By Onuoha Ukeh
Abia State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, has charged states’ Independent Electoral Commission on the need to conduct credible local government elections to deepen democracy in the country. He speaks on his vision for a self-sufficient Abia State and assures that all residents of the state are safe to conduct their legitimate businesses without intimidation. In this interview, the governor who bagged a PhD in Biochemistry before he turned 28, bares his mind on his vision and determination to leave a legacy of quality leadership at the end of his tenure.
Last week, you asked Abia State Electoral Commission (ABSEIC) to ensure free and fair local government election, are you not merely being political?
Let me back-track on that a little bit; ABSIEC and other states’ electoral commission have come under very serious threat in Nigeria for two reasons. One is that it is unfortunate that most states don’t engage government that is organised at that level, probably because it is more convenient to run local governments administrations using people you appoint. But for me, by way of my background as a Biochemist, I saw problems at various levels and I asked why there are problems everywhere, why youths are not keying into government policies? The greatest problem facing government and governance in Nigeria at the moment is the trust deficit.
When the government says this is what we want to do, many people will not believe it, we are getting tired of the trend. Here in Abia, I have had the very fortunate situation of being highly criticised. Initially in 2015, coming straight from the classroom as a lecturer, my thinking was that I didn’t need to engage even a Chief Press Secretary, I didn’t want to say anything to the Press and that is why today in Nigeria, you will never hear them say this is what my predecessor did or did not do. He is a human being and he had just eight years, if he did everything then, why am I here? I came here because I saw some gaps. Some of the things we are doing today are things that should have been done. How is it that since ABSIEC was established, they don’t have a permanent place? They are paying rent? For me that is not a big deal, it is something we should have done.
Some of the things we are doing now are things we should have done so many years ago.
Nobody constructed any road around Amamgboru in Aba for the past 60 years. I had tears in my eyes the day I went to flag off that road; I apologised to the people on behalf of the previous leaders because we should have done that road. The level of intervention is so high that by the time I leave office in 2023, I will be leaving a very happy man because the records will be there. For us in Abia, I am confident that my leadership has provided things that can be seen. It gives me confidence that for every Ward, there is something to say. If anybody wants to be a local government chairman and is running election under any umbrella, he should have something to say and he should have a plan. I told all the candidates from my party to set up an economic team so that you will have a story to tell that is peculiar to your locality. There is no sense in taking a fishing net to the desert.
I am very confident for two reasons: One is that ABSIEC has to conduct an election that is above board, otherwise, their existence as a statutory body charged with conducting election into local governments will be threatened. People say that the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIEC) should be scrapped because they are not functioning. If you have a national conversation today, people find it difficult to defend SIECs. If I’m from a state that has not conducted local government election, what moral right do I have to say SIEC should be allowed to continue? They have not been used to conduct credible election in their state, If they conduct credible election in the local governments, they would put the right foot forward and they can say we are important and relevant in deepening democracy in Nigeria and in engaging the youths in the governance system. If we continue to exclude the youths, the kind of problem we had during EndSARS will be child’s play because these are youths who go to school, graduate and remain jobless while some of us want to remain in the political space for decades.
Every leader should plot an exit plan. If you were a teacher, go back and teach, if you were a businessman, go back to your business.
You said earlier that the reason you are doing what you are doing now is that your predecessors failed to do them. What are your plans for Aba in terms of infrastructure development ? Would you say your interventions in Aba are good enough?
They are unprecedented whichever way you look at them. I come from that place and my last job before I became governor was Aba Waste Manager, so I know Aba like the back of my hands. But my analysis of Aba is deeper than what people see and I have no apology for that. Aba is evolving like an organism; when I came to Aba in 2015, there was no road into the city. Aba draws 60 per cent of its oxygen from Akwa Ibom, 30 per cent from Rivers State and then the rest of Nigeria. It is a give and take take. Aba has 60 million catchment business population, it is at the confluence of many states of the South-East and South-South , all of which make it, geographically speaking, a special place.
In 2015, you could not access Aba from Akwa Ibom, Rivers or Umuahia . And when you manage to get into Aba, you can’t get into Ariaria. There are 15 markets in Aba but the one you know very well was Ariaria. That was the situation then. There is no road in Aba today that does not have my touch. If you remove Ikpeazu factor from Aba, what you will have is a cesspool. I must admit that the job is enormous. And in tackling a job where you have limited resources and the job is huge, excellence must be dictated by your capacity to priotise and tell yourself the truth. The first truth is that my predecessors tried to do roads in Aba but those roads did not last past one rainy season. The reason for that is that they were not properly advised. If you do a soil test in Aba that you want to construct a road, anywhere you see that water has stayed in for more than 10 years, the soil texture will begin to change.
