By Sam Okoro
It is exactly one month today, June 29, that Dr Alex Chioma Otti of the Labour Party (LP) took the oath of office and allegiance as the fifth democratically-elected governor of Abia, God’s own State, to dutifully and selflessly serve the state and its good people for the next four years, God helping him.
Between then and now, the former bank chief executive has painstakingly shouldered the burden of providing people-based and result-oriented service by gradually and systematically re-setting the system in a disruptive manner, while laying the foundation for sustainable socioeconomic growth and development of the state.
He has, among other things, demonstrated strong commitment, political willpower and the strength of character, driven by an uncommon passion to discharge the expansive duties of the office of a governor.
He has carried on with utmost tact, grace and equanimity in dealing with the hydra-headed challenges he inherited from a reckless and unscrupulous political class, which regaled itself with an unbridled exploitation and impoverishment of the citizenry, amidst mindless and primitive looting and massive acquisition of wealth.
This is what successive Peoples Democratic Party-led administrations had represented for the 24 uninterrupted years it held sway, thus signposting Abia as the most backward and undeveloped in the comity of states of the federation.
In a speech on April 15, Otti recalled how the Nigerian-born Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, severally teased him in the aftermath of his electoral victory with an assertion that she indeed sympathised rather than envied him.
He spoke in his capacity then as governor-elect of Abia, when he inaugurated a 101-member 2023 Abia Transition Council in Aba, the commercial hub of the state.
He was responding to a keynote speech, aptly captioned, “Nigerians have lost trust in Government,” which was presented virtually to the event by the WTO boss.
And he said: “Every time I speak to her, she says, ‘congratulations, but I don’t envy you.
“In fact, I sympathise with you because the expectations are high. You can’t afford to disappoint us because at least let’s have one good thing happening in Abia State.”
The assertion no doubt was weighty with deep meaning!
Of course, the last 720 hours of the internationally acclaimed financial guru had arguably been grossly altered by the enormous and complex responsibility of governance.
This is apparently worse for a state as Abia, where social infrastructure and amenities are practically non-existent, unemployment and underemployment rate rising at a geometric proportion, with the collateral spike in crime and criminality, compounded by a humongous sum of unpaid arrears of workers’ salaries as well as pensions and gratuity of retirees.
These culminated in the huge debt burden of over N191 billion from the out-gone government of Okezie Ikpeazu.
This explains the governor’s occasional hard postures and stiff demeanour, especially when he remembers, and very often too, that he has a herculean task to navigate through the minefield, by every legitimate means possible to deliver on his promises.
But one thing he would always say, and boastfully too, after acknowledging the huge developmental challenges that stare him in the face, is, “The good thing is that we came prepared.”
And, truly, soon after his election and ahead of his May 29 inauguration, he had hit the ground running, holding strategic engagements in his Umuehim Nvosi Isialangwa country home with genuine and potential world class investors.
These investors travel from their locations as early birds to interface with him on the potential investment windows they could possibly explore and exploit for the overall socioeconomic transformation of the state in record time.
Indeed, the more interesting perspective of the unfolding positives of the one-month-old administration is that these intending investors are presently falling over each other in their quest to identify with the new and trusted Otti-led administration.
Obviously, something unique is happening for real in Abia!
Certainly, this is a clear departure from the old and profusely corrupt narrative, where the people had become accustomed to their governors, who squandered the scarce state resources on jamboree trips to Europe, America and Asia (China) in deceptive and fraudulent pursuit of foreign investors – conmen (ndi bubu yaya), apology to former Gov. Theodore Orji, who represented Abia Central in the Senate for eight years, after eight years apiece as governor and Chief of Staff to former Gov. Orji Kalu.
Interestingly this time around, these well-meaning and genuine investors have continued to stroll down to Abia and heading straight for the remote Umuehim Nvosi Village in pursuit of investment opportunities in Abia.
