Saturday, 3rd June 2023

Under my watch, Abia has been peaceful, prosperous and politically stable — Ikpeazu

By Azeez Olorunlomeru
09 October 2022   |   4:05 am
With over seven years in the saddle as Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, in this interview with AZEEZ OLORUNLOMERU, highlights infrastructure development, support for small businesses, and stability as some strides recorded under his watch, saying that the state has blossomed exceedingly. What have been your greatest challenges as a governor in the past seven and…


With over seven years in the saddle as Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, in this interview with AZEEZ OLORUNLOMERU, highlights infrastructure development, support for small businesses, and stability as some strides recorded under his watch, saying that the state has blossomed exceedingly.

What have been your greatest challenges as a governor in the past seven and half years?
I thank God for giving me the opportunity to serve, and the Abia people for finding me worthy to be their leader. If I summarise the seven years in a few words, I would say it has been the most eventful with its ups and downs. The greatest challenge was communicating my vision first to my team and secondly to the people. I always tell a story of a locomotive engine that is running at high speed without the coaches. It might arrive its destination in a good time but with no passengers or goods. Leadership in the 21st Century requires that one must communicate his/her vision in a way that your team will be able to replicate and drive it and also speak to the people so that they can be receptive of your vision and support you in any way they can.

On the first flank, there is a choice as a governor to choose your team such as commissioners, aides, and structure of the political components but you have little or no choice about civil service, which is the bulwark of public service in general. At times, a governor might have a civil service that is stereotyped or focused on old ways, not receptive to change, not willing to run at one’s speed, and not willing to embrace 21st Century paradigms of development like digitisation and computerisation. It impacts on everything negatively. There were also problems inherent in the system orchestrated by Labour’s stance and unionisation. One is really handicapped if one is a democrat. Apart from the checks and balances that the judiciary and legislature would provide, it is also a big bottleneck with bureaucracy and protocol, having to drive the vision when we don’t have all the time. So, I experienced a lot of frustration in that regard and we had to devise a way to go round that. What we did was to create an Abia Economic Advancement Team, which is my backroom and they have the mandate to turn my vision into a work plan and to adapt it to local dynamics to make sure it functions, and to also support me in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation. That was how we got around but it can be quite frustrating.

Again, politicians misread or deliberately misread one’s intention and politicise everything. They even politicise the misfortune of the citizens. When one begins to show empathy, there are people who hype it while others condemn it.

The third major one is that we came at a time when finances weren’t steady. We have gone through three recessions in this country. We are just surviving the third one from which we came out technically broke. The global economy is getting worse and it was negatively impacted by COVID-19 and more recently, the Russia-Ukraine war. Also, the problem of crude oil theft puts us in a place where we can’t take full advantage of scarcity occasioned by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. So, we are in a place where many problems, conflicts, and diseases from Ebola to COVID-19 to Monkeypox present as challenges to governance in the face of dwindling revenue. At times, one can receive N2billion less than what was received the previous month. So, it doesn’t make for proper planning; it makes it difficult for budgeting and projection. But we thank God that we are in a place where we can, at least, have one or two things to point out and to say we didn’t completely waste our time these past seven years.

The Osisioma Flyover is one of the projects you inaugurated recently. What other projects have you completed that bring you satisfaction?
Incidentally, Osisioma Flyover ranks 6th among the things I would want to be remembered for. When I talk about legacy, I speak about the peace and stability that we enjoy in Abia State. Abia is today like the oasis in a desert in the middle of conflict. Abia has remained relatively politically stable. It has also remained comparatively safer than other states security-wise. This is one state that, in the past seven years, has not had a case of bank robbery.

How have you managed to keep the state secured?
I thank God because security is of the Lord. I also want to thank my people. Abia people are very vigilant because we connected with them, and we received benefits of actionable intelligence. We are also blessed with proactive security agencies, so we created a synergy. In most cases, there is always interagency rivalry. As a leader, we worked to ensure that there is no interagency rivalry in the security architecture.

Beyond that, we track all the miscreants that come to our knowledge and have a digital platform in the government house that gives us satellite images of every inch of the state. We have a robust military specification communication system that links all the DPOs to the Commissioner of Police and those on patrol. We have powerful radio wavelength that gives us the real-time information. We also deployed a group of people we called ‘Gatekeepers’ into the various communities. They are watching, vigilant and giving us actionable information on movement of people, so that we can nip crisis in the bud whenever it happens.

