A tour of the South-East will reveal so many things. First are potencies that are begging for actualisation for the beneficial interest of people of the region and the country generally. These potentialitiess have been largely ignored, or overlooked, because of the free cash that drops monthly from the Federation Account. Just as salary is a deceptive reality, monthly allocation from the Federation Account serves the same purpose. The recent study, which showed that 33 states of Nigeria will not survive without financial allocation from the centre, clearly points us to the progressive failure of visionary leadership in our country. This has blighted the economic growth of states, making the political leaders hold on to the view that their major assignment is to spend and not to generate money.
I once encountered a local government chairman in a state of the region. He boasted to me about how much he had to spend every month. I asked him what he spent on. He told me that he has a list of the who’s who in the council area that must be ‘taken care’ of from whatever he got as monthly allocation. I was miffed. But what could I have done? Nothing! I then asked him how much he was given to spend on capital projects. He laughed, placed his right hand on my shoulder and told me that I was yet to learn how the system functions. According to him, everything called capital project was the governor’s business while, as local government chairman, his most important assignment was to secure the council area for the governor’s re-election project. He was to make sure that no opposition flag, voice or poster was raised in the entire council area. For this, he got a hefty sum every month. To his record, the council chairman left office, after two years, having not built even a culvert. None of the potential that abound in his council area was explored.
That is just an insight into how we fool ourselves while thinking that the Federal Government will build our primary schools or even fix rural roads and primary healthcare centres. If we must get it right and change our story, we must return to the basics and begin to hold even our local government chairmen accountable for their stewardship. But I digress.
I actually believe that the times now make it imperative that our leadership in the South-East begins to identify, develop and promote those possibilities that states need to change their story. I believe that the South-East, as a region, can survive without federal allocation. This, of course, depends on the ability of governments of the region to take advantage of existing realities to build and grow an economy that would serve all. Talk of the region being landlocked pales into insignificance for a people who are determined to change their story. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, had proudly told the story of the Jews when they first arrived in the territory, Israel. He said they planted and sold only oranges with a population of about 8,000 surrounded by people who had vowed to annihilate them. Today, Netanyahu tells any ear that cares to listen that there is an Israeli insignia on every computer or computerised equipment sold in the world. That country also proudly leads in agricultural technology, military technology and in so many sectors.
Today, Innoson of Nnewi is a reality. It has shown capacity for light and heavy vehicle manufacture. What it would need for expansion is government support. Such support will help grow the company, expand its capacity for manufacture of both vehicles and spares parts, create more jobs and, ultimately, expand the size of the economy of the region and, eventually, tax for the states. The five governments of the South-East have annual budgets. In these budgets, billions are appropriated for vehicles. If only 50 per cent of the amount that governments of South-East states expend on vehicles every year is spent on Innoson brands, the size of the company will expand tremendously. The implication for the region’s economy can only be imagined. Imagine also what this means for job creation and specialisation. It also has the capacity to inspire ancillary investments built around the auto industry. It only takes one thing – thought.
Beyond Innoson, the Nnewi-Onitsha axis has already shown capacity for heavy industries. Aba in Abia State has proven capacity for lighter industries for cosmetics, clothing, footwear, leatherworks, etc. Ebonyi State has capacity for agro-allied industrial concentration. This troika opens the South-East’s economy to possibilities that could transform the story of the region. With Owerri at the centre of the triangle providing capacity for hospitality and tourism, the region is already primed for self-transformation. But we tend not to see these because our focus is heavily fixated at the central government. It is understandable, however, why this is so. The centre is where the money is. With more allocation going to the centre, it naturally follows that more attention will be focused there. This is why many Nigerians have called, and still call, for a reworking of the revenue allocation formula such that states and council areas will have more.
Beyond that, however, what the South-East needs for these potentialities to work for its good is a more unified development agenda, driven by visionary leaders who, like the Chinese say, would plant trees whose shade they do not necessarily need to sit under. In appreciating this reality, South-East leaders ought to change their mindset and think outside the box. Thinking outside the box here means taking advantage of existing possibilities and building on them. It is not impossible to link those three points, by rail, to the sea through Port Harcourt, or expand capacities of the two international airports in the region, Akanu Ibiam in Enugu and Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport at Owerri, to play their roles in facilitating export and import.
These are not actions that the Federal Government would likely take for the good of the region. Prof. Philip Effiong Jnr, son of General Effiong, second in command in the defunct Biafran leadership, said in a recent interview published in The Sun that, “Biafra did a lot of creative things, inventing its own weapons, building a lot of things indigenously in science and technology that had been allowed to rot away since after the war. Biafra was very creative. Those who won the war do not want to give Biafra any literacy.”
That is a line that South-East political leaders must internalise. No doubt, the Federal Government will ultimately be a beneficiary of an economically developed South-East, it is, however, not likely to directly get involved in pushing a new development trajectory for the region because of the unspoken and, unwritten, policy of deep mutual suspicion with which Nigeria is governed. It is a nasty policy that has defined ethnic relations in Nigeria.
To rise above that ‘policy,’ therefore, South-East leaders and people no longer need to sit back and lament. It is their forte to expand the discourse and engagements on regional cooperation and use same to drive focused development that will change the story of the region. So doing, they would have repositioned the region and made it the darling of all. Such regional cooperation can also lead to the development of new relations with foreign development partners and institutions that are ready to put their money where some sense and vision exist.