Mrs. Ibim Sementari made her name as a journalist. But currently, she is Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi’s Commissioner for Information. Recently, she talked about her life as a journalist, commissioner, her boss, 2015 and more to News of the People in Port Harcourt. Excerpts…
What actually prompted this idea of the Port Harcourt World Book Capital?
When Governor Amaechi became governor in 2007, of course, you know the whole story of the kind of militancy situation we were faced with here. The first thing he did was to check out what the state of education was. Well, he read English Language and Literature and he’s a very passionate person when it comes to literature and the arts. Because he believes that literature is a tool through which society can change. So, when he became governor, one of the first things he did was to start looking at all of the various sectors and at the Education Summit, they realized that everything was broken down and we needed to declare an emergency in education and he did. No infrastructure, children were not in school and even with no infrastructure, to even go to school, children had to pay an arm and a leg. So, children of the poor did not have access. Again, he keeps saying that he remembers his own background growing up. He tells the story of when his father had to go and borrow a hundred naira just to pay his fees and the challenges and that but for education, he would not have been lifted up out of poverty and changed the lives of even his siblings. So, he felt that it was necessary to give something that would be the only tool by which he could lift people out of poverty, which was education, and that was how our education revolution began. Now, alongside that, like I said, he always thought that literature is a tool through which you can change society, improve governance and affect the people. So, he wanted to start a bring back the book campaign to get Rivers State reading again and that was how in looking for a way, Mrs. Koko Kalango, Rainbow, had a bookshop and had been trying to do a book club. So, they got introduced to her; I don’t know how that happened. And she was also trying to do this reading thing. So, the governor now said he needed somebody who would help him execute that vision. That was how the Rivers State Government contracted Rainbow Book Club to become its technical partners in the Garden City Literary Festival, which is now christened the Port Harcourt Literary Festival. So, that’s how it started. This started in 2008, and this bid for the UNESCO World Book Capital began, I believe, in 2012, after and with all the work that this government had done in focusing on education, in focusing on young persons; like UNESCO said, Port Harcourt won this bid on the strength of the policy of its programmes. And we are proud that this focuses on young persons, which is really at the heart of Governor Amaechi’s commitment, because he keeps saying that he wants to touch present and future generations to be focused and change the mistakes.
This is a week-long affair? How successful has it been so far?
So far, it’s been very, very good and we’ve been very effective. I think that we’ve made significant success. I mean, just the fact that we were able to host the World Book Capital, for me, is a big deal. The entire literary world was here. Look at those children and their excitement. The children who were involved in the Working Book in the 23 local government areas, if you were here the day they presented the book, they talked about how it helped them know more of their culture. In fact, if you see them, they were children from public schools, rural communities, far flung and those children, no, it made a difference. Even just being part of the exhibition. Yesterday, I took some public school children round our stand. They learnt the history of their state; some things they never knew before, they came to understand. I know a lot of people who bought books. I bought some books here that I hadn’t seen since they were published. So, honestly, I was looking at the visitors yesterday and their excitement. A place to go to. That’s the way it just seems; like people were looking for where to go to and this became a fun thing. I think it’s changing the idea of when you want to take your children out, where do you take them to?
The journey so far as a commissioner, how would you describe it?
Very tedious. I have an exceptional boss. Very amazing. There are not many governors that give their commissioners the kind of leeway Governor Amaechi gives his commissioners and that’s the truth. They are not many! There are not many governors that are willing to listen to your opinion. I mean, you are his appointee. And yet he’s willing to listen to what you have to say. When we sit in cabinet meetings, we actually engage in debates with him and there are times when he’s been out-numbered by the views from our side and he’s actually conceded. That’s not usual. Ask among the governors. It’s not! If the governor has said it, he has said it. But in this case, he can say something and I will say His Excellency, sorry, I disagree with you and he will say okay, why? And he will actually allow a debate and an argument and if your argument is strong, you can sway him.
What do you like most about being a commissioner?
