Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, in this interview addresses issues revolving around governance and development. He is of the opinion that leaders in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa often fail to succeed because they alienate the people they are elected to govern. He spoke to Tobi Soniyi. Excerpts:
What are your achievements in the past three years?
My greatest achievement in the past three years is what I will regard as being able to mobilise my people socially. They understand my vision and they have keyed into that vision and they see what I see. This is important to me because the tragedy of leadership in Africa is that more often than not, we fail to carry the people along. And it gets to a point where it looks like the high-speed train is moving at a high speed but the coaches are not part of it. So, you arrive at your destination but you haven’t arrived with either the passengers or the goods. And then, it makes it difficult to lead the people if they are not mobilised. But the only way you can mobilise the people socially, going forward, is to be able to be a man of your words. Your vision must be clear and then you must be able to keep to your words, then you must speak to the quality of infrastructure you are delivering, so, they can say that if this man is willing to eat from the same pot with us, then, he is not likely to poison us. Today, there seems to be some disconnect here and there. People destroy infrastructure and you end up looking back to see that whatever you delivered to the people had been vandalised within one month. What it means is that there is a rejection of that infrastructure as in this is not good enough.
In 2015, we were clear-minded about the direction we were going to take. We defined what we wanted to do to create a better life for Abia people, leveraging on those things we can do better than other people. And then, looking at the vision, we were able to craft our five pillars of development. We can’t do everything at the same time but we must focus on the things that are tangible, attributes that can give us a comparative and competitive advantage over other states especially when we were not going to have the kind of money we required. We were able to have some logical basis for prioritisation. So, the five pillars were agriculture, because Abia has the most fertile soil in the world and I prove it by asking people to just enjoy your mango fruit and throw it through your window and you get a mango tree; if you throw pawpaw, you get a pawpaw tree, orange the same thing. So, agriculture for us is one of the pillars.
The other one is the Small and Medium Enterprise; Small and Medium Manufacturing. Today, Abia exports about two million pairs of shoes to the rest of African countries and you cannot ignore that. We do the best shoes, bags, belt and everything that is leather-based and we are also very strong in garments. So, the World Bank recorded 250,000 people doing this. And when we did a deep study, we found that each of the 250,000 people the World Bank recorded had four people in their employ. So, simply, about a million people are involved in one kind of manufacturing or the other. As I speak today, I am proud to invite you to the Presidential Villa on Thursday where we are expected to receive an award as SME Governor in Nigeria. Beyond SME is oil and gas because we have oil deposits in one or two of our local governments in the southern part of Abia.
Education, for us, is also key – a pillar and we regard education not only as a pillar but also as an enabler. So, the things you look at are those things that facilitate or enable the pillars to stand and become economic relevance to the people. So, our enablers are roads infrastructure, security and all of that and if you come to roads, we are active on about 150 to 160 roads but we have delivered over 80 roads completed and all the roads we have delivered, even the ones we commissioned within the first 100 days are still standing without one pothole. I stand to be challenged. From Aba which is at the heart of Abia South to Arochukwu in Abia North, what it means is that today, we are beginning to do a few things differently from how it was done before. We run a research and data-based government. We must do an analysis of the soil. The treatment we deployed in Aba for road construction is different from the one we deploy in other parts of Abia and that’s why we started the cement pavement technology in Aba, which comes on a road that has had water sitting on them for between five and seven years.
Some were abandoned for ten years, so, if you come and want to recover that road, the best thing to do is to do cement pavements technology. We have done a couple of roads in Aba. We pioneered it using cement pavement technology. But the roads we were set to do and most of which we have done today are around Aba and some people, those who are not deep enough in terms of developmental strategy or not deep enough in terms of the philosophy of the government find it difficult to understand that Aba is at the confluence of South-east and South-south. You can’t ignore Aba. It is 30 minutes from Ekott Ekpene and Port Harcourt to Aba and about 45 minutes from Owerri and there is a catchment business population of about 25 million people coming to do things from Delta, Bayelsa, from everywhere – coming to do business in Aba with 15 markets and one of those markets has about 100,000 shops. So, the economy of my state, if I want to speak in terms of internal revenue, is Aba. So, if I get Aba right, I probably would be able to generate enough revenue to develop other parts of the state.
