My mission to cause economic revolution in Abia —Governor Ikpeazu

Posted by Boniface Okoro, Umuahia | 19 October 2015 | 8,895 times

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Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, a biochemist and Governor of Abia State, recently had an interactive session with journalists at the Banquet Hall, Government House, Umuahia. During the session attended by News Express, the former university don and administrator reviewed the activities of his administration in the first 100 days in office and unveiled the programmes and projects he would pursue in the next 100 days. Amongst other things, he promised to flag-off the Aba Industrial Cluster, shop for Central Bank-facilitated N10 billion loan that would be dedicated to provision of infrastructure, including a flyover at Aba. He said his major task is to return Abia to winning ways. Excerpts:

Question: During the maiden interaction with you, Mr Governor, you did inform us that your administration will run on 100 days cycle; that at the end of each cycle, you will review your performance and unveil your plans for the next cycle. We want to know what your administration has done in the first cycle and whether your projections were achieved.

Governor Ikpeazu: I want to start by doing a recap of our narrative which we started with and that at all times, our story will remain firm, of our focus; it will remain at the centre of our new initiative and drive till we reposition our state.

If you recall, towards the end of last year, we started to notice the consistent downward trend in the global economy occasioned by the changes in the dynamics of the oil market. Nigeria being more or less a monolithic economy, dependent largely on oil, had come under very, very strong negative impact of that scenario and in response to that, the Federal Government has had to cut down on the resources that are available to states and we agreed in Abia State here that we are not going to remain in the group or bracket of those who complain about inequalities or changes which are immediate, rather we should evolve ingenuous ways and creative ways of responding to these inequalities.

And that took us to take a clear decision that we are going to focus on the economy of our state, redefine our ability to fend for ourselves in a competitive economy in which the centre is becoming financially weak every month and it is rubbing off on what we get as states. Therefore, we looked at these indices to see where we have comparative advantage over others and it led us to five pillars of our development; which is the small and medium scale enterprise, with very, very serious emphasis on the leather and garment industries; we also said we are going to focus on agriculture and under agriculture, we are going to look at five crops – cassava, maize, cocoa and of course, oil palm. That is not to say that the other lesser known crops will not play a part in our agricultural revolution.

Then, we also said that we are an oil producing state, though marginally so, we will also do something about our endowment in terms of oil and gas and, then certainly, we are going to hold onto our traditional inclinations towards trade and commerce. We also identified what we called some enablers that are going to drive these main pillars and the enablers include power, roads, security, education, etc.

So, what we have done in the past 100 days is to focus on these enablers that are going to support the main pillars of our development and that was why naturally, on the first day in office, we resumed in Aba, flagging off seven roads within that environment.

But 100 days running, we are active on 31 road construction sites today and they are at various levels of completion. We have had more than our fair share of rain this year and whatever we have been unable to achieve in terms of road construction can be rested on the shoulders of the fact that there is a limit to what we can do during the rainy season.

But it is also very, very important for us at this stage to rationalise our decision to go into road construction at this time of the year. For two major reasons: one is that coming with our activity on the road was this issue of massive desilting of drainages, especially around the Aba area. We know that Aba is more or less a table land and lies a few feet below the sea level, making it prone to flooding. Those of us who know Aba very well know the situation of the Ndiegoro axis; that is where you have Ohanku road, Obohia road and all that. Before now, we have this serious issue of flooding, even when the volume rain is just a fraction of what we are seeing today. But on daily basis, we consistently evacuated 100 trucks of desilted materials from drainages in Aba for 60 days and that, to the glory of God, accounts for the fact that today, Abia is not listed as one of the states under the direct clutches of flooding. So, today in Abia State, we are taking it for granted that that is not our lot but it is largely because of the benevolence of God Almighty and the fact that we were preemptive in our thought and in our actions by making sure that we desilted our drainages massively, especially in those areas that are prone to flooding.

Beyond that, even as the road constructions are going on, we have been able to do drainages at this time and we can understand our calibrations in terms of flow of storm water because if you do drainages in the dry season, it will be difficult to understand whether the flow of water will go in a certain direction or not, but today we can say that we are sure of the flow of storm water.

