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Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa is president of the Abia Think Tank, a group of experts and business people that have undertaken to partner the Abia State and federal governments in efforts to restore Aba to its former glory as the industrial and commercial melting pot of the Igbo nation. The group is organising a two-day conference, tagged “Aba Summit”, November 20-21, in the commercial city aimed at harnessing the professional competences of stakeholders from within and outside the state to articulate an economic blueprint for Aba. Ohuabunwa, who is national president of Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, in this interview with Vincent Obia, speaks on how the rejuvenation of Aba would help to resolve some of the socioeconomic factors behind the country’s growing security problem. Excerpts:
What is your motivation for organising the Aba summit?
As an Abia think tank, our desire has been to see how we can support the development of Abia State from a non-governmental perspective. We are a group of Abia businessmen and intellectuals most of who live outside Abia. But it has been clear to us that government alone cannot develop Abia State, and they can never develop any other state in the country. So there is always a partnership from the private sector. And also with my background, having been the chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, being in that system for a long time, I realised there is need to create dialogue between the private and public sectors to prosper a particular nation or subunit.
When did you conceive the idea of holding this summit?
We have been working on this for a long time. But we did a recent survey of the state and we discovered that the government was struggling to bring back Aba to its prominence. After reviewing the budget of the state and the allocation to infrastructure, education, healthcare, environmental management, etc., we found that if government was left alone to continue to fund the development of Abia it will take a long time because government has too many competing demands. So we thought that one area the private sector can come real strong is to look at an existing commercial city that has lost its glory and is abandoned, more or less. Companies that were established there – PZ, UNILEVER, Nigerian Breweries, etc., have either left or reduced their activities.
How did you factor in the question of power while planning the Aba restoration scheme?
We noticed that a major activity was coming on, that Geometric Power had decided to build a power plant that was going to be dedicated to Aba. For us, as people in the industry, we know that one major problem we have had is power. We thought that if Aba was going to get a ring-fenced power – the power from Geometric Power is going to be ring-fenced for Aba – then that means that it should become a base for industrial resurgence, output.
Secondly, we also know that one of the things that affected Aba and Abia State, generally, was the problem of insecurity, especially, kidnapping. But in the last two years, that has been cured by the hard work of the government – the state with the support of the federal government.
We had seen that the Nigerian economy continued to pose a challenge to everybody. Unemployment remains high, underemployment is still troubling. With these, we’ve had dislocation in the social milieu. First, is the high level of drift of people out of that part of the country to Lagos, putting pressure on Lagos, and all sorts of things going on.
So as a think tank, we said, how do we halt this migration, the growing social dislocation and criminal tendencies? We know that when people are fully employed and fully utilised, they would have little time for negative social activities. We decided that was an area we could play to help the government draw attention to Aba, to let people know that Aba has become a major opportunity for industrial resurgence and commercial activity.
This is our motivation.
As part of your resurgence drive for Aba, do you have any arrangement with the security agencies as regards measures to try to make the relative security in the city a permanent feature?
We are not interested in short-term security. Government is already maintaining that. If you go to Abia State, you will see that there is no security problem. Kidnapping is gone, there are no militants, and armed robbery rate is not higher than the national average. Of course, during the period of this conference, there will be additional security for guests and visitors, just to ensure that nothing untoward happens to anybody.
But these soldiers and police will not continue to be on the roads forever, they will go back to the barracks someday. For peace to be maintained when they go back to the barracks people have to be gainfully employed. That is our position.
In the course of preparations for this conference, I chanced into Ariara market in Aba, I went to where they make shoes. I was dumbfounded to find that everyday about one million pairs of shoes are shipped out of Aba to Cotonou, Lome, etc. If we can help those people to move up their game and put some kind of sophistication, they would be able to supply to the U.S., UK, etc. This is what we are looking for. The baseline industry exists. By the time we get international investors and expose them to what is going on in Aba in the areas of garment, foundry and all those indigenous technology that exists in Aba, they can take the local manufacturers to the next level. That would create so much jobs that will not only absorb the workforce that is available in Abia State, but in other parts of the South-east and South-south. Aba is between the South-south and South-east; it’s just like the central milieu. People come from all parts into Aba, and that’s the role it was playing before the war. We need to even go beyond that level.
Would you say the recent forced relocation of some Anambra indigenes by the Lagos State government is also part of your motivation for the summit?
We suddenly saw this altercation between people from the South-east and some South-west people, especially, when Lagos deported so-called destitute. It got us worried and we started asking, shall we continue to allow this to happen? Everybody sees Lagos as the only salvation, as the only place to go. Why would we not make Aba as an alternative node, Kano as a node, Abuja, and other nodes?
There is a maximum capacity for Lagos. If it goes beyond that capacity, whether it is a mega city or whatever, the quality of things would begin to go down; we would begin to march on each other. So we are strategic, because if we get Aba working, we are helping Nigeria to work better, it would give a permanent relief to the security issue in addition to raising the quality of life of Nigerians.
What makes this summit different from the various business seminars Nigerians have witnessed in the past, which have not really achieved much?
As a think tank, we do a number of things, writing position papers to government, etc., whether or not they do it is not under your control. But in this summit, we are arranging businessmen; we are asking government to come on. If they don’t come on we go on with our business. For us, it is a different way, we are going into the implementation side, not the just recommending or proposing or theorising. We want to be in the forefront and attract entrepreneurial investment into Aba.
At what point do you think the deterioration of Aba as an industrial, commercial centre began? Was it something that happened suddenly?
It was not sudden. First, was what happened during the war. Then, the war ended, and we went through all the military governance and everybody was hoping that someday things would get better.
