‘It Is Only Equitable That Nigeria Zones 2023 Presidency To South East’
Barrister Uchenna Orji is the Commissioner for Information and Orientation in Ebonyi State. In this interview with CHINONSO IHEKIRE, he spoke on developments in the state, how the government is tackling insecurity and why 2023 presidency should be zoned to South East.
Generally, there are agitations in the South East for Biafra, which has led to insecurity in the region. As someone on ground, how bad is the situation?
Insecurity in the South East has been a source of concern to the various governments. In Ebonyi State, we have made
very frantic efforts in engaging the stakeholders, especially the religious and traditional leaders, as well as the agitators to lay down their arms and play by the rules. The truth is that violent killings and the destruction of properties has no justification at all. The economic crisis in the South East will worsen if we don’t get these actors to consider dropping their arms.
The leaders are very much open to engage all the authorities, especially at the national level, to ensure that all those issues of agitation are addressed; they cannot be addressed in an atmosphere of violence.
For us, it is better to discuss all of these issues. It is true that we have not had very good placement by administrations of the past, and the South East has been marginalised. I think that with constructive engagement with the current administration, we can actually make headway.
A lot of people are of the opinion that the sit-at-home is not good for the Igbo economy. How much has this affected the South East economy?
The issue of sit-at-home has been a source of worry to the entire people. It is a situation where people who are very enterprising are made to stay at home twice or thrice weekly.
It is spelling a danger to the economy of the South East. It is not going to augur well with the economy. Any day that people don’t go to work, it counts. That is why we have been appealing to all the actors to reconsider their stance.
I can say that people in Ebonyi State have appreciated the clarion call by our Governor that they should no longer be sitting at home when everyone is working. Government is also doing everything to engage the actors, and also fortify the security architecture to ensure that whoever wants to come out for business is not molested for any reason. In Ebonyi State, we have a viewing centre that connects to all the major junctions from the metropolis to the 13 local councils.
On the issue of crime, anywhere a crime is committed; it can always be tracked and cracked. With the presence of Ebube Agu in Ebonyi State, I am also sure that the people are policed. The government would do everything possible to protect its citizenry.
Christmas is a time when South Easterners go back home, but from the look of things, it seems that might not happen this year. Are you worried about this development?
That is why all hands have to be on deck. That is why we are talking to our brothers and sisters, including those abroad, who are fanning embers on the issue. In itself, the agitation is not bad, but the approach is what we are appealing that they reconsider. It is going to affect the economy.
A lot of people back home depend on the resources from returnees during Christmas. What do you think will happen if these people don’t return this time?
If we don’t sheath our swords at this time, our brothers and sisters may not come back if the situation aggravates. There is hope that their issues can be resolved, but if we continue doing this disservice to ourselves in the South East, other regions will just be watching. We will enter into an unnecessary bad situation.
What are the measures being taken by your government to ensure that we find a lasting solution to this challenge?
Apart from our manner of dialogue with the agitators, the government has also provided a lot of engagement for our
youths and women. After the EndSARS protests, the Ebonyi government engaged these folk in a 7-day summit. Some of the resolutions was to launch the N3billion empowerment fund; it is available to young people and women. It is also going to be a solution to unemployment.
We also have other empowerment programmes, including the Civil Servants Empowerment programme, which helps to
cushion the effect of unemployment and insecurity. We have 5,000 job opportunities at the local councils and state level; the application process is ongoing. By January 2022, the government would have shortlisted its beneficiaries; that will take people off the streets. The truth of the matter is that part of the problem is unemployment, and it is the reason for these clashes here and there. When people are engaged, it will
help to reduce the scourge of violence.
Ebonyi State is like a construction site at the moment; it has created a lot of facilities that will trigger a lot of employment.
For instance, the shopping mall that is Africa’s biggest has a lot of shops; it will provide a lot of jobs. Then, the University of Medical Sciences has the capacity of providing nothing less than 10,000 jobs. Through that university, jobs can be created to enhance the economic base of the state. The International Airport that is being constructed is being built by Ebonyi indigenes. When it is ready, we can concession it and more Ebonyi indigenes will be engaged. Of course, our rice processing plant has a 32 metric tonnes capacity per hour. There is hope
that when it is privatised, more job opportunities will be created.
Lack of basic infrastructure, particularly roads, is a crucial issue in the South East. How far has Ebonyi gone in this regard?
When the governor came on board, we had a dearth of infrastructural deficit. When he started, his programmes
heavily focused on opening up the communities. Today, we have nothing less than 1,500 kilometres of Federal Roads
done by the state government. If you are coming from Enugu, Imo or Abia to Ebonyi, wonderful networks of roads will greet you; these roads were made of concrete pavement. Ebonyi State is the first government to introduce this building technology to road construction. From any part of Nigeria that you are coming from into Ebonyi, you will be greeted with a flyover; we have nothing less than 13 flyovers. That is to enhance investment.
