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Published On: Mon, Sep 10th, 2018

Exclusive interview: I have come to rescue Abia from its kidnappers – Dr. Alex Otti

Alex Otti, former MD, Diamond Bank and Abia State gubernatorial aspirant

Front line aspirant for Abia governorship and former Managing Director of Diamond Bank, Dr. Alex Otti (OFR) has said he is insistent on becoming the governor of the state because he wants to rescue it from those he called ‘kidnappers’ who have held it hostage for nearly 20 years and set it on the part of progress.  Dr. Otti who stated this in this interview with Business Hallmark’s MD, Mr. Teslim Shitta-bay; editor, Mr. Okey Onyenweaku and Obinna Ezugwu, regretted that Abia, despite its enormous potential, has been misgoverned to the extent that it is now the last among equals. But he expressed confidence that with his experience, contacts and initiative, he will change the state’s fortune if elected governor in 2019. Excerpt:

You have contested before in 2015, won but was denied. Now you are contesting again. Could you tell us why you are so passionate to lead Abia State? 

You made the point that I contested in 2015 and won but somehow, the wishes of the people were truncated by the government in power at the time. So, it’s natural that I should run again. I believe that is a natural answer to that question.

But then, if you want to know why I contested in the first place, and why I’m still contesting. If you understand the happenings in the state; if you understand the way the state has been run for the past 19 years and counting, and if you understand the potential of that state, and you juxtapose those against the reality on ground, then it beholds on people who have the capacity; people who have the zeal, who have vision to show interest in changing the affairs of the state. The easiest thing to do is to say one is not a politician, but I read somebody who said that politics is too important to be left in the hands of politicians.

The problem of Abia State is not politics; the problem is the management of the economy. It is about bringing down the power that has held the state hostage for nearly 20 years. And they are the same people. So, Abia has become a private estate for them, through which they milk the state and deliver little or no governance. It’s something that has to do with private interest.

And when a state finds itself in that kind of situation, then it becomes a difficult challenge for you to have those who are already within the corridors of power because they are going to do the same thing. I think it was Albert Einstein who said that you don’t solve a problem using the same mindset that you used to create it in the first place. So it requires a complete break from the past.

In the last couple of days, I had a rally in one of the local governments where I told our people that Abia State has been kidnapped by people who are in government and who are still in government, and that it requires somebody to retrieve the state and rescue it from the hands of the kidnappers. That is what I’m coming to do. I have come to retrieve the state from the hands of people who have held it hostage, who do not have any vision, whose interest is to share money. It’s going to be a kind of revolution to break loose from those people.

Some people have compared Abia to “A Tale of Two Cities,” one is Aba which is vibrant with commercial activities; the other, a predominantly civil service structure in Umuahia that operates like a social transfer mechanism. When you come, what are you going to do differently? 

First of all, I don’t think that, that analogy fits Abia. Aba is supposed to be vibrant but it is under-performing. It is under-performing because of decades of neglect by government. There is total lack of infrastructure. Because of that, most of the businesses that existed in the city, particularly the big businesses have relocated elsewhere.

The same thing with Umuahia, a lot of the companies that used to be there have also left, and this has a direct relationship with the level of infrastructure, the level of security and the level of support they get from the government. When infrastructure disappears as is the case, it means you have to generate your own power, you have to generate your own roads by buying trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles; you have to buy your own security.

All these add to the cost of production. By the time you look at it, it may make more sense for you to relocate somewhere that all the infrastructures are provided. That is why Aba is on its knees today. It is no longer as vibrant as it used to be.

Now, the civil service structure you talked about is also not supposed to be that way. It’s not supposed to be a cash transfer mechanism. Civil service, if properly managed, should also operate like the private sector. There should be measured productivity. And productivity should be rewarded. But where we find ourselves today is that salaries are not paid. They are only paid on TV and other propaganda platforms. But in truth, teachers are not paid; lecturers are not paid, local government workers, healthcare workers and so on, are not paid.

So you have the civil service and the public sector generally breaking down. People wait for you to pay, but you don’t pay, you don’t get productivity. People may even refuse to go to work and you can’t easily sack them because morally you can’t sack them because you are not paying them. So, it’s a state on its knees like I said, and it requires a very drastic action to get it back to life.

When you compare Abia State with a few other states around, I’m talking of states like Ebonyi, Enugu and Anambra where there is no oil. When you compare the infrastructure and governance in those states with that of Abia, you will be very sorry for people from Abia. That’s why somebody has to make the sacrifice – because it’s a sacrifice for one to leave what one was doing to come into politics and begin to contest election – but like I have always said, I don’t see where you can make omelets without breaking eggs. That’s the price we have to pay to ensure that things get better for Abia.

