In Abia, Development Enters Reverse Gear

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Emmanuel Ugwu writes that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State appears to be overwhelmed by the daunting task of engaging development levers that will transform the state

In one of the very few occasions when Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State had an interaction with journalists based in the state, he was asked if he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the developmental problems facing the state. Apparently taken aback by the question, the governor paused and then put a bold face and answered that he was equal to the task, adding that he would not have asked for the mandate of the people if he was not capable of doing the job of governance.

With first tenure gone and three months into the second tenure, the issue of underperformance has again popped up on the lips of Abians who daily lament the lack of progress in the development of the state. No matter how hard Ikpeazu thinks he is trying, something appears to be missing: the rapid transformational touch that makes a city to shine for all to see. He acknowledged this much in his inauguration address when he took oath of office for his second tenure. According to the governor after, “an internal review of our processes” of his the first four years of his administration noticeable lapses were observed. But he assured that he was now “committed to make amends in areas we got it wrong” in order to give Abians quality service this time around.

The capital city of Umuahia is a sore pointer to the absence of the kind of positive and visible change the people are yearning for. The capital city is the first impression a visitor gets to validate the extent a state has developed. Sadly, Umuahia has continued to wear the unenviable tag of a glorified village since it was made a capital city on August 27, 1991. Mazi Kalu Uduma, a community leader from Ohafia told THISDAY that the first time he visited Umuahia was in the early 1970s when as a preteen he came with his father to catch a train to the northern part of the country. “Today I can still identify the restaurant we had our meal at the park. Nothing has changed,” he said, adding that if after over four decades he could still identify the landmarks “then there is no doubt that the city is suffering from stunted growth.” All the previous administrations both military and civilian that came and left since the creation of Abia are guilty of keeping Umuahia stunted. No good foundation was laid for proper growth and expansion of the capital city. In fact a development economist and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Abia, Chief Ikechi Emenike, attributed Abia’s circular motion to the absence of “building blocks of development” to serve as launch pad for economic and infrastructural development.

It was only during the administration of Senator Theodore Orji that a first attempt was made to expand the city and give it a modicum of infrastructural development that define a capital city. Orji not only relocated all the markets that clustered around the city centre but also built infrastructures that today give Umuahia some semblance of a capital city. These include the International Conference Centre (ICC) and a modern state secretariat which has made it possible for the ministries hitherto scattered around the state capital to be brought to a single location. Unfortunately the momentum generated by Ochendo,, as Orji is popularly called, in the development of Umuahia was allowed to wane by his successor.

The new government house which Orji started at Ogurube layout has remained at the stage he left it. Today, Abia Government House is still domiciled in a rented premises. The reconstruction of Aba/Umuwaya Road which runs through the capital city is expected to provide a major facelift for Umuahia under the Ikpeazu administration. But the project has been going at snail speed to the extent that ongoing work has covered just about two kilometers in four years. With no functioning street light, Umuahia becomes a cocoon of darkness at sundown thus economic activities grind to a halt much earlier than in the capital city of other states. Public water supply was last experienced during the first 100 days of the Theodore Orji administration. It was short-lived as the taps went dry following damage done to the old pipes.

Governor Ikpeazu said that his priority was the development of Aba, the economic and industrial hub of the state. His argument was that if he could get the infrastructural needs of the sprawling city right, the job of developing other parts of the state, including the capital city would be made easier because Aba would be providing enough revenue to fund the spread of infrastructural development across the state. At the last count, the governor claimed that his administration has completed 76 roads and five bridges while works are ongoing on 96 other roads at various stages of completion. Most of the roads said to have been constructed are located in Aba yet it appears like a drop of water in the ocean. A leading opposition leader and governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the 2015 and 2019 polls, Dr. Alex Otti said that Ikpeazu’s road projects were over exaggerated while the cost implication to the people of Abia has never been fully disclosed. He said that a commissioned study showed that the 59 roads said to have been done by the Ikpeazu administration in Aba have a cumulative length of 79.38km, an average of 1.3 kilometre.

This may explain why the impact is yet to start manifesting in the eyes of Aba residents. Ikpeazu, as the first Abia governor from Ngwa extraction was actually expected to drastically change the face of Aba, more so being an “Aba boy” himself. He said that his government has been “deliberate in our approach to road construction by first understanding the issues surrounding each road before commencing construction decision to open up the roads in Aba as they were in-roads that ventilated our markets and businesses in Aba and reopened them to inter-state and international clientele.” The governor also stated that the perennial flood problem in Aba, the Enyimba City was being tackled “creatively” as work on the Ifeobara pond was undertaken to drain the flood waters that used to make Faulks Road impassable. And give it to him Faulks Road is now wearing a beautiful dualized new look.

