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His Royal Highness, Eze Dr. Emmanuel Umez-Eronini is the traditional ruler of Awo-Mbieri Community in Imo State. Erudite and versatile, this London-trained physician, was one time chairman, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) Enugu, architect of the recently launched National Health Insurance Scheme Policy, founder/president of Keep Imo Beautiful as well as a gubernatorial candidate in 1983.
His Royal Highness, Eze Dr. Emmanuel Umez-Eronini is the traditional ruler of Awo-Mbieri Community in Imo State. Erudite and versatile, this London-trained physician, was one time chairman, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) Enugu, architect of the recently launched National Health Insurance Scheme Policy, founder/president of Keep Imo Beautiful as well as a gubernatorial candidate in 1983. In this interview with our Special Correspondent Emma Okereke, he evaluates the traditional institution, health sector as well as the polity, stressing that privatisation remained the greatest legacy of this administration to Nigerians. Excerpts:
YOUR Highness, may we know the back-ground of the man that sits on this throne as the ruler of Awo-Mbieri autonomous community?
I am 63 (sixty-three) years old. I qualified in medicine in 1967 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. I left the shores of Nigeria to overseas at the age of 14 to 15, so I stayed abroad for a very long time. I finished my secondary school there.
However, before I graduated in medicine I had to do a course in Anatomy and I had a first class honours degree in it. I graduated in MBBC with honours. So I have a double first. Actually, I was also the most outstanding student of the year when I graduated and that made news in the papers.
I specialised in international medicine. And just at the time I was thinking of getting into further research in my carer the war ended. I also heard that my father was very ill and everybody wanted me back. So I couldn’t continue with my academic career. I had to drop it at that point and started coming back to Nigeria. That was in 1970. My father was at the Awo-Mbieri Omama Hospital receiving treatment and I virtually stopped at Awo-Omama and started working at Awo-Omama taking care of him. And that was how my medical career in Nigeria started.
Subsequently, I founded my own hospital –Umezuruike Hospital which now has about 50 to 60 beds and is one of the largest and successful hospitals in the state.
(All this while I felt that my academic career was being left behind so I headed off to Enugu – at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, (UNTH) where I was a lecturer and consultant for about two years. I later found out that I had grown too many wings in Owerri and had to go back to Owerri to continue with my practice.
Sometime in the 80s I was called upon again to go back to Enugu. This time as the chairman of the Teaching Hospital. So I was its chairman for about six years. And within this period we tried to improve the place. I must tell you that it is difficult to run institutions that belong to government. So that in a nutshell is about my medical career.
On the social level, I am the founder and first president of Keep Imo Beautiful which became a very important organisation, in those days, ensuring the beauty of Owerri and its environs.
I never thought I was going to become a traditional ruler, but it is necessary to stress that the traditional rulership of our people has been in my family. My grandfather Chief Duruaku Eronini was the first traditional ruler and very well-known in the whole of Owerri Division. He was among the notable paramount rulers in those days. He ruled between 1960 and 1948.
Then he died, his first son, who was not well, could not succeed him. So my father who was the next was supposed to succeed him.
But he too was so busy in Port-Harcourt as a business man and politician that he chose not to come home and take over the stool. So as a result his younger brother was asked to take over and he did. There was no election. He simply inherited the throne.
He had a little problem with the community and eventually the people wanted an elected Eze. In the process he lost out during the election. That was how Ezeship went out of the family. So its like the whole thing has come back to where it started. This was one of the things that encouraged me to accept this offer. The other point too was that if my father had accepted being a man of worth and dignity he would have held it where it was. But because he rejected it and thought it was too small to keep him at home it went out of the family. So when people started pressurizing me to accept, I felt that history was about to repeat itself and maybe this time I should say yes. And that was how I landed here.
In fact the community had to pay the fee for my contest because I said I won’t go unless they committed themselves by paying. So they paid just to make sure that I agree.
Your Highness, in spite of this love and commitment by the community, yours was one of the most keenly contested. Why was it so?
I don’t think it was. It is really a pity that some people think it was. Like I told you when the Ezeship thing came up and the community wanted an Awo Autonomous Community to become a reality they more or less asked those people who were interested to put out their names. I was not one of those people who put out their names. In fact the family came to me to say look you must go and do this thing. And my response was that I was not interested. So they said they were going to have an election within the family to see who will be interested. They had an election for three persons. The highest had eight votes. They then voted for me, even though I was not contesting and I had the highest vote. So perhaps, if I had contested maybe I would have had all the votes. So they brought this verdict on my table. I said I won’t still go unless these other people who have shown interest stepped down and give me their support. They did. Then I said I won’t go unless you people paid my nominations fee. They did.
This was how I became a candidate, I then went round all the villages in the town to ensure there were no other interested parties and to monitor what their feelings were. I did so because all this while I had been told that I was the person that the community wanted and you know what goes on in politics. So I took the trouble of going round to find out what was the true feeling of the community. And I found out that I commanded at least 80 to 90 per cent of popular opinion. They wanted me.