Beyond that, we have come up with something that is a little bit novel and strange in this environment: Just because we try to do this massive construction in that swamp side during the rainy season, we have been able to come up with fact that the best technology,  perhaps for us, in this part of the world, especially in Aba and parts of Umuahia, is to evolve and adopt the cement pavement rigid technology which entails that for intercity roads, we challenge our contractors to now after stone-basing and compacting the stone base, do some metal mesh work and then do concreting on the road before asphalting. By so doing, we think we will be able to maintain the integrity of the drainages and probably hope that we will be able to put to rest finally, the problem of going back to the roads for maintenance every other year.

Beyond our activities on the roads, we have also laid a solid foundation for the take-off of our industrial cluster. What we did was to get a detachment of 29 shoemakers and garment makers from Aba and Umuahia Chambers of Commerce, led by the management and leadership of both Chambers, to Istanbul (Turkey) to understudy their technology for shoe and garment making. The idea is to make sure that we can mechanise and automate the process of shoemaking in our environment here.

And going forward, we have proposed that shoes and dresses that we make from our clusters will be branded, not made in Aba again, but made in Nigeria because Abia is certainly the SME capital of Nigeria. Having said that, we are articulating the report of that visit and in the days ahead, as part of what we intend to achieve in the next 100 days, we will unveil our plan for the mechanisation of the process of shoemaking and garment making in Abia.

Beyond that, in agriculture, we have concluded arrangements with Songhai Farms to send 40 young farmers from Abia State to Port Novo to understudy Prof. Nzamujo in his project of integrated agriculture. That is so because we are people of small land holding. It will be difficult for us to depend on huge mechanised farms because we can hardly afford all the land that we need.

Beyond that, we will continue to do massive planting of exotic species of oil palm because the demand for palm oil and its products will become very big in the days ahead and we understand that the Federal Government has stopped issuance of foreign exchange for purposes of importation of oil palm.

So naturally as one of the best productive belts for oil palm production, we have decided to see if we can target between a 150,000 and 400,000 tons of oil palm seedlings in the years ahead and that is going to lead us to a huge army of young farmers which we will lead from the State Executive Council. We will make sure that all of us will contribute, at least, some one or two hours every week on our huge farms. God willing, by the year 2018, Abia State will launch out as one of the major suppliers and producers of oil palm and its ancillary products.

Because we are also very passionate about our industrial cluster, we also thought about what we need to do immediately if we set up a foundation that can bring about young  people with requisite skills to work in the industrial cluster because if you mechanise your process, you are also expected to find physical minds of employable youths with flair for technical things that can help you do repairs and operate the machines and we have launched our Education for Employment (E4E), which include the acquisition of technical education in Abia State. As we speak, we have done that in three schools as a pilot scheme at the Boys Technical College (BTC) Aba, Afara Technical School, Umuahia, and the Technical School at Ohafia. Going forward, we are going to have more technical schools coming on board and we have asked the Ministry of Education to do some backward integration in terms of the curriculum to see how we can prepare primary school pupils at primary six that will be ready to go into the technical schools that we have reactivated.

Like I said, for purposes of emphasis, the aim is to make sure that we produce young school leavers that are capable of engaging those machines that we will import to help us drive the mechanisation process of shoemaking and garments making in the years ahead.

As also part of what we need to do to drive the rapid economic growth of Abia State, before now, we noticed we were not doing well on the scale of ease of doing business. We were in the last quarter of 36 but today, we are working towards a score that will bring us among the first 10 states and we are constructing a one-stop shop building which we call our Revenue Building. It will house the Inland Revenue office, the PPP office and indeed, our one-stop shop where people are expected to just walk in and get acquainted with all the taxes that they are supposed to pay and all the processes and procedures for opening new businesses so that at the end of the day, you can walk out and in seven days, you are up and running.

If we are able to achieve the target of getting new businesses started from registration, end-to-end in Abia State between seven days, then certainly, we will be among the first 10 states in Nigeria on the scale of ease of doing business.

