By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
…Made-in-Aba has become our selling point
…Lessons Nigeria can learn from Aba about exiting recession
Clinical biochemist turned politician, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu drew the attention of many when he became the object of multiple pre and post election litigations by some of the most entrenched political actors in the South-East. He also caught the fascination of many when it emerged that he is the only one of all five South-East governors not engaged in pitched political battles with his predecessor.
Ahead of celebrations of his mid-term in office, he spoke in an interview on how he has managed not to allow the pressures from political traducers derail his five point agenda, how he has managed a unique cordial relationship with his predecessor and lessons Nigeria can draw from Aba, a town he claimed has maintained a GDP that has consistently been above the national average. Excerpts:
What challenges have you faced as governor of Abia State in the last two years?
The first thing is the lack of belief. The other one is paucity of prepared human capital; that is human capital propped up for development, ready to catch the vision and run with them. The hallmark of what we have been doing in the past 24 months is more out of the usual track than conformist because we don’t deal with issues the way others deal with them. From our state Executive Council to my relationship with my aides and our pattern of delivery.
So, it was a problem getting people to understand that the only way to get a different result was to do things in a different way. That has been our major problem. The other problem is that you have to cope at times with needless distractions.
At times you are distracted by people who never meant well; who don’t even understand the socio-cultural and economic bias, they don’t have proper diagnosis of the problem of the people yet, they proffer solutions and hold claim to all kinds of knowledge which they don’t even have.
They tend to get themselves into pedestal arguments and things that are ephemeral and not related to the issues. So it has been a huge problem.
I look at governance as an enterprise, and it must have parameters and issues based on which it can be evaluated towards an agenda, especially when the agenda is such as has been enunciated for us. It is not a tailored agenda; it is not an agenda that has a tailored lifespan, it is an agenda that holds a global appeal for the survival of our people.
To what extent are you relating with fellow South-East governors to address the perceived marginalization of the zone in the federal administration?
The responsibility of leading us into the centre and platform on which we can more robustly discuss the issues of marginalization is on the shoulders of Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State who happens to be the leader of South-East governors.
But my concern since I chair the desk on regional integration is that for me and for the first time in many months, the leadership provided by Governor Umuahi is focused on facing the issues which bother us as a people and bringing them to the fore and discussing them with our brothers from other parts of Nigeria.
However, as an individual, I have a strategy to battle such sentiments when I feel so, and my strategy is to make myself indispensable.
Is the present unitary political system in Nigeria sustainable?
No. In the first instance, there should not be any “federal roads,” because there are no federal citizens. Let the funds for fixing of so-called federal roads be given to state governments with monitoring by the relevant federal agency or ministry. Most of what the federal government is doing should be done by the state governments while the federal government concentrate on generating, monitoring and guiding policies
What do you think about the clamour for a restructuring of Nigeria?
I believe we should start spending time on the way forward in Nigeria, instead of federal government spending too much time on money appropriation. The recession is a huge opportunity, and we are yet to fully tap the opportunities presented to us by this recession. For instance, without the recession, we won’t be working so hard on Made in Aba, increased agricultural production with over 40,000 palm seedlings and a mushroom industry that can guarantee a minimum of N70,000 daily to an Abia youth. Nigeria needs to tap into the prevailing recession instead of focusing on huge appropriations and issues around sharing of money. If the federal government is serious about tapping into the opportunities presented by this recession they should look towards Aba and focus on using Aba as the model to bring out the best in Nigerians.
What is the way forward for your party, the PDP?
The way forward is to try as much as possible to make your house good. If you have a dirty head you don’t cut it off; you wash it.
What I am trying not to do is to do a diagnosis of the diseases that have afflicted both parties because as a scientist if I have to move, I must be able to say why? I must be able to confirm that this one is dead and I must be able to ascertain that this one is very much alive and that is the diagnosis that you have not called me to do.
So, can you diagnose the leadership of Senator Modu Sheriff? Do you recognize him as the national chairman?
Well, there is a court pronouncement on that, and my personal comments do not matter. But I am also waiting for the Supreme Court to speak.
Do you feel obligated to repair federal roads in your state like the Port-Harcourt Road leading into Aba?
We are doing all but one of the federal roads leading to Aba. Apart from that, we are creating alternative routes. If the Federal Government decides to be angry with me and insists that I cannot do the roads, will I allow my city to be shut out? No! I am doing two more roads leading to Akwa Ibom which I can control, after all, I know the track roads, the Federal Government doesn’t know them. What took them 26 kilometers to achieve, I am achieving in 7½ kilometres.
I want to add that the Port-Harcourt Road is going to be concrete pavement. Abia is perhaps the only state, in our size that is maintaining three Grade A contractors in the state: Setraco, Arab Contractors, and CCECC.
Were you distracted by the court cases that followed your election?
I would have said that if you push somebody down from a high-rise building, then you ask him ifn he is in pains? I am somebody who does not want to wallow in self-pity or people pitying me. I want to be judged as if nothing happened because I have 35 completed roads today. So, I want to be judged as if nothing happened. This is my only way of saying to the devil that if it was to distract me, ‘then you didn’t succeed.’
If it was to make me worship idols, then it didn’t succeed. If it was to make me lose faith in God, then it didn’t succeed. If it was to make me lose touch and relevance with my people, then it failed woefully. So, I don’t want to give any credit whatsoever for those two years; it is to the glory of God that from the very beginning, we had a clear understanding of where we were going.
