Politics

What happened in Ebonyi in the last 16 years is sad –Odoh

Prof Bernard Odoh is a former Secretary to Ebonyi State Government and governorship candidate of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the 2023 elections. In this interview, he speaks on his governorship ambition, the civil service system and taxation, among other issues. UCHENNA INYA reports

Between the candidates of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), whom do you see as a major threat in your governorship bid?

I think my contender is issues; issues on poverty, issues that are on education, issues about healthcare, issues surround accountability, issues on peace of the state. If I am able to successfully deliver key governance solutions that address these needs, I think my job would have been done. So, those issues are my contenders not the people who are in PDP and APC. So, let us all stick to the issues, let Ebonyi people hear us and know what our plans are on issues that cut across all sectors. The votes that will make me governor will come from Ebonyi people.

So, my threat is coming from the challenges of Ebonyi people. Have I sufficiently convinced you that your problem will be addressed when I become a governor; that is my threat. If I have done that very well, then I have no threat because you will go and vote for me and the vote cumulatively is what is going to make me the governor not the candidates of APC or PDP. Remember that a lot has changed about our elections; ballot box is now in the past. On election day, you will come to the polling booth with your voters’ card and they run a biometric check on you. If your image shows up, they will accredit you, you vote and go. If they snatch a ballot box, the process is cancelled because there is no result in the ballot.

So, no single individual is my threat, my threat is the issues that bother Ebonyi people and that’s why I am focused. I am not talking about anybody if you have been listening to me. I am focused on the things I have come to do for Ebonyi people. I am not bothered about individuals, frankly speaking, because I know ultimately that people are going to vote base on issues. My role in the next seven months is to adequately convey the message in such a way that is compelling. Today, 82.5 per cent of Ebonyi people are unemployed and that is about 2.4 million people.

They don’t have jobs; there is no job to do. The job doesn’t exist which means the first major hurdle we need to jump, how do we create those jobs? A man or woman who has no job is not a happy person. This unemployment is what causes the communal crisis we are seeing across the state. You can easily convert a hungry man into thuggery.

A man who is hungry is vulnerable; he can be used for all kinds of evil. What we see today in Ebonyi is too much undue political interferences in our communities. When I become the governor, I won’t be interested in who is a town union president in the village, who will be SUG President, who is the chairman of Okada riders or chairman of bus drivers.

The first question is how do we pull this people out of poverty? In our first four years, we want to deal with the 50 per cent of this number. We are going to create educational and technology hub in Ebonyi. This hub is where we can have infrastructure laid out. What we intend to achieve is that it is going to be accessible for any would-be private investor in education; we will give you access to the land, give you Certificate of Occupancy on arrival, give you right of way, give you all the support you need within the first one week you come into this state so long as we have the guarantee that you have the money to invest.

In some, cases, we can even give you the land for free and ask you to pay us over time, so that you will have money to invest. We are going to have a land area that can take least 10 to 15 private universities. At optimal time, what that does for us is that we will be guaranteed of at least minimum of N40 billion fund resident in Ebonyi annually.

There will be high speed internet service, which means young people who are interested in all kinds of tech area will go to that hub, sit down anywhere and do their business and walk away. This, we are committed to do within our first year in government and the venture is going to create at least a 100,000 jobs.

There is this perception that if you become the governor of the state, you will take over all the lands under dispute between your Ezza kinsmen and their neighbours and hand over same to them, and that your policies will be in their interest. What is your take on that?

Someone asked me this same question when I was on a radio programme recently. I am not running for this election because I am an Ezza man, I am running because I am an Ebonyi man and I have a track record. If my brother creates problems, I will use him as scapegoat to set example, it doesn’t matter who the person is. Secondly, if you go round the state, there are communal crises in Izzi, Ikwo, Akaeze, Akpoha, Effium, Abaomege, it is a statewide matter and Ezza people don’t live in these places I have mentioned.

So, this is divisive politics. When people don’t have answers to the problem of Ebonyi people, they play up this kind of emotions or sentiments. This election will not be won by this kind of argument. Poverty doesn’t know whether you are Afikpo or Ezza or Izzi or Ikwo or Uburu. Poor education doesn’t speak to this kind of divisiveness; it is the real solution that will speak to this kind of divineness. So, I support the process that enthrones merit. I was Secretary to the State Government (SSG); I had three permanent secretaries, one was from Izzi, the other from Ezillo and the other from Edda. Some permanent secretaries from my place came to me for me to remove the one from Ezillo and put them, I said I won’t do that. That’s not my job; my job here is to support public policies to succeed.

