•Says opposition important to our journey to success
OKEZIE Victor Ikpeazu,Governor of Abia State, prefers to be addressed simply as ‘Governor’. Or more familiarly as “Doc,” an acknowledgement of the PhD he earned in Biochemical Pharmacology at the University of Calabar. He personifies simplicity in dimensions that make the office of governor human, even humane. He’s not one to make a fuss about being addressed as “His Excellency.”
He has been many things among other things – teacher, local government chairman, manager of Abia State refuse agency. His involvements in Abia politics are deeper, especially in capacities that built the party and served Abia’s peoples. He knows the state well, not from the campaign trails of some months ago, but through relationships that make him feel at home wherever he steps into in Abia.
As he settles down for the ‘real business of governance’ after the Supreme Court confirmed his victory, BEIFOH OSEWELE met him in Lagos and the helmsman of ‘God’s Own State’ speaks on the Abia of his dreams and the challenges he would certainly scale to attain them.
What do you make of the victory at the Supreme Court?
I thank God and I thank our supporters for the maturity they exhibited from the campaigns through the elections to the petitions that the Supreme Court finally settled. I also thank the founding fathers of Abia State, some of who have passed on. They foretold the possibilities that some people may be parochial by excluding others from the Abia project. Their solution was the Abia Charter of Equity, which was meant to assuage the fears of some about the equitable distribution of power in the new state. It has taken 25 years since the creation of Abia State for the Charter to be put to use. It seems some heard of the Charter only during the 2015 election because pressed into the argument for equity in the election of the party’s candidate for the election, the surprises they showed were amazing.
The Charter detailed the distribution of power between the two zones of the state then old Bende and Aba zones. If it wasn’t meant to be disrupted, it was like a relay, with one zone passing the baton to the other, until the race is completed. We started from Abia North (1999-2007, Governor Orji Uzor Kalu) to Abia Central (2007-2015, Governor Theodore Ahamefula Orji). It was natural, geographical, and political that the baton went to Abia South in 2015, to complete the race in line with the Abia Charter of Equity.
Some did not understand the wisdom that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) exhibited in ensuring that the baton was not dropped.
A long process led to my emergence as the PDP candidate. The PDP Elders Council outlined the qualities of the candidate. I met them. In addition, I visited every member of the PDP Elders Council to present my candidacy. Then, Ukwa Ngwa, which comprises nine of Abia’s 17 local government areas, through its leaders, Elder Emmanuel Adaelu and Senator Adolphus Wabara, organised the one million-man march to solicit support of the leadership of the party. The candidates went through the party primaries and the election. God granted us victory, which the Supreme Court affirmed; an affirmation that brought equity and justice to Abia State. We are a government for the people. We will keep listening to our people. They entrusted us with the mandate to serve. I have heard talks that we would relax the pace of the road constructions that we started after the court victory. How can we? Now that the distractions are gone, we would serve you even better.
What is the significance of the victory?
It is a symbolic victory. It is historic. In the year of the 25th anniversary of Abia State, each of the three zones has produced a governor. It fulfills the dreams of our founding fathers about a state where power would be equitably distributed. I do not consider it a personal victory. I have a responsibility to run an inclusive government, provide a level platform for Abians of various persuasions and origins to make their contributions. I have a responsibility to reduce mutual suspicion and engender equitable group and personal growth. Abians should complement each other to make live better for each other.
Did you contemplate the consequences of not winning at the Supreme Court?
A contrary decision could have spelt instability and doom for the corporate existence of Abia State. I am working on reducing the tensions that preceded the Supreme Court verdict and other tendencies that pull us apart. The opposition is important to our journey to success. We are open to criticisms from the opposition; they bring out the best in us. Our critics are as good as our core supporters. The only ones we would not tolerate are those who want to undermine the state. Politics is not a game for the fair, but fairness, equity and justice have taken root in Abia. We would be open with our dealings.
Can you give an insight into the Abia State of your dream?
We are going into the next 25 years with the three geo-political zones having served as Governor. Abia at 25 is a milestone that provides platforms for building more political cohesion across the state. My challenge is to lay an economic foundation for the state with focus on creating the enabling environment for our SMEs to thrive, so that Aba can re-affirm its place as the SME headquarters of Nigeria, with more 100,000 shoe and garment makers. We want to see Aba making strong statements with its products. Made in Aba should be a recognised and well-received brand in markets we serve, across Nigeria, across Africa and beyond. A modular refinery in Abia State, our gas and fertilizer production established in Owaza, and our people would be in commanding heights of the economy in their areas of choice, with our deep-sea port serving them. Our technical schools would produce skilled work force that would stamp the Abia touch on wielding, carpentry, masonry and others with skills in refuse management, fire fighting and dominate these areas.
Abia tourism would have been in full bloom to revive our cultural carnivals and creating new possibilities for our peoples through them. The Abia of the next 25 years would be the time to harvest the fruits of our present labour.
Now, in what shape is the Abia economy?