I would have said nothing, because it takes away a lot. But I don’t think that will be very correct, I don’t think that will be truthful. You know why? Because it gives you a chance to touch lives in a different way. I always say that if you choose to be a journalist, it’s because of two things one is that you either have a death wish or you have a Messianic tendency. Otherwise there’s really no reason to be a journalist, because there’s no money, they don’t like you, it is stressful, your hours are impossible. So, it is either because you have a death wish or you have a Messianic tendency; you want to change the world. If not, there’s no reason to be a journalist. Being a commissioner allows you to change the world from a different perspective, in a different way and from the bottom up. It really allows you influence your tiny corner a little differently from how you do it as a journalist and it enables you to be more hands-on. So, that is what I like.
What don’t you like about being a commissioner?
Everything! Everything else! You don’t have your time; you don’t have your privacy, people think you are a thief and you have plenty money, when you don’t. It doesn’t matter what you say, they think you are telling a lie and you know, sometimes you have to just shut your ears and eyes to everybody else and just look inside you and the minute you are certain that you have not offended God or your conscience, just do what you have to do.
How do you categorise yourself now? Are you a politician or a journalist?
I’m a journalist o! I can’t stop being a journalist. I’m a journalist and I tell you the truth, it’s perhaps the proudest thing; it’s the thing that gives me the most pride in my life. The fact that I’m a journalist is the thing that gives me the greatest pride in my life. I can’t think of anything else that will give me the same sense of pride or feeling of accomplishment.
As a journalist who is now in government, any time you come across a good story, what do you do? Do you write the story or become a source or forget it completely?
I tell you; no, I’m not going to tell you that (General laughter). But I tell you something, my hands are always itching to write, which is why I maintain a column now. In fact, I maintain two columns I still maintain a column (Open for Business). It’s not the kind of things I normally would write. If you’ve read my columns, you will know that they are very critical of the establishment, but I cannot afford to do that now because if I write that way, it would be misconstrued to be the position of the Government of Rivers State and that I can’t afford to do. So, my hands are tied. I can only write promotional columns, promoting Rivers State. And sometimes I don’t want to do that. However, I also try to write another column in the weekly newsletter of the Ministry of Information (The Word on the Streets). It’s a little more analytical, but it has a bit of flavor of typical journalistic writing where you can look at all the sides. But again, there are things that remain hot potatoes that I cannot touch for the simple reason that it will be misconstrued to be the position of my boss or the Government of Rivers State. And when you have very strong opinions like mine and you are not able to write, it’s stifling. But when I see a good story, I’m saying can’t you see the story, can’t you see the story? I’m almost going crazy. Or I pick up copies of the state newspaper or I’m watching TV and I’m calling the GM; I say what kind of headline is this? What is this person doing on my set? You know, the truth is that you never really stop being an editor. I even read stories that are not from state-owned media, from other people, and I call them and say what kind of rubbish story did you write? I remember once, I was sitting at an interview and a group of people were interviewing my boss. At a point, I just took the mic, then I asked one question. He turned and looked at me: Is it your interview? (Laughs)
What didn’t you know about government and governance when you were outside that you just found out now that you are inside?
My brother, leave that one for my memoirs. You know why? Because if I even start, if I even just start, hmmm! Like they say, some of it will be abuse of privilege. So, I will have to wait for many years or so to say it.
Some people see you as a dogged fighter, is this job not at conflict with your background?
No, no, no! if you’ve followed my career, I’ve always fought. I mean, my journalism career hadn’t exactly been one of not being a fighter. Like I say to people, we fought for this democracy, we are not gonna let anybody take it away from us. And that really is my position. So, when I fight, contrary to people’s opinion, that I fight for Governor Amaechi, I’m not fighting for any human being, I’m fighting for democracy because I fought for this thing; I was almost killed for this thing. The people who by the grace of God are benefiting did not suffer as much as I suffered. I was running in and out. My kids were running in and out. I was passing through all kinds of routes to go in and out of this country. When I won the CNN Africa Journalist of the Year, I literally had to be smuggled back into Nigeria, because people were waiting to carry my head. So, I cannot having gone through that; when I broke the story on Dr. Death, when I was in TELL, I was almost taken at Abeokuta (Ogun State) and I managed to escape. Now, after I had gone through all of that, somebody will come and mess it up. No way! I’m not ready to allow that happen. So, when people say I fight; I fight because my blood and sweat went into this thing and I’m not about to let it go away.
