Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State in this interview speaks about the Abia Economic city, a hub expected to create over 200,000 jobs at take-off. The initiative is also expected to be a rallying economic point of global reference due to its proposed planning. Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu bring the excerpts:
What do you think is the place of education in leadership and has your education impeded or aided your job as a governor?
No. Education is a tool; it is a device. Whatever happens, the aim of leadership is to solve problems. Whatever problems you must identify it and there is a process which entails that you don’t have all the resources and time to deal with the issues. You deal with issues with limited resources and time frame. So, that leaves you with developing a process and procedure that would enable you to achieve those results. A leader must be courageous enough to be visionary. If you ask me today in Abia what I have to say is my greatest achievement, I am not going to say things a politician would like to say; like I was the first to build a flyover or roads or any other thing. But I have been able to reverse the drift from private to public schools by making sure that though I inherited 141,000 pupils in 2015, today, I have 611,000 in public schools. How did we do it in three years? That is where the power of deep thinking and analysis is. I have a certain road called Faulks Road which had not been in use for these past years, but today this particular road has been opened. Not only did I use a good contractor, I insisted that the site engineer must come from The Netherlands who did a six and a half kilometres tunnel to take water to the waterside. So, this is the thoroughness of thinking and tenacity irrespective of what people will say. Most of our people don’t bequeath legacies that are futuristic. Today, I am from the south-east and i am pushing for the Enyimba Economic Zone. In the entire south-east, we don’t have such. It is not a coincidence that it is coming to Abia, but it is a product of deep thinking and planning. This project will blossom and create 200,000 jobs because of the sheer enormity of the positive effects on my people. I see the concomitant impact on the life of my people and area. I know my people who want to create things; all you need to do is to make them neighbours to people who are actively manufacturing, don’t make them neighbours of those counting money. If an Abia man is to succeed, make him a neighbour of someone who is actively manufacturing and you will see him fabricate that machine somewhere and start producing. So in doing this, I needed to be futuristic, I didn’t need to be an election politician but I want to be politician for development.
Did you form a requisite team that drew up the plans, research and survey for the Enyimba Economic City and where would you want it to be after incubation stage?
First of all, we studied models of development. We studied Singapore, Dubai and other models of development and we said what is it that we are not doing right here. The first thing is that a leader that wants to create something unique and remarkable and profound must divest himself of any interest that is pecuniary and we said this thing must be private sector-driven and I must not be seen on the driving seat. It must have profit motive and be competitive in nature and it must bear the signature of being excellent. So, we said let us go and see those who had a hand in the concept design of the development model of Dubai and Singapore and we got Subarajuran to come and look at the Enyimba Economic City, this is the land area, what do we make out of it. For over two years they were going back and forth, that is why today if you put Enyimba Economic City side by side with economic cities around Africa, people will go for Enyimba City because the foundation is strong and they will see the consultants that did the work. I am saying, if you are serious about creating something of world-class standards, you do not care the cost. I think those private sector persons that are involved in the scheme must have spent over $200 million trying to set it up. I have been very actively involved in the marketing of Enyimba Economic City, some of the anchor investors that are coming are already in Abia. I am sure the President will do the ground-breaking before the elections. So, they find it irresistible because they see that we have established a city that if you do 140 kilometres you are already in Cameroon. It is at the centre of everywhere. If you do 60 kilometres in any direction, you are in all parts of the south-east and most part of the south-south. So, it is going to be a major hub and it is 30 minutes away from the seaports and it has a River Port that we are dredging seriously.
What of facilities such access roads, rails, airports that would ensure easy access and link up adjoining states?
The aim is to close the gap between the economy of Rivers and Abia. There will be a super eight-lane road with street lights between Aba and Port Harcourt so that people can leave Aba for Port Harcourt at 3am and come back any time. There is a road there in the economic city that is called a spine which is an eight- laner that will virtually connect the state capitals from Port Harcourt to Abia, through Imo to Enugu and all that. They are doing it in such a way that the current A4 road will abort on that road at certain points from time to time so that even if you are coming from Abakaliki on the A4 lane, you can at a point, join it. There is a rail line from Port Harcourt through the economic city to Kano. So, for me, in Abia, my interest is in the standard gauge because I have more railway stations than any other state in Nigeria except Kaduna on this standard gauge. Then, the federal government is committing N10 billion into the project. It is a far cry from what we need but, the beauty of Enyimba Economic City is that Geometric Power is already on ground to supply power, so that area is going to be the first place to enjoy 24 hours’ power supply in the country.
