Aba is the heartbeat of Abia State; so that what affects impacts on all parts of the state. From infrastructure deficit to decline in production capacity. Governor Okezie Ikpeazu has had a lot to do restoring the lost glory of God’s own state. Chronicling the efforts, Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. John Okiyi Kalu, speaks with Charles Ajunwa and Solomon Elusoji, about the drive to improve local production, why the state government sent 30 shoemakers to China to learn automated shoemaking processes, the state’s education policy, the Paris Club refund, among other issues
Why did Abia State Government send 30 shoemakers to China?
It’s all part of the government’s social investment initiative. It is also connected to our promotion of Made-in-Aba which, as you know, is one of the flagship programmes of this government. The idea behind it was to look inward, see how we could support small-scale enterprises in Aba. It’s a way of spreading prosperity, a way of curtailing joblessness and associated insecurity. Most importantly, it was designed to contribute to the industrialisation agenda of the Ikpeazu administration. The Governor anchored his development paradigm on five pillars: education, agriculture, industrialisation, commerce, oil, and gas.
Aba people, historically, are makers. What happened in the past was that they made and credited others. That’s why you see products from Aba being credited to China, Italy, and Sweden. So what the government has done is to identify with them, their craftsmanship, give them the courage to own up to their production, support them to improve what they are producing and also help them to have access to markets locally and globally.
Those 30 are the first set to go to China; we expect about 100 of them to go. They will learn about automated shoemaking. Nobody has any doubt that our people are the best in shoemaking in Nigeria, but we need to move it from the craft level to the industrial production level. To do that, because there is an existing gap in the demand and supply of shoes, we need to automate their processes. So we thought that the best way to do it was to send out young people among the shoemakers and let them learn from the Chinese, who already have global shoe brands. So the trip will enable them to be able to operate equipment that allows for the mass production of shoes. They will then serve as trainers for others when they come back and, ultimately, we will support them to acquire the necessary machines and equipment.
Previously, we’ve done something similar with tailors in Aba. We took them to Turkey to spend some time to learn new techniques for cutting, sewing and a lot of them have acquired machines and are doing well. We also have a big fabrication hub in Aba, along Port Harcourt Road. What we will also do to support them is to modernise their processes and systems and make sure that they stand strong as Nigeria’s number one fabrication hub. And part of that support is the reconstruction of Port Harcourt Road, which was abandoned by the federal government for more than 20 years. Before now, people knew that if you wanted to fabricate any machine, build a fuel tank or a trailer carrying a tank, you would go to Port Harcourt Road and get it done. But because there is no road, how do you get it from there? So, today, the government of Dr. Ikpeazu is constructing a six-lane road, complete with BRT lanes on both sides, so that those fabricators can work and be evacuated easily.
The thinking of the government is very simple. If you are going to construct a road, make sure it is an economic one; not a road that leads to the house of your political friends. An economic road is one that leads to markets, places of business and farms. This is all part of our integrated economic plan for Abia and we are unfolding them at a fast pace.
Can you put a figure on the demand for shoes across the world?
The demand is about two billion pairs a day. The Chinese themselves know that they have not been able to satisfy 20 per cent of the market requirement.
What sort of infrastructure are you putting in place in Aba?
The government of Ikpeazu partnered Rural Electrification Agency of the federal government and today we are providing uninterrupted power to 10,000 shops at Ariaria International Market, including the area where you have the shoemaking cluster. Beyond that, we have done a lot to support Geometric Power System to come on stream so that they can supply power to the manufacturing hub in Aba. Because of what we are doing, other power providers, including those involved in bio-power generation are coming to Aba now to try to support what is anticipated as the biggest industrial explosion in Africa being pioneered by this government.
Secondly, before now, Faulks Road that leads to Ariaria is unpassable. You might have heard about Ukwu Mango area too; not many realise that since 1982, we have had a challenge around that Ukwu Mango that defied all attempts to reconstruct Faulks Road in a sustainable manner. At a certain stage, our people started talking about Mammy Water living around there. All previous governments tried to construct the road, but within six months it would collapse because they did not solve the problem from the roots.
