY AKUBUIRO.

You have spent eight years with Governor Willie Obiano as the SSA Media, Chief Press Secretary/Speech Writer, how was the transition from the newsroom to being a spokesman at first?

I had enough preparation, because I didn’t just leave the newsroom to work with the Governor of Anambra State. I had garnered a lot of experience working in the corporate world. At one point, I was with a public relations consulting firm in Lekki, Lagos. I was specially working on the MTN account as the media manager. So I learnt how to handle brands. From there, I moved over to Fidelity Bank where I was the External Communication Manager. From there, I moved to Mainstream Bank where I was the Corporate Communication Manager, from where I moved to Airtel Nigeria, in their Banana Island headquarters in Lagos, where I was the Public Relations Manager. So I have had cross-cultural experience, learning about reputation management, image management, and the like. My last duty post before I came to Anambra was with Airtel, Lagos, in 2013, I joined Governor Obiano, who was at the time a governorship  candidate with All Progressive Grand Alliance. I also believed, having worked with him at Fidelity Bank, given the chance to lead, he would do well. I also believed, coming to work with him would give me the opportunity I had always craved for  to get away from Lagos and come back to my path of the country, Igboland, because I left the southeast as a young boy at a time I didn’t know much about myself and my people, in the sense that, when you exit your locality early, there is so much knowledge lost.

When I came back to work with Governor Obiano, I was like a little boy discovering his roots. It was exhilarating for me to sit in an audience of some distinguished Igbo personalities —people who could speak Igbo fluently for hours without a jot of English language in their conversations, and that was amazing considering where I was coming from. I remember particularly after my boss had won the first term election, and we went to Aguluuzoigbo, that’s Chief Victor Umeh’s hometown, for a thank-you visit, I observed the high ceremonies of Igbo chiefs, from one community to another, meeting different sets of people —dignified people speaking in deeply nuanced Igbo language. It was the actual homecoming for me to sit there and watch them break kola nuts, speak in Igbo and exchange proverbs and enjoy themselves. For a very long time, I hadn’t experienced that. Instantly, I knew I was home, and, from that moment, I knew I had a lot of catching up to do about who I was and what it meant to me and about the heritage that I had as a young Igbo man growing up within his own cultural mix. My homecoming has been a very rich experience. It’s like walking into a mirror and discovering yourself, because it’s an immersive experience now.

Does that mean you didn’t miss Lagos and journalism, having to relocate to Awka?

Sincerely, I missed a whole lot of things. I didn’t just miss Lagos, I missed journalism. I missed the arts circle, the public lecturers, the conversations with like minds and the friendships. I missed journalism in the sense that the newsroom experience wasn’t there anymore, though I was actively involved here, because I was always interfacing with journalists, writing news stories, writing articles (thousands of them), because my job required presence of mind —if you blink, you miss certain things — and if you go to sleep, things can go wrong.

What did you learn on the job?

I hadn’t been to Harvard. But working with Obiano afforded me the opportunity of being part of that leadership experience at Harvard, but in a different way. Working with Obiano who is mindful of history, it’s a whole level of learning, compared to learning theories at a leadership academy in the sense that you see a day-to-today hands-on leadership experience unfold before you, and, if you were not vigilant, you would miss it. There are so many opportunities and difficulties that pop up on a daily basis.

In 2015 ,the governor was barely one year in office when the federal government, under the leadership of  Goodluck Jonathan, decided to move some hardened Boko Haram inmates from the north to Ekwulobia Prisons. It was a serious storm in a teacup for us in Anambra State and the entire southeast. There was no logic to that decision. I remember we were all in a frenzy, and, all of sudden, the governor had to rise to it, and I saw him summoning the community leaders, traditional rulers, church leaders, civil society leaders, trying to calm the nerves of the people so that there would not be a rash decision overnight by justifiably provoked people who might burn down the prison. So many leaders in Anambra spoke out in anger. It was one of the earliest tests for Governor Obiano, and he rode the crest, liaising with the local leaders and reaching out to Abuja and trying to reason with them. It was a big victory for him eventually when the prisoners were moved out. Seeing him calm the nerves of the people, knowing what to do, weren’t something you would learn in any classroom. There was also an embarrassing situation involving the unscheduled visit of Dr Emmanuel Egbogah, the former Adviser to Goodluck Jonathan on Petroleum, during an unscheduled visit to the Governor’s Lodge, with the security men who couldn’t allow him in. But the governor, who hasn’t met him before, rose up to the occasion by taking him to the Governor’s Lodge, and, after a frank discussion, he was made the Chairman of Anambra Special Committee on Oil and Gas, and he drafted the legal instrument that led to the achievement the governor had on oil and gas. Today, Anambra has been recognised as a duly oil producing state. These are things you learn on the go. I have been to meetings where great men like Chief Emeka Anyoku, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, the Obi of Onitsha, Cardinal Arinze, Alex Ekwueme talked, and it was a practical leadership training for me. So I have learnt a lot.

Your kind of job is one of the most unstable jobs in government. How did you see last?

I was a senior special assistant to the governor for four years before I became the chief press secretary. Obviously you know, I am not from Anambra State; I am from Enugu state. But even as the senior special assistant, I was actually doing the job of a chief press secretary. Sincerely, I wasn’t doing the job of a chief press secretary alone, I was doing the job of a speech writer, which is like wearing two different hats and combining them seamlessly. It can be very demanding and difficult if you don’t have the temperament, and it’s so easy not to have the temperament.