The attempt by Ikpeazu to ease traffic inflow and outflow in Aba with the construction of a flyover at Osisioma has agonizingly been a sore point in the slow pace of project execution by the Ikpeazu administration. Though the project has stalled the state Commissioner Information, Mr. John Okiyi Kalu has listed the flyover among ongoing projects that would be completed and inaugurated to mark the first 100 days of Ikpeazu’s second tenure. How that would be achieved remains to be seen.

While the much needed impact on infrastructure is yet to be felt across Abia, Ikpeazu has done remarkably well in promoting commerce and industry. His campaign for Made-in-Aba goods and encouragement of the growth of small and medium scale (SMEs) enterprises has caught not only national but global attention. Today, the creative and enterprising artisans of Aba are reaping the benefits of the campaign mounted by their state governor, who also exposed them to the international market and automated training in shoe manufacturing in China. The federal government on its part has officially recognized Abia as the SME capital of Nigeria with Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo coming to God’s own state on several occasions to foster the partnership for the growth of SMEs.

This partnership has further snowballed in the interest shown by the federal government in the Enyimba Economic City, which Abia government is promoting as Ikpeazu’s flagship futuristic economic legacy for Abia. The Enyimba Economic City is conceived as a massive industrial area spread over 9,800 hectares of land spanning three local governments in Abia South, namely Ugwunagbo, Ukwa East and Ukwa West. Ikpeazu envisioned that the project would create 650,000 while 300,000 units of urban housing will be built to accommodate 1.5 million people who will live and work at the Economic City. This is because over 2,000 industrial/business units will be established with annual value output of $5 billion.

Critics charge that the Enyimba Economic City could just be a bogus unviable dream to deceive Abians, a claim Ikpeazu disproves. He said: “The pointer to the value of this project is that the Federal Government of Nigeria has invested into it by taking 20 percent equity worth N100 billion. The ripple effect of that project on the rest of Abia State is better imagined. This project will succeed. This is my pledge to Ndi Abia.” He said that it was heartwarming and commendable that President Muhammadu Buhari has risen above partisan political divide “to give his full blessing to this project.”

As much as Ikpeazu has continued to grapple with the challenges of infrastructural development he has got no respite on issue of salary and pension arrears. The issue has so blighted the administration of Ikpeazu that nothing he does counts so long and workers are hungry and angry. It should be pointed out that Ikpeazu inherited arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuities but he has done much to clear them. Rather the mountain of arrears has continued to grow.

The government has strenuously argued that no core civil servant, meaning workers in the ministries, is owed salary. It isolated workers in the parastatals and agencies as the ones being owed salaries while admitting that there were issues in payment of pensions and gratuities. On August 9, 2019 the organized labour in the Abia comprising the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), and the Joint Negotiating Council (JNC), jointly issued a seven day ultimatum to Governor Ikpeazu to resolve the problem of arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuities or risk industrial crisis.

In a statement the labour unions listed the arrears as follows: primary school teachers are owed three months, while secondary school teachers were last paid in October 2018.
Others include Hospital Management Board (11 months); Abia State Universal Basic Education Board (four months); Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba (13 months) and Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, which got last salary in April 2018, plus partial payment in May of the same year. The organised labour further stated that while the senior staff of the College of Health Sciences, Aba, are owed nine months, their junior counterparts are eight months.

Also, Abia College of Education (Technical), Arochukwu are in arrears of 18 months, Abia State University, Uturu (four months); local government workers last paid in March, plus half salary in October 2018. Not left out are State Education Management Board (SEMB) owed eight months; Abia State Agricultural Development Programme (14 months), Ministries of Agriculture and Lands, Survey and Urban Planning, one month, respectively.

As time started ticking for the looming industrial crisis, Governor Ikpeazu invited the labour leaders to government lodge Aba where he tried to calm their nerves, assuring that he would resolve the issues at stake. The governor quickly set up a committee to device the modalities for offsetting the mountain of arrears. The arrears are pervasive. Labour also said that some agencies of government, including the State Library Board, secondary school teachers, SEMB and Abia Council for Arts and Culture were owed arrears of the N18, 000 minimum wage, ranging from 10 to 14 months. It lamented that while the 2017 leave allowances were partially paid, the 2018 and 2019 allowances had yet to be paid.