2015 is around the corner and we know so many journalists who tasted power and failed to return to news room. In your own case, what would be the situation?
As at today that I’m sitting down here, my plan is to go back to my desk. As at today that I’m sitting down here, I know I am not running for anything…
What if another governor comes and wants you to continue?
It will depend on several things. No. 1, it will depend on who is giving the appointment. When I came to work for Governor Amaechi, I didn’t look for it. The day I came to see Governor Amaechi, I came with my recorder. The picture is still there. I came with my recorder, a copy of Business Eye and a proposal to do a performance journal for the Government of Rivers State. I didn’t come to look for work. When this came, I said please let me think about this one, because I was just starting my business, it was just 3 years old, I had a 9-year-old son to worry about, I had never lived away from my husband. So, I had to really think it through. But when you sit with Governor Amaechi at an interview, the passion that he exudes is infectious and I looked at this man who is definitely set on doing something different in this state, I saw the passion, I saw the zeal, I saw a roadmap that was headed somewhere and I saw a man that loved the people and that was why I said this is the man to work with. I cannot work for anybody who doesn’t think of the people as central to democracy. I won’t work with somebody who is very consumed by power and the lure of office. Our principles will not align and therefore I will be in the wrong place. I won’t work for somebody who cannot take criticisms, because I don’t know how to pretend that it’s okay if it’s not. And there are not too many of those people in this world. So, it just tells you that I’ve already taken myself out of the market.
You said you looked at the governor’s road map before you took up the job, how far has the road map been achieved?
We’ve done fairly well. Could we have done better? Yes! Much better. We could have. But we’ve done well. It would be terribly unjust to suggest that we’ve not moved very well. I mean, when you even look at the changes in Port Harcourt, you will agree that Governor Amaechi has done well. What are the reasons why I said we could’ve done better? If we had the funds as we expected. You know there were several times that we suffered loss of revenue. Several times! When they took our oil wells, we suffered. Now, again, with the dwindling allocation, we suffer. So, if all the monies came as planned, by now most of the projects would have been completed. But that’s not where we are. However, for me, if you planned to build 750 schools and you have completed 500, that’s fair. That’s fair! And you may even still do some more. If you planned to do 160 primary health care centres and 100 to 120 are in use, that’s fair. If you planned to do about 1800 kilometres of road and you’ve done over a thousand, that’s fair. So, really, in terms of actual numbers, if you are looking at percentages, being extremely conservative, you would say that we’ve done at least 60 to 70 percent and we are not done yet. We still have a year, and I think we will complete a lot more things in this our last year. So, I would be able to look back at this tenure and say we did fairly well.
What would you describe as the greatest thing that has happened to you since you became a commissioner?
Somebody said once I was blind, now I see (General laughter). And I say that very seriously because you are opening your mouth and you are saying whaaooh! But here is the thing when I sit at my desk, I know what’s going on.
You are very, very busy. What do you do for relaxation?
Nothing! Nothing!! I do nothing and it is this journalism job. This journalism is a very bad thing. It doesn’t teach you to relax. All my life, I’ve never known how to relax. I finish production, as I get to my house, I start cooking what my husband and kids will eat. On production days, when we used to still do cut and paste, before I go on production…In fact, I will tell you, even when I was having my kids, because I do exclusive breast feeding. I would express, they would keep for them, go to the office, production night, I will come back if I’m on duty, cook what my husband will eat, carry the children back to the office, they will sleep in the photo lab while I’m working. When I finish sometimes around 3am, that’s when me and the children will go back to the house.
Finally, what guarantee do we have that there’s going to be a smooth transition in Rivers State next year?
We have the guarantee of God that there would be a smooth transition, we have the guarantee that God is not a God of confusion and God is not a God that wants to see destruction. So, regardless of the intentions and machinations of men, we are praying. This government came by the grace of God, the next one would also come by the grace of God. It won’t come by the power and might of man. So, all the people who have chariots and horses, that’s good for them. We congratulate them. We; we don’t have chariots, we don’t have horses, but we have the name of the Lord, our God.