You can imagine the sudden role reversal, with an upright and dependable leader in the saddle!
The bilateral business discussions in all the visits centre around how to harness the huge economic potentials in Abia to drive the governor’s transformation agenda. This goes beyond private business discussions initiated by past leaders under the guise of attracting foreign investors to the state.
First in the list of the visiting investors was a delegation of senior management team of MTN Nigeria, led by the company’s Chief Enterprise e-Business Officer, Lynda Saint Nwafor.
The company sought for collaboration with the LP-led government in telecommunication development and other sectors, particularly on the financing of the small and medium enterprises, education, security and E-Governance, amongst others.
In a remark, the delegation, which included the Chief Corporate Services Officer, Tobechukwu Okigbo, and senior managers, Messrs Nsikak Maples and Omowunmi Olatunbosun, confessed that “Abia is in for a new deal with a leader of his (Otti) capacity and character at the helms.”
Another significant event was the historic visit to Umuehim and indeed Abia by the Managing Director of the world reputable road construction giants, the almighty Julius Berger, Nigeria, Dr Lars Richter.
Again, the governor’s interaction with Richter bordered centrally on investment potentials in Abia and specifically how to address the critical infrastructure needs of the people.
Richter’s august visit was immediately followed by the arrival of a team of the company’s engineers at Aba for an on-the-spot assessment of some critical roads in the commercial town.
Of special interest was the Port Harcourt Road, the rehabilitation of which was started but later abandoned by the Ikpeazu’s administration, throwing many residents and business concerns on the road into disarray and hopelessness.
Next on the visit was a delegation of very senior members of the management staff of the United Bank for Africa, led by the bank’s Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Mr Oliver Alawuba.
Needless to say that the high profile visits and interactions further reinforced Otti’s preparedness to tackle the myriads of developmental challenges that had held Abia on its knees since its creation in August 1991.
Beyond these giant strides, his government has also initiated firm-footed steps and policies geared toward correcting certain negative tendencies that had over the decades portrayed Abia in very bad light in the eyes of residents and watchers.
The Anambra-born business mogul, Chief Arthur Eze, made a scathing remark during his visit to the state in September 2014, when he chastised the uninspiring administration of Theodore Orji, and announced in a public speech that “Abia is stinking.”
He further decried the decay in the road infrastructure and poor living conditions of the people. That simply illustrated the painful depth of the physical and environmental decadence in the state that outlived three successive PDP governments.
Hence, in his inaugural speech, Otti declared a state of emergency on refuse in Umuahia and Aba.
To give life to the pronouncement, he immediately set up a task force led by Mr Ogbonnia Okereke.
Less than 24 hours after the emergency declaration, Otti defied an early morning downpour to lead the refuse evacuation in Aba.
The task force has since been on its toes working round the clock to give the two major cities a new and befitting look.
Also, in fulfillment of his repeated campaign promise to prioritise salary payment, he said during his inauguration that workers’ would be paid on or before the 28th day of every month, going forward.
A few days ago, precisely on Monday, June 26, the governor directed the Accountant General, Mrs Njum Onyemenam, to “ensure that all verified workers in the state civil service received their June salary before Wednesday, June 28, 2023.”
And in compliance with the directive, civil servants have since begun to receive bank alerts for the payment of their June salaries. This is a noble feat by the new administration.
In a similar vein, Otti reaffirmed his commitment to begin to defray the 30-month salary arrears, totaling over N200 billion, left behind by Okezie Ikpeazu’s government, by the end of the month.
He has also reassured the retirees of his unwavering determination to start paying their pensions as soon as the ongoing forensic audit was concluded to ensure that only the right pensioners were paid.
Another major high-point of the administration was Tuesday’s inauguration of a Judicial Panel of Inquiry on the Recovery of Government Properties and Funds belonging to the state.
The five-member panel has Hon. Justice Ikwuoma Duruoha-Igwe (rtd.) as its Chairman.
