Ahamefula Ogbu writes that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State believes that he has laid solid foundation for enduring development
What accomplishments can you boast of as Governor of Abia?
It has been three and half years of hard work, painstaking planning, constant monitoring and evaluation of our assignments. What has made the job a little more interesting for us is that we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do and we also spent a lot of time developing and evolving strategies that will help us deliver on our mandate and some of these strategies are not classical pieces of information from the regular books of economics or development in other climes; we had to do some home grown strategies to suit our peculiar circumstances in Abia State.
We decided to look at how best we can deliver on our vision which is to create a better life for our people and to make Abia a destination for trade and commerce, as well as, an environment and ecosystem for small and medium scale enterprises. In order to achieve this, we looked at the pillars based on the things we think we had comparative and competitive advantage over other states. Prominent among them is trade and commerce because every Igbo man is acclaimed to be a good trader and in Abia we have a robust complement of very successful traders than even the Lebanese.
We also noticed that the World Bank had recently reported the presence of over 200,000 artisans doing all kinds of things with leather and garment. Naturally, it will be a misnomer for us to ignore the impact of those 200,000 people knowing that each and every one of them will employ at least four persons and about a million people or so doing one form of handicraft or the other cannot be ignored by any serious leader. Promotion of small and medium scale enterprises became our second pillar.
Abia is blessed with one of the most fertile soils in the world. A recent study by some Brazilians who wanted to do sugar cane farming here; took soil samples and went to Brazil and came back with that beautiful report. We knew of course that if you throw any fruit out of the window you will get that same plant, so everything can virtually grow and flourish in our state but we don’t have all the soil in the world. I think we are one of the smallest states in terms of land area, so we need to be careful about choice of crop and also diversifying our agriculture as it were and we are also desperate about value addition as well as bringing science and technology to bear in agriculture in Abia State.
So for the purpose of focus we decided to do oil palm, cassava, cocoa, rice and cashew because we just did not want to be jack of all trade, we wanted to see if we can be crop specific and then drive strong on them. Beyond this we have a little bit of oil in some local governments down south and we decided to also mainstream oil and gas as one of our pillars.
But beneath all of these, education became the fifth pillar because if you want to produce an agriculturist, you must educate them first. Education is relevant in SME promotion, incubation growth, agriculture, trade and commerce and all of that; so we had to see how best we can retune our education system to suit our purpose.
Strategically speaking, the enablers that will drive the five pillars became the main issue because these are the things you need to work on and the manifestation will begin to show on the pillars. There was the need for us to craft deliberate agendas on the enablers. You cannot talk about trade and commerce without good roads to move goods and services from one point to the other.
Beyond road, security, whatever you needed to do, you need to work hard on your security architecture and make sure that at least you provide the enabling environment for people to do business and you attract tourists, and industries into your space. Of course, health because if you attract a businessman and he is investing, you also imagine that he may get sick. There was the need for us to do something about our health sector.
Were your conclusions based on research or political rule of thumb?
We took all of these into cognisance and we did a deep research about who the Abians are, what Abia means to them, the relationship between one senatorial zone and the other, the agricultural belt of Abia, the oil belt of Abia, the trade and commerce hub of Abia and all of that.
Since Aba is a very strong centre of commerce, not only in Abia but the entire South-east and Nigeria, that is critical and strategic to the development of this country, it will be a misnomer also for us to abandon Aba. We opened up on roads in Aba.
Where did you meet Aba and where have you taken it now?
I recall vividly that there was no good road to Akwa Ibom from any part of Aba. People from Port Harcourt couldn’t come because the Enugu-Port Harcourt highway was and is still in a state of disrepair. For the Akwa Ibom channel, it was so bad, it got to a point where people from Ariaria had to take their wares to Akwa Ibom because we have also painstakingly characterised the clientele of our big market.
In Ariaria, 60 per cent of those who patronise them come from the Akwa Ibom, Cross River axis, they include people coming from Cameroon, people coming through Northern Cross River and from our neighbouring states and the rest 40 per cent come from Port Harcourt and the businesses we do within ourselves, Owerri, Enugu and all of that.
