Vincent Kalu and Peter Agba Kalu
Almost four years in office, Abia State governor, Dr. Okezie Victor Ikpeazu, has reeled out challenges that have confronted him and how he has been able to tackle them.
In this interview, the governor says payment of salaries in the state should be taken for granted, claiming that workers in the state are not owed.
Almost four years in the saddle, what are the challenges of running Abia State?
Well, two things actually. One is social mobilisation, getting the people to go with you, because the new paradigm in development is that you get the people involved in what you are doing. For instance, you don’t throw infrastructure, you don’t throw your vision in just like that. You must market your vision. You must market the very essence of what you are doing. Because of previous experiences, people have come to the point (where) they no longer believe government. They have become numb. You want to give scholarships, they would say, “no I don’t think this scholarship will work.” On that day, you won’t see any child coming to apply for scholarship, even with all the good intentions.
Now, we have to begin to see how we can get that done. No government before ours engaged as many times as we have; we do three to four phone-in radio programmes bi-weekly. We engage even secondary school students, university students, market people, church people and so on, all the time. We keep talking and getting feedback to see how we can get everybody involved.
The other challenge is what everyone will tell you: a few resources chasing many things. But it is also what makes governance exciting because, assuming you have all the money to do all you want to do, it won’t be exciting and that is eventually what would define success or otherwise.
Your are bidding for a second term, but your opponents claim you didn’t perform because your predecessor and his son, who allegedly imposed you on Abia, didn’t allow you to work; there is the belief that, if you get a second term, ex-Gov. T.A. Orji and his son, who is in the House of Assembly, would still hold you down and won’t give you the space to deliver. What do you have to say?
First, there is no government before now that has done more than we have done in the same space of time. Secondly, those opponents were in court with me till April 12, 2018, three good years. Their intention was to make sure I did not concentrate and that I would not have anything to show. So that mindset is what they are coming with; but they are shocked and surprised at what we have done so far in terms of achievement, and I have raised the level of governance. I don’t want to waste my time alluding to ‘superimposition’ or somebody disturbing somebody not to work or whatever, because all those who came before me were also blessed and endorsed by people and the basic characteristics of my government is completely different. They don’t look the same, both in character, form and shape. So, I cannot waste my time discussing imposition or otherwise.
Nobody can say, from knowledge of hindsight, that this is the signature of Ochendo in Ikpeazu’s government. There is no relationship at all and we are also saying that I am a very cultural and traditional person, who is happy to respect people and elders. I am also very natural and, in this political dispensation, this is the very first PhD in government in Abia State, without sounding immodest, and there is need to show something different. There is no need to quarrel with your predecessor. He knows where the red line is. He is an elder statesman and a distinguished senator and that relationship stops there. He knows that a sitting governor has enormous power and is faced with a lot of responsibilities and can become impatient with an overbearing person.
So, we want to redefine relationships, raise the interest of the common people above primordial issues, family issues, interpersonal relationship issues, etc. Some people are shocked and surprised that Abia is the most stable state in Nigeria today, no quarrel between the deputy and the governor, no quarrel between successor and predecessor, no Abuja politicians, all major stakeholders in Abia, Elders’ Council, the clergy are on the same page trying to develop Abia. It is a boat I don’t want to rock just for the purposes of, ‘yes he has quarrelled with him.’ People are waiting for it, they write it and try to stoke it up. Quarrel with him for what? They write things that are not true and I am saying, for the first time in Nigeria, can we raise the bar a little bit so that the discussion will be about the people and not about individuals?
Our government, for the first time in Abia, is a vision-driven government. I have challenged those who are contending with us to discuss their vision; can they forget about what we have not been able to do and put forward their own vision? Let them do that because it was also their mistake in 2015 and they are repeating the same. They spend much time talking about what they feel I should have done and they forget to market their own vision. But for me, all I need to do is just to say to the people, can you take a peep at their antecedents? If they go back to the places they worked, can they get a reference that the place is good or better today? If they worked in the bank before, can they get reference if the bank is still alive, that, oh yes, this person did a good job and his footprints are good and they are bold. Can they? People need to note that a bank is less than a local government; no bank is as big as Obingwa, my local government.
In terms of what?
In terms of number of people you are managing, the issues, cultural differences and the elements.
What of financial capacity?
Where is the bank now? A collapsed bank has no capacity at all, financial or otherwise. This issue is about governance; it’s about crafting a vision that will lead to organic growth. You are representing the interest of all kinds of people, including people who worship idols, and then you must also cope with the checks and balances in the place. It may not be different for you as the chief executive of a company. You can come and sack the gateman because he didn’t open the gate on time. You don’t do that in government. There are laid down procedures and rules for dealing with every issue and you must have the comportment to drive your vision, even in the midst of all these elements playing out.
