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Gov Otti’s target is to take Abia to a level where it will be a positive reference point – Ekeoma 

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Gov Otti's target is to take Abia to a level where it will be a positive reference point - Ekeoma 

The developmental strides in Abia State is attracting huge attention in recent times. Yet the government says it is intentional in what it is doing and targets to transform Abia and the lives of the citizens soon.

In this interview with the Business Hallmark team, Mr. Ferdinand Ekeoma, Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Media vows that nobody can distract the government of His Excellency Dr. Alex Otti OFR, from making Abia a reference state.

Excerpts

There’s a saying that good products sell themselves. Anywhere you go now and say you are from Abia, people will say you are lucky because of what you have achieved in the last one year. How were you able to do it?

The slogan that the governor held onto tenaciously during the campaign is that you can never give what you don’t have. The governor, Dr. Alex Otti, OFR, came prepared. He was on this for years. He won an election in 2015, but the mandate was stolen. He tried again in 2019, the same thing repeated, but he continued because he knew the challenges we had in Abia.

The situation in Abia had become an embarrassment to all of us because Abia had become a negative reference point. So, we saw it as a battle that must be fought and won; all of us who were in it joined because we believed that if we failed to reclaim our state and restore it to the people, it would just be a matter of time before we go extinct. So, because of that preparation and determination to solve the problems, the governor, on assumption of office, hit the ground running.

First, he declared a state of emergency in key areas such as education, health, infrastructure, security, and Waste management. And he swung into action. For example, prior to his emergence as governor, Aba was literally a refuse dumb. There was no well-thought-out strategy for waste management. Once you mention Aba, two things came to mind: First, it was a business area, and second, it is a very dirty city.
So the governor first declared a state of emergency and appointed a head of task force on the cleanup of Aba, Umuahia, and Ohafia. These are the three major cities we have in the three geopolitical zones of Abia State. But we know where we had more population and more economic activities and where we had the most challenges.

So, a head of task force was appointed for Aba, and one for Umuahia, and resources were mobilized for them. They moved in swiftly and began to clean up the city. We are nowhere near where we want to be, but you no longer see refuse dumped at every corner of the cities, because we are intentional about what we want to achieve.

Beyond doing that, because it was an emergency, we needed to do something sustainable. As time went on, we saw the need to privatize waste management. That was what led to the advertisement for private operators to bid for waste management. Aba was divided into four zones and Umuahia into two zones. Everything was transparently done, all the people that sent their bids were inverted to Umuahia, and the applications were submitted one by one so that if you had submitted an application and somebody removed it we would know.

After that, six operators were selected as the preferred builders to handle the six zones. There was a huge improvement. But still, as time went on because waste management had gone beyond just packing of waste, the governor at a point said he was not satisfied with what had been done even though people were no longer seeing refuse dumps and people were commending us. But we knew our target so we decided to disband the private sector operators.

Now, we are trying to experiment again, because what we want is house to house collection. The reason you have people dump their refuse somewhere is that there is no mechanism that would ensure that those agencies will go to the house to pick up the waste. As we speak, no resident of Aba will tell you that he has paid the ASEPA fee. It was intentional. We wanted to achieve results first; we wanted to give people what they needed first before we began to tax them. So we are making progress in that aspect.
Then you look at the area of road infrastructure. Strategic roads have been awarded. They are being executed and every new road comes with streetlights. We are very intentional about things we are doing. There are a whole lot of things that we are doing, and you can see from the commendations of the people that they are happy. Our projects speak for themselves, and that’s one good thing about delivering projects that serve the people, you don’t need to advertise anything. Just do the work and the people will see and commend you.

What about the area of healthcare? What are you doing to ensure that Abians get quality healthcare?