But then I still said I would not come out until the last day of the nomination. I waited until the last day before allowing my paper to be put forward. This was to see if there was going to be any other contest because I didn’t want any contest. I wanted a consensus. And truly on the last day there was none and I said you can now have my nomination paper. My number was one and there was no other number.
So automatically I had become everybody’s candidate. It was after then that the executive decided to extend the closing date, at the behest of Oliver Nwozuzu so as to give him the opportunity to join. This was really what caused the problem because like I told you before I accepted, I consulted widely. I even went to him (Nwozuzu) and his uncles and they told me they were not interested.
So it was only when I had accepted and nomination closed that they (executive) came in and told me that they extended the nomination date and he was able to file his papers. But he never came to tell me that he was planning to contest. He never showed just the same courtesy I had extended to him.
So I said this was an effront on me so if that is what you want, you put your box, I put mine and let’s see who our community wants. That was what happened and I won with a very wide margin-about 432 votes to 81. Otherwise there would have been no contest.
How has it been on the throne, since your coronation and recognition by the state government?
Well, I must say that we have had a lot of cooperation from the people. The people have enjoyed having an autonomous community. We are also fortunate to have our own council ward, which means we are a very compact town. Whatever we say as a group, we can actually do. Even when it comes to council elections, we will elect the councillor in the union first. We can also decide which party we will put him into and when he goes in, he will pass.
At the same time we are a community that wants development. For instance, the light you see in Awo is community-sponsored. There is no government money in it. We provided everything and I was the chairman of the committee.
Similarly, the water in Awo is also community-sponsored. One of our illustrious sons contributed immensely. You may have also seen the road, under construction – its an all season road and I am building it. It will cost about N86 million, and would stretch from Nwa-Orieubi to Eke Awo Market.
As you can see we enjoy peace in this community and derive joy in developing it. I have been giving scholarships since I came back from the United Kingdom.
I have about eight university scholars at the moment. We want to create a new generation that will take over from us. My late father was a strong lover of education. You may not know this, but he is said to have built the first secondary school in Imo State. That is Emmanuel College. And that was before the missions and government thought Owerri was entitled to a secondary education.
Without Emmanuel College many people of repute today in this area would not have seen the walls of a secondary school. Incidentally the Emmanuel he named the school after, is myself. So we value education in this family. We want people to rise beyond the confines. We have built a nice library for the secondary school and one for the primary school. We have also given computers to the primary schools here. So our pupils are becoming computer literate.
It is usual to have dissenting voices before and after some contests, has there been moves towards reconciliation?
We have made several moves to reconcile with those who did not vote for us, but unfortunately the difficulty we have is that the person I contested with does not seem to want any reconciliation. This is because if you say you want to reconcile the first thing to do is to stop fighting. But he is continuously creating problems in the society by encouraging factions and giving the impression that there is strife in the society when there is none. But I keep telling them that the contest is over and that what we now want is to bring everybody together. We can not continue to have contests. So we are very anxious with reconciliation and many of those people with him are out from confrontational situation. Definitely we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Has his continuous opposition prevented you from achieving some set goals for the community?
No, I would say not to any seriously significant amount. The reason is because we have the majority behind us.
Do you think we benefit more by creating more autonomous communities?
I think it is a very good idea. By the time I contested for governorship of Imo State, way back to 1983, what I was looking for was an opportunity to transform Imo State. But I didn’t get that opportunity. Now that I have found myself as the traditional ruler of the community, I feel I have been given another opportunity to do those things that I would have done for Imo State in Awo-Mbieri.
Secondly I think that autonomous communities provide the best focus for grassroots development. But still we are yet to use them. We have not really started using them. What I would like is for the local governments, so created by the constitution to also have a specific responsibility for the autonomous communities. In other words if the local governments are getting a grant of say N50 million every month it should say that N25 million of this or so should go to the autonomous communities. This should be provided for in the law establishing the LGs and the amount to be set aside should be shared equally among the autonomous communities within that local government. Such money would be used between the Eze and his town union for all the development of those communities. If we do this, we are going to see in Imo State, the highest period of community and grassroots development you would ever witness.
What is your view on proliferation of chieftaincy titles in Igboland?
Here in Awo, we have local chiefs who are village heads. We also have some very important people in each of those villages whom we have made chiefs so as to support the village heads.
We do not give chieftaincy titles unless the recipients have done a lot for the community and is seen to be a good person. This is because if we make somebody who is bad a chief, we are sending a wrong signal. For instance the last chieftaincy title I awarded was to Chief Emeka Anyaoku and my sister in-law Mrs. Ijeoma Eronini, who was the head of Service, Imo State. So you can see the quality of chiefs we create here. We don’t throw the titles around.
But I must say that the most unfortunate thing is that some Ezes give out titles like certificates. That is not good. It makes the title lose its significance. I don’t know who should really control it but I regard the word autonomous and that means it should be the responsibility of the Eze to control it. I hope the traditional rulers will discuss this issue.
