From Adetutu Folasade-Koyi and Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Governor of Abia State, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, can rightly be described as an embodiment of knowledge, an academic par excellence, a quintessence politician, preacher, scientist and many other qualities rolled into one.
Speaking to Daily Sun in an interview in Abuja ahead of his 57th birthday, Dr. Ikpeazu went down memory lane to recount the journey of his life, highlighting his deepest regrets, the kind of President Nigeria needs in 2023, his plans after office as governor and the helpless and hopeless situation confronting South East governors over insecurity pervading the zone.
Did you at any time dream of becoming the governor of a powerful state like Abia while growing up?
Let me say that the answer to that question is an emphatic ‘no’. Naturally, I am a very modest person who likes to win from the back. I don’t like light declared on me so much. I am also a system’s man who plays with people, works and follows well. It was very difficult to discover myself because I was a very busy and troublesome adolescent.
You know what it means to be the first son in a family of three with a headmaster as a father. I can’t forget in a hurry the day I received 48 strokes of the cane. It was a regimented upbringing for me because there was time for everything. There was time for siesta, time for homework.
In fact, I had a teacher for handwriting. It was difficult to follow my father’s strict regimen and express myself, even though I am a very social person. This conflict crowded my adolescence and ability to discover some of the things I discovered. So, to answer your question straight, I did not see it coming.
What then did you dream of becoming in life, especially growing in such regimented conditions?
I was determined to march out of knowledge and that was why I was already in the university at the age of 16. By my 20th birthday, I already had a second class, upper division, in Biochemistry, despite the fact that I attended all the parties in school. I certainly know that, if I had studied harder, I would have probably had a better result.
I went straight to do my master’s degree and PhD without working, and, before my 30th birthday, I was already a doctor of Biochemical Pharmacology. So, my career path was set for me. Of course, I was teaching at various institutions while in school, like the University of Maiduguri, where I taught briefly, Calabar Polytechnic and ESUT, where I even became the head of department. My career path was to become a teacher and I have not abandoned it.
How did you become a governor?
Some 15 or 20 years ago, I was appointed the first transition committee chairman of my local government. Before then, during NRC/SDP (National Republican Convention/Social Demoratic Party), my father was in NRC while I was in SDP. I was into youth activism. I would go to meetings with his car and if he returned from work and saw the car parked differently, he would ask me how the meeting went, instead of complaining about the car.
He had a very robust political life, and ran for elections in the past. When I became the transition committee chairman, I discovered that I had a way of rallying my people around. I also knew that I could demystify power. As local government chairman, I had some influence and a way of galvanising people to be happy with me.
So, to my surprise, they said, if I could do this just from the classroom, I was a better candidate. I dedicated my first salary in the flipside of public service to teaching aids. I had purchased a projector, preparatory for returning to school to the classroom. Lo and behold, those items, 18 years down the line, are still inside the carton because, from then, I became special adviser and from there gravitated to where I am today.
I leveraged my experience as local government chairman and brought them to bear in future service. I knew that there was something in me and part of it was that I developed a philosophy that I had to impact the office, not the office impacting me. My children even know that they are children of Okezie Ikpeazu, not the governor. This is because the governor is an abstract entity not sustainable. The real deal is Ikpeazu, not the governor.
What has been your guiding principle, which keeps you meeting up the challenges as a leader?
First is the amazing grace of God. The next is the fact that God deposited in me to, at all times, put myself in the position of the voiceless and those that cannot be in the same room with me. They are the people I have come to serve. I don’t have a problem taking decisions and, whenever I am confronted with one, I ask how it will reflect on the majority of the people out there.
I also noticed that what I am today must be for a purpose and that God has enabled it for a purpose, which cannot be for my personal gain all through. I may enjoy some free lunch and privileges but, obviously, I must know that the next file to open is my handover file. That day must certainly come and I must give account of stewardship.
