•Explains why he is seeking re-election
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, in this interview, speaks on his scorecard in almost four years of superintending over the affairs of Abia State. Excerpts:
It’s been almost four years since Abians gave you their mandate. Can you tell us what has really happened within this period?
It has been three and a half years of hard work, painstaking planning, constant monitoring and evaluation of our assignments. What has made the job a little more interesting for us is that we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do and we also spent a lot of time developing strategies that will help us deliver on our mandate and some of these strategies are not classical pieces of information from the regular books of economics or development in other climes; we had to do some home grown devices and strategies to suit our peculiar circumstances in Abia.
We decided to look at how best we can deliver on our vision which is to create a better life for our people and to make Abia a destination for trade and commerce as well as an environment and ecosystem for small and medium scale enterprises. And in order to achieve this, we looked at the things we think we had comparative and competitive advantage in over other states. Prominent among them is trade and commerce because every Igbo man is acclaimed to be a good trader and in Abia, we have very successful traders better than even the Lebanese.
We also noticed that World Bank had at that time, 2015, reported the presence of over 200,000 artisans doing all kinds of things with leather and garment. So, naturally it will be a misnomer for us to ignore the impact of those 200,000 people knowing that each of them will employ at least four persons and about a million people or so doing one form of handicraft or the other cannot be ignored by any serious leader. So promotion of small and medium scale enterprises became our second pillar. Abia is blessed with one of the most fertile soils in the world. A recent study by some Brazilians who wanted to do some sugar cane farming here showed that if you throw any fruit out of the window you will get that same plant, so everything can virtually grow and flourish in our state but we don’t have all the soil in the world. I think we are one of the smallest states in terms of land area, so we needed to be careful about choice of crop and also diversify our agriculture as it were and we are also desperate about value addition as well as bringing science and technology to bear in agriculture in Abia.
So we decided to do oil palm, cassava, cocoa, rice and cashew because we just did not want to be jack of all trades. Beyond this, we have a little bit of oil in some local governments down south and we decided to also mainstream oil and gas as one of our pillars. Education became the fifth pillar because if you want to produce an agriculturist, you must educate him first. So, education is relevant in SME promotion, incubation growth, agriculture, trade and commerce and all of that; so we had to see how best we can retune our education system to suit our purpose. But the enablers that will drive the five pillars became the main issue because these are the things you need to work on and the manifestation will begin to show on the pillars.
So, there was the need for us to craft deliberate agendas on the enablers. You cannot talk about trade and commerce without good roads to move goods and services from one point to the other.
Beyond road, security, whatever you needed to do, you need to work hard on your security architecture and make sure that you provide the enabling environment for people to do business and you attract tourists, industries into your space.
Of course, health, because if you attract a businessman and he is investing, you also imagine that he could get sick, so there was the need for us to do something about our health sector. We looked at these enablers and, from day one, we opened up roads and Abia is a state that every serious-minded person that wants to be part of governance in Abia needs to understand. A lot of people don’t seem to understand Abia culturally, geographically, socially, topographically. So, if you don’t know the history of Abia and you don’t understand Abia, you will just come and pass as if nothing happened. But for us, we took all of this into cognizance and we did a deep research and study about who Abians are, what Abia means to them, the relationship between one senatorial zone and the other, the agric belt of Abia, the oil belt of Abia, the trade and commerce hub of Abia and all of that.
So, naturally, we said that since Aba is a very strong commercial centre, not only in Abia but the entire South-East and Nigeria, critical and strategic to the development of this country that it will be a misnomer also for us to abandon Aba and we opened up on roads in Aba. We needed to ventilate Aba. It is important to us to draw narratives of what it was then and where we are now.
I recall vividly that there was no route to Akwa Ibom from any part of Aba, therefore people from Port Harcourt couldn’t come because the Enugu-Port Harcourt highway was and still in a state of disrepair. For the Akwa Ibom channel, it was so bad it got to a point where people from Ariaria had to take their wares to Akwa Ibom because we have also painstakingly characterised the clientele of our big market.
