Enyinnaya Appolos is a seasoned journalist and Chief Press Secretary to Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State. In this interview, Appolos spoke about the challenges and achievements of his boss in two years in office.
On May 29, 2017, your boss, Governor Ikpeazu, will be two years in office. How has the journey been so far?
Indeed May 29, 2017 is around the corner and will make it two years that Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu became the fourth democratically elected governor of Abia State. So far it has been almost two years of challenges and experiences. At the same time, two years of achievements and development at a scale Abia has never witnessed since 1999. In a nutshell, it’s been a fulfilling and rewarding two years for the people of Abia State. The period has also opened our eyes to the political realities in the state, which may not have been factored in when the administration came to being. It has also made both the governor and the people of the state to really know what is at stake in the state.
What are the challenges?
When this government started in 2015, we didn’t know the country was going into economic recession. But apparently divinely inspired, the governor’s first policy when he came in was to cut down his salary and allowances as well as that of everyone of his aides by 50 per cent. Whatever the governor is getting today as his salary is half of what it is supposed to be. As common and as ordinary as I am, whatever I am getting today as salary in this office as CPS is 50 per cent of what it is supposed to be. What provoked this decision was that this government wanted to save; wanted avenues to save more money so that we can do more work for the people. When Governor Ikpeazu took this decision, Nigerians didn’t know, other states didn’t know that we are going to be hit by recession, but lo and behold that’s where we are today as a nation, with the monthly allocation from the Federal Government to the states drastically reduced. Today, states like Abia, which in the immediate past used to get as much as N6 billion monthly, cannot even boast of N3 billion; for some months, it was slightly above N1 billion and around that range. Even the Internally Generated Revenue of the state has also been affected by this recession, but wisdom and prudence on the side of our Governor has really helped to drive the vehicle of the state up to this point.
How did your boss manage the recent Paris Club refund and the bailout fund he got in 2015?
Yes, Abia State got N10.6 billion from the Paris Club refund. If you remember, the Federal Government pleaded with states to use 50 per cent of whatever they got to clear salary and pension. For us in Abia, 50 per cent of our N10.6 billion is N5.3 billion. What the governor did was to first of all to get the approval of the Abia State House of Assembly to spend the money. The House approved the request of the State Governor to spend the N10.6 billion that accrued to Abia State from the Paris Club debt refund as follows: N5.3 billion on salary arrears and pensions; N1.7 billion on road construction; N2.5 billion on bridges; N685 million on hospitals; N200 million for street lighting. On the issue of bailout fund, in 2015 when the Federal Government was giving bailouts to states, Abia State applied for a bailout of N30 billion from the Federal Government, but got N14.152 billion. The bailout was specifically for payment of salaries and pensions. The Governor immediately constituted a committee with Mr. Obinna Oriaku, the Commissioner for Finance, who was then the Special Adviser to Governor on Economic Matters, as chairman, and handed over same amount to them for disbursement. Other members of the committee included the state chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress, the state chairman of Trade Union Congress and Chairman, Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees. Others are: Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance; Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs; Permanent Secretary, Bureau of Administration; office of the Head of Service and the Accountant-General of the state, the Auditor-General, and the Statistician-General. Let me recall the fact that when the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offense Commission listed states that allegedly mismanaged their bailout fund, Abia was not among. Instead Abia was among those that applied prudence in the management of the fund. So, in a nutshell, the N14 billion bailout fund and the N10.6 billion Paris Club refund were prudently managed by the Abia State Government with the leadership of the civil societies in the state. It was because of how these funds were managed that made NULGE to give the Governor a recognition recently. It’s a pity that some politically frustrated elements in the state, who play politics with everything, still talk about these funds with unfounded allegations.
What have been the achievements of the government so far?
