Okon Bassey holds a discussion with the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Charles Udoh on the attitude of the Udom Emmanuel-led administration on industrialisation among other issues
Since he was re-elected for a second term, the Governor, Udom Emmanuel has been talking about ‘Completion Agenda’ what is really the idea behind this campaign?
The Completion Agenda is simply the expansion of the Five Point Agenda that ushered in this government in 2015. In 2015, we talked about job creation, wealth creation, poverty alleviation, infrastructure consolidation and expansion, political and economic inclusion. Now, everything in the Completion Agenda has eight item listed. We are talking about aviation development. Aviation has taken a centre stage in our development agenda. All the roads leading into Akwa Ibom State are in a state of disrepair. If we rely on the roads it means that the economy will derail. As a government we decided to develop the air transport and the water transport sector. We also believe that with effective aviation development, it can improve our economy. Today from Lagos and Abuja the easiest state capital to reach outside Port Harcourt, Rivers state is Akwa Ibom because of Ibom Air. That enhances the business potential of the state. It means a businessman can wake up in the morning come to do business in Akwa Ibom and go back same day. We are also talking about industrialization as part of the Completion Agenda. We already have 18 industries and they have come to stay in Akwa Ibom State and we don’t want to stop at 18. We believe that there are so many potentials in this state so we are continuing with our industrialization agenda. Also in the completion agenda is about rural/riverine development. That is one area that had been crying for attention since this state was created. Akwa Ibom has the longest shore line in Nigeria. The challenge had been that as a people, our brothers and sisters in those sectors had never been able to upgrade their skills, quality of live even the quality of infrastructure that they have. The reason being that accessibility was their problem. A fisherman goes to the high sea, comes back with his catch for the day, someone will wait for the fishes to struggle for air to survive before he goes to make an offer. At that point in time, a fisherman is forced to sell at a give-away price and he cannot even make profit. We are saying that let’s redress this by providing help whereby when a fisherman comes back from the sea either he keeps the fishes in frozen form or process it to dry and sells it at his own will and time and at the right cost. We are linking that we agriculture which is another point in the completion agenda. Linked to that is also the issue of human capacity development and small and medium scale entrepreneurs because all these are interwoven and we are going to see how to jump start the economy and move away from focussing on government and public sector to the private sector. Other areas of the completion agenda hinge on security and infrastructure. For us to drive the economy effectively towards industrialization as a tourist destination, we need to have good security network and good infrastructure. We believe that come 2023, when we actualise the completion agenda we would have moved the economy of this state far beyond where it is or where we met it. Today, we are being toasted as one of the fastest developing economies in Nigeria. We are not resting.
What is the guarantee that the industries set up by the state government will not die at the end of the tenure of this administration?
That question should prick the mind of every Akwa Ibom person. Our believe is that the industries, first, have been set up, facilitated and built on a very solid foundation. The foundation being that, monies were not picked from the coffers of the state government to set up these industries. These industries are private entities so they would have under the influence of the natural business climate of the country. Again we have also gone ahead to ensure the basic facilities and amenities are provided for these industries, things that would save their overhead cost. For example, the syringe factory is not owned by government, but government facilitated it, government provided the land and infrastructure in terms of accessible road and the enabling environment. I don’t see how these industries will die, already they are brands in the market just like you have other products in the market which are from other parts of the country. The natural economic situation will allow them to thrive and compete with market forces. They will be able to stand on their own given time. But truth must be told also that in any industrial endeavour, no business in the world can become hyper profitable the next day; it is like planting, it has to go through the normal process- you plant it, water, nurture until it begins to grow and bear fruits before harvest.
Why is it that despite the conducive environment being created by the state for investment, government is not showing interest in establishing its own industries?
Nigeria Newspaper Manufacturing Company (NNMC), Oku Iboku is owned by government, it became a game reserve; Aluminium Smelter Company, Ikot Abasi is owned by government it became a game reserve. Studies, experience and realities have shown that government has no business managing those things. If government set up an industry meaning that you are going to have the same civil service structure and you cannot compete with market forces. Bureaucracy will kill those industries. In China, there is no company owned by government even in America, Europe. What government does is to facilitate the setting up of those industries by providing the enabling environment like the security, infrastructure. For instance, the flour mill in Akwa Ibom State is owned by the largest flour miller in Europe. They expanded their business by coming to open an arm of their business in Akwa Ibom. It is out of ignorance people are saying government should own industry. We used to have ceramics industry. Why did we sell Champion Brewery? We used to have metal door, battery industry they all died because of bureaucracy. They could not compete. You need to help us educate the people that there is no sense in government building industry and funding it.
Recently, the state government organised an education summit to chart a new course for the education system in the state. Months after the summit, what are the plans to execute the resolutions?
