Chief Christopher Chukwuemeka Akaraonye (Eziahakaku) is a politician in the garb of a civil servant, nay journalist. This attitude however concurs with Aristotle’s view when he quipped ‘Man is a political animal’.
Though retired from the Imo State Ministry of Information and Strategy after a meritorious service, he is not yet tired.
In this interview with Edison Chukwuma Okereke the Imo NUJ Council leader speaks on his administration’s plans to reposition the council and calls on the bona fide members of the union to join hands in the efforts to move it forward.
The interview took place at the new secretariat, New Owerri, on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, in the afternoon.
Q: What is your name?
Answer: My name is Chief Christopher Chukwuemeka Akaraonye (Eziahakaku of Owubinubi and Ugwumba of Obodo Amaimo. I have two chieftaincy titles.
Q: Let’s have a little bit of your background?
Answer: My father’s name is Aloysius Agunanne Akaraonye. My mother’s name is Mrs. Justina Akaraonye (nee Nka). I am from Obodo Amaimo in Ikeduru Local Government Area of Imo State.
Precisely this year I am 60 years old, having been born in 1960. I attended Amaimo Central School; Amaimo High School, now St. Columba’s Amaimo; University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), where I did my Diploma in Mass Communication; and Imo State University where I did my Bachelor of Science, B.Sc., also in Mass Communication.
By the grace of God, I am a practising Christian. I am doing my best in the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Above all, I am the chairman of the Parish Pastoral Council, St. Mark’s Catholic Church, New Owerri, Zonal Headquarters of Zone 12 Owerri Archdiocese.
As you know the Parish Council is the highest body in the Church. And I am doing my best to serve God and humanity.
As a traditional chief I’m the Chief, Adviser to the Eze of my community. I am married, and I have children, very comfortable children. I have a very good wife. My wife is Lolo Josephine Akaraonye. She works here in Owerri.
Q: You say you’re 60 years this year, you were born in October; so you’re celebrating your birthday as Nigeria?
Answer: Yes, I am celebrating like Nigeria. In the year of my birth was when the country got its political Independence. It is a pleasure.
Q: You’ve held several positions in the council in the state, what are they?
Answer: Fine. I started my journalism career when I was employed as a photographer in the state Ministry of Information. You know photographers are also journalists, full fledged journalists. The most important aspect of journalism is photography. So, I was employed as a photographer that makes me automatically a member of the NUJ. So, in 1980 I was employed as a photographer. From that period, I started paying my checkoff dues as a member of the union. The checkoff dues from the Ministry of Information are deducted at source –from your salary if you’re in that area of the profession, either as an Information officer or as a photographer you are a member of NUJ. So, I started my career in NUJ, in 1980. And I rose until I was posted to the State Government House equally as a photographer to the governor where I served as from 1987-2003 when I returned to my parent Ministry.
When in Government House I served almost all the military governors and became the Chief Photographer (CP) to the Governor and the wife to the governor.
When in Government House also I was the deputy chairman of Government House Press Corps –the umbrella body of journalists there from different media houses covering Government House.
Later, I became the chairman of the association for over six years. When I left the place, I was posted back to the Ministry of Information to head the Photographic Unit. In Information I became the chairman of the Chapel, NUJ, for four years. From there I contested the auditor of the council and won first term in the administration of Chief Fidel Onyeneke and the second term. After the auditor I wanted to contest for the chairmanship. Along the line I listened to the persuasion that I should allow my senior in the profession, Chief Innocent Igwe to go. I accepted because in leadership you must follow the trend, to be a servant before you can be a leader. I accepted it and rather became the vice chairman to Chief Innocent Igwe for two terms of six years, after which I became the chairman of NUJ Imo State Council. So, I rose from the ranks.
Q: What would you consider your major achievements in the council so far?
Answer: That’s a good question. When I was in the Government House, I established a Government House Press Centre where the journalists gather for their assignments. I was the person who introduced it. I also attracted what we now call stipends to journalists at the end of every month. Quote me. Emma Okere and others know what I’m saying. I consider that as my major achievement before I left Government House. Above all, the unity that existed among the journalists there then was part of my joy. Today whenever they see me, they call me: chair! Chair! Chair! They know what I did there. I made it possible for every Governor to know there was a journalist working there then. When I came back to Information the chapel was moribund. But when I came, I had to gather every journalist –all the photographers, information officers together. There was a formidable force of the union there then. It was my handiwork. I made it possible for all of them to speak with one voice. That made it possible to decide who became the chairman when I was there. Above all, there was unity there that I established before I was elected auditor of the council.
