I might take to shoe manufacturing after 2023
Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, is a man who moves on resiliently in the face of challenges. A Bio-Chemist with over 78 publications, he believes in research-based approach to governance, especially as it affects the Nigerian project. He radiates excitement when he discusses the perpetuation of his vision for the state through some trans-generational projects which form the fulcrum of his developmental plans. In this interview with GEOFFREY EKENNA and BIYI ADEGOROYE in Aba, he speaks about how government at federal and state levels, the media and citizenry can concertedly address the myriads of problems facing the country, and the contributions of Aba industrial hub to Nigeria’s Small and Medium Enterprises landscape
It must be a difficult second term in office for you considering the COVID-19 pandemic and insecurity in the South East zone. I’m sure you did not plan for a second term that was this turbulent. How challenging has it been?
I think what makes service at this level so exciting is the challenges that come with it; unpredicted and unplanned and the ability to wade through these challenges and still remain focused.
For me, part of my preparation for this job is that it is very difficult to distract me because I define my endpoint from the beginning and whatever I see along the line as I progress towards that endpoint, I do everything to tackle it and go beyond it.
The second strategy is that I try to turn my mishaps to advantages. So, when COVID came, it was unplanned, and unfortunately, I was personally affected by it but it was also an opportunity for Aba people to excel in terms of production of nose masks.
We made one of the best Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) all over the world. And when COVID abated, our volume of trade in terms of PPEs and nose masks also nose-dived.
So, it was an opportunity for us to make a contribution to the economy of our ecosystem, and to the world at large, such that we even exported PEPs, nose masks outside Nigeria.
Then when it comes to security challenges, it was an unfortunate incident, not only for us as a state but for us as a country. We would have loved not to have that kind of problem. Why is it so?
It is so Nigeria is a country that does not learn from its mistakes. We did not learn from the EndSARS problem. We did not see that some level of impunity was building up within the psyche of our young ones; that people can wake up and begin to burn other peoples’ houses and all of that.
So, it snowballed into all kinds of agitations we began to see and people started attacking institutions of civil authority and all of that.
It was quite scary. But if you look at regional average and national average, Abia can say that we did well and we will continue to do well because security is an enabler, a very, very strong enabler that drives our agenda. Post- COVID, we became the third in terms of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in Nigeria.
The last time SME awards were held in Abuja, we made a very strong showing. Footwear Academy won. So, it is not all about the down side; I’m running a very resilient state, a very strong state, with sufficient buffer to take on some of these challenges.
We have been through Operation Python Dance, and we waded through it all. So, we do well under pressure.
There is this argument that if you can fix Aba like Lagos, Aba alone is capable of sustaining the state. As the state governor, what are you doing in this regard, especially in the area of internally generated revenue and lifting Aba beyond what it is now? It should be a priority for your government…
It is a priority and I will tell you what we have been doing. The retooling of Aba and making it truly a cash cow of not only the South-East but Nigeria is in process. It is work in progress. Nigerians are used to a snap of the button approach, like switch on the light or switch it off.
Things don’t happen that way. In the first place, where were we in 2015? In 2015, you could not access Aba from anywhere. Aba gets its venbillion tilation from trans-state commerce – from Bayelsa-Port Harcourt – Aba Axis; Calabar-Ikot Ekpene- Aba Axis; Owerri-Aba and Enugu-Umuahai- Aba.
So, Aba is more or less a confluence city and we have a catchment business population of over 60 million people, who come here to do business on a monthly basis and go away.
So, if that traffic is not in place, then nothing is happening. In that 2015, you couldn’t find your way into Aba; you couldn’t get to Ariaria Market. You can’t get to Eziukwu Market, you can’t get to the Shopping Centre or Ahia Ohuru.
These are the four major markets out of the about 15 markets in Aba. So, what did we do? First, we must open up this access and that was why we opened three Class A roads from where you can enter Aba from Ikot Ekpene and we have done a bye-pass through Obigada junction to Enugu, to Owerri.
So you don’t need to pass through Osisioma Junction. We are doing the Osisioma interchange. We have opened three outlets from Ariaria because everybody wants to come, shop and go easily. And for the first time in 30 years, we have opened the road from Brass through Ariaria to the Port Harcourt Express. From Ariaria, you can go out through MCC, through SAMEK and through Faulks Road and the express.