We also have a very enviable record in terms of tracking and apprehending criminals whenever there is a breach. In  fact, we are prepared with all the resources in our means to make sure we bring criminals to book. It is the assurance that you will be caught that deters criminals from committing the next crime. We work hard; we don’t close criminal files. We will make sure that we will continue to work on it. At some point, I introduced a Crime Prevention and Record-Keeping Programme, which I called CPARP. What it means is that we change the crime diary from writing on boards to providing computers in the various Police Stations, so that we can share the bio-data, photograph, age, pictures, colour of the eye, facial marks, address and telephone numbers of criminals. We also take the parents’ bio-data and village, so that by the time we put it on the platform, all the DPOs within the police formation are linked together and then linked to the CP. What this means is that if there is a criminal in Obioma Ngwa Local Council, the DPO in Osisioma recognises the criminal and if the criminal is on the run, something happens and the criminal is within the vicinity, the DPO puts the criminal’s name. If he goes with a fake name, he puts either the height, colour of the eye or facial mark. Criminals on that record that have similar features will appear and face recognition can be done.

Criminals move from one location to the other bearing different names. They can even change their identities but this time around, we decided to put all of this information into the computer. Our police officers were trained. It is a combination of all kinds of things but most importantly, in Abia, what we do in our security class meeting is to properly diagnose the archeology of crime. We have to understand the types of crime and the intention or motive behind it, so that we can follow up and see a pattern. If crimes are not diagnosed and profiled, one may likely make mistakes. Proper diagnosis is key.

You talked about Osisioma Flyover being the 6th-ranked project. What are the others?
We just discussed security, which is very dear to me. The next one is our support for Small and Medium Scale Enterprises, with the support for Abians in the shoe, bag, and leatherwork sector, has been unprecedented. There is Abia SME Bank, which provides funding at the micro level, even for traders that sell on the table on the streets. Funding is critical. We have also been involved in aggressive marketing for Made-in-Aba, and Made-in-Nigeria products. We have mounted Trade Fairs in Abuja and even in New York. We have been with them to Egypt, South Africa, and China, and we did capacity-building by sending 30 young people to learn how to make shoes. A fall-out of that, we imported the equipment for shoe-making and established the first automated shoe factory in history of Nigeria. So, the standard of products in terms of shoe-making has improved and we have started exporting shoes in large quantities and making shoes for the military and police.

We are bringing our second factory, which is the garment factory. I understand that the first garment equipment container among the five containers has arrived. I am very sure by December, we will be commencing the garment factory. We have been strategic about industry establishment; garment and leather works is the main thing for us here in Abia.

I will also want to be remembered for collaborating with the Federal Government to provide Araria Independent Power Plant and most importantly, on a better and wider scale, the Geometric Power, which we supported Geometric to provide. What this means is that Abia will be the first state to enjoy uninterrupted power supply sometime soon and we have been working hard to make sure that it happens because I know what regular power supply will do. If power is unlocked, the potential of the people will be unleashed and for me, that is very critical.

My intervention in the SMEs is what has put smiles on the faces of our people and that is what has created the new millionaires and hope for the people of Abia. It is far more important than the Osisioma Flyover. Though the flyover is also important, what I am saying is that flyover is just an enabler. The pillar is the SMEs, which we have given great impetus to and they will not forget the man who took an ordinary shoemaker to China to learn how to make shoes. I also want to be remembered for building over 650 new classroom blocks, redefining infrastructure and among them, four modern schools, we have followed up with tweaking the curriculum and method of teaching. We have effectively transited into digital teaching. So, we have smart boxes that can teach over 125 subjects, which are used in our modern schools in Abia.

For me, I have good examples I can use to say this is what a typical modern school should be. Many people talked about the poor standard of private schools without showing a good example of what a modern school should be. I have also been able to remodel four technical schools in Aba, Ohafia, and Umuahia. We have consistently embraced the school feeding programme from Primary One to Six and it has effectively reversed enrolment in public schools from private schools. It is important that access to functional education is key because if schools are available and not affordable, access becomes an issue. Here in Abia, we are saying the private schools are okay but the public schools have to be better. We have more trained teachers and world-class infrastructure. I don’t have any private school that has the facilities we have in terms of smart boxes for teaching. The only thing we need, is to escalate it and make sure it is not only in modern schools but in all the public schools. For us, I think that is heavy.

I will also want to be remembered for our vision when it comes the Enyimba Economic City. It is something close to Silverbullet because our population is increasing geometrically and that is also part of why we have security problems in Nigeria. If we are unable to provide jobs in a geometric trend that will match the increasing population, we will have a big problem on our hands very soon and the only answer to it, is a project like the Enyimba Economic City, which promises to provide over 650,000 jobs in 30 years. This will literally suck all the youth population and get them busy in one way or other. It will also provide an opportunity to have a manufacturing platform in Africa that will be compared with what it is happening in China. This is indeed the very essence of our participation in the Continental Free Trade in Nigeria. It is a very audacious project and I am proud to be associated of it.

