My greatest challenge as Abia Governor – Ikpeazu

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The Governor of Abia State, Okezie Ikpeazu, recently fielded questions from journalists in Government House, Aba, where he spoke on his legacy projects, what he wants to be remembered for and many other issues. Excerpts:

Uba Group

What can you describe as your greatest challenges as a governor in the past seven and half years?

I want to start by thanking God first, for giving me the opportunity to serve, and also thank Abia people for finding me worthy in a state of five million people to be their leader between 2015 and now. If I summarise the seven years in a few words, I would say it has been the most eventful with its ups and downs. The greatest challenge was communicating my vision first to my team and secondly to the people. I always tell a story of a locomotive engine that is running at high speed without the coaches. It might arrive at its destination in a good time, but with no passengers or goods.

Leadership in the 21st Century requires that one must communicate his/her vision in a way that your team will be able to replicate and drive it and also speak to the people so that they can be receptive to your vision and support you in any way they can.

On the first flank, there is a choice as a governor to choose your team such as commissioners, aides, and structure of the political components, but you have little or no choice about civil service, which is the bulwark of public service in general. At times, a governor might have a civil service that is stereotyped or focused on old ways, not receptive to change, not willing to run at one’s speed, and not willing to embrace 21st Century paradigms of development like digitization and computerization. It impacts on everything negatively from revenue collection systems and there are problems inherent in the system orchestrated by Labour’s stance and unionization. One is really handicapped if one is a democrat. Apart from the checks and balances that the judiciary and legislatures would provide, it is also a big bottleneck with bureaucracy and protocol, driving the vision, and we don’t have all the time. So, I experienced a lot of frustration in that regard and we had to devise a way to go round that. What we did was to create an Abia Economic Advancement Team, which is my backroom and they have the mandate to turn my vision into a work plan and to adapt it to local dynamics to make sure it functions and to also support me in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation if there is a lagging and unwilling arm of the system. So, that was how we got around, but it can be quite frustrating. Again, politicians misread or deliberately misread one’s intention and politicize everything, they even politicize the misfortune of the citizens. When one begins to show empathy, there are people who hype it, and others are condemning it.

The third major one is that we came at a time when finances weren’t steady. We have gone through three recessions in this country. We are just surviving the third one in which we came out technically broke. The global economy is getting worse and it was negatively impacted by COVID-19 and more recently, the Russia-Ukraine war. Also, the problem of crude oil theft puts us in a place where we can’t take full advantage of scarcity occasioned by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. So, we are in a place with many problems, conflicts, and diseases from Ebola to COVID-19 to Monkeypox in a milieu that one cannot guarantee allocations, in which they fluctuate at times, with wide degrees of reduction. At times, one can receive N2 billion less than what was received the previous month. So, it doesn’t make for proper planning, it makes it difficult for budgeting and projection, but we thank God that we are in a place where we can at least, have one or two things to point out and to say we didn’t completely waste our time these past seven years.

“The greatest challenge was communicating my vision first to my team and secondly to the people”

One of your projects, the Osisioma Flyover, which you inaugurated recently, it’s a beautiful initiative that you started and completed.

Looking back into the past seven years, what are the other things you did that when you look back, you can say you have done well?

Incidentally, the Osisioma Flyover ranks 6th among the things I would want to be remembered for. When I speak about legacy, I speak about the peace and stability that we enjoy in Abia State. Abia is today like the Oasis in a desert that is in the middle of conflict. Abia has remained relatively politically stable. It has also remained comparatively safer than other states security-wise. I give God the glory for that and I want to say that this is one state that in the past seven years, we have not had a case of bank robbery.

What’s the secret of that? One wonders about the stability of Abia State when it comes to security issues in the South East and all over the country.

First, I want to give God the glory because as a Christian, security is of the Lord. I also want to thank my people. Abia people are very vigilant because we are connected with them, and we receive benefits of actionable intelligence. We are also blessed with proactive security agencies and we created a synergy. In most cases, there is always inter-agency rivalry. As a leader, at a time like this, the first thing one must tackle is make sure that there is no inter-agency rivalry. Once inter-agency rivalry can be nipped in the bud and let all the agencies know that they have roles to play in the structure that makes up the security architecture, then one would have done 40 to 50 per cent of what needs to be done.

