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A lot more good will happen to Abia under Otti – Prince Okey Kanu, Information Commissioner 

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A lot more good will happen to Abia under Otti - Prince Okey Kanu, Information Commissioner 

Prince Okey Kanu, the Abia State commissioner for Information in this interview with Business Hallmark speaks on the first one year of Dr. Alex Otti’s administration; the achievements and the expectations.

Excerpts:

We are impressed with what we have seen and heard since we came to Abia. Yours is a working government. But what is it like to work with a government that has made this many strides within a short period?

Well, it’s a great feeling to be part of a success story. It feels good to be part of a government that people commend; a government that has done well within one year. But it has taken a lot of hard work. It’s taken a lot of hard work; a lot of sleepless nights to achieve what has been achieved. A lot of thinking has gone into what people are now talking about, from those of us who are working with the governor, but more from the governor himself who is the chief visioner. It hasn’t been an easy one year since we started this work. I told some people that sometimes, by 2 am, His Excellency sends you a text, and by 4am, you will see another one. You then begin to wonder when he finds time to sleep. And when you take him up, he would say, but for you to have seen it, you were also awake.
So, it hasn’t been easy. But as they say, the reward for hard work is even more work. As we work, and people commend us, it gives us the motivation to work even more; to keep going in that direction to impact the lives of ordinary Abians.

What is your target; what do you hope to achieve in the next four years?

A total revamp; a total turnaround of this state in every facet, in terms of governance, in terms of the local economy, in terms of infrastructure, and everything. I think that by the time you come back to Abia in 2027, you would be struggling to recognise the streets because a lot of work would have been done. And as I speak, in the next one year, a lot of people may not know Umuahia again. It’s a work in progress, a lot is being done. The target is to turn this place around, make the state more viable, and make Aba, the commercial hub of the state, and Abia generally as an investment haven. This government does not believe in looking for investors, it’s investors that are looking for us. We’re doing things that will make them come, we don’t go to them.

You can see that when the governor set up the Abia industrial Park, it was for a reason. It wasn’t just to put up a structure. It spoke to something, now people are coming. There’s a modular refinery there, there’s a gas plant in the pipeline. And the government is now looking at a seaport. Just last week, the governor gave me the privilege to sit through a meeting with people who are working on that project. The project is going to be cited in my area, I’m from Ukwa East, Obeaku Ndoki. Obeaku is just a stone’s throw from my place, and Obeaku to the sea is just about 18 to 19 nautical miles. The government is very serious about the seaport, and it will complement what is happening at the Abia industrial park. They will have access to export and import products through the sea. The government is working strategically, we’re not just putting structures for the sake of it, it’s a whole combination of structures to arrive at that point where you can say yes, Abia has been turned around in terms of infrastructure, in terms of health facilities, in terms of our educational system and in terms of our local economy.

When I spoke to the idea of investors coming to us instead of us going to them, it’s because we take it very seriously that the government needs to put in place structures that will help businesses to thrive. One is road infrastructure, and the other is capacity development, which education guarantees. Another aspect is the ease of doing business, putting structures in place to attract investors. Our Ministry of Lands and Housing now issues the certificate of occupancy in 30 days. The commissioner and his team are also working hard to reduce the transaction time even further. My belief is that if we keep our legs on the throttle for the next 24 to 36 months, a lot of things would have changed. The ultimate vision of His Excellency is to make Abia truly number one in Nigeria, that’s what we’re working towards. We’re revamping the state in every aspect.

What would you say the government has accomplished in one year?

This government has done so much in one year, and we’re poised to do even more in the next year. Recall that when the governor was sworn in, in his first public address, declared a state of emergency in certain areas of governance, and I want to say that we’ve done excellently well in all those areas. But as far as this government is concerned, it’s still a work in progress because when you want to turn around a bad situation that was in place for 24 years, it’s not something you do in one year. It will take time, but the important thing is to start well. And because we have just eight years, and the ruin was done in 24 years, we’re going to use the first four years to turn things around and consolidate in the next four years.

In all these areas where he declared a state of emergency, we’ve done well in them. But first, let’s look at the soft issues. What the governor has done is to put in place governance structures. He’s trying to build institutions that would sustain the state even long after he’s left office. Part of the reason Abia was reduced to ruins was that we didn’t have such structures in place, and everyone was doing what they liked. The government is addressing those soft issues very well. Without a viral civil service, no government functions well, so after declaring a state of emergency in those areas, the governor started reforms in the civil service to make it more effective in serving the interest of the government and the people of Abia.

