By OBINNA EZUGWU
Engr. Dave Umahi, governor of Ebonyi State courted controversy few weeks ago, following his run-in with journalists, which his opponents latched on to accuse his administration of being dictatorial. But even those cannot deny the governor’s accomplishment in the state, which remain a marvel.
On May 29, Umahi officially completed half a decade in office. And by many accounts, it’s be half a decade of tremendous accomplishments. In terms of infrastructure, he has been a wonder of sorts. The state has witnessed and continues to witness unprecedented road and sundry infrastructure building, and placed side by side with the revenue profile of the state, the governor arguably stands shoulders high above his peers.
Without much of media hype, the governor has completed an infrastructural revolution in Southeast’s youngest state. Once derided as backward, Ebonyi, courtesy of Umahi has taken a giant leap forward to become the zone’s leader in infrastructure.
Yet, besides infrastructure, the state is also making rapid improvement in education and agriculture. Rated as an educationally backward state only a few years ago, Ebonyi has walked up the ladder, largely unnoticed, and now makes top ten in most national examinations.
And even as the present economic realities, occasioned by fall in global oil price as Coronavirus pandemic shut down economies, have crippled state finances, Ebonyi remains a construction site. The Enugu-Abakailiki Express Road is easily the best federal road in the Southeast courtesy of the governor, and he has also intervened in other strategic federal roads in the state, including Afikpo Road, Uburu-Amasiri Road among others.
Umahi’s projects are particularly noted for their solidity. Along the Enugu-Abakailiki road, at Presco, Spera Indo junctions and the International Market are three massive flyovers well constructed and decorated for aesthetic value. The bridges are part of the trans-Saharan route to Cameroon.
Remarkably, it is a state with annual average internally generated revenue of about N4billion, and yearly federal allocation of about N25 billion, one of the least revenue earning states in Nigeria. But with its little, the state has achieved amazing feats under the governor’s watch.
“The magic behind what the governor is achieving is highest level of probity and accountability, highest level of transparency, highest level of compliance with the principle of fiscal responsibility and procurement,” noted the state’s Commissioner for Information, Mr. Uchenna Orji.
Interestingly, even with little revenue, the governor has not, like a few other states facing financial constraints, plunged Ebonyi into heavy debt burden. With domestic debt at N42 billion and external debt at about $76 million as of July 30, 2019 according to Debt Management Office (DMO) figures, Ebonyi is one of the least indebted states in Nigeria. Yet, all over the state, roads and other infrastructural projects are ongoing while many have been completed.
Perhaps nothing explains Umahi’s strides as governor of Ebonyi better than the fact that the state has, within these few years, transcended from a state regarded by many as the least developed in the South East to one now cited as an example of a working state whose state of infrastructure is used to measure the performance or lack of performance of sister governors in the zone and beyond.
In precise, Ebonyi under Umahi has come of age. And no one is probably better positioned to give testimony to the governor’s infrastructure drive than the leading transporter in the zone, Chief Sam Maduka Onyishi, CEO, Peace Mass Transit Limited.
“Umahi is doing wonderfully well in Ebonyi,” Onyishi notes. “The roads there are very well constructed. The kind of things he is building there, sometimes you begin to wonder if it’s the federal government that is there building those things.”
As part of their trivial online debates, people of the Southeast South once in a while, hold online debates about which capital city in the zone is most beautiful. Abakailiki has arguably emerged as the indisputable winner of that contest. A trip around the city only lends credence: smooth roads, smart roundabouts, modern storey buildings and fine streets. The Udensi Roundabout with its fountain waterfall and spotless labyrinth of roads is a marvel, yet same can be said about the Government House Roundabout and the Abacha Roundabout, among others.
“We are happy with what the governor has done, Abakailiki is now a beautiful place,” noted a bike rider, Nwede. “Yes, I’m very satisfied with what he has done.”
But in Abakailiki, it’s not just about beautiful roads and roundabouts. The administration has also completed the huge international market, the Margret Umahi International Market, which was started by the Martin Elechi administration. There is the impressive centenary city and a new governor’s lodge and ecumenical centre with combined sitting capacity of 12,000, the largest ever built by any government in Nigeria, if not on the African continent.
