Sunday Magazine

Ikpeazu: How we saved Abia from security challenges in S’East

In this interview, Abia State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, speaks about his performance in almost eight years in office and his intention before he leaves office in May 2023. Ikpeazu equally touched on national politics and the G-5 governors, as well as his crunch battle in Abia South Senatorial District with Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe and the challenges of the PDP in retaining the Abia governorship seat. EMMANUEL IFEANYI monitored it from Aba

 

What are those things you think Abians should remember you for when you must have left office?

It’s been a very exciting moment serving Abians. I count it a rare privilege and I give God all the glory and many thanks to the Abia people for the confidence reposed in me to serve. I would want to be remembered for a few things and I would leave many in the hands of Abians to decide in future. But first of all, I’m sure every Abian will be happy that we’ve had almost eight years of a very stable socio-political environment.

And wherever you see peace, it means that there’s the presence of God and God is happy with the leadership there. That’s why the peace we enjoy in Abia is perversive. The second thing I’ll love to be remembered about is relative security. We’ve become an oasis in the desert. If you go to Aba or come to Umuahia at weekends, you’ll see that all hotels are fully booked. People are migrating from our neighbouring states to take refuge in Abia because of the   relative peace we enjoy here.

And this has enhanced great commerce and all kinds of economic activities. Here again, we give God the glory. I don’t want to misappropriate what ordinarily should be God’s grace and mercy upon us. However, beyond that, I know that people will be looking at some of the promises I made in 2015. I want people to pull out my inaugural speech and pull out my manifesto and put it side by side and look at our interventions.

To God be the glory, I may not have achieved everything, but I am happy to say that at least, we’ve made considerable inroads into almost all facets of Abia’s Economy as we enunciated in those documents.

What type of inroads are you talking about?

In education, we’ve done 700 classroom blocks and this is verifiable. We started the free meal initiative even before the Federal Government began theirs. Many people may ask, what is the socio- economic impact of this free meal programme?

I take them back to what the World Bank said about education. Anybody who spends more than 25 per cent of his income on school fees education of his children that such a family cannot be said to be financially comfortable.

So, what it means is that we must do something about our public schools. And our strategy was one that we must do something about our educational infrastructure and that’s why we did the 700 blocks. Two, we must do something about teachers’ capacity building and that was why we established continuous education centres for teachers here.

We were the first state that brought in people from outside Nigeria like Australia and Bangladesh to come and teach and retrain our teachers at the primary school level. If you recall, a certain state from the North Central part of Nigeria had teachers who could not do the arithmetic of primary four.

So, we don’t want that scenario here. So, we brought them to retrain our teachers, who are even ICT compliant because at some point they got gifts of iPads and tablets where the school curriculum was embedded. Coming back to the free school meal, we needed to put back our children from private schools to public schools. Some of these private  schools are good but a lot of them are also not good enough for goats not to talk of having them as a place for our children.

And to reverse this trend, this free school meal did the magic. I inherited 150,000 pupils in public schools when I came in as governor but today, I’m sure we have over 700,000 students in public schools. We’ve sustained it and in providing school meals, we’ve employed over 5,300 meal vendors, women who are involved in this and that has put food on the tables of many families in Abia State. We’ve migrated to digital learning.

We’ve brought in machines that could teach over 120 subjects, including vocational education. We pioneered with an educational institute in India to do that and we’re pioneering that in our model schools. We have four model schools we built among the 700 classroom blocks that I mentioned earlier. Again, I’m excited that the Abia State government is perhaps the only government to do that. I understand that Enugu has just keyed in now, which not only brings back our scholarship board, but we have over 50 Abia youths studying abroad on the one-year scholarship arrangements of the state government.

The state government arranged the institutions, the admission, got the visa, paid the tickets and got them there and equally secured opportunity for them to work while they go to school there. I feel so excited that I was able to do that. We have 50 of those students in Australia; we have 11 in India and I think we have one or two in the UK and so on. So, it’s over 50 that we have and before the expiration of this tenure in May 2023, I think we may be able to add 10 or 15 more students abroad as our token and parting gifts to our youths.

Beyond that, under SME, this government is the only government in recent history that has built two industries. The Enyimba Automated Shoe Company (ENASCO) is up and running and we’ve just received the good news that the equipment for the garment factory is at the Wharf and we’ve started the process of clearing it. So, very soon, we will be commissioning the Automated Garment Factory side by side with the shoe factory.