I know how to close my books on a daily basis and, in closing my books, I ask whether those decisions I took were really the right ones because they would haunt me long after I leave office. And, unless you don’t have conscience, you ought to know that, if you review the decisions you took while in office, you may still take them again.
What is the spirit behind the mantra Nwa Aba or Umu Aba?
Umu Aba is a term used to describe and express resilience, that can-do and irrepressible spirit. It is that everything-is-possible spirit. It also defines creativity, oasis in the desert and the ability to make things happen. An average Nwa Aba would tell you to drop him in the desert and he would certainly survive.
It is that spirit that keeps pushing and telling you that you cannot return to the streets of Aba and say you came home empty-handed after sojourning in America, Europe and or other continents. It is a certain kind of energy domiciled among the boys, girls, and women, old and young.
However, it also defines the fact that there is a roofless avenue to reward carelessness because, if you steal, in those days in Aba, you will receive jungle justice there. I have witnessed Aba boys chase for 12 kilometres and arrest armed thieves. As the thieves were running and shooting, they were counting the shots from their six-revolver gun and once the gun ran out of bullets, they rounded all of them up.
What are those things that make you happy as a governor?
First is the fact that I have been able to change a few things with the latest being that we sent out the first batch of youth beneficiaries of our foreign skill empowerment training for the first time in the history of Abia State. Don’t also forget that we had sent over 30 young boys and girls to China to learn shoemaking. It was their first experience of entering an aircraft from Owerri Airport to Lagos for departure to China.
What makes me happy is that shoemaking in Aba, courtesy of our modest efforts, has moved from artisanal level to a profession. We have exported expertise to UAE and Aba shoemakers are making waves across the globe, with their insurances paid and with many of them poached. We are redefining shoemaking ecosystem and we are going to do the same thing for garments before December this year.
We knew that they were our strongest points. We are not reinventing them but just selling them. Since these people are skilful in these things, why can’t we just encourage them to be the best in them? Like Bangladesh, Vietnam, among other countries, we can become a manufacturing platform for all kinds of products, ranging from shoes, garments to leatherworks, not only in Africa but also for the entire world. We have the capacity.
What are those things that make you sad?
Well, I always try to be a happy man and in a light mood. I once joked with my wife to make me get angry and I would give her N100,000. It is not easy to get me angry because it is not good for my mental health. When I see it coming, I activate buffers that will handle it. They say that the true definition of a person is one whose emotions should not be read on his face.
I respond when I am angry instead of vulcanising the energy I would have used to shout when I am angry. I also know that some people can get you angry inadvertently and without meaning to do that.
The person who got you angry may be useful to you tomorrow. I also know that anger is a diplomatic tool. Somebody can deliberately get you angry during a negotiation to ensure that you lose balance and are unable to proceed. Anger is a tool that can be used against somebody.
However, in the course of governance in the past six years, I must admit that there are things I detest so much. Things like dishonesty, the faulty political system we find ourselves in today, because we have a bunch of country builders, not nation builders. If you ask people whether we have made progress between 1960 and now, they would start counting bridges, but who are the people using them and for what purpose?
On the scale of one to 10, the question should have been whether we were a better nation in 1960 than now. Nation building is about happy people, about seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters. It is about sacrificing for somebody. It is difficult today to convince our youths to love Nigeria. While some enjoyed scholarships in the ’60s, these folks cannot even enjoy it.
That is why, at a time like this, my state, and I am proud to say it, we are sending over 50 youths to India on training in ICT, pharmacy, law, among others, in our drive for youth empowerment and capacity building. The first 30 beneficiaries have gone and, as Australia is opening, we are sending others.
Yes, there is scarcity of funds, but we must think about tomorrow. Our thinking is that, if we build a hospital and purchase the equipment, there must be our people to take charge of the complex. I cannot write the history of my intervention for 2023 without dedicating a chapter on the foreign scholarship.
