Insight

Owerri Industrial Layout: Mbakwe’s far-sighted vision left to rot

Almost 38 years after he was ousted by a military coup, successive governors have not only failed, woefully, to measure up to the development standard set by the late Sam Mbakwe, they have, to the detriment of the Imo State citizens, allowed his legacy to rot, writes STEVE UZOECHI

There is hardly any state in Nigeria that would not lay claim to pursuing one industrialisation policy or the other. For some, it conveys a good corporate image for their state, while for others it’s just a governance trend, if not a passing fad. The outlook of an industrialising state is too conspicuous to miss and all the growth indices stand out over a period of time.

To say the least, a state genuinely and vigorously implementing an industrialisation policy is like a city set on a hill; it cannot be hidden. It is actually unlikely for any state to implement an effective industrialisation policy for four years and still appear stagnant. Since Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999, only a few states seem to have evolved over time, in their efforts to industrialise while the majority continue in the usual motion without movement.

It is easy to tell an industrialising state from the pack. In Imo State particularly, the hard fact is that for nearly four decades, no committed or sustained effort has been made in the area of industrialisation. Anyone who genuinely seeks to know what an industrialising state looks like, should, in retrospect, take a look at Imo State under the leadership of Chief Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory.

Legacy to remember

Mbakwe governed the old Imo State which included the present-day Abia State and parts of Ebonyi State. He had an untrammelled vision of an industrialised Imo State and accordingly set about achieving it with an unrelenting fervour. He won a second term but lost it to the military coup which brought in Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State. In just four years, Mbakwe had put Imo State on a solid industrial footing. He established the necessary groundwork and further crafted a roadmap for the accelerated industrial development of Imo State and neighbouring states. Mbakwe’s industrialisation vision was ambitious.

His iron-clad resolve to achieve it saw him establish major pro-duction companies and industries in almost all the local government areas of the state. The design was to establish a minimum of one industry in each local government area in Imo State.

There was the Aluminium Extrusion Industry located at Ikeduru, Paper Packaging Industry located at Owerre Ebeiri, Orlu; Sacs Hercules Motorcycle Plant located at Naze in Owerri North; Nsu Tiles and Ceramics Industry located at Ezeoke, Ehime Mbano; Standard Shoes Industry located at Owerri municipal; Imo Modern Poultry located at Avutu in Obowo Local Government Area; and the Aluminium Smelters Plant at Inyishi in Ikeduru Local Government Area. Others were the International Glass Industry, Aba; Modern Ceramics Industry, Umuahia; Paint and Resin Factory, Mbaise; Imo State University, Uturu (now Abia State University, Uturu); Imo Concord Hotel, Owerri; Imo Hotels in Owerri, Umuahia and Aba. The list is endless. Most importantly, Mbakwe had the presence of mind to establish the Amaraku Power Station knowing that no form of industrialisation could happen without adequate power supply. His far-sightedness was uncommon.

Wasted years

More than 38 years after Mbakwe’s administration, with more than 10 governors and military administrators succeeding him, no administration has made any effort at preserving the industries set up by the late governor or reviving any of such industries which have been run aground by successive administrations.

In Imo State today, beyond the relics of dead and abandoned industries; grounded industrial machinery and infrastructure, the Owerri Industrial Layout (OIL) on Onitsha Road, Owerri, remains a perpetual signpost that indicts successive administrations after Mbakwe, of making no honest effort to advance the industrial development of Imo State.

The more than 40 years old massive expanse of industrial space, today stands abandoned, derelict and in abject disuse. The late Military Administrator of Imo State, Ndubuisi Kanu, initiated the idea and laid the foundation but the actual building and development of the Owerri Industrial Layout was done by Chief Sam Mbakwe. Mbakwe did the soft base for all the roads, did the underground drainage system, and did all the lighting within the layout. All these were done before 1983 when he left office.

Regrettably, from the time Mbakwe left till date, no administration has added a single infrastructure to the industrial layout. Not one administration after Mbakwe even took as much as a passing glance at the layout. Instead, the lights Mbakwe mounted have all been cannibalised, the entire street poles removed, the wires and cables stripped and sold off while the massive underground drainage system which drained flood and run-offs from the layout to Nworie River has been destroyed and what is left blocked off by sand.