Labour said it was concern over government’s failure to pay pensions as and when due, adding that only a few pensioners were paid in November 2017. On the issue of gratuity, the organised labour said that retired civil servants were last paid gratuity in 1999, saying that the development was tantamount to “mercy killing.” Labour leadership said that their hopes that government would have used the Paris Club refund to drastically offset the arrears of salaries and pensions has been dashed hence they asked the Ikpeazu government to explain how it implemented the disbursement of the third and last tranches of the Paris Club refund to the state.

Government had at the height of the controversy surrounding the state’s share of the Paris Club refund insisted that the money was prudently disbursed though a committee which included the leadership of the organised labour. Mr. Obinna Oriaku, who was the Commissioner for Finance in the last cabinet said that what Abia got was grossly inadequate to scratch the arrears, noting that while Abia needed N33 billion to clear the arrears it got about N14 billion

No doubt the people of Abia are yearning for a quick fix having waited so long for their state to rise from the drudgery of underdevelopment. The urgency and high expectation keep rising given what has been happening in other states around them, specifically within the Southeast geopolitical zone. Ebonyi state for instance has become a reference pint on how development can be engendered by purposeful leadership. Under four years Abakaliki the capital city of Ebonyi has been transformed beyond imagination with three flyovers, good network of roads and aesthetically inspired urban renewal.

Indeed the entire state is connected with good network of roads right to the rural areas. Abians, especially those that have been to Ebonyi and made comparative analysis feel that they don’t deserve less. Somehow the prominent personalities that Abia is richly blessed with are not openly calling out the government in power to quicken its pace. Otti has said that the conspiracy of silence was inspired by the “blood tonic” syndrome whereby according to him, the elitist elders of the state are placed on generous allowances by the state government to make them behave like the proverbial monkey that sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil.

Meanwhile Ikpeazu appears not to be in a hurry to fast track his pace of delivering infrastructure. Government activities have ebbed since after he commenced his second tenure on May 29, 2019. He is yet to form a full cabinet as only the Commissioner for Information, John Okiyi Kalu, who was reappointed and the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Uche Ihediwa have been functioning as cabinet members while permanent secretaries run the rest of the ministries. Nonetheless, Governor Ikpeazu strongly feels he remains focused and on course to deliver the needed goods to Abia people.

He has promised that Abia has entered a new season with the renewal of his mandate, vowing that “the onus is now on me to judiciously utilize this opportunity given to me, and I give my word that I will not let you all down.” As in 2015 when he entered government house, the governor is still sticking to the curse he has charted for his administration. According to him, he would do great things for Abia by focusing on his identified five pillars of Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Industry and Oil and Gas “as focal points that we believed if properly harnessed, holds potentials for unlocking the growth and development of Abia State.”

QUOTE:
*Abia State was created on August 27, 1991, with Umuahia as capital

*The capital city, Umuahia is a sore pointer to the absence of the kind of positive and visible change the people are yearning for
*Abians daily lament the lack of progress in the development of the state. No matter how hard Governor Okezie Ikpeazu thinks he is trying, something appears to be missing: the rapid transformational touch that makes a city to shine for all to see

*Ikpeazu has acknowledged noticeable lapses in the first four years of his administration. But he assured that he was committed to make amends in areas he got it wrong

*The first attempt to expand Umuahia and give a modicum of infrastructural development was only during the administration of Senator Theodore Orji. He not only relocated all the markets that clustered around the city centre but also built infrastructures that today give Umuahia some semblance of a capital city. These include the International Conference Centre (ICC) and a modern state secretariat which has made it possible for the ministries hitherto scattered around the state capital to be brought to a single location

*Unfortunately, the development of Umuahia started by Orji has not been sustained by his successor, Ikpeazu. The new government house which Orji started at Ogurube layout has remained at the stage he left it
*Today, Abia Government House is still domiciled in a rented premises
*With no functioning street light, Umuahia becomes a cocoon of darkness at sundown thus economic activities grind to a halt much earlier than in the capital city of other states
*Public water supply was last experienced during the first 100 days of the Theodore Orji administration. It was short-lived as the taps went dry following damage done to the old pipes
*Ikpeazu is the first Abia governor of Ngwa extraction and was actually expected to drastically change the face of Aba, more so being an “Aba boy” himselfhimself
*Ikpeazu has done remarkably well in promoting commerce and industry. His campaign for Made-in-Aba goods and encouragement of the growth of small and medium scale (SMEs) enterprises has caught not only national but global attention
*The federal government has officially recognized Abia as the SME capital of Nigeria with Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo coming to God’s own state on several occasions to foster the partnership for the growth of SMEs

*As much as Ikpeazu has continued to grapple with the challenges of infrastructural development he has got no respite on issue of salary and pension arrears. The issue has so blighted the administration of Ikpeazu that nothing he does counts so long and workers are hungry and angry