By Ikem Okuhu
The interview was a disaster, for want of a stronger word. As individuals after individuals shared it on social media, the embarrassing scenario that a state governor could find it difficult, after six years in office, to remember and mention his achievements, became the theme for comic skits and endless WhatsApp buzz.
Watching skit after mocking skit, my wish, as an Igbo man would have been to conveniently create a psychological distance from Abia State and then wear the ostrich cloak of empathy and begin to point at this former industrial capital for its lost opportunities. But I know I share in the shame, and although I am from Enugu State, I also know that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu is a breathing metaphor for the crippling retardation of the economies of the south east, and perhaps, for many other states in Nigeria.
Seun Okinbaloye of Channels Television has become the Nigerian Richard Quest, boldly posing difficult questions to Nigeria’s political leaders, and extracting, sometimes, very ridiculous responses. But the response he got from the Abia State governor during his programme has broken new records, almost rivalling the, “My Oga at the Top” given by the Lagos Sector Commander of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, on the same Channels Television, some years ago.
Governor Ikpeazu failed this test rather woefully. Watching him, I observed that it must have taken him more than five seconds to find his voice, and even when he did, the detours he took before counting his major achievements off his fingers was a sign he was struggling to find the right answers.
“Well, they are entitled to their opinion, but I don’t think they are right because, for 30 years, it was impossible to access Ariaria from any place, whether you are coming from Port Harcourt or you are coming from Brass. You had to be at some point, stop, and people would back you or…when I came to Aba, there was no single street light…but we have planted over 3,000 streetlights in that city today. And anybody who says that Aba is not working, …today in Aba, you have Domino’s, you have Chicken Republic, you have MarketPlace; you have everything in Aba; you have a cinema in Aba…”
It was searingly pathetic to watch that video. Because I planned to write about it, I had to endure the added hurt of watching it over and over again, including the different skits made by the country’s comedians. It is hard for me to understand how a governor will squeeze six years achievements into one minute and within that minute, couldn’t remember anything of value, except street lights and two link roads, and then ridiculously including two fast food restaurants; and a cinema belonging to private businesses came through the mire of his mind.
I am one of those who strongly believe that the failure to hold leaders to account has been chiefly responsible for the current anarchic social strife conflagrating the southeast and would wish that this intervention speaks to the culpable hypocrisy of those who are currently claiming to be championing the emancipation of southeasterners from the shackles of being a part of an unequal Nigeria. The insect that eats the vegetable lives right inside the vegetable.
In the historically egalitarian southeast, it has become a risky business to speak one’s mind. Political leaders and elders have all become dodgy on the current security situation buffeting the region. Everybody wants to play it safe in order not to be consumed by the karmic vindictiveness of the angry revolutionaries currently fighting for freedom from obviously unfair and oppressive Nigeria.
While I cannot make excuses for the obvious sidestepping of the southeast by the Federal Government, the thrust of this article is to ask salient questions anchored on plain realities and burdensome statistics. I am hoping that answers to my questions will redirect the righteous anger of those who genuinely feel locked out of the prebendaries of the Nigerian state, perhaps redirect such overflowing emotions to proximal centres where they have greatest opportunities to be addressed at much lower human and resource toll.
There are some parts of the south east that are of invaluable political and economic importance. Aba, the commercial capital of Abia State is one of these. The rest include; Enugu, the political capital of the region; Onitsha and Nnewi, the commercial hubs in Anambra State as well as the Uzo Uwani-Oyi and Eha-Amufu-Ebonyi-Aninri agro belts. Sadly, while other areas might be in need of special interventions to ensure the realization of their full economic potentials, the historic city of Aba, once famed as a mirror of the resistant spirit of the Igbo people, has become more famous for its infrastructure decadence and economic regression.
If you ask me, this is where the whole debate on the political and economic marginalization of the people of this area should actually commence. It almost appears hypocritical to be under the worst conceivable form of bad government at the state and local government level while straining the voice box and risking life and limb in spirited agitation for a more difficult self-determination. Our collective conscience should provoke questions to those entrusted with the management of our resources at the state and local government levels and insist they render account of the trillions of naira that have been corruptly squandered since the dawn of democracy in 1999.
The statistics are actually disturbing but we have to look at it in order to, as they say, tell the truth and shame the devil. In the year 2020, and we have to use this as the base year for this analysis, the five state governments in the south east received a combined sum of N248.9 billion from the Federation Account. Imo State, the main theatre of the current crises in the southeast got the biggest share of N55.72 billion while Abia State, where the governor’s memories of his accomplishments failed him that he had to count Chicken Republic and cinemas, got a hefty N48.37 billion.
There are 95 local government areas in the southeast. At an average of N100 million federal allocation per local government each month, this aggregates to N114 billion for the same year 2020. What this means is that were we to look far down the road to 1999 when the current democratic dispensation started, the south east would have received an estimated N7.98 trillion from the Federation Account. Usually, this general sum does not include special funds such as those that go to oil producing states and ecological funds, meaning that quite a significant additional sum would have been allocated to one or more of the states. Over N2.5 trillion have been pumped into the local government system since the current democratic dispensation.
Regrettably, it was under the weight of this huge sum that Aba, a buzzing industrial hub that was the country’s number one leather and shoes centre and number two in fabrics making, collapsed. Growing up in the 1980s in Nsukka, Enugu State, we always looked forward to the Christmas and Easter periods when our cousins and primary school mates would return from Aba for the season. They normally brought home shoes of all types and grades. I still travel to the village where I see most of these former economic pillars vegetating under various forms of economic and social misfortunes because the Abia State Government allowed this industrial city to rot away. But this is a city in a state that has got more than N290 billion from federal allocations (excluding local government allocations) and another possible N81 billion from IGR in the past six years.
There is just no excuse for the decrepit infrastructure and other social and economic dislocations in the southeast. But rather than confront these local insects eating the local vegetable, we have been dissipating energy and resources confronting a distant monster who might just be having a big laugh at us for our grossly misdirected angst. I don’t even want to imagine what a N7 trillion vote would have done to the economy of the southeast had we been electing economically and socially conscientious governors and local government chairmen since 1999. The haemorrhage of local outbound migration that has left the region empty of competent, trained and skilled manpower would long have witnessed reverse traffic.
The time to ask our leaders questions is now. We must quickly compel the likes of Governor Ikpeazu to tell us why the “Chicken Republics” of consumption he has purportedly attracted to Aba shouldn’t have been chicken farms of sustained economic prosperity instead? This is necessary, knowing that the problems in the region stems from low economic productivity and its favourite offspring – unemployment. If we muster half the strength deployed in challenging the political and infrastructure detours by the federal forces, and channel them towards making the political leaders in the east mandatorily respond to the welfare of the people and the prosperity of the region, I can guarantee that most people would not even miss federal presence, and Chicken Republic would not be such a big deal for a governor to count as one of his value delivery after six years in office.
Okuhu, a former Special Assistant to Governor Ugwuanyi of Enugu State, is a journalist, author, farm entrepreneur, whose most recent book is ‘Pitch: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths’
Finance February 6, 2020