New governors and fate of Southeast Governors Forum
As a new administration sets in on May 29, this year, there are hopes that the umbrella body binding governors of the southeast region, christened, Southeast Governors Forum (SEGF) will begin to live to expectations with the caliber of governors that will join the Forum from this month.
The Forum, which kick-started by governors from only Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) after the return of democracy in 1999, has continued to suffer from lack of commitment of its members and politics of interests.
From control by PDP governors that held sway from 1999 to 2003; the APGA governor produced in Anambra State in 2005, Peter Obi joined the forum. The PPA, which produced governor, Ikedi Ohakim in Imo State in 2007 followed suit. From Ohakim; Okorocha, who won his first election in APGA in 2011 and later joined the APC followed. As members leave and new ones join from other political parties, the goals and aspirations of the Forum have continued to dwindle.
With the outcome of the 2023 general elections, four political parties including the APC, PDP, LP and APGA will now run the forum, which many have forgotten about its existence. With the likes of Alex Otti, from Abia State; Peter Mbah, Enugu State and Francis Nwifuru from Ebonyi State, joining Anambra State governor, Charles Soludo and that of Imo State, Hope Uzodinma in the SEGF, are there tendencies that the Forum could be revived to work for the collective interests of Ndigbo? This is the big question people of the region would want addressed.
Soon after the return of democracy in 1999, five governors of the southeast region who were elected on the platform of the PDP had come together and formed the Forum to help them in their administration of the zone. Their thinking was that working individually in their various states and collectively at the zonal level, would fast track the development of the region.
A paper establishing the forum stated that, “it will offer the various governors of the Southeast region opportunity to pool ideas and resources together to confront common socio-economic challenges and undertake projects that will uplift the wellbeing of the people of the region.”
The forum would offer the collaborating southeast states great opportunities for peer learning and synergistic pursuit of political, social and economic issues relevant to them, while socio-economic issues, which revolve around production, distribution and exchange, as well as security – the maintenance of law and order and safe custody of people and property were part of the policy thrust.
There is also the infrastructural dimension, that is, the provision of capital goods, which will accelerate productive activities.
But the body, which has its administrative headquarters in Enugu, has been dormant over the years without a remarkable achievement to its name. That is because its members hardly attend their meetings when it eventually holds. Decisions and resolutions end at their point of delivery to the press. Except for few, especially the host governor and Chairman of the forum, other governors on many occasions sent their deputies to the meetings. Such past governors as Orji Kalu (Abia); Martin Elechi (Ebonyi); Peter Obi (Anambra); Theodore Orji (Abia) had led the body in the past.
However, when he took over leadership of the body from Theodore Orji in 2017, its current Chairman and Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi decided to infuse life into the body and perhaps reposition it as one of the strongest voices of the southeast in political, economic and other matters.
In one of their meetings held in Enugu in 2017, attended by officials of the British Department for International Development (DFID), they resolved to set up a secretariat at Enugu in the old government lodge on the Abakaliki road with the assistance from the DFID.
Umahi, who briefed reporters after the meeting stated that the secretariat would have a full complement of staff, stated that it would coordinate the activities of the forum and provide support and direction to the governors.
He stated that the secretariat would also provide support for and oversees the day to day running of the Forum, adding that “as the policy hub providing administrative, research and technical support to the Forum in carrying out its strategic objectives, it effectively engages partners and stakeholders.”
“The secretariat is a resource centre, which provides reliable and current information in relevant areas of policy making. It also sources funds for the implementation of identified southeast projects. It primarily focuses on the provision of secretarial services to the SEGF, liaises with development partners with a view to formulating regional development while formulating policies, which make for regional integration”, he added.
He further stated that to make the secretariat function effectively, each state that make up the Forum would contribute its staffing. Enugu contributed the Director General; Ebonyi contributed the Director (Finance and Administration); Anambra brought the Director of Media and Communication; Abia, Director Projects and Imo, Deputy Director General.
Unfortunately, the secretariat never came up at the old government lodge as promised. It ended up in an apartment belonging to the Press Unit, government house, Enugu. For several months, its members of staff were owed salary. While some voluntarily abandoned the work following several months of unpaid salaries, the governors of Enugu and Ebonyi states reassigned the Director General, Prof Simeon Ortuanaya as the Secretary to Enugu State government and Director of Finance and Administration, Orlando Nweze as Commissioner for Finance and Strategy in Ebonyi State.
Aside from the inability to pay salaries and set up a functional secretariat for the Forum, there are litanies of promises that have remained unfulfilled. These are in areas of security, healthcare services, education, infrastructure, economy and many others.
For instance, part of their decisions to form a joint security patrol in the zone followed the attack in 2016 in Ukpabi –Nimbo in Uzo Uwani Local Council of Enugu State, where gunmen killed several people.
Umahi, who was new on the saddle then had after their meeting disclosed that a Joint Security Patrol with Police helicopters, as well as the clearing of bushes around the highways located in the region. They were also to set up the Forest Guards in the various local governments that would operate in the bushes to prevent further kidnapping and raping of women in their farms, as well as strengthen the Neighborhood Watch organisations where available.
