Interview

We want to change ways things are done in Abia – Prof. Ken Kalu, Abia SSG

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Professor Kenneth Kalu, the Secretary to the Abia State Government, has noted that the Dr. Alex Otti administration is determined to birth a new era in the state by changing the way things are done in the state.

Kalu who spoke in this interview with Business Hallmark, observed that the administration has accomplished commendable feats in its one year, but noted that the biggest challenge has been that of changing mindsets.

Excerpts:

How come there is a departure from what had become normal in Abia State?

I think the question is fairly simple. Many Abians were very disappointed with what was going on in the state in terms of infrastructure development and, indeed, everything about governance in the state. People were almost losing hope. If you say you are from Abia State elsewhere, they would be like, ‘Oh, sorry.’ It got that bad. At one time somebody was using Abia to give an example of a bad case on the floor of the national assembly.

For every normal person, who is from Abia, it should be a concern because it was almost like making a comment on the quality of people from Abia State. Mediocrity does not represent Abia State. Go to Aba, you will see our enterprising young men and women, who are doing great things. We have so many intellectuals; educated people playing big roles in various positions. But unfortunately, at that point, the main actors in the political space had a different orientation; a different philosophy that was painting Abia bad. But everything that has a beginning has an ending.

By the grace of God, somebody like Dr. Alex Otti came on board and said we are all ashamed of what is happening, let us change the direction of the state. And as you would expect, many like-minded individuals like all of us rallied around, because if somebody like Alex Otti could leave behind his good life in the private sector to try to serve the people, what would be our excuse?

He also understood that success in personal life is different from success in public life because your success as a person is different from how your state or society looks. So, you can be successful as a person, but the state you came from; the environment you came from is not succeeding, if you are somebody who has a good conscience, despite your own personal successes, you would still feel unhappy, because you want everybody else around you also to succeed.

So, he came out and rallied some of us, and those who came out and said, let’s give it a trial. Today, by the grace of God we are witnessing changes. That motivation is part of the reason that we have performed the way we have performed. We had seen it all in the last 24 years of retrogression, and we understood that we could not toe that path. So, the government is driven by a desire to really change the narrative for good; a desire to use governance as a machinery or a tool to create the prosperity that the people of Abia deserve. That is the philosophy of this administration.

All the people we have spoken to say that like the American, say we ain’t seen nothing yet. What are the expectations going forward?

Thank you again. Yes, the people who said you haven’t seen anything yet are correct because this is just our first one year, so we’re just getting started; the journey is just about to start. When you are coming from a negative, you have to come out of the negative first; it’s like you’re coming out from a hole, and it’s when you have come out to a flat surface that you begin to move. The hole is about being closed.

The civil servants that have not been paid for many months, those ones are now history. Pensioners, who have been owed for several months, that has also been taken care of. The hospitals that were in very bad state have been revived, and His Excellency is already looking beyond fixing the regular primary and secondary health centers to building a world-class medical village in Abia State. The plan is to change the trajectory of medical tourism in Nigeria, such that instead of people going to India and Dubai they would be coming to Abia State. So, yes, it is true that you haven’t seen anything yet.

About two or three weeks ago, the governor signed what we call the Dig Once Policy into law. It is an initiative that will ensure that we put the infrastructure in place, such as roads are being built you put a pipe that will have all the fiber optic cables from utility and telecom companies, so you don’t have to go and start breaking the roads because you want to pass a cable. We are looking beyond the basics.

When the vision is clear, somehow God has a way of providing the enablement or the resources to get it done. The vision is to change the idea of governance in Abia state; to let the people know that it is possible, that it can be done, and that governance can definitely be an instrument to create shared prosperity; to change the life of Abians for good.

Having come this far, what have been the teething challenges, and how are you overcoming them? 

From my perspective, it will be more in the mindset. You know mindset is often created when people get used to a certain way of life. They internalize it, that’s why they say people can be resistant to change. It is not that the change is bad, but because they are already used to certain ways of doing things. It is difficult for them to readjust. So, you have to work with civil servants who have been demotivated for the past several years, you have to change that story. For example, when you do staff verification to remove ghost workers, you see people from all over the place trying to frustrate it because they are already used to a bad system.

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So, change can be a problem for people. But what are we doing? We are embarking on public education; we are trying to make it clear to people that it is no longer business as usual. The other thing is that you may have a lot of things that you want to accomplish but you also need to raise the money; you have to generate the revenue. People would have to understand that the government operates with money. So, we are working on ways to improve the IGR of the state. I know that Abians are very nice people and are understanding, once they are seeing that good things are happening I believe everybody will key in and pay their fair share of taxes. I think the bigger challenge is changing the mindset.

We are looking to clean up the state, for instance. We started with the clean-up of Ohafia, then Aba and Umuahia. But the people will also have to understand that when you finish drinking your water, you don’t fling the bottle in the street; you don’t litter everywhere with bottles. So, we want to create an environment that looks like where decent people actually live.