Hitherto, we had a civil service where workers were demotivated, people were not being paid and they hadn’t attended any courses in 20 or more years. But all that has started changing. The governor has kept his promise to pay staff on or before the 28 of every month, and as if that was not enough, he liquidated all the outstanding pension payments. Today, we have an ease of doing business desk. Just yesterday, we inaugurated the Abia Security Advisory Council and Abia Security Trust Fund, all these things speak to the attempt to put in place strong governance structures.

Of course, looking at areas of hard infrastructure, and developments in education, at the end of the day, we want to construct 960 schools in Abia. We have started with 170, comprising 10 primary schools and three secondary schools per local government. We’re doing it in phases and the Idea is that by the time this government clocks eight years, all these schools would have been built. What government is trying to ensure is that all the schools in Abia have similar structures, that’s why they are model schools. We were building six before now, two in each senatorial zone, until this budget year when education had the highest chunk at 20 percent. The idea is to ensure a total revamp of that sector because it’s a very important one. When we talk about capacity development, that’s where it starts. Once you have an educated population, it will help to bring in a lot of other changes. So, it’s not just the structures we’re doing, after the structure, the curriculum would be looked into. We have many experts currently in the state, and they have gone to work with the Ministry of Education to ensure that the education equipment in our schools is fit for purpose.

That’s for education. For health, it’s the same. We have tried to reconstruct and retrofit some hospitals. Before now, the Abia State University Teaching Hospital lost its accreditation, but through the efforts of this government, we got back that accreditation. Whilst the school lost accreditation, our medical students could not continue with their education. Some of them dropped out and started buying JAMB forms all over again. I know because I have an in-law whose daughter did that. She’s supposed to be in her final year now, but she’s currently in 2nd year because she had to take JAMB afresh. That’s not what we want our children to pass through. So, what we have done is to bring back that accreditation in ABSUTH. Of course, we have reconstructed and retrofitted Amachara General Hospital and the one opposite Mecure Diagnostic Centre. We have 15 other general hospitals that are being reconstructed. The government is looking at the primary health centers as well, because they are the primary touch point for people in the rural areas. About 250 of them in the state are being revamped. The state government is collaborating with the federal government to ensure that those primary health centres are revamped; to ensure that they have doctors very close to the people. Beyond that, the governor has directed that some discriminatory salaries be paid to people in the medical and education sectors. He used that method to try to get qualified teachers back into the classrooms because when the previous government stopped paying teachers, they left the schools for the civil service. But now, we’re asking them to return and use their training to impact knowledge.

He has also jacked up the retirement age from 60 to 65, just to encourage them. In health, it’s the same thing. Do you know about the concept of Japa, the doctors are leaving in droves, so the government has decided to pay them better salaries to encourage them to return and discourage those who are still here from leaving. And of course, you know that some doctors have left not because they are not earning salaries, but because they don’t have the tools to work with. A doctor who doesn’t have the requisite tools to work will tell you he is not motivated to work where you put him. The government has ensured that all that equipment is brought in. Some of those who came for the medical outreach here confirmed that if they had their way, they’d come back and practice here because all the equipment they use overseas, they saw them here. So, the government is putting equipment on the ground to attract doctors.

A lot more good will happen to Abia under Otti - Prince Okey Kanu, Information Commissioner 

Prince Okey Kanu

In terms of security, this government launched Operation Crush to ensure that there’s peace and security in the state. Security is key because no investor goes to where there is insecurity. Money loves security, so if you can’t protect them, they won’t come. So far, the issue of insecurity has been largely curtailed.

In terms of road infrastructure, some people would say that His Excellency, Dr. Alex Otti has turned Abia State into one big construction site. To date, we have rehabilitated 79 roads by direct labour between Aba and Umuahia. We have constructed and commissioned 10 roads, and we have another 23 roads that are under construction. We have Osa Road in Umuahia, we have Port Harcourt Road in Aba, we have the one stretching from Umuahia – Uzuakoli – Isiukwuato to Abiriba, then you have Ohafia. Then there is the Amaube – Arochukwu – Ndi-Okereke – Ozuabam road. As recent as Last week, the governor flagged off the construction of the 3.5 kilometers Osisioma-Ekeakpara road. That’s the road the government decided to construct because of the Osisioma industrial estate there so that those companies that have left can return. So, we are moving very fast in terms of road infrastructure.