It is only when we can improve on our road infrastructure that we will solve the problem so that whoever is coming after me will see some roads; then such a person can do his own. I am not interested in any road that does not lead to economic growth and that is why I’m badly criticised for not doing the road to my village. Because I’ve left the road to my village, it is difficult for any political patron to tell me to do the road to his village. We have not done everything, but we have done beyond my predecessors. Nobody has done the kind of things we have done and nobody will because I have N27 billion that is going into roads. As I speak, work is ongoing on those roads.
Those who criticise me are doing me a favour, my pass mark is 90 per cent, not 50 per cent. Many people who speak about Aba did not come to Aba in 2013. When I went to Aba in 2013, I moved around in Keke, I could count the number of banks that were in operation. But since my administration, Aba has improved, we have not had a single case of bank robbery. Security, road infrastructure, health, education are enablers that will drive trade, and commerce have improved.
So how do you engage youths in the governance structure?
My way of engaging these youths is making sure I set up what is right for them. The advantage is that it will bring to the fore their relevance to voters that they are without bias. Two, they will etch their names in the sands of time as those who made beautiful contributions towards deepening the democratic process. From an off-side angle, I don’t think any other governor went to court as I did. It taught me that part of the reasons why my opponents came after me and I remained in court for three years could be that they have not learnt that in politics, you either win or lose. There is also an element of God in everything you do. God can answer your prayer by saying no. So if we learn to democratise the process of becoming school prefect, councillor and chairman, people will begin to learn. I had wanted to be local government chairman but was not given the opportunity. But when I ran for governor, the people said yes. If I had become local government chairman, maybe I wouldn’t have found myself here. That you didn’t do well in one particular election does not call for desperation. You must learn the process because even in bringing up your children, you teach them compromises.
From all indications, you are passionate about youths. But in this election, do you think they stand any chances of emerging winners and do you think they can handle affairs of government?
The only place you learn how to ride a bicycle is on the bicycle. We cannot arrogate to ourselves the knowledge of everything. I had a PhD before I turned 28 . If I could bag a PhD in Biochemistry before 28, it is difficult for anybody to say that I am incapable of deep analysis. Many years ago, a graduate from a university in Nigeria ran for councillorship election but the people voted for a palm wine tapper. That is the beauty of grassroots democracy. One of the deputy chairmanship candidates in one of the local governments was an EndSARS protester. Somebody brought his picture with an EndSARS banner and tried to persuade me to disqualify him but I said I can’t disqualify him for expressing himself. If he has an idea of what governance should be, then he has a chance to showcase it in that local government.
Back to youth empowerment, my interest in Aba is more than trade and commerce, that is what my people do. But we must step up our game. Today we have E-commerce and other devices through which we buy and sell. If I allow my people to remain traditional traders and stay in their shops, they will not be able to compete. The shoemakers have problems with funding, power and marketing. That was why I began the Made in Aba campaign. Made in Aba campaign is not just about Aba but about Nigeria. It is what I’ve seen our children can do with their hands. What I want to do is to open their eyes. I have taken them to Turkey, Egypt and China; I have organised a trade-fair for them in New York. We are today getting orders from the Nigerian Police and Nigerian Railways to supply shoes. Our fear now is whether we will match the demands. So power has come, automation and capacity building have come. There is no way the Ariaria person will say that I’ve not done anything. There is no way they can say that the man who opened their road after 30 years has not done anything.
Today, my problem is how to remove people from Aba because it has become a market place. Aba has come back to that role it played for the Igbo after the war. All the people displaced in Lagos and the North are now in Aba. We are trying to do the business of governance the best way God has enabled us.
There is the issue of pensioners and unpaid salaries in parastatals; you have set up a committee to harmonise the issue of unpaid salaries, how about the pensioners?