In Ariaria, 60% of those who come to patronize them come from Akwa Ibom, Cross River axis. Of course, they include people coming from Cameroon, people coming from Cross River and Akwa Ibom and the rest 40% come from Port Harcourt and the businesses we do within ourselves from Owerri, Enugu and all of that.
Geographically speaking, Aba and Umuahia in particular seem to be at the confluence of the South-East and South-South states. So, we are at the centre of seven states and we wanted to take strategic advantage of this geographical position. And that is what gave us the idea that we have a business population of close to 30 million every day, but for you to take full benefit of that, you must be able to create access to your commercial nerve centre.
So, like I said earlier, there was no route into Aba. So we started with some roads from the Ogbor hill flank while we began work from the Aba-Owerri flank to enable people from Port Harcourt to access. We also began construction on MCC which is an alternative in-road along the Owerri-Port Harcourt axis. So, simultaneously, within the first 100 days, we were able to open Omini, MCC that we later christened Chima Nwafor. Then we opened Ukaegbu, Where, Umuola, Ehere and Umuola and Ukaegbu which had been in a state of complete disrepair for over 10 years. So the only channel through which you can enter Aba from that axis was the Umuoba road.
So, people in Ariaria were sitting hands on their cheeks for several weeks without patronage. So, whenever they were forced to take their wares to Akwa Ibom, some will have to do 2, 3, 4 trips through the bush because each time they went, their clients in Akwa Ibom will say “this is not the goods we want”. So I felt the pain of my people and decided to embark on all of these.
Getting into Aba again, the other problem is how do you access Ariaria because, for over 16 years, nobody had travelled from one end of Faulks road, Brass to the other end. The Ariaria axis, the Ifeo-obara pond inclusive belongs to the lowest areas in Aba, they are the slums in Aba. The only place that is lower is the Ife-obara side and we knew we had to contend with three things at once: Sanitation, storm water management and roads.
Someone will be quick to ask, why did we suddenly solve the problem of some of these slums that have become intractable for 20 years? In fact, at a point, we resigned to fate and said there was juju, that’s shrine around those areas. What we did was to do some proper planning to understand the terrain and began systematically and gradually to deal with the issues.
One, we dredged the waterside because we knew that was going to be the major recipient of storm water or runoff. Two, we started a policy of no drainage, no road; so for all the roads we have done in Aba, all of them have come with double arm drainage end to end and we follow up to see where the water will empty.
Three was that wherever water had sat for 20 years, we now decided to deploy cement pavement technology with also full complement of drainage. So these were our state of emergence strategy to recover Aba quickly and that is why I am proud to say today that whereas I can hardly point at any road in Aba that is more than five years old, the ones we have done have lasted from the first 100 days till now and I have guaranteed that they will outlive my tenure.
How do you build infrastructure stock?
The only way to build infrastructure stock is to ensure that you deliver quality projects that will outlive your tenure so that your successor will inherit the roads you did and then build on them because, if we all go to do roads that I consider disposable and by the time you are concluding and the next person comes, he is not going to inherit anything, so you cannot build on your stock on infrastructure that way.
There are so many roads connected to the Ife-Obara problem like Port Harcourt road, Omouma, Osusu, Urata, Ngwa and Faulks road. Strategically we chose Faulks road because of its proximity to Ife-Obara and because it leads into Ariaria quickly; so because of these two advantages we had to prioritise the road but with a special treatment.
For us to deliver on Faulks road, it took us seven months of painstaking plan. I sacked a contractor doing that road when I saw he had no solution to our problem. Then we got Setraco. When we got Setraco, we also insisted that they should post a site engineer from Netherlands who are the best in underwater management to come and give us a plan. Of course we also had local consultants based in Enugu plus the input from the World Bank and we designed that road, which comes with it 6.5kms of underground drainage with pumps, pumping intermittently along the way to waterside from Ife-obara. So as we were dredging waterside, we were also dredging Ife-obara. The strategy here is to make sure that Ife-obara is large enough to take water in its full capacity.