My Special Assistant, when I was SSG was from Uburu, I only had my PA from my place. So, I am not that kind of person, I am focused on the real issues that affect our people and how we can pull our people from poverty. So, let no one be distracted about communal crises and Ezza man. It is pettiness, it’s just like people who are saying vote for me because it is our turn; turn by turn which is the only answer they are offering. So, let’s face the issues the way they are, tell us your solutions, tell us what you are bringing to the table.

I have raised some of the smartest voices in this country who are working both here and overseas, I taught at Nnamdi Azikiwe University and if you go there, my records are there. I pulled one of the biggest research funds that was used in that university. So, we have done things in our lives and it is not about where I come from, those things are inconsequential. The key thing at this moment is how we deal with the issues we have. Keep in mind, poverty is our biggest problem, unemployment is our biggest problem, access to food if our problem.

Cost of living in Ebonyi is now high unlike before. What do you think is responsible for this and what is the way out?

It is cheaper to live in Umuahia, Enugu, Owerri, Awka and Onitsha than to live here because no farmer in this state had access to any intervention of government in the last couple of years. Nobody has gotten one naira here to support food production. Under us, it has to change. If we don’t build capacity to produce food, then we cannot solve all the problems that we have here.

What is your impression on the state tax system?

When you have people who are working, they can pay tax and our tax is not the current tax we have now. The current regime is a regime that is not determined by anybody, people wake up in the morning and impose taxes. The tax law provides the bracket upon when you must tax. If you are a business owner and you have a business that is earning less than N3 million annually, why do you have to harass the person?

In fact, the proper thing to do is to give tax holiday for new ventures to come in, set up their businesses, allow them one or two years to stabilize before you tax. Our tax is going to be properly harmonized. We will not over-tax people, we will not double-tax people.

Small scale businesses all over the world are the most rapid way to pull people out of poverty. Consistently, I have talked about ease of doing business and not where someone comes to do business and all he ends up seeing is losing money because of the hostility of the environment.

There are many abandoned projects in the state. Are you going to complete them?

Projects are supposed to be conceived on the basis of need to communities with a proper visibility plan. Any infrastructure that does not store value or deliver value is a waste. So, the first thing we will do when we come on board is to access all the projects and determine what these projects were made to achieve from the beginning. If the purpose is genuine and they are going to add value to our people, of course, we will go ahead and complete those projects. If the purpose is not clear to us, we will do change of purpose. There will be cabinet and all these things will be debated in the cabinet, I can’t be a dictator. In the council of cabinet, opinions will come. The state House of Assembly will make its opinion, all critical stakeholders will make their inputs. So, I will not be making sole decision on any matter. I am not going to serve myself, I am going to serve everybody.

The state university is going down. How are you going to revive it?

What has happened in Ebonyi in the last 16 years is very sad. A situation where state funds are used to build institutions and now donated to the Federal Government and we are handicapped, begging for help in those sectors, is not right. It is very bad because the health system is categorized into three; the primary healthcare, secondary healthcare and the tertiary healthcare. We don’t have any functional healthcare in Ebonyi. So, a pregnant woman in Ivo who has malaria has to travel all the way from Ivo to come to Federal Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki (FETHA) to get attention.

If they tell you about how many of our people, who die everyday because of poor healthcare, you would be amazed over what is going on here. So, we will sort out our primary healthcare, we will also evaluate some of these decisions because if you take over N10 billion of state funds to build an infrastructure or establishment, you have to evaluate them. Is it right to take public fund from Ebonyi people, build a project and hand it over to the Federal Government? Now, you cannot employ Ebonyi people there because it is no longer under the control of Ebonyi State government. Employment will now be decided in Abuja, our people can’t even enter there.

There is an issue over APGA’s ticket for Ezza North/Ishieelu federal constituency; Joseph Nwobashi the candidate of the party is insisting that he will not withdraw from the race for the member representing the constituency, Anayo Nwonu, who also wants the ticket. Has the issue been resolved?