Again, the roads we have been doing in Aba are short roads, streets and all that. But the roads in Abia north are long roads. You can do 25km, 11km of roads and all of that. But we have concentrated on Aba because we think that if we unlock Aba, it will have a multiplier effect and it had worked. So, if you come to Aba, we targeted roads that lead to specific economic hubs. For instance, Ariaria International Market. Why should I be talking about trade and commerce which is the last pillars? Why should I be talking about the development of trade and commerce or small and medium scale enterprises without alluding to the roads that lead to Ariaria? If I am unable to unlock Ariaria, then, I am not serious about trade and commerce, because the essence is to oil the wheel that moves personnel and goods from one location to another. Nothing drives somebody away from a marketplace as much as traffic jams. So, we decided to create access and that is what brought us to Faulks road. Faulks road was one of the worse streets in Aba, you couldn’t access the Port Harcourt-Enugu expressway from the beginning, which is Brass Street, but today, in Ama Ikonne axis they said there were a huge mermaid and another mermaid around Ukwu Mango axis; all the mermaids along that road are a thing of the past now courtesy of Setraco. But what people are enjoying today is that every part of Aba is about 15 minutes to Ariaria but the rigour and thought and planning deployed into that road is something else. So, a lot of people were saying you took two years, three years to deliver that road, it took too much time and we would have delivered it like this and I said yes, you were delivering like this before and it was failing like this. So, today we had to start by planning and we did a six and a half kilometre tunnel to the waterside and installed three pumps, pumping water intermittently from a collection point we call Ifeobara and that is why the road will not fail in the next 10 to 20 years.
Do you intend to seek a second term in office?
I will take that decision in two weeks’ time.
This question is coming because your major opponent in 2015, Dr. Alex Otti, has already declared his intention to contest the governorship election and his posters are everywhere.
I will tell you then but for us in Abia, we don’t think Alex is a formidable opponent, because contemporary politics today is about your track records and what you have done. We have things that we will show people that we have done and we would challenge anybody coming to show us what he has also done. Otti is not an opponent to worry about.
What exactly is Enyimba Economic City?
Enyimba economic city is an alternative city located between Aba and Port Harcourt. It will take a piece of some chunks of lands from three local governments. This city is borne out a need to recreate Dubai and that is the concept I am working towards and we are designing it to work for the best in the world. The idea is to create an efficient technology-driven digital city for light and heavy manufacturing and we have done all the surveys and we found out that it is the choicest and the best economic city today in Africa. There is none like it because it is 30 minutes away from two seaports. One is in Abonima and the other one is in Onne. It has a rail line straight from there to Kano. Again, it has gas for energy, because that is where we have our gas belt but most importantly, it is beside the highly skilled and energetic Aba manpower. So the energy and the skilled manpower that will drive whatever activity in that city are available.
Already, in 2018, the federal government committed N10billion. That is a far cry from what we require for infrastructure. We have an anchor company coming in from China. That is coming with $20billion. They are prepared to underwrite the one hundred and twenty something million naira, which Geometrics requires to provide electricity in which case Aba will become the first city to enjoy uninterrupted power supply in Nigeria and that will come before the end of this year. That is our vision and that is our prayer. A lot of people worry that I have been to China more times than many people have been around there in their lifetime. It is because they don’t understand. The future of Abia is the Enyimba economic city. We are targeting employment for about 70,000 youths. And we are targeting, first of all, a garment factory that will occupy 200 hectares of land, which will put a stop to our people frequenting China for the raw materials they use for their garment business. So, we have it all planned out and it doesn’t take one trip to achieve that. But I am proud to say that the MoU has been signed between Enyimba economic city and some core investors such that one investor is bringing in $20 billion.
How were you able to execute these projects despite the economic down turn? Did you borrow?
I will tell you the truth. In Nigeria, today, whether you qualify to borrow or not, it is a function of an index DMO will calculate to determine your ability to pay. If you are heavily and seriously geared, you won’t be given because you can’t even borrow without DMO. We have a subnational government but our tail is tied to the centre in the ministry of finance. Yes, I had reasons to borrow a few times which no borrower will give you money beyond your tenure. So it gives me the opportunity to challenge my IGR. For instance, if my IGR is N800 million and I owe a bank 800 million and I need to pay N800 million every month to liquidate what I borrowed. If I borrowed N8 billion and I need 10 months to pay up what I owe which means N800 million every month, it means I will go and tax my IGR people to move it to N1 billion so that government recurrent expenditure can run also. So, it helps me keep my eyes on the target and that is the only way I can come up with a huge chunk of money to deploy to solid infrastructure. I cannot borrow to pay salary but I can borrow to do infrastructure and I will borrow and pay back within my tenure.
