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Journey to Aba

By Ochereome Nnanna
FRIDAY, March 30th 2012 was a special day in Abia State and Aba in particular. It was that day that the Governor of Abia State, Chief Theodore Orji, invited the media and the general public to accompany him to Aba to witness the commissioning of some capital projects in Aba and Umuahia over the course of two days.

The journey to Aba started amidst fanfare. It was more like a mobilisation for a campaign outing, as various support groups from all over the state joined in a long convoy to the economic capital of Abia State. Some of us from the media who rode in a sport utility vehicle thought the mobilisation was wasteful  since the normal commissioning of projects is usually an event for the people of the locality to come and see. It was not until the end of the journey to Aba that the justification for it became clear: it was actually a mustering for a political battle.

Many will recall the humiliating boos the governor’s entourage suffered when the body of the late Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was brought to Aba for the final respects of a city that meant so much to him. The governor believed his political opponents had ambushed him at the Enyimba International Stadium, by taking up prime spots and carrying out a “well orchestrated” booing to put him out in bad light.

While addressing his supporters at a banquet after the event he said: “We went to Aba thinking we were there for the burial of our leader not knowing that some people had planned to use that solemn occasion to play politics”. Media sources said he was so livid that he returned to Umuahia to dissolve the 17 local government transitional committees. He also rejigged the machinery of his government as he felt he was not getting enough support and loyalty from his appointed officials.

Several enemies from without

The governor has, indeed stepped on toes. Apart from the remaining rump of former governor Orji Uzor Kalu’s followers ( who invented the strategy of booing him at public events) many non-indigenes, who are still smarting from the disengagement of their kinsmen from the civil service of the state also have an axe to grind with him. Aba is probably populated more by non-indigenes, who have prospered there since the city was founded by the colonial masters. Another group that has political reason to be displased with TA is the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). When the governor parted ways with his former godfather, Orji Uzor Kalu, he decamped first to APGA and in fact, helped in a large measure in financing the medical treatment of Ikemba before he settled for the PDP after being wooed by the leader of the party, President Goodluck Jonathan (whose wife, Dame Patience Jonathan, had a mother that was born in TA’s hometown, Umuahia).

The demolition of illegal structures and reopening of open spaces and parks illegally taken over by squatters has also bred its own rank of malconents ready to add their voices when the boos start.

Apart from all these political forces, there are also many who genuinely believe that TA has not adequately justified the five years he has spent as the Executive Governor of the state in terms of concrete delivery of amenities to impact on the lives of the people. The governor’s supporters, however, believe this is a sweeping statement. They concede the fact that the atmosphere when the governor was still under the thrall of the Orji Kalu political family did not give him room to do much. But since he came out in June 2010 the first battle he had to tackle was the kidnap saga that seized the state, and Aba in particular, by the jugular.

Kidnapping had become the most lucrative crime in most states of the South South and South East at the height of the militancy in the Niger Delta, with Rivers, Bayelsa, Abia, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Anambra and Imo states as the major flash points. That of Aba was special in the sense that entire communities in the Ukwa and Ngwa areas of the state were part of the intricately organised network of kidnappers, with the dreaded “Osisikankwu” as the crime generalissimo. At a point, the situation went out of hand and the residents of Aba started deserting the city for their villages or other cities. Abia was the only state where it took the intervention of the Nigerian Army’s Joint Task Force (JTF) to sweep the criminals into the dustbin of history, with “Osisikankwu” destroyed and his body brought to the Government House in Umuahia for public viewing.

Today, Aba is back to normal with commerce back in full swing. The governor feels hurt that the people of Aba have forgotten so soon that it was he who conquered their enemies to enable them resume business as usual. However, politics is not as simple as driving away criminals alone. If you drive away criminals and you do not follow up adequately with sound governance, or you give an impression of yourself as someone who is not up to making life more abundant for the people nobody will remember you drove away criminals.

Ready to deliver legacy projects

Perhaps, it was in recognition of this that the governor, when he addressed the throng at the banquet kept emphasising: “I am now in charge”. He vowed he was determined to hand over what he described as “legacy projects” to the people before he is done in the next three years. By “legacy projects” he means the projects that will be pointed at as his contributions to the development of the state long after he has gone; a feat that his predecessor, Orji Kalu was unable to do. To demonstrate his willingness to make a difference, the governor has taken on a number of challenging tasks which previous administrations shied away from for political reasons or lack of funds.

The main project commissioned in Aba that day was the famous “ukwu mango” road. It is the main access road into the Ariaria International Market which had, for over twenty years, been blocked with refuse and perennial flooding. The road has not only been done but also the factors that lead to the flooding have been removed with underground drainage and a bridge. The governor told his audience that Ariaria traders were so happy with the reopening of access to the market that they have volunteered to join hands with the government to finance the construction of inner roads in the market. This is a great breakthrough in a city renowned for their refusal to pay any form of tax. Their refusal to pay is somewhat understandable because they suffered decades of poor government response to their basic needs. This proves one point:  deliver the goods and people will pay their taxes.

Between hosannah and crucify him

Another major project that will change the face of Aba is the desilting of the Big Gutter. It is a massive drainage constructed by the colonial founders of the city to evacuate floodwater to the Aba River. But over the years due to bad governance, traders filled the gutter with lorryloads of sand and built market stalls on them! Any time it rained heavily the flood, not having anywhere to go, simply overtook the city. The government has demolished all the illegal structures erected over the Big Gutter and is desilting it. All the open spaces overtaken by illegal squatters and market stalls are being brought down. There is simply no other way the city can be developed without these shanties being removed. If the governor can quickly press ahead with reconstruction after these demolitions, providing alternatives for the traders to relocate to, it is still possible for those crying “crucify him” to to shift to “Hosannah”. That’s simple human psychology.

While in Aba, the governor also commissioned an overhead pedestrian crossing at the Abia Poly, Aba and the reconstructed Danfodio Road. The following day he also commissioned a couple of rural roads around Umuahia. The state capital is gradually being upgraded into a proper modern capital. For the first time since the state was created, a proper state secretariat is nearing completion while the foundation for the permanent Government House has been laid. The international conference centre and a new urban market are also in progress.

The effort is there, but the road to travel is a very long one before the governor can shout “uhuru”. How Governor TA Orji ends in the next three years will have great implications as to whether the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) or any offshoot of the current administration will continue to enjoy the confidence of the people of the state come 2015. The kind of reception that Governor Anayo Rochas Okorocha got when he accompanied Ojukwu’s body to Aba was food for thought.



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