Abia State governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu has said he would be remembered for the quality of infrastructure he is putting in place in the state long after he must have left office.
The governor who spoke in this interview with Business Hallmark’s editor, Okey Onyenweaku and GM, Henry Amune regretted that in today’s Budget, there appears to be an attempt to treat certain groups as if they were not an important part of the country’s make up.
How do you feel as governor of a big state like Abia?
In the first place, as a human being, I’m very passionate about assignments; it doesn’t matter who gives it. And I’m somebody who loves my state so very much. So, there is a huge burden in terms of the desire to do so much; the desire to engender a paradigm shift in terms of social mobilisation and methods of running government business. As a scientist, my mind is trained to build from the foundation. And I don’t know any other way of doing it, I can’t compromise. I see my assignment as governor as something that my life depends on. And when you do your job with this kind of mindset it usually places a huge burden on you to do things correctly and to stick to what is right irrespective of what others feel.
I feel that there is much to be done, but there is so little with which to do that much. But I don’t solicit for pity because facing the challenge is what makes the job exciting. Generally, I feel it is a rare privilege that I’m in a place where I can create change; a place I can do things for the people and even take bullets for things I didn’t do. That’s how I feel, in a nutshell, about being the governor.
Since you became governor, you have had your own fair share of criticisms and court cases. How much of a distraction has that been?
Well, everyone has the right to ventilate their grievances. You can even say that I’m taking your position; everybody is entitled to their opinions. But there is a red line, and that red line is when you begin to elevate your personal ambition above the state and above the considerations around the general good of the people. That’s when it becomes worrisome. You will notice that the essence of the court cases and repeated litigation is to distract you and to create confusion and make you lose focus. And it is easy to know when that is the case. They will be tainted with falsehood. At times, people will be bought to raise their voices or raise the alarm based on falsehood. It is very worrisome. If you have offered yourself to serve, you will serve at the behest of the people. If the people say No, or you should wait, then the only thing you can do is wait.
But in all of these, there is a position which every mortal must reserve for God. There is a limit to what man can do and that’s when God begins. So, in all you do, you leave a space for God to speak and when he does, there is nothing you can do about it. But I have tried not to allow all the distractions to cause me to detract from my main focus and the only way I have managed to remain so is to craft a very strong vision and then keep my eyes on the ball all the time. So that even if I slacken a little bit, I can easily find my way because I have crafted my vision and I see the end from the beginning. So, it will be very difficult to derail me because I know where I’m going. And if I don’t see my milestones, I will know that I have derailed. I will not say tomorrow, if I fail to do what I’m supposed to do, that the reason I failed is because someone distracted me. I would rather say that despite the distractions, I was able to achieve this and that. The distractions actually make me stronger. For me, leadership is the ability to remain focused and to deliver on your agenda despite the odds because, of course, there would always be challenges.
Aba is one city with a lot of industry and potential. What are you doing to harness these potential, particularly in terms of building infrastructure? What have been the challenges?
Aba is a unique place; there are no two cities like Aba. It is central and dear to Ndigbo for reasons most Igbo people don’t even know. They just love Aba but they don’t know its history. But I say that most people that have become anything anywhere in the world took their roots from Aba. After the civil war, we all know where we started from. And I choose my words carefully. With 20 pounds, everybody was levelled out. Aba as the only city then where people that had become battle-weary, and with nothing, could come to and manage to sleep in one room in the midst of 20 others, wake up in the morning, go to Ngwa Road Market to sell or ‘Eke Oha’ and participate in the ceremonies of opening of bales of ‘Okirika’, pick one or two, iron them put cassava starch, go to Asa road… with three hangers and market them. If fortune smiles at you and you market two out of the three, you have become a business man. You didn’t need to own a shop in Aba, you didn’t need to have an address. Aba is the only city in Nigeria that offers that. That’s why when sometimes, I hear the cacophony of voices and the seeming confusion around the city centre even as I speak today, I laugh and say Aba has come back to life
Many people could not do that in Port Harcourt, they could not do it in Enugu, and they cannot do it in Owerri, Lagos and so on. Aba is the only place you can just wake up and try something. And tomorrow, you are encouraged to try again. Then, gradually, you will get a container, that’s a super store. That was how Aba made many millionaires. But as time went, a combination of factors affected the city. There was epileptic power supply, collapsed road infrastructure, insecurity – all of which conspired to bring the city to its knees. Lever Brothers went away and came back, 7Up went away to Ghana, and now they are back. The Textile Mill closed, Golden Guinea closed, and many others. Aba was brought to its knees by a conspiracy of all these factors.