I know that the burden of leadership indicates that we must do everything, especially in some of these critical sectors. I have to cut off on few comforts, even if it is painful. I have been on 50 per cent of my allowances since 2015. I also persuaded my commissioners to make sacrifices voluntarily. We have people that are suffering, and there is no reason to remain in my comfort zone.
I have just five cars in my convoy. I don’t have any frivolous car following me for nothing. There is no need blaring siren to intimidate people that don’t even have food to eat. The people are angry because what we are doing now are those things we were supposed to have done since.
I had gone to flag-off a road somewhere in my state and noticed that that road had not been done in the past 60 years. I could not hold the tears. I started on an apologetic note, telling them that we were sorry for coming that late. It was not something to be proud of.
With just 18 months to your exit in 2023, have you anointed your successor?
Power is too serious for God to leave in the hands of men. Where are those who anointed others? How can you appropriate such powers just because God was kind enough to give you the opportunity to serve and you now arrogate to yourself the power to anoint somebody?
That is too serious and, if I want to be sarcastic, I would just tell them that I still have 18 months of my tenure and don’t want to abridge it; so, the man who wants to come should think about how he wants to come. My concern is to conclude the things that I am doing.
I am mindful and, if I could be provoked by anything, it could have been the unfriendly reportage of the state of events in my state. I have refused to be provoked. I have asked why people write all kinds of things even when they are not on ground to see things themselves, but the answer came from my last daughter who likened it to Noah’s Ark in the Bible. Noah did not stop to explain to inquisitive people why he was building the Ark until he finished it and rain came with flood.
You may not have anointed anybody but do you believe in the clamour for zoning in your state?
Yes, of course, I believe in zoning. We must know that nation building, family building must be predicated on equity, and any other thing outside that is like standing a table on three legs, which is unsustainable. If people are not saying anything because of repression, it does not mean that you are not bullying them. I believe in equity, justice and zoning, otherwise, the son of a poor headmaster like me should not have the opportunity to become a governor. Many proud people are cowards covering something.
Do you agree with Abia North claiming that it is their turn to produce the next governor?
They have the right to say that it is their turn, especially as the zoning arrangement has gone to North, Central and South, other senatorial zones can as well claim it is their turn. However, there are other indices we can begin to look at in deciding which zone begins the arrangement. I also know that God will speak at the appropriate time. I don’t know the worth of my support; how many governors in the country can reflect the level of stable socio-political environment we have in Abia?
The governor and predecessor are not quarrelling. The House of Assembly, the judiciary are all on good terms with the executive. All the stakeholders are on good terms and it is only in Abia that we don’t have Abuja politicians. It is a reality but people will not extol it because we love to watch battles. It pushes the adrenalin, which is intoxicating.
We like to watch two people fighting to have a good laugh. That is why we don’t extol peace. We desire peace, yet we don’t promote it. The magic wand for the peace in Abia, you may want to ask, is that I am courageous to come to the table. I have made sure I am fair to all. I am prepared to engage.
What is the way forward on the insecurity in the South East, especially the issue of sit-at-home every Monday, as it seems the governors are helpless?
That scenario you see today is a confirmation that we are running away from the mechanics of the problem. As a scientist, I look at problems from the foundation. The fundamental is that the apparatus of security lies heavily on the Federal Government. When there is declaration of sit-at-home and the governors are not doing anything, if I give a counter order or go to the radio and tell people to come out, yet I cannot guarantee their safety, why should I put my citizens in harm’s way, especially as there will not be presence of security personnel on the streets? For a business person whose profit for a day is N1,000, is it wise enough to risk their lives?
The truth is that we have a proliferation of small arms in the hands of people that should not have them. Again, we have an underfunded, unmotivated, ill-equipped and inadequate number of police. Truth be told, policing the South East has been an easy thing. So, whose duty is it to provide this security?
