Call him a cat with nine lives and you would perfectly capture the person of Governor Theodore Ahamefula Orji, the Abia State governor. In this interview with STANLEY NKWOCHA, Orji speaks on his experience as chief of staff under his predecessor, his activities as governor and why his detractors have not been able to bring him down.
Against the backdrop of complaints of meagre allocation accruing to Abia State from the federation account, how have you been able to cope with the challenges of developing Abia State?
Perhaps the first thing I should do is to tell you about our allocation profile so that you can judge for yourself. Every month, the accountant-general gets our allocation, and if it is up to N3.5billion, we are grateful to God. Before the N18,000 minimum wage, our wage bill was N1.6billion. When the minimum wage increased, our bill rose from N1.6billion to N2.5billion.
When the accountant-general comes back with N3.5billion in a month and we use N2.5billion to pay salaries, it means that only N1billion is left. In essence, government has not been serviced; and we must make provision for essential and statutory services.
You have been to Aba and you have seen the Aba-Owerri road. The contract is N1.8billion. The contract for Port-Harcourt – Aba road is N1.7billion. I am talking of Aba alone and giving instance with only two roads. Our revenue profile is bad because a lot of things happened in Aba before we came on board.
People collect revenue and pocket it. We can only make N500million because we now have consultants. Formerly, we used to get N250million. When I assumed office it was N150million, and from there it got to N200million and then N250million.
I want you to judge us from this revenue profile. In my second tenure, I have never taken a kobo or bond from any bank except the N1billion agric loan given by the federal government from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). What the bank does is: When the allocation from the Federation Allocation Committee (FAC) comes, they remove their loan before handing over the rest.
What we get at the end of the day is not even up to N3.5billion. You can see how much we are working with. You have only been to Aba and Umuahia and have not gone to Ndi Oji, Ndi Okereke, Arochukwu or Isikwuato (where four roads are under construction). Perhaps you only saw the roads, how about the buildings springing up everywhere? Look at the financial situation we have to grapple with, then compare it to how we are faring with, security wise.
The security situation we have is capital intensive. You don’t send a policeman to go sniff out kidnappers without arming or equipping him properly. You have to attend to the army, police and SSS, if not they won’t work. You don’t get information free of charge; you have to oil a few wheels to do that. Some people go to Akwa Ibom, and when they return they say, “See what is happening there.” You cannot compare the governors in Rivers, Lagos and AkwaI bom with other states. These three states are doing well because they have the money; if you don’t have the money you can’t perform.
We are only doing what we can because we want to be prudent in the management of public funds. Eight years before I came on board, there was no public building in all of Umuahia, the state capital. Today, I can count these buildings: the State Secretariat, International Conference Centre, a Government House, Commissioners Quarters, the Dialysis Centre, the Children’s Hospital at Amaja, the High Court, the House of Assembly and the other house at Amokwe, Ishieke.
I completed the market and the rest in the second tenure because I was prevented from doing that during my first tenure due to circumstances you are all aware of. If I had a Government House why would I be building another? All my colleagues in other states had proper foundations laid out for them.
The South-East brewery is located in Umuahia. If that venture is resuscitated it will create opportunities for the teeming youth. Since it is in your domain, what steps are you taking to see that it comes alive again?
To be honest that was the first place I entered on assuming office. I am from Umuahia where the factory is located, and my people are passionate about it. If I don’t do it, who will? But the problem I inherited is that at a time that place got burnt when one of the boilers exploded. Production ceased and the factory became so indebted that it had to be liquidated. Someone came to their rescue when they were in need of money. He bailed them out and repaid the loan they took from First Bank.
He promised to revive the place, but went to relax. When I heard this, I called the young man who came to their rescue and he told me that he had promised to bail them out. He gave me contacts, genuine contacts in Germany. While we were at this the economic meltdown came and he was affected.
I approached him again and said, “Ok what do we have since any investor you bring to come and invest runs away after seeing the whole mess? They want clean investment, not one that is wrought with litigations.’’ The young man insisted on remaining, saying that his investment was buried in the brewery.
He confessed that he took a bank loan and that the interest on it had risen considerably to become more than the capital. What I did was to bring together, stakeholders, people like Professor Ihekwu , Ike Nwachukwu, all of them to talk the issue over with the young man. The government can’t go in, neither can private investors because there was someone on ground. That is the issue.
If the place was free of encumbrances we would invest so much money and the places would be on its feet. We know the economic importance of the brewery, but in its present state and considering the amount the last evaluators prescribed to be thrown into it, I prefer to construct roads, build more structures, partner with donor agencies to build hospitals, health centres and other forms of amenities than spend it in that brewery for now.
The other one, the UCL (the ceramics company), is in possession of the Catholic Church. They are running it and having their issues, but it is their headache. People go there and say it’s the government, but that is their issue.
At a point in time, Abia State was the criminals’ den. How did you bring that situation to a halt? Again, considering that there is so much activity in the bond market, many states are posting bonds: Akwa Ibom, Lagos, Oyo, Niger and others; is there a reason why you are against leveraging?
Let me take your second question first. Before you leverage you have to tell people that you can cut your coat according to your size. It does not mean that I won’t borrow to complete the projects on hand; I will because I don’t want to leave any project half way. The banks have been coming with their juicy offers, but I want to manage this state, not mortgage it.
The state and its people are battered enough as it is. I inherited a debt of N29billion despite claims of my predecessor that he left me a full account. He was bold enough to publish this in the papers. When eventually I went through the details of the debt from the Ministry of Finance (including the N26billion which was owed to Sun Newspapers), he went underground.