We have also tried to plug leakages where we notice them. It has been very, very challenging for us but through this verification process which we are doing in the various ministries, parastatals, we have been able to save about N270 million and that is largely why we were able to keep 31 contractors working simultaneously on all the sites at the same time.

As I speak, I am happy to also inform you that Abia State has received about N14 billion bailout fund which is specially earmarked and dedicated for the payment of arrears of salaries and pensions. I have said it everywhere that we are going to dedicate that N14 billion strictly for the purpose for which we got it. One of the few things that have opened up our  books by setting up a committee which involves people from Nigeria Labour Congress, etc, to manage the funds and managing it within the framework of a straitjacket which is strictly dedicated,  not for contractors, not for any other thing but debts owed workers in terms of salary and in terms of pensions. I want to seize this opportunity and appeal to our people to focus on their regular businesses and forget lobbying for us to divert that fund because it will not happen under my watch.

What should Abians expect from you administration in the next 100 days?

I think going forward, we are prepared and better equipped now to launch into our projects for the next 100 days. What you expect to see in the next 100 days, having laid this foundation, is that we will continue to look at our leakages because we know that the incidence of ghost workers and leakages within the workforce has eaten deep into the fabrics of  our operations such that those who perpetuate it keep trying as we plug one hole today, they try to open another one but we want to assure them that we will meet them there because we will not let go; our focus is on what we are doing and we will continue to do that.

In the days ahead, we expect that those with proven cases of economic sabotage against our state will be brought to book, disciplined according to the civil service rules and if possible, made to face the rule books of Nigeria also. We will prosecute any person that we identify with evidence as an economic saboteur. Therefore, this is the time for our people to do a rethink and try to do things the proper way for once. So, in the next 100 days, you will expect that we will officially flag off the construction of our industrial cluster. By the time we articulate the report of our visits overseas, we will be able to identify the equipment that we need. We may also need, in the days ahead, to send back another technical team of less than six which will comprise engineers only that will go and look at the appropriate equipment that can match our standard of technological development.

But I assure you that what I saw, and from what I know, that we have the capacity to bring down these equipment, we also have the capacity to maintain and run them in our environment. So, in the next 100 days, you will see the industrial cluster coming on stream and in the days ahead, we will also see our agricultural initiatives coming on stream.

I also need to mention to you that we have done a few things in terms of reviving our water schemes. We have over 50 moribund water schemes in Abia. As I speak, we have done something in Umuahia, Abiriba and we are going to do on Uturu within one week from today. I am a very empirical person. It doesn’t matter if I am down by 100 goals in a football match, provided I have enough time to equalise. So gradually, we will begin from 50 moribund water schemes to 45 and we will go down. We are doing something with the World Bank and international agencies to help us raise the resources that we need by the grace of God, to make sure that all our water schemes are up and running within the shortest possible time.

By the end of the day, our aim is to reduce poverty, to reduce unemployment and then enhance the prosperity of people.

Going by your template, which of the sectors so far has proved to be most challenging and why?

I think that what we see ahead of agriculture is very exciting. I don’t want to use your word challenging. It is very exciting because we are looking at agriculture from three perspectives – one, as a sector that is capable of putting food on our table and coming with it is good nutrition, good health.

We are also looking at agriculture as a major input in terms of raw materials for the productive sector and finally we are looking at agriculture as something that can drive employment and reduce unemployment. Of course, it will not make sense to you but as I see it, we have a project that is doing enumeration of all unemployed youths in the 17 local governments of Abia State and I think their target is some time in the month of October. We should have a clear data about who is unemployed here and what can that person do. Some people are unfortunately not only unemployed; they are not employable. So, for this class of people, we will like to either send them straight to agriculture or make them employable. But at the end of the day, we are going to make agriculture very exciting. I know that anybody who is able to do the size of a football field in terms of oil palm today, in two years that person will be able to buy a brand new car, build a house and have a good living for himself and his family. It is our duty and that is where I want all of us to be, that is what is exciting about it, how do you open the eyes of our people to see the tomorrow of agriculture. That is what is exciting to me.

I am also pleased about what is happening in the health sector because we are trying to move away from what is happening today to a point where the private sector will drive the health sector in Abia State.