Throughout the military government, there was no focus on rebuilding Aba. We were just living on the vestiges or ashes of the war, individual efforts. But when Aba was no longer able to support the industrial growth, given the infrastructural needs of the state, industries began to relocate. Then, in the latter day, especially after the civilian government came, after eight years, there wasn’t much progress in the place. Things began to go out of hand, and that caused the further precipitation, which was the last one we saw, where Aba became inflicted by miscreants and deviant behaviour. So it didn’t happen all of a sudden. It has taken a long time, Aba had tried to stand on its own, but the issue is that if you are building on an uncertain foundation, the pressure will be piling and you may not know. But the day the thing gets to the point that it can no long carry that weight, it crumbles. And people would think it just happened.
That was what happened.
There hasn’t been sufficient investment in Aba, no concerted effort to rebuild Aba and make it a centre of excellence. Look at what happened in Lagos. Lagos was a place you came because you had nowhere else to go. People didn’t see Lagos as a place you come to rest or have fun. It was just, go there and do business and run away. But now, Lagos is being re-engineered, to the extent that people now on their own volition come to Lagos.
Aba is doable, not only rebuilding the old city, but creating opportunity for new evolution, new city around industrial nodes and clusters. Those are the kind of things we are looking at, to go beyond where Aba was. Because, everything you are doing, you must know you are operating in a global economy, you must have your eyes on competition with China, India, Russia, etc. Aba would be built along those lines. We check what Aba can do better than most. I’ve told you about shoes, garments, and foundry.
Aba can produce the parts of any machinery from purely indigenous technology. Besides feeding the steel and automobile industries, foundries are key in the local content of the oil and gas sector. Most of the local content in oil and gas is fabrication and Aba provides abundant opportunities here.
There is so much that can happen in Aba only if people are willing to champion. Anything that nobody champions would grow at a very limited rate.
Do you have a reorientation component in what you are doing, to try to bring back interest in productive activity among the locals and residents of Aba?
Yes, it’s a component of what we are doing. A system can imperil people; we are all victims of our circumstances. If you are a child where every morning you wake up and somebody calls you an idiot, after a while you will start believing that you are one. When you get to that place where there is a limitation, your thought doesn’t go beyond it, everybody is held by a ceiling. So we want to open up that ceiling to show that there is much that can be done, to show that Aba is a place where people from diverse cultures and backgrounds can come and do business. Of course, with the additional human development component to brush up people and take away this limited vision that has been forced on them by the decay and firth in the environment, and apparent lack of help, which leads them to self-help. When they know that people are interested in them, they see people from different parts of the country and the world coming to see how Aba can be brought back to life, they are bound to change.
How is the response from the government and the people?
Since we set up our billboards for this summit, I have been getting calls everyday, because they put my number on the billboard. People have been showing excitement and asking how they can participate. The response has generally been very exciting, especially, from the people.
It took us some time to explain to the government what we wanted to do. You know, there are always people around government who would see other things that you are not seeing when you come with proposals like this. I must admit that we have a governor in Abia who wants good for the state, but he is constrained by the resources available to the state. He was complaining that about 80 percent of the state’s income every month goes to payment of salaries and allowances. So how much is left for development. He is managing that so much to build even minimal infrastructure. But if the industry is there, investors can do things like roads and toll them for some years. Look at the Ikoyi bridge that is being tolled, people are ready to pay to save themselves the inconvenience of using the general route. Those are the things that come to a city when big businesses are there.
In those days, people used to say there is no water, light in Lekki, I told them this place would be dwelt by top people and they would solve their problems. That’s what we are trying to do in Aba, to bring more enlightened people and businesses to Aba and they would work with government.
The Abia State government has assigned people who are working with us, from the Ministry of Commerce, the SSG’s office, etc.
There has been great excitement. It’s not just for Abia people, it’s for those who love Igbo land and Nigeria, because Aba used to be a melting pot of cultures. Most of my school mates in those days, the Agboola’s the Diyas, etc, they lived in Aba, they came to school in Port Harcourt.
What is your budget for this summit, and where is the money coming from?
Our budget is just N22 million. We hope to get the money through three methods: sponsorship by companies and agencies, advertising in our programmes, and exhibitions and participation. A couple of individual members are already making their contributions.
Are you working with other states in the South-east?
Right now, because we called it the Aba summit, we are trying to be careful. We know the normal human tendency; people would want their own summits with the same focus, because every area wants to grow. Awka, Enugu, Onitsha, etc, want to grow. But we are inviting them to the Aba summit. Like I said, Aba has long been recognised as an industrial centre in Igbo land. It will benefit all the states, but we are starting the charity at home.
Many of our speakers, like Professor Pat Utomi, are not even from Abia State, but they are willing to come because they understand. We are mixing Abia people with our other brothers and sisters so that we can be talking to ourselves. Of course, many of them grew up in Aba. Virtually every Igbo man today has had one contact or the other with Aba.
How would you ensure that this summit does not end at the talking stage like many others in the past?
First is that at this meeting, we are bringing businessmen – International and local – and they would see the opportunities. We are bringing in locals to present the opportunities, and those who are coming, to see what they are bringing – technology or finance. Two, we have established an office in Aba so as to continue the post-conference matchmaking and follow-ups. Three, there is a group, Ukwa Ngwa professional group, that was also planning to do a few things for Aba and they wanted to join us now. But we said, no, support us to do our own, next year, that thing you are trying to do you will do it and we will support you.
That will create another wave. So when we finish, next year we come to assess what we have done in the last one year. We are not going to make it an annual event, but that event will give us an opportunity to measure our success and maintain focus and momentum. These are some of the things I have learnt from the Nigerian Economic Summit Group. So we are going to set up a process to continuously intermediate to ensure that it is not a one-stop shop.
We are not expecting instant change. Investment decisions take time. But we want a continuous sustenance of the dialogue and investigation of the opportunities that exist.