The business environment, instead of improving over time, has terribly deteriorated and some of the companies sited at the layout have all closed down or relocated to more conducive areas. Today, there is no power supply, no water supply, no road, no drainage system and no security in the industrial layout. Findings by our correspondent indicate that the industrial layout was built to accommodate no fewer than 254 companies but because of the limitations of the layout, only about 90 firms moved in to set up.

With the sustained deterioration of the layout, the estate can now only boast of slightly more than 20 functional companies operating under very tough and immensely harsh economic and infrastructural conditions. Owing to the many vacant industrial spaces, land speculators have encroached on the estate, selling land and building residential properties illegally. Government has so far done nothing to curtail the excesses of the land speculators largely because the successive administrations after Mbakwe have shown no interest whatsoever in what goes on within the industrial layout.

Investors’ plight

In an interview with journalists, the Chief Executive Officer of Camela Vegetable Oil Company Ltd, Chief Okey Ikoro, said his company was one of the earliest to open and commence production at the Owerri Industrial Layout. He said: “We opened our company at the Industrial Layout in 1990 and since then it has been a harrowing experience running a production company under the unfortunate realities on ground at the layout.” Ikoro said the Owerri Industrial Layout should have been operating at the same level with the Agbara Industrial Layout in Lagos/Ogun. According to him, the Layout was established before the Ogun State Industrial Layout.

He said: “If you go to Ogun State Industrial Layout, it boasts of more than 200 industries. It is not just the enormous employment potential that is the benefit but also the massive ancillary jobs it creates in the state. The sales and supply chains, the traffic of goods and persons, all enhance cash flow in the state and assert the economic viability of the state. “But in the case of Imo State, we have been very unlucky. No governor after Mbakwe has bothered to develop our own industrial layout.

Yet all these governors at one point or the other have been talking about job creation and youth empowerment. The question is, how do you go about job creation and youth empowerment without any industrial plan and particularly with our industrial layout abandoned and in utter disrepair.”

Ikoro lamented that within the layout, there is no motorable road except the entrance road built by Mbakwe in 1981 which is still there, strong and durable. Beside the entrance road Mbakwe built, no single infrastructure has been built in the layout by successive administrations in more than three decades, he asserted. “Consequently, most of the industries here have closed shop while the few left are battling to stay afloat with a total lack of infrastructure and the seeming abandonment by the state. By 2012, about 90 industries were operating in the layout.

We hold neighbourhood meetings and we have records and most recently, our attendance has drastically dropped with the consequence that as little as about 22 industries only are still operational in the layout,” Ikoro lamented. Talking about the state of the roads within the industrial layout, Ikoro re-gretted that during the rainy season, nobody can access his area of the layout in a small vehicle or even in some Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV). According to him, on a number of occasions, trucks supplying raw materials and some taking delivery of finished products have fallen and damaged either raw materials or finished products owing to the dilapidated nature of the road. This happens on a near regular basis, further heightening losses in an already bad situation.

This, he said, hampers the supply of raw materials, sales and delivery of finished products. “At some point, we begin to wonder why the government that is pursuing job creation, industrialisation and economic development agenda is not alarmed at the level of degeneration going on at the only industrial layout in the state. This is because we know that for any meaningful economic development to take place under any sincere government, a genuine industrialisation effort must be one of the cardinal policies of that government,” Ikoro said.

He noted that Imo State is so strategically located in the South- East that every investor understands that there is no better place than Imo, to cite a company in the region, for the optimum efficiency in the supply, service delivery and market coverage of the South-East and South-South regions. So for as long as this layout stays grounded and abandoned, Imo State and its citizens are the greatest losers, he stressed. “Under former Governor Rochas Okorocha, some investors were driven from the Government House to see the Owerri Industrial Layout.