Geographically speaking, Abia State; Aba and Umuahia in particular seem to be at the confluence of the South-east and South-south states, 30 minutes away from major cities like Uyo and Port Harcourt, 45 minutes to Owerri, less than two and a half hours from Enugu. We seem to be at the centre of seven states and for us, we wanted to take strategic advantage of this geographical position. That is what gave us the idea that we have a business population of close to 30 million every day but for you to take full benefit of that, you must be able to create access to your commercial nerve centre.
We started with some roads from the Ogbor Hill flank while we began work from the Aba-Owerri flank to give people from Port Harcourt access. We also began construction on MCC which is an alternative in-road along the Owerri-Port Harcourt axis. Within the first 100 days, we were able to open Omini, MCC that we later christened Gino Nwafor, then we opened Ukegbu, Ire, Umuola which had been in a state of complete disrepair for over 10 years such that you cannot move from one end of the road to the other. The only channel through which you could enter Aba from that axis was the Umuoba road and we had Sevenup Bottling Company along that road so whenever there was a problem with their truck on the way it led to traffic logjam and complete shutdown of business in the city.
People in Ariaria were sitting, hands-on-their-cheeks for several weeks without patronage. They were forced to take their wares to Akwa Ibom, some will have to do two, three, four trips through the bush because each time they go, their clients in Akwa Ibom will say this is not the goods we want. I felt the pain of my people and decided to embark on all of these.
Getting into Aba again, the other problem is how you access Ariaria because for over 16 years, nobody had travelled from one end of Fox Road, Brass to the other end. The Ariaria axis, the Ife-obara pond inclusive belongs to the lowest areas in Aba they are the sump in Aba; Aba is the sump in Abia. The only place that is lower is the Ife-obara side and we knew we had to contend with three things at once; sanitation, storm water management and then the roads.
How did you solve the drainage problems for the roads to be durable?
In fact at a point people resigned to fate and said there was juju shrine around those areas. What we did was to do some proper planning to understand the terrain and began systematically and gradually to deal with the issues.
First, we dredged Waterside because we knew that it was going to be the major recipient of storm water or runoff. Two, we started a policy of ‘no drainage, no road’. All the roads we have done in Aba come with double arm drainage end-to-end and we follow up to see where the water will empty.
The third was that wherever water had sat for 20 years, we now decided to deploy cement pavement technology with full complement of drainage. This was our state-of-emergency strategy to recover Aba quickly. That is why I am proud to say, whereas I can hardly point at any road in Aba that is more than five years old, the ones we have done have lasted from the first 100 days till now and I have guarantee that they will outlive my tenure.
How do you build infrastructure stock? The only way to build infrastructure stock is to ensure that you deliver quality projects that will outlive your tenure so that your successor will inherit the roads you did and then build on them because if we all do roads that I consider disposable and by the time you are concluding and the next person comes, he is not going to inherit anything, so you cannot build on your stock on infrastructure that way.
There are so many roads connected to the Ife-obara problem, they include Port Harcourt road, Omuma, Osusu, Urata, Ngwa and Fox road. Strategically we chose Fox road because of its proximity to Ife-obara and because it leads into Ariaria quickly so because of these two advantages we had to prioritise the road but with a special treatment.
For us to deliver on Fox road, it took us seven months of painstaking plan. I sacked a contractor to that road when I saw he had no solution to our problem and he was completely clueless about what we needed to do, then we got Setraco and we also insisted that they should post a site engineer from Netherland who are the best in underwater management to come and give us a plan. Of course, we also had local consultants based in Enugu plus the input from the World Bank and we designed that road, which comes with it 6.5 kilometers of underground drainage with pumps pumping intermittently along the way to Waterside from Ife-obara. As we were dredging waterside we were also dredging Ife-obara to make sure that it is large enough to take water in its full capacity.
It is on this engineering master piece we have now laid our asphalt and that is why for the past three years that we started the road, Amaikonne and Ife-obara that used to be a problem is no longer a problem.
Having delivered on Fox road with that drainage, the next logical step was to kick in with Osusu road which tangents on Fox road because there is now drainage on Fox road and we have started construction on Fox and Osusu roads.