What do I mean by that? Health facility is so important that we must, as a government, try to send it down to the poorest of the poor. For a pregnant woman that is living on less than one dollar per day, she is also entitled to have children. So what do we do to protect mother and child and also at the same time try to provide world class health facilities driven by the private sector? Once you put private sector there, it becomes a profit making thing because no private sector person will come; they are not welfarists, they want to make profit. So how do you, at what point do you merge social service and capitalism? We are coming on with the model that, let us have the facilities, let the challenge be that we can’t pay. Then government can now begin to subvent and say for these classes of people, we are putting this amount of money every month. But let the facilities be there in the first place because I think that is the best way to go because we are trying to think about these people who can’t pay.

If you are unable to provide world class medical facilities, then, it will no longer be a pillar capable of driving your big picture. Can you imagine going out to attract somebody who is ready to put $2 billion in Abia State? In bringing that person, two things come to your mind – one, if this person is coming to invest $2 billion, the person will not throw the money into the state and run away, he will want to live here because wherever somebody is investing $2 billion, no matter how rich the person is, he will want to live in that environment. So if he is living there, which schools are his children going to attend? If the wife is sick tomorrow, do we have the kind of hospital where she will be treated? If the answers to these is no, no, it means that we can/t even think of getting that investor coming. So, that is why we think that health is a strong pillar and what I see ahead is quite exciting.

Abians have anxiously been waiting for you to set up your cabinet. So, when are you going to appoint commissioners and in doing that, do you have any particular ministry which you would want to head?

We are ready. We have the architecture of our cabinet which is what the main challenge is: what emphasis are we laying, what kind of people do we want? If you have the architecture in your subconscious, it is easy to pick the individual and I assure you that the architecture is ready and those that will populate it can be found. If you are waiting, you won’t wait for too long before that happens.

Then, I don’t see any ministry that I will want to head. My own ministry is the Ministry of Dreaming. I am the dreamer in the cabinet. The commissioners are the people that will execute the dreams with your help. My own is just to dream about things, paint a big picture. Those who will turn it into actionable and action plans are the people that are going to work with me. So, leave me to dream my dreams, let the people do their work.

Before you embarked on the ongoing Aba Urban Renewal Project, you must have made a projection of the enormity of urban decay in the commercial city. By the time you embarked on the project, did your projections match the physical problem on ground or were you overwhelmed?

I must confess I did some assessment of what I thought was the magnitude of the job that we required to do in our urban centres. But what I saw on ground in embarking on that project is a far cry ahead of what we planned. But I was not overwhelmed. I must share this with you: 80 per cent of the drainages in Aba are big enough to take an average-sized man like me walking without anybody noticing that I am inside the drainage. So, what it means is that they are beyond six feet and for some of them, we have shops. In fact, there was a manhole that we opened that was right inside the bedroom of somebody. So, who would imagine that a building was concealing a manhole that if you excavate it, that you it will be big enough to take a 100kg man walking inside that drainage? There is one that is going on along Milverton. All the places you see where they sell coffin – all those things, the frontage that has been slabbed to the road has covered drainage that are six feet deep. The drainage that is by Tonimas Filing Station, off Margaret Avenue, is big enough to take a Volkswagen car. So, there is no way you can estimate that by standing on the surface. But the good thing is that when you encounter such surprises, it encourages you to do more because, at least, you are making progress, though slowly but in the right direction. So, I think we are making progress consistently. We were surprised but certainly not overwhelmed because we were prepared for the surprises as they were coming.

Will the bailout fund also be deployed to clearing the accumulated gratuities of workers in the state so as to let the senior citizens who retired without their benefits paid to them to start a new lease of life?

On the backlog of salaries, I have chosen my words carefully; that I will deploy the bailout for the purposes for which they loan was given. That bailout is a loan, as a matter of fact, that we have to pay over 20 years. So it is not a free lunch and that is why we are working hard on our economy so that if we can do Internally Generated Revenue of N1 billion or N2 billion a month, when the time to repay comes, we will be able to face it without crying too much. The states that will suffer are those with poor Internally Generated Revenue because this is something that can tide you over temporarily and that ties my hand. I cannot use it for gratuity. But let it serve as a hope for those that will benefit from gratuity. You know that if as at today we have set a target which is October 30 to end all our stories about backlog of salaries and pension, so believe that one day, God willing, providence will speak to the issues of backlog of gratuities and I hope that that day will come soon.

