Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State on May 29, 2017 celebrated two years in office. To mark the occasion, he spoke with a select group of newsmen on the challenges of governance, the Nigerian federation, herdsmen menace, Aba, the South-East within the Nigerian polity and the crisis rocking his party, the Peoples Democratic Party.
The speed at which Aba is going and the level of development is unprecedented. Since Sam Mbakwe left, no other person has done that. Why are you so passionate about Aba?
For us here in Abia, Aba brings memories that touch very soft nerves. From post war, there were issues that immediately after the war; it was difficult to rebuild all kinds of infrastructure and Aba, incidentally, was one of the few cities that accommodated everybody. Many of us have fond memories of Aba and that includes folks from outside Igbo land. Recently, I listened to a radio programme where a Yoruba man was making very strong case for Aba. He lived and grew up here just like my childhood friend, Musa, who was born and raised at Hospital Road, Aba. Musa does not know any other town than Aba and same applies to his children who are also here with us as bona fide Aba people. Aba is everybody’s city because everything that happens in Aba affects people, not just from the South East, but across Nigeria. My electioneering campaign focused on what can be done to rebuild Aba as an enabler for rebuilding Abia and even Igbo land. Aba, in terms of Geography, is strategically located at the confluence of South-East and South-South Nigeria, as it shares borders with Imo, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, and others. Therefore, whatever affects them, also affects Aba. The flux between the cities and the commercial activity, the energy and power that Aba exudes has become a strong anchor or nectar for all kinds of development including with commerce and industry. Aba has at least 15 markets, which are sectionalised, according to the needed items. If you want to drive development quickly, you can’t take away Aba, especially in Small and Medium Scale Enterprises. Aba captures three of the five pillars of development of this administration, hence, the impossibility to ignore Aba. The popular saying that if you get Aba right, you get Abia right is apt. More so, and actually the least important, is that I come from that environment, and I know the huge and enormous potential it brings to bear on the development of not just Abia but of Nigeria. If we are thinking of getting out of recession, Aba must be the focus of Nigeria.
What has been your major challenge as the governor since 2015?
Lack of belief. Paucity of what I call a prepared human capacity, brought up and fully enabled for development. By that I mean those ready to catch the vision and run with it. It was a problem getting people to understand that the only way to get a solution to our problems and challenges is to do things differently. Distractions from those who don’t understand or have proper diagnosis of the people and their real challenges were also challenging. Those folks misinform our people, manipulate and make our people gullible and they sometimes fall easy prey to their antics. Even without evidence of previous capacity to properly diagnose our challenges and proffer right solutions. I look forward to a day when everyone in our state is motivated towards a common agenda, a common good, and a common enterprise because I see government as an enterprise. My government is not tailored to a particular agenda but holds a global vision and appeal for the survival and prosperity of our people.
To what extent are you relating with fellow governors to deal with marginalisation of the South-East?
For me as a person, the leadership of the Ebonyi State Governor, Engr. Dave Umahi, as chairman of South East Governors Forum is a focused one. He is handling genuine issues around the marginalisation of our people very well but quietly. I personally have a strategy to battle the issues of marginalization by making myself indispensable. It is this attitude that we are trying to also transfer to our people. Work very hard, acquire as much good education as possible and innovate extensively to stay on top and make yourself indispensable to wherever you find yourself.
Given the state that the PDP is in now, what is the way forward for you and others in the party?
The way forward is to try as much as possible to make your house good. If you have a dirty head, you don’t cut it off, you wash it.
Is Senator Ali Modu Sheriff your leader?
The court’s pronouncement is what matters as regards Sheriff, but I am waiting for the Supreme Court to speak.
In some states, governments make sure that federal roads leading to their cities are accessible. What are you doing about this, especially with regards to Aba? Secondly, were you distracted by the litigations that arose from your election and how do you feel now that it’s over?
We are doing all but one of the federal roads leading into Aba. We are doing Aba-Owerri Road, we have mobilized Setraco to fix Port Harcourt Road, and the other one is Aba-Ikot Ekpene Road, which the federal government is to handle. We might have issues with the quality of the contractor handling it and the pace of work but we will give them the benefit of doubt. But even if the federal government does not reconstruct Ikot-Ekpene Road in a timely and qualitative manner, we are already constructing two alternative routes to Akwa Ibom from Aba. Just 7km to Akwa Ibom because we know the area very well and our new roads are through virgin forests. Port Harcourt Road is going to be done using concrete pavement. I don’t want people to forget that we pioneered Rigid pavement technology. As far as I know, Abia is also the only state with three grade A contractors working on her roads concurrently: Arab contractors, Setraco and the Chinese company handling the Osisioma flyover or interchange. On legal distractions, I am somebody who does not want to wallow in self pity and I rather want to be judged as if nothing happened. If the devil wanted to distract me in any way, he failed woefully. I don’t want the devil to get any glory. It is only to the glory of God. Besides, through it all I didn’t lose the faith of my people. Abians have faith in what we are doing and so I have every cause to glorify God.
How are you coping with recession? Also, you are the only Governor in the South East in good terms with your predecessor. How are you managing the relationship?
Our response to recession is very simple; promote Made in Aba, local skills and agriculture. One of my greatest achievements is the promotion of Made in Aba across the globe. As we speak, the Made in Aba logo has been officially launched. Governments pay to be on CNN, but our case is different because an international organization that saw what we are doing, saw the need to promote it using CNN and others. This means that our artisans and their creativity are being promoted free of charge. People argue about political correctness, instead of economic advantage. We are more focused on doing things that give economic advantage to our people as against being politically correct. My predecessor respects me and I also respect him. He doesn’t struggle for space with me. He knows there can only be one governor at a time. Because of this, I respect him. One as an elder, two as a senator and three as a former governor. It is a relationship that is based on mutual respect and understanding.