Opening the outlets was key and not just opening the outlets but deploying rigid pavement, doing cement but finishing it with asphalt, because I’m speaking to the investors: ‘hey, I’m doing a road that will have 30 years life span.’ I don’t know what my brothers and friends are doing elsewhere.
When you want to take a decision to invest such that you make returns before the road goes bad, you don’t have any option than to come to Abia. And they understood it. Investment is a very dispassionate decision. You don’t invest because somebody is your friend or in-law.
And here, we don’t have a window through which we can peep into the world. We don’t have a seaport, neither do we have an international airport. So, we now conceptualised the Enyimba Economic City, the first of its kind in this area. It was designed by Zubara Juran of Singapore, the same people that designed Dubai. We did due diligence and the economic city has remained the flagship economic zone in Nigeria.
That is why African Development Bank is in it, IFC is in it and of course, the Federal Government has just pronounced their N20 venbillion equity in it. Enyimba Economic City is on 9, 200 hectres of land, the space between Port Harcourt and Aba.
We are leveraging Onne Seaport and we are doing a dry port, and also leveraging the narrow gauge railway, passing through that area through that Enyimba Economic Zone from Port Harcourt all the way to Kano. So, if you do 150 kilometres out of Enyimba Economic City you will be in all the states in the South-South and South-East. It is irresistible for any serious minded investor.
This is my way of creating a manufacturing platform where people can come, work, play and live, and we have marketed it all over the world.
Though COVID slowed us down, we have started all over again. Some investors even came to see me even last week.
Now, we are also doing a few things in terms of dredging and preparing the small channel we have at Azumiri that is 15 nautical miles to the Atlantic.
We are doing serious explorative work. I don’t want to advertise it for strategic reasons. As we are working, we will unveil our efforts in that regard.
…To get over the land lock or dots
General laughter) I have a T-shirt where all the states have dots. I now asked ‘dots everywhere, then who owns Nigeria?’ It must be the dot people. So, I think all Nigerians should copy the spirit of the Igbo man because we are the real Nigerians, because we are everywhere and we spend money everywhere and we add value and support socio-economic activities everywhere.
Those who feel withdrawn or are unable to trust one another would hardly do that. It is difficult to find Adamu Sanda Nigeria Limited or Kolawole Nigeria Limited in Enugu. That is why the rest of Nigerians should copy the outlook of the Igbo man.
Some of our people would build five-storey building in Kaura Namoda and establish a hospital and add value. It means that they have faith in that place and add value and that means they would not do anything that will upset the peace of such place.
So, failure to recognise the fact that there is a people talking by their attitude, it is not by declaring that ‘I’m a Nigerian.’ You must be able to walk the talk. Who are the people that have demonstrated faith in this country more than any other? It is undeniable. It is not about population; it is not about strategic location; it is not about one foot in the river; it is about who are those who are prepared to recover Sambisa for the reason that they want to reside there and to do business.
We don’t just see Sambisa as a forest but as Igbo men, we see it as an investment opportunity; and that is the outlook Nigeria needs now, going forward.
Back to your question, there is quite a lot we are doing. Some of them are projects of 2015-2023 while some of them are trans-generational. I am somebody who likes to put things in place that will outlive me; things with strong logic that even my enemy coming after me will find difficult to fault. So, the Aba you see today is work in progress.
Have I arrived where I want to take Aba? No, but I have sufficient hope and faith in the tell-tale signs that I see. I even think that I’m coming faster than I imagined. For Abia to be number three state in FDI in Nigeria is not a mean feat, coming from the middle of nowhere.
That would not be possible if we were still running with the old narrative.
Even today (last Tuesday), I received a very gladdening message from somebody in London, who wants to open a Made in Aba Shop. This speaks to the strength of what we are doing. So, the outlook is looking good. Are we there? No. Back to IGR, we are running a research-based government. Before now, nobody could tell you how many houses we had.
But the concrete things that we need to do cannot be done in a few weeks. One, we need to do enumeration and widening the Aba field.