As the auditor I did not have much to do. I was like a servant to the chairman, the secretary and others. When I was there, they considered me very, very useful. I became chairman of the Press Week which I did religiously so well and attracted a lot of things to the council. And all the press weeks that are taking place in the council today, if I am not the chairman, I am the secretary. I later became the chairman of the Welfare Committee to the council and established the committee, performed very well before I dropped.
So, when I was the vice chairman I did not do much. I only did the work assigned to me by the chairman. But one thing that I am known for, and for which I am very happy is that there was a very good harmony between me as the vice chairman and the chairman, chief Innocent Igwe throughout his six years in the office. There was no time we had any problems. When Igwe had a problem with the State Government I insisted that he be returned when he was transferred out of the state, even when I was asked to take over as the chairman. I said I would not do that. He was my boss. And why he was transferred was because of what happened and all of us knew about it. We fought with him. So, I gave him a very good cooperation while he was the chairman. Probably, that was why the council considered me good enough to be the chairman because if you are a good follower you will be a good leader.
Question: As chairman, what has been your focus?
Answer: Thank you. You will see with me. You are a journalist based in Imo State. You know what is going on in the state.
Since I took over as chairman of the council it has not been very easy because of the attitude of some of our colleagues who felt the election did not go down well with them. They went to court. Apart from going to court they have been doing a lot of things to malign our administration. They’ve been doing a lot of things to stop us from functioning, but the will of God will not allow them to do that.
That notwithstanding, we’re still forging ahead to make sure that NUJ Imo State is kept running.
My major achievement so far which is already on ground is revalidation. The union has been seemingly taken over by quacks, touts. It is funny!
I don’t like it. I have vowed that I am going to reform the union. I have vowed that I am going to take the union back to its owners, to those who are qualified, who are registered, who are practising. I accept to do it. So, my focus now is revalidation. Qualification means you have, at least a diploma in Mass Communication or Journalism, and you are also practising in any of the media houses, you’re a registered member. The union can also register associate members; those who have the certificates but are not practising, who may be working in tertiary institutions or other places because they have acquired the certificates and have the flair for writing. My greatest achievement is one: revalidation, before the end of 2020. By the grace of God, the number of journalists practising in the state must be realistic. At the end of the exercise we shall produce a compendium of journalists revalidated, confirmed.
Another thing that I am looking at and working hard for is to raise the financial base of the organisation in the state. The council has been depending on charity, handouts, government and all that. A situation in which the union depends on charity, depends on government, depends on people giving us money and all that is no longer acceptable. And it has been affecting the activities of the council. For us to do anything we have to look for money. So, I have been working hard to establish something. At the end of every month, whoever is the chairman here in the council will not go out cap in hand begging for money. By the grace of God, we’ll achieve it in no distant time.
Q: Are you comfortable with the relationship between the present administration of senator Hope Uzodimma and the council in the state?
Answer: My answer should be yes and no respectively. We are not fully comfortable, and we are comfortable! –Comfortable in the sense that as the governor the Constitution says he’s the patron of the union here in the state. We’re supposed to work with the governor. As a patron we must work with him. The aim of the union is to help the government stabilize the polity.
So, journalists are not politicians. Our duty is to disseminate information, policies and programmes of government to the people and to carry problems of the people back to the government. And we have been doing that. That’s the relationship. The relationship is already there. Whether the government takes care of us or not, those assignments must be carried out. Journalists must do those assignments. If the Government says it is not going to see us any where we can stay in the bush to report whatever it is doing because it is our duty to let the people know what government is doing. We must do that job.
But in terms of taking care of us as other governors did, Uzodimma, the Governor has not done that. But if you look at the situation of the country you can see some inhibitions there. Immediately he came on board, the COVID-19 came up and chased everybody away. People could not go closely together to one another for six months. But with the relaxation of the pandemic now, the Governor has promised that he is going to see us journalists.
I want to tell you that I was asked to host, as chairman of the council, Imo State, the South East chairmen, secretaries and zonal officers –the ZEC (Imo State hosted the last one). Government assisted us tremendously.