You were at the party secretariat when we did mop-up primaries and I introduced the people who were there and also made mention of where we had reason to do withdrawal and substitution. Those areas where people had sent in their withdrawal letters, substitutions have taken places. Having addressed the press about Ezza North/Ishileu federal constituency, if the person who is holding the ticket as at today, of course, the window of substitution has closed, If he submitted a letter of withdrawing, the person will do the needful, if he didn’t, then status quo remains.

So, I don’t think that we have issues on who will run for Ezza North/ Ishielu. Before the exercise took place, we had a candidate and the process of withdrawing is very simple; the person will write. Based on that, the party will organize a fresh congress. So, that process has closed, we have done ours in APGA and the national secretariat has taken appropriate action on the subject matter, so I don’t think we have any cause to worry about that.

How would you describe the civil service system in the state and Nigeria in general?

The challenge in our civil service is that our civil service is obsolete. And until we address that core structural issue, we won’t be able to deal effectively with our civil service. It is easy to make promises but it is difficult to keep those promises. If you through our ministries, what you will see is that the purpose for which the ministries were created in the 50s by the British people, much of those purposes have all been outdated.

We have a civil service that practically has no direction with the social-economic performance of our state. If you go to the Ministry of Works; its mandate is to design and implement all engineering programmes and projects and supervise and deliver them but that mandate has been overtaken by emergence of contractors and consultants. Now, the capacity to do those mandates is not available there; you don’t have people who have the right skills, the right capacity to effectively design projects, supervise those projects and ensure that those projects succeed.

If you go to Ministry of Agriculture, it is supposed to be saddled with the responsibility of assessment of the performance of the soil. Not every food will grow everywhere. The most functional, powerful laboratory in Africa is in Kenya. In that laboratory, there are over two million samples of soil across the world being analyzed.

They analyze mineral enrichment of these soils to determine which soil will support which kind of crop. Our ministry today doesn’t have that kind of capability. We are supposed to be doing crop genetics to raise crops that are adaptive to different weather condition.

There are weather conditions and many crops that were here in the 80s; they don’t exist again because of adverse climate conditions. Now, we cannot export food because our food is not properly calibrated. If you take rice for instance, for you to export rice overseas, you need to state its nutrient content – calcium, potassium, nitrogen. All those minerals must be properly calibrated. If you don’t do that, the export destination will not accept it. So, the purpose of our civil service no longer exists. Therefore, to make it work, we are going to do total reengineering of the place.

Many of the people who are in the civil service today, don’t have the competence and skills required and it is not their fault. It is the fault of the system. It is the system that has reduced our civil service to the beggarly system its finds itself now. In Malaysia, what did they do? They took over 50 per cent of their workforce, trained them to own major palm plantation and have developed values along the palm plantation currently. These civil servants, their salaries were accumulated for over a period of 20, 30 years, insurance were procured to cover their salaries for that period of 30, 40 years.

That sum was invested with global partnership to develop the ventures. All those whose monies have been put together, became equity owners in the business. So, their competence their skills were developed to help that business to succeed. That is why today, there is no waste in palm in Malaysia. Much of the investments that was put there at the time of the conception were funds of civil servants that was mopped up as venture capital to develop that country. In Dubai, public service is more efficient than private services today.

If you land at Dubai Airport now, it takes less than two minutes to go through Immigration checks and exit the airport. If you land anywhere in Europe or America, it takes you about one hour to do the same operation. The civil servants in Dubai have been trained to deliver public services efficiently and effectively.

What would you suggest would make the civil service efficient and effective?

If you want somebody to perform at peak you should reward extraordinary commitment. Even if someone has stayed one year in service and he has done what someone who has stayed 10 years in the service has not been able to do, elevate him, encourage the culture of productivity and performance.

So, when we come on board, there are two things we need to do. First of all, effectively reorganize the civil service such that its mandate will be tailored to suit into our own plan and those who will work there will be given the adequate training to be able to deliver. Of course, there are good gaps now, many people have retired. We are not going to employ people just for employment sake, we want to employ people based on the skill that we are looking for and that person must be properly trained to fit into the work plan we have.

Those who don’t have the skill, we will move them to where we can get skills for them. We are going to be very sincere to our people. We will look at the issues the way they are and access the currently reality and now migrate those we can migrate to where we can give them the right skills. So, it is not about making promises, it is about understanding the right issue. So, the real issue is that the civil service as it is today has become obsolete and moribund, it doesn’t have purpose again, we must give it a purpose and prepare civil servants for that purpose otherwise they won’t function.

 

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