The moment to rescue Abia State, By Chidi Amuta
The governorship election on Saturday, March 18, is more decisive for Abia state than many others. It is an opportunity to end the tragedy of a long night of disastrous governance that has plagued the state in the last twenty four years. It is a unique opportunity to etch a difference between darkness and light and between government for a selfish cartel and democracy as government of the people for their own good by one of their own kind.
This election is coming at a time when Abia state has accumulated so many negative records among states of the nation. To citizens of the state, a tradition of irresponsible and insensitive governance may have become all too familiar and normal. The records speak for themselves. From the administration of Mr. Orji Kalu to that of Theodore Orji and the outgoing Okezie Ikpeazu, the story of Abia has been one long night of deceit, unbridled corruption and epic incompetence. Even as the people prepare to troop out once again to vote for yet another governor, the question on the lips of most honest Abia citizens is whether democracy will bring them hope and some goodness or continue with a life of perpetual despair, poverty and hopelessness.
The picture of the state on this eve of a governorship election is sad and almost tragic. As we speak, Abia is easily the most indebted state in the federation with a debt portfolio of over N189.9 billion. The present government that ratcheted up most to this debts inherited a debt of about N35 billion from its predecessor. It is the state with the longest period of default in the payment of the salaries of staff in the public sector especially education and health. Doctors in the state’s service are owed upwards of 30 months in salary arrears. No one knows when they are on duty or on strike. Teachers in government primary, secondary and tertiary institutions are in the same boat or slightly worse.
The state university runs consistently on upwards of an average of six months in arrears of salaries and allowances of staff. The state polytechnic at Aba is in default of salaries and allowances to the tune of over 30 months and still counting. The institution has virtually lost its accreditation while its academic and administrative staff now supplement their livelihood as keke and Okada riders or petty traders in inconsequential merchandise.
Doctors in government health institutions have gone without salaries for upwards of 30 months. Most state pensioners have since forgotten when last they received their pensions let alone gratuities. The sick no longer bother to go to any of the state’s general hospitals or health centres knowing well that they are likely to come out feet first because doctors and nurses are either perennially on strike or have no motivation or facilities to provide care or cure. Drug prescriptions are worthless since most pharmacies in state hospitals have a permanent sign on display: “OUT OF STOCK” to announce a perennial absence of essential and basic drugs and medicaments.
The city of Aba has been in decline and abandonment for the last 24 years. Drainage is absent. Sewage system is unheard of. Open drains filled to the brim with unprintable effluents empty onto the surface of the few ill maintained roads available.
Aba is literally an inhabited refuse dump. Mounds of refuse greet the eyes at nearly every inch of the city which has a permanent stench of something dead. Most roads in the town are in desperate disrepair. Some people have forgotten when some of these were roads as many have become deep gullies and waterways that are hardly impassable when it rains. Adjoining the many dilapidated roads is one or two uncompleted flyovers that the state government has been building and commissioning in bits for the better part of the last seven and half years.
The sorry state of Abia state is inscribed boldly on the faces of every citizen except the few who are responsible for this scandalous absence of responsibility in government. People are hungry, poor, unkempt and viciously frustrated.
This is the effective backdrop to the elections that will take place in the next three or four days to elect a new governor. The choice before the people is therefore a clear one. The crisis of governance in the state has defined the type of governor that Abia people should be looking forward to having from May 29, 2023. The ideal next governor of Abia state must therefore come to the table with a mix of qualities that have openly been deficient in the last 24 years. These are competence, capacity, track record of performance, knowledge and character with conscience and empathy.
Abia needs a governor who can read a balance sheet. We need somebody who understands the essence of governance. It must be somebody who understands the complimentary relationship, the social contract between government and people. The new governor must understand that in government, as in business, there is a clear distinction between revenue and expenditure and between recurrent expenditure and capital costs.
Above all, the new governor of Abia state must have empathy for the people he governs. Governance without compassion becomes a machine of insensitivity and evil. The new governor must know that a government thrives when the minimum expectations of the people are met. Salaries and wages must be paid as and when due. When workers receive their salaries and allowances regularly, demand is stimulated and supply of goods and services is ignited. Contentment and prosperity are generated.
Abia is easily the most industrially and commercially viable state in Nigeria. But the spirit of enterprise and industry among the people has been stifled and crushed by a succession of bad and irresponsible governments. If brought back to life, the city of Aba alone can give the state an internally generated revenue base of at least N5 billion a month as against the little over N1 billion collected at present. Even the present level of IGR is an understatement as a plethora of criminal networks are known to cream off most of the internally generated revenue in the name of task forces, consultants and other cartels of corruption. The state’s dormant revenue pool must now be activated in order to deliver to the Abia people the prosperity they deserve but have waited endlessly for.