We have not done Omuma road but we are prepared to do it now. Those who may not understand the topography and the logic behind the Aba flood problem would not know that you cannot do Osusu road unless you have done the drainage on Fox road because the drainage that is coming from Omuma road will tangent on the drainage we have done.
We have started Port Harcourt road and our policy was to do massive drainage and that project we are doing it in collaboration with Africa Development Bank talking about storm water management, roads and sanitation because for areas that the road is bad, you cannot do waste management because you need 10 ton trucks to go and evacuate waste. By the time we started construction on the road, we excavated 15 year-old waste, over 450 trucks of garbage and on one occasion we discovered a transformer there and all of that is becoming history.
We have started the drainage of Port Harcourt road and it will run through Ngwa road to Waterside, so the next major artery that takes water to Waterside from Aba city now would be Fox road, Ngwa road and Port Harcourt together and as soon as we complete the drainage, Urata road will kick in because the drainage there will empty into Port Harcourt road drainage. The water that is coming from Cemetery market will flow through the drainage on Ngwa road.
I become very worried and sometimes laugh at the ignorance of those who ask me, ‘have you done Osusu road, Omuma road, Urata road?’ my answer to them is ‘no’. I have not done but I am ready to do now because I have done the drainage that will take water away from these places.
Those who tried to do them before now just went and asphalt and when the next rain comes both the asphalt and everything about it becomes history. When anybody says that, it gives me an impression that some people still want to go back to the dark ages of disposable roads in Aba. We have gone beyond that. For everything, we are doing now, we must do a deep study. You must be careful and painstaking. You must ensure that engineering wise, it will be sustainable and then the problem will be solved.
Can we get statistics of roads you started and completed?
We have about 169 roads and we have completed over 70 of them and these are solid roads that we are sure will stand the test of time. My opponent had in the recent past portrayed his lack of understanding of the problems of Abia because I heard him compare the jobs we are doing with what is being done in Ebonyi and Imo State and I told him our circumstance, soil texture, topography are different from the two.
Owerri road for instance is cement-based roads so when you see the black asphalt you will be tempted to say this is the regular thing. Beneath it is nine inches concrete with BRC and then the asphalt, so this is what we need to do. A lot of people do not have the commitment and patriotism to deliver such quality jobs to their people.
People know that I am not an election politician as exemplified by our flagship project, the Enyimba economic city which is not a project for somebody who is trying to do things to win election, that is a project for somebody who is futuristic because if I am unable to create the template for the creation of between 700,000 to 1 million jobs in Abia then I am not faithful to my children and those who would seek for jobs many years after I have left. What will say to them? That I just did roads and went away? I am saying we have little time to plant our feet in history and if we fail today it will be too late tomorrow. I don’t know what the rest of Nigeria is thinking, but we in Abia must industrialise between now and the next five years and it is achievable.
You mentioned industralisation, what infrastructure are you putting in place to achieve this?
Any person that is serious about development in any clime must have a strong base that you can trust. The question is, ‘what is in your hands? You cannot reinvent the wheel neither can you create anything. I inherited over 250,000 people doing all kinds of things with leather I needed to start from that as my origin but they had four major problems; power, automation and capacity building, market and finance.
I have no hand in power and finance, they are with the federal government. They deal with it; so I needed to leverage on what I could and that is marketing and that is why we decided to aggressively market Made-in-Aba goods. It achieved two things for me. I drew the attention of this country to what we are doing and the things we can do. It exposed our potentials and changed our narrative from a state of bad people to a state of creative people and because of this alone we have gone everywhere all over the world and the recent position is that they have gained the recognition of a multilateral institution like Afriexim bank, that could come to the market and pick my shoe makers and take them without my permission and arrange all these things, that makes them kings today. When you talk about a summit, a trade fair, it will not be complete without the input of people from Abia State. I am proud to say it is courtesy of our efforts.
We were able to attract the Vice President as Acting President to this state on two occasions and that dovetailed in the executive orders that says before you buy anything from outside Nigeria go and see if there is a place it is done here. What they are saying actually is that go and see if it is done in Aba because if you talk about local manufacturing and production of all kinds of things in Nigeria, you must mainstream Aba.
