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Mbah: Enugu’s new sheriff navigates rough terrain

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Mbah: Enugu's new sheriff navigates rough terrain

Scorned by many who felt that the election that produced him fell below standard, Enugu State governor, Peter Mbah, had his job cut out from the get go. And nine months on, many in the state say they have seen enough to believe that his administration will be a departure from the immediate past.

“Mbah is gradually endearing himself to the masses,” said Nnamdi Nnaji, a community youth leader in Amechi, Nkanu. “You know initially he lacked wide acceptance because people believed that he rigged himself into power, but that is changing.

“He started his reforms. He blocked almost all the avenues politicians used to siphon government’s money and introduced a central and digital means of payment, among other things. He’s doing well.”

Mbah’s predecessor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, showed flashes of brilliance in his initial years as governor. He dualized the Opi-Nsukka road, reconstructed roads within the metropolis, among others, but generally failed to impress many, who insist Enugu regressed under his watch, from the heights it attained under Sullivan Chime, his own predecessor.

Chime, as governor, embarked on massive infrastructural development within the Enugu metropolis and beyond, such that by 2009, Enugu prided itself as one of the capital cities in Nigeria with impeccable road network. Social life also returned, as the then governor himself, surely loved to party. But things were markedly different under Ugwuanyi, such that by the time another election was due in 2023, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had become unpopular in the state it had held firmly since 1999.

Many argue that but for the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to renege on its own guidelines for the conduct of the 2023 polls, Mbah, may have been back in Lagos running Pinnacle, an indigenous Oil and Gas Company he founded in 2004, while the Labour Party could have had Enugu as its second state after Abia, with its candidate, Chijioke Edeoga, presiding over at Lion Building, the state’s seat of power.

The Labour Party wave, which swept across the Southeast geopolitical zone and beyond on the back of the Obidient Movement, was poised to sweep the PDP out of the state it had controlled unchallenged since 1999 when Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani, became governor, and Mbah, then candidate of the party, who may have envisioned himself as governor once he emerged candidate, sensing danger, embarked on desperate last minute campaign, which included visiting churches to plead for support. But it seemed too little too late.

However, an opening perhaps came following the presidential and national assembly elections, which first held on February 25, during which INEC reneged on its promise to upload polling units results in real time, giving room for what many believed was a manipulation of the electoral process in favour of Bola Tinubu, now the country’s president.

Although the Labour Party swept Enugu on the day of presidential election, with Peter Obi, its presidential candidate securing over 90 percent of the votes, the electoral reforms many thought was the answer to the perennial manipulation of votes in the country, had shown clear vulnerabilities and politicians cashed in on March 18 when the governorship and state assembly elections were held.

In the Enugu governorship election, Mbah, buoyed by a new wave of solidarity in his Nkanu constituency, influenced by a rather thoughtless claim by Okey Ezea, who had just won the Enugu North senatorial seat under Labour Party, that the governorship election was a superiority contest between Nkanu and Nsukka cultural zones; as well as the rallying of the state’s power brokers, ultimately emerged victorious by the slimmest of margins. But it was an election that many argue was anything but credible.

In line with the rotation principle that guides Enugu politics, it was the the turn of Enugu East senatorial district to produce governor in 2023. Nnamani from Agbani in Nkanu land, Enugu East, had been governor from 1999 to 2007, and handed over to Chime from Udi in Enugu West district, who subsequently handed over to Ugwuanyi from Orba, Nsukka in Enugu North district.

In 2023, therefore, although both Edeoga and Mbah are from Enugu East, the zone billed to produce governor, the former is culturally Nsukka, and the argument became whether he could take the slot of the senatorial zone, which has an overwhelming Nkanu majority.

Those who argued in his favour contended that Isi Uzo on account of its unique position as an Nsukka cultural community in an Nkanu dominated senatorial zone, had faced years of neglect, and electing Edeoga governor could go a long way in addressing the perceived marginalisation. However, those who argued to the contrary, contended that being culturally Nsukka, he could not succeed an outgoing Nsukka governor in Ugwuanyi, as that would mean short-changing Nkanu people.