Is the N14 billion bailout fund part of the N30 billion that you had earlier requested the House of Assembly to approve for you?

We applied to the Abia State House of Assembly for what they call House Resolution on three occasions. The first one was N30 billion loan. We asked them to give a resolution so that we can borrow N30 billion but we have not borrowed and we may not borrow in the foreseeable future, may be till the end of this year because we have managed to receive some money with which we have been working. So that resolution is in abeyance. It is the right and privilege of the government to ask the House of Assembly to make such resolutions when we see the window, that it is possible to borrow and we are grateful and we thank God for that but we have not gone to borrow yet because this is a very responsible government and we are not going to embark on borrowing just for the sake of borrowing.

The N14 billion bailout is a separate thing and I think that is the one that is available and some people that we put in that committee are speaking to it and its application.

We have also asked them (House of Assembly) to give us a resolution to get a N10 billion infrastructural loan facilitated by the CBN, collateralised by the Excess Crude Account which we are part owners as Ndi Abia. That money is coming at nine per cent and it will be spread over 20 years also. If we get that, we expect to do a flyover at Aba, we expect to do 24 constituency projects in every state constituency in Abia State, we expect to complete the resurfacing of all the major streets in Umuahia and Aba with street lights and then we expect to embark on the renewal of some urban cities like Ohafia. So, that N10 billion is coming.

Are funds for purchase of the machineries for the industrial cluster readily available?

I want to quickly correct an impression. I said within 100 days, we would have flagged off the industrial cluster and then people will begin to see the picture of what we intend to do. In 100 days, you can’t conclude an industrial cluster that is going to house about 40,000 shoemakers. But in 100 days certainly, everybody can place a finger on where it is and some work would have started there.

About funding, I will tell you something: Government has two very important assets – one is tangible, the other one is intangible. The intangible one is more important to me than the tangible one. The tangible one is the money which you can access and see. The intangible one is goodwill and that is what comes to you if you are sufficiently open, transparent and you improve on your governance and best practice parameters. This intangible one is the one we are working hard on and that is also why we can keep contractors on site simultaneously. So, what we are doing is this: we have a good narrative. Imagine our industrial cluster capable of producing 1,000 pairs of shoes every day. Imagine our marketing agency receiving orders to supply 50,000 pairs of military boots to the Nigerian Army, 30,000 to the Customs and 20,000 to the Immigration. Imagine us returning to that cluster and imagine our people doing those things to meet targets with the equipment we have bought. It is a beautiful story. Every investor would like to have a bite. That is why our strategy and our story is good; our people must invest. The most important thing that is cast is good ideas. A lot people have money, they don’t have ideas. So, let us provide the ideas and the ideas will attract funding, God willing.

Is your administration hoping to conduct local government elections soon?

I will answer your question directly. Elections, yes. I desire to conduct local government elections and what you should do is to place this government as one that is very serious about paying respect to the autonomous nature of the local government system.

But having said that also, you must ask, do you have the capacity to do it (local government election) now because part of what we have been struggling to do in the last 90 days is to offset the backlog of rent for the headquarters of ABSIEC. For me, I would have loved to institutionalise ABSIEC; I don’t think that ABSIEC should continue to stay in a rented apartment – I think it should have a building, it should be set up properly and well funded and then we begin to think of the resources and budget for the election. We cannot just go into elections for the sake of going into elections but we need to prepare very well.

Unfortunately, we are coming at a time when our resources are dwindling. What we received last month was about N2.5 billion and what is going to the local government, we need to borrow between N200 and N250 million to pay bills for local governments. Assuming they have gone their ways, it would have opened them up to owing staff. Of course, you know what happened in Abia Poly, when we came, they were owing N2 billion and we had to take it up and pay for them. So, if you have the 17 local governments owing, Abia Poly owing, the state would have been reeling in debt.

