Orji

With about N4billion Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) annually, and about N25 billion federal allocation in a year, Ebonyi State is one of the least revenue earning states in Nigeria. However, with this little, the government of Ebonyi State under the leadership of Engr. David Umahi has performed wonders in infrastructural development.

Business Hallmark’s OBINNA EZUGWU visited Abakailiki to have a ask the state’s Commissioner for Information, Mr Uchenna Orji how the state is government is able to achieve so much with so little, among other things.

Excerpts:

We have gone around to see what the government of Ebonyi is doing. The projects are quite impressive. Ebonyi has little resources in terms of federal allocation and IGR. What is the magic?

The magic is simple. It’s highest level of probity and accountability, highest level of transparency, highest level of compliance with the principle of fiscal responsibility and procurement. The magic is also 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. 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.

Let me emphasis again that he drives his strength from God. This is a governor that holds prayer session every night to worship God and sing praises to Him. He is always challenging God to do more for us and God has always responded. These are the factors that work in his favour. But I must as well point out that he has also devised a supervision process that is second to none in the country. He is not God, but he has eyes on all the 171 wards in the state. He has eyes on all the 13 local government areas in the state and the entire communities in the state. He has people he appointed to monitor education, infrastructure, environment, health facilities and all of that. Through this robust monitoring and evaluation, everybody strives to do his own bit to ensure that he delivers.

In Ebonyi, the emphasis is on service, not on acquisition of wealth; not one personal aggrandisement. It is on delivering service to the people. The orientation he has given to our people is that we should take public service as if it is our personal business, such that you must always ensure that you deliver. This has defined us. I can say again that he has a very large heart. This is a man who de-emphasises tribalism. He de-emphasises ethnicity and any form of discrimination. He emphasises oneness and unity of purpose. He takes every part of Ebonyi and everyone in Ebonyi as one people.

You have highlighted some of the factors that have helped him achieve what we are seeing, but in the end you are going to need to funds. How are you able to fund the projects? Is the government borrowing?

No, we are not borrowing. I have told you the secret. Let me tell you, what any other leader or governor would use N10 million to do, the governor would use N1million or less to do it. Apart from the fact that there is fiscal responsibility, he emphasises on quality. It is only here that you see roads being constructed with concrete pavements in eight inches that will last for 50 years. These are the things, and he does them with minimum amount. The passion is there. In terms of resources, we receive the least allocation. We are among the three states that receive least allocation. We also have minimal IGR. But we are gradually trying to tell our people that it’s no longer business as usual in terms of tax payment. The orientation of the people in terms of payment of tax is not good. But because of these elements I mentioned, he is overcoming the challenge.

Let me also say that the governor keys into every federal government programme, the SIPs; all the empowerment programmes of the federal government, all the CBN intervention programmes, the soft loans to farmers. And through the governor’s ingenuity, he tries to ration it in such a way that he doesn’t owe anyone.

As I speak with you, he doesn’t owe any contractor. I tell you again, he has a mechanism for checking these contractors. What he does is to ensure that once you achieve a certain milestone, you are paid. Contractors who are coming here – and of course, most of them, about 80 percent are indigenes – know that they are coming to deliver. Yes, we de-emphasise capital flight, we don’t patronise expatriates, we are engaging our people, the skilled labour we have we are investing in our construction work. That’s some of our secrets.

Part of the reason governments hire such companies as Julius Berger, Arab Contractors and so on is to ensure that projects are of good quality. Are you saying that the local contractors are as good?

If you are thinking that the expatriates have more skill and ingenuity than you, then it means you don’t know who you are. Here in Ebonyi, we know we have very capable persons. We know that, given the passion and the environment, we are much better than the expatriates. Here we believe that we are better than the expatriates. Our governor is a civil engineer who has been in construction for years. That is what he has brought with him. The few expatriates that we are bringing in are only coming so that we can diffuse ideas. Apart from this, the indigenous people are doing the work. We have people that are mentoring them. The mentorship programme we have is such that through the governor who is a seasoned civil engineer, we have trained many people in the field of construction. We are getting it right. Where we need the kind of skill we may not have yet, we invite expatriates and pay them. And of course, we learn from them in the process. The governor has a mentorship scheme whereby the civil engineers, the mechanical engineers and even those in accounting are being trained. They understudy some of these expats such that they learn on the job after which the governor empowers them. As I speak with you, many of the companies operating here are indigenous companies. They are doing the work in line with the governor’s specifications. The governor has specifications. I don’t think there is any engineer anywhere in the world that is better than him. So, why are we going to rely on expatriates?