One thing you need to know is that Nigerians are justifiably not sympathetic to anyone in political leadership. Nobody wants to believe you. They don’t like you. In fact, the majority of the people resent you, and they think you are lecherous, living off the system. So many people think you don’t have any substance but are just lucky to be in your position. Some people think you lobbied. Some said my wife was the governor’s sister. But my wife has never met the governor’s wife till today, eight years after! And if you have a very fiendish opposition, like we have had in Anambra for eight years, then you have to realise your job is as difficult as it would have been, because, for whatever information you put across, there is counter information. Any time the state governor has done something that would endear him to the people, something would happen the next day to dilute it.

I remember in 2019, the governor launched Operation “Kpochapu 2” and brought a higher grade of CCTV cameras. It was a big event, with Nigerian Police making many complimentary remarks about Anambra State and how the governor and the state had become a reference point on security in Africa. It was the next day or two days after that Onitsha Main Market went up in flames. Before you know it, the accolades that came from the security agencies had been destroyed. The opposition politicians went there to make incendiary comments about the fire disaster, and it became like a ground for political rallies. Instead of going there to commiserate with the traders, they were going there to inflame passion and provoke anger against the state governor. The opposition clobbered us to a point that the governor apologised where his schoolmates and colleagues were gathered, to his predecessor. He tendered a public apology. It was on the cover of every newspaper. He said: “I don’t know what I have done to you, but whatever I have done, I am sorry; please, forgive me.” It was the first in history for a governor to do that. That tells you the enormity of pressure we were facing, because the governor had instructed us never to attack anybody or to respond to all the attacks against him. All these attacks were intended to wrongfoot him and make it difficult for him to achieve his purpose in government. So it’s not an easy obligation to shoulder being a governor’s spokesman. Again, being in leadership means you are somehow elevated. A man who enjoys a degree of grace is never loved by his peers.

What do you consider the highpoint of your stint in government?

There are many. On a professional level, it’s actually seeing my boss’ dreams come to reality, because, as the chief press secretary, I have tried to communicate these dreams in my own way — in my language. As his speech writer, I try to articulate his dreams, visions and desire to make things change. What’s leadership? It’s utterance, speech making, what the leader says. Many people may never see the leader, but they hear him.

In my position, as the one who interprets his thoughts, and presents them as his speeches, I feel fulfilled that so many things he has communicated to me have finally crystalised, and people can see them in living colour. In his inaugural speech, he made reference to being “sons of your fathers” and “heirs to the pioneers”. Anambra is a state where Chinua Achebe, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, Innoson, Prof Kenneth Dike, Michael Tansi, Cardinal Arinze, Chimamanda Adichie, Ekeledilichikwu, to mention a few, came from came from. These are pioneers in different fields.

So for the leader of Anambra State in the 21st century, it is a major task to inspire the people to rise to the height the Nnamdi Azikiwes attained in their time. If you haven’t inspired people to reach for the stars, you have failed as a leader. If you don’t  make them realise that they don’t have to look elsewhere for role models, and if they  can only look backwards to see who their fathers are, then you have failed. When he made that declaration, he also said together we can become masters of our own house, and I look around me in Anambra, and I see new businesses springing up, and I see the Anambra Airport —Anambra are the most travelled people in the world. You can hardly find the number of private jets landing in Anambra Airport elsewhere in Nigeria. Governor Obiano envisioned an airport and built it. The 10,000 capacity, international convention Centre in Awka is the biggest in Nigeria. And we have always known that Anambra was noted for criminality, but he came and swept all that away. Anambra was rated the number one state in security in West and Central Africa for 7 and half years. You can Google it. I am not trying to oversell the governor. Until the unknown gunmen began to slaughter people across the southeast, Anambra was peaceful. Coscharis agric farm sprang up, too.

In 2020, Anambra had the lowest poverty and unemployment rate. It was along Lagos and Rivers as the only states in Nigeria that could  run their operational cost as governments with only IGR and VAT. It wasn’t like that before Obiano became the governor. Then Anambra attracted, in 2020, 10.2 million dollars of foreign direct investment, the first time in history. These things make me happy. So I am bowing out of this job with my head held high. Obiano walked his talk.

What about your art? You are also a creative writer.

My art has grown. I knew I had the ability to write when I lived in Lagos, but I couldn’t do it until I came here. I have also tried to impact my environment through literary activities. Your passion should never die, no matter what you are doing. It was when I came back here that I actually began to pay more attention to my creative side. I published my first book in 2019, dispossessed and my next volume is almost ready, and not only that, we have done a lot of things. We have consistently organised an evening of poetry entitled A Flutter in the Woods. I started it in 2016. We haven’t done it this year and we may not do it this year, because we are leaving. But we have consistently had a feast of poetry and songs featuring up-and-coming artistes. I did that alone. With Tony Odili, we held Return to Idoto. We held the first poetry festival in Nigeria. That was in 2015, avd we brought Henry Akubuiro, Nduka Otiono, Pade Ipadeola, Chijioke Amu Nnadi, Uche Umez, Iquo Diana Abasi, among others, to honour Chris Okigbo in his own compound and in the river that his poetry made famous, River Idoto. We have grown from strenght to strenght. We were the first to organised an open mic in Awka.

I told you in a 2020 interview, I was looking for new audiences in poetry. Today, a young man called Mastermind, who has the best malesinging voice in the country, and another lady, have succeeded in turning my poems into amazing songs. These are poems from the dispossessed collection and my latest materials, which are pointedly lyrical. I have seen my artistic growth move from very hard and concentrated poetry to a medium that is even more accessible that comes across as songs. I have written songs. We are just waiting to burst into the consciousness of the nation. We have even shot a video of one of the songs. We are just waiting for the right time to show what we have. You don’t have to be in Lagos to do your thing. Creativity can flourish anywhere.

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