The Abia State governor, Chief Theodore Orji, discusses his “legacy project” and his administration’s policies, in this interview with Tunde Rahman and Vincent Obia. Excerpts:
Your government has embarked on a number of projects, popularly called Legacy Projects. How are you sourcing the money for them?
We are not a rich state. But the thing is prudence in the management of the resources of the state.
I am not a businessman. I don’t have a company. It’s not my field. If I go into it, I would not do well. What I’m doing is what I know very well. Since I came out of the university this is what I have been doing, from the civil service till now: management of resources. The little that comes into your hands, use them very well for the benefit of the people. That is what I have been doing here.
Our civil servants are receiving the highest pay in Nigeria – N20, 100 monthly. Check if there is any other state paying that as minimum wage. That’s what we are paying, and we even paid arrears. We did not start paying minimum wage from the time we were able to pay it; we paid it from the time of implementation of the policy.
That is why we have industrial harmony here. During the commencement of the minimum wage, every other state in the South-east experienced strike by civil servants. It was only in Abia that the civil servants never went on strike, because I called them and told them, take it easy, whatever the federal government has decided, I would pay. They believed and trusted me and they never went on strike.
So we have been doing the projects with diligent management of the scarce resources that we get from internally generated revenue and the Federation Account. With what we are doing, making effort to increase our IGR, we are improving on daily basis.
If I have been able to sustain the minimum wage since the policy was introduced, then we will sustain any other thing we are putting on board. The projects we are doing are of high quality, no half measures. We choose the contractors that work for us, and they know what we want.
Can you mention some of these projects and their significance?
The projects are many. We are building a Government House. It is a legacy project. We are building a secretariat, e-library, a secretariat for the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, a secretariat for the Abia State Universal Basic Education Programme. We have built a complex comprising about 38 offices for the BCA.
In our diagnosis centre, we also have a dialysis centre, which was launched in July. We are also going to open the eye centre. We have bought the equipment, it has landed in Lagos. But they said we should model the building to suite the equipment that we have bought. By next month or thereabout, the equipment would arrive the state for installation.
We are building a 100-bed complex at General Hospital, Ama-Achara. In Arochukwu, Ohafia, Ugwa West local governments, we are building similar edifices. Also in Aba, Obingwa, etc.
We are not talking of schools we have built and renovated, or the many roads scattered across the local government areas of the state.
We are giving preference to Aba because Aba is the headache that we have. We are now working on Ngwa road in Aba. We are reconstructing the road.
We have built a new market and convinced the traders, and on their own, happily, they moved. Change is difficult to accept. But traders who are used to staying in Umuahia, the centre of the town, have moved,
We want to change the face of the capital city. People come to Umuahia, they see the old market, they don’t go to Ogurube Layout, and when they return home, they say, this place is still like that. Even if we don’t put anything on ground in the place where the market was, if you come to Umuahia now, you have beautiful scenery.
Have you been able to move your IGR to a level that matches what you get from the Federation Account? And are you sure you can complete these Legacy Projects in your tenure, given the level of work that still needs to be done?
That is a commitment that I have made, to complete these legacy projects. The ones I may not complete, perhaps, the airport that I want to start, any person coming after me can undertake that. But projects like the International Conference Centre, e-library, secretariat, BCA, etc, I intend to complete. From about February next year, what we are going to undertake is commissioning, commissioning, commissioning.
On the IGR, when I came here, I meet a monthly IGR of between N200 million and N250 million monthly. Abia State of all places, N250 million a month. But today, the difference is clear. We are moving towards the billions.
You know our people naturally hate tax. And Aba, where we should get the greatest income, is no man’s land. There are all manners of people there. What we are trying to do is to instill discipline in them, to change their psyche so that they can appreciate government and assist government. If we succeed in that, we will get whatever we want from there. And we are succeeding.
At the new market in Ubani, some of the traders raised concerns about security, because the place is far from the town, lack of water, fire service, and banks. How are you addressing these?
You would expect this from somebody who is making a change. When they were here, was security superb for them? It is the same security arrangement that was here that has been carried over to that place. When they were here, they made the security arrangement by themselves. There is a market management committee they have among themselves. It is that same security apparatus that was carried to that place, plus an additional one provided by government.
