The array of trade, investment and economic talk shops organised and sponsored by governments of the South East region points to a renewed effort to position the region as Nigeria’s industrial and economic hub as Enugu State targets a $30 billion-dollar GDP growth, writes FESTUS OKOROMADU
The commercial ingenuity of the Igbo people who occupy the five South East states comprising Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo is, to say the least, unique. Without much ado, they deserve the accolade of being the drivers of Nigeria’s economy.
Emerging from a civil war that raged from 1967 to 1970, which devastated their land and reduced their population, they were quick to overcome the challenge of starting life afresh from the scratch, with almost nothing.
Although they have consistently claimed to have been marginalised in terms occupying the central seat of government, 53 years after the civil war, they have failed to acknowledge that their prominence in every sector of the economy is also a concern to other stakeholders in the entity called Nigeria.
An often ignored reality of the commercial and entrepreneurial proficiency of the Igbos is the zeal to go outside their zone for economic conquest. Though this has yielded huge dividends as they have acquired much wealth for themselves across major cities in the country, the wealth created from this adventure seems not to have been of benefit to the region apart from the building of some edifice in their homesteads to host visitors during festive periods of the year.
Of course, some authorities have attributed the current insecurity ravaging the region to the absence of employment and meaningful engagement of the youths. No thanks to the gradual collapse of the traditional trade apprentice and mentorship scheme that helped Igbos to dominate trade and commerce in the past.
From the Sabon-Gari market in Kano to the Wuse market in Abuja, down to the Trade Fair Complex or Alaba Electronics Market in Lagos, Igbos dominate. In terms of international trade involving importation of goods from across the globe into Nigeria, they are also at the forefront.
The governor’s vision for the state (Enugu) is to transition the state from public to private investment-led growth, which will eventually close our physical and social infrastructure gap, create hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people, and expand our economy towards the 30-billion-dollar growth trajectory that we know is achievable
Their dominance of the commercial space does not stop at the informal sector but even the organised private sector.
From playing in the capital market to setting up factories of all kinds in cities considered to be economically viable, Igbos are evidently present.
Historically, it remains an indelible fact that the father of Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu the Biafra war-lord, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu was one of the seven subscribers and founder of the Lagos Stock Exchange on September 15, 1960, which has transformed into the Nigerian Exchange Limited.
The question is frequently asked about why Igbos sojourn far from home in the quest for wealth creation. Is it not possible to operate from the South East?
Of course, it is not as if Igbos do not build businesses at home, analysts have said, but the Nigerian factor may have constituted a serious hindrance.
For instance, back in the 1970s and 80s the cities of Aba in Abia State, Onitsha and Nnewi in Anambra State were known for various forms of manufacturing, fabrication and commerce.
Products from the cities of Aba and Nnewi were compared to those from China then.
In some cases, the products were substandard like those from China, because both the government and the citizens refused to patronise, encourage and provide a conducive environment for improvement of the products. Those factories died and import from China, India and other hitherto developing economies became the order of the day. The consequence is Nigeria’s underdeveloped economy despite the humongous income earned from the country’s natural resources, experts said.
The South East region appears to be one of the most unfortunate in the current democratic dispensation as the level of infrastructure degradation seems unimaginable: The absence of a good network of roads, railway, airport, electricity, and lately, security, have led to the collapse of many industries in the region while others relocated to safer regions.
With the petrol-dollar era, which made state governors lazy and dependent on the central government, the failure of governors from the South East to see the wisdom in a homegrown economy to increase internally generated revenue vis-à-vis provide better infrastructure and create prosperity for all, as well as stop the migration of manpower, seems to be the price the region is paying now.
For instance, in the year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created opportunities for Abia State as it became a top destination for foreign investors.
The state rose from attracting zero investment in 2019 to become the third most attractive destination for foreign capital by 2020, drawing a total investment of $56.1 million, according to data by the National Bureau of Statistics.
How Abia turned adversity to opportunity
At the heart of the pandemic, the introduction of the lockdown as a safety measure to stop the spread of the virus led to the closure of factories in China.
Consequently, the supply of major Personal Protective Equipment from exporting countries such as China was disrupted; Aba began the massive production of medical items.
Narrating how the state benefited from the situation, Sam Hart, Director-General at Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency, said the state saw the huge supply gap, and had to go into massive production to meet the local demand for COVID-19 essential medical requirements, and by so doing, the state was able to keep the money that should have gone out of the country.
“Before the pandemic struck, nobody ever produced facemasks or PPE in Aba because there was no need for it since there was no market. As such, facemasks and PPEs were 100 per cent imported. At a point, China came to Aba to mop up all the ones they had sold before the pandemic, to meet increasing demand in their country. When people could no longer import from China, Aba began mass production,” he said.