Plenty. During the campaigns, the governor made promises and one of the major promises he made was that he was going to develop Abia from resources gotten from Aba. The governor knew then that in future Nigeria would no longer depend on oil as the mainstay of the economy and source of her revenue and if it becomes so, what’s going to be the fate of Abia that is not even a major oil producing state and that was exactly what led into what we now call the five pillars of development upon which this government is working on. In developing those pillars, the Governor was looking at the natural areas of strength of the state, where we have competitive advantage over others, which translates to what we have that other states do not have or at least not enough of and we came to realise that we have Aba, which no other state in Nigeria has. Before now, the road infrastructure in Aba was nothing to write home about and this government decided to tackle head on the issue road infrastructure in Aba as one of the enablers for strengthening the premier commercial cum industrial orientation of the state and her people. Hence, the governor who assumed office on May 29, 2015, which was
a Friday, by June 1, being Monday, hit the ground running in terms of road construction. On that day alone, he flagged off the reconstruction of seven roads at Aba alone. As I speak, all the roads flagged off on that first day in office have been completed and commissioned. They include Adventist Close (ENUC close), Ommne, Kamalu, Chima Nwafor, Umuehilegbu, Umule and Owerri roads. And the Governor has long moved to constructing more roads some of which have been completed while others are ongoing, including Faulks Road, MCC/Old Express, Ururuka Road, Owoahiafo/Onicha Ngwa road, Umuaro/Ekwereazu Ngwa Road, the Osisioma junction flyover, Aba Road and low cost housing estate road 2, both in Umuahia and many more that are currently ongoing. To date 32 roads have been done across the state with 65 others ongoing or what you call “work in progress”. He has plans to do much more, but it should be noted that within this same period of two years, the governor has been in and out of courts. Of course your are aware that the defeated governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the last election, Dr. Alex Otti, went to the tribunal to challenge the election of the governor. That matter ran through all the way to the Supreme Court and immediately after that when the governor thought everything was over for him to settle and really deliver to Abians the promises he made. But seemingly from nowhere, we had to again face another desperate judicial actions by Uche Ogah and Friday Nwosu, who were co-aspirants to the PDP ticket in 2014. As we speak, the matter is still pending at the Supreme Court with ruling expected in the Ogah matter in May while the Nwosu matter is yet to be settled. Even the defeated APGA candidate who hitherto litigated his matter up to the Supreme Court has rejoined the desperate legal bonanza aimed at stealing the mandate Abians freely gave the Givernor. Yet being in and out of court has not really deterred the governor and that was why I said that it has been two years of sweet and sore experiences. Sweet because in the midst of the distractions the Governor has recorded many achievements that Abia people can feel and touch. Yet sore because much more could have been achieved if not for the desperate distractions. Two major roads at Aba that even the opposition has used repeatedly in their propaganda against the government are Port Harcourt and Faulks roads. Today, Faulks road is about 50 percent completed and is being handled by SETRACO. Port Harcourt road, which is a Federal road, has now been effectively taken over by the state government in order to ease the pains of Abians and residents who have suffered along that road for many years without federal intervention. The governor who promised to fix that road, has commenced the contractual processes leading to the fixing of the road. In all, this administration has completed 15 roads in Aba alone in two years, and the Governor’s drive is to leave Abia better than he met it.
Where will the funds to execute these projects come from bearing in mind the present economic recession?
It might interest you to know that by the time this government came on board, Abia State IGR was between N500 million and N600 million monthly. But as at December 2016, our IGR was over N1 billion and the governor has said that our target by December 2017 will be N2.5 billion. Ultimately we are targeting N3.5 billion before 2019. How we are going to get funds is simple and that is why we are focusing on Aba and that was why the governor said he was going to develop Abia from Aba because from Aba alone, this government will generate enough revenue that will help it to provide needed infrastructure in all the parts of the state.
Sometime last year, the governor flagged off the reconstruction of Enyimba Hotels, but till moment, there is nothing happening on site. What’s the problem?
A past government in the state sold Enyimba Hotels to the Aba Chamber of Commerce, Mines and Agriculture. So it is no longer as we speak the property of the state. What happened was that this government was making moves to reclaim that place, but hurriedly, ACCIMA people said they were already in touch with Swiss International who were coming to build the place. They came to the governor and said that everything was in place to commence work at the site. It was not actually the state government that went to do that refurbishing and remodelling of that hotel, but ACCIMA. The governor was only invited to participate in flagging off what ACCIMA had supposedly concluded on. It was actually an agreement between ACCIMA and Swiss International. At the moment, the Government of Abia state is marking time and watching them, it will get to a pointl where we will no longer have to wait for them; maybe the government by then will fully move in. This is because as we speak in the Aba of today, I can tell you that a whole lot of people, local and foreign, are queuing to invest in Aba and Aba in response to the Governor’s persistent calls backed by actions, for Ndigbo to think home and invest at home as well as attract their foreign partners to invest in the fastest growing market in Africa: Aba the SME capital of Nigeria. Many investors have specifically indicated interest in Enyimba Hotel because of the location and opportunities it presents as a waterfront hotel. I’m sure, like I said earlier, the government is marking time watching ACCIMA, it will get to a point where we will say “well we have waited for you and your partners and we’ve not seen you, we are now moving in and will refund whatever it is that should be returned to whoever, then the state can move in”. For the purposes of responding to your question, I must restate clearly what happened that flag off day was between ACCIMA and Swiss International.
Has this administration any plans to bring moribund industries in the state back to life?