The President, comrade Chris Isiguzo also came. It was an opportunity for him to come to the state on an official visit. He was supposed to attend because he is from the South East. As our son, Isiguzo rushed in and addressed us as our President. He will still come to the state for more official visits. And he used the opportunity also to see the Governor. And I want to tell you that when we met the Governor I was impressed with the Governor’s promises to the council –that he is going to help the NUJ, that he will work with us, that he is going to give us whatever we need from him. Senator Hope Uzodimma is our friend. The Hummer bus the council is using today he gave it to us in 2013 when he was a senator. So, if he could give us that much when he was a senator you know what he is going to do this time round when he is the Governor. So, we’re expecting that he’ll realize that he is our patron and attend to us.
Q: Would you like Governor Uzodimma to do any project for the council?
Answer: In the first place, the council has a very beautiful secretariat built and donated to us by the immediate past government in the state.
We would want the Governor to furnish it for us. He has accepted that he is going to do that. What we would like the Governor to do is to find a package for the journalists. We’re really suffering. And I have been talking to the commissioner, Hon. Declan Emelumba, talking to the people that matter in the state to find a way to help alleviate problems of the journalists. Even if it has done with stipends for the journalists. It is necessary. The Government can, at the end of every month, as the Government used to do, give us any token sum to be shared among the journalists, no matter how little. I’d appreciate it. The stipends might help us to solve little problems.
My advice to the Governor is to find a way to assist the journalists so that they will be able to keep the work going.
On our own part if we do what we want to do to increase our financial base in the council I want to assure you every journalist in the state will enjoy it. This association is not a political association. It is for welfare. We want to do everything we can to make sure members’ welfare is guaranteed. So, the Governor will assist the journalists in whatever we’re doing. If he does that, we will have achieved a lot. And we’re working towards that. And I know Governor Uzodimma will do that.
Q: You say you’ve been discussing with the commissioner in this regard, what has been his reply?
Answer: You know the commissioner is a journalist, a core journalist for that. We have been having a good rapport with him. And I know that, apart from the situation in the country now, he is going to help us a lot. Hon. Emelumba is disposed to assist the journalists.
He has revamped the Imo Newspapers which had been moribund for a long time. Today, it is a daily newspaper. Our journalists there are happy. At least they’re working, seeing their production coming out every day. That’s an achievement of the Government. It is also the council’s achievement, that during our tenure The Statesman was revamped, and our journalists there are working comfortably, and are happy. If you write your stories you see them coming out….
So, the commissioner is really going to be of assistance to us journalists and he has even promised that he is going to do that. In fact, the ZEC I said I hosted was courtesy of the commissioner. He took over the hosting. He gave them accommodation, everything. It is a very comfortable, recommendable, commendable achievement.
Q: Without sounding sub judice, what’s the state of the matter between the current council leadership and some NUJ members in the state?
Answer: Well, I thank God that you said that you will not sound sub judice, the same thing with me. The matter is in court. And we’re told even in journalism if a matter is in court you don’t discuss it. But I want to tell you that every member has a right to seek for redress if he feels discontent. It is true our brothers went to court. We accepted it. No problems. The litigants are saying the election was not properly done. The court has even advised us what to do. I’ll advise everybody concerned to be calm. Let’s wait for the court. Though the Judge has directed us to settle the matter without coming to court, times without number to reconcile: “Go back and reconcile.” I appealed to our members –those who took us to court, to listen to that advice and come back.
The elders and the past chairmen of the council had come together, looked at the case and gave their own recommendations. The executive members of the council have accepted them. So, it behoves on the litigants to accept or not, and which they say they’re not accepting. The case went back to the court again and we’re waiting for its outcome.
Let us not kill ourselves. If we destroy the council because we’re in court, and if the court tomorrow says Christopher Akaraonye or Edison Okereke, you’re not the chairman and gives another person the power to rule, where will he start to rule? Don’t destroy this house because you want to be chairman, Imo State NUJ council?
So, I believe even those who are in court should join hands to save the association so that if the court gives them the leadership, they’ll have a comfortable place to rule. The council is not Akaraonye’s association. It’s NUJ, Imo State Council’s, under the leadership of me for now. If tomorrow the court says otherwise, to God be the glory! I’ll continue to be a member because I’m a law-abiding citizen of the state. I don’t want to go deep into that. I’m saying this because the Judge has directed us to goback and put our house in order. If they feel they cannot accept whatever decision taken by our elders they should exercise patience for the court to take the final decision.