So, it is on this engineering master piece we have now laid our asphalt and that is why for the past three years that we started the road, Ama Ikonne and Ife-obara that used to be a problem are no longer a problem.
Having delivered on Faulks road with that drainage, the next logical step was to kick in with Osusu road which tangents on Faulks road because there is now drainage on Faulks road. Osusu road is now ready to go and we have started construction on Faulks road and Osusu road.
We have not done Omuma road but we are prepared to do it now. Those who may not understand the topography and the logic behind the Aba flood problem would not know that you cannot do Osusu road unless you have done the drainage on Faulks road because the drainage that is coming from Omuma road will tangent on the drainage we have done on Faulks road and it will be pumped to either waterside or Ife-obara.
So, how many roads you have done because during the debate for governorship candidates in the state, your main challenger in the forthcoming election, Alex Otti, disagreed with you on the number of roads you have done.
We have about 169 roads and we have completed over 70 of them and these are solid roads that we are sure will stand the test of time. That same gentleman had in the recent past displayed his lack of understanding of the problems of Abia because I had him compare the jobs we are doing with what is being done in Ebonyi and Imo states. Some of the roads in Owerri, for instance, are cement based; so when you see the black asphalt, you will be tempted to say this is the regular thing, no, because beneath it is 9 inches concrete with BRC and then the asphalt, so this is what we need to do. A lot of people do not have the commitment and patriotism to deliver such quality jobs to their people.
Those who know me in Nigeria know that I am not an election politician as exemplified by our flagship project the Enyimba Economic City. That is not a project for somebody who is trying to do things to win election. That is a project for somebody who is futuristic because if I am unable to create the template for the creation of between 700,000 and one million jobs in Abia, then I am not faithful to my children and those who would seek for jobs many years after I have left; what am I going to say to them that I just did roads and went away? I am saying we have little time to plant our feet in history and if we fail today, it will be too late tomorrow. I don’t know what the rest of Nigeria is thinking but for us in Abia, we must industrialise between now and the next five years and it is achievable.
Talking about industrialisation, what infrastructures are you putting in place to achieve this in Abia?
Any person that is serious about development in any clime must have a strong baseline that you can trust. The first question is, what is in your hands because you cannot reinvent the wheel neither can you create anything? So when I inherited over 250,000 people doing all kinds of things with leather, I needed to start from that as my origin but they had four major problems; power, automation and capacity building, market and finance.
Power and finance I had no hand in them, they are with the federal government, they deal with it; so I needed to leverage on what I could and that is marketing and that is why we decided to market aggressively the made in Aba goods. It achieved two things for me; one is that I drew the attention of this federal republic to what we are doing and the things we can do. Two, l exposed our potentials and changed our narrative from a state of bad people to a state of creative people and, because of this alone, we have gone everywhere all over the world. We were able to attract the vice president as acting president to this state on two occasions and that dovetailed into the executive order that says before you buy anything from outside Nigeria, go and see if there is a place it is done here. So when the military ordered 50,000 pairs of shoes, if one of them is N10, 000, that is N500million into the pockets of those shoe makers and don’t forget the order from the Navy, the NYSC among others.
We were in The Gambia with shoe makers face-to-face with the Gambia President and we are thinking of producing shoes for The Gambian police and military. 30 of those boys have gone to China for capacity building courtesy of this government and they are now experts in the use of one machine or the other in shoe making; so automation has come. At a point, the federal government could no longer ignore the Aba people and they came with the agency in charge of rural electrification and now gas powered electricity has come to Ariaria supplying 1,000 of 34,000 shops. So all the four problems that bedevilled us: Finance, power, marketing and capacity building, we have all solved just through marketing.