Are you not worried about the tendency of successors not continuing with such visions?
Yes, I have also tried to move away from that line of thought, which has become the bane of our political intervention in Nigeria. I inherited about six to seven projects from my predecessor and I am proud to say that I have completed three and I am going to complete the Government House project, which I inherited. We have a tradition in Abia of not allowing people’s funds to be wasted on abandoned projects. If my predecessor embarked on some projects and they are life-changing projects, why won’t I embrace it and conclude it? After all, it is our money that is being tied down.

On a very serious note, we have Enyimba Economic City beyond the sentiments and nuances of whosoever comes after me because there is a law provision that protects Enyimba Economic City as an entity that is capable of self-governance within Abia. This is so because we needed to give comfort to the private sector entities that are investing. It is a PPP project, driven by the private sector but protected by our laws. It is not likely we are going to abandon it. It is a strong vision that will sell itself. So, I am very confident about the project.

How has been your relationship with your predecessor?
Anywhere there is peace, even in a family, there must be a compromise. Luckily, I am a man that is devoid of ego because of my training. I understand signs and times. My predecessor has also been a gentleman. He understands that there has to be one key in the plug at a time; that Abia State has one governor, which is me. In return, I accord him his respect as an elder statesman. I seek his advice whenever I need and I also urge him to call my attention when he doesn’t understand what I am doing. But largely, we built sufficient confidence that he is sure that I will act in the best interest of the state and not necessarily to undermine him. If there are things I do in the course of work that he is averse to, he would also see my view that it is for the overall interest of the state. I was confronted with this question recently and my response was that my predecessor understands me and he looks out for me; he is an elder statesman and I am grateful that he provided this platform and opportunity for me to serve. I really don’t have any problem with him.

That leads to the question of support for your own successor. Your predecessor seems far detached from your decision…
He has not told me about his preference for another person…

Many in your party are not happy about your choice of preferred successor…
You said many?

One of them is the man that left PDP, Senator Abaribe, to contest the senate with you…
No. His reason for leaving is that he wanted to be governor, and we are from the same local council. This is the bane of politics and politicians in Nigeria. When they don’t get what they want, there is no ideology and morality behind it. I don’t understand what it is. Somebody whose house is a 5-minute walk away from my house? I think we need to get to that point where we will be more sensitive to issues concerning politics.

You are going to the Senate after serving eight years as governor, why do you want to go there?
I am tired of being a governor but certainly not tired of responding to impulses from my people. If it is the wish of my people that I represent them in the Senate, so be it. After my stint in the Senate, because of age, I will contemplate retirement from politics. But if my people feel I am still young enough and have something to offer, especially considering the fact that all that you see in Aba today were done under my watch, why not. If you delete my intervention from Aba, in fact, Abia South and some parts of Abia Central will be left a void, formless and shapeless. Of all things you have seen so far, they are by efforts of the state government. There is no Federal Government presence in Abia South. They think they need somebody who has the capacity to create and attract Federal Government’s attention to Abia South. They want us to continue along the line of supporting us as the SME capital of Nigeria. We need to give Aba manufacturers a global perspective, and we need to give the Federal Government impetus to use us as the arrowhead in the Continental Free Trade Agreement, where we rightly belong. We are not contending with anybody as the largest producer of crude oil, neither are we contending with anybody as the largest producer of rice, but we are the best manufacturers of shoes in Africa and the best manufacturer of garments and wears in Africa. So, we need to give a national voice to all of these that we have been doing. If I could create an SME bank as a governor, I could do more on capacity building. I could even establish two industries around Aba, then I understand what the problems are and I can speak about them. I can mount strong advocacy in that direction and get things done. I have also done so much in terms of support for trade and commerce and my people think that I will be able to ask questions in the area of why Custom Officers raid warehouses in Aba and after going through the rigours in the Wharf, harassment along Benin-Ore Expressway and getting to the warehouse in Aba.

Incidentally, the man you are contesting against was known for his outspokenness and vociferousness on issues affecting the Igbo in the Senate. You have a formidable opponent to contend with. How do you see the contest panning out?
Going forward, our people are asking questions about the work he has done. If you go to Ike Ekweremadu’s local council, I don’t think there is any track road that is not better and no one will say Ekweremadu is a complete pushover in the Senate, either judged by his ability to play the politics of the Senate or by advocacy for Enugu or Igbo people as it were. In addition to all of these, people could see what he has done. I have a lot of respect and regard for my elder brother, distinguished Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe and most of us learnt politics watching him. But nobody remains an apprentice forever. At times, experience is very important but if combined with youthfulness and energy, it is unbeatable.