While this argument remained mostly in the background initially, it became mainstream following Senator Ezea’s highly divisive claim, as captured in a video that went viral, that electing Edeoga governor was a way for Nsukka to demonstrate their superiority over Nkanu. His claim caused tension in the days leading up to March 18, and indeed shortly afterwards, as the contest stalled over claims and counter claims of manipulation, which prompted INEC returning officer to head to Abuja, where an agreement was sealed before he returned to eventually declare Mbah winner.

As governor, Mbah faced the inevitable legal battle, which included questions about the authenticity of his National Youth Service Corps Certificate (NYSC), raised by his Labour Party opponent. The legal challenge dragged all the way to the Supreme Court, with him emerging victorious. But he still faced the challenge of winning the support of the people, who felt he didn’t deserve his victory.

This, he’s perhaps presently confronting by focusing on delivering road and sundry projects within the state capital and beyond. And perhaps, as a way of addressing whatever grievances that might still persist in Isi Uzo, the governor recently announced plans to begin construction of 40 kilometers Owo – Ubahu – Amankanu – Neke – Ikem dual carriageway, and another 22 kilometers road to Eha Amufu, as well an army barracks to address insecurity in the council.
Opinions are shifting gradually, as many say Mbah has thus far demonstrated that he means business, even if certain challenges persist.

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“The governor is trying,” said Ukamaka Asogwa, a teacher based in Abakpa area of the state. “At least, we have water now, but it’s not regular. It stopped running for days before it came on again two days ago. But generally, I’ll say he’s working. He’s constructing roads. The challenge now is that dust is killing us everywhere and traffic is also a big problem because roads are blocked.”

On his campaign trail Mbah promised to resolve the acute water scarcity challenge in Enugu within his first 180 days in office, and on Saturday November 25 last year, he inaugurated 120 million litres of water supply scheme, comprising 70 million litres of water scheme in the 9th Mile area of the state, and 50 million litres at the Oji River area.

The projects, according to the governor, had the capacity to deliver 120 million litres of water daily to the Enugu metropolis and its suburbs.

Since the commissioning, however, water remains a huge challenge in Enugu metropolis and beyond. Many parts are yet to be covered, and places covered don’t get regular supply.

“The water he promised, he delivered but not as people expected because there’s still acute water scarcity in Enugu metropolis,” Nnaji said.

“I have a contact at water corporation, who said that the reason the problem persisted is because the pipes sunk underground did not cover many places. That some layouts were uninhabited when the pipes were buried thus they have to bury new pipes to cover such areas. And also that some of the ungrounded pipes have decayed thus need replacement.

“He told me that this dry season will signal the end of water scarcity in Enugu. He is equally constructing a lot of roads simultaneously.”

Dan Nwomeh, the Senior Special Assistant on Media to the governor, also confirmed to Business Hallmark that the challenge has been that of distribution, as according to him, the pipes were busting. He, however, assured that the government is working to resolve it by laying new pipes.

“Before now, what we had was occasional 2m to 2.2m litres a day in Enugu. That was the situation we met in Enugu as at May 2023, but today, daily production levels have hit 120m litres per day,” Nwomeh said.

“The government has been able to deliver water from 9th Mile and Oji River water schemes to Enugu city. It took a lot to achieve this. We’re talking about generation and transmission – those two aspects have been dealt with.

“However, when we generate water and transmit to reservoirs in the city, you then have to distribute. When we started distributing, we noticed that pipes were busting everywhere in Enugu. This is the challenge we’re dealing with now. Those pipes are now being excavated and replaced.

Some of these pipes were laid during the colonial era, so they are old. They are now being replaced. So, the issue we’re dealing with now is distribution, not generation or transmission.”

Insecurity

Coming to power, insecurity was one key challenge waiting for the new helmsman. The Monday sit-at-home order enforced by a band of gunmen claiming to be loyalists of the detained leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, had threatened to cripple commerce in Enugu and other states of the Southeast. In Uzo Uwani, Isi Uzo, among other places, herdsmen wreaked havoc and prevented farmers from accessing their farms.

