By Obi Nwakanma
If any lesson must be learned, and any good come from the current political and economic isolation of the Eastern parts of Nigeria, by the current APC-led government of President Muhammadu Buhari, it must be that ultimately, the states of the former Eastern region have more common grounds for political and economic action in the common interest of its people. The East of Nigeria does exist as a geographical reality. The contiguity of its various parts make it one of the most exciting areas for economic integration through strategic infrastructural linkages.
The Aba-Ikot-Ekpene-Uyo conurbation, linked with a new in-land port in Aba and a multimodal port system between Oron, Eket and Calabar could instigate one of the most revolutionary economic developments in Sub-Sahara Africa – linked with the old tri-city plan of the old Eastern regional government development plan that designed Port-Harcourt-Aba-Owerri as part of an organic triad, with a beach head in Warri, through Oguta, Ahoada, and Yenegoa; with the development of Sapele as both a Port and resort city, that would link the Asaba – Onitsha-Awka- and the Nnewi economic quadrant to two points of the triangle in a compass at Idah and Lokoja. Just as the parallel from Port-Harcourt, through Umuahia, Okigwe, and the entire Ugwuele escarpment to Enugu will find its natural beachhead in Makurdi on a straight line of development. Those who are ordained by degrees to the old craft will notice that I have sketched the foundation and masonry of a new Thebes: ambitious, but simple enough to execute.
The peoples and leaders of the East must stop pussyfooting on this question. The East as a region must ignore Nigeria’s current economic and development model and return to the first principles established by Azikiwe and Okpara, which emphasized rapid human and infrastructural development, the training of a high number of the technical and artisan skills in well-built Technical and vocational colleges; the use of direct community initiatives, the expansion of the economic and strategic entrepreneurial base by using the African Continental Bank (ACB) as a sort of the Reserve Bank of the East, and the Cooperative Bank of Eastern Nigeria, through which it provided very cheap, government-backed credits and loans to new businessmen and farmers, so that in one generation, the East had the vastest network of traders, technicians, trading concerns, and industrialists, who themselves over the years, up till the 1980s began to invest in machine tools and cottage industries, which were it sustained, could have transformed the East of Nigeria into the industrial hub of the African continent today. But that vision and that plan remain as valid today as it was in 1954/55 when the Azikiwe government launched the Eastern Nigerian Economic Development plan (1954-1964).
We must return to the Zik-Ojike-Okpara plan as a matter of urgency, but this time based on a joint regional Economic commission which must be called the “South Atlantic Initiative.” It must be bold and ambitious, and must involve all the governments of the South-East and the South-South states that once made up the old Eastern Region. The current governments of Edo and Delta states, part of the old Midwest, should find it in their long and short term economic interests to join this initiative for reasons that I will outline shortly. It has often been the case that the great elephant in the room, whenever it comes to the talk about Eastern Nigerian development cooperation, particularly since the end of the civil war in 1970, has often been the question of “Igbo domination.”
The Igbo as a single dominant factor in that region is unquestionably true, and is as profound a draw-back, as it should, viewed logically, be a great advantage. The Igbo are a dynamic, innovative, entrepreneurial, and an active people who often make great allies in any cooperative initiative, and in the development process.
But the fear of an overwhelming Igbo presence in the East must be modulated by the fact that today, each area of the old East is self-governing. There are five of the core Igbo states, and four states of the South-South that make up the old Eastern region. Of these four, Rivers state is a majority Igbo state, but with a very substantial number of ethnic minorities. You certainly do find a good number of Igbo communities in states like Bayelsa, Akwa-Ibom, and Cross-Rivers, but they are in such minorities that they are contained. But the clear fact is that the indigenous Igbo presence in the old Eastern Nigerian states continues to provide a strategic glue to this region, however Federal policies over the years have tried to subdue and negate that fact.
It gets equally more interesting when you add the significant Igbo presence in Delta state and in the Ohrionwon areas of Edo state. These facts alone are not why I suggest the consideration of Edo and Delta in joining with the states of the former Eastern region in this proposed “South Atlantic Initiative.” It is because it makes sense on at least two levels: It would increase the number of partner states in this initiative to eleven, and as a result, erase any advantage in numbers that the core Igbo states might have, and thus reduce the question or fear of “Igbo domination” in this initiative.
Secondly, the strategic natural contiguity of these areas gives it an advantage for easy infrastructural linkage that should make any development organic and quick. But the more crucial element is also possibly the most vital to this process: it is a statistical fact that the eleven states that make up these areas provide over 78% of Nigeria’s highest skilled manpower base currently. Edo state, as a matter of fact, per square mile is the most educated state in Nigeria. It is important to state here therefore that oil is not the greatest and most abundant resource in these areas, but strategic human skills, and a vast major market that can be serviced with the presence of a huge, well-educated middle class.
But what should normally be an advantage is currently seen in Nigeria today as the “curse” of over production of skills: in the current logic of “quota” and selective recruitment of labor in Nigeria, much of the skilled talents of these areas, as a result of low absorption capacity, has been wasted, exiled or made dormant.
The “South Atlantic Initiative” must establish therefore a joint services system that will, as it used to be, permit a free intra-regional movement of skills and appointments in the various public systems of partner states, as well as in their private sectors. It should link the universities and new research institutes in these areas to a joint Research and Development board. It should be possible to create the “Atlantic Rails” as a regional initiatice, which may make it possible for a man to have dinner with his business partners at the Benin Club, get to the Benin Central station at the Kings Square, and take the fast train at midnight and arrive Enugu at 3:00 am and be in bed at 3:30.
The fact is that every factor necessary to make this possible is already there: the skilled Engineers, Architects, Surveyors, Technicians, and master Artisans, are already abundant, and need only be mobilized. You do not need foreign direct investment, nor Chinese or Indian construction giants, nor some missionary profiteer spouting left-handed charity.
You need good old indigenous hands constructing the land; designing and building their own power stations; redesigning, rebuilding and refurbishing their vast network of schools to meet new global realities, using their own skilled men and women, and their own tools fashioned from the own Machine and Tools plants; their own gas distribution systems; their own steel plants; and their own fabrication workshops, in a sustained regional development partnership that would make the human the center of the development process. Whatever happens, whether this regional partnership takes place or not, will require a new political imagination, not the current level of political leadership in these areas.
We must have the new Azikiwes and Okparas and Osadebes and Akpabios – men who were not only philosophically trained, but who had a broad global intuition about the place of their generation of black men in the modern world, and who therefore measured themselves with the best in the world through imaginative and selfless leadership. It is about time that we put the “South Atlantic Initiative” to test: the Northern region still meets as do the OOdua states of the West. Only the Eastern states have permitted themselves to fritter away great opportunity for greater economic and political development through strategic partnership.