You have taken time to explore the situation. What do you think needs to be done? 

Well, there are a lot of things that need to be done. First of all, there are the big issues. When you take a look at Abia State, for me, I believe that I have to look at a few basics and one of them should be trade and commerce. That is the mainstay of Abia economy. Any government that doesn’t pay attention to that is just driving against the wind.

The next one is energy. When I say energy, I want to talk about oil and gas; I also want to talk about power… all of them I put together under energy. The important part I will be looking at is agriculture and agro-processing. Because what we really have are people who do subsistence farming, that is not the agriculture we are talking about. We are talking about large scale agriculture that could be a business for people – adding value to primary products by processing them, even taking them from primary to tertiary products. I will give an example.

In Bende and Isukwuato, you have cocoa. And what still happens is that cocoa farmers harvest the seed and export them or sell them to middle men who eventually export them. But if you have a government policy where you now set up processing plants, the cocoa can be processed into cocoa butter. It can even be further processed into final products like chocolates, beverages and so on. It’s possible, but requires a large outlay of capital which individual stakeholders in that sector will not be able to access. So, it would be the responsibility of government – that’s what I feel and that’s how I will work – to set up those facilities.

You can set them up; put them in the hands of a private operator who pays you back either in terms of rent or in terms of royalty. But then, you will see that you have also expanded your ability for internally generated revenue. You have also expanded your ability to create jobs because by the time you are farming cocoa on a larger scale and employing people; by the time you are processing them into cocoa butter and by the time you further process it into chocolates and beverages, a lot of people would have been involved. Those are the things that somebody who is thinking should be able to deploy government money into instead of sharing it the way they do.

I had written about it in an article I called “Blood Tonic.” It’s the typical thing that happens in Abia particularly, and a few other states where federal allocation is shared among the so-called stakeholders.

My own vision is that our money should be used to invest in our state so that we can create jobs and reduce the insecurity in the state. A lot of the people that you see roaming around the streets are people who don’t have anything to do. If they were gainfully employed, and they can be sure of three square meals a day, chances are that they will not be miscreants. A lot of them have gone to school, they are educated but they don’t have jobs years after graduation. So, agriculture and agro-processing is very critical.

Another one is science and technology – because our people are also very innovative. During the 2015 election, I met a young man who converted a Mercedes lorry engine into a generator. How he did it I don’t know, he just took the engine and fabricated a generator out of it. Just imagine if that kind of person has some support. Before you know it, he will be producing the kind of generators that we use today. And there are many of such examples. So, science and technology is very important.

There is also the area of sports, entertainment and tourism. There is a games village in Nsulu, Isialangwa North. I don’t know what’s happening there right now, but I know that at some point, the NYSC used it as an orientation camp.

But in the past, and I’m talking of the 70s and 80s, that used to be a veritable ground where people camped to engage in all sorts of sports. My vision is to rehabilitate that game village and encourage our people who are interested in football and other sports to use that place as grooming ground. That is also very critical.

You need to also begin to look at what are necessary to support all the strategic institutions. There are so many of them like education.  Irrespective of the prizes our children are winning, I tell them that these children are doing well in spite of lack of support from government, not because of government. So, imagine if there was support from government.

I talked about healthcare delivery, which is very critical. I talked about infrastructure and I talked about security and a whole lot of other enablers. We will support those strategic interests. So, when you put them all together, you create a clear vision, give yourself a timeline.

In terms of the oil and gas, it’s in one local government called Ukwa West. But there is also one interesting thing about Ukwa area. You can actually get approval from federal government to establish a seaport because Ukwa is just about 40 nautical miles to the ocean. So, you can go ahead and build a seaport and begin to see cargo move into Abia state rather than only Lagos. Those are the kind of things that I’m looking at.

Again, the epileptic power supply in Abia is a disincentive for businesses. I believe that we can, as a government, support the private sector to set up alternative power supply sources: wind, solar, biomass and all that. Once you have government support, some of these things can happen. There are a lot of things that one can bring to the table in four years and of course in eight years if one has the opportunity.

Abia students are doing exceptionally well in exams, but what programmes do you have in place to translate the school learning into practical application in the state? 