Is this the way to go for Nigeria generally? In terms of looking at local content?

That is the number one secret, and that’s the way to go. Local content is very important. We should try to build capacity, which is key. We are talking about human capital development. In Ebonyi, our idea of that is developmental empowerment, financial empowerment and psychological empowerment. So that you don’t think that someone from China is better than you. That is what the governor has injected in our psyche. We are believing in ourselves. Yes, this is the way to go for there not to be capital flight. We should engage the semi skilled, the unskilled and skilled labour within our environment. That way, we are going to reduce unemployment.

You said you are now trying to make the people understand that in terms of tax payment, it is no longer business as usual. One complaint that the people we have interacted with have is that they are being over taxed?

I think that you interviewed the wrong persons; persons that may not be happy with the progress we are making here. 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.

If you look at the Southeast generally, IGR is low in all the states. Even in Anambra where you have up to three centers of commerce, it is still relatively low. Do you feel it’s because tax culture is somewhat alien to the people? I mean, I’m not sure anyone would contemplate land use charge in many places here?

That’s exactly what I am saying, coupled with the fact that before the coming on board of the current administration, people were evading tax with impunity. Then, there was oil boom, unlike now that oil price is low and we are struggling with recession. So, the government at time didn’t mind that people were not paying taxes. But now, the basic elements of revenue generation have been set up. It’s not surprising that some people will say, ‘it’s not the way we used to it under the past administration.’ This is because certain basic elements in tax regime have been fixed, and I can tell you that it is still lower than what is obtained in other states in the Southeast.

Part of this could be that Ebonyi is still a young state; the youngest in the Southeast…?

Yes, it the youngest state in the zone, created in 1996. And of course, the greater percentage of the population are peasant farmers.

This brings us to another question. Apart from building infrastructure, what effort is the government making to create jobs?

The governor’s idea, and the government’s idea about job creation is not giving peanuts; it’s not civil service. This is because N30 000 minimum wage cannot make you rich. The governor’s idea about job creation is wealth creation; to make you an employer of labour by empowering you. The governor has introduced a lot of empowerment programmes. I can say that Ebonyi State has the highest empowerment profile in the Southeast. He trained and empowered 3000 youths and women with N250,000 each. That is N750 million. And it is grant, not to be paid back. The governor went to Lagos and saw Eboyians hawking and said, ‘this cannot continue to be.’ He had to get 520 youths trained and empowered with N130 million, again N250,000 each. The governor came back to Ebonyi and looked at some barrow pushers and Okada rider. He shortlisted over 400 of them, bought TVS tricycles, (Keke) at N650,000 each at the total cost of over N260 million and gave to these youths free of charge. That included 140 youths from Onitsha who were into barrow pushing, some were into IPOB business. When they renounce their IPOB membership, they were given these tricycles. The programme is called Street to Skill Empowerment Programme. You are taken away from the street, given a skill and empowered.

The governor also went to the security organisations in Ebonyi, the federal security outfits: the police the civil defence, prisons, immigration road safety, army and so on. He shortlisted 403 women, wives of security officials. The governor’s idea is that these people who are working hard for our safety and security should be assisted. They were given N200,000 each. That came to N80.6 million. Of course, they were trained on agric related businesses.

The governor has also introduced another scheme called the Second Address Scheme. This is to the effect that if you are a public servant, you should have a second address in farming, either at the primary, secondary or tertiary production.

The governor shortlisted about 5008 clergymen and said, ‘No if you continue to preach without having a second address, you may have an issue.’ He empowered them with a total of N.58 billion. They went into farming and other businesses. The governor returned initiated a scheme where widows who have nobody to help them in each of the wards in the state, the poorest of the windows, he got 4300 of them in each of these wards and empowered them with N100,000 each. That came to N400.3 million.

The governor went further in 2016 when I was commissioner for agriculture, to engage 53, 000 farmers and keyed them into the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) empowerment programme. Each of them was reviving a facility, including cash and inputs worth N250,000. The governor’s idea is that N250,000 is the economic cost of production for one hectare of land. It’s the economic cost of production for starting simple poultry farm. It’s the cost for starting simple fish farm. The governor empowered over 53,000 people this way. It is a facility. There is a buying back system whereby off-takers are raised and they will now buy the produce and the farmer will pay in cash or with the produce. The next year, the person would key into the programme again. That has empowered many people. If you multiply 53,000 by four years plus, you will have an idea of the quantum of money injected into the economy of Ebonyi State. These are the empowerment programmes that the governor is pursuing to see how entrepreneurs can be created, so that these people can become employers of labour. As I said earlier, the governor keys into every programme of the federal government, especially the social investment programmes by stepping them down and ensuring that he pays his own counterpart funding.