And I am proud to say today that some universities have researched on that paradigm on how to use marketing to achieve their goals in terms of industrialization and they think the Abia model is unique and it is working. This has led us to a point where we now say what is the future? What are we looking at? What are we going to do between 2019 and 2023 and that gave birth to the Enyimba Economic City. We are saying we have been marketing made in Aba, the new marketing paradigm from 2019 is make in Aba, come and produce it here and that is where we are going.
Why do you think some people doubt the authenticity of the Enyimba Economic City?
Two things, selective amnesia and desperation and the third reason is worse, ignorance; if somebody is ignorant, it is incurable because before I was rating a lot of people highly but a few things that happened in the past weeks have really exposed how peripheral their thinking is. For somebody not to know that it wasn’t former Gov Sam Mbakwe that built Golden Breweries, Ohabele Oil Palm estate. For somebody to say today that Golden Breweries is moribund after seeing the pictures of the officers of the Bank of Industry talking about commissioning and you haven’t been there, you just sit somewhere in Lagos and say such, that person will ignore the presence of an elephant if he sees one.
What have you done in education?
We started by exposing our primary school teachers to a retraining programme using an Australia NGO to get what we wanted to achieve. As I speak, over 3,000 teachers have gone through that programme and it has culminated into the establishment of Abia Teacher Training Continuing Education Centre at Umuahia. About 40 of our teachers are at the verge of going to Australia for an exchange programme which the NGO is supporting also. Abia today is the only state that has achieved 420% reversal of school enrolment from private schools back to public schools through our school feeding programme where we are also employing 5,350 teachers.
The university we have at Uturu ran for three years without strike and that has moved their rating from number 90 in 2015 to the first 10 in Nigeria today.
Tell us your feats in sports and why should Abians vote for you again?
In terms of soccer, Abia is the only state in Nigeria that has two premiership clubs: Enyimba and Abia Warriors. We have other lesser known clubs like Abia Angels. When we came in, we discovered that we didn’t have a stadium that will match the pedigree and the popularity of Enyimba. The last time I watched soccer there before governor, it rained and they had to bring in mattress to soak water from the pitch, so we needed to do something about that. The stadium as big as it was then had no toilet. We did a complete turnaround starting with the turf. We had to import the latest turf in the market, semi synthetic, 95% natural, 5% synthetic and that pitch is one of the biggest in the world today and we put 32 toilets including the one for people that are physically challenged. And I am proud to say that legacy is also tied to our name. We are going to run strong on two things: The Enyimba Economic City which for us holds the promise of creating a silent but welcome revolution around industrialisation process of not only Nigeria but Africa. Two things will happen on account of the economic city, the 700,000 to one million jobs that will come, then the opportunity and the chance of our people learning first hand through apprenticeship how to do light manufacturing. I trust the capacity and capability of our people to copy technology.
How do you react to the concerns expressed by many on non-payment of salary? Isn’t this a dent on your government?
It is just an orchestrated campaign of calumny. So, there is nothing to say apart from salary. And by December 24th every worker that we paid here went home with his salary but I must admit that the local governments owe one and a half months salary. And I was the first elected governor after 2015 that did local government elections. I must also confess that I have a problem with secondary school teachers because I owe them about three months salaries or so and the major problem is that we took much more than we can bite. When we did the local government elections, we were supposed to unbundle the junior secondary school teachers because they are under UBEC. In other states, they are paid by local governments but we took them up thinking that our fortune could carry so that we can allow more money in the local government system for them to do some projects. So to them I just say that help is on its way, that we are going to deal with it. So what you hear about salary is just propaganda. One of them said a parastatal like Abia Line, that I should go and find money and pay, why should I pay Abia Line? It is called Abia Line Nigeria Ltd, they put buses on the highway, I can guarantee loan for them. But if you get 20, 30, 40 brand new buses and you employ drivers and conductors and they drive from Abia to Lagos for ten times, pay them. Since you are not giving government the money, I will not pay them.