Again if you want to confer title to somebody who does not come from your community, you should seek the permission of the Eze of the community from where the would-be-recipient comes. He would be able to tell you more about the person.
Congenital to this issue is the emergence of Eze Igbo in the various states. Should it be encouraged?
I think the Ezes have put their feet on that. It should stop. Any person who wants to be an Eze should come back to Igboland and be an Eze. You can’t be an Eze in a foreign territory. You must have as territory which must be in Igboland.
You trained as a physician and today you are a traditional ruler. Do you see any conflict between the two? Do you still consult?
Ehm yes and no. I say yes because I am sure some of my patients who no longer have access to me are not happy about it. But I have always told them that nobody is indispensable. Right from the time I started my own practice I worked to make myself dispensable either by being away deliberately and going on holidays for two months. And each time when I came back I found out that the place had not collapsed. I have also stressed the need to transfer responsibility to other people. In that respect I think I have always succeeded.
On the other hand, my discipline teaches one to be problem solving. In other words you are always solving problems. You are always accessible. You are always cool and calm. You cannot afford to be erratic, otherwise, somebody would die. So I think that in that respect my profession is a good training for a traditional ruler. Because you will meet all sorts of people. I think the profession is an advantage for a traditional ruler. You can also be a healer even by words. Unfortunately I don’t see patients as such any longer but I still have a hospital and I tell them to go there and see the doctors. I don’t see any conflict. There is certainly an advantage.
Are you satisfied with the constitutional role of traditional rulers?
No. I am not satisfied. I have already mentioned one reason. The traditional rulers should be given the financial tool with which to prosecute their role as centres of grassroots development. So we need to be constitutionally empowered.
Secondly traditional rulers should be people of substance. If so their salaries or remunerations should be such as to enable them to live comfortable life, because when they are hungry, they can not perform. They will issue chieftaincy titles when they shouldn’t, and would not be given due respect. There are certain aspects of the office that need to be given some support either by the state or local government.
You are one of the architect of the National Health Insurance Scheme, which was recently launched. Is it in tune with the original concept you canvassed?
Yes, to a large extent what was launched was in fact what we had created. When I was appointed chairman of the Umez-Eronini Committee in 1988 by the then Minister of Health Prof. Ransome Kuti, we set about to create what is now happening, which is basically a capitation system.
Up to that time many people thought that insurance in Nigeria will not work until we brought out the capitation system. And this is what has been adopted. However, a number of modifications have been introduced in the process since that time. Some of them we are happy with, and some I personally am not happy with.
But I am happy that we have taken off, because unless we take off we would not make mistakes, collect the experience and we can not move forward.
For instance, when we wrote up this project, we said that payment of premium by the insured should be on a flat rate. But what you now have is payment by salary. President Obasanjo said he would give 10 per cent of the Federal Civil Servants’ salary which will form the bulk of the premium. You can see that the 10 per cent will relate to each person’s salary but what we had previously recommended was a flat rate.
Let us look at our democracy six years after. What is your assessment?
There are the good and the bad sides of it. I think the worst thing that I am not happy about is that democracy has not taken as much root in our behaviour and understanding as I would like it. I think that is the greatest drawback.
In both the national and state assemblies and even at the polls we have not yet devised a truly democratic means of expressing our views. In fact my view is that we should go back to the traditional method of elections. That is what I call grassroots politics.
However, at least we have started. We are certainly better off than when the military was in local control.
Now the good side is that we are making some progress on the economic front particularly on privatisation. I believe that the best legacy that this government will leave for Nigeria is privatisation. They must privatise NEPA. They must privatise NITEL. They must privatise NNPC, the refineries etc. We must privatise all these areas of production because unless we do so, they must continue to be politicalized and we can not make any headway. Just consider what is happening in the communication industry.
So I think the biggest legacy that this government can give to us is to privatise Nigeria.
Do you think we are doing enough to stem corruption in this country?
I think the present campaign against corruption has to be sustained. It also has to be fought in every respect. In other words you must deal with A, B or C equally. This is necessary because corruption has permeated almost all the things in Nigeria. Of course complete eradication of the cankerworm can not happen overnight. But the important thing is to make a start and to be consistent.
Secondly we must also improve those who are supposed to be custodians of law enforcement. I am referring to the police. If they are corrupt there is no way you can wipe corruption out. This means we must improve them. We must therefore set a higher level of admission into the police service. It should be either HND or BA/B.Sc. We must pay much higher salary than we pay them now and it must be paid on time, because if a man is at a certain level and you pay him his salary, maybe if you give him N20.00 he will refuse it. You will have to give him up to N1,000 to get him to look at you and if you can’t afford N1,000 you won’t bother to try and bribe him. Finally we must appoint or promote the best people not on ethnic or political grounds. However like I said it takes time, but these things I have mentioned will set the stage to the improvement.
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