The new way to boost IGR is no longer to focus on the flying revenue but to focus on human beings because we are mobile targets. A man can be here today and be at Owerri tomorrow. So, target his house. So, we must go for the immobile or less mobile assets and that is how we have increased our IGR as a result of massive enumeration. We have moved our collection platform from paper ticket to e-ticket.
We have recently got to the point where you can even enumerate yourself using your android phone. Precisely, on Tuesday penultimate week, I was the first person to register on the Abia State Social Identification platform.
So, every citizen of Abia State, whether you reside here or do businesses, if you want us to cover you in terms of our services, you must have an Abia State Social Identification Number.
So, we have moved our IGR from just about N350million a month to a little over N1billion. Are we where we want to be finally? No but have we done sufficient spade work to guarantee that eventually we will get to where we want?
The answer is yes. Again, these are not things we like to make too much noise about because they are things we were supposed to have done yesterday.
Looking at the foundation you are laying, what is your outlook beyond 2023 particularly because you are form Aba and the next governor is not likely to emerge from here?
You just asked me a question that lies in the purview of God but every man in that position will pray to be succeeded by somebody who can sustain his legacy and mean well for the people.
In fact, somebody who will do better than what I have done.
I would love to see a governor who would have sufficient passion and that loves the people and that is not selfcentred; that is sufficiently humble to create a platform that would engender participation of all kinds of people – the lame, the blind, the women, the traders, young and old.
And for this to happen, I’m trusting and believing in what God would do but at all times, every minute as governor, I try to emphasise some virtues and some character traits that we need to promote, going forward. I spend a lot of time in this place. This apartment is just a three-bedroom apartment.
I don’t know how many governors will reside in this kind of place. But I stay here because I want to keep my eyes on the fact that I’m governor today, I won’t be governor tomorrow.
So, I won’t take myself too far away from the house where I lived my life ordinarily. I will try to work such that whoever comes after me will find it difficult to operate except he would work on that template. I will not want to be in a place where I will literally determine who will be governor. I won’t do that because I know I cannot, because mine is a divine mandate.
Nobody gave me a chance but God made it happen. So, God can also raise somebody. Power is such a serious matter that God will not leave entirely in the hands of men. I’m preparing my farewell ahead of 2023 but I will do my bit so that I will be in place to appeal to God to do the needful. I may have expectations but I would be sufficiently patient to accept God’s will.
Like your colleagues, who are rounding off their second term as governors, are you considering going to the Senate?
I have answered that question earlier today, and sincerely, what I would like to say is that I still have about two years and that is a lot of time. I have one or two legacy projects that I have not executed. I am going to…
Like what, Sir?
I am trying to build a health village, because the COVID experience, (you recall I told you earlier that I learn from challenges) taught me that we are on our own. As at the time the whiteman was fixing ventilators on the nostrils of his people, do you think he would remove it and fix on a blackman like me?
And if I am able to fly to New York or London for treatment, what about the 5,000,000 people in Abia? So, I want a situation where we can have the option in Nigeria. Luckily when I suffered COVID, I was treated in Nigeria. I have had only had one opportunity to travel abroad for the doctors to look at me and see if the doctors had done well and they were shocked.
They could not adjust any of my treatments and they confessed that they could not have done better than the services I got right here in Nigeria. So, I’m so proud of the treatment that I had. Again, I have three options as far as 2023 is concerned. The first one is to go back to the classroom.
This book, (he lifts it) “Biochemistry of Environmental Pollution,” I have been writing it for the past 10 years. And I’m reviewing it. I have finished chapter one. This is the manuscript. I have been looking at every letter.
It is a unique intervention in Bio-Chemistry- trying to explain the molecular basis of the impact of pollutants in our system. I’m reviewing it and want to publish it by the end of this year. Without sounding immodest, at the last count, I think I have 78 publications in Bio-Chemistry.
If you check my name on google scholar, you will see them. My latest publication came out on July 7 this year and the world recognises our intervention as a unique and ingenuous work, where we connected 180 Primary Health Centres together and Glo is providing support. It is the most profound strategy to deepen healthcare delivery in Nigeria. I can’t take myself away from academics.