You know that the garment and shoe sub-sector is our strongest point. Beyond this, we’ve done massive capacity building by sending our youths to China to go and learn how to operate these machines we’ve brought in and more we’re bringing in to do shoes and garments. We’ve also provided an avenue for sustained funding and that gave birth to the Abia SME Micro Finance Bank, which has the mandate of supporting traders, petty traders, SMEs and small-scale manufacturing to provide all the funding needs they may have and also to function as a liaison between them, the cooperative society and the central bank of Nigeria to see how we can attract funds for their use.

Still, along that line, I discovered that power was a problem, especially along that line we have these clusters of SME entities. We’ve worked hard to ensure that Geometric is on board now. People who reside in Aba will tell you that they enjoy a better, steady and more stable supply.

 

We’re still waiting for Geometric to ignite the Rolls-Royce turbines, which are ready, so that we can bid a permanent farewell to the failures of that sub-sector. And the accumulation of all of these factors has won us many accolades. Part of it is the pronouncement coming from no less a person than Mr Vice President,  Prof. Yemi Osibanjo, when he said that Abia State is indeed the SME capital of Nigeria. If you can recall in the second quarter of 2022, Abia was number three in terms of foreign direct investment in Nigeria and that is also very important to us. When you go to infrastructure, we’ve done and completed over 150 roads, including the Aba Road Umuahia, the Abiriba-Nkporo road and other roads across Abia and three bridges including the very popular Osisioma Flyover.

Are there things Abians should remember on health, post COVID-19 as you leave office?

A whole lot. When you go to health, this is the first government that established a dedicated health facility for the mother and child. It’s on Bende Road in Umuahia. We also have our geriatric outreach to take care of our old ones. We have a functional Abia emergency response service.

An ambulance service that responds to health emergencies 24/7. Another important one is the Abia Telehealth Initiative, which was launched in 2016. I understand the Federal Government is coming to that now, but we’ve been running that since then.

We have almost 300 primary healthcare centres keyed into our Telehealth Initiative. I was excited when I saw a publication in a British academic journal giving accolades to that initiative and describing it and I quote, “That that was a smart initiative to deepen healthcare delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

And that’s talking about the Abia Telehealth initiative. So, I can go on and on.

So, what can be regarded as your parting gift to Abians all around?

Yes, we may not have done everything but certainly, we’ve moved from where we were to a better place. My parting gift to Abians will be a brand new government house. The Aba Health Village will come on board, which is a multistorey health facility that will be focused on kidney and heart problems. Then, the Ultra-Modern Library covering the entire Abia North at Isuikwuato.

The building has been completed and the equipment procured. So, these are some of the things people will see in the days ahead. I’m happy to say that we were working on our roads till the 30th of December 2022 and we resumed on the 4th of January 2023. We’ll keep working on our roads until the 29th of May 2023. We’ll not stop.

All those good things coming will be part of our parting gifts.

The South-East is burning but Abia seems to enjoy peace. What did you do differently?

First of all, don’t look too far. Go straight to the Bible; you’ll see it there. It states that when the righteous is in power, the people will rejoice. That’s one. Two, I do not want to appropriate to myself the credit for the ambience and the security we enjoy in Abia but we’ve done a few things.

One of them is that I am a proponent of what people would like to call informed leadership, evidence-based leadership or scientific leadership, which I’ve already set up a centre for. Scientific leadership is that you must be sure of the diagnosis of the problem before you begin to profer solution, based on knowledge. Here, we did a study of what our problems are and we rated the crimes based on frequency.

Our major crimes like the one they call unknown gunmen, the kidnapping    armed robbery, burglary, and murder at some point when we were looking at it, we saw that murder/domestic violence was taking number two or something. So, we needed to do something there. So, that led to what we’ve done differently. Now, what is the issue with the agitation in the South-East?

What’s the philosophy of the state towards that? Yes, the philosophy of the state is that there is marginalization. Nobody can deny that. There are issues that our people are complaining about. We’re not in the mainstream of Nigerian politics and we feel excluded and that’s the truth. We cannot deny it and we cannot hide behind a finger.