If you looked around, you would see security posts and fire service centre there. The only one we have not overcome is water. This is because it is difficult to get water there due to the topography. That is why we have said we will be bringing water to fill overhead tanks in the place until we are in a position to reticulate water from the stream close to the place.
We are conscious of the security needs and we have made arrangement for security. Since they went there, has anybody told you they have stolen their goods or that somebody has died? No.
There is a hospital, school, and housing estate there. What we are doing is to expand this city. The same thing is happening where we have the industrial market. The place is becoming a new town.
These things are not easy, but I’m happy that God is helping us, and we are succeeding.
There appears to be a general water problem in Umuahia. What are you doing to address this?
We are conscious of that, but that of Ubani, where the market is, is a totally different issue. It is difficult to sink a borehole there. We have a regional water scheme in Unuahia. We draw water from Onimo, filter it, and pump it to the station in Umuopara, which pumps it to the town. But our people have not been fair. They continue to vandalise the equipment. They have vandalised the generator set we bought for the station. But we are fighting them. The Commissioner for Public Utilities has told me that water will soon start running because we have made the necessary arrangement. We have repaired the equipment and bought the damaged materials. We are reticulating and re-piping because road construction has damaged some of the pipes. So we are tackling the problem.
What do you plan to do at the site of the old market?
We are going to put a structure there that would be beneficial to people of all classes and ages. The structure also will enhance the aesthetics of this city. I have asked town planners to give me drawings of an ideal thing we will put there. Be rest assured that what we will put there is something every person would like to behold. That is before May 29, 2015.
What informed your decision to undertake the huge investment in the diagnostic centre in Umuahia?
If you want to build a house, the house must have a quality foundation so that any other thing you put on top of it will stand. And it will protect every other thing that is inside the house. If the foundation is weak, and there is a heavy downpour, the house would collapse and people in the house would die and you will start again.
If you have this scenario in your mind, you can understand what informed what I’m doing.
I didn’t see a solid foundation in Abia State when I came on board. A state that was created in 1991; yet no Government House, no state secretariat, no conference centre, no diagnostic centre. I’m talking about the basic ones. No good e-library. No modern market, everything was congested in the town here.
These are basic things that had been in existence in other states that were created when Abia was created.
First, you have to have a secretariat for your civil servants, who are the engine room of your government. You have to provide for them for them to give you the best. You have to cater for the basic health needs of the people because you will be happy to be a governor of healthy people, not a governor of unhealthy or dead people. You have to have a conference centre because people will come to Abia to discuss. We must have a decent place where they can do that. You have to have guest houses; it’s not every time visitors come that you put them in hotels.
These are the basic things and I know that once they are on ground, you can then talk of other things about governance. Since these were not on ground, it becomes my responsibility to put them on the ground, lay the foundation, and if I still have the time, start building. Then wherever I stop, another person will come in. But there must be a solid foundation. Laying this foundation is what has informed the things I’m doing.
What are you doing to encourage the private sector and to restore the age-long culture of ingenuity to the state, especially, places like Aba?
Aba before the war was noted for many things. Their industriousness and hard work are still there. But during my own time, Aba and Abia had the challenge of kidnapping. Because of the commercial nature of Aba, wealthy people live there and it is a busy place, kidnappers concentrated in Aba. That affected the growth of the city, as many people ran away. Entrepreneurs ran away, factories closed, and banks closed. That drew Aba back for some time.
But because of our doggedness and the mercy of God, we were able to overcome that. I recognise that it was a major challenge. It is human beings that would develop a place and if they run away, who will come and develop it? I went to Aba during the kidnapping saga and it was empty, like a war-torn area.
Today, however, Aba is booming again. When we controlled the security situation of the place, people started coming back.
On the issue of orientation, we are trying to let the people understand that Aba is still what it used to be. Today, the Nigerian Breweries is undertaking an expansion project in Aba worth N18 billion. An economic summit will hold in Aba tomorrow (November 20). The essence is to attract people, tell entrepreneurs that Aba is still what it used to be. Today also, Greenfield, a private investor we are partnering with, is building a shopping mall at Osisioma.