The problem of education in Nigeria has been there since independence. The problem of education in Akwa Ibom has also been there since its creation. The education summit was a bold step by the state government to cement its commitment to fixing the education sector. The state government also realised that it is one thing sitting in the comfort of a boardroom to come up with ideas and proffer solutions to problems, but when it comes to implementing it, you need to have a sense of commitment that this is our project. There must be that sense of ownership. Once you do that then it easier. We had to call the education summit, the first time. Problems were identified and solutions were recommended. You need to sit down and collate the information and draw a roadmap. The state government is conscious also that we would have failed if after the summit we come up with a blue print and we don’t execute them. We are being careful, we need to set our strategies and implementation processes right. The big question in the system is, how come teachers in private schools who earn far less, no job security, pension and gratuity, how come they perform more, are more committed and more passionate about their job? For us the problem in education sector cannot be a government thing alone. All hands must be on deck. There was communal sense of education for the children in the past, but today it is no longer the case. It is not only a government thing, implementation must be followed through diligently and there must be an implementation process which government must put together.
Nothing has been heard concerning housing development. Is the present state administration not attaching importance to the sector?
The state takes the issue of housing seriously. But you must also understand the economic climate has not been very favourable. So what the state government decided to do was to pick on the low hanging fruits. What are those things that will give us quick benefits to fix and to help jump start our economy before tackling other sectors. But to underscore government commitment one of the landmark projects in terms of housing infrastructure is the 21-storey building which has reached advanced stage; from that, we believe that we will get the IOCs to relocate to Akwa Ibom. If and when they will relocate, our economy would have received a significant boost. The state government has also been investing a lot of money in terms of renovating buildings like the army barracks in Ibagwa. We feel that the security of the state has to be maintained and the guys who are at the fore front of maintaining the security should have decent accommodation. As at the last count we have commissioned five flats for soldiers in that barracks. The government has made a commitment that every year there will be some blocks and flats commissioning in that barracks until we finish fixing the barracks for them. Also there are several estates planned for real-estate that are in the pipeline. We realised that real-estate is also capital intensive. There are a few real estate developers we are discussing with. What we are also going to do is to ensure that they are investors, not taking money from coffers of government. The Eket market we are building is investor driven, not government money. For the investor, we give him the access and franchise to recover their money.
On the 21-storey building project, is the state getting positive response or interest from the IOCs to relocate on completion?
Definitely, shortly after the state anniversary of the state creation, the management team of ExxonMobil led by the Chairman and Vice Chairman were in Akwa Ibom State with some investors. One of the things they did after interfacing with government was to inspect facilities at the 21-storey building and obtain first-hand information preparatory to activating their decision to come here. Those are very good signs and we are also encouraged at the speed at which we are putting the building to completion. The IOCs have been saying that there are no good and decent accommodation. Today, with the 21-storey building, they don’t have that excuse. I can tell you for sure within the South-south part of the Nigeria there is no building more modern in terms of having Information Technology (IT) infrastructure than that building. It matches the best we can get anywhere, no IOC can claim they don’t have the best of what they need within that complex.
What is the thinking of government in developing some of the signature projects of the state that looks abandoned like the Four Point By Sheraton Hotel, the Ibom Tropicana Complex, the Ibom Science Park among others?
Government has made it clear that it has no business managing entertainment and the science park. The attitude of this government has always been to find investors. We took over the Four Point by Sheraton Hotel when the state government then had no discussion with the owner of the brand name as at the time it was named the Four Point by Sheraton Hotel. The present government inherited that burden. There was legal threat then over illegal use of the brand. We had to go into lengthy renegotiation. Firstly, to acquire the right to use the brand name because the name Four Point by Sheraton was illegally written on the hotel. With contact and dialogue with the owner of the brand it cost the present government $7.2million to acquire the brand name and considering that there was no furnishing and even the design we had to change a lot of things. On the Ibom Tropicana, you may not know how challenging it is to keep the Ibom Hotel running and profitable. So it is not economic and profitable that the state government will invest in a third hotel and entertainment centre without having the market. What government is doing is to find investors to take over the business and run it. On the Ibom Science Park, what government has done is to call experts to look into the concept. Again government is not going to put funds there. Government is realying on investors. Right now, the Secretary to the State Government being an IT expert is talking to series of investors who have shown interest in reactivating the science park within the context of modern environment.
On erosion, it appears the state is handicapped to address erosion problems threatening the environment; and so far, what form of assistance has come from the federal government and donor agencies in tackling that problem in the state?
To the best of my knowledge and from records available, the federal government has not given a helping hand to check erosion menace in Akwa Ibom. If you remember the issue of Calabar-Itu road, first the state government tried in its small way to contain that gully erosion to keep the road intact. The thing has come back. We have zero assistance from the federal government in tackling the menace. Erosion, flood and other natural disasters are not things that only state governments should handle, it comes under the national pulse emergency. We expect the federal government to also help us especially being the goose that lays the golden egg, but we are not getting that. What we have done is to move ahead to see how we can look at the global agencies for help. World Bank has been very supportive. The Edet Akpan Avenue erosion control is World Bank assisted. We are talking to the World Bank to assess the IBB Way erosion issue. The IBB erosion issue is not an issue the state government can deal with because it runs into over N30 billion as at last estimate. World Bank has been here, seen the design and made consultation. World Bank is passionate about assisting and we will put down our counterpart funding. The good news is that World Bank has shown interest and is willing to partner the state to solve the problem.