Of course, that’s another area that we declared a state of emergency. We identified general hospitals that must be rebuilt and retrofitted and we are doing it. You can see the diagnostic center here, before we came it was abandoned. But, of course, we swung into action, renovated the place, and bought some equipment. We are not, where we want to be, but it is a work in progress.
As we speak, the governor has made more appointments. We have someone in charge of primary healthcare, we have someone in charge of insurance, we have somebody in charge of the hospital management board, we have a special advisor on health. It is no longer only the commissioner, we have decentralized so that all these people can come together and look at the challenges confronting our health sector and be able to confront it head on.

You look at ABSUTH, we have done reasonable work there, but we are also not where we want to be. That is the essence of the 2024 budget, because after education, health received the second highest allocation. It is intentional. We have a plan to build a medical village that will have everything.

During the campaigns, the governor repeatedly said he was going to build a world-class medical village. According to him, at that time, Nigeria was spending $1.6bn annually on medical tourism. So, he said that our target is just 10% of that money, which is N160 billion. Besides providing the necessary medical equipment and providing the necessary medical equipment for our Abians, people will also come from different parts of the country and Africa to this medical village, and we will generate revenue. These are some of the things that we are doing in the health sector. We are rebuilding our health institutions. The process is on to rebuild the general hospitals in the state. The one in Aba is almost completed. So, we are very intentional about the things we want to do in our health sector because we had a situation, where the FMC was terribly overstretched. The public hospitals that belong to the state government had collapsed. But now that we have the opportunity, we want to solve these problems.

Is there any summary of this target in terms of where we are headed?

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Of course, the target is to take Abia to a level, where it will be a positive reference point, be it in health, education, infrastructure or security. For example, if you look at the Lokpanta axis, before we came here, kidnappers, bandits, or whatever name they were called, took over the entire place. They were building a very powerful enclave for themselves; a very strong criminal architecture was being erected. People were being kidnapped, women were being raped people were being killed for ritual purposes.  Organ harvesters were also doing horrible things there.

Initially, when we disclosed this, some people, who believe in politicizing everything, said we were lying. They said we should show evidence, but we are a government and we have to be very intentional about the things we say, and the things we show to the public. We knew what was going on there; we knew that people were being killed. We talked about the decomposed bodies, the skeletons, and other things discovered there,  but some people insisted that we were lying. We ignored them.

However, we knew we had to manage the situation very well, such that we would not be inciting our people against people from a particular section of the country, especially, when we knew that the Lokpanta axis hosts mainly people from the North, who bring their cattle to the south to sell. It took Al Jazeera, which did a comprehensive report on what happened there for people to finally understand. They used their drones to capture images of the entire place. They provided pictures and everything, so people now shut their mouths.

To solve the problem of Lokpanta and other security threats in the state, a few months after assumption of office, the governor launched a joint security operation codenamed Operation Crush. Vehicles were provided, and resources were committed for the operation to be effective. In fact, as we speak, the government is committing a lot of resources to sustain the operation, because providing security is not the sole responsibility of the federal Government. As a government, we are in charge of this state and our utmost priority is to protect the lives and properties of our people.

The security operatives went into action and started intelligence gathering. That’s how we were able to trace what was happening at Lokpanta. We realized that the cattle market was also a factor, because it was not a market that people come during the day and leave in the evening. The traders lived there, but that’s not how markets function.  The government came up with a policy that all the people trading there must go and rent houses to live. We decided that the market must be a daily market. You come there in the morning and trade, and by 5pm or 6pm, you go to your house.

That way we will be able to know, who is doing what, because through intelligence gathering, it was discovered that some of the atrocities were committed from there. However, they were not the only people, and as far as we are concerned, we try not to make it a sectional thing. Whether the criminals are from the North or South or East or West, they are criminals.

Although, like I said earlier, there was some resistance, people tried to trivialize it. They try to make it about religious or tribal things, but we knew we were sincere. Calls came from different parts of the country to put pressure on the government, but the governor insisted that this is purely a security matter, and it is our obligation to protect the lives and property of the people.