Since your administration came on board one year ago, you have tried to initiate some reforms some of which you have mentioned like civil service reforms. But you know that in an environment like ours, the system always fights back when you try to initiate some key reforms. Are you not concerned about the pushback from the system? 

I think that pushback is a given, that’s why I talked about people being resistant to change. But we are propelled by that very strong desire to change the way the business of governance has been done over the last 24 years. There is something called self-motivation, once you have that intrinsic motivation to do what is right, the obstacles will come but you will find a way to deal with the obstacles. Of course, we have received a lot of pushback.

I was reading in the papers the other time, where people, who didn’t pay pensioners were complaining that the money that has been paid to pensioners by this administration is not enough. However, they didn’t remember to pay the pensioners at all, when they were in government, yet they are the ones, who are complaining that we did not pay them enough. So, these are the kinds of push-backs that you see. But one thing that is also happening that makes you feel happy when you go home is the testimonies from ordinary people.

Anywhere you go now and you say you are from Abia State, people will begin to clap, and this one is not politics. This was not the case in the past. Before now, people actually mocked those of us from Abia. So, that change of perception is already enough for people, who are right thinking. The people are asking whether it is possible;  they are asking, where the governor is getting the money from to do the project he has already done and commissioned and the project he is currently doing.

The Vice President (Kashim Shettima) was here to commission three roads in Aba, and he confessed that it was the first project he was commissioning since he became vice president. And of course, you know he’s from another party. It is not about party politics, people like good things even though not many people like to do good things. But when things are well done, people like it. So, it gives us satisfaction that people are happy with what we are doing. In Aba, roads that are being built have solar streetlights. Aba residents can’t really understand what is going on; that is the way it should be. What gives us joy is seeing people happy with what we’re doing. People are seeing that it is possible. So, when the pushback comes, you are strengthened by the goodwill of many people.

But where is the funding coming from, Abia is not a major oil producer, yet you see Julius Berger and other major firms handling projects in the state?

My boss, His Excellency Dr. Alex Otti says it is his trade secret. You know he is a finance person, so that’s his secret. Yes, people have often asked this question, where is this money coming from that you have Julius Berger,  CCECC, and other big contractors here that have turned Abia State into a construction site? But, that’s what we are saying, let the people speak because if you have to spend time explaining to people what you are doing, it means that you are not doing enough. Let what you are doing speak and not the government speaking about what they are doing.

But where the fund is coming from is His Excellency’s trade secret. Finance is his area of strength, and that’s why it is always important to put the right persons in positions of authority. That is what governance should be; Our leadership recruitment process needs to change. We have to find the right people to give them the right offices. This is what Abia State is teaching us.

We have moved around the state. People are generally impressed with what you have achieved in the first one year. But for someone who isn’t here and is wondering if it’s all hype, what would you say are the specifics? And what challenges have you encountered? 

So, talking about some of the major things we have done, we started with civil service reforms. We worked hard to identify the ghost workers so that we can ascertain the number of people, who are actually civil servants and not those, who just collect salaries. That’s on the soft side. On the hard side, we have built a number of infrastructure and I think that’s fairly clear: the roads that are being built all over the place. Those are achievements, but like we say it’s just the beginning of what we are trying to do. The idea is to build Abia in such a way that when people come here they will know they have come to a place that is well built.

Beyond those, there are also some other initiatives that are going on. We have a skill acquisition program for Abia youths so that people can gain knowledge that will help them navigate successfully in the global marketplace. The vision is fairly clear.
The challenges will be about people accepting that things are different; because some people still think that there should be concessions to them. When you talk about merit, some people still don’t get it, but that’s what we preach. The change we preach is not just a change of persons.

But you know, in Nigeria and in Africa generally, when you talk about change, people just think in terms of changing the persons, who are in the office so that the whole business will continue as usual. But the change we are talking about is change of systems; change of processes; change of outcomes and ultimately, change of the society for the good of the people. So, we’re not just changing people or to say let another person sit on the chair and continue the madness that was going on.

For us in government, I think I should say that we are mostly going through the thinking process, but by God’s grace, very soon the results will be all over the place. The challenges are many – the people, the resources, and all that. But like I said, once the vision is there the people are happy and we are motivated by that vision to build the Abia of our dreams, everything can be achieved.

Is there information on what is happening to the garment factory and the shoe factory that the previous government tried to establish in Aba?

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Yes, we are even going to go beyond those. Right now, there is a program to ensure that Abians will begin to become proud of their products. So, made in Aba should be branded made in Aba. There’s a process of standardization and quality control, those are top on the agenda. Apart from working on what is already on the ground, there is targeted intentional expansion of those projects. We are also creating the environment for those, who work there to understand that they are part of the global market system.

We want to create access to the market; and access to resources to ensure that made in Aba wouldn’t be considered as inferior to any other products from anywhere in the world. Remember that in the 1970s and 1980s made in China or made in Japan were considered inferior, but today China has moved up and Japan has moved up. So, there is no reason why Aba will not move up. The government is successful, when the people are successful. It is easier, for instance, to ensure security when people are gainfully employed and are earning a living honestly.

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