First of all, when you look at our educational system, there are three or four critical issues. One is the curriculum. The question is, what are those students learning? How relevant is that learning to reality? When people are studying physics and you are studying pinhole camera, the world has moved. In the world of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, of what use is pinhole camera? So, if you are not teaching your students what will aid them to fit into today’s reality then it’s a waste of time. So, you need to redesign the curriculum with particular attention to science, technology engineering and mathematics.

I would like to see more people go into those areas so they can be innovative. Apple is now a one trillion dollar company. And we all know the story of Steve Jobs, how they started. You can only have imaginative and innovative mind to think when there is a relationship between what you study and what people need.

The second one is facilitation. By that I mean teaching and the teachers. Who are the teachers and what did they learn? Do they still have the modern training? Because you can’t give what you don’t have. So, when you take people who went to school donkey years ago and have not consistently updated their knowledge, their knowledge could be antiquated.

The third one is the learning environment. You are studying computer science but you don’t have a computer and you probably haven’t seen one. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but there are a lot of people studying things and they don’t have the facilities, even a laboratory in the school. So, you must ensure that the environment is conducive to qualitative and current learning. When somebody has been properly equipped, then, that person can either create job for himself or fit into jobs that already exist.

Today, if you are looking for science teachers, they are not all over the place. And the next issue is actually remuneration. You have to make teaching attractive. So, while you are talking about getting the right quality of teachers, you must also talk about their compensation because if they are not properly paid they will go elsewhere. Those are the problems and it’s not rocket science. It’s easy to deal with once there is commitment to do that. But you must understand, like I said, what to do. By the time you deal with it, you will see that relating it to the town becomes very easy.

All the projects you have itemized require huge finance. The people there are talking about limited resources. The IGR in Abia is almost nothing. How are you going to do it?

I always tell people, when they are talking about paucity of funds, that the problem is actually about paucity of ideas. If you have a right idea, there would be funds to follow those ideas, and as a banker, I can tell you. So, when people talk about no capital, they don’t know what to do with capital. If you know what to do with capital, you have a vision and you come and share it and I sit down and look at it, money will follow it.

So, when people start with money as their problem, they haven’t really identified their problem. It’s also untrue that there is no money in Abia, because the money in Abia is more than the money in Ebonyi, it’s more than the money in Enugu; it’s more than the money in Anambra. But today, go and look at those states and compare them with Abia. The major problem Abia has is that the money is being stolen. And it’s going to the wrong hands and the wrong projects.

They start a flyover, and it takes them three years to do at a cost that is three times what it will cost elsewhere. We know all these. We are building one flyover for over N5billion I heard, but Willie Obiano in Anambra built three for N4.5billion or thereabout. The problem is not money; it is knowing what to do with the money. The problem is not being honest enough to use the money in a judicious manner.

Then, there is also something about internally generated revenue, that’s taxes. And my definition of a tax is government’s share of the prosperity that it has created in the system or the environment. It presupposes that you don’t have a share if you don’t create prosperity. When people are being owed, when people are not feeling government, they won’t pay you. We all live in Lagos and you see how much they generate every month. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I it’s about N33billion. They are able to do so because, even me, when I’m asked to pay tax in Lagos, I’m happy to pay because I can see how my money is being used. You cannot reap where you have not sown.

If you provide water for me and ask me to pay the bill, I will pay. If you give me power and ask me to pay, I will pay because it’s cheaper than running generators. If you have cleaned up my environment and you want me to pay for environmental sanitation, I will pay. But if there is refuse everywhere like it is in Abia State, if the drainage is blocked and you are trying to ask me to pay, I won’t have any justification to pay you. So, the problem is not that there is no money, the problem is that the money is either not being channeled to the right things, or the people don’t know the right things to do with the money.

You said that states should run like corporate bodies. In an ideal corporation, you hire people when there is a need. But you find out that it’s not so in states. People are hired mostly to provide jobs for the people and to ease pressure from relations who, once you become governor, will pester you with demands for jobs. That’s why the civil service is bloated. How are you going to manage the situation to be able to, like you said, run the state more efficiently?

I think about it a lot. First of all, I need to take a census to understand what your civil service is like. As we speak, I’m not sure that I can rely on the numbers coming out from government. I know the issue of ghost workers is there. And sometimes, such is encouraged by the people who should actually discourage it. There would be a need to do a proper forensic or headcount.