I want to say that as I speak with you, we have nothing less than eight ring roads, which we expect to open up agricultural activities in the areas. I can tell you that each local council has nothing less than 25 kilometres of concrete paved roads.
We recently opened up three more satellite towns. We have streetlights in almost every town, and that has discouraged crime and opened up nightlife and trade. The government is also putting up a lot of facilities, including industrial clusters that are aimed at empowering our youths and women to go into businesses of their choice.
One of the states that seriously got involved in rice production is Ebonyi State. How did that happen and where are we now?
The governor has done a lot to transform agriculture in Ebonyi. The Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment has pronounced that Ebonyi is the largest producer of Rice in Nigeria.
We started by introducing a mechanisation of agriculture at all levels. In the area of rice processing, which is where we have comparative advantage, the government reactivated the existing rice milling plant and installed a parboiling plant.
This was to ensure we have quality rice that is better than even the imported ones. We can assure you that our rice is free of stones; we have a de-stoning machine for even individual milling plants. The government also assisted those individual milling clusters with de-stoning machines. That is why we had to ban the consumption and sale of imported rice in Ebonyi State. What we have got as rice in Ebonyi can even
supersede the foreign rice.
The government also introduced a project called, ‘One Man, One Hectare’, which is aimed at commercialising the production of rice in Ebonyi State. It means that every farmer must have at least one hectare of land for rice and cassava production. That has helped in ensuring food security in Ebonyi State. The governor has partnered with the CBN to ensure that we have everything. The government has procured at least 13 bulldozers to boost the mechanisation of Agriculture.
We also bought new tractors, harvesters, transplanters and so on, and gave them to cooperatives. That has increased the participation of our youths and women in agriculture. We have only taken advantage of the commercial agriculture-creating scheme of the CBN. We have taken advantage of the Anchors Borrowers Programme of the CBN; we are providing nothing less than 53,000 farmers yearly who go into agriculture; that is the secret of our performance. Rice production is our core commodity, and then cassava and others are the alternatives.
On the political front, it seems the PDP in Ebonyi State is still struggling to put its house in order since Governor Umahi defected to the APC?
I can’t speak for PDP. The people of Ebonyi State have made up their minds to join our governor in APC, except a few who believe they can be Lord of the Manor in PDP. We know a few of them as aspiring politicians who underperformed when they were in leadership positions. There are a few in the National Assembly who believe that they can get automatic tickets. See their outing during the congresses, where there are five divisions. A party that has no leadership is bound to fail. PDP in Ebonyi state has got no leadership; it is just a meeting of never-do-well politicians who are almost perspiring. They are crying foul because they have lost a man that is capable of giving Ebonyi a face. Their big fish has left and they are now crying foul.
One of the major fortune spinners for Ebonyi State was the initiative to take off hawkers. How much has that helped in human capital development of the state?
When the governor came on board, he identified empowerment and infrastructural development as the twin pillars of
development. As he was handling one, he was also handling the other. He also looked at raising the psyche of the people.
He introduced the programme called ‘Street to Skill’ empowerment programme. Before that, he had to create the
Ministry of Human Capital Development, which I happen to be the first commissioner to be in charge. The idea of the governor is to empower the people mentally, financially, and morally.
Through the catch-them-young programme, we are looking at even empowering our people from the scratch, enhancing
education from even the primary school level. The governor had to also really take steps by going to Lagos and shortlisting 520 people on the streets and empowering them with training and 250,000 Naira each. He replicated it and expanded the same feat in Ebonyi, with 3,000 youths and women. He also focused on the poorest of the poor, especially widows, giving them 100,000 each. When you build women, you have built a nation.
The governor also had to roll out N4 billion for the empowerment of Civil Servants; he did the same thing for different groups of people, including the clergy. He gave 5,008 people N100, 000 each to go into agriculture. He also did the same for wives of security officials, giving them N200, 000 each.
These women are mostly non-indigenes, but the governor is very nationalistic at heart.
He also bought 400 tricycles and gave them to the indigent youths and women, especially those living in Onitsha.
They were rehabilitated and given the opportunity to go into a dignified means of livelihood. The president has done a lot in the area of agriculture and social investment programmes.
We have been tapping into a lot of these programmes, like the poorest-of-the-poor programme, among others.
2023 general election is coming and there’s this agitation on where the next president should come from. What’s your take on this?
My opinion is that it is only fair, just and equitable that the Nigerian people should zone the presidency to the South East, no matter the political party. We believe in inequality, but then we also know that it is not by fighting.
It is by negotiation and talking to the collective sensibilities of all of us to know that it will only be fair that the president comes from the South East.
In every zone, we have people that have the capacity. In the South East, we have a lot. Nigerians can be rest assured that the South East will never disappoint. We have people who are nationalistic, builders, and spirited. These are people who believe in One Nigeria. Such people can lead us to the desired destination, if given the right opportunities.