Between 2010 and 2013, a young man called Osisikankwu took over Aba. Bank robberies were the order of the day. You couldn’t sight a bullion van; it’s not possible for a bullion van to do 500 meters without being hijacked. I remember one Sunday morning, upon our waking up, along Azuka Street, we picked an AK47 from the gutter. If I’m asked today, I can give you the theology of kidnapping and violent crime in Aba as it relates to our relationship, in terms of geography, the proximity to the creeks of the Atlantic.
In 2015, before we took over, you could not access Aba from anywhere. If you are coming from the North, you would get to Osisioma Junction and there would be traffic logjam caused by the bad federal road that leads to Port Harcourt. If you managed to wriggle out of it and come into the Aba-Owerri Road, which is another federal road but now within the city centre, you found it difficult to go beyond Ngwa High School. Beyond that point, the short Omini Drive was impossibility, it’s a road of less than one kilometer, but it’s a bypass into the city from the express, but you couldn’t pass it. NCC, which is an alternative from the North also, was impossible. Tony Mass was impossible. Then if you were coming from Port Harcourt to Ariaria, you couldn’t go beyond the place called ‘Ukwu Mango’. In fact, at a point they said there was a huge ‘juju’ man there. It defied all solutions for 16 years. Then, from the South from where Akwa Ibom people come into Aba, you couldn’t access Aba from Ukaegbu Road, Umuola and Ehere Roads. So, Aba traders were confined to the unfortunate plight of packing their wares from Ariaria to chase their customers in Akwa Ibom through the bush. And at times when they arrive there, the proud customer would look at the wears they brought and say, “No, I want green pockets but you brought white pockets.” The man would have to take it back.
Again, from Brass, you could not access Ariaria. This was the situation. However, within the first 100 days in 2015, we completed drainage on Ehere, on Umuola, Ukegbu and commissioned the roads. My greatest joy as I speak to you today is that there is no single pothole on those roads despite the heavy traffic. That’s where all the Dangote trucks enter Aba from.
From the North, we have continued to battle that Osisioma Roundabout. We have decided now to do an interchange and people are saying it is taking too long to do a flyover. But I say to them that you have to be patient. Infrastructure is not a matter of how many you are able to deliver in a specific time; it is how well you are able to deliver them. I want to be remembered for the quality of work I do and my ability to solve problems that were once thought to be intractable. Today, you can pass through Ife-obere. That juju man was killed by Setraco. Abia is the only state within our zone maintaining three grade one contractors: Setraco, Arab Contractors and CCECC. If you look at the elements of what I do, you will know that it’s not just about speed; these contractors are not people you can ask to do any shoddy job just so that you can commission. I once called the Chinese contractor handling the flyover and told him to see what he can do about it because I was getting a lot of criticism on social media. He told me that it’s too risky because of the rains and that if it contracts with the dry season, the riser will separate from the platform and if it contracts by a fraction of an inch, a dynamite would be required to break it down. So, whatever they say about speed, I don’t listen because the project would be one of my legacy projects. I thank God today that they have resumed work. I’m sure that in no distant time they will complete it.
The other thing that people don’t know is that what it takes to do a flyover in Lagos is different from what it takes to do a flyover in Zamfara. Even as close as I am, in terms of geography to Ebonyi; Ebonyi will do stanchion for a flyover. But I will do 25 metres before I can erect a stanchion, which is almost the cost of three. But my brother and friend in Ebonyi can do three flyovers with what it will cost me to do one. But that’s where I have found myself. Geography defines us as a people. Today, I can say that all the access roads you have into Aba are courtesy of our hard work between 2015 and now. Tonimas is accessible, Fox Road is accessible from both ends, despite the fact that Setraco is yet to hand over the road to us because they still have one or two things to do. I understand that some parts have developed a problem because there is an intersection leading to another road, leading to Osusu Road, which is a road that one of my predecessors in office commissioned three times, and yet when I went to start work on the road, I met a plantain tree in the middle of it. We are taking time to do the drainage on the road, but my joy is that whenever I take a stroll around there, I see old women praying for me and saying that with what they have seen already, they are sure the road I’m giving them will not collapse in their lifetime.