While Ugwuanyi and Umahi abided by the clause of clearing the bushes, this was not the case with other states especially those who believed their Vigilante and Neighbourhood Watch groups were in full swing. The Forest Guards that were hurriedly set up also suffered poor funding and management issues and as such failed to perform.
When insecurity increased in the zone, the governors met with Ohanaeze Ndigbo leadership in Owerri, Imo State again and decided to form a joint security outfit to be named “Ebubeagu.” The outfit was supposed to take the shape and nomenclature of the Amotekun in the Southwest and should serve the entire region. Governor Umahi’s brother, a retired Army General, Obi Umahi was appointed to head the southeast Chairman of the security committee to outline its operational guidelines. The committee, indeed, began work and took far-reaching decisions.
But on June 4, 2021 Obi Umahi resigned his appointment. In the resignation letter he addressed to the forum Chairman, he disclosed that his Committee was never funded nor was an office space provided for them throughout his duration.
He further noted in his resignation letter that, “The SE Security Committee thoroughly prepared and submitted the modalities, including the structure, for the take off of EBUBEAGU to the Governors’ Forum during the security meeting of South East Governors’ Forum, attended by the President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide, and other Igbo leaders presented a request that Ebubeagu should be jointly rolled out as a matter of urgency and funded by the government of the five southeast states.” This was, however, not to be as insecurity currently threatens the entire region.
Rather than abide by the recommendations of the committee to set up a joint regional security outfit, the likes of Umahi and Uzodimma embarked on adhoc arrangements that enabled them set up Ebubeagu in their states, which they run as offshoots of their governments and allegedly using them at the whims and caprices. Presently stories abound how the outfits are being used to hound political opponents of the governors, as well as coercing people to support their governments. Even in the face of insecurity that is fast eroding development and economic growth of the region, the Ebubeagu regional security outfit has remained a dream.
There was the promise of a modern health institution in the zone to curb health tourism and improve the wellbeing of the people. The outfit, according to the governors, would attract other Nigerians in search of solutions to their health problems to the zone and in the long run improve revenue earnings of the region.
They also planned to link the entire zone by providing access roads, as well as rail services while undertaking several other measures aimed at improving the wellbeing of the people. These have remained stillborn as the governors have either paid greater attention to their political interests or not committed to their promises.
Dr Cajetan Ikechukwu, a Development Expert, however, told The Guardian that all hope is not lost on the Forum, stressing that what “is incontestable is the fact that southeast is faced with numerous challenges threatening its existence.
“As much as I commend those who have tried to develop their states, these things cannot deepen the growth we want if we don’t work jointly because of our peculiar situation”, he added.
He stated that the incoming governors should leverage the structures already on ground by the outgone and outgoing governors to do something positive for the first time for the region.
Looking at the background of the crop of governors now joining the forum, whom he stated, “are not just politicians but economic thinkers and coming from the private sector, I believe the story of the forum will change.”
He said: “I know that Governor Soludo has not attended the meeting before and that could be following from the fact that most of those who constitute it were politicians and Uzodinma, not attending because of his own challenges, but we are expecting that the likes of Otii and Mbah, who have excelled as entrepreneurs in their areas of discipline, should join forces to make a difference. Soludo is passionate about economic growth and development of Alaigbo; so also is Otti. I see them providing the litmus that will change the narrative in the region.”
He however, added that the hopes and aspirations could be lost should they put politics first before any other issue in the zone.
Immediate past Spokesperson for Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Mazi Chuks Ibegbu, stated that the SEGF should be reconstituted to align with the programmes of Ohanaeze Ndigbo and other affiliate Igbo organisations.
Ibegbu, who described the Forum as an “important component in the quest for the realisation of Igbo emancipation” stated that it was sadden that those who started it distanced it from the people.
“We have entered a crucial level in the politics and affairs of the country and Ndigbo need a strong voice to complement the activities of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. We can only get that strong voice when our governors are saying the same thing and leaving their various political interests. That is why they must look among themselves especially now that new ones are going to join them to nominate a leader who understands the feeling of our people to lead them.”
Chief Ezechukwu Ezenna, a Civil Rights activist, however, told The Guardian that the motive for the formation of the group needs to be reviewed to play a positive role for Ndigbo.
He stated that, “those who formed the group spelt out a mission that they contrived to suit them. These motives were not necessarily in the interest of the people because they did not consult outside their group to come up with it.
“So I think they need to review it. We have three new governors like Otti, Mbah and Nwifuru that will join, they have before now been listening to what Ndigbo are saying about that forum. It is the right time for them to make the difference with what the southwest governors have done.
“We need a commission fully supported by these governors to revitalise and set up industries to curb unemployment in the zone. We need to invest into agriculture and many other areas. This should be a joint thing like was done in the old to get the southeast to work again”, he asserted.