Like everyone, we are affected by the global and national economy. Oil prices have crashed and Abia is current about half of the revenue it was getting. Our revenues are down while costs are not static. We are re-tooling the economy. Our internally generated revenues are low, the highest being about N900 million that we did last December. We reckon that we can do about N3 billion soon, and improve on that number. We are not among the heavily exposed states, in terms of debts. We have managed our debt obligations and keep contractors on sites.
How will states survive without more bailouts?
There are backlog of salaries and pensions in most states. Government is about priorities. However, with the pensions, I blame the civil servants for not managing the pension well. After the bailouts, I expect that the Federal Government should create an intervention fund from which states could borrow to execute economic programmes that have been agreed are capable of directing the state’s economy away from oil. States can execute the programme alone as the Federal Government makes economic decisions for the country. A programme of that nature could lead to the recovery of state economies and wean them from dependence on oil revenue.
There are constitutional limitations on the economic paradigms of states. Did that inform the emphasis on the Aba economy, instead of Abia economy?
It is the same economy. What we have emphasised is the importance of Aba not only in Nigeria, but as far as Central and West Africa. If we fix Aba, it would fix Abia. Aba has natural advantages that other cities do not have. It is within an hour’s drive of four important cities – Owerri, Port Harcourt, Umuahia, Uyo – and combines commerce with industries, manufacturing and an indigenous core of crafts people in leather works, textile and tool and machine fabrications.
Aba has one of the highest concentrations of SMEs in Nigeria. Many people from South-East and South-South have deep roots in Aba; some have family houses in Aba or relations who have lived in Aba for decades. The Abia economy is being re-built around Aba. We can improve revenues by revamping the economy of Aba, which forms a great part of the Abia economy. We are addressing multiple levies. A single collector is working satisfactorily now with transporters.
What plans do you have to improve the ease of doing business in Abia?
We have established a one-stop office where everything about doing business in Abia can be done and all payments made. It is in our Revenue Building.
We have identified five areas of major concentration in the Abia economy:
Agriculture is number one for its abilities to create value chains through processing of its products. We would created jobs through agriculture and improve our IGR through it. Emphases would be on palm oil, cocoa (we want to move to the third position as the highest cocoa producer in Nigeria, we are currently sixth and benefit from the possibilities), cassava and maize would get our attention. We are working with Obasanjo Farms to establish poultries in Abia. Our land areas are small; we are exploring technologies that could facilitate use of our farming areas throughout the year. They would be integrated farms where wastes in certain parts are the materials for other parts.
SMEs are the second enabler. Our trade mission to Turkey was for equipment to improve the quality of shoes, belts, bags, garments made in Aba. Automation would make a lot of difference. We can earn a lot of revenue making the shoes that Nigeria’s security agencies use.
Oil and gas is in our radar as the third enabler. Abia Investment Company is a special purpose vehicle that would collaborate with sector interests to maximise the state’s stakes in the industry. Gas is of particular interest to us and Owaza, in Ukwa, has gas that we can use for our industries.
Obuaku Industrial City is proposed as another enabler. It would benefit from its proximity to Port Harcourt. A deep-sea port in its complex would serve parts of the country that are far from the existing ports.
Trade and commerce, for which we are already famous, is the fifth enabler. Our Market Renewal Committees would upgrade the markets for ease of shopping and as one-stop places for shopping. The emphases on fixing our roads and building new ones tie up with the projections to expand trade and commerce.
We are also planning to make good use of the rail services that have commenced from Port Harcourt. Abia State is well located with the rails running through some parts of all our three senatorial districts. Our farms, markets and manufacturing bases would use the rails to complement road transportation.
What are your plans in the area of job creation?
We have set up two agencies: one to manage traffic in our cities, and deal with traffic offences too, and the other to protect public infrastructure from abuses. Both agencies have employed 700 youth so far.
What are the other things on your ‘to-do-list’ as a matter of priority?
Health is on immediate list for attention. By the end of 2016, we would have established an integrated primary, secondary and tertiary health institution in association with a US-based NGO. Abians based abroad, with the appropriate expertise, are in collaboration with us to build a hospital to take care of the health needs of Nigerians and cut down on the number of Nigerians who travel abroad annually for medical attention.
Education, especially technical education, is critical to the sustenance of the industrialisation we are planning. Our equipment would require servicing, management and maintenance. We are reviving the technical schools in Aba, Ohafia and Umuahia for their students to attend higher institutions with their focus already on technology for our industries.
Teacher education is critical to our success in education. Enthusiasm and dedication are low. The state of the primary schools affects the next stages of education. We are working on ways of motivating teachers to be their best, particularly those who have consistently and dedicatedly served in the rural areas. Abia just placed first in secondary schools examinations nationwide. We intend to maintain that standard.
Our adopt-a-school programme is going well. About 25 schools being renovated through this programme are almost ready. The importance of this programme has two main points – it saves government money, but more importantly, the friends of the schools, who have passed through those schools, are serving as mentors to the pupils. Many of our pupils in the rural areas would be motivated to know some prominent Nigerians have passed through the same schools they are attending. We are providing free made-in-Aba foot wares to the most indigent pupils.