The chairman on board then left me with a bill of N2.9billion (unpaid salaries). All I ever heard for the first four years was debt. I have paid off most of them and I don’t want to leave such for whoever will replace me. The worst I can do is to leave a manageable debt, which he can quickly clear before continuing the development of Abia. We are in a haste. N29billion can solve a lot of problems for us, but it is a debt that has to be paid.
So I am aware that other states are issuing bonds. The former CBN governor, Charles Soludo, was the one who encouraged state governors to issue bonds. But that was when I was unnecessarily attacked. They kept saying that the governor was taking money and wanted to transfer to an island somewhere, if not why would he take bonds? They wrote all sorts of trash.
It became a challenge to me, and I was determined. I said, “I will shock them. I am not only a manager of humans, I can also do the same with resources.” That I have done. Today you all have seen it.
Abia stakeholders are urging me to go take bonds, and that is what I want. After taking, I will say, “This is the money I collected and this is what I will do with it.” I will get a loan, but it must be one I can liquidate before leaving office. I must use it to complete old projects and start new ones, which the person coming will complete.
As for kidnapping, the truth is that there was no magic. If you want to know you would have to consult me. That is my secret. If I say it you will go print it in your papers and others will take the glory. No way. I know what I did. We know what we did, and it is not for public consumption but to better ourselves first.
Let us get an insight into other sectors and policies of your administration. Would you say you have achieved much in the last four years?
Our people are passionate about roads. To them roads are all. That is the key assessor of a government’s tenure. If you construct roads they hail you as a performing governor, but the other sectors are important as well. We give priority to health because health is wealth, and it is only a healthy person who cares about roads and what not.
Today we have about 250 health centres as against the initial 210. We have surpassed all that, thanks to our partnership with the federal government’s millennium development goals (MDGs). They bring their money, we agree on the project and help out with the counterpart funding. These health centres are scattered amongst the 17 local government areas.
Some have two, others have three and they are functional. Besides you have seen the diagnostic centre which we are expanding. If you go to the Abia State University Teaching Hospital (ABSUTH), you will see the auditoriums we have completed for capacity building of the students in the institutions.
We also embark on periodic programmes about HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes by forming partnership with foreign specialists.
They come here and look after our people. Go ask the people and they will tell you. We are not slow in the fight against Polio.
We are one of the polio-free states. We are doing what we can to kick out diseases and ensure that our people are healthy.
That’s for health.
If you talk of education, that is an area which we will always excel. Abia people are intelligent people; we have the Abia State College of Education, we also have a polytechnic. These are institutions of higher learning, adequately funded by the state government, and we are successfully paying the lecturers their new salary structure. We pay them according to scale.
For schools at present, I can’t say this is the number of schools we have erected and renovated. There are so many of them, over 400. Many were left dilapidated during the war until we came, furnished and equipped them and got them going.
Since we are an oil-producing state, we are tied to ASSOPADEC, a body that gets a share of the state government’s budget to carry on with roads, water and electricity provision, as well as do many of the things we can’t do. While we work, ASSOPADEC works too.
If you go to Nigerian Law schools, the best graduating students are from Abia. Medicals schools are not left out. In public exams, our boys and girls are doing exceptionally well. We have won UBE prices (came first once, claimed the second position twice and the third place twice) in the South-east. The last time, they gave us N70million.
The SUBEB chairman, Mike Onyebuchi is there, he will give you details. We also have scholarship boards – local and foreign – and the money reserved for their funding (the overseas scheme has both dollar and pound sterling accounts), from which we pay for our students who are studying overseas. In fact, there is a mail on the table, which I was reading before you came.
The commissioner was asking me to approve money for our students (from the $126,000 in that account) who are entitled to the scholarship. It covers those who are there and those who will go to study, either in the United States or Britain.
We came to the realisation that one of the things that led people into kidnapping and armed robbery was lack of jobs, besides frustration at home. We decided to empower our young people – those without jobs – by buying vehicles (not wheelbarrows and shovels, as was the case almost 12 years ago). I stopped okada-riding (for a good cause) and introduced the Keke NAPEP.
Now we have progressed from the Keke NAPEP to the vehicles. We have given out thousands of Keke NAPEP, and now it is vehicles. Soon, we will come up with another scheme. Presently, we have 500 tricycles to create employment. In addition, we have employed 4,500 youths (the highest in the country) who had no jobs prior to their employment.
That is why you should always come around, not sitting over there in Abuja and call one of my detractors, who will dictate rubbish for you to write. There is no sector that we have not touched, but the one which excites people the most is the road.
The famous Aba shoe market seems to have gone extinct. Do you plan to revitalise it?
What caused us to derail was the kidnapping. We had made tremendous effort before kidnapping reared its ugly head. When it turned up in town, all the entrepreneurs in Aba ran away (they had to save their lives before talking about money). While kidnapping was working, business and enterprise were low. Nothing was working.
Now that kidnapping and armed robbery are no more, we have started again. We have encouraged the shoemakers (they make a lot of shoes) to extend to the market we are building in Umuahia. We are organising them in cooperatives (we have structures erected in partnership with the federal government). We have means through which the techniques for these things are impacted to the people – shoemaking, sewing and leatherworks.
We are trying to organise them in ways through which they can be of use to themselves first. We have contacted foreign partners to come help out. The present minister of finance and coordinating minister of the economy brought people from the World Bank. They have conducted a survey, and will come up with a way through which to impact these things.
We are doing everything possible to make the environment conducive by making the state free of kidnappers. The environment is free for anyone who wants to come and do business in Abia. That is our most important achievement.