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South East Governors’ Forum, Umahi and regional integration

By Lawrence Njoku, South East Bureau Chief
09 March 2017   |   4:04 am
Although their coming together is good tidings having resolved to bury their political differences and work for their people, observers are skeptic about any positive outcome from the development.

David Umahi of Ebonyi State.

The last time governors of the South East geo-political zone met on the aegis of the regional Governors’ Forum, was in October 2014, at Enugu few months to the 2015 general elections. Former governor of Abia State, Theodore Orji was its chairman then.

Since then, no other meeting of note had taken place among them. However, last week, they came together in Enugu with 100 per cent attendance: Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu), Rochas Okorocha (Imo), Willie Obiano (Anambra), David Umahi (Ebonyi) and Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia). Umahi who is his first tenure emerged chairman.

Although their coming together is good tidings having resolved to bury their political differences and work for their people, observers are skeptic about any positive outcome from the development.

Many are still at loss with what the Forum has achieved since its formation few months after the return of democracy in 1999; has the South East faired better; and if any good can come out of the Umahi leadership.

It is argued that with the near loss of the zone’s economic prowess as against its leading role in commerce and agriculture before independence, the lack of political direction and dearth of leadership, there was need for a forum that would serve as a rallying point to put the people – Ndigbo on the right pedestal.

Thus far, the enthusiasm has waned considerably as activities of the Governors’ Forum had not been anywhere near proffering solutions to the myriad of problems challenging the zone.

The challenges confronting the zone prior to 1999 are still present and seem to be compounding. For instance, 16 years after, the zone arguably remains the most backward in terms of infrastructure in spite of its massive support for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that was at the helm of affairs during the period.

In contrast to other zones, the observers noted that the federal roads in the zone were virtually impassible; the gulf among the political leaders exacerbated as they were more divided and spoke in broken tongues; the interest for self took the centre stage, despite the juicy appointments that came the way of the zone.

The establishments jointly owned by the zone remain in a comatose state. Till date, the Premier brewery, Onitsha; Nigergas Ltd, AVOP, Niger Steel, Sunrise Flour Mill, all in Enugu; Nigercem, Ebonyi; Golden Guinea and Modern Ceramics ltd, in Umuahia, Abia state; among others, established to boost the economic potentials of the lay in ruins.

Besides, environmental degradations, like the menace of gully erosion threatening farmlands, economic activities, and homes among others are prominent in the zone. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) in its report on Global Urban Ambient air pollution had classified three major cities in the zone – Aba, Umuahia and Onitsha as the ‘most polluted cities’ in the world. This arose from worsening atmospheric condition of the cities, due to the volume of waste disposals, leading to environmental hazards, congestions and emissions from smoke, chemicals, house waste and sewages among others that are hardly controlled.

A major drawback is that while these establishments remained moribund, its teeming youths mass around towns or leave the zone in droves for want of gainful employment. This has played key part in youths restiveness; the prevailing armed robbery and kidnap cases among other social vices that are plaguing the zone.

It would be recalled that late last year, former President Olusegun Obasanjo attributed the woes of the zone to its leaders inability “to reinvent the industrious, entrepreneurial and adventurer spirit of the people.”

He asserted that the economic development of the zone rests with the leaders, stressing that tapping into the enormous natural potentials that abound in the zone was the only thing required to make the zone the economic hub of Africa.

“Ebonyi is producing rice, well enough to feed the entire state and for export. Abia is producing made in Aba shoes. We have oil here, we have gas, and we have vast arable farmlands; the ingenuity and the Igbo spirit to excel. Why can’t these initiatives be supported? South East must use their uniqueness to walk the zone into the line of development. What south East has is tremendous. You have fertile land, you have skill, all we need to do is to move away from the spirit of individualism and embrace communal effort. Let us have solidarity inside and let our charity begin at home not end at home. If we know and understand what we have, then we will complain less,” he said.

A Political Scientist, Ikechukwu Onyemachi, said recently in Enugu that an undoing of the zone was the perception of the leaders that its common wealth could become “individual wealth and expecting the same dispossessed people to serve them.”

Onyemachi, argued that the zone has not progressed because the endowments that should have made it rich and as one of the economic giants of the country had been neglected, adding: “Nobody thinks home any longer.”

On his part, Prof. Ufo Okeke-Uzodike, the Executive Director, African Heritage Institution (AfriHeritage), Enugu, explained that there was need for regional integration among governments of the zone if South East must develop and overcome its challenges.

Uzodike, who stressed the need for the governments to pull resources together, contended that individually, the states cannot move forward beyond reliance on federal allocations and assistance, unless there is a change in governance style and tactics.

“Take the issue of erosion for instance, it is something that you cannot say will start and end somewhere. It has no boundary, it has no limitation and this means that it can move from one state to another ravaging places. For you to adequately control this, the governors must come together and bring their experts to find a way out. This is because it is not a problem affecting one state. That is the way it is with others. One thing that arose out of a public forum held here the other time is for the formation of South East Nigeria Economic Commission (SENEC) to midwife our development strategies.

Unfortunately, our governors showed cold feet towards the initiative and part of what is happening today and setting Ndigbo backwards are the things which that Commission was set out to solve,” he stated.

This may have informed the stance of the president general of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, after his emergence in January when he declared that quest for the development of Igboland must take into account investments in industries and factories that could create jobs for the people of the zone.

To him however, such development is not possible with the level of disenchantment and division in the zone, especially among the elites, politicians, religious, economic and socio-cultural interests.

Stakeholders maintained that resolutions emanating from the various meetings of the governors have not been transformed to actions, adding that rather their focus had been how to outdo one another financially during political rallies involving the government at the centre as witnessed during campaigns.

They argued that granted that the Forum offers the governors opportunity to discuss personal matters and provide assistance where necessary, the fact that nothing tangible has come out of the it in the past 17 years, is a herculean task that the Umahi leadership must tackle with a sense of urgency.

Umahi, a source claimed, is aware of the enormous challenges and primed to make the difference. “You know he has attended the Governors’ Forum as a deputy governor; you know all that he has done in less than two years to change the ugly face of Ebonyi state. I believe he is bringing such wisdom and foresight into South East forum and since it is the resolve of the governors to work together, I am certain they will support his ideas for the interest of the people of the southeast”, one of his aides volunteered to The Guardian.

Others argued that it appears that the forum is determined to succeed going by Umahi’s posture after he became the chairman. He disclosed that they have decided to set aside their differences and work for the economic integration of the region and welfare of the people.

“This is to have a common ground to fight kidnap, robbery and other vices in our various states. We have realized that sometimes when a kidnap happens in Ebonyi State, for instance, they will be taken to another state of South East.

“We will come together, discuss and compare notes with the aid of consultants and come up with blueprints on how we can have proper economic integration of South East … for the interest of our people,” he stated.