Did you plan Enyimba Economic City in a way that it will outlast your administration so that it does not die with the end of your tenure?
I will just say two things in response to that question. It is not even supposed to be a direct benefit of this administration. The target we set for ourselves is to lay a solid and unassailable foundation, world class that can compete anywhere in the world and we started with a law through the State Assembly taking it beyond government. It is a private sector-driven thing and it is an opportunity for Ndigbo that are investing in all parts of the world to come back to their fatherland and invest and hold a piece of that beautiful cake. It is beyond my administration no doubt about it.
When do we expect the first products from Enyimba Economic City to hit the markets?
The way it is going, I think before the end of the next four years. As I speak, some of the investors are already on the ground and the President would be coming to do the ground-breaking, maybe January. Our core investors are already there and we have more than 20 clusters, so in the next few years, it will happen.
What has happened to made-in-Aba products which your administration has promoted so much?
To start with I am wearing one now and again we came back from the Gambia last week where I had a chat with the President. Part of the reasons we went was to supply boots to Gambian police for a conference they have next year. We are contemplating commissioning the first automated shoe factory, the equipment is ready. We have built capacity. The 30 people we sent to India are back, three containers are on ground, we have offloaded them and we are concluding with the warehouse so that we can roll out and the Chinese will come and flag off and everybody will see the first different automated made-in-Aba shoes. We won’t stop there, if orders come the way we expect or more, I will send more, I will send them to go and open another factory in the Gambia that has the capacity to attend to over 50 million people within the smiling coast of West Africa. So, we have a development plan for the next four years, but in the interim, where we are now is to automate and flag off in the next few weeks and that will be the next big thing you will hear about made-in-Aba next month or so.
Do you believe that Abia State can run on IGR if everything is well harnessed and any plans towards that?
Yes. That particular subject is my poorest of all the subjects that I have sat for as a governor in the past three years. I have not been able to see the kind of result that I need. Incidentally, my deputy is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Accountants and I put him on the revenue desk and we are still struggling with it. I have tried to use consultants, one of them the one that did that magic in Kwara and all other states have moved on. We have a problem that was rooted in a very poor and weak fraudulent foundation. A certain leader came and called 10 people and appointed them as consultants and they got 25 touts each so we had 250 people with nails and cudgels and they were returning those taxes to those relatives so they enriched themselves and became so powerful. Those people are not easily dislodged and for us there is a wrong time to do that which is good in politics because most politicians in Abia are not patriotic people, they are not patriotic because if they see you sanction a private school that is not properly equipped and you say the school is not good enough to teach our children and therefore close it down, they will politicise. That is why in Abia we are saying today that nothing evil will stand, but the time to decide when to strike resides with me, so there is a bad time to do that which is right, so we are going to do the right thing at the right time.
That means you have a solution to that but waiting for the right time to implement?
Elections are around the corner, how prepared are you?
Well, first preparation is to work hard. I am still in the field working and I am going to drag the candidates to a time they will be held accountable for their past because the leopard cannot change its spots. For me, I will give an account of my stewardship and insist that our people will consider me based on my projects and what I have done. Last week, I picked up my manifesto in 2015 and I started looking at my campaign promises, the first 10 minutes I was speechless looking at what I have done. From our promise of promoting made-in-Aba which we made the first day, if I take that for instance, we have been able to bring power in a sustainable way through the rural electrification agency for the shoe cluster in Ariaria and they have had uninterrupted power for eight months now. We have been able to build capacity by sending those shoe manufacturers to China to get capacity. We now have those machines which means that automation has come and never again will Ndi Abia say they no longer know how long it will take to make a thousand pair of shoes because if you are running on a machine you will know, give me all the inputs and in one hour I will give you 1,000 pairs of shoes. Then market share, my people are no longer seen as lazy. In Nigeria, we have come first three times back to back in West African School Certificate, back to back since 2015. And that is no mean achievement. So, it is now a thing of pride. I said I was going to do something on the Ease of Doing business, we were number 34, but today, the first five states in the ranking include Abia. In fact, the improvement in the ranking of Ease of Doing business of Nigeria, Abia contributed to it. I also alluded to job creation and we have done so much including the bringing about 120,000 to 200,000 jobs through the Enyimba Economic City. I don’t even want to talk about roads. We are on over 160 roads with over 80 of them completed. As I speak today, there are about six roads completed waiting for commissioning including a new channel entirely different from Ikot Ekpene Road, leading people from Ikot Ekpene into Aba irrespective of the fact that federal government is yet to do its beat on it. But we have to create an alternative route through the bush, ready for commissioning. I am not even talking about other projects in Ministry of Environment, Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Planning, Health. But from other projects, in public utilities, we have about 665 projects across Abia State and we have only 184 wards. This is the first government to put Abia on CNN based on our entrepreneurship exploits, the first government to build a flyover, so there are so many things. We have done 340 schools including four model schools. Abia State University has moved from number 94 to the first 10 among Nigerians universities. These are concrete milestones you cannot take away. So, we are going to run on these. Abia was the first to launch Telehealth initiative where you can dial a number and be availed of a pool of 16 doctors. We run an active healthcare service with two ambulances and the only state running a geriatric outreach to aged people, 70 years and above. I have not done everything, but when I look back, there are things for me to run on so I am not scared of the election.