Beyond that, we track in a very serious manner all the miscreants that come to our knowledge and we have a digital platform in the Government House that gives us satellite images of every inch of the state. We have a robust military specification communication system that links all the DPOs to the Commissioner of Police and those on patrol. We have powerful radio wavelengths that give us real-time information. We also deployed a group of people we called ‘Gatekeepers’ into the various communities. They are watching, vigilant and giving us actionable information on movement of people, so that we can nip them in the bud whenever that happens. We also have a very enviable record in terms of tracking and apprehending criminals, whenever there is a breach. In fact, we are prepared with all the resources in our means to make sure we bring criminals to book. It is the assurance that you will be caught that deters criminals from committing the next crime.

We work hard. We don’t close criminal files. We will make sure that we will continue to work on it and at some point; I introduced a Crime Prevention and Record-Keeping Programme, which I called CPARP. What it means is that we change the crime diary from writing on boards to providing computers in the various Police Stations, so that we can share the bio-data, photograph, age, pictures, colour of the eye, facial marks, address and telephone numbers of criminals. We also take the parents’ bio-data and village, so that by the time we put it on the platform, all the DPOs within the police formations are linked together and then linked to the CP. What this means is that if there is a criminal in Obioma Ngwa Local Government Area, the DPO in Osisioma recognizes the criminal and if the criminal is on the run, something happens and the criminal is within the vicinity, the DPO puts the criminal’s name. If he goes with a fake name, he puts either the height, colour of the eye or facial mark. Criminals on that record that have similar features will appear and face recognition can be done.

Criminals move from one location to the other bearing different names.

They can even change their identities, but this time around, we decided to put all of this information into the computer. Our police officers were trained. It is a combination of all kinds of things, but most importantly, in Abia, what we do in our security class meeting is proper to diagnose the archeology of crime. We have to understand the types of crime and the intention or motive behind it, so that we can follow up and see a pattern.

If crimes are not diagnosed and profiled, one may likely make mistakes. Proper diagnosis is key. Many people in my position find it difficult to do proper diagnosis. They copy and paste what is happening in other societies. There are no societies that are the same. One should first diagnose your location. Abia is surrounded by seven states. We check the status of the borders in these seven states; what is happening in these seven states around the border cities. If there is a breach in Omuoma (which is the border in Port Harcourt to Osisioma LG), then Osisioma LG will be in trouble, if there is a breach in Etche, some local government areas in Abia will be in trouble. So, we keep an eye on what is happening along those communities also.

It is a complex thing, but we have been able to work it out. We also have devices for conflict resolution. So, we preempt criminal tendencies, we preempt things that can create breaches like the Hausa-Fulani, herdsmen-farmer conflict, we have conflict resolution committee at the local government level, making the local government chairman as the head, the DPO is also involved, DSS, Miyetti Allah and head of traditional council rulers are also involved in the meeting.

If any conflict arises, they sit and talk about it, do what needs to be done before it escalates. If people don’t discuss their misunderstanding, it degenerates to something that becomes very difficult to handle. It is a robust multi-faceted strategy and it is working for us.

“CBN"

You talked about Osisioma Flyover being the 6th-ranked project. What are the others?

We just discussed security, which is very dear to me. The next one is our support for Small and Medium Scale Enterprises, with the support for Abians in the shoe, bag, and leather work sector, has been unprecedented. There is Abia SME Bank, which provides funding at the micro level even for traders that sell on the table on the streets.

So, funding is critical. We have also been involved in aggressive marketing for Made-in-Aba, and Made-in-Nigeria products. We have mounted Trade Fairs in Abuja and even in New York. We have been with them to Egypt, South Africa, and China, and we did capacity-building by sending 30 young people to learn how to make shoes. A fallout of that, we imported the equipment for shoe-making and established the first automated shoe factory in the history of Nigeria. So, the standard of products in terms of shoe-making has improved and we have started exporting shoes in large quantities and making shoes for the military and police. We are bringing our second factory, which is the garment factory.

I understand that the first garment equipment container among the five containers has arrived. I am very sure by December; we will be commencing the garment factory. We have been strategic about industry establishment, garment and leather works is the main thing for us here in Abia. I also want to be remembered for collaborating with the Federal Government to provide the Araria Independent Power Plant and most importantly, on a better and wider scale, the Geometric Power, which we supported Geometrics to provide. What this means is that Abia will be the first state to enjoy uninterrupted power supply sometime soon and we have been working hard to make sure that it happens because I know what power will do. If power is unlocked, the potential of the people will be unleashed and for me, that is very critical. My intervention in the SMEs is what has put smiles on the faces of our people and that is what has created the new millionaires and hope for the people of Abia.