Most states are weighed down by salary issue. How have you been able to navigate this terrain?
Yes, it hasn’t been easy anyway, because I inherited issues around pension. It’s been there but I’m lucky that we were able to deploy the various inflows from Paris refund and so on. We do not owe any ministry today. We are back with the pension for some few months and some parastatals. The problem with parastatals is that the policy of this administration if you are a revenue-yielding parastatal, you should be able to pay. Why should I give subvention to Abia Line whereas Izuchukwu and ABC transports operate without subvention? So, if you are the general manager of Abia line, for crying out loud, you should be able to pay. In fact, you should be able to bring in revenue but they are not bringing and they are expecting the government to pay and we said there is no time for free lunch anymore and this policy is yielding results in our university. Abia State University has run for three years and no strike. It is the fourth on the scale of employment and it has moved from number 90 to number 30 and up to speed in salary. This is what we preach. If you are a higher institution and you teach people economics and business management, you should be able to teach by example.
I don’t subscribe to parastatals sitting back and then you spoon-feed them. That era is gone. Today, we are retooling our internal revenue board and we are going to recruit first class, 2.1 graduates to run that place like a business. And you will be paid like a private sector person but you must be able to deliver and not to come to work by 8 a.m. and go under the tree to enjoy your snuff by 9 till you go back that day. No. We must run an efficient government and that is my thinking.
But there is an outcry in Abia State Polytechnic. The members of staff have not been paid for some time now. How are you addressing that issue?
I will tell you what happened. When I came in, I gave Abia State Polytechnic N2 billion, which is one year salary and I was just three months old when I gave the N2 billion, because they owed a bank N2 billion and the bank was taking N70 million every month and how will they get N70 million every month when students don’t pay school fees every month? So, I saw that they were running into trouble and I paid that N2 billion. And I said to them that I’m going to give you between two and three months subvention of N140 million each for crying out loud, you should stand up on your feet because from the projection of students, they have indicated that they collect N2.1 billion or thereabouts every year and their salaries are in the region of N1.8 billion. So, they should have clear N200 million to play with as overhead. So, why should they owe and yet they teach accounting, economics? So, when we did a little forensic audit, we discovered that they had about 42 different accounts. So, I cannot fund fraud. I do not believe in political expediency, I do what is right. If I see something that is fraudulent, if I want to improve it, my hand won’t even allow me to do so.
You have defections here and there, the recent siege on the Senate president and deputy senate president’s residences. Then, the impeachment moves in Benue State that involved eight out of 22 lawmakers. Could you say democracy is under threat?
I will say two things. The greatest achievement of democrats from all shades and colour, talk about Ndubuisi Kanu of NADEC, Tinubu who went to exile at some point, Eziuche Ubani, the late Chima Ubani, a civil rights activist, talk about Femi Falana and Mike Ozekhome and narrow it down to even the late Olusola Saraki and the son that is now the Senate president, Lateef Jakande, Gani Fawehinmi, the totality of all their efforts and the icing on the cake was the platform called the PDP. PDP failed in many respects. One is that they became arrogant and complacent. Two, they took Nigerians for granted but they did something remarkable, which was to build and deepen democracy. They had the patience to allow the democratic process take its course, process and procedure to run. For you to be a democrat, it requires a lot of patience, because a lot of things that will require you wielding the big hammer and you ask yourself what platform you’re playing on. This is a democracy. There is no quick fix. If it doesn’t come out the way you want it, then you might say, it is the will of the people.
Nobody happens upon any place without the will of the people and then it culminated in the 2015 election, where a sitting president lost the election and he handed over. That was the best moment for Nigeria. So, we should all hold that sacrosanct and build on it. So, for every democrat, wherever you find yourself, it doesn’t matter the platform or the colour of your flag, if you see things that will undermine that spirit, it then means you have to be cautious.
With all that is happening, do you think the opposition is set to reclaim power in 2019?