The governor also has a programme with the community social development agency, a World Bank programme. But he pays his counterpart funds on yearly basis. Through this programme, thousands of women and youths have been empowered. Communities have been empowered to go into projects that will bring about revenue generation like hospitals, schools, civic centres and all of that. That has helped to empower the communities and has served as avenues for community development. The governor is also giving out N10 million to each autonomous community for projects. We have about 150 autonomous communities in Ebonyi, if you multiply that by N10 million, it is a huge sum. The government of Ebonyi State is also working with International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) value chain development agency. It is also working with FADAMA 3 to capture farmers, empower them, engage them in skill acquisition programmes and all of that. Beyond that, the government has a programme that is called. Ebonyi State Stimulus Development Project.
The programme is an online system whereby all those who are into entrepreneurship programmes, all those who are professional in medicine, economics, teachers and so on enrol. They would be interviewed and they have the opportunity of assessing between N1million and N250 million each, in some cases grant; in some cases facility, especially when the money is higher than N1 million. This programme is ongoing and the governor wants to use it to capture all the people who are interested in investing. The only condition is that you must invest in Ebonyi State. Our idea is that with time, only few people who really want to serve that would like to join the public service. But if you want to make money, you leave public service and go to business. That’s what the government is doing and it is paying off.

The governor also has a mentorship programme where he appointed about 1000 executive assistants, technical assistants and senior technical assistants. These are young men and women whom the governor is grooming to see how they can take over the administration of Ebonyi State in the future. They are receiving training from the governor. Sometimes they will attend executive council meeting.
By the the way, the governor has appointed over 90 exco members, highest in Nigeria. The idea is for them have the opportunity to interact with members of the executive council to learn such that they will be able to take over tomorrow.

You said the emphasis should no longer be in public service employment but entrepreneurship. But you are still employing this number of people. Are you not pilling up cost of governance?

No, we are talking about grooming leadership. It costs money to groom leaders; leaders who have the capacity and the passion to work. That’s what the government is doing. Like I said, these leaders that are being groomed now are helping the government achieve its goals through the monitoring and evaluation processes. They are part of the people monitoring government programmes and projects at all levels. That’s why they are many. But the most important thing is that they are learning. You talked about civil service. Yes, you need to also know that the government of Ebonyi State has empowered civil servants a lot. The government has released a total of N4 billion for the empowerment of civil servants. This time, it’s soft loan, not grant. Soft loan in the sense that you tell us your grade level, when you are going to retire. The loan will be given in such a way that over the period you continue to pay. It’s not harsh. Some got N500,000, some N1 million. The minimum was about N250,000. The programme is still ongoing and the governor intends to inject another N2 billion.

The governor is also doing a lot in the area of entrepreneurship development programme. He is working with the CBN, the Bank of Industry. His idea is that under the economic development principle, those in vocational activities, that is, the artisans, will be pulled out from the streets to be trained, retrained and empowered to do their businesses better. The idea is that these people will be certified, and that’s why the government introduced the school system called the Vocational Institute.

This Vocational Institute is a formal school of government whereby students will be trained in various vocational activities for a period of time, depending on the nature of their vocation. When they are trained, they will be empowered – of course, working with our development partners – to go into various businesses of their choice. It is only when these people are made to have something doing that we can say that we are economically developed. And I can say that the governor’s vision is that Ebonyi State will by 2023, be the economic hub of the South East.

Ebonyi is known for its rice, the Abakailiki Rice; its salt and limestone. There is the federal government attention to rice production. As a state with an advantage in this regard, what are you doing to improve rice production?

Our programmes in the area of agricultural development are very robust. Upon coming on board in 2015, the government initiated a lot of agricultural development programmes. First, the government increased the capacity of our rice mill. Today, as I speak we have the largest rice mill owned by a state government in the whole Nigeria. There are three in number that have a total of 24 metric tonne capacity per hour. And we have a parboilling plant that feeds it, which has a total of 24 metric tonne capacity parboiling plant. Apart from this, the governor also procured four rice mills. Each of the four has four metric tonne capacity with a parboiling plant that has four metric tonne capacity per hour each. These ones were given to individuals or cooperatives who are now proud employers of labour. These are also located in very strategic local government areas, in addition to what we have.