If you call governors the chief security officers and they cannot determine the number of policemen to deploy per square mile of my state or even determine the kind of equipment, am I still the chief security officer? I was asked to buy a certain kind of drone but the security hierarchy in Nigeria said that we cannot procure it unless we pass through some certain processes.
The reality is that the South East governors are handicapped, but not completely. I can tell you that Abia is relatively more peaceful than the other states. I think we need to come together as a people to help this country.
What is the place of Ebubeagu in all these?
I have mobilised my own Ebubeagu and they are in the communities as the hunters, palmwine tappers, our challenge is that Ebubeagu, for me, in Abia, is not to fight IPOB but to fight criminal herdsmen inside the forest with AK-47, making it very difficult for our women to go to farms, making it difficult to bring out food and making the villages inhabitable for no reason.
We are fighting that from two flanks. The first is the farmer/herder conflict resolution, down to the local governments in the state. We resolve conflicts by paying compensation and we have been doing this for many years now. That is why the cases of farmer/herder conflicts are very minimal.
We also empowered the palmwine tappers and hunters with Android phones, bicycles, motorcycles, while the LGA chairmen control them. So, I have already started implementing the state policing we are still preaching at the national level.
My LGA chairmen sit with the DPO, DSS, Ebubeagu, among others, to ensure that there are no breaches of security. The state government supports them with intelligence and reinforcement, among others. The good thing is that it has been working. The various LGA chairmen are in control of the various commands of Ebubeagu security outfit in their respective areas.
What have you done that has added value to the people of Abia State and which you will be remembered for?
How I will be remembered will depend on history and the people, but I am confident and courageous enough to yield what my epitaph will read about me to forces of posterity and history because they don’t lie.
Having said that, I can proudly say that I have added value to my people. If you go to the education sector, for instance, this government has built 650 brand new classroom blocks across the state, including four model schools. In respect of the teachers that cannot solve the arithmetic of primary four pupils, this government set up a continuing education centre for teachers and have trained over 3,000 of them using instructors from Pakistan and Australia.
In collaboration with NGOs, today, we are migrating to digital learning in the next academic session for primary schools across the state. The machines have been purchased from India and configured and teachers already trained.
Many have also forgotten that, in the last six years, Abia State came first in WAEC four times. On every Teachers’ Day, since I came to power, I give three cars to the best teachers in all the three senatorial zones in the state.
In agriculture, this government has cultivated four million seedlings of oil palm, because we cannot be good in everything. The good news is that we have consumed it because oil palm has become our flowers along our streets. I also know that they will start fruiting in a few years from now.
I have already started establishing agro-allied cottage industries in various LGAs, starting with pilots in six of them. I am also collaborating with an Indian firm to set up rice mills right there in the villages where the rice is cultivated. We have added value in also setting up palm kernel production, too.
In small and medium-scale enterprises, we have successfully set up the most modern shoe production factory in the country today. We are presently producing for railway workers and prospecting the police and the military. We have our eyes focused on exporting not only within Africa but also the entire world.
I have concluded arrangements to bring in 189 garment production machines and our plan is that the jerseys for the Super Eagles in the next FIFA World Cup will be made in Aba because they will be world class in quality. The shoe and leather ecosystem in Aba has migrated from artisanal level.
In infrastructure, we have completed about 200 roads and still counting, including three flyovers, the first of its kind, that will be commissioned in December.
We no longer do roads in Aba without drainage because Aba is a flood-prone area. We do roads with the prospect of a lifespan of 20 years. Since sustainability is an issue, we have set up a Youth Road Maintenance Agency in all the LGAs. We purchased a complete set of equipment to help the youths fix the roads. They are fresh engineers we put through the class and the engineers already working on the roads to groom them for practical purposes.
What are the South East governors doing to ensure that the zone gets the presidential ticket?
The currency and raw material of politics is human beings but because human beings are very mercurial and unstable characters, it makes it difficult to agree. We can come to meetings with five governors without knowing who is nursing what ambition. I am the only governor who has come out publicly to say that I neither want to be president or vice president.
