- Francis Ogbonnaya, a Senior Advocate of France (SAF), holds two master’s degrees in Law and Estate Management from France where he lived for 32 years. In this interview with Egwuagha Amarachukwu/Blueprint, he tells, among others, how his initiative to create employment for youths in Ebonyi State has been crippled.
How would you describe Engr. Dave Umahi’s style of governance?
I have lived in Europe for 32 years and lived in Nigeria for more than 15 years, and I have realised that Governor Dave Umahi is working like somebody who once lived in Europe. It takes dexterity and good heart to execute projects. For the 32 years I lived in Europe I was coming home yearly and I saw how stagnated our system had been. There was a time I classified my state Ebonyi as the 36th on the list of states in Nigeria, owing to the level of underdevelopment of the state. I was reassured, in fact, with joy to see how Umahi was able to transform Ebonyi State, the state that was nothing, in just three years in office. Before now if you travelled to Abakaliki from Amasiri, no matter how good you dressed, mud would take over your entire body.
This man took the initiative and transformed this state into a modern city in Nigeria. I don’t know where he got this strength from. I’m not saying this to please him; I’m saying it because he’s doing exactly what real politicians do in Europe. People are criticising him because they are paying taxes. But, have you seen any country, state or community where people just print money and start using it for projects? You should be happy when you pay taxes and you see tangible things your leaders are doing with the tax proceeds. A critical look into this whole thing, one finds that these monies collected as taxes are not being squandered as other past administrations did. They are being reinvested. To summarise, it will be satanic to say that Dave Umahi will not be re-elected in 2019. And it would be a show of ingratitude for Ebonyians not to re-elect Umahi in 2019.
It’s been 11 years since you arrived in Nigeria from France. And many who know you well say you have not been welcomed home the right way by your people. Could you please tell us what your experience has been all this while?
My experience here in Nigeria or Ebonyi State has not been quite good. Here, I realise that if you studied outside you are treated as a third-class citizen, which is not supposed to be so. I studied in France and was called to the Bar on 7th of June, 1985, and that was when I started practising as a lawyer. I came home from France on pre-retirement and I came home with the intention to be useful to my community and Nigeria as a whole. So, the way I was welcomed baffled me, because I was treated as somebody in Europe, not as a Black man, but as nobody in my community. I’m not talking about racism because, there in Europe, racism does not apply to someone who can prove what he is capable of doing; it’s only when you allow it by way of proving that you are incapable of doing anything worthwhile that they treat you with racism. But in my own case, I studied from my first year in France — OND, bachelor’s, and two master’s degrees. Meanwhile, I started practising as a lawyer from my first degree.
I even observed that among us as lawyers here, if you read abroad they treat you as a foreigner and with disdain as if you don’t have the same certificates they have and I find it difficult to perceive this kind of situation in Nigeria. And I hope it will change one day. I still remember vividly that our fathers who first travelled to Europe were received as kings when they came back; but a group of unscrupulous elements just treat you as ‘shit’ – I’m sorry to use that word. I think we should change that mentality. And coming down to my community, my people have not welcomed me even when they know my worth; but because they have a way of humiliating people, they will always exhibit this mentality of ‘After all, who is he in this land?’ Over there, you are respected and treated as kings, but when you get here people would want to treat you as animals. This is barbaric!
What really made you think you have not been accepted the right way by your people?
I feel so without being biased because, in Europe, I practised as a lawyer for 29 years and, after eight years of practice, I came up with an initiative called Association of Therapy-Through-Work to take care of delinquent children. I created that association single-handedly without the aid of anybody, my colleagues in Paris inclusive. I realised that we think that delinquency is peculiar to Africa; it’s also obtainable in Europe, even at a higher rate. But the difference is that governments over there give funds to associations to take care of these children. My own association was out to bring these delinquent children to the centre, re-orientate them and get them integrated back to society.
My people turned their back on me
And why I said my people have not received me the way I’m supposed to be received is because when I came home and wanted to do things the right way as a bona-fide indigene of my community of Amasiri in Ebonyi State; the people with whom I’m supposed to work turned their back on me probably because they felt or still feel I want to take part of their ‘cake’. Here am I, wanting to replicate the same concept and feat I achieved in France, and help create a sane society, but I was humiliated, under-estimated and duped by my people.
I came home to contribute as others who had been to Europe do when they come back to their communities. That’s why I feel I have not been welcomed and accepted by my people.
Was there a particular favour you asked of your community and you were turned down?