Governor Ikpeazu had to hire consultants from Netherlands – they are the best when it comes to water management – to look at that area. Beyond just constructing Faulks Road, what we are also doing is to construct the internal roads and other roads that lead to the market.
Today, there are three grade-A contractors working concurrently on Abia roads; since the days of Sam Mbakwe, it has never happened. Last Christmas, traders at Ariaria reported that they had more sales than they have had in the past three to four years. The reason is that there is access to the market, security is good and people know that, beyond the propaganda, Abia is still among the top three safest states in Nigeria.
Tell us more about the ingenuity of the Abia State Government.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Abia State is the second safest in Nigeria as of 2016, based on the number of reported crimes. So, because we are doing some of these little things that we don’t talk about in the media, our people have regained their confidence, our small-scale entrepreneurs are now raring to go. We have given them the tools to compete globally.
The materials we used to conduct local government elections in Abia State were all Made-in-Aba, including the ballot boxes. We have 50,000 boots which we have manufactured for the military. The government does not have a shoe or leatherwork factory. When we receive such order, we pass them on to our people. We have orders for about 40,000 pair of shoes for the IDP camps. We are supplying various institutions of government. And, because of what Governor Ikpeazu is doing, recently, the President signed an Executive Order directing that before any agency of government procures anything, that agency must go to Aba to check if there is an alternative available. So, since these orders are coming in droves, it is one of the reasons we decided to send some of our people abroad to learn automation.
Critics of Governor Ikpeazu argued that the road is taking too long to complete. What is the real situation?
We have listened to some of the governor’s critics say it is taking him long to fix an eight-kilometre road, Aba Road, in Umuahia. But Aba Road has been failing perennially because no one cared to fix the problem from the root. But Governor Ikpeazu asked the Dutch consultants to look at it and they discovered that there is a water route below the soil. So what we did was to create tunnels below the ground to take that water away, elevate the road at one end and lowered it at another end so that the water can have a route.
That is another application of knowledge in road construction. Also, because of the nature of the soil at Aba, Governor Ikpeazu introduced rigid pavement technology. What you popularly called cement technology in road construction. These roads – like Owerri Road off Okigwe and others – will last a minimum of 30 years even with maximum use and impact because they are built to be stronger than airport tarmacs. We are doing this because we realise that it is important to do projects that will survive this administration, so that the next one can focus on other things.
How popular is the governor in the state considering his administration’s efforts to change the narrative of governance in Abia?
About a week ago, the governor paid a visit to Ariaria and the people came out to hail him. If you understand the history of Aba, it is difficult for them to accept any governor. But the Governor Ikpeazu can enter Aba freely because they are seeing what he is doing and they love it. They are only asking for more and the governor is prepared to do much more, although you know that the limitation is funding. Despite the economic situation that triggered the decline of revenue inflow into the state, Ikpeazu has been able to manage what we have. For example, he has delivered more than 38 roads. This means that since he was sworn in, he has delivered at least one road every month. And the governor is on 94 other projects in Abia State. It is not just happening in Aba. We are at World Bank, we are constructing rural roads. We arrested a gully erosion that threatened to carry the house of the husband of the former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; today, you will wonder at what we have done there.
For the first time in history, we are at Nkpa Road. We are the first government to intervene in that road. Today, Arochukwu people can now travel home in one and half hours There is an old saying in Igboland that there is no road that leads to Arochukwu that is short, but Governor Ikpeazu is working on the road. Aba/Ikot-Ekpene Road is a very important road to our people; it leads to Akwa Ibom, Cross River and businessmen coming from Cameroon. That road has been bad for so many years. The immediate past administration of Ochendo cried and appealed to the federal government to construct that road. About a year ago, the federal government said they had commissioned a contractor; we went there, saw what the contractor was doing and realised that literally, nothing was happening there.