I have not done that assessment. But if I want to do the assessment I will do it in piecemeal – state by state, zone by zone, issues by issues. Sincerely speaking, I don’t wallow in self-patronage because I want to believe that the kind of democracy that I like a lot is a kind that is performance-driven. If you like, be an independent candidate but let it be that you have something to show the people. This is my past. This is my pedigree. These are my footprints and it is the same footprints that I bring to bear. If you’re running for a political office and you don’t have a good past, I expect you to have the courage to say I have made mistakes in the past but now I want to correct myself and do better. That is the minimum standard. So, the level of preparedness of the PDP as an opposition against the party in power will be determined by an aggregation of the efforts from one area to the other; from one zone to the other. There cannot be one answer. Anybody who stands up to say we are ready is not being fair to the question and anybody who also says we are not ready is also not being fair to the question. So, I would like to be academic about it. I would like to do a deeper study about it, and then I will be able to know the accumulation of those efforts, whether they can give them a fair chance to take a shot at the centre.
There have been many endorsements for you to run for a second term. Are you accepting those calls?
I am humbled by the outpouring of support, especially from the clergy. To tell you the truth, coming from the pulpit is quite humbling. To tell you, all the endorsements, juxtapose it with what we have done, it will help me take a decision. I am a simple-minded person and what I mean by that is that I have yet to wear my toga in politics. I am still in the trenches working. For instance, we just said if there are few parastatals that have met the minimum standard in terms of closing frivolous accounts, correcting their books and coming onto our platform so that we can see what we are doing, then, we can help them deal with the issues of salary and all that. So, I have drawn a matrix that will enable us to bring parastatals that are supposed to be paying salaries and pay money to the government up to speed because we don’t want anyone to feel worried. You see our opponent lacks what to say now. You can never hear anybody say that the quality of jobs we are doing in Abia is not good enough. Nobody has said that. You know some opponents suffer selective amnesia; they only remember what they want to remember, otherwise they won’t remember what they don’t want to remember.
But the jobs we have done in many places speak for themselves. Most of them are something that has defeated all previous attempts. For example, what we are doing on Aba road in Umuahia. That road has been like that for 16 years. Nobody could fix it. But we deployed all kinds of technology and capillarisation of underground water. We have to make capillaries to allow water to move freely so that so that it won’t undermine it. People don’t have the capacity to solve problems but they should see. So, I am saying by the way we put all these together will help me take a decision. But I’ve yet to see people that are contesting because we have been able to raise the bar to tell Abia people in this election you must put your poster on your handwork. If you have done your own on Facebook, go and put it on your phone. But don’t go and put your poster on the flyover that I am doing in Aba.
What is your relationship with the ordinary people on the street and the feedback you get from them?
You see, I don’t use what they call armoured vehicles and you know why? Because it is that road that they pass. For the past three years, I’ve been enjoying my ride sitting on a vehicle and it is that same road that I pass and I shake hands with Keke person or Okada person, they will tell you the truth. If the contractor of ‘road A’ has disappeared, they say the contractor has abandoned it. I don’t like the material the man is using for the drainage, you can go and see and make sure you verify. It enforces that feedback. I went to inspect the stadium about four days ago and I drove there by myself. What you see when people say they are holding a rally is what you see when I stepped into Ariaria from my vehicle. I entertained the Vice President when he came to commission the independent power project for Ariaria. I forgot to tell you that part of Ariaria today has been enjoying electricity for up to eight months now uninterrupted. So, we went to see the infrastructure there and by the time we moved into Ariaria, I said, ‘Oga, please don’t feel embarrassed. This is like what you see in Ojuelegba.’ He said, ‘This is beyond what you see in Ojuelegba’. It was not planned and when we stepped out we couldn’t move an inch. Part of what I told our people in 2015 is that this is a common governor for the common people because my father was a teacher, my mother, a nurse and myself a teacher. So, I belong to the people. I am not one of those that you can classify as a special person. I attended public schools all through. So, I think by the special grace of God, we have managed to connect with the people.
That was for the common people. What about the elite?
Without sounding immodest and I give God all the glory, I don’t think there was any other governor that had sat here before me and had the kind of robust relationship that I have with the Abia elite, irrespective of the party affiliations or what have you. My thinking is that once you won an election, the party should not be very important. Party is a vehicle with which you go into an election. But once you win, you are the governor of everybody and try to give as much respect to those who had the courage to say no to you. So all the elite in Abia, I may not be 100 per cent right, because I don’t even know what is going on in the minds of everyone but 90 per cent of the elite; and again if you see me in any public event especially, when there is a rally, during the endorsement of old Bendel, there is no elite you didn’t see on that podium while some could not even climb the podium. But I challenge you to go see the podium of those who called themselves my opponents. The only elite is a senator from Anambra State.