The recently concluded Abia Economic Summit presented a platform for prominent indigenes of the state to advise the state government on the way forward as the spate of kidnappings and violent crimes are brought to their knees by the Joint Military Task Force in the commercial city of Aba and environs.
UMUAHIA, the capital of Abia State, was the birthplace of Dr. Michael Okpara, the second Premier of the defunct Eastern region. It was during the Okpara era that, in 1964, the economy of the region was rated as the fastest growing in the Third World by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Okpara launched an aggressive agricultural and industrial revolution that resulted in farm settlements being set up in many parts of the region, while the prominent towns such as Enugu, Port Harcourt, Aba, Calabar, Owerri, Onitsha, Ogoja and others boasted industrial clusters that added value to the agricultural produce that were then exported or consumed locally.
It was also during this period that the Malaysians came to Nigeria to understudy the country’s exemplary performance in palm produce agriculture, which they copied and have since emerged as the world’s largest producer.
The economy of Eastern Nigeria, Abia state inclusive, was emasculated during the civil war and little effort was made by the federal government to launch a sort of Marshall Plan to rebuild it. When Chief Sam Mbakwe was elected the governor of the old Imo State in 1979, as a disciple of Okpara’s defunct National Council for Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) he endeavoured to re-enact the feat of the First Republic.
He borrowed heavily and rebuilt Owerri, Aba and Umuahia, setting up many industries and large scale farms all over the state. However, the civilian regime did not last beyond December 1983. The return of the military led to the second demolition of the economy, as successive military governors failed to build on the momentum Mbakwe set up. Most of the industries were either sold or vandalised, while the heavy debt stock hung over the two new states that were created out of old Imo State – Abia and Imo – with Abia State carrying the lion’s share of the debt since it warehoused the bulk of Mbakwe’s investment
What some would describe as the third economic and political tragedy came after Chief Orji Uzor Kalu took over as the elected governor of Abia State in 1999. He ran the state like a private family estate. The emergence of Chief Theodore Orji as the Governor of the state in 2007 under Kalu’s Progressive People’s Party (PPA) was meant to extend Kalu’s rapacious rule. Plagued by a long-drawn election tribunal suit, Orji remained at the mercy of his principal. However, when the Court on Wednesday, 20th February 2008 awarded the governor final victory, it set the tone for the parting of ways, especially as the governor increasingly asserted his independence.
The final straw came late in June this year when the governor dumped the PPA in a move that his government and supporters have described as the “liberation” of the state from the clutches of Orji Kalu and family. The first Abia State Economic Summit, held in Umuahia on December 6-7th 2010 was meant as part of the effort to give the state’s economic life a new impetus and put it on the path of growth.
One of the most important factors that ensured the success of the summit was that the political atmosphere had been made conducive. Whereas the former ruling party, the PPA and its followers were seen as the private affairs of former Governor Kalu, the movement of Governor T. A. Orji back to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) opened the political space in the state.
It led to the reconciliation of the governor and his erstwhile political adversaries such as Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, Dr.Onyema Ugochukwu who engaged him in the elaborate electoral battle and legal war at the tribunal. This reconciliation benefited the summit a lot because the state government wanted it to be attended by stakeholders from across the board to enable the resolutions agreed at the end of it to be owned by the people, not just the regime.
The expectation was exceeded not just in terms of quality attendance but also in the inputs where the contributors were free with their assessment of the situation and blamed the state government where necessary. Among those who participated were the Managing Director of the World Bank and former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; former Minister of Finance and also formerly a top employee of the International Monetary Fund, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu; former Foreign Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe; foremost development economist, Dr. Uma Eleazu; Senators Uche Chukwumerije and Nkechi Nwaogu.
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe was tied up in Abuja and obtained permission from the governor. Others were the MD of Neimeth, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, Senator Onyeka Okorafor; the Director General of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Mr. Frank Nweke and the Managing Director of Diamond Bank Plc, Mr. Emeka Onwuka, top state functionaries, among a host of others. Professor Anya .O. Anya moderated the executive session.
Expectedly, Okonjo-Iweala’s keynote address was eagerly awaited, and when she stood up to speak she made it clear that she was going to be brutally frank in her observations. She said Abia State was performing below its potentials, as many industries had closed down and others were performing far below their installed capacities. She was displeased that the Abia State Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (ABSEED) created in 2004 as the state’s version of the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) was not implemented.
She was particular about the crime situation in the state (which has witnessed a dramatic improvement since the Joint Task Force (JTF) waded in after the kidnappers). She disclosed that when she decided to honour the invitation to the summit the United Nations system triggered a travel alert, but she refused to heed it because she and her family had long decided that nothing would keep them away from their own homeland. She also called on the state government to ensure that the people felt the presence of their government more through creation of jobs, more transparency in government business, especially the finances of the state and the improvement of infrastructure.