I have seen most of the political propaganda material being brandished around the Abia governorship campaign. The noisiest faction is the one claiming that the governor must come from a particular geo political zone. That argument is moribund, redundant and prehistoric. Abia does not need a Bende or Ngwa or Umuahia governor. I agree that equity and identity are part of politics but we must distinguish between what is strategically important and what is politically expedient.
Therefore, what Abia needs now is a good governor, in fact a better governor than the parade of locusts that have so far reduced the state to its present sorry state. If you ask me, I would confidently say that on the contrary, it is now the turn of Abia state to rise to the promise of its founding fathers through the election of a capable, enlightened and committed governor. Parochial sentiments and little primordial micro nationality qualms should not obscure this larger goal.
I have heard the loud voices of the Ukwa/Ngwa faction of the Abia political elite. For the avoidance of doubt, I was born in Abia state. My birth chord lies buried there beneath a kola nut tree. The bones of my parents and grandparents lie buried in the soil of Abia. In addition, I can confidently assert, factually, that there is no citizen of the state, living or dead, that contributed more than my humble self in getting then president General Ibrahim Babangida to sign off on the creation of Abia state. But I have never directly or indirectly staked a proprietary entitlement to the political leadership of the state. I am also solidly from Ngwaland. None of the people shouting about the entitlement of the Ngwas to use their demographics to dominate the leadership of the state is more Ngwa than myself. I have probably contributed more to the development of Ngwaland and the Ngwa identity in Nigeria than the majority of these campaigners. But, I have never, however, insisted that the choice of a fit and proper governor for the state should be restricted to my village, clan or sub ethnicity. What Abia, or indeed any and every state or Nigeria for that matter needs is a capable and competent leader to deliver to the majority the dividends of democracy. That is the message of the moment’s political reality as we have seen it.
By a historical coincidence, the crop of candidates vying for the governorship of Abia state are in general qualitatively better than their predecessors. But the political party configuration of the moment is vastly in favour of the candidate and agenda of the Labour Party. The attributes that earned Mr. Peter Obi the shattering success in the last presidential election are now at the disposal of Abia state in the person of the Labour Party candidate, Mr.Alex Otti.
After a careful scrutiny of the antecedents and qualities of the contenders, I am convinced that only Mr. Alex Otti, of the present crop of candidates, possesses the attributes of the kind of governor that can rescue Abia state from the doldrums in which it has been plunged by the present and past administrations of locust governors.
Mr. Peter Obi had outlined character, capacity and competence as core qualities for the highest political offices in today’s Nigeria. As it was valid and attractive for Nigeria, it is even more imperative for Abia state.
At a personal level, I have known Mr. Alex Otti for the past many years and can boldly assert that he possesses the requisite attributes and proven qualities to lead a rescue mission to dig Abia state out of the deep ditch into which the present and past governors have dumped the state.
I knew him as a young boy growing up at Umu-uru, next door to my Umuguru village. Later, as one of my students at the University of Port Harcourt, I remain proud of Alex who justified the confidence of we his teachers with a brilliant First Class Honours degree in economics and the social sciences. In his banking career, first at First Bank and, later, as Managing Director of Diamond Bank, Mr. Otti distinguished himself by being in the forefront of outstanding management turnarounds in both organizations. In the contest for the present tenure of the position of Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria under President Jonathan, Alex Otti was a front line candidate and stood a very good chance of being the current Governor of the Central Bank but for reasons of political considerations.
In his private business, Alex has recorded undoubted success. As a manager, Alex Otti is competent, informed, enlightened and has the requisite private sector linkages to expand the economic horizon of Abia state and thus lift it from the present centre of poverty to its deserved status as a place of prosperity and economic influence.
For the avoidance of doubt, I make this bold endorsement of Mr. Otti in full cognizance of the respectability that Abia state deserves but cannot get under the lack lustre and embarrassing canopy of the present leadership in the state and the ones that preceded it.
Abia is no ordinary state. Many fellow Nigerians have expressed consternation that a state that boasts of some of the most distinguished and illustrious citizens of our nation both living and dead can degenerate into such a laughing stock. This is the state of Michael Okpara, Ebitu Ukiwe, Kalu Idika Kalu, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, late Ndubuisi Kanu, Anya O Anya, Darlington Uzu, Onyema Ugochukwu, the late Stanley Macebuh and many more others.
This plea for a fit and proper person as the next governor of Abia state is entered on behalf of these illustrious citizens as well as the millions of long suffering people of the state who have simply suffered too much. Our people cannot remain in bondage for much longer than this moment.