So when the military ordered 50,000 pairs of shoes, if one of them is N10, 000 that is N500million into the pockets of those shoe makers and don’t forget the order from Navy, NYSC and others. We were in the Gambia with shoe makers face-to-face with the Gambian President and we are thinking of producing shoes for the Gambian police and military. This is how far we have gone in three years.
Thirty of those boys have gone to China for capacity building courtesy of this government and they are now experts in the use of one machine or the other in shoe making. Automation has come.
At a point, the federal government could no longer ignore Aba. They came with the agency in charge of rural electrification and now gas powered electricity has come to Ariaria supplying 1,000 out of 34,000 shops, so power has come.
All the four problems that bedevilled us; finance, power, marketing and capacity building have all been solved through marketing. I am proud to say today that some universities have research on that paradigm on how to use marketing to achieve their goals in terms of industrialisation and they think the Abia State model is unique and it is working.
This has led us to a point where we are asking? What are we going to do between 2019 and 2023? That gave birth to the Enyimba Economic City and we are saying we have been marketing Made-in-Aba. The new marketing paradigm from 2019 is Make-in-Aba, come and produce it here. That is where we are going.
Why do you think some people doubt the authenticity of the Enyimba Economic City?
Selective amnesia and desperation and the third reason is worse; ignorance, if somebody is ignorant it is incurable because before I was rating a lot of people highly but a few things have happened in the past weeks to really exposed how peripheral their thinking is.
Education is the bedrock of whatever anybody does in these modern times; what have you done to bring Abia at par with your vision of both industrialisation and creating wealth?
Abia has come first in WAEC back-to-back for the past four years or so. When it happened the first time they said it was a mistake, the second time they said it was a coincidence but the fourth I think they have come to admit that there is something deliberate that is happening here. What is that?
When we came here we didn’t need anybody to tell us that there was problem with our teachers. We didn’t need anybody to tell us that a teacher cannot offer what he doesn’t have; so the product must be equivalent for the capacity of the teacher to deliver. Therefore we knew that the NTI programme of the federal government was trying to play catch up between the southern states and the gap in the northern states and then all kinds of teachers were churned out over night, whereas that could serve the purpose of the north, as it were, but it has diluted what we used to have here.
So we started by exposing our primary school teachers to a deliberate and painstaking retraining programme using Australian NGO to get what we wanted to achieve. We needed to enhance the self confidence of the average teachers because if he begins to interact with his contemporary from Australia and elsewhere in the world then something will tell him, ‘he is a teacher like me, I need to be proud’. That morale needs to be there for the teacher to deliver.
We needed to also to come up with a breed of teachers that are ICT compliant given the challenge of the 21st century if we needed our children to be competitive we needed to do something fundamental about the teachers. As I speak, over 3,000 teachers have gone through that programme and it has culminated into the establishment of Abia Teacher Training Continuing Education Centre at Umuahia. About 40 of our teachers are at the verge of going to Australia for an exchange programme, which the NGO is supporting also.
So building capacity for the teachers is not enough, you must also match it with infrastructures that are world class with requisite learning tools to make sure that a qualified teacher will find the ambiance of a good environment to teach; then the products will speak for themselves. And that is why this government has done 340 or more classroom blocks plus four model schools that we call our ideal schools.
Abia is the only state that has achieved 420% reversal of school enrolment from private schools back to public schools through our school feeding programme. We are also employing 5,350 teachers. The university we have at Uturu ran three years now without strike and that has moved its rating from number 90 in 2015 to the first 10 in Nigeria today.
There are a few things that we need to do that we have not done yet. Abia once again is the focal point in the entire South-east for World Bank collaboration for the redevelopment and retuning of technical schools, what it means is that we are going to begin to produce purpose-built students that jobs will be looking for because there is going to be a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Abia State, the private sector and the World Bank, to mount the kind of programmes in our schools where Julius Berger will be part of training people in skills for construction, Samsung will be part of training of students that are interested in electronics and at the end of the day there is no way the graduates of electronics from our technical schools will not be absorbed by Samsung, same thing for the construction works.
I think people should begin to see some deliberate and painstaking plan. We may not shout about it because that may not be necessary but we want people to see the result. They are so profound that they can no longer be ignored by anybody that is impartial.
There are publications portraying Abia as being in a state of decay, what is your response to those?