The World Bank boss pointed out that the state enjoys a number of advantages which, if built upon, would result in rapid economic development. Primary among these is its rich human capital of highly educated people and seasoned entrepreneurs both at small scale and higher levels.
She pointed out that Abia had one of the highest quotas of well-off Diaspora population, as there was hardly any family that did not have its relation living and economically active abroad. She said many of the professionals abroad would like to collaborate with the authorities back home to funnel opportunities but that most of them complain about lack of connection point back home. Okonjo-Iweala was of the view that the state can pattern itself as a service-oriented entity, where the skills of its craftsmen and women could be improved to make Aba the “China of Africa” where the rest of the world will find outsourcing of their production needs more lucrative due to cheaper labour.
The two-day summit included an executive session with Governor Orji at the centre of it. He seized the opportunity to inform the guests that his government intends to create a commercial masterpiece out of the Abia economy, where the private, public partnership (PPP) will be the main driving force of industrialisation and the strive for job creation. It was with the model that many formerly dead industries, such as the glass factory at Aba, the Ceramics factory, the Golden Guinea Breweries and the on-going cement factory at Arochukwu have been activated.
The state, he said, will use the same model to establish refineries, petrochemical plants as well as assist in the completion of both private and federal government owned power plants in the state. He declared that henceforth, the welfare of the people of the state will be the centrepiece of his policies and programmes, and as a proof of this, the state government has set up over 120 modern health centres and two specialist hospitals with up-to-date diagnosti
c equipment in Aba and Umuahia.
Turning to the security challenges of the state, Governor Orji assured that the activities of the JTF under the able support and encouragement of his government have helped in reducing criminality in the state to well below national averages, adding: “we are now on top of the security situation, and life is back to normal in Abia and the state as a whole. I call on Abians in all parts of the world to return home for Christmas without fear”.
He expressed the determination of his government to return Aba to its place of pride as one of the nation’s foremost commercial and industrial hubs. Members of the executive panel also offered their views. Maduekwe advocated that the political space in the state should be further broadened because the best materials were still outside the political arena. He said politics was too serious to be left to politicians alone. Agreeing with him, Nweke Jnr urged Abia never to allow the situation that led to the “mother excellency” syndrome of the past ten years to rear its ugly head ever again. Onwuka of Diamond Bank advised that governmental positions should be manned by professionals, and that an advisory board should be set up to enable government evaluate policy and performance on a quarterly basis.
Kalu Idika Kalu reminded the government that if it improves on transparency and service delivery it would be able to attract generous grants and soft loans to complement lean federation allocations. Ugochukwu, Nwogu, Ohuabunwa and Chukwumerije also harped on the need to improve on leadership, while the Chukwumerije called for the revival of the Igbo spirit in the youth.
During the session dealing on security which held the following day with top security agencies in the state and the zone at large represented by their bosses, it was agreed that the military action should be supported by the involvement of the entire community in safeguarding the state from hoodlums. There was also a consensus on the need to increase security consciousness and improve the tools of security the community through adoption of appropriate technology.
Road to the future
The state government was advised to set up a technical committee to draw up the recommendations and ideas canvassed at the summit into a vision document with clear deliverable timelines. The vision has to take full cognisance of the strengths of the state. Some of them include the fact that Abia is one of the most accessible states in the federation from any part of the country and the world. It is close to four international airports at Owerri, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Uyo. It is bisected from tip to tip by a railway line and boasts a large number of (even if poorly maintained) federal roads. Abia also has a great opportunity to establish a seaport at Azumini in Ukwa East and have direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, if the Blue River there is dredged.
The state also has a reasonable commercial quantity of oil and gas deposits both under exploitation and yet to be exploited, as well as many other minerals. It has great endowment in fertile soils and great tourism potentials. A virgin oil city, Obuaku City, which borders Port Harcourt, can be developed into an exclusive haven for those who may not want to put up with the bustle and pollution of Port Harcourt.
The presence of Geometric Power Company at Aba and the power plants established by the federal government at Ala Oji which are nearing completion will provide the state with real opportunities for uninterrupted power supply in the near future to fire up the small and large-scale industries in Aba and environs. When this happens, Aba is estimated to have the ability to generate enough revenue to make Abia State economically independent.
The fear that the summit might be politicised did not materialise, as participants spoke from the heart and the government listened with rapt attention without reacting as if the “opposition” was behind the constructive criticisms that flowed freely. It is left to be seen if the government of Abia State will this time proceed with dispatch to actualise the outcome of the summit or will it suffer the fate of ABSEED.
Time will tell.