You need to also look at who is where and whether the person is qualified to do the job. By the time you are done with that, my sense is that there would be people who will not be required. But I also feel that there will be people who will be redeployed to where they will best fit. I don’t think that there may be any need for massive retrenchment. That’s on that. …

The major problem is that the government is not able to create jobs, and it is not able to create conditions under which the private sector can create jobs. So, you have a massive army of the unemployed. That’s what the pressure is. The pressure can be gradually reduced by the time government begins to create conditions under which businesses will thrive and begin to create jobs. So, you will find out that if there are jobs in the private sector, people will actually even prefer to work in the private sector than in the public sector. You see a lot of people latching onto the public sector because the private sector is comatose in Abia.

I have not been shown any company that is doing well in the state. The multinationals of those days are gone. The ones that were set up by indigenous players like the Okams of this world, the Onwuka Kalus of this world and others, are all gone. When any of those companies close down, not less than 2000 to 3000 people lose their jobs directly. There would be a whole lot more who are indirectly feeding off ancillary services who will also lose their jobs. So, the first thing to do is to massively invest in infrastructure and ensure that you bring these businesses back because most of these businesses still exist but they are in places like Port Harcourt, Enugu, Anambra, Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna and all that.

Your supporters have been attacked a couple of times, like the one that happened in Obingwa recently. It appears as if the government is out to do whatever it takes to stop you. Are you worried? 

No, I’m not worried. If you followed all what had happened, what they did was illegal and we took them on. And two days ago, we went back to that Obingwa and had a very successful rally. So, they are only scared. It’s what people do when they are scared. But we are not people that can be intimidated. Abia State belongs to all of us and I believe that what they did backfired on them. The last rally we had was even much more successful than we anticipated. So, in a way, they have helped.

We just wanted to receive our people who are coming to join us, which is a normal thing that everybody does. But they illegally went to lock up the place that we had paid for. And I think they have been sufficiently reprimanded. We had a successful rally on Tuesday.

Let’s look at other issues. There is this hot debate about restructuring. Do you think that Nigeria should be restructured? What will be the implication?

Well, restructuring means different things to different people. For me, it involves a lot of things. One, from the economic perspective, I think the way the polity is organised is inefficient. We need to reorganise ourselves to run an efficient system.

Today, we have 36 states, plus Abuja. We have a president and a vice president with retinue of staff. We have 109 senators, we have 360 reps members. We have slightly less than a thousand members of the House of Assembly across the states. We have 36 governors and their deputies; many thousands of aides and commissioners and all that. I think it’s inefficient. The National Assembly itself, the 469 members have close to 3800 aides and all of them are paid.

The first thing that I have argued is that we need to reduce the number of states to a maximum of six, following the six geopolitical zones. You can call them anything you want; you can call them regions, you can call them states – by the way, we have 774 local governments with chairmen, vice chairmen, councillors and all that, so it’s just unwieldy. I believe that if we have six states or regions, we can now whittle down the power of the centre and move virtually everything to those states.

Just imagine saving the country the salaries of 30 governors, 30 deputy governors and all the aides. In the National Assembly could be one, I mean, it doesn’t have to be bicameral. It would just be National Assembly like it is in South Africa. And you don’t need more than 10 per state, so you have 60 members of the National Assembly. That way, you reduce the cost of governance.

The problem that we have running the kind of country that we run, is that no matter how you fake it, you end up spending 70 percent of our budget on recurrent expenditure. A bulk of that is paying those salaries. If you have seven out of every 10 naira dedicated to paying salaries, it’s not rocket science: you will know that you cannot develop.

So, if we flip it and we are able to now dedicate 70 percent of our earnings to infrastructure and capital expenditure, the story would be different. That’s my major recommendation, every other thing can follow. The six states or regions would now decide how many local governments they want to have. If they want a thousand, it’s up to them. It now depends on their ability to pay. And I can assure you that most of them may not want more than 60. So, 60 times six will give you 360 as against 774 that we have today. Every other thing will derive there from: state police, judiciary, once you do that fundamental restructuring every other thing will follow.

There is a consensus that you are intelligent. You are focused. What should I tell my son to do to be like you? 

Well, thank you very much. I think it’s superfluity of words to describe me. But I must thank you for the kind words. Everybody has something he is endowed with. A lot of time, it’s either that we don’t recognize it or we don’t promote it or we don’t encourage it. You must tell yourself that this is where I’m headed. That’s how to start. You sit down with your son and say OK, let’s look at this and that. You want to be a musician, OK, but you have to give me a master degree first. That kind of thing! Or you want to be a technologist, these are the kind of schools you need to go to and the kind of things you need to know.

I think it’s knowing yourself and understanding yourself, and knowing what your strong points are, then working on those strong points.

 

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