Other members include Prof. Ogwo Ekeoma Ogwo, Prof. Ursula Ngozi Akanwa, Mazi Ugochukwu Okoroafor and Rev. Fr. Alex Okonkwo.
The constitution of the panel became imperative, following the barefaced and brazen looting of government’s properties, which characterised the previous administrations.
Again, the repeated appeals by the government to past office holders to return the government properties in their possessions did not seem to have yielded any meaningful response.
This bold step by the governor has elicited loud applause and approval from within and beyond the Abia shores by citizens and friends, who mean well for the state.
For instance, the former Kaduna State-born lawmaker and social critic, Sen. Shehu Sani reacted thus: “What Abia Gov. did is the way of Governors who have no blood covenant with fraud of the past.” Indeed, nothing can be truer than Sani’s remark.
Another landmark initiative by the government to institute a regime of transparency and accountability in the collection of internally generated revenue was the recent suspension of all payments through unauthorised channels.
To that effect, government directed that “All payments are to be made through designated banks” and “with immediate effect.”
Similar to the foregoing was government’s directive terminating “all appointments for any type of Revenue Enforcement” in all the markets and transport sub-sector.
The move was rightfully intended to sanitise the revenue enforcement process and block all the contrived loopholes for the siphoning of government revenues by unscrupulous officials.
The pronouncement was a breath of fresh air to traders, artisans and transporters, who have over the past two decades groaned under the heavy yoke of undue financial exploitation by unscrupulous government officials and their ruthless contractors and agents.
On security, the government has continued to express deep concern over the rising wave of criminal activities in certain parts of the state.
In a recent statement, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Strategic Communication, Prince Okey Kanu, listed such activities to include “illegal collection of levies, phone snatching, ‘one-chance’ operations with tricycles, particularly in Aba and Umuahia, and the most heinous, being the kidnapping of innocent citizens for ransom.”
Kanu further stated that in view of the governor’s strict determination to make the Abia environment safe for the intending investors and commerce to thrive, he “has directed all security agencies in Abia to deal decisively with criminal elements, who create unnecessary fear and panic among the citizenry.”
The statement, therefore, called on the traditional rulers, President Generals’ of the different town unions and Landlords’ Associations “to partner with the State Government to ensure a crime-free Abia.”
It opined that the deployment of a new Commissioner of Police, Kene Onwuemelie, in the state hopefully portends hard time for all such deviants.
The governor also reiterated his commitment and campaign promise to deal with security breaches through multidimensional approaches.
Part of these, according to Kanu, is the governor’s plan to provide revolving facilities for small and medium scale businesses as well as large-scale investment to promote private-sector driven industrial clusters in different parts of the state to take the idle youths out of the streets and engage them in meaningful and sustainable economic ventures.
As rightly pointed out by Okonjo-Iweala, the public expectations from this administration is indeed high.
Nonetheless, one fact that is deeply consoling is that today’s captain of the massive Abia ship came prepared and poised to navigate the state affairs and the good people on a safe voyage to a much better, comfortable destination. The ship will never again suffer any mishap.
Even more reassuring is the fact that the governor has started to lay a solid foundation for a full-scale launch into his massive programmes, cautiously guided by a road map encapsulated in the report of the 101 eggheads that populated the Victor Onyenkpa-chaired 2023 Abia Transition Council.
He has clearly demonstrated so far by his public pronouncements, policies and actions that he is the saddle for real business and would not grope in the dark in the running of the state, like his predecessors, who came unprepared, hence lost focus, groped about without direction and mission all through their double-barrelled tenures and left Abia and its people worse off.
But, as the governor vehemently promised in his detailed inaugural address, entitled, “A time to rebuild,” he and his Deputy, Engr. Ikechukwu Emetu, would serve the people selflessly and leave the state better than what they inherited from Ikpeazu and his co-travellers, who were evidently on a destructive mission rather than service to humanity.
Sam Okoro, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Umuahia.