We introduced rigid pavement technology in the South East. The Osisioma Junction that used to be a problem, we are doing 12-inch concrete with BRC, that is why in some of my billboards you see, “Ikpeazu: Building to Last.” But I know the sentiments of our people. When RGC came to do Aba, the most popular leader in our recent history is Sam Mbakwe. Our people love him so much. But he suffered some of the flaks I’m suffering now, because he brought RCC to do drainages and Aba people got so impatient that they started calling RCC rice, gari and and one other thing. RGC left and MCC came, but all the drainages that were constructed by RCC has lasted more than any other done by other companies. After Mbakwe, nobody has done the kind of drainages we are doing. Those who are technically minded know that it costs more to do drainage than to do roads.
Infrastructure and security are strong enablers that drive trade and commerce. Since our administration came on board, there has not been a single case of bank robbery. I give God the glory, I’m not boasting. If there are things we have done to secure our environment, all the glory goes to God. When it comes to things around security, I take it to God in prayer.
Today I was pleasantly surprised with the presence of the promoters of International Equitable Company, the company that was renowned for brands like Truck Soap in those days, but closed down as a result of the factors I mentioned. They walked up to me to say they were now ready to rebuild the company. And it coincides with the day that Golden Guinea Breweries, for the first time in 15 years, came to present their relaunched Golden Guinea beer. The first crate, they gave to Mrs. Adanma Opara, in honour of her husband who started the company. The second crate was brought to me. This is clear evidence that our policies are working. I don’t want to go into details about what we did to support Golden Guinea to come back, and the things we are going to do to make sure that International Equitable comes back. But let me say that whereas new companies are springing up gradually, the ones people thought had died are also coming back. Aba is coming back to the role it played in the post civil war era. Today, when people are chased away from where they are, maybe because of the problems in the North East and other theaters in the country, they return to Aba. That’s why, when you come to the Aba city centre, you can hardly find a place to put your leg.
The greatest indication of our effort is the response of businesses in Aba. A lot of my detractors wish it becomes a ghost town, but contrary to their desire, the city is bubbling. Indeed, even the presence of waste, when you see mountains of waste, it tells you that people are there. You don’t see waste in the desert. It’s an indication that something is happening and I’m happy it’s happening in our time. Of course, we have not done everything. There are still much to do, but we are determined to do more. The icing on the cake will be the delivery of the first export free zone in Igbo land, the Enyimba Economic City. That’s indeed the jewel of export free zones in Nigeria. The responses we are getting from the international community and our development partners all over the world have been very positive. It will be my joy to deliver that to Ndigbo.
One issue the South East has had is dearth of infrastructure. Sometime ago, you and other governors of the zone decided to partner to develop independent gas plant, new industrial cities. But we have not heard about it again. Have you given up on the plan?
No, let me give you the details of that project. The South East governors came together and asked ourselves the things we could do that will add value to the traditional business of the South East people, their trade and commerce. We said that electricity was key. That requires that we have to find a way to provide electricity in an affordable way, using available resources. I have said elsewhere that my plan is to give Aba people four power options. If you like, you can do EEDC, but in addition there should be the gas alternative and two other alternatives, so that people can decide which to have based on cost. And if there is a power company that provides epileptic power, but it’s more affordable, I can decide to use that to watch home video. But if you are running a serious business, you have to look for a serious power vendor.