For a state with Ebonyi’s revenue profile, contemplating an international airport on paper would seem like an unrealistic dream. But in Ebonyi, Umahi has continued to prove that impossible is nothing. Thus, while one’s first instinct could be to greet his international airport project with skepticism, he has defied possibly bigger odds.
The conceived Ebonyi International airport, which would have four kilometers by four kilometers in measurement, located in the central part of the state, is the latest of many massive projects ongoing in the state.
The now renovated Abakailiki stadium at Ntezi-aba is huge by Nigerian standard, but the governor has since decided that for the future he wants for the state capital and the state, only a brand new stadium that would attract athletes from Africa and beyond would do.
Apart from the three massive flyover bridges in Abakailiki, he has also started constructing other eight flyovers at Abaomege in Onicha local government, Nkalagu Junction, Uburu Junction, Ohaozara, among other locations.
The state capital is easily the best well-organised and has best road network of any in the Southeast, if not the entire country. But it’s not just about Abakailiki. Across the state, there are numerous road projects. The Abakailiki to Ikwo road is well-constructed, the Abakailiki-Afikpo road is not any less so.
“Another secret behind what has been achieved is the fear of God and the fact that the governor was very prepared from the very beginning to govern Ebonyi State. For us, it is a divine project. He came on board via a divine mandate,” Orji says.
“And if you look at his track record, you will understand that he truly came from God. I will also say that his track record, to an extent, explains what is happening now. I’m talking about his experience, his exposure, education but most importantly, his passion. The passion is the engine that drives those three elements: exposure, education and experience.”
Noted for its Abakailiki rice, Ebonyi is a largely agrarian state. The Umahi government has continued to support farmers and farming to improve productivity through his administration’s agricultural development programmes.
The government now runs three rice mills with capacity of 24 metric tonne per hour. It also has par-boiling plant with a total of 24 metric tonne capacity that feeds the mill. The governor had also procured four rice mills, each with four metric tonne capacity with parboiling plants with same capacity per hour each, giving to individuals or cooperatives to operate.
The governor has introduced a number of empowerment programmes. He trained and empowered 3000 youths and women with N250,000 grant each. Through his Street to Skill Empowerment Programme, the governor had also trained and empowered 520 hawkers with N250,000 each and 400 “Okada” riders with tricycles.
He also shortlisted, trained and empowered 403 spouses of security officials of Ebonyi origin with N200,000 each and 508 clergymen with N508 million.
For the state’s civil servants, he introduced the ‘Second Address Scheme,’ a scheme which compels civil servants to have second address in farming, either at the primary, secondary or tertiary production. They are subsequently given loans ranging from N250,000 to N1million to support agricultural produce, among other programmes aimed at promoting entrepreneurship.
Beyond Ebonyi, Umahi, as chairman of Southeast governors’ forum, has also in many ways, held his own as the political leader, in some sense, of the zone. Under his leadership, the southeast governors’ forum has risen up to the security and sundry challenges of the zone, especially as it concerns invasion of herdsmen.
The forum has continued to stand its ground as it pushes to set up security outfits to protect the zone from criminality, even it in the face of what seems like antagonism from Abuja.
But, there are complaints, too. Some residents say, however, that while the governor has impressed them with his work, they are being made to bear heavy tax burden.
Shops at the Margret Umahi International Market, which the administration is compelling traders to relocate to, are also said to be too exorbitant, beyond the reach of many. Again, the governor has attracted criticisms for allegedly evicting residents at the site of the new cargo airport.
“The governor has done well in terms of building roads and other things, but he is taxing us heavily,” says Ugwu Onyi, a tailor. “Shop owners are made to pay N14,000 to the government. It is too much for us.”
There is also the complaint about civil servants being allegedly underpaid and pensioners being neglected.
“He is using all the money to build infrastructure,” one source says. “We have no been receiving full salary.”
Mr. Orji, however, argues that only those who are unhappy with the projects being executed in the state are raising such complaints.
“I think that you interviewed the wrong persons; persons that may not be happy with the progress we are making here,” Orji says.
“But let me say that Ebonyi State has the least IGR in the Southeast. A lot of those living in the urban areas are from Enugu, Anambra, Abia and Imo states. And I know these states have higher revenue profiles than us. So, where is the money?
“Go to our laws on taxation, it is the least. It is very fair, it has human face. We even give tax holidays to companies that are coming to invest in the state.”