So, it is about your pedigree; it’s about all you’ve done before and it’s about the strength of your vision going forward. Today in Abia, our story has changed and people should watch my lips. Three years ago, I was saying, ‘Made in Aba’. As you see these beautiful clothes I am wearing, they were made in Aba. Now we have changed gear, we are saying, ‘Come and make in Aba’, that is why we are doing Enyimba Economic City and the leather village. Come and make in Aba. We are not saying made in Aba anymore, we’ve moved ahead to ‘come and make in Aba’. The depth and strength of this vision is what is uncommon, people cannot see it now but they will see it soon.
What is the debt profile of Abia State? It looks like top secret. Some say it is N150 billion, others say N300 billion. What is the true position? Also, which of these debts happened under you?
First of all, no debt profile is top secret. In Nigeria, you know about the latest law in terms of government business and access to information. Secondly, there is no debt any state can go into, including borrowing N1 billion, that, firstly, the House of Assembly will not first endorse. Again, there is the Debt Management Office (DMO) in Abuja. Abia cannot borrow without DMO endorsing it, and the Bureau of Statistics is there. Why they say it is a secret is because they want to play with words. Abia’s index in terms of capacity to borrow is as green as ever. Abia is one of the states that is in green, green. So, it is not an issue at all. Abia is not broke.
So, what figure are we looking at?
I don’t want to be quoted because I don’t have the books here but I want to tell you that, if you Google it or go to DMO and ask them about our debt profile, they will tell you. There is nothing about it. Which banking institution in Nigeria can lend you N300 billion without necessary approvals? Borrowing from where? What are you borrowing N300 billion for? You know, to my opponents, we are more or less like magicians because of the enormous work we have done and of course their own short sightedness.
The Enyimba Economic City we are driving is a private sector driven thing. The leather city we’ve just done the ground-breaking is also on similar PPP model. Nibra Brazil is leading the Leather City with the Abiola family; they are coming to collaborate with our government to do a private sector-driven thing. The latest FDI report says we are the third best in Nigeria, with more than $1.2 billion coming our way because of the work we have done in marketing the state. And I have proven to the people that I am a strong marketer; remember what we have done so far with made-in-Aba.
Recently, we started discussions with the government of Gambia to make shoes for them. That was after I took our shoemakers to Gambia. So, the thing is that our opponents can’t just comprehend the scale and scope of what we are quietly doing. They are not on the political firmament here, and they do not exist. Who are you seeing? Somebody in the social media who lacks basic sense of justice and equity, wants to run for a governor in a state. You are from Arochukwu, you go and pick your deputy from the same federal constituency, what happens to the rest 15 local governments?
But he said he is from Ngwa?
Which Ngwa? Oh, well, you didn’t watch the Channels interview where he said he is from Arochukwu. Yes, he admitted. See, let me tell you, when somebody begins to deny his identity just because he is looking for a political position, it tells you more about the person’s desperation. In 2015, the same person said he had concluded a loan facility with the World Bank to develop Aba through IFC. One Torty did a fact check immediately and the people denied that an individual could borrow on behalf of government.
Somebody took an institution built by one of the foremost economists in Igboland, which became the fifth largest bank in Nigeria, and the baby died in his hands. Now the bank will be deleted from CAC. He obliterated the man’s dream and vision and that of all the people in the South East the man employed and gave hope through that bank.
It is not about the money, it is about my baby. And you have not created anything of that strength and magnitude yourself, but the one you took from your uncle died in your hands and you are not bothered? I think people should be serious for once. If I were him, I would be worried. I won’t be gallivanting, saying things that are immaterial. No, I would not.
The footprints are clear. The thing that happened to the Modern Ceramics Industry, Umuahia, where Diamond Bank intervened at a point, and it got to a point where the Catholic Church now invited us to say, please, we just borrowed N250 million and they are saying we are owing more than N1.2 billion and the state government had to intervene. Those are his footprints. Modern Ceramics, from just N120 million, it owes about N1.2 billion. To the Catholic Church, how do you beat your chest and say vote for me?
When they did Obuaku, it was the same Diamond Bank. When we went to do ground-breaking for the Leather City at Obuaku and I was confronted by the community. They said we took their land, but I said no, Diamond Bank took it, but they said, ‘it was collaboration with the state government.’