The question is this, if that is true, what’s the way forward? Then, we are saying that going forward, can we adjust our strategy or can we have a plan B? That’s not me saying that I’m denying the fact that everything is not okay for the South-East or the Igboman. That’s not true. Anybody who pretends as if there’s no marginalization and that what some people are saying is a lie will wake up to meet the same problem and his children will face the same problem. That’s about that. I’m not questioning that the problems are there but what we’re discussing is strategy.

Secondly, you need to equip law enforcement agencies. Fighting crime is a multi-pronged approach to it if you want to achieve results. In the first place, you must equip police and deepen intelligence. You must be able to show leadership to the point that there must be seen synergy and harmony among the service chiefs. So, that the DSS does what it needs to do, the police lead out the way it needs to lead out, and the military supports the way it ought to support.

So, that everybody will be on the same page. For instance, at about 10 pm on Tuesday, there was a breach around Osokwa. I got the information because I belong to the same platform as my service chiefs. If we don’t have anything to say on that platform, we can just say hi to each other. So, when I got that information, I relayed it raw to all Divisional Police Officers, to all men on patrol, even the military.

Because I know where it’s happening, people around that area were placed on alert because I can predict where they’re headed. So, within two to three hours, they abandoned the crime and ran away and we recovered the vehicles. I’m on top of my game and everybody is awake. In fact, at some point, I was waiting to get feedback from one particular service chief and I was complaining until his colleagues said we were reaching him now.

Many people have forgotten that we equally have an information centre in the government house that enables us to see all parts of Abia State on Google Maps. When we came, we came up with an irresistible philosophy and template for development. You cannot run away from doing trade and commerce and giving impetus to SME development, where we have over one million people occupying themselves every day.

So, if you don’t do anything there, you’ll be accentuating the unemployment profile of Abia State. But if you do something, you’ll take many people out of unemployment. So, all of these; provision of jobs, facilities, better infrastructure, proactive crime management devices, putting everybody on their toes and provision of logistics for law enforcement officers, a constant review of strategies, and going ahead of time to see things have helped us. Again, we have gatekeepers in our various communi-  ties. If somebody is on our wanted list and the person appears in any of those communities, I have people that will tell us that you’ve returned

What about this Ebubeagu vs community people issue? Why are we not having such problems in Abia?

We did something a little bit innovative when we’re launching our own Ebubeagu. Many people do not know that we have Ebubeagu here. My Ebubeagu is not the media Ebubeagu. I’m not interested in coming to the media to take photos with Ebubeagu because you can’t arm them. Are you sending Ebubeagu to go after their kinsmen? I didn’t send Ebubeagu to go after the AK47-carrying people. If I set up a team to go after its brother, who will do the burial?

I’ll do the burial. So, the philosophy behind Ebubeagu is that we have violent herdsmen, who are in the forest. They’re a common enemy to all of us. The instructions are simple, don’t chase people I’ve not asked you to chase. The mandate is simple, get us information.

If you like, climb your palm trees, climb your raffia palm trees, but make sure you look out for things that are not supposed to be in the forest and report back to us, so that we can use the security agencies to know what’s happening there and handle it. We’ve not been able to secure Abia the way we want to, but security is a work in progress and a continuous process. We’ll continue to improve, but we’re in a place where we have good reason to give God the glory.

But, there seem to be some reports of insecurity in the Umunneochi and Ohafia axis. What are you doing to avoid it spreading?

It actually started in Isuikwuato. You remember, at a point, we were having a problem opening the Abia State University (ABSU) there but I thank God that we’ve nipped that problem and it’s no longer as bad as it used to be. So, the criminal elements moved towards Umunneochi and that Ihube axis. But let’s get something correct: Abia has seven states bordering it.

So, people moved  in from other states, commit crimes here and move back to where they came from. Whenever you see a community in a neighbouring state where civil authority has completely collapsed and broken down, that community becomes a threat to the nearest community in Abia. In some neighbouring towns, all pieces of evidence of civil authority have collapsed.

The police station burnt. So, you don’t see anything there. So, these hoodlums now take over those areas and make a safe haven out of them. So, what we try to do is to see if we can get a collaboration. So, we’re doing all we can. At some point, we brought the airforce to do some reconnaissance flight around that area. I’ll not tell you the next thing we’re going to do but we’ll not keep quiet. We’re watching and watching closely.