On the last Thursday of this month, I have a class at Abia State University. The other option is, some of you also know that I am a student at the Abia State Footwear Academy, and I will show you the first pair of sandals that I produced. I did it with my hand and that is why it is my library. And that is some big business for me.
Do you want to be a shoemaker?
Why not? Since I enrolled in the school, we have 2,000 young people who are learning the same thing. The third option is now to listen to my people.
Who knows what they will want me to do. I once said that a politician who is jumping ship without due consultation with or the backing of his people is like a bishop without a cathedral. I don’t want to be a bishop without a cathedral. If my people say it is your turn to move forward, I will and if they say don’t, I won’t. It is not about me. I’m not an ambitious person; I’m not looking for anything.
God has been very merciful and gracious to me. The greatest gift God has given to me even in the midst of my busy schedule is to still understand the language of Bio- Chemistry.
Talking about jumping ship, what do you make of some of your colleagues who are defecting to other party while your party, the PDP, is shrinking?
Well, the political space and the character and elements there are in a state of flux, and when you study the behaviour of atoms, if you heat it up a little, the rate of the rate of movement will be more rapid. But some of us are very stable, not innate but very stable. I don’t begrudge them.
They are my friends and we talk and when they gave the reason for the decision they took, I saw their perspectives.
You know, according to the Bible, you will be judged in accordance with the light you received. But I have not seen that light, that reason; I’m not convinced and I am comfortable where I am.
But are you worried for your party, the PDP?
The party could be stronger; the party could be better but my faith in that party is that it has a very robust capacity to absorb shocks. Is it less stable than the other party? No. A party that does not have the president, even in the midst of the best situation will have a problem. But I’m okay where I am.
If I move today to another party, that does not mean that the PDP is weak. I could be moving because I want to become the President and that the prospect would be better and brighter for me in another party. I could be moving because I am looking for something.
Some politicians can move in response to the needs of their people, others can move because of their personal ambition. I understand a colleague of mine moved because he wants to provide security before he goes.
But the state of the PDP governor who defected and the one who is still in the APC are the most impacted when it comes to insecurity in the South East. I spoke to one of the commissioners why is it that the two APC states in the South-East are worst hit by insecurity in the zone?
So what is the question? (general laughter)
Does defection necessarily improve the security of the state?
Look, people come under various shades of light and they respond according to the intensity of light or whatever. Like I said earlier, I have not seen any light to that effect.
I keep asking from my family, my people at the markets and my political associates. I just had a radio programmes today and I have asked the Information Commissioner to put me on one of the radio stations in Aba within the week. I like to talk to people.
And if they ask me will I move, then I would ask them will you go? They will say Nooo. Then I will tell them I am not going anywhere. So, that is the thing.
I want to talk about your position that other people needs to emulate the Igbo man in his nationalistic posture (Nigerianess). I wonder how you feel when you hear our people in IPOB, MASSOB, talk of the need to secede from Nigeria, thereby heating up the polity in the South- East? Of course Nnamdi Kanu is from this state…
As a student of the economic growth, the advancement and diplomacy of Rwanda, I observed that they just made it out of a bloody genocide. And yet, the refrain in the mouth of every Rwandan is ‘Never Again.’ They have become so resolute to that point. Now, what is it that we did not do post-civil war? I have said it somewhere that Nigeria is a country of smoldering fires, if fire can be pluralised.
The reason is that we are sweeping charcoal under the carpet, and until we see smoke, we would continue to ignore it. Then the fire began to emerge. Another group becomes disenchanted and it starts to complain but you sweep it under the carpet, and then we don’t talk.
If you ask me tomorrow, my greatest and honest recommendation to our national leader, (Mr. President) with regard to the problems of Nigeria is ‘Daddy, talk. You need to find the energy to visit all the senatorial districts in Nigeria, and take note of what our people are saying. Listen to them.’
Some of the things they are saying could be downright stupid, some might look unfeasible. Some of them might be what you have even done or attempted to do… because in a broken society, communication becomes dysfunctional because people are capable of selective hearing. If your creditor is calling you, you will be hearing your name but will pretend you are not hearing. People are capable of selective hearing.