You see, before you go into anything, especially now when there is no money, study what you want to do very well, ask questions, because anybody that comes with the pride of, ‘I know it all’, cannot survive. That is why Obuaku city failed. If you go to Lagos today and you are looking for a job, first you arrive to live with your brother in Mafoluku, and you rent a house there, what if you later find a job in Lekki? The first thing to do is to create an industry at Obuaku and residential settlements will spring up naturally; build a university and hostels will come. Don’t go and build a hostel somewhere and say this is a hostel, those who want to enter university should come and live there. What if they get admissions and go to Nsukka and your hostel is in Aba? You must get a job placement, then residence will come. You don’t go into the bush and open a bush or say give me land, I am going to build residential houses so that people working in Port Harcourt can just cross the river and live there. No. Every person would like to have his residential building near his workplace and it is that simple. Get the factories running before you start talking about residential houses for factory workers. It is just the same thing asking someone, chicken and egg, which one comes first? No, there is a rule to it.
You mentioned infrastructure development, but people say there is nothing on ground in Abia. Where are the infrastructures?
I will answer this question in another form, but let me say this: at a point, the wave of propaganda became thick in the air in Nigeria against us, but we were busy working here. I am a teacher. I am not a press person, sorry to say this. As a teacher, what speaks for you is your handwork. Do teaching and research and then, when the time for promotion comes, you submit all your research works and then you don’t need to be seen and they will just go through them. If they want to make you a professor and they require 25 published articles, if you have 25, that’s it; for those of us who don’t have godfathers, if we want to go to the next level and you want 25 published articles, we give you 30. And I don’t need to advertise to anybody that I’m researching and publishing my works. I am working but if you pass through my laboratory in the night, you see my lights on.
So, when the opposition continued to make noise, we now said, okay, let us do projects tour for independent people to verify what we have done so far. I invited key persons in the media, Abia stakeholders, local and national leaders of our party, PDP, and folks like Gbenga Arulegba of AIT; they came to Abia and for two days they couldn’t go through all our projects. In fact, some of them couldn’t summon the energy to go through all the projects; they said they couldn’t continue. The next Monday, Gbenga was on his programme and he said to the whole Nigeria, ‘I have seen what is happening in Abia, I am not saying I heard, I saw.” Because some people called him immediately he opened the programme and it was the turn of Abia, then the person said, “nothing is happening in Abia.” He said “my friend I said I saw it. I didn’t say I heard, I saw what Governor Ikpeazu is doing in Abia State.”
At times, when you bring it and show it on their faces they would say, “ah, it was the Federal Government that did it,” others would say it is propaganda.
So, for us in 2015, we decided to run on five pillars. We said we were going to promote trade and commerce, promote small and medium-scale enterprises or small-scale manufacturing; agriculture, oil and gas, education and so on.
We said to ourselves, how do we arrive at these pillars? We arrived at these pillars in such a way that anyone coming to Abia to do governance in future can’t run away from these pillars; the only thing you can do is to increase the tempo, emphasise on two or three of them because you can’t run away from areas where we have competitive and comparative advantage over other states, because you are not going to make it that way.
Anybody coming to do governance in Abia who ignores the fact that this is the shoe and leather-manufacturing hub of Nigeria is not serious, he is a non-starter. Anyone coming to do governance in Abia and forgets to mainstream trade and commerce, knowing that we are one of the best traders in the world, is not serious. Anybody that is coming and is not thinking of agriculture is not thinking about job creation.
I will give you an example. In Abia, because we are not strong in terms of land area, we must ask ourselves, ‘what type of agriculture are we going to do’? That is what brought us to mushroom farming, where a half plot of land can make N50,000 a day. Oh yes. Today the technology we exported to Ebonyi is flourishing there and they are planning to export mushrooms. Abia exported the technology to Ebonyi and the state is trying to export; but for us, it is not all about exporting mushrooms, it is about being vendors of the technology to every young person that wants to do it as a means of earning a living.
But the state took it up as a State Farm and, for us, we want individuals who will take it up at the back of their yards.
My first day in office was in Aba. We took a study. We have two cities in Abia, Aba and Umuahia. If we emphasise small-scale manufacturing, trade and commerce, then the best place to start is Aba. We found out that Ariaria was the main hub of trade and commerce in West Africa and there was no access road. In fact, this government is the first government that opened Ariaria from Brass Road to beyond Ariaria Market, to the expressway going to Port Harcourt. So, Ariaria Market is located where people from Port Harcourt, Enugu, Umuahia and people within the city can come.
Today, we are one of the strongest states in Nigeria in terms of foreign direct investment, with a recent report showing that more than $1.2 billion FDI came to our state. We are also among the five states in Nigeria that enhanced the ease of doing business. There is no doubt about that. There is a deliberate attempt to improve things, if you look at the numbers in terms of ease of doing business in Abia. With the quality of infrastructure we are doing, we are speaking to the investor who is coming with $1 billion and is looking for where to go.