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In terms of waste management, which is one of those areas the governor declared a state of emergency, all the heaps of rubbish you used to notice in Umuahia and Aba have disappeared. You can’t achieve a 100 percent clean city, but we’re doing our best. We have made a serious impact in terms of keeping our environment clean. Government is doing a lot more to ensure that when it rains, you don’t have floods because floods have a way of making the city dirty. So, there’s a huge construction going on in Aba, channeling all the flood waters to one place. That’s a huge ongoing project. When that is done, a lot of other roads that haven’t been built will now be built because if you build them now, the rains will come and destroy them. But overall, Aba has become a cleaner city, and Umuahia has become a cleaner city. All those parts of the state where you see heaps of garbage, are no longer there, and it can only get better. As I said, the government has an integrated, strategic approach toward governance. Apart from the six areas where the government declared a state of emergency, a lot is being done to generally revamp the economy of the state. The government is building an industrial park at Owaza, and a lot of companies will go there. The government is revitalizing a number of our moribund companies, whether they are privately owned or privately owned, the government believes that we must help them to stand on their feet. Even where you have had a succession crisis in families with big business concerns, the government is wading in to make peace. We have found out through research that in some of these families where there is a quarrel, they took loans that they haven’t been servicing over the years, and before long, the banks came calling. So, the government has decided to ensure that those assets are revamped. The government may not take them over, because as the governor will tell you, the government has no business in business, but at the same time the government has a hand in business where we do a lot of regulation to ensure that companies don’t take undue advantage of the populace. So, some of these structures that the governor has put in place, all of them speak to one thing: a total revamp or rebirth of the state so that business activities can continue to go on.

You talked about education being important and thus receives the largest budgetary allocation in the 2024 budget. You also talked about how the government is building several new primary and secondary schools, but what about the ones that are already existing.  Are they being revamped? Again what about handing the schools to the missions which seems to have worked elsewhere?

Yes, we may end up building new schools but the ones that are being rebuilt now are existing schools. It is a faster route to bring them back to life instead of building from the scratch. We are remodeling these schools the way we want them. Then, we will go back to the structures to make up the numbers. We have given an idea of the number, which is very huge. We will use the existing structures, that’s in terms of that.

In terms of returning the schools to the missions, the onus is on the missions, not the government. If a particular faith or mission approaches the government to say they want to take back this school, by all means we will give them. An example is Government College Umuahia, it’s already back to the original owners. The government has no hand in it anymore. So, it depends on the structure that the people want. If they want the schools back, the government will willingly give them back. But then, the government will ensure standards; the government will ensure that those who are asking for the school to be giving back to them are those who can drive these schools.

We have moved around. A lot of work is ongoing, but that brings up the issue of funding. We used to hear government at the state level complain about lack of funding. Abia is not a major oil producer, but funding  doesn’t seem to be a problem to you. How are you going about it?

Well, that’s part of the governor’s trade secret. Of course, you know that His Excellency was a top banker, so he is very vast in financial matters, and I recall that during the campaigns, he was asking the people to vote for him because he knew what he was doing. But it is a trade secret that I would rather we kept to ourselves. The governor is the only person who will be in a position to reveal that secret. But suffice that to say that there has been a lot of prudence and very good financial management by the government. Our opponents were shouting themselves hoarse about us taking loans, but we haven’t taken any loans. We have loans that have been granted but there hasn’t been any draw down on them, yet we are galloping down. That’s why I said it is a secret. The chief visioner has the key to the secret room where that is happening, but it is something that has to do with the governor’s background. He knows how to get things done.

We have interacted with the people in Abia and they are impressed with what the government is doing. But we are noticing also that there is an issue that is gradually cropping up, and that’s the issue of stomach infrastructure. It is as if some people are also expecting the sharing of public funds. You know this sort of welfarism that has come to define governance in Nigeria?