Ebonyi State is known for Abakailiki rice. The place that gives is that name has over 1500 rice milling clusters. And in the Guinness Book of Record, it is the largest in Africa. A lot of progress have been made in the area of rice production. That was why, in 2017, Ebonyi was one of the three states that came tops in rice production in Nigeria as judged by the federal government. Again, the government also engaged in agricultural mechanisation, the use of farm machinery as opposed to the use of crude means. That way, the issue of drudgery in farming was reduced. Even public servants were made to key into agricultural programmes under what is called One Man One Hectare Programme. This programme is a compulsory initative for all public servants, all civil servants … everybody. If you must work with government, you should at least have one hectare of land or it’s equivalent. We have compulsory subject, rice production; compulsory subject, cassava production. Then we have electives. You can go into poultry or other areas. It’s like a subject. That is the way we have been doing it. And as I speak, we have the capacity to supply the processed rice need of the entire Southeast.

The governor also feels that there is need to improve in the yield of our rice, cassava and other agricultural products. He had to expand our fertilizer plant. It used to be less than 20 metric tonne per hour. Now it is 80 metric tonne per hour capacity fertilizer blending plant. It has the capacity to feed the entire Southeast in terms of the fertilizer need of the zone. The federal government has also acknowledged the importance and the capacity of this fertilizer blending company. We have been using it to key into the the rice programme of the federal government.

………

We also have what you call the pulverising machine that takes the waste from agriculture and from even the environment and converts them to wealth. It is a pulverising plant that has a total capacity of 200 metric tonne per hour. It is capable of taking all the agricultural waste and converts them to wealth. It is the biggest in the South East and one of the biggest in Nigeria.

The governor has done a lot in terms of mechanisation of agriculture. We had to introduce dry season farming. In Ebonyi State, we now have farmers who do both rainy season and dry season farming. That way, we are increasing the capacity and yield. Of course, the issue of using modern methods: the use of good fertilizer, technology, the use of other inputs like rice seedlings and all of that have all helped. We have liaised with IITA, we have liaised with NAIFO. We have liaised with so many other organisations to ensure that we improve in our product yield. We are also working with the College of Agriculture, Ishiagu. They have been giving us the personnel to raise our capacity in this regard.

Talking about infrastructure. We have seen a lot. There are the three flyovers and the beautiful environment of Abakailiki. What other things is the government doing?

Yes, you also need to know that the three flyovers are the biggest in the whole of the Southeast. One of them is bigger than anyone in the Southeast. And this was done within three years. The most beautiful flyovers anywhere in Nigeria. The governor’s target is to have Ebonyi in third place in the hierarchy of states with highest number of flyovers after Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
It looks strange, but that’s what we are doing; that shows vision in action. The least revenue earning state coming out to say that in the list of flyovers, we should be the third. How does he want to achieve it? He already has three gigantic flyovers, the biggest in the Southeast, the most beautiful in Nigeria. He has also started constructing another eight flyovers. Some will have about 27 span. One at Abaomege in Onicha local government area. It’s a complex one that connects us to Calabar and to parts of Afikpo. The people from Calabar are even using it more. All these big trucks are now passing through the place. It’s about 80 percent completed. There is another one at Ezzamgbo, the home of the former governor of Ebonyi State. It’s also a major town. That one is going to be over 17 span. In all of these, he is going to do two carriageway road construction. Another is at Nkalagu Junction, one is at Uburu Junction, Ohaozara. One is within the town here… there are about eight of them. The thing about them is that each one of them is longer than the longest flyover in Anambra State.

We have the Margret Umahi International Market that is located along the trans-sahara highway. It’s an African route, not federal road this time. It will link to Cameroon. We are saying that this market is going to be the single largest market in the Southeast. It’s almost completed.
The Akanu Ibiam flyover has a twin bridge. It has the one we call light tunnel. This light tunnel, there is none like it in Nigeria. It is about 29 span and has light shinning in the night. The moment you enter it, you see yourself in the shopping mall. The mall is the biggest mall ever built by any government, whether federal or state in the whole of Africa. It’s about 80 percent completed. By the time it is completed, it will be taken over by investors who will maximise its use.
The bridge also links to what you call the ecumenical centre. That ecumenical centre is very beautiful. It is the most beautiful ecumenical centre in Nigeria. And the biggest ecumenical centre built by a government. It has 10,000 capacity main bowl. And 2,000 capacity small bowl with a lot of facilities. It has offices, it has guest houses. It has lobby here and there. It’s like heaven on earth. It should be a tourist centre, that’s what we are going to canvass for, in addition to its spiritual importance.