If we have a clearer weather, financially, we will do the elections. I would like to do it and I know that I will be able to say yes or no, may be, in the next 12 months. Let us see how our fortunes will improve and that is our hope.

We notice that some streets in Umuahia are now glowing at night with streetlights. What plans does your administration have in terms of securing the streetlights and the city itself?

I thank God that you have acknowledged that some streetlights have come on. I want to say that the street lighting programme for Aba and Umuahia is part of our policy that is embedded in the road construction and urban renewal initiative because the new paradigm and the new thinking now is that whether we do the road or not, we think that every street in Umuahia, Aba, parts of Ohafia and the other suburban areas we are trying to renew should come with street lights. There is an economic dimension to it; we want to increase business hours and we want to see what we can do in terms of security because going forward, we think that the battle against violent crime in our environment should be taken to the next level where CCTV can be mounted on some streets that are vulnerable with very serious police presence in terms of patrol. Of the two, the police patrol will come first and I think that between now and the next 30 days, we should have enough vehicles to help police move about but we need to light up our streets and, God willing, if the resources are available, we try to provide lights for all the streets for reasons I have mentioned earlier.

We are aware that your administration is doing some roads across the state but the cost of these projects appears to be shrouded in secrecy?

I want to use this opportunity to inform you that the cost of our roads is not a secret and you know about your right to ask and when you ask questions about the cost of any particular road or all the roads, from the Permanent Secretary or from the Accountant-General, they will provide you with the figures. There is no secret about it because if you ask me now, I will need to ask them also. Then whatever they tell me, I will share with you.

I had thought of putting the values on the roads. Each one that we complete, we put the cost there and I think I can do that; there is no harm about it and I think that the cost of these roads compete favourably, far less than what other people are using elsewhere because we know that there is a Due Process Office which makes sure that we get value for Abia money.

Umuahia, the state capital, is slowly sliding into the problem of traffic congestion as could be witnessed on some major roads. Have you any plans to nip this in the bud before it builds up and grows into gridlock?

There used to be the Abia State Traffic Management Agency, akin to LASTMA in Lagos. The law is in place and we are looking at the architecture of that agency. We want it to be headed by professionals because every agency that will interface directly with the people, there is need to be cautious in terms of who mans it.

Because if you say you don’t want agbero and then you take off, what you have done is to institutionalise it again. So we want a situation where we can establish that according to the tenets of road traffic and also make sure that these people are conspicuously cautious with the public and then we can take care of that.

The lull in business activities at Ubani Ibeku Ultra-modern Market seems to be increasing by the day, making the multi-million market look like a ghost town while illegal trading at the Isigate, which is in the centre of the state capital, and in major streets continue to boom. What is government doing to get these traders back to Ubani Ibeku?

I think part of the problem of that market (Ubani) is that there is need to open up an alternative access route to that Ubani Market. Then coming back to those that have refused to go, I know that a task force is in place and they have had running battles trying to bring people to the market. We can’t force a horse to drink water. If you manage to get to it the river, you will now have problem.

But what we are going to do is what they do everywhere in the world because whenever you are confronted with challenges like this which are social problems – social problems are more intractable than engineering problems – that is why you still have prostitution and armed robbery since the creation of man. So, we have looked at what others have done both within the Nigerian environment and outside and we have come up with what we need to do

That which we will do is this: We will revisit the Purpose Clause of every building in Umuahia, in Aba, especially those that are within the vicinity that people are prone to abuse and when we look at that, we will now say that this is a residential building. For you to establish a shop here, pay government N1 million. We will tell you what to pay, we will not tell you don’t establish. If you pay us N1 million, then we will allow you.

So the way to go is to use tax and levy to discourage the springing up of shops here and there. We will try it and it will work.

So, I assure you that by the time we come with that framework, people will advise themselves because using horse whips to chase people may be very, very difficult and we may expose ourselves to all kinds of litigation but nobody can stop us from taxing people for trying to change the purpose clause for the building which they occupy.

Photo shows Governor Okezie Ikpeazu driving a bulldozer to flag off work on an Aba road.

Source: News Express

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