The governor upon assuming office, declared an end to sit-at-home, and got the federal government to deploy solders across the state to forestall possible attacks by the gunmen. It achieved results.

“Something must have made him declare an end to the sit-at-home menace that had previously disrupted economic and social activities in the State because it’s on record that since he declared the end to it, the dreaded unknown gun men have not attacked anyone in the State for coming out on Mondays,” remarked Emeka Ude, a business owner at Garki.

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The sit-at-home menace has, indeed, eased across the region, but attacks and abductions by herdsmen and other criminal elements continue to reoccur. Recently, the governor proposed to establish a ranch in Uzo Uwani, one of the hotbeds of the herders attacks, as a way of resolving the issue, but the move has been staunchly opposed by the people of the area, IPOB and, indeed many in Enugu and beyond who insist that no land in the region should be ceded to herders.

Regarded as stubborn by some, Mbah has not let opposition to any policy he thinks necessary dissuade him, but the ranch proposal could be one hot topic he may have to think twice about, given the deep seated sentiments involved.

Economic Reforms

Unable to separate politics and governance, one of the Achilles heel of Mbah’s predecessor, Ugwuanyi, was dedicating a chunk of the state’s resources to attend to “stakeholders” of the state, but Mbah has shunned this practice and brought professionalism in governance.

“One thing I love about him is that he has sort of retired Enugu so-called stakeholders,” Nnaji said. “I heard he told them plainly that his contract is with Enugu people.”

Tax reforms have been introduced, and revenue leakages blocked.

“He blocked almost all the avenues politicians used to siphon government’s money and introduced a central and digital means of payment,” explained Nnaji.

“Korope mini bus and other commercial commuters were made to pay directly to the coffers of the state government, thereby drastically reducing the work of touts at the parks.

“I heard too that his commissioners are groaning because it’s not business as usual. All the avenues that were opened in the past for them to amass wealth have been effectively blocked.

“Workers are groaning too because he takes attendance to work, especially on Mondays, very serious. There was a month he penalised workers, who skipped work on Mondays by slashing their salary.”

But complaints about increased tax burden have grown loud. Recently, tipper drivers staged protests about the hike of their pay for a trip of sand from N500 to N1,000, even as traders have groaned about their annual taxes being hiked. But the governor’s spokesperson, Nwomeh, argues that the complaints are unfounded, noting that it’s because the people of Southeast are generally not used to paying taxes.

“It depends on how you look at it,” Nwomeh said. “Let me give an example. Shop owners, say in Ogbete Market for instance, were paying maybe N2,000 a year to government as tax, and then government raises it to N21,000, translating to N1,750 a month, and maybe that’s not up to N70 a day, and that’s what you are calling tax burden. The truth is that our people are not used to paying taxes, and when you make them to pay tax, they will start complaining.”

Education/ Health/Community Devt

The Mbah administration has come under criticism for what many in the communities have alleged is forceful takeover of their lands. But this is mostly on account of the administration’s inability to do adequate sensitisation as it embarks on community development projects.

To enhance education, the administration says it is building 260 smart schools across the state, with each community getting one. Similarly, the administration says it is building same number of health centres in communities across the state.

But as tractors move in to clear lands for these projects, tension have risen, with communities accusing those involved of land grabbing. This, Nwomeh said is borne out of ignorance.

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“Government wants to bring you a smart school in your community. Government cannot just enter a community and take lands. But you know that even the Land Use Act empowers the government to take land for the overriding interest of the public,” he said.

“Building a school is in the interest of the public. The government proposed a policy of building 260 smart schools round the state, that is one for each community. But the government is not going to come and take land by themselves, it is the people of your town that know your town well that will show government where they have decided that the smart school should be built, unless the community is saying that they don’t need a smart school.

“Government is doing so many other things, such as roads. The government is trying to build 260 health centres across the state, government is building smart schools, and the aim is that the smart schools will be better than private schools.”

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