The governor is also building an international airport. The airport has four kilometers by four kilometers in measurement. It is located at the central part of Ebonyi State. That’s the governor for you. He doesn’t say it must be in my place. He located it at the central place so that it would help to attend to the market need and tourist need of the entire Southeast. It is going to be the best in the zone and one of the best in Nigeria, fashioned after the international airport in Lagos and Abuja. Construction has commenced, approval has been obtained from President Muhammadu Buhari. And that makes our governor the first in the Southeast to secure approval from Buhari to build an international airport. The airport will generate a lot of jobs. It will enhance the value of land around the area, enhance tourism and even commercial activities.

I need to also inform you that we are also studying the air business of Ethiopia to see how we can tap into the business. We are expecting that the airport will give us a lot of advantages in terms of wealth creation, job creation and the development of our city. We are also doing a stadium. The stadium the governor has reconstructed is the best stadium in the Southeast. But the governor feels that it doesn’t befit the future of Ebonyi. He is doing another modern stadium. The idea is that it will attract athletes from within and outside the country. That way, our economy will improve.

There is international airport in Enugu, which is just a few kilometers to Ebonyi. So, what justifies another international airport in Ebonyi?

You need to know that the Ebonyi State government has done all the major federal roads linking the state. Here you see a state government doing federal government roads, talking about Enugu-Abakailiki Road, Afikpo Road, Uburu-Amasiri Road and all that. It used to take three hours to come to Ebonyi from Enugu, but now within 50 minutes you are in the farthest local government of Ebonyi State. I’m sure it doesn’t happen in any other state. Let me also tell you that in Ebonyi State, in the 13 local government areas, the governor has done 25 kilometers road. That’s about 300 kilometers road on concrete pavement. In the next 50 years we have no problem about roads in those areas. Ebonyi has gone global. These are the beautiful things that the governor is doing. I need to also tell you that the governor has done over 1200 kilometers road within the metropolis of the towns and satellite towns; talking about Abakailiki, Onueke, Afikpo and all that, including Obiozara. We also have the best environment of any state capital in the Southeast. We have most functional fountains of any state in Nigeria.

I tell you that we have a governor that can fix the power needs of the country. He has what we call streetlight scheme for every local government. They work nonstop for 12hours; from 6pm to 6am. It’s been like that for over three years. Ebonyi State has the most beautiful capital city in the country at the moment. Our capital city is already in the map of the societies of the world that have ‘light.’

Coming back to what you said about the airport in Enugu. We have airport in Owerri, we have airport in Asaba, then why must Ebonyi build another airport? Well, it’s because Ebonyi wants to lead. It’s wants to be the light of the nation which we are. We want to be the salt of the nation which we are. If Enugu can have an international airport, why can’t we? By the way, you see what is happening to Enugu International Airport. Assuming that Ebonyi international airport is there, would you have to go to Owerri? If you know the amount the governor is using to provide security to those coming to Ebonyi through Owerri Airport. So, when we have our own, it is our own. That’s how it is done in the most developed cities of the world. When you have these facilities in a place, they are the indices of economic development. We are thinking that any moment from now, we shall be importing directly anything that we need to import. We won’t need to go to Lagos or Enugu to buy anything. If we want to export, we will export from here. That’s the way to go. But most importantly, the economic importance of airport cannot be overemphasized. Tourism is very key. Anybody can fly from Europe directly to Ebonyi.

Southeast, geographically is not a very big place. Wouldn’t it have been better if the zone came together instead of individually?

If I am understand you very well, you are talking about regionalism or about….

Yes there was a time when the governors said they would work together to create economic zones?

Yes, you are talking about regionalism. We believe in and want to operate a federal system of government whereby each state will be independent. The point is that one day, this oil will become irrelevant, either because of new technologies or because of climate change. How do you survive when that happens? You want us to go and be parasites to Enugu State? Because Enugu is ahead in terms of state the economy. We need to use what we have to create what we want. Yes the economic zones are good, but we must also look at the things that can boost the economy of our state and we are going for them.