After their tour of the layout, they paid a courtesy visit to my factory. One of the expatriates bluntly asked me if I was crazy; that building a factory as big as ours in the Owerri Industrial Layout was nothing but madness. I had no answers for him; I had no justification or explanations to give. How could I explain that an industrial estate as large as this is allowed by successive governments to waste away without power supply, without water supply, without any motorable road and without a single police post for security? We provide every single amenity for ourselves and with this kind of situation, how do we manage our galloping overhead cost? Which state or government can industrialize in this manner?” Ikoro recalled. While observing that road construction in the metropolis is good, he noted that governors of Imo State since 1999 have been building roads till date, yet the state is far from attaining its development potential.

He added: “What is the gain when you build roads and you cannot feed your people because you have failed to create jobs by industrialising the state? The total road length in the industrial layout is just 16 kilometres. So we begin to wonder why Imo State could not fix 16km of road from 1983 to 2021. Nobody is doing anything about it.

There is no drainage anywhere in this estate. You put your factory here; you must run on generator 60 per cent of the time. At the end of the day we are besieged with huge electricity bills. “Despite zero infrastructural supports, we are still harassed with one form of levy or the other. How can somebody come to this area and be talking about fumigation levy, do we now fumigate bushes and forests. For the last 30 years, government has not cleared even one square metre of land in this layout for sanitation purposes yet they demand sanitation levy.

I bought the land upon which I built this factory; I still pay development levy yet not a single development has taken place here since we commenced operations in 1990. Bushes have taken over 50 per cent of the spaces here and they still come to demand levies for services not rendered as if it is a crime to site industries in Owerri. “It is our hope, however, that Governor Hope Uzodinma’s administration would set things right and take deliberate steps to recover the layout from total collapse and from land speculators who have encroached on sections of the industrial layout unrestrained.” Ikoro called on the state government to also make efforts to pipe industrial gas to the layout since Imo State is a gas-producing state with its gas plant just 30 minutes away from the industrial layout.

Government’s position after 38 years

When questions surrounding the state of the Owerri Industrial Layout were put to Governor Uzodinma during a media interaction, he acknowledged the ugly state of the layout. The governor said his government was already making arrangements to restore the layout to full functionality and support industrialists to produce at minimal cost.

He said: “We have identified all the areas of encroachment and as soon as we restore the place, we will ensure that the major problems militating against industrialists setting up and running their industries are tackled. “We’ve secured approval from Mr. President to take a dedicated power line from Alaoji Power Plant and the Niger Delta Power Plant straight to Owerri Industrial Layout. The President has also approved that we take a dedicated line from Egbema Power Plant that has been abandoned for a very long time.

“On our part, as a state government, we are working now on a feasibility study on the Seplat/ANON Gas Project so that industries can have stronger output using gas. “All these and other efforts are what we’re putting in place to reduce the cost of doing business in the state to the barest minimum.

We don’t want anything that will keep discouraging our industrialists because we cannot develop as a state without them.” Uzodinma noted that as of February, the Imo State government was already talking with some Chinese investors who were ready to come to the industrial layout with 17 industries. He regretted that the COVID-19 pandemic did not help that initiative. “We are hopeful that as soon as the pandemic slows down, we will resume discussions with them. I wish to also note that I have a $3 million commitment with UNIDO to rehabilitate all the moribund industries in Imo,” Uzodinma said.

Way forward

But an agro-entrepreneur, Chief Obiora Ogoh, when asked to offer his views on the industrialisation efforts in Nigeria and particularly Imo State, he regretted that the total and overt dependence on monthly allocation may be creating lazy governors. He added: “Governor Uzodinma should see real industrialisation of Imo State as one step that needs to be taken towards creating direct and indirect employment. The Shared Prosperity Government should ensure a viable agricultural sector and look to open up the state for agro-businesses and agro-industrial investments to ensure economic growth and food security for Imo people. “There will be no prosperity to share without a robust economy driven by deliberate industrialisation efforts. Handouts to political apologists and hangerson are not sustainable in the long run. “Industries are closing down in quick succession at the Owerri Industrial Layout and the state is losing its private-investor portfolio. No state can successfully pursue a broad-based industrialisation policy without an enormous private sector investors’ component – they drive industrialisation.” Consequently, not a few people believe that the fastest way to restore Imo State back to winning ways would be to courageously address the evident deficits limiting the capacity of the Owerri Industrial Layout especially in the areas of infrastructure and the obvious absence of a policy direction.

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