What we are doing is to make the environment conducive for people to come and invest. Once you provide security, repair the roads, supply electricity, in fact, put in place infrastructure, those who want to invest would come.
We have Geometrics and NIPP all coming on board because of Aba. When these things come on stream, Aba will continue to boom. And we have also the ingenuity of the people. Aba is the only place where there is no unemployment. Any person you see in Aba is doing something – he is either plying a trade or learning a trade.
What economic empowerment programmes do you have for the low-income people?
During the era of kidnapping, when the people ran away, their apprentices also ran away. Most of them were tempted to go into criminality. We realised it was good to empower the people, especially, the youths, and we started this empowerment programme, giving out things that you can use to make money.
So far, we have given out 720 vehicles, thousands of tricycles and sowing machines. Last year, I gave N60 million each to the chairmen of the 17 local government areas in the state to build skills acquisition centres in their local governments to train people. They did it. We have one at Ogurube Layout, built by my wife. The other time 302 people graduated from there and they were given equipment and money. We are encouraging people to establish businesses.
You recently reversed your policy of indigenisation of the civil service, citing increment in IGR, not long after it was started. Don’t you think the rapidity of the U-turn is an indication that the policy was not properly thought out from the beginning?
No. I don’t play politics with the welfare of the people. I am sincere. We know very well that it is not every person that would have the courage to do the indigenisation. Just like it is not every person that would have the courage to relocate the market from Umuahia. I believe in what I will do and have peace with myself.
Talking about indigenisation, this state is not the first to do that. Imo State did it, Enugu State did it, Anambra State did it, Ebonyi State did it. We have living evidence, people who were disengaged, who came back to Abia. That time people didn’t make noise about it. I was in government then. I was Chief of Staff here when those people who were disengaged came and they were all reabsorbed. I don’t know if anybody wrote about it. May be journalists were not very sensitive to issues as at that time.
There was something that made these states to do that. It was economic hardship. We didn’t bother when Boko Haram came and our people had to return home, we were reengaging them, with our people in the civil service, including non-indigenes. We didn’t have any problem until the minimum wage came. When I the accountants gave me the statistics of what it would take us to sustain the minimum wage I saw that we could not carry the burden. It was impossible for us to carry the burden. If we had tried to, we would have industrial unrest here everyday. Then the major headlines would be we are not able to pay salaries. But I didn’t want that. You cut your coat according to your cloth. We have to be sincere.
Why are organisations disengaging people? It’s because they don’t have the capacity to carry those people along. You employ the number you can cater for.
So when we were thinking about this, people brought this idea, that this was what some states did. And it took me time to undertake that policy because I knew the implication.
Would you say your government has enjoyed significant benefits from the indigenisation policy?
We did it and it worked for us. Like I told you, we are paying the highest minimum wage in the country. Check out in the country if all the states have started paying minimum wage. But we are paying the highest and we have paid arrears. There is industrial harmony here. Their entitlements are paid.
Like I told you, our IGR is picking up. I then decided that since the IGR is picking up, and I’m working as per what we have, it is good to bring this people back to service.
When the other states did their own, we reabsorbed all our people. Now when we did our own, how many people have been reabsorbed in their states’ services? So who loves the people more? Is it not myself who said, go and let me try to get some things and now that I’m okay, come back?
Were the other South-east states’ governments informed before your announcement of the indigenisation policy?
Actually, when we decided to do the indigenisation, I wrote to all the governors of the South-east saying, please, this is my predicament; I want a way out of it. No suggestion came. I had expected them to do what we did when our people were disengaged: reabsorb the people in their different states. But some of them started to play politics with it so as to brand me a wicked person while they are the angels. But today, we know those who are the angels and the wicked people.
How many of the previously disengaged workers have returned?
What we have done is to set up a committee, which is articulating how they are going to come back. Once we are ready, they will apply. From the applications we would know the number that would come back. Many would be happy to come back while others may have found something else to do.
Who is the kind man and who is the wicked one. If an indigene of your state is disengaged and you cannot reabsorb the person, yet you are talking everyday. After all, we receive our allocations, which are meant for the welfare of our own people. I had expected the states to take in most of them. But they left them, and I’m taking them back.