The government decided to profile the people there, fence the market, and turn it into a daily market, where you come in the morning and go in the evening. We also discovered in the course of our investigations that there were people in the market who were unknown to the market leadership. At a point, the market leadership began to realize that the government has a good intention.
Today, if  you see the pictures coming out of the place, you will be happy. As we speak, the entire place, which is a massive place, is being fenced and security has been restored. Don’t forget that it was there that the Prelate of the Methodist Church was kidnapped in 2022 or thereabout. And the church was alleged to have paid N100 million as ransom for his release.  It was not the state government that released him, it was not the state government that paid the ransom. But if the state government had done what it was supposed to do, the man would not have been kidnapped in the first place. What we are doing is to restore normalcy. That’s what we are doing in the area of insecurity generally.
Now if you look at education, which received the highest allocation, 20%, in the 2024 budget, a feat only a few states in Nigeria have ever matched, we have started awarding contracts. We first had to do the necessary needs assessment. Then afterward we came up with a template to build modern schools. We either build new structures or reconstruct existing ones, but they must have all the components of a modern school. We want to ensure that our public schools are well-run. Where it is necessary to have a dormitory we build them. We have to build staff quarters, security posts and the rest of them.

As I speak, the government has awarded contracts for 10 primary schools for each local government. We have 17 local governments, so that’s 170 schools in total. The governor has also awarded contracts for three secondary schools in each local government. We are very intentional to ensure a holistic turnaround of our education sector.

Again, we have a policy, which has seen this government increase the retirement age of teachers from 60 to 65. We have just implemented it. This is a way of encouraging our teachers. On assumption of office, we had a situation, where teachers had abandoned the classrooms because they were not being paid salaries. They moved to the ministries, where they would receive pay. The previous government had a policy in which they divided workers into what they called core and non-core civil servants.

For them, non-core civil servants were those in schools like ABSUTH, School of Health Technology, Abia State College of Education, and the rest of them. The people there were owed 20 to 30 months salary arrears by the previous government. They were only paying some persons in the ministries, so the teachers abandoned the classrooms completely. That was the situation we met.  We had to come up with a policy to encourage our teachers to go back to the classrooms. If you were employed ab initio as a teacher, you have to go back to the classroom. But the government does not intend to force people. The idea is to use incentives to encourage them to go back to the classrooms. If originally you were a teacher, you would always have that desire to teach, all you need is just to be encouraged.
So, the governor has already directed the commissioner for education Dr. Uche Eme Uche, to come up with recommendations that would see to the improvement of the welfare of teachers. Like I said, the retirement age of 65 years has already been approved. We are doing a whole lot of things to turn this place around for the good of everybody.

On our way here, we passed the iconic Golden Guinea Brewery. It used to be the leading brand in Eastern Nigeria. What is your administration doing to bring it back?

We have a policy to revive all our moribund industries. Like the Golden Guinea you mentioned, even though it is now a private entity, but as you rightly said, it is iconic. All the businesses and manufacturing concerns that were abandoned in the past, the governor has given a directive to the honorable commissioner for trade, commerce, and industry, to assess the challenges confronting them. He has since swung into action. Look, at the Enyimba Hotel that was built by the late Sam Mbakwe, but was abandoned by subsequent administrations, for instance. It is an iconic building that was built a long time ago, but go and look at it now, it still looks like something that was built a few years ago. We are looking at all the industries, the glass industry, Modern Ceramics, and so on.

We have discovered that the materials used for the modern ceramics are not available, where the company is located, so we are looking to build another one in another part of the state, where you have access to the raw materials. We are taking holistic measures to revamp those industries. We can reform or build new ones. We know that some of them have challenges of debt and all that. So, we are looking at those we can resuscitate.
For example, Enyimba Hotel was privatized, but the way it was done was not proper. We are negotiating to recover the place. The Golden Guinea that you mentioned was also privatized. I think it was bought over by Okey Nzenwa, but you could see that not much is happening there at the moment. We don’t know what the challenges are but we have started looking at the situation. It is a company we cannot allow to rot away. We are looking at reviving a lot of these industries and that’s part of why we are putting a lot of efforts in infrastructure. When we revive these industries, people will be employed and wealth will be created. So, we are paying much attention to those moribund industries, and we’re going to get them revived.