We know that there is a lot of gas in Imo and Abia, the one in Enugu Anambra and Ebonyi is yet to be developed in commercial quantity. I don’t know what the standard is, but I believe, and we are saying that if there is gas in Imo and Enugu, and you are tapping gas to support an industrial zone in Kaduna, but you are bypassing these states why not do stops in Anambra, Enugu or Ebonyi. They cannot go to Kaduna to get the gas. We are saying that no, you can’t pass us by. We agree that others will benefit from the gas, but don’t deny us the same privilege. If, as a little boy, if you attend a birthday party where they are sharing rice, but they came to where you are sitting and leave you to go to the next person, you will start crying. We are saying; give us gas nozzles so we can power our industrial centres. The Federal government saw reasons, and they have agreed. But then, like other things that are on the exclusive list, we are waiting for the Federal Government to do what they need to do since they have agreed. We have not abandoned it. We know it’s the way to go and we are pursuing it.
Again, we have South East Economic Development Commission and we are working to develop the economy of the South East, while also looking at the railway to see how it connects the zone. If you move all the way to Port Harcourt, but there is no stop in the South East, it makes it difficult for us to key into the global commercial market of Nigeria. We are saying that while they are planning that, let us do what we can on our own. Abia has, apart from Kaduna, the highest number of railway spots in the country, which means that I have to do something to connect the spots for the narrow gauge. If I have a beautiful couch that is diesel propelled, and runs all the way from Port Harcourt, through the 17 pots in Abia through Enugu to Kano, I will be happy. My interest, and I have spoken to some investors, is Abia railway line and South East railway line. It will gladden my heart if we are able to do that such that people can go to work from any part of the Abia.
You are in your second term as governor. You have mentioned a few things you want to be remembered for when you leave office. What other legacies would you like to leave behind?
I want people remember me for promoting commerce in the state, for providing world class healthcare facilities. We have over 700 primary healthcare centres interconnected through telephones to a call centre where we have a pool of doctors; that is going to be launched before the end of this year. We are partnering with Globacom for that. It will deepen access to healthcare. We also believe that before the end of our tenure we will be able to establish an ultramodern diagnostic centre in the state. We had collaborated with some people on a trial basis, using the theatre in FMC, they were able to do six successful kidney transplants. We are trying to do a kidney transplant centre and we are talking to our partners to deliver the the machines.
In education, in fact, everybody in Nigeria knows that for the past four years, Abia has been first in West Africa Examination. The first time, they said it was a fluke, second year they said it was mistake. The third year, ‘its difficult for them to say it was a coincidence. They are now asking what we did. And it’s simple, we are pursing the decay in education from many flanks: one, we have been training our primary school teachers. In fact, we got an NGO from Australia that came and started the training. Last year, we built 340 brand new classroom blocks, in addition to our model schools. Before, the end of this year, I will be incorporating computers in the teaching of our pupils. We are sending the first set of Abians overseas for post graduate studies. I intend to do that every year for the next four years. I want to train four hundred Abians in that regard. I’m also going to leave profound legacies in agriculture, and of course, I will go down in history as the first governor in Abia that built a flyover. I will build more than one. I pray for the resources to accomplish them.
Abia is one of the states that has an image problem. Why is it so?
Abia has image problem because of the character and disposition of opposition in Abia. We have been on this wrong trajectory of pulling ourselves down. People think they must stand on the ashes of those who disagree with them to be able to rise. But it’s not right. Like I said earlier, if you offer yourself for service, and that is the best you can do, whether you will serve eventually is in the hands of the people and God. If you become very angry and you go and pay people to write things, it’s not what will give you power. At times I laugh when people show pictures of roads that are not done in Abia. Is it possible to do all the roads in four years? If people who came before me had done the drainages, I would have gone ahead to do the roads. They should sometimes ask themselves whether I’m repeating roads that have been constructed before. I’m doing roads that had never been done. The greatest problem we have, and that’s also part of the problem of Nigeria, is that our infrastructural stock could not grow incrementally. If you take over from me and I built ten roads, you would build the 11th one, 12th one and so on. But if you take over from me and you didn’t see any road, you built the first one. And you must do it in such a way that if someone takes over from you, he will see what you have done. That’s why I said we have been tackling problems more foundational. And at times, people just say things to get the applause of others. This is the first time Port Harcourt road is seeing drainage in the last 45 years. Interventions before now were just pilling red mud on the roads. The first day that Setraco went on those roads, I was there. As they were escalating, they were laughing at us. They were removing layers and layers of asphalt. If I put red mud on the asphalt and increase the volume, does it solve the problem? I said, remove them, let’s do the drainage. They have been doing it for two years now. It was predicted by NIMET that Abia is one of the states that will be submerged, we have not been submerged, and we will not because we have dredged Waterside. The image problem we have had reflects the character and desperation of those who feel that they should have been in power because they have all the knowledge. What has happened in other states is that once the election is over, governance begins. If you see something that is not right, you ask questions and suggest solutions. As a biochemist, I know that negative results are as important as the positive. If you tell me that this is the way to go, I will reverse and follow it. What is the point travelling for three hours on the wrong route? If I see something that is objective and is the right thing to do, I will do it.