Q: The old council building is about to be leased out, what’s the true position?
Answer: Yes, we’re going to lease it out, but some people are saying we have sold it –saying unnecessary things. The truth is that the council, after many deliberations, after consultations, with our elders, stakeholders, past chairmen, people that matter in society, we decided that the best option for us is to lease that place out for us to get funding for what we are going to do. We have a new secretariat. There is nothing we can do with that one. No journalist in the state can contribute money to build what we want to build there. So, the best option is for us to LEASE it and NOT to sell it such that the property remains our property; at any point in time the council still owns that place. That is our plan. We’re negotiating with investors that will accept our conditions.
Whoever wants to take it will first of all, build a new secretariat there with offices, with a hall about 250-person capacity; fence it and give us the keys and we begin to look at it as our property there. Whoever is going to take there is going to give the council whatever is agreed upon until the year of relinquishing it comes up. That is what we’re negotiating with people who will accept our conditions. I am telling you, by the grace of God, we’re going to get investors because people negotiating with us are credible. That’s the best option for the council. We cannot divide that place to be our media village. It cannot accommodate us all. Neither can it be used to build a hospital nor a hotel, where is the money to do that? The best thing to do is to lease it out. There are two different things between leasing and selling. That place cannot be sold. It is a council property. I have made it clear under my watch it cannot be sold. No amount of money even with two billion naira we won’t sell it, because in the next two hundred years to come, if Christ did not come there would still be the council, there must be chairmen, there must be executives. So they must have something to lay hands on. But we are working towards improving it for the betterment of the council.
Q: What’s the state of the International Institute of Journalism, (IIJ); who runs and finances it in the state?
Answer: It is an institute owned by the national secretariat of NUJ. The council has no financial inputs there. We’re even lucky we have the South East Centre here. We have an obligation to maintain it so that the school does not leave. Here in the new secretariat we’ve allocated a whole block to the institute, because the old secretariat is no more conducive for their studies. It’s so bad: no classrooms, everywhere is dilapidated with leaking roofs. Everywhere is bad. That house has stayed up to forty years. It was built in 1980, by the administration of the late Sam Mbakwe. Nobody can stay there again. So, what we did was to relocate the IIJ to the new secretariat with better facilities.
Q: Does it pay rents?
Answer: No. Our gain is that it is training our people. Those who read English Language and have PhDs in other courses can come here and remedy themselves. Our loss is it is occupying almost half of the secretariat without paying us. Our gain is that it helps in training out people. We’re happy that we accommodate them.
Q: Your administration has been accused of not doing enough to help in alleviating the sufferings of the members in the state, in terms of attracting palliatives for them. For instance, since the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, there have not been any such things from individuals, corporate bodies and even Government in the state, why do you think the lapses exist?
Answer: There are no lapses. It is only when you see people who want to give you palliatives that you talk about them. The little ones that came to us we shared them to every member. Since then we’ve been making efforts to tell people to give us palliatives to no avail. We can’t force them. Yet, some of our members are also part of the problem. If they see somebody coming to give palliatives to the council, they’d like to corner them. And they shut out the other people. Again, this little problem in the council makes some members to say NUJ has no leadership in the state. That is the council some want to lead. Where will they start to lead? I believe that we journalists should attract people to the council. It is not for the chairman alone. If you attract things to the council, they will be shared among the members. We’re doing our best. Yes, we’re looking up to the Government to give us palliatives. The Government has promised to give us, but they’ve not given to us. We’ve written to corporate bodies. We’ve not got anything. We’ve written to the chairman of COVID-19 Committee in the state, Prof. Maurice Iwu, through the Chief Press Secretary. Up to today we’ve not got anything. We’ll continue to pray to God if the palliatives come, we take them. All I’m saying is one day it will be better if we all come back together and stop shooting one another unnecessarily. It’s affecting the growth of the council. Nobody is greater than the council. Every journalist should come together to uplift the union.
My assurance is whatever that comes here in the council must get across to every member. And you know that there are many journalists in the field. But my administration will recognise only those registered with the union. You may be qualified as a journalist and say you’re not going to register with the union. No problem. But when you have a problem you know you have a union.