We said that we were going to run on five pillars of development; trade and commerce, to be strong on small and medium scale enterprises and manufacturing, strong on agriculture, we are going to be strong on education and then oil and gas.
I told you also that we had a clear understanding about the enablers that can drive these pillars of development. They include road infrastructure, security and education and so on. And because I knew what was at the apex of my pyramid, I knew how wide I wanted the base to be and everyday, every hour, every minute, we laid one block on top of the other towards that agenda.
All it required was the grace of God and the cooperation and support of the Abia people. Even in all these is it not a huge surprise that you do not hear of people jumping from one party to the other? Why? Because they have faith in what we are doing.
So, I have every cause and joy to give God the glory. That is why I said don’t pity me, judge me as if nothing happened as you would judge my colleagues elsewhere.
How are you coping with the recession?
Our response to the recession is very simple; promote Made in Aba, local skills, and agriculture. One of my greatest achievements is the promotion of Made in Aba across the globe.
As we speak, the Made in Aba logo has been officially launched. Governments pay to be on CNN, but our case is different because an international organization that saw what we are doing, saw the need to promote it using CNN and others. This means that our artisans and their creativity are being promoted free of charge.
People argue about political correctness, instead of economic advantage. We are more focused on doing things that give economic advantage to our people as against being politically correct.
You are the only governor in the South-East in good terms with his predecessor. How are you managing the relationship?
My predecessor respects me, and I also respect him. He doesn’t struggle for space with me. He knows there can only be one governor at a time. Because of this, I respect him, one as an elder, two as a senator, and three as a former governor.
It is a relationship that is based on mutual respect and understanding.
You are two years, very soon, you will be talking about second term, what are we going to hold you on, if you get a second term?
In the midst of the supposed distraction, couldn’t I have found an easy alibi not to perform if I had wanted? Yet our people can judge us and see that we never stopped working and never gave them excuses because we were at all times focused on the things that are important to our people.
I will continue to do my best because there is need to serve my people with commitment. Things got to a point in the legal battles that I had to pray and ask God to genuinely search the minds of everyone contesting for the Abia Governor’s seat with me and let whoever loves Abia more than I win. God prevailed and used the Supreme Court to reaffirm us.
Igbo youths, in particular, are disenchanted with the present administration in Nigeria. What message of hope are you bringing to them? Some Fulani herdsmen still operate along the highways in your state, like your Ekiti counterpart, shouldn’t you have enacted a law to deal with it?
First, I recognize that there are more Abians in the North than from Ekiti. Whatever action I take must take cognizance of that fact. Abians also add value to wherever they are by employing youths from that place, building structures and generally living peacefully with others. I make bold to state that 60 per cent of Nigerian youths working directly and indirectly through the private sector in Nigeria are employed through the efforts and contributions of our people. It is, therefore, natural for me to consider all angles in taking decisions. What if there is a reprisal for whatever action we take here, how will that affect our people living outside our state?
We believe in ensuring the safety of our visitors against all odds. So what we did was to create conflict resolution committees at the local government level, after a critical study of the areas the herders live and visit.
But the major problem with the conflicts is the inability or lack of understanding of local sentiments and the idiosyncrasies of the Hausa/Fulani man, which I understand because I lived in the north for seven years. Our conflict resolution approach is tailored to use this knowledge and solve real and potential conflicts.
On youth agitation, it is very unfortunate that a part of the nation feels the need to agitate for fairness and equity within the federation. Social mobilization is very important and even more important than infrastructure. We have not mobilized Nigerians from the centre socially, and that is where our leaders have failed.
Every leader should be a vendor of hope. My strategy in Abia is to focus the minds of our youths on hard work and creativity.
We are sending 100 people to China for one year to learn how to make shoes. Not because we are not good, but we need to add some icing on our cake. We are using the China Model of technology transfer and standardization of export products.
Criminality in Nigeria is occasioned by too much energy and creativity in the youths not finding positive outlets. Let us get it right at the centre through fairness and equity as well as providing positive outlets for the massive energy of our youths.
What is your take on the recently signed executive orders by the presidency?
I commend the presidency for that. It is very encouraging to our efforts. It is what we have been expecting them to do. But whatever they say or do, it is not complete until it affects rice, baked beans, salad cream and other imported products that we are consuming daily in Nigeria.
I am looking forward to a time when they will stop serving imported rice, baked beans, etc. at the FEC meetings and other events around the villa. Since I became governor, I have been eating local rice and wearing made in Aba clothes to support our people.
In the past years, we saw how well Abia performed in WAEC especially those in public schools, what are you doing in the area of education to ensure that Abia remains in the forefront?
Our strategy to develop education is through taking cognizance of our foundational issues.
The problem of education, not only in Abia also Nigeria, is the quality and morale of our primary school teachers. Early child education is as important as tertiary education, if not more important.
We are partnering with Australian school teachers to go to our schools and help in developing our learning environment, Information Communication Technology, classroom management, first aid and how to manage children. They will train our teachers who in turn will become trainers for others.
We want to ensure that at primary 3, a pupil can confidently operate the computer efficiently.
We would model primary schools to achieve this, as well as embark on advanced teachers training which is critical to educational capacity building.
In the next 12 months, there is going to be a revolution in Abia education sector. Our idea of model schools will spring up across the geopolitical zones of the state, and the Australians will return to continue the work they are partnering with us to do.
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