Stephen Okeke, businessman, artist and entrepreneur, is seeking a new title – Mayor of Belize City.
But he’s never been one to think inside the box, and when he spoke with Amandala earlier this week about his candidacy, he was keen to insist that he is not interested in the ceremonial aspect of the post, nor the salary that comes with it.
As Okeke, 45, sees it, he would be more of a “city manager” – implementing his ideas to make the city more productive, beautiful, and inclusive.
Whichever view is taken, he believes that Belizeans are ready for a truly full-time mayor and councilors who are paid to manage the City – and nothing else.
“We should not have to pay part-time councilors a salary for full-time work; neither should we be thanking them for doing the jobs they are paid to do. Rather, we should demand that they do their jobs, because it is our money that pays them,” he told us.
“Enough is enough… something is wrong when a city of about 5 square miles, that has a revenue base of $17-$20 million, that is not all inhabited, cannot clean its streets, maintain its drains, or get anything else done… something is very wrong.”
After some “soul searching” and consultation with various unnamed “elders” and prominent individuals tied to the City, he said, he has made the decision to run – and, he says, he will not be alone.
In this weekend’s newspapers, he told us, he will advertise for ten other individuals who think, as he does, that it is time to form a broad, non-partisan coalition of independent-minded, experienced, intelligent individuals to take charge of Belize City and turn it around.
These individuals will receive “training in management and communications” and will act as overseers to the various departments of the council and liaison with city residents. This training begins as soon as the slate is assembled and continues if they make it to City Hall, he said.
According to Okeke, he is not going to the campaign blind to his own deficiencies, or to the established practices of Belizean politics. Already, his outspoken public appearances have earned him the ire of a major political party, and he has had to turn down the advances of two others, who responded coolly to his approaches to assist them in their campaigns.
He said he harbors no dreams of “going national,” and instead will do his best to articulate his plans and policies “forcefully.”
But he also acknowledges that the election is a choice, and if he and his team are not chosen, he says, he will not harbor any ill feelings.
Okeke believes that Belize City is best managed “like a business,” where all have a say in the city’s affairs and no one is treated differently.
On the issue of property taxes and other levies, he is blunt: “If you come to do business in our city, you must pay. We are prepared to negotiate, but you will pay, and then you will see your tax dollars at work.”
Those who currently hold contracts and jobs with the City need not fear on either count, but Okeke warns that they will insist on accountability and getting the job done right. A Belize City that can build its own industries, particularly manufacturing, and can create jobs for its residents, he told us, will not have to lean so much on central Government, though he says he is prepared to work with whoever is in power.
As for his qualifications, Okeke told us that he has years of experience, both in his native Nigeria and Belize, in running businesses and marketing ideas. For him, that is the key in choosing candidates – people who are versed with that sort of experience, but who prefer not to lend it to civil service because of fear of the nastier aspects of politics.
“If those who can do the job do not get involved, because they are afraid of politics, and those who cannot do the job are elected, then everybody will complain, and that will get us nowhere,” he warned, adding, “you cannot solve all your problems, with only half the solution.”
Okeke told us that he is well aware that the news of his running will not sit well with some quarters, and boldly stated that race may be a factor; as, on a local radio station last week a caller expressed the opinion that he, Okeke, should be “sent back where he came from on a boat.”
Detractors aside, Okeke is pushing forward with a vision of functional, planned development for Belize City and says he will run on his own platform, not capitalizing on the acknowledged problems of the incumbent UDP administration or the PUP’s internal warfare.