Well, anyone who is waiting for the government to share money will be disappointed because this is not a governor who shares money. This is not a government that gives married women who give birth N500. This is a government that wants to turn the state around, make businesses to drive and put structures in place that would help people to earn a living. Our people are not beggarly; our people are not the lazy people. They are very hard-working, and Aba speaks to the spirit of enterprise of the average Abian. You can see what they are doing there, they are performing wonders. They’re inventing and creative things, that is the spirit of the Abian. What the government is doing is to create the right environment so that whatever business you are doing you will thrive in it. When people thrive in those businesses they won’t look up to anybody to share money, rather they want their schools to function, hospitals to function, and be affordable to the average person. Those in the market want the process of allocating stores to be transparent so that they can have a place to practice their trade. Teachers want to be paid and the facilities provided for them to teach. This is also the case for civil servants. So, all our people want is for the structure to be put in place for everyone to function in their areas, and that’s what the government is doing. It is not about sharing money. Rather than give a woman who gave birth N500, we will make sure she goes to the hospital to give birth free of charge. When she gets there, there’s a bed for her to lie down on, and there’s electricity all through the time she is there. If there’s a need for a cesarean section or something, there’s electricity, a surgical table, and qualified doctors on the ground. That’s the kind of things we are looking at, not to share money to people. We help people to create wealth because our people are wealth creators.

After these roads we are building in the urban areas we are going to the rural areas. The reason for those roads in the rural areas is that it will help people to bring out their produce, without hindrance, to the cities. The Nunya-Eluama road flagged off about a month ago, precisely on the 27th of March, is meant to help the people from there to evacuate their produce to the town without problem. This will be happening in so many other places as the road construction agenda unfolds. And this is good for everybody, if the road is good and the bus driver or commercial motorcyclist does not spend time visiting mechanics, he will have no reason to raise his fares.

There have been clashes at border towns. There’s one that occurred recently for example. What is the government doing to ensure that there is peace at this border towns?

Well, part of the deputy governors mandate is to handle the border issues, and the deputy governor is squarely on top of that situation. We have had some instances where there were clashes with one of our neighboring states. The state government has intervened to ensure that there is peace and tranquility in all those areas, so it is a work in progress. The deputy governor is currently leading and he will continue to engage the communities involved on both sides to ensure that there is peace.

There’s been much talk about how Abia had been misgoverned in the last 24 years, but what did you actually meet on the table when you came on board?

I want to tell you that we met virtually nothing on the ground. The governor will tell you that we didn’t just start on ground zero, we started on minus zero ground. There was no proper handover process because that past government knew that there was nothing to show that sooner or later, the long arms of the law would come calling and that Abians would start asking critical questions. So, they just left the government and ran away. That’s the reason if you recall when Geometric Power was launched, there was this controversy about an investment made there. If you recall in one of my press briefings, I said we didn’t know about it because it was not part of the handover note. The previous government never spoke about it and we never knew about it. It’s like somebody suggested that maybe they wanted to corner the investment as they have always done.

So, there was nothing on the ground. The Government House that the former governor, Ikpeazu said he built, if you go there you will be ashamed. And if my memory serves me right, he didn’t even start that project. The governor before him, Ochendo started that project. But those funny chaps around him kept talking about running the government from the government house. In some instances, those who ran this place before we came took away almost everything. Some took away the sofas, others took away generators, computers, and printers. One came to take the rug in my office but was accosted and resisted. That speaks to the poverty mentality and very raw sense of entitlement that those guys had. That’s why I said that we are interested in the soft issues of governance. We are trying to put up a structure in place because there was none when we came here. You could see the reforms in the civil service. There, you would see somebody on grade level 10 suddenly jump to level 16 because he comes from the same village or community as the former governor. They were doing what is called command promotion.

Recently you had some noise in the media about the government embarking on another verification exercise, but we are not embarking on any verification. What happened is that along the line, this government wanted to make some appointments, and the governor in his usual manner did not want to go outside to get people. He said let’s make this fresh appointment from within the civil service to encourage civil servants, just like he had done in the ministry where most of the direct labor work we are doing are handled by engineers from the Ministry of Works. The governor has this disposition towards helping the civil servants to be the best they can be. So, in an attempt to make these fresh appointments, they went into the files of the categories of civil servants they wanted to appoint as auditors; those who have ICAN certificates, but only to find out that people who claim that they are directors of finance and all that, had empty files. So the governor was wondering what they have been using to work. But he decided that for the avoidance of doubt, we should carry out a show your credentials exercise, and to make it easy for everybody, he said, just take your phone and upload your credentials. Scan whatever it is and put it there. Then the whole place went into turmoil and the governor was accused of all manner of things. But we’re trying to correct a situation; a very bad situation we found our civil service. Things were turned upside down, a lot of them were not trained. In fact, in some instances, for 20 years none of them went for any capacity-building program. We learned that the government before ours ruled against training; that nobody should go for training, and you begin to wonder the kind of civil servants they were going to churn out.