What is your reaction to the allegation by the chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum that $5 billion had been secretly withdrawn from the Excess Crude Account by the federal government? And as a member of the Jonah Jang-led splinter group of NGF, what plans do you have to reunite the body of governors?
I’m not a member of the NGF led by Amaechi, and the statement is not credited to us, the Jang group. So go and ask them, let them prove what they have said. I won’t comment on what they have said.
Who doesn’t like peace? You know how the NGF crisis started. We said there had never been a time since the inception of NGF that the chairman came by election; that we should maintain the status quo. It should be by concession. That is the crux of the matter.
But there was an election and your faction was defeated.
Forget about that one. What I’m telling you is what started the whole thing. If there was no election, there would not be this division. So it’s a premeditated action by them. And you see what is happening now. NGF is just the sign.
What are your plans for the post-2015 period? And how are you working towards your succession, especially in view of the need for continuation of your Legacy Projects?
I always believe that tomorrow will take care of itself. When tomorrow comes, nature will do its job and adjust people properly. My concern now is these Legacy Projects. If I complete these projects, it’s the people that would literally drag you into positions they want you to occupy. That’s why I’m concentrating on these projects. These are projects for which you and I will be remembered.
Of course, every incumbent governor would think of the person that will succeed him. We are doing that. But I’m not going to impose anybody on any person. It’s going to be a collective responsibility to bring out somebody. Once that person is brought out by the consensus of the people, for sure, if he stands for election he will win.
You have seen what imposition and godfatherism brought here. I have the experience and it didn’t work. It’s not a good practice at all. It’s good that if you have a governor, you allow him to perform. As a statesman, what you can do is to give advice. If the governor is derailing you say, no governor, don’t do that. And if the governor recognises your advice and asks you questions, you answer for the benefit of the state.
But when you become overbearing and dictate to the man, no person will take that. There is no governor who knows his worth that would like to be dictated to. When you want to appoint commissioners, they write a list and give to you. You as a governor cannot even make an input into the appointment of your cabinet. The list is given to you to read. This was what we saw in the first three years of this government.
At a time here, somebody called me a bishop without a cathedral because of the situation we were in then. That was the situation of Abia before the beginning of 2011. But from 2011 onwards, all of us became bishops with big cathedrals, and the difference today is very clear.
On the issue of succession, do you subscribe to the idea of zoning the governorship according to the three senatorial districts of the state?
We are Nigerians, we have a constitution. But we have to put our Nigerianness in our constitution. As an Igbo man, you know the perception of our people about politics: this is your turn, you have done your turn, go let another person come. You can’t deny that. In Abia, that is the situation.
Abia is made up of two ethnic blocks, and you cannot remove ethnicity from our politics. You have the Bende block and the Ukwa-Ngwa block. These are the people who own Abia. Constitutionally and by political arrangement, they are now in three senatorial zones – Abia North, Abia Central, and Abia South. But on zonal basis, even in Abia South, there are Ukwa-Ngwa people in Abia Central, but majority of them are in Abia South. But on ethnic basis, there are Ukwa-Ngwa and Old Bende.
In terms of governorship of Abia State, Bende has had two slots. The former governor and I are from the Old Bende. On senatorial basis also, Abia North has had a slot, with the former governor, who is from Abia North. I am from Abia Central. It is Abia South, inhabited mainly by Ukwa-Ngwa, that has not had. Well, there is room for every person to come and contest. After all, when I contested, they all came out, when the former governor contested, they all came out.
But I am saying that for peace, equity, and fairness, the best thing is for our brothers who have tested the governorship to pipe down for some time and allow those who have not. Our people say manu akara di uto onye ratu ibe ya aratu (bean cake oil is sweeter when one licks and allows others to lick also). When Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon were military leaders, they instilled discipline – turn by turn attitude – in Nigerians and everybody liked it. When it is your turn, you take and go, nobody would agitate.
We should enshrine morality in the politics of this modern Nigeria. Though, some say there is no morality in politics. That’s what makes politics to be a dirty game. It is our job to polish politics. That is why we are encouraging members of the clergy to come and contest.