According to Hart, who is also the convener of the “Made in Aba” campaign, an initiative that promotes locally made goods, no fewer than $5 million went into the production of facemasks and other PPE materials alone.
Hart noted that the state got approval to produce facemasks and PPEs in large quantities for the Victim Support Fund, a non-governmental organisation, chaired by TY Danjuma and run by Toyosi Akerele.
The NGO approached the South Eastern commercial hub for the production of around 300,000 – 500,000 facemasks, which was distributed nationwide as COVID-19 support fund.
The military also approached Aba for the production of a truckload of facemasks meant for Abuja and the Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria in Kaduna.
Unfortunately, despite that eye-opening experience, for whatever reason, these same Aba entrepreneurs have returned to the pre-COVID-19 era of importing from China, owing to unfavourable conditions.
Imo, the emerging energy hub of the East
Meanwhile, Imo State seems to have taken over the role of Enugu, the famed coal city, which powered the eastern region pre- and post-independent.
The state is home to the 50,000bpd capacity modular refinery, owned by Waltersmith Refining and Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of Nigeria-based Waltersmith Petromen Oil.
Located in the Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area, and situated near the Ibigwe marginal field flow-station for consistent supply of crude oil, the refinery project is being developed in phases. The first phase with an initial capacity of 5,000 barrels of crude oil a day started operations in November 2020.
In addition, the Waltersmith project is coming with an industrial park, which will consist of a petrochemical, pharmaceutical, research and other light manufacturing companies that feeds off the hydrocarbon value chain.
Waltersmith Petroman Nigeria Limited is executing the project with support from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
The state is said to possess the largest natural gas and the Shell Petroleum Development Company is currently developing a multi-billion-dollar domestic gas project in Asah North in Imo State, close to Rivers State.
The project has a capacity for 300 million standard cubic feet of gas per day and the potential to be one of the largest domestic gas projects in Nigeria when completed.
The gas processing plant is a joint venture project involving the SPDC, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, Total E&P Nigeria Limited, and Nigerian Agip Oil Company. The project will provide enough gas for domestic consumption, power generation and gas-based ammonia and urea fertilizers.
Enugu State unveils $2.1bn worth opportunities
In the meantime, the governments of Enugu and Anambra states have adopted a strategy of hosting forums to advertise the potentials, prospects and investment opportunities available to investors as well as unveiling their plans to create a conducive environment.
The uniqueness of these programmes is unlike the previous era when state governments embarked on foreign trips searching for investors who in most cases never showed up. The events are now hosted at home while representatives of foreign countries and international organisations are invited to participate. And in this case, local investors are not left behind and monies are not paid for government officials to embark on unfruitful ventures.
To kick off the new dispensation, the Enugu State government, under the leadership of Peter Mbah, recently hosted the inaugural Enugu State Investment and Economic Growth Stakeholders Roundtable in Enugu, the state capital.
The forum was attended by investors, development bankers, international development agencies, and other critical stakeholders, including representatives of the government of the United Kingdom, the World Bank, African Export-Import Bank, African Development Bank, United Kingdom Department for Business and Trade, and the Infrastructure Credit Guarantee Company.
Governor Mbah, at the event, unveiled 30 investment opportunities worth over $2.1 billion, which he said were projects that would directly impact the lives of the people and change the economic fortunes of the state.
But more significantly, he seems to have gotten the buy-in of key global investors like the World Bank, Afriexim, AfDB, other financial institutions and local investors.
Addressing participants, Mbah said the event tagged: “Leveraging Public-Private Partnerships,” underscored his administration’s vision to accelerate sustainable economic transformation powered by the private sector.
“The roundtable marks a new beginning for long-term partnerships and cooperation for shared prosperity, which will catalyse a sustainable, resilient, and prosperous Enugu,” he stated, assuring that Enugu would regain its lost glory in no time.
“Enugu State will become Nigeria/South East’s most remarkable success story driven by industrialisation and structural economic transformation, responsible public financial management, robust growth in trade and investment, and sustainable and inclusive infrastructural development,” he said. On his part, the Deputy British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Jonny Baxter, commended the Mbah administration for putting together the roundtable.
“This round table discussion is for us to understand and engage in the state’s transformation agendas and to also position the state into one of Africa’s hubs by accessing the investment opportunities that are existing.
“It should also be known that cashew, coconut and plantain are products being planted in Enugu and other South Eastern States are among the top priority products which are under the scheme. I will be delighted to ask people in the UK to look out for the cashew nuts produced in Enugu when they buy it in the UK. Cocoyam, which is also produced in the state, is also a priority product,” he said.
While applauding the initiative, the World Bank Country Director for Nigeria, Shubham Chaudhuri, emphasised the need for collaboration between the public and private sectors for meaningful development in the state. He noted that there could not be job creation and sustainable economic growth and development without privatesector investments.