That is an example of somebody who just betrayed his ignorance, lack of understanding of what Abia is or what it looks like or where we are coming from. In 2015, everywhere was on the verge of being submerged. Abia, especially Aba is prone to flood disasters and we have had celebrated flood disaster issues in times past. The rain density in 2018 was so much that over seven states had to call NEMA to assist them but, Abia an ordinarily a flood area never experienced it, why?
Somebody took time and decided to start by desilting Waterside. The fact that we decided to dredge Aba River was what saved Aba from experiencing flood disaster. I have also told you about the major work we have at Ife-obara and the channel of 6.5kms, putting pumps in-between that will pump water, that is, only the preparation you require to go into some of the roads that they painted as being decayed.
So what they are saying is that assuming they have the opportunity, they don’t understand that you cannot do Osusu road without Fox road drainage, you cannot do Omuma road without Fox road drainage. Somebody in the past tried it but that person as at the time he was governor had no degree, so how can a PhD holder go back to that kind of mistake?
What we are doing is uncommon and unusual and I don’t expect peripheral thinkers to appreciate it but for every person that is serious my response to them is let them bring the pictures of Ife-obara, let them bring the end of Port Harcourt road that we are doing, let them tell people that project connects Ngwa and goes to Waterside and it is one project and let them go and see what we did on Fox road to give Osusu road that that is where their water will go and Omuma road too.
So we are prepared for those roads and all we are saying is that, ‘we cannot do everything at the same time’. In fact at the end of my tenure in 2023 I don’t think I would have done everything but I would have certainly solved all those problems that bedevilled them since 20 years.
How would that increase the ease of doing business in the first export free zone?
The results published by the federal Ministry of Trade rated Abia as one of the five states that made the greatest upward mobility in terms of ease of doing business. If you recall in the first 100 days we built and commissioned the Abia Investment House which is our one-stop shop and what that means is that whatever you have about whatever you want to do in Abia, there is a place you can walk into with your briefcase and come back with a solution. We are still working on it to ensure that it is achieved within seven days.
All our information is published on the Internet and we are doing very well in terms of collaboration with the development partners, the World Bank, Afrexim Bank, Africa Development Bank and I am sure that the days ahead would be better than these years we have spent.
What have you done in sports and why should Abians vote for you again?
In terms of soccer, Abia is the only state in Nigeria that has two premiership clubs; Enyimba and Abia Warriors. We have other lesser known clubs like Abia Angels. Enyimba is a brand and it is the only club in Nigeria that has won CAF cup back-to-back. When we came in, we discovered that we didn’t have a stadium that will match the pedigree and the popularity of Enyimba. The last time I watched a soccer match there before I became governor, it rained and they had to bring in mattress to soak water from the pitch, so we needed to do something about that. As big as, the stadium was then, it had no toilet. As at today we did a complete turnaround starting with the turf. We had to import the latest turf in the market, semi synthetic, 95% natural, 5% synthetic and that pitch is one of the biggest in the world today and we put 32 toilets including the one for people that are physically challenged.
W are going to run strong on two things; one is the Enyimba Economic City, which for us, holds the promise of creating a silent but welcome revolution around industrialisation process of not only Nigeria but Africa. Two things will happen on account of the economic city, the 700,000 to 1million jobs that will come, then the opportunity and the chance of our people learning first hand through apprenticeship, how to do light manufacturing. I trust the capacity and capability of our people to copy technology.
Isn’t non-payment of salaries a dent on your government?
It is just an orchestrated campaign of calumny. There is nothing to say apart from salary. And by December 24th every worker that we paid here went home with his salary but I must admit that I think the local government owes one and a half month salary. And I was the first elected governor after 2015 that did local government election and I am sure in the next one or two months, they will clear it and that would be it. I must also confess that I have a problem with secondary school teachers because I owe them about three months or so and the major problem is that we took much more than we can bite. Why should I pay a parastatal like Abia Line? Since they are not giving government money generated, I will not pay them.
What will I say to them? That I just did roads and went away? I am saying we have little time to plant our feet in history and if we fail today it will be too late tomorrow. I don’t know what the rest of Nigeria is thinking, but we in Abia must industrialise between now and the next five years and it is achievable.