Going forward, I expect the negative publicity to continue until when the end of 2023 when they will challenge themselves to speak the truth.
That brings me to the next question, where would I like to see Abia in the next few years? I would like to see an industrialized Abia. Enyimba economic city is a trans-generational project. It is a futuristic project. I think of the 600, 000 jobs that will be created because that’s how best to speak to insecurity, instability and GDP growth. Yes, it’s good to do roads and bridges, but it’s most important to provide jobs. I would like to see that city begin to flourish. It’s going to have have have enclaves for oil and gas, logistics, entertainment, sports, hospitals, all kinds of things. It’s going to be a smart city. I am looking forward to a time I will no longer be promoting Made in Aba, but Make in Aba. Come to Aba and make it because you will export free, the facilities are there but most importantly, there will be skilled man power. You recall when we sent 30 people to China to learn how to produce shoes? The first automated shoe factory in Aba will be commissioned this December. By then I will challenge the federal government to stop buying military boots elsewhere if they are serious about border closure and promoting local production. If they don’t want to listen to us, I will go to the West African and African markets and sell to them. Of course, our shoes and dresses are making waves there already. This is the picture of Abia State I’m looking forward to. I’m doing roads that can last 30 years, not those that will help me win elections.
Do you agree that Nigeria should be restructured?
As for restructuring, let me share my popular saying: I don’t care about where I start, all I care about is to start. Let my work speak for me. What I want is for everyone to be given the opportunity to express himself. The beauty of the rainbow is the difference in colours. There is a nexus between geography, culture, social disposition and innate quality or capacity to output. God has blessed us with all kinds of attributes. As our faces vary, as our skills vary. That’s why you have salt in Ebonyi, but there is none in Abia. Why won’t Nigeria allow Ebonyi to be the salt city of Nigeria? Using all kinds of things to hold everybody down, call it federal character or whatever, doesn’t make sense. So, there has to be economic restructuring, political restructuring, fiscal restructuring and the restructuring of the mindset. That’s why sometimes, if I’m pressed too hard, I say that our country has been orphaned and is looking for ownership. We lack respect for one another. Even as a family, if you are travelling with your children and you are attending an important meeting, you can’t say to your son, remind me of this and that because nobody knows it all. In Nigeria, we carry on as if there is no respect for others. That’s why I said we need to restructure the mindset. I believe in restructuring.
Is debt hobbling Abia state in any form?
No, our debt profile leaves us in a place where we are qualified to borrow much more. We are not even near the least of highly indebted states. We have managed to remain the way we are because of fiscal prudence. I’m a very adventurous person. If I have to borrow now to bring Abia railway to life, I will. If I have to borrow to catalyse job creation, I will. Eventually, if 600,000 jobs are created, the workers will pay tax. What is the economic concept of Dubai? Dubai said, come to Dubai and sell free, no tax. And because people want where they won’t be taxed, everybody went there. They forgot that as you are selling in Dubai, you are sleeping in the hotel. Did they say you won’t pay for hotels? By the time you pay for hotel and they have excellent facilities, at a point, everyone began to say that this looks like a near perfect society. And what they did was to look at their location on the map, and then build a strong airline that makes it the connection points of the world. So, as a potential, people started saying that instead of just coming to sell, let me manufacture it here. So, if we see money to borrow for good reasons, we will borrow. It is the way to go. Nobody will congratulate you for not borrowing and your people are poor.