We are already building a trailer park there. We got the land compensated the communities. We are building the  park, so that all those trailers that block the road will move into that place.

Look at the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, what the federal Government is doing there is because of our commitment. We started and got the minister of works, David Umahi to intervene. Umahi came here twice, we pleaded with him, and because they have also seen our sincerity and seriousness, it was easy for us to convince them to do the project. Then, Port Harcourt Road, which is being done by Julius Berger is a strategic Road that with the congest those areas, so that those, who want to travel to Port Harcourt will use it. That area was very strategic. It a lot of establishments like the Crystal Palace Hotel of the old Imo State, which used to be the most popular hotel, but everything collapsed due to ineptitude of government.

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If you look at the Government House, the roads and everything, you will know that it was abandoned for years. When we came here, we met 907 civil servants working in Government House alone, and these people were doing absolutely nothing. I’m not saying that our people shouldn’t be employed, but you could see that it was an intentional fraud established to extort the government. They will employ you and you think they wanted to help you, but what they did was to saturate the payroll with names of fake people so that when they pay you N60,000, they will collect N30,000. That’s what they were doing. And that was why when they were leaving they disappeared with almost everything. Everything here, from tables to refrigerators to air conditioners, they took.

Look all the vehicles as well. I’m not even talking about official vehicles for individuals, but vehicles for ministries to do their jobs. They disappeared with them. Have you seen a situation where government purchased dozens of Hilux vehicles but people disappeared with them? And when you ask, they will say the governor gave them. Is it the job of the governor to be giving out Hilux sold for N35m and N40m? The construction equipment that you talked about, that was how the disappeared with everything.
There is an agency called Abia State Road Maintenance Agency, it took serious intervention to begin to identify the few equipment that we were able to recover. They sold the equipment to private individuals. Some were recovered from outside the state. But when we say these things, people think it is politics.
However, like the governor said when he was setting up the judicial panel of inquiry, we must ensure that the right things are done. He said that those, who will succeed us will also have their own reasons to set up a judicial panel of inquiry, and that is why we must conduct ourselves honorably.
So, my mindset is that every single thing here that was bought with public funds belongs to the government. The day I will be leaving here, I will carry my bag and go. The official car that was given to me is not my personal car. If I save money from whatever they are paying me to buy my own car, then I  will know that it is my personal car. But here, people disappeared with refrigerators, televisions, and so on. Do you know how many appointees you have in government for the government to start releasing funds to for all these things to be replaced? It looked as if we were inheriting a newly created state. What we are doing is that the ones we can recover, we recover, the ones we can’t, we move on. The most important thing is for us to correct this mess; to change the narrative so that the people who will succeed us will have a formidable structure.

Then the issue of extortion in our secondary schools, of course that cannot be tolerated. We have already stopped that process. Schools have been warned that if any staff engages in extortion will be punished. These are government schools being funded by the government.  So you do not have any right to impose any levy on our students. We are very intentional about that, and if you look at what we have done in the education sector, you will see that we want to quickly restore sanity. Our schools that were suspended from taking WAEC and JAMB, most of them have been restored. They have seen the direction we are going. For example, some private schools had earlier been closed down. We had a situation where people will come to their compound and open one small place and say it is a school. We said no, there has to be a standard. But the best way to do that is to rebuild public schools. When that is done, you will see that some of this so-called private schools with naturally disappear.

I commend you for the payment of compensation. I know because a lot of people close to me were affected by the demolition along Aba Road and Umuahia market by the previous government….?

Of course payment of compensation is what we should do, that is why we are a government. You know, sometimes when you are in government, you forget that you are also a human being; you refuse to put yourself on the shoes of others. But we are not behaving that way. We know that those buildings were built many years ago, and those who built them were using them as a means of survival. So, if you demolish them without paying compensation, you are indirectly to telling those people to go and die.

 

 

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