Is the Ikpeazu administration taking over the construction of the road?
Upon seeing the work of the contractor, Governor Ikpeazu immediately decided to construct two roads literally cutting through the forest to bypass the Ikot-Ekpene Road that the federal government is not doing enough on.
Today, Nkporo people, in Ohafia Local Government are seeing what they have never seen before in terms of road construction. There is a project that the governor has embarked on – every local government is getting 10km of a road, in addition to ongoing projects.
For instance, the government is constructing a ring-road at Abiriba linking the three wards there. The phase one of that project is completed. We are also at Ohafia, which is the third unofficial urban city in Abia. We are doing a ring-road to help movements within the town. This year, at least 80 rural access roads will be delivered through an arrangement we have with New Map and the World Bank. We are tackling erosion. Abia is a massive construction site and that is why people call the governor, the Caterpillar Revolutionary.
What is the administration doing in the education sector?
Abia State Government launched the Education for Employment scheme immediately Ikpeazu came on board. What that scheme is doing is give appropriate skills that can help people function in the industrial world, whether you are a graduate or not. For instance, you need IT skills. So what we did with the scheme is mapping out the number of people in the state that are unemployed and will require some form of skills to make them employable. We graduated the first set of over 500 of them, and they received the National Board of Technical Education certificate in a very colourful ceremony at the International Conference Centre, Umuahia.
We are also involved in ICT. Abia State E-library is engaged in free training. Today, the governor directed that every primary school child, by age six, must be able to use a computer. If you go round, you will see that IT skills are not lacking in Abia State. For three consecutive years, Abia has come first in WAEC. We are doing well in JAMB and international examinations. Three of the students that studied in our school system – two of them in our public schools – went to the United States and graduated as valedictorians; they were fitted by Michelle Obama herself; that means something is working within our school system. This is because the educational gains of the Ochendo administration are now being improved on.
Today, we are constructing four model schools. Our idea of a model school is one that has nursery, primary and secondary education in one location, has residential quarters for teachers, sporting facilities, ICT lab, standard library and accommodation for students. We think that students should live in school and within a fenced environment.
Then, we want to use these schools as models for private schools. If you want to own a private school in Abia, this is what it should look like. And we are reconstructing about 132 schools currently in Abia. If you go around our state, you will see that there is work going on in most of our primary and secondary schools. So we are touching education because it is not just a pillar for this administration. It is also an enabler. Educated people will be able to compete and we believe that because Abia is the number one education state. We must make sure that our people look beyond the Nigerian environment and be of the standard that can compete globally.
The state government received a lot of bashing recently over the use of the Paris Club refunds …(cuts in)
It appears to me that in Abia we have an opposition that is malicious; that is not concerned with the development of Abia but with their coming back to power, with the acquisition of power for personal aggrandisement. Otherwise, everybody knows that no other state government has managed its Paris Club refunds the way Governor Ikpeazu has done both in terms of transparency and application of the funds.
When we received the first refund, the governor assembled a labour and trade union-dominated community and said, ‘This is how much we have: take 70 per cent of it and pay outstanding salaries.’ The remaining 30 per cent was devoted to infrastructural projects, including the construction of the first-ever flyover in Abia State. When we received the second tranche of N5.7 billion, the government handed the money to labour unions and told them to pay outstanding salaries. I make bold to say that no other state government in Nigeria handed over 100 per cent to labour. We did not touch one kobo; we even added about N50 million.
Now, we have received the third tranche, another N5.7 billion, and the governor said ‘take 60 per cent of it and still use it for outstanding salaries and allow me to invest the remaining 40 per cent in infrastructural development.’ Labour agreed. We are transparent about the disbursement. Transparency in a democracy is not an option; it is a necessity. That is why, while politicians are making a noise, you won’t see labour unions in Abia going on strike. The workers know what we are getting and how we are distributing the money. All the MDAs have been paid. We do not owing any MDAs. In this country called Nigeria, Abia is among the top six states that do not owe salaries.