You were a teacher and teachers are said to be owed several months salaries, what plans are you making to pay them?
It is not exactly true. Primary school teachers are not being owed, but we are owing some secondary school teachers. The truth about the salaries issue in Abia, it that it is being politicised so much that people begin to wonder if the issue is true. How come labour unions in Abia are not on it? There are about 30,000 workers in Abia and 24,000 of these are within the core ministries. Ministry of Health, Public Utilities, Education and Agriculture and all that, but no core civil servant is being owed in Abia. We fell short in terms of primary teachers because of course that is the responsibility of the local governments. We gave a marching order and they played a catch-up and no primary school teacher is being owed today. But here again, the secondary school teachers, in terms of salary the state decided to bear it wrongly because the first three years in secondary school is supposed to be under the Universal Basic Education (UBEC), that is also supposed to be a responsibility of the local government. But we have started playing catch-up to see how possible it is to clear it before the end of the year. I understand local governments are owed two months and by December that would be cleared. But between December and January, we would see how we clear all those and stop the issue of owing salaries.
However, some parastatals are owing themselves. How do I mean? If you are regional manager of Abia Line and the state gives you 100 vehicles to start operations and you employ your drivers and you come back to tell us that you are owing six months, whose duty is it to pay? Ekene Dili Chukwu and Young Shall Grow are in business so I cannot take that. When I took over power in 2015, allocation nosedived to the extent we were getting N1.7 billion, facing a wage bill of N2.7 billion, so there is no opportunity for free lunch anymore. If you are the General Manager of Abia Line, the minimum expectation is that you should at least raise revenue to the government. But now you are not returning revenue, okay pay yourself, so I don’t know how to reinforce failure, I cannot do that. When I came on board, Abia Poly was earning from school fees from students about N2 billion and their wage bill was N1.8 billion a year so why couldn’t they pay themselves and have about N200 million to cover running cost? If you leave your desk and return home today as an Abian and I say help me run Abia Poly and the Bursar tells you they get N2 billion and the wage bill is N1.8 billion, you do the simple arithmetic and say pay. In fact, if you talk to a bank and say break this N1.8 billion into 12 months and give me subvention of N1 million or N20 million every month let me use it to buy stationery every month. We pay them N140 million as subvention and they said they were owing banks N2 billion which is a salary for one year, so I went and paid off the bank to exit the interest of N70 million monthly interest. Instead of them to recover and pay themselves they returned to their old ways and 42 more accounts and started siphoning and I said I won’t take it and that is my position. So if you were in my position what will you do? If you like politicise it. I am answerable to the greater majority who entrusted me with the responsibility to take care of their interest and I should not be in connivance with a few people that will misappropriate N2 billion and another N140 million monthly for 12 months whereas there are people whose only need is for you to build a good road and attach a walkway so they can use their bicycle on the walkways, that is the only thing you do for them. I am even bothered that our government is not doing so much as much as I would want to do for the people in terms of welfare for the people. Apart from the geriatric outreach for the old people and free meals in schools because Abia is the only state free feeding primary one to six, others are doing one to three. That is why we have the huge improvement from 141,000 to over 611,000 students in schools. So, I am still looking at more programmes that can be pro-poor, brilliant children with school certificate that I can pay their tuition for four years and they become graduates. I want to send mechanics to South Korea because as I speak today there are no qualified mechanics in my state because all the 2016 vehicles we see are sensor-driven vehicles. So, whether you like it or not, within now and the next five years, no vehicle will be available for use of spanner, if you want to service it. So I want to upgrade that sector because it is important. They are the wheel on which trade and commerce run so I am thinking to send those boys to China will cost us close to N50 million and I am looking for such funds, not to give lecturers who open 42 accounts and are siphoning money.