Yes, we have Golden Guinea Breweries, the Glass Industry, the Metrological complex, the Ogwe Golden Chicken and a whole lot of them. The Glass Industry in Aba had started production before the activities of vandals in the Niger Delta stopped them because the gas they use come from there. Government had really put in a lot of resources in that place. The same goes to the Golden Guinea Breweries. I’m aware, I remembered that I met with the man in charge of the Brewery and he said everything was almost ready as at last year. But a lot of people don’t understand what the present economic situation has done to Nigeria and Nigerians. Nobody is importing because our country is one where we virtually import everything, including raw materials and spare parts. Now, nobody is importing, foreign partners to private businesses have all gone back. The dollar is so high that not many manufacturing businesses are surviving. So, I think that was actually what happened to Golden Guinea Breweries because I remember on a particular visit of the governor to the facility, the man in charge said that place would have been ready by the end of last year. Yet we are still optimistic that before the end of this year, the issue around Golden Guinea will be sorted out.
What is the state government doing to checkmate insecurity that is rearing its ugly head in the state again?
We all know the issue of security is a challenge to governments all over the world; it is not peculiar to Abia. The challenge is fast becoming a moving target requiring continuous improvements to checkmate and we are continuously innovating to meet the challenges of securing our state. Even developed countries like Britain are facing security challenges and am sure you are aware of the recent terror incident in London. I also read the other day that a Divisional Police Office was kidnapped somewhere in Lagos. Imagine a situation where a DPO was kidnapped in a state with possibly the best resources in the country. We are not trying to compare our case with others much as we know that the issues are right there, but like I said, we are doing everything to checkmate rising crime rate that we noticed after the Yuletide season. The government has given all kinds of support to the security agencies in the state to do their work effectively. Recently, the governor was at Zone 9 headquarters here in Umuahia where he took a tour of their facility and what they have, up till now, the governor of Abia State didn’t know that where we have presently as the headquarters of zone 9 police, is a rented property. What the governor did was after visiting their temporary offices at Ehimiri, he moved straight to their proposed permanent site at Ogurube Layout, and he promised that before the end of this year, the Zone 9 headquarters permanent site in Umuahia will be ready. The government is doing everything to get the issue of insecurity sorted out. More than 30 vehicles with modern communication equipment have been donated to security agencies in the state within the past two years.
Local Government and other sundry workers in the state are owed arrears of salary. Is there anything government is doing to pay the workers?
The major cause of where we are today, in terms of salaries, is certainly not because Abia State governor does not want to pay. It’s because the country as a whole is suffering from economic hardship and that has affected us with reference to revenue inflows. Remember that at the beginning of this interview, I told you that a State like Abia that used to get above N6b from Abuja, now gets about N3b. However, that has not stopped the state from making every frantic effort to ensure that salaries are paid. So we are appealing to our people to continue to show support and understanding to the efforts of the government. We are doing everything possible to clear salary and pension arrears in the state. What does not get reported is the fact that more than 80% of our civil servants have received at least January salaries. Things will get better as we continue to manage inflows prudently, remove ghosts from the payroll and close all revenue leakages. On the issue of Abia Poly you mentioned, there are things people don’t understand. For instance, those private polytechnics in the country, who picks their bills? Is it government? The management of such schools do that. Abia Poly has students who pay fees, Abia poly is one of the parastatals of government under subvention which the government has been giving. When this administration came on board, close to two years ago, Abia Poly had a N2 billion loan facility hanging on its neck and government wrote it off. Let me tell you something, this government has in the last two years spent close to N4 billion on an institution that is generating revenue for itself. So, if we are now talking of owing salary in that school, the question should now be who actually owes who? Is it the government that is to give you subvention for you to run your school or you that is collecting all your fees and statutory levies from the students and still spend the money without paying salaries to your workers? So, we should try to get it right. Also, each time we talk about payment of civil servants salary, we make it look as if all Abians are civil servants. What about those who are not government workers, who are on their own that government is obliged to also look after? Surely, with revenue inflows that are just about enough to pay salary of our civil servants a responsible government must also provide for others who are not civil servants and who constitute more than 85% of the citizens of the state.
Not quite long ago, the governor of Imo State said about three governors in the South East will be joining the ruling APC. It was rumoured your principal would be one of them. Could this be true?
Well, when the governor of Imo State said that. He never mentioned any governor. So, since he didn’t mention which and which governors from the South East will join them, we also think we are not mentioned, so, why should we be responding to that? But that’s not to say that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu is leaving the Peoples Democratic Party. Of course when PDP governors met with the former President of Nigeria, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to resolve the lingering crisis in the party, he was there.