If you consider security, the next thing is infrastructure; so if you do “Dubai Roads”, he is watching, and he knows that the road won’t be good by the time his business matures, that is, when he finishes building his factory, and his business begins to incubate. He knows that there will be no road. So, for us in Abia, in most of these roads, we introduced cement pavement technology, and we are the first to do so in the South East. We are doing nine inches bridge reach concrete (BRC) and then asphalt. They are the roads we call trans-generational roads. Today, it is a policy in Abia that you can’t do a road without a drainage system. There is a short road called Ominie Drive, and they said there was ‘juju’ there also. Ominie Drive is at Osisioma junction, as you enter Aba; that road in the past never survived six months after reconstruction.
How did we kill the ‘juju’? We just did drainage and took it four hundred meters beyond the presets of that road that landed in a burrow pit. And today that road is three years old, getting to four years. I don’t have to go back there to patch it. You can’t take it away from us that we are not patching roads here.
There was another ‘juju’ on East Street, where they have Ahia Udele, between Park Road by East and Waterside. The reason the road failed after each previous repair work was that the drainage former Governor Sam Mbakwe did had been blocked, so all the water comes to the road. The relationship between water and asphalt is not a good one. What did we do? The day we wanted to re-surface it, I said to them, let us find a way to take this water to Waterside because it is just close by. So, we found a tunnel that was supposed to go across the road and then go to Waterside. We opened that tunnel and created another tunnel that led to Waterside. Three years ago we re-surfaced that stretch of road and as, I speak, it does not need or require further maintenance.
Two things count positively for us. One is the thorough understanding of the topography of the area. I hear some of my detractors say, ah you knocked down people’s houses on Osusu Road and you’ve not done the road, or, you are not doing Osusu Road. And I say to them, Osusu, Omuma and Uratta are within the belt that this Ife-Obara cover; they are at the slump of the city. For you to do Osusu, you must first of all do this underground drainage I did at Faulks Road so that the water from Osusu can relate with the drainage on Faulks Road because Osusu is close to Faulks Road. Omuma Road is now ready for us to do; in fact, I just read a note from somebody, landlords on Omuma Road has started removing illegal structures, saying the governor was coming to fix the road. They know that I have done Ife-Obara and I have done Samek; the next thing is to do drainage on Omuma Road to channel and pick water to Ife-Obara and the rest of them. I will not go back to any road I have done. I will not. Because my projects are products of painstaking planning and it is so because I come from here. Two, it is my nature. There is no palliative measure in my dictionary. I either deal with it or I leave it. There are those whose consciences allowed them to do awkward jobs and get away, but for me, I cannot.
What is the relationship between you and Abia civil servants/workers? They are always talking about salary arrears of eight months, nine months, and six months.
Payment of salaries should be taken for granted as something that should be done routinely. I don’t like discussing salaries because part of my frustration as a teacher was when it got to a point that, one, I couldn’t find a still water in a lab; secondly, when as a teacher you cannot fund any trip abroad for years and you are promoted to the next level and you’ve not done peer review, you’ve not seen what it is; you’ve not opened your window to see how it is done in South Africa, especially if you teach Biochemistry, which is dynamic and in the state of rapid flux, you will get worried.
For me, what I wish and hope for Abia workers is capacity-building. For now, what we should be talking about is re-tooling them, ICT-wise, getting them to become more efficient, then calibrating whatever they are doing against their output, giving them responsibility that can enable them express themselves, not just go to work, take salary, come back, play draught; no, no, no. We should be able to think beyond just paying them to plan for their development and build teaching capacity. It is necessary because the human brain is the biggest computer ever, and the only way to sustain the functionality of the computer is to use it. Any brain that is not used goes into disuse and then that is not good enough. If you do too much routine work of pushing one green file up and down, up and down, you won’t know how to handle challenges. Truth of the matter is that every worker in all the ministries took their December salary before 24th and they are more than 24,000; not part of their salaries, all, and there was no outstanding. When I said all, I did not say all minus one. All the workers in our MDAs have received December salary and most of them have already been paid January salary.
However there are parastatals that are supposed to be revenue-generating parastatals of government. I have had the privilege of being a general manager of one of them. The day I took over, I also inherited outstanding salary in that parastatal. I looked into the books. Those who were there before me painted the picture of Siberia, you know where it is, and you don’t want to go there. When they post you there, people would begin to sympathise with you, saying, “sorry o, onyeisi ga-emecha cheta gi, this one bu ka iwere ya na a manage (sorry, the governor will remember you, this is just to keep you busy), you will be recognised very soon. But when I got there, I looked at the situation and said, no, I would do two things: I would clear salary arrears and I would bring some innovations to bear and bring respectability to that office. I changed my mode of dressing. As the general manager, I decided to dress in such a way that people who would come to see us in the office would know that they are going to see a general manager and no less than a GM. Of course, I not only succeeded in paying four months’ salary arrears, I started for the first time ambulance service for accident victims.