You are two years in office now. Very soon, you will be talking about second term. What are we going to hold you on, if you get a second term?
Even in the midst of the supposed distraction, couldn’t I have found an easy alibi not to perform if I had wanted? Yet our people can judge us and see that we never stopped working and never gave them excuses because we were at all times focused on the things that are important to our people. I will continue to do my best because there is need to serve my people with commitment. Things got to a point in the legal battles that I had to pray and ask God to genuinely search the minds of everyone contesting for the Abia Governor’s seat with me and let whoever loves Abia more than me win. God prevailed and used the Supreme Court to reaffirm us.
Igbo youths in particular are disenchanted with the present administration in Nigeria. What message of hope are you bringing to them? Some Fulani herdsmen still operate along the highways in your state. Like your Ekiti counterpart, shouldn’t you have enacted a law to deal with it? And how have you been able to integrate non indigenes in Abia as we have noticed that Abia has the least record of conflict with Fulani herdsmen?
First, I recognise that there are more Abians in the North, than Ekiti. Whatever action I take must take cognizance of that fact. Abians also add value to wherever they are by employing youths from that place, building structures and generally living peacefully with others. I make bold to state that 60% of Nigerian youths working directly and indirectly through the private sector in Nigeria are employed through the efforts and contributions of our people. It is therefore natural for me to consider all angles in taking decisions. What if there is a reprisal for whatever action we take here, how will that affect our people living outside our state? We believe in ensuring the safety of our visitors against all odds. So what we did was to create conflict resolution committees at the local government level, after a critical study of the areas the herders live and visit. We have two to three layers of conflict resolution. But the major problem with the conflicts is the inability or lack of understanding of local sentiments and the idiosyncrasies of the Hausa/Fulani man, which I understand because I lived in the north for 7 years. Our conflict resolution approach is tailored to use this knowledge and solve real and potential conflicts. On youth agitation, it is very unfortunate that a part of the nation feels the need to agitate for fairness and equity within the federation. Social mobilization is very important and even more important than infrastructure. We have not mobilized Nigerians from the centre socially and that is where our leaders have failed. Every leader should be a vendor of hope. My strategy in Abia is to focus the minds of our youths on hard work and creativity. We are sending 100 people to China for one year to learn how to make shoes. Not because we are not good, but we need to add some icing on our cake. We are using the China Model of technology transfer and standardization of export products. Criminality in Nigeria is occasioned by too much energy and creativity in the youths not finding positive outlets. Let us get it right at the Centre through fairness and equity as well as providing positive outlets for the massive energy of our youths.
What is your take on the recently signed Executive Orders by the Presidency?
I commend the Presidency for that. It is very encouraging to our efforts. It is what we have been expecting them to do. But whatever they say or do, it is not complete, until it affects rice, baked beans, salad cream and other imported products that we are consuming daily in Nigeria. I am looking forward to a time when they will stop serving imported rice, baked beans, etc at the FEC meetings and other events around the villa. Since I became Governor I have been eating local rice and wearing made in Aba clothes to support our people.
In past years, we saw how well Abia performed in WAEC, especially those in public schools. What are you doing in the area of education to ensure that Abia remains in the forefront? On attracting investors, what kind of incentives are you giving? Also, Abia has allegedly been the bedrock of kidnappers, though it has been controlled recently, but somehow pockets of criminality are raising heads again, what are you doing to sustain a safe environment where business can thrive?
Our strategy to develop education is through taking cognizance of our foundational issues. The problem of education, not only in Abia but Nigeria, is the quality and morale of our primary school teachers. Early child education is as important as tertiary education, if not more important. We are partnering with Australian school teachers to go to our schools and help in developing our learning environment, information Communication Technology, classroom management, first aid and how to manage children. They will train our teachers who in turn will become trainers for others. We want to ensure that at Primary 3, a pupil is able to confidently operate the computer efficiently. We would model primary schools to achieve this, as well as embark on advanced teachers training which Is critical to educational capacity building. In the next 12 months, there is going to be a revolution in Abia education sector. Our idea of model schools will spring up across the geopolitical zones of the state and the Australians will return to continue the work they are partnering with us to do. On incentives for investors, the Abia investment House, which is private sector driven, is for ease of doing business in Abia. It will help investors get all they need to operate in Abia in at most two weeks. I have the bulk C of O of 9,000 hectares of land, which any interested investor can get in two hours, if he’s interested in as much plots of land as possible. We are ready to give the lands to those who show seriousness in investing in Abia.
The present unitary political system in Nigeria, is it sustainable?
No. In the first instance, there should not be any “federal roads” because there are no federal citizens. Let the funds for fixing of so-called federal roads be given to state governments with monitoring by the relevant federal agency or ministry. Most of what the federal government is doing should be done by the state governments while the federal government concentrate on generating and monitoring guiding policies
What do you think about the clamour for restructuring of Nigeria?
I would say that question has largely been captured in my interaction with you here and whatever I said is my opinion. But I believe we should start spending time on the way forward in Nigeria, instead of federal government spending too much time on money appropriation. Recession is a huge opportunity and we are yet to fully tap the opportunities presented to us by this recession. For instance, without recession we won’t be working so hard on Made in Aba, increased agricultural production with over 40,000 palm seedlings and a mushroom industry that can guarantee a minimum of N70,000 daily to an Abia youth. Nigeria needs to tap into the prevailing recession instead of focusing on huge appropriations and issues around sharing of money. If the federal government is serious with tapping into the opportunities presented by this recession they should look towards Aba and focus on using Aba as the model to bring out the best in Nigerians.