Another reason we are doing what we are doing is as a result of the falsification of age. A lot of them went and falsified their ages so that they can remain in service long past their retirement age. The government said no, we can’t be working with forgers. So, what the government is doing is to fish them out. The idea is to sanitize the place, to send people who are supposed to go on courses to motivate them, because without a viral civil service, no state can function, that’s a major task that we are facing, trying to rebuild the place. All those things that were not in place, we are trying to put in place. We want to make sure that some kind of sanity is brought back to the civil service. In all, at the end of the day, we want to have a better Abia.

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Regarding the payment of the pension, can we get the full detail? Was all the arrears paid or was there a kind of arrangement with the pensioners? Secondly, what are your parting words for Abians?

Regarding the payment of pension arrears, it was a promise made and a promise kept. These people were owed, some as far back as 2014, and even though they say the government is a continuum, this governor had the opportunity to say I won’t pay any of those before me and move on, but he never said so. We had a committee that engaged with the pensioners. They carried out some verifications because even figures of pensioners were falsified. We also had situations where people die but their names don’t leave the payroll, whether as workers or as pensioners. So, the government wanted to know who was who, and in the process, we found out that we had such a huge payout. Thus, the government went into a negotiation and at the end of the day, took a position that going forward pensioners will be paid their full monthly pension. In fact, that was what had accumulated over the years.

The negotiating team with your executives discussed this issue of arrears exhaustively over some time and at the end of the day they made their recommendations to the governor, and one of those recommendations was that some arrears was going to be paid. It was already a bad debt, but His Excellency didn’t want to see it as such. He argued that these people spent their active years serving the state, and some of them could no longer afford medications as cheap as N500. The governor decided that whatever it took, we wanted to make these people happy. So, he met and negotiated. The amount came to around N10bn, and that amount was paid. I can tell you that some got as much as N8 million some N5 million. Money that they had not seen in their life. Immediately the governor finished paying, we set up a help desk because we knew that there were going to be issues, and some of those issues were issues of falsification of documents. Some had reduced their ages and went to the banks with affidavits to change their date of birth. Some have changed their BVN, all kinds of things.

Some of those changes made it difficult for them to get direct payments, that is why some people started complaining that they were not paid. Some even sent in the names of microfinance banks that were not robust enough to handle such payments. Those are being resolved.

But these people were paid. They received alerts and were very happy. However, just last week the group they call Nigeria Union of Pensioners (NUP) went to town to say that the agreement entered into with the government by their leaders was not a good one. The question is, you received your alert of arrears over a month ago and for the first time in this state you are receiving full pension on the 27th or 28th of every month, why suddenly wake up to complain? But the governor is happy that he made the payments. He is satisfied that he has brought smiles to the faces of our elders and while the NUP is busy accusing their leaders that they don’t like the agreement they reached with the government, Concerned Pensioners of Abia State were busy carrying placards, commending and eulogizing the governor for bringing them back to life with the payment of the outstanding pension, as well as the very prompt payment of their full monthly pension for the first time in years. And they were all in white to show that light had come to Abia. Before they used to wear black, but by the time the governor won the election, I met with them and they said they wanted to go to church in white clothes because light had come to Abia State. They are in the majority and they raised a very serious issue against the NUP.

As for the second question, what do I tell Abians, I will tell them that we are on a flight with Dr. Alex Otti, and it is a flight to El Dorado. They better fasten their belts because what has happened in this first year is only the tip of the iceberg. As Americans will say, they ain’t seen nothing yet. A lot more will happen in this state and His Excellency will keep his word to turn Abia State around and truly make it the number one State in Nigeria. So I will tell Abians to continue to support the government. The government is here to work for them. Let them just be patient, the state that was ruined for 24 years, you can’t expect everything to happen in one year, but we are working to turn this place around. After only one year you can see what is happening, so you can imagine what will happen in the next three years. We are telling them to be patient and support the government. The government means well for them and this government is about the people. It is a new day.

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