Ohafia is becoming a little bit quiet. If we watch closely on Ohafia, we can sort it out. In all of this, we need the cooperation of the locals. The results we get from Isuikwuato today and Uturu axis today is as a result of the cooperation we’ve gotten from the local vigilante, the hunters, and the traditional rulers. You cannot effectively secure a place where the people there are accomplices to the crimes. That’s the issue.

Are there areas you think you could have done better as governor if given at least one more year, especially on pension?

I thank God I’m quick to admit wherever I have an issue because I never promised anybody that I’m going to do everything, but I promised I’m going to do my best and that’s what I’m doing. The pension problem in Abia is an inherited problem that we could not lay our hands on sufficient resources to completely solve the problem.

Unfortunately, people like to politicize it. We have a solution which I stated in my New Year Message that we’re happy that we’ve migrated to the national pension management platform. What it means is that very soon, the pension problem will be a thing of the past. The pension is a hydra-headed problem, starting with those who work on   the pension board. No politician is capable of padding pension. Those who are capable of padding the pension are those who prepare the voucher for government to pay. I remember when I became governor, the first payment voucher they brought to me to pay was about N2.7 billion. We paid it for a few months and it got to a point where we said, let’s get the BVN of my workers and by asking for the BVN, the thing crashed to N2.1 billion. So, who was stealing N600 million every month? So, that’s why civil servants don’t want to go on pension because they’ve messed up the prospect of a glorious retirement by what they do, padding and over padding, changing figures and all of that. But with this migration to the national pension management platform now, I think it’ll be a little more difficult for such because they do forensics and data management. It’s everybody’s problem but I think we’ve done the needful in that regard and the future is bright.

There’s this issue of owing civil servants in parastatals and paying others called core Civil Servants in the ministries. What’s the problem?

The problem is that, as an individual, you know I’m the son of a teacher. I don’t put money inside a pocket that has a hole. If I have four pockets on the trousers, I’m putting on, I discover that one of those pockets has a hole, I’ll not put my money there. If you give me money, I’ll look for a pocket without hole and put it there. If you’re managing an institution that generates N1.5 billion a year and this N1.5 billion you don’t pay it into a government account as Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and you don’t account to the government on that. In addition to the N1.5 billion the institution generates, the government also gives you subventions of N100 million every month, which in a year is N1.2 billion. And then such an institution comes out and says they can’t pay salaries. Meanwhile, they hire at will and fire at will. If you’re a Rector of an Institution and you decide to hire a top and renowned Professor to teach your students literature, you have to be ready to pay him. I didn’t send you to hire him. So, if one is not careful how he handles this issue, somebody can be busy with a pin, putting holes in your balloon and while you’re busy somewhere inflating the balloon. At what point will you be able to fill that balloon with air? The answer is that you can never fill that balloon at any point because someone is puncturing it with a pin. It calls for prudence, fiscal management, and better alignment of your priorities.

I remember in those days, as a lecturer, when it’s time to recruit, the Vice Chancellor and the leadership of the school will look at the kind of money they have and they’ll decide to say well, we’ll go to India because the lecturers coming from India then were cheaper than the lecturers coming from England. But if they choose to go to England to hire a professor, they must be able to pay the English professor. They’ll prefer to go to India and Bangladesh to get very knowledgeable professors but perhaps cheaper in wage expectations. That’s the way to manage.

You must look at the financial balance sheet and look at what you can do and what you cannot do. So, I cannot stay here and take over the responsibility they should take. Someone may say, Mr Governor, why wouldn’t you sack the head or leader of such an institution? But there are rules to everything. There are laws establishing the higher institutions for instance and as a visitor to that institution, if I want to change leadership, I have to go through a process and that’s the beauty of democracy. Our people expect fiat of a military administration on one hand but on the other hand, they expect the glamour and beautiful things that come with democracy. If you’re a true democrat, you must be able to discipline yourself irrespective of how enthusiastic you may be or how angry or sad you may be. Try to vent your anger within the confines of the law and what the books say.

 

It’s not as easy as turning on and turning off the switch. Some will say if I were the governor, I would have sacked this person or that person. It’s not that easy.