What I will do after 2023 depends on God and my people, but the one within my power is that I am being assessed for professorship of Biochemistry. I already have 84 academic review papers and I am writing a book in the field that is almost 400 pages. I am reviewing it presently; I still teach and I am still a member of faculty in Abia State University, where I teach Biochemist even as a governor.
It is very exciting to teach as a governor, but I try to drive myself to school to reduce the decibel and noise associated with my presence. I also dress as simply as possible and always remind them that the man standing before them is Okezie Ikpeazu PhD, not the governor. I always tell them to listen to my message and forget the messenger. I try to remove all the distractions and get them focused. My students, especially those who listen when I am teaching, have confessed that I am a very good teacher. What I am trying to say is that I could go back to teaching when I leave office.
I am setting up an institute of scientific leadership, which is defining leadership from false principles. What are the issues? Like I hinted earlier, we are building a country not a nation. If we must build a nation, we must predicate it on equity, justice and fair play.
Let me volunteer this comment: the President we need in 2023 is the person who can visit all the 109 senatorial districts at least three times in a year, dressed down, without agbada. The political leaders have hurt the people so much. We have to sit down with the people and apologise. We have not done so well and we can do better. We must talk about it.
The incoming President must be able to engage the people, take notes on the demands of each of the senatorial districts, and should return to them to give account of his stewardship. Efforts must be made for Nigerians to key into the Nigeria project again. The railways, the bridges and other things cannot function effectively unless we get Nigerians back on board. It is existential to get the people back on board and any other thing beside what I have suggested will not work.
What are the kind of books you read?
Lately, I focus on the Bible and it may interest you to know that I still preach the word of God in the church. I have preaching appointments every Saturday till the end of the year. I know that, if you must preach well, I have to study the Bible very well.
I have more Bibles than any other man in Abia State, perhaps because people give me as gifts. If I want to study the Bible, I take five verses and I also have Bible aides that help me too. Beyond reading the Bible, I also read books on the lifetimes of great leaders. I enjoy books on human behaviours and psychology.
Why is it that the South East has no common economic ideology as a region?
I can tell you that we have a framework under the leadership of the governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi, which we call South East Development Council, where we talked about railways crossing all the South East states. We can do more and there was a time we even pondered about fixing inter-states roads, but the endorsement from the Federal Government stalled it.
We will raise the issue of economic ideology and see how we can pursue it. Honestly, the Israeli model is also very important to the South East. If I were the South East, I would pursue economic power like the Jews do and it has become impossible for the Secretary of Treasury in America not to be a Jew.
At 57, what do you consider your deepest regret, happiest moments, low and high points of your life?
My deepest regret was that my father did not live long enough to see me become the man he toiled hard to raise. The last time I saw my father was when I was writing my PhD thesis under a hurricane lantern. He came there and though he could not understand the chemical notations, he just nodded his head in admiration.
He was not alive to see me defend the thesis. I still cry for that great man who saw it all that time. I compensated my father with my mother attending my inauguration as the governor even though she passed on one year or so after my assumption of office.
As for my happiest moments, I try to create them all the time. I don’t celebrate birthdays because they are days for sober reflection and spending quiet time to thank God for the challenges that make me better. I also use the period to thank God for the courage and hurdles that I have surmounted. What makes life essential is challenges because they are the spices of life.
My high points are the period I take electricity to a community that has never seen it before. It is also when I take a school or health clinic to a community that has never seen it before. I remember crying the day we commissioned the road we did from Nkporo to Abiriba, because Nkporo community told me that I have rescued them from bad roads.
Again, look at my children from every part of Abia going on foreign scholarships in an economy undergoing recession. I did it because I see great people and leaders of tomorrow in them. They will tell their stories and say that I was part of their lives. Many more will come because I am sending over 30 persons more, whether I eat or I am hungry. They could be the Josephs of Abia in the future.