In that case, I will openly say yes. It’s not just that I asked for something and they did not give me; in line with my conception of Therapy-Through-Work I came home to do a mechanised farming. I spent hundreds of millions of naira acquiring the land and to buy machines needed for this project from Germany, Switzerland and France only to discover that my own people – I’m not talking about government — duped me by selling me a land that they had equally sold 29 years before to then Imo State government. That was when we were still in Imo State.
They duped me collectively. The feasibility study of this project said I was to create over 650 direct jobs, which I can’t remember a time that any state in this country created 650 jobs at a go. This project was to be sited at Ozara-Okangwu in Amasiri community, Ebonyi State, on a 250-hectare land, before I realised that the land belonged to the then Imo State government, and transferred to Abia State government as we changed state, and back to Ebonyi State government. And the project couldn’t fly. I felt bad when I found out that the land did not belong to my people but to Ebonyi State government now.
How did your people feel when you drew their attention to the fact that they had duped their own son who came from Europe to better their lot?
Yes, some individuals showed a sign of remorse, because they know I don’t have any other job. But those conspirators showed no iota of remorse, none at all. Many of them now laugh at me and many others openly say “He’s finished”. They would go on and on to say that all that I acquired in Europe for 35 years had ended here. Remember, these were the people I was planning to help their children. I cannot condemn my people completely, but I realise that there’s a majority of unscrupulous elements in this land who are bent on destroying every genuine effort anyone would want to make to help this community.
If you were to asked for assistance from the current Ebonyi State government in this regard, what would that be?
Let me give you further information. The government of Engr. Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State has been approached with this project. I have submitted the feasibility study to the Office of the Governor, to come to my help even in a smaller dimension. From the beginning my idea was accepted, but all this while I have not heard anything again from them on the project. I sincerely still do feel that this project can still fly; I’m very optimistic that it can still run.
No.1 in agriculture
Our amiable Governor Umahi places a lot of emphasis on the development of agriculture in Ebonyi State, and he wants us to be No.1 in terms of agriculture in this country. But I still do not know why a project of such relevance could be abandoned even after submitting the necessary documents. I really desire to meet face-to-face with His Excellency on this project; all the documents regarding the project and the land at Ozara-Okangwu in Amasiri are within his office, and I will produce the originals of these documents if I’m asked to. I want the governor to intervene in this matter because this project is not just for me but for all Ebonyians. It’s my intention to replicate that initiative I created in France called Therapy-Through-Work here in Ebonyi, in order to provide jobs for our teeming youths. I did it in France and it’s still in existence till date. I can equally do it here.
After this dramatic failure what did you do, sir?
After this failure I thought it necessary to approach Ebonyi State University (EBSU) for a job, since I could not succeed as it were in my belief in Therapy-Through-Work here. I went to this institution of learning to apply for a job, so as to impact my multiple knowledge on the youths of today who are definitely going to be leaders of tomorrow. I approached the university since 17th of October, 2014, and this is 2018; and within this period I have been going to Abakaliki from Amasiri, on a daily basis, for this purpose. You can imagine the financial incapacitation that this has thrown me into: a job seeker!
Between January and March 2015 I actively participated in the mock inspection in view of accreditation of some courses in the university, which we got 20 out of 22 departments. In June 2015, I reapplied for the job in the office of the then vice chancellor of the university, Prof. Francis Idike, and since then Prof. Idike sat on my file for reasons best known to him. I was expecting him to tell me, you are not qualified or qualified. And most worrisome was that, in-between this time, many jobs were given at EBSU in my presence to others, Ebonyians and non-Ebonyians. Prof. John Ekeh, the current commissioner for education in Ebonyi State, was aware of all these ugly experiences I have had at EBSU. He gave me several appointments which I answered, but all to no avail. Also, the late Prof. Ozor Nweke Ozor and Prof. Egwu U. Egwu jointly wrote a letter to Prof. Idike to absorb me in EBSU and, in the letter, both professors said seeing my wealth of experience and being an Ebonyian it was inhuman not to give me a job at the university. I have a copy of that letter. Prof. Idike was the VC until 2017. Till date and even as we speak, I still don’t know why nobody has said anything about my case. And why Prof. Ekeh, the commissioner for education who had several successful discussions with me, has done nothing about this matter is what I don’t understand. I spent more than N4 million looking for a job at EBSU. Let me tell you something. I now feel that to get a job in this state one needs to be extremely rich, whereas a job seeker ought to be helped and not to be pushed into frustration.
- First published in Blueprint newspaper, February 22, 2018