The Regional Chief Operating Officer, Afrexim Bank, Eric Intong, said the financial institution was ready to support the Enugu State government in project preparation to ensure their realisation, adding that Afrexim Bank was poised to trade with Enugu.
Meanwhile, there are indications that the Enugu State Government plans to change the status quo by transforming the state from a public sector-dominated to private sector-driven economy.
According to the Secretary to the State Government, Chidiebere Onyia, the event is the first in a series of business and investment roundtables in preparation for the first fully transactional Enugu State Diaspora and Investment Summit scheduled for April 2024.
“The governor’s vision for the state is to transition the state from public to private investment-led growth, which will eventually close our physical and social infrastructure gap, create hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people, and expand our economy towards the 30-billion-dollar growth trajectory that we know is achievable,” he stated
He added that the event gave the governor the opportunity to share his vision for Enugu State and present the State’s Integrated Sector-Based Productivity Growth Strategy, which lays out a clear path to achieving the 30-billion-dollar GDP growth target.
At the summit, the Enugu State Government presented a pipeline of 30 potential project opportunities with an estimated investment value of more than 2.1 billion dollars. The projects span several industries such as transportation, power, healthcare infrastructure, energy and agro industrialisation.
Expatiating on the prospect of the project, Onyia said, “These are not just numbers, but transformative projects that will affect and improve the quality of life and standard of living for residents of Enugu State.
“The projects in our pipeline range from specialist geriatric, pediatric, and maternal care hospitals to natural gas-to-power plants and renewable energy parks that will help meet the state’s 690 megawatts base load requirement and ensure the sustainability of Enugu state’s energy sector.
“Therefore, they are transformative projects that will catalyse accelerated economic growth in our state and ensure sustainable prosperity and resilience for our people.”
Anambra secures $200m investment from Afreximbank
Towing the path of Enugu State, the Anambra State Government has initiated two key investment awakening events.
First is the Anambra Investment Summit, with the theme: “Unleashing the Economic Potential: Anambra as a Prime Investment Destination,” which took place between September 7 and 8, 2023, and the 2023 Made in Anambra PAN African Export Development Expo, billed for October 3 and 4, 2023.
The hallmark of the just concluded investment summit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the African Export-Import Bank and the Anambra State Government to provide the state development advisory services.
The MoU also includes a potential debt financing programme of up to $200 million.
The bank said in a statement after the event that the agreement was reached at the just concluded 2023 Anambra Investment Summit.
Charles Soludo, Governor of Anambra, and Kanayo Awani, Afreximbank’s executive vice-president, Intra-African Trade Bank, signed the deal during the summit.
Afreximbank and the Anambra State Government will also conclude all prerequisite actions necessary for securing a financing programme of up to $200 million from Afreximbank and its affiliated entities for the projects contingent upon conclusion of a substantive agreement between the parties
The statement reads in part: “Afreximbank will work with the state government to establish bankability for key projects, including the Ikenga Mixed-Use Industrial City, the Anambra Export Emporium and the Akwaihedi Unubi Uga Automotive Industrial Park, as well as any other project agreed upon by the parties.
“Afreximbank and the Anambra State Government will also conclude all prerequisite actions necessary for securing a financing programme of up to $200 million from Afreximbank and its affiliated entities for the projects contingent upon conclusion of a substantive agreement between the parties.
“In addition, the MOU provides for the parties to collaborate on trade and investment promotion in Anambra State through the African Sub-Sovereign Governments Network (AfSNET) and facilitate the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.”
Now that the summit is over, the 2023 Made in Anambra PAN African Export Development Expo, is the next focus.
Speaking of the Expo, the State Commissioner of Industry, Christian Udechukwu said the programme was initiated with the intent of giving businesses in Anambra state the opportunity to access the African continental market, which is valued at $3.4 trillion.
The Expo is scheduled to bring together over 200 industries, investment banks, commercial banks, professional services firms, insurers, shippers, and hundreds of business visitors to the state.
In addition, the Onitsha River Port project is reported to be undergoing a test run as it received light cargo barges with containers recently.
The National Inland Waterways Authority has given assurance that the port will soon commence full operation, a move which will reduce business owners in the South East from travelling to Lagos to clear their goods.
While states like Abia, Ebonyi and Imo have yet to embark on an investment drive that is structured to attract international financial institutions to commit to development plans to elevate the economic potentials, it is obvious that the governments are seeing the new trend.
The days of Igbos accusing other parts of the country of marginalisation can only become history if the deliberate efforts to make the region an industrial hub will not only create more prosperity for the government and people, but will also compel other partners in Nigeria to respect them for their independent lifestyles.
The onus now rests on the governments of the five South East states – Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo – to create an environment that will encourage the Igbos to build the commercial hub of Africa in Nigeria.
This can only happen when all hands are on deck with a true intent of ensuring that investment comes to the South East.