I will accept some blame for some of the problems that the parastatals have because the buck stops on my table. But if you give somebody a government agency to manage, you expect that the person will manage it, keep it afloat and provide for development. When I became governor in 2015, I had the option to begin a forensic audit of all the parastatals, but that is the same energy I would put in the provision of infrastructure and development. But I am in a good place to deal with it now. For instance, when Abia State University appointed a Vice-Chancellor, I told him that he had a difficult mandate because we have a federal university charging N34,000 as school fees and ABSU was charging fees in the region of N70,000. I told him that nobody will come to his school and that his situation is made worse by the fact that they have a problem of an incessant strike and that no parent is ready to spend money that would have been for a four-year course for six to eight years. I told him that the way to go was to run uninterrupted academic calendar so that parents will have confidence. He listened to me and that school ran for five years without a strike. They only ran into a problem during the pandemic because students were excused from class and nobody was paying fees, so the subvention they were given could not pay salaries. I gave the same admonition to all the parastatals but ABSUT did not listen to my advice. In ABSUTH at that time, the gate-man was collecting call duty allowance and each time you don’t pay it, they stop coming to work. There was management ineptitude- they had about 30 House Officers whose salary wage bill was about N30 million. According to them, they were making an IGR of N60 million and let it be on record that non of these parastatals bring N1 to the government; they were allowed to operate and deploy whatever they make to sustain their institutions. If you make IGR of N60 million and house workers need N30 million, why won’t you pay them? Does that not tell us that it is not about the government but those parastatals and their leadership?
That is however not to say that I have abandoned those arrears, I have decided to pick them up. But I am not going to pay unless I see the worker and he tells me what he does, so you must appear for verification. That is why I solicit the support of the media and perception builders because this country is on the precipice; the press can rescue this country or destroy it. We have been blackmailed by what I call irregular publicity, some things may appear popular but they are not right.
We are tackling the pension issue but the author of the pension problem in Abia State and elsewhere is the pensioner and the civil servant. The pensioner was a civil servant yesterday. Who works in the pensions board? Who are the people who decide who is a pensioner or not? Who are the people who put in the name of a dead pensioner and collect the money? That is why today you find people who are due for retirement and they ask for an extension so that they can train a successor. The problem is that they are afraid of becoming pensioners. While working, they ate the bread of tomorrow, they caused the problem we are in.
Some Northern elders claim that their people were killed in Abia State during EndSARS, why are you quiet on the issue, is it an admittance that such a thing happened?
We have stated the facts, I am the landlord here and can’t give credibility to pieces of information flying around. I have given my report to the National Security Adviser, I have made it public too. The Commissioner of Police has said what happened. When the EndSARS protest went into the hands of hoodlums and those who wanted to cause mayhem, it exposed the weakness of our criminal justice system, it also exposed the weakness of our capacity to enforce law and order. The state governors keep saying that they are nominal security officers and need to maintain sufficient control over what happens. I was in the situation room with the Commissioner of Police and the Brigade Commander to see how we can handle the problem with a minimal casualty. But these people that came planned well, they had children and other people who they used as human shields, they had five AK 47rifles and they were trying to snatch more rifles from the second police station after they had attacked the first one. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) at that time had called me to assist him to evacuate his arms and ammunition; he was looking for a way out because they had surrounded his station, we were helpless until the signal came from Abuja that the DPO should resist them with everything at his disposal. That was when he now positioned his men and they fired into the air to scare them away. But there was no massacre or onslaught, only four corpses were recovered but a lot of property was destroyed and they belong more to our brothers. I know of a man who bought 18 brand new Mark trucks which he took a loan to buy and they were all burnt.
This is my fifth year as governor, I have chieftaincy titles from the North. No life was lost at the major Northern settlement, it was just an opportunistic misnomer. When we evacuated those affected to the military post, we gave them food and blankets, we made sure they were comfortable, so there is no reason to feel that we are not capable of protecting our brothers from the North. I am a strong advocate of a country where there is free enterprise, that is the only way our people will survive; we have 11 million Igbo outside the South East and no reasonable leader will want something that will put their lives at risk.
What are the legacies you will want to be remembered after you leave office?
I don’t want to pre-empt what people will say about me, but, I see myself as somebody who will be appreciated only after I have left office. But the level of appreciation I get as a sitting governor is sufficient for me to continue to do my best. Having said that, I will say that what I want to see is an Abia state that is capable of surviving on its IGR without necessarily waiting for what is coming from Abuja. I want Abia State to be a major player in terms of leather and garments in Nigeria. I want a situation where we will create a manufacturing platform, creating a mini Dubai where people come and begin to manufacture things. For the first time, we have provided that enabling economic environment where people can manufacture and export. For me, that is a major achievement and I am grateful to the Federal Government for cooperating with us and seeing our vision.