They will hear what they want to hear and ignore what they don’t want to hear. You discover that they do analysis and they view it from a negative perspective. In my dialect, if you say ‘Omuo la’, it means your wife has put to bed. But it would sound ‘owuola” meaning your wife is dead.
So, that is why I said that the greatest thing Mr. President needs to do now is to talk to Nigerians, talk and talk.
Our youths here are not wrong by saying there is injustice here, that people are not fairly treated. Appointments are not done fairly as they are supposed to be. And we are not connecting.
We seem to be abandoned; nothing is happening. And some people, herdsmen and cattle rustlers have invaded our forests and are killing people and raping women. People can’t go to the farm and we can’t cope with this and all of that.
When people begin to say those kinds of things, they need to be listened to, and they need to know the steps that are being taken, and people must be told that irrespective of where you come from, if you go outside the purview of the law, there will be consequences. But then, when they don’t hear that, people start to react.
Everybody does not possess the same level of mindset. Some minds are fragile, some are gullible, some can be easily indoctrinated but some are solid. Some can even justify what is unjust. So, all of that put together led to these wild disenchantments, as further accentuated and catalyzed by the impunity we saw during the EndSARS.
The EndSARS protest has built a psyche of impunity among our youths, and unfortunately, a section of the society was eulogising them. It is the case of what happened in the forest when monkeys were flocking a mango tree and all of a sudden the wind blows the branches and the baby monkeys were laughing, but the mother said ‘this issue you are laughing about is the destruction of our house o;’ because we don’t have other houses apart from the tree tops.
So, when people were hailing the youths, it gave further impetus to what we are having now. The agitation for me was not the problem, but the problem was that it had no philosophy; it had no strategy, it had no agenda and then, I could not see the end for the beginning.
And they started burning places and all the rest. If you behave in certain ways, there are consequences. So, what you see today is a fall out of our inability to manage issues, sweeping smoldering fire under the carpet.
Now, it has resulted in an inferno and we are now doing firefighting. So, we need to talk more. I want to draw your attention to Mr. President’s interview when he alluded to his resolve to treat bandits, agitators in the language they understand.
That communication may not have been palatable to listeners but it made an impact because they heard and said ‘Oga has woken up o.’ So, he needs to talk. There is a need for conversation. It is only when the President’s engagement fails, then you can resort to something else.
Those who have intellectual power engage and never get tired of it. If a conversation ends in a deadlock, then you continue the next day. You choose your words carefully, you say the right things, and then you show commitment. And we must be governed the way we ought to be governed.
You don’t lord it over us…
No. You don’t govern the way you want to govern. Whoever says that the federal character principle is not important in Nigeria is joking. In Adamawa State alone, there are 30 dialects. We are a rainbow country – multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual and beliefs and persuasions are different. Our traditions and cultures are different. So, we need to be sensitive to these in the way we govern.
If we say to people they don’t mean anything, that is wrong. I remember when we used to have the policy of educationally disadvantaged states. Some states had 100 as the cut-off point, while others had 200.
All of us wanted those seemingly disadvantaged states to rise and none of us kicked against the policy. So, this issue of accommodation is embedded in our constitution in the form of the Federal Character Policy.
Politicising it and doing the contrary will not work at all. It attacks the psyche and will incite a milieu that seems to promote enslavement. Human beings are not treated like that; we can’t treat even our children like that.
The National Assembly just shot down Electronic Transmission of polls’ results. What is your view about this?
I’m a strong supporter of transmitting election results electronically, because I m a village man and I want my people’s votes to count and be reflected. Any other thing besides this is out of the way. But unfortunately, quite unfortunately, it is not about what I want, but about what the people want. So, when you gauge the mood of the nation and you know what the people want, you act accordingly.
This is because you need critical mass mobilisation to drive even a successful election. If the people disconnect and say, ‘eh, is that what you want to do? Okay, go ahead and do it now,’ and they refuse to vote, or follow their votes, you have rigged the election.
If I do anything that will engender apathy or disenchantment on the part of the electorate about the election, I have rigged it. So, the need for social mobilisation is critical.
We must invest everything to get it. Even God in the Bible said I will give you a king you deserve even when He knew he was going to be a bad king and they said ‘go ahead.’ They asked for Saul and God gave them and we all knew the outcome.