It is far more important than the Osisioma Flyover. Though the flyover is also important, what I am saying is that flyover is just an enabler. The pillar is the SMEs, which we have given great impetus to and they will not forget the man who took an ordinary shoemaker to China to learn how to make shoes. I also want to be remembered for building over 650 new classroom blocks…redefining infrastructure and among them, four modern schools we have followed up with tweaking the curriculum and method of teaching. We have effectively transited into digital teaching. So, we have smart boxes that can teach over 125 subjects which are used in our modern schools in Abia. For me, I have good examples I can use to say this is about what a typical modern school should be. Many people talked about the poor standard of private schools without showing a good example of what a modern school should be. I have also been able to remodel four technical schools in Aba, Ohafia, and Umuahia. We have consistently embraced the school feeding programme from Primary One to Six and it has effectively reversed enrolment in public schools from private schools.

It is important that access to functional education is key because if schools are available and not affordable, access becomes an issue. But here in Abia, we are saying the private schools are okay, but the public schools have to be better. We have more trained teachers, world-class infrastructure. I don’t have any private school that has the facilities we have in terms of smart boxes for teaching. The only thing we need is to escalate it and make sure it is not only in modern schools, but in all the public schools. For us, I think that is heavy. I will also want to be remembered for our vision when it comes to Enyimba Economic City. It is something close to Silver bullet because our population is increasing geometrically and that is also part of why we have security problems in Nigeria. If we are unable to provide jobs in a geometric trend that will match the increasing population, we will have a big problem on our hands very soon and the only answer to it is a project like Enyimba Economic City, which promises to provide over 650,000 jobs in 30 years. This will literally suck all the youth population and get them busy one way or another. It will also provide an opportunity to have a manufacturing platform in Africa that will be compared with what is happening in China. This is indeed the very essence of our participation in the Continental Free Trade in Nigeria. It is a very audacious project and I am proud to be associated with it.

“I also want to be remembered for collaborating with the Federal Government to provide the Araria Independent Power Plant and most importantly, on a better and wider scale, the Geometric Power, which we supported Geometrics to provide”

How far has it gone?

It has gone very far. It is a trans-generational project. It is not a project that can be concluded with a snap of fingers. We have arrived at a place where we can talk about the financial closure. Afreximbank is leading other international funding agencies to close the deal. I am sure due diligence is being done. We have taken over the concession for the A4 Road along Port Harcourt Expressway. Enyimba Economic City will effectively link that road and do another spine road aligning from that, which will connect the state from the South East to the South-South, so that one can be Enyimba Economic City in one and half hours from any part of South East and South-South states. It is going to be huge. I believe God it will be shovel-ready between December 2022 and January 2023, once finances have been closed. The result will start showing between six months to one year, but great and life-changing projects are usually trans-generational. They are not quick fixes. The important thing is the power of the vision that cannot be compared and I am happy I am associated with it.

Are you not worried about the tendencies of successors not to continue with such visions?

Yes, I have also tried to move away from that line of thought which has become the bane of our political intervention in Nigeria. I inherited about six to seven projects from my predecessor and I am proud to say that I have completed three and I am going to complete the Government House project which I inherited. We have a tradition in Abia of not allowing the people’s funds to be wasted on abandoned projects. If my predecessor embarked on some projects and they are life-changing projects, why won’t I embrace it and conclude it? After all, it is our money that is being tied down. On a very serious note, we have Enyimba Economic City beyond the sentiments and nuances of whosoever comes after me because there is a law provision that protects Enyimba Economic City as an entity that is capable of self-governance within Abia. This is so because we needed to give comfort to the private sector entities that are investing. It is a PPP project, driven by the private sector, but protected by our laws. It is not likely we are going to abandon it. It is a strong vision that will sell itself. So, I am very confident about the project.

In many other states someone like you comes in and succeeds another person, a war will ensue between the predecessor and successor. How have you been managing your predecessor in office?

Anywhere there is peace, even in a family, there must be a compromise. Luckily, I am a man that is devoid of ego because of my training. I am a very sophisticated person. I understand signs and times. My predecessor has also been a gentleman. He understands that there has to be one key in the plug at a time; that Abia State has one governor, which is me. In return, I accord him his respect as an elder statesman. I seek his advice whenever I need and I also urge him to call my attention when he doesn’t understand what I am doing, but largely, we build sufficient confidence that he is sure that I will act in the best interest of the state and not necessarily to undermine him. If there are things I do during the course of work that he is averse to, he would also see my view that it is for the overall interest of the state. I was confronted with his question recently and my response was that my predecessor understands me and he looks out for me, he is an elder statesman and I am grateful that he provided his platform and opportunity for me to serve. I really don’t have any problem with him.