Most higher institutions and parastatals are now migrating to the point where they’re a little bit more stable. I was once the General Manager of the Abia State Manifest Scheme. That’s a government parastatal. No subvention is given and back then, I had over 400 workers, which I was paying. The then chairman of Abia State Inland Revenue Service challenged me at a meeting one day in the office of the then Commissioner for Finance, saying to me that I must pay revenue to the government of Abia State from next month. It has never been done before. So, I had to go back to my management and say we have a new assignment; we have to up our game now. And we were able for the first time in history, to pay revenue and equally paid our workers. So, it’s possible for these parastatals to begin to find a way to a point where they can begin to o manage themselves and be disciplined enough not to bring everybody from their village to become a member of the staff even when they’re not doing anything there. If not for anything, at least, to pay salaries. After paying salaries, I expect some interventions, contributions and value addition to what’s happening in the State.

How has the reception of people been towards you as you move for your Senatorial campaigns?

The reception has been overwhelming. I don’t deceive myself because I’m a realist. I’m excited by the joy I see in the faces of my people. I’ve been to the six local government areas in Abia South. I’ve been in some local governments twice and we just had a little break for planning and restrategizing. We’ll roll out our campaign phase two and we’ll be on the road till the end of campaigns because I don’t take it for granted.

You’re up against your brother, Senator Abaribe who had been there for several years, do you see him as a threat going into this election?

I don’t see him as a threat but Abaribe is a very experienced man. But in this case, he’s up against something that’s beyond what he can manoeuvre. My job is to make the campaign issue-based. Like I say in my slogan, this is the time to show all working. And luckily, for every place I go to, I have something to show. I’m humble enough to accept the things I’ve not been able to do. I never promised anybody that I’m going to do everything but I’m proud of the things that I’ve done so far and the people are excited about it. I’ll remain on track and I’m confident that I’ll win this election with a landslide.

You said that the philosophy behind G-5 is beyond 2023. We have a few days to the elections. Has your group reconciled with Atiku?

The first part of your question answers the second one. The philosophy is beyond 2023, meaning that it’s even beyond Atiku Abubakar. What has brought the decision of the G-5 is that this is a country where there’s a clear distinction between the North and the South. And I wasn’t there the day the founders of the PDP put it there that we’re going to do zoning between the North and the South and all of that. But in politics, immediately a candidate emerges, you are duty-bound as a loyal party man to support your candidate and that’s why we’ve not left PDP. We said okay, there’s an agreement between the National Chairman and the people of the South; that’s after they jettisoned zoning. We said that if a candidate emerged from the North, can you return the chairmanship position to the South and that was agreed on.

We also said that we’ll stay with the PDP candidate and support him all the way because we’re party people but let us have a party chairman here even for the purpose of our campaigning in the South. What do we tell our people? There’s still a long time as far as I’m concerned for something. For the part that the G-5 has not said they’re supporting anybody is an indication that within the remaining days, something could happen. But ultimately, Nigerians are aligning and re-aligning and taking steps. I do not pretend that what I say or what I want to be done is automatically going to be what will happen. I’m not God; I don’t have that power and I don’t pretend to be God. But I have just succeeded in putting it on record for the annals of history in Nigeria that there was a man called Okezie Ikpeazu, who was Governor in Nigeria and in a party called PDP and when it came to deciding between North and South, that he insisted that Oh God, this is the turn of the South. Even though my voice has been heard, my will may not be done. However, I want it to be on history that this was what I said at that time. It doesn’t matter to me what happens eventually. I’m not going to harass anybody to take any decision either way, but you’ll not see me campaigning against Atiku Abubakar because I’m a party man. I’m a PDP man and I remain in the PDP. So, the philosophy of the G-5 is about a country where there should be mutual respect. Where the North should be respected just as the South should equally be respected. A country where whatever is due to you should be given to you.
I became governor here because of God’s benevolence and grace of the Abia people. Assuming it’s the survival of the fittest, I wouldn’t have been governor of Abia State. So, I am also duty-bound to support a system that’ll also offer support to the seemingly weak. So, if I don’t speak out in support of a system that will guarantee equal opportunity for the woman, man, youth, the weak, crippled and the voiceless, then I would have undermined the very basis upon which God made me governor in 2015. I’ve done my job and I’ll end with a proverb: “whenever the kite carries a chick, the chick is not crying for the kite to allow it go, but it’s crying for heaven and Earth to hear what’s happening to it and what the kite has done.

 

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