Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State is the chairman of South East Governors Forum. In this interview monitored by MARGARET COFFIE on Channels Television, he speaks on his government’s approach to open grazing, the state’s economy and the fate of teachers and pensioners under his administration. Excerpts:
South East governors recently banned open grazing in the region. Could you give us some background, because some may ask, if that is the case, do the states have laws to back it up? In fact, does your state have laws to back the ban up?
Yes, Abia State was one of the first states that came out with a legislation banning open grazing, and our argument is that our state is perhaps, the smallest apart from Lagos in terms of land area in Nigeria, and we have a lot of minerals and crude oil beneath the soil. God did not endow us with sufficient lands to permit open grazing and leaving our land for cattle grazing, but we are saying that our interest is not to generally profile the Hausa’s or the Fulani’s as people are doing now. We are interested in the criminal elements. I think Nigeria is supposed to do a proper diagnosis of the problem and treat it accordingly. We are not diagnosing the problem properly, we are just diverting the attention of serious minded people in this country.
We have people who are interested in creating ungoverned species, creating anarchy and confusion so that opportunistic anarchists like the ISIS and all those people who are interested in destabilising countries and nations across the world will come in. What will happen when we eventually disseminate and cause disaffection between ourselves is better imagined, so I recommend that right from the federal government through to the local government, everybody should come on one page and have a policy that will deal with criminal elements wherever they may be found, irrespective of state of origin, business, location or background. The selective dissemination of punishments and sanctions against people suspected or criminals as they may be, is bad and a parachute to anarchy, and I think we have more serious issues on our hands than we are prepared to admit at this point. Beginning with laws, overtime, we have seen attacks and arrests but it’s rare to see prosecutions.
The Control of Nomadic Cattle Rearing and Prohibition of Grazing Routes and Reserve Bill was signed into law years ago in your state. How is enforcement?
You would recall that before now, Abia had not been on the front burner regarding this herders and farmers conflict. Reason is that we have strong mechanisms through which we deal with the normal and usual cattle herders. I’ll give you an example; we have what we call Farmer-herders Conflict Resolution Committee in the state and the commissioner of police is the chairman, down to the local governments where the executive chairmen of the various local government councils are members. In fact, part of that committee are leaders of the Myeyiti Allah, Mallams, DSS and the DPO of the various local governments in the state, and we pay compensation of about a N100,000 for any cow that is killed on account of misunderstanding between farmers and herders. We also pay compensation of the same amount for farmlands verified to have been trampled or destroyed by stray cows. So, we have used that to make sure that at least, we give some succour and buffer to frayed nerves. This is so that when people disagree, they can wait for that committee to look into the matter before taking laws into their hands.
However, that is not to say that we have not experienced a spike regarding the incident of these criminal elements that come in and abduct, kidnap, rape, destroy and kill farmers. More often than not, some of these criminal elements don’t even have cows, they are just infiltrators, and they use the cloak, or what they perceive as some sort of protection for the herders that seems to be the body language at the center to commit their crime and get away with it. Let me state hear that our people have a tradition of being very nice to visitors because there is a proverb in our place that if you kill your visitor, it doesn’t mean you are a strong man. So, they are taking advantage of this good nature to unleash mayhem. We have noticed that, and we are on their trail, and we are targeting those people. We are going to root them out, we are going to punish them, and those are the people we cannot guarantee their safety, but for anybody who is doing genuine business in our clime, government will do everything to protect such an individual.
You began by saying, among other things, “We are not diagnosing the problems significantly”. What exactly do you mean by that, what are those problems and how do you suggest we take them on, because it will seem that the security challenges are shifting?
Yes, the problems confronting us as a country today are many. Yesterday, it was religion. You are either a Muslim or a Christian, and there are biases in offices, people who superintend over the affairs of this country that are supposed to foster unity, ask you to fill out forms and you mention your religion, you could be punished or you may not get what you want because of your religion. The other one is ethnicity. We’ve had that all along, but it’s taking a new dimension. There is another one-partisanship. These are some of the issues that are etching on the pillars and the fabrics that hold this country. I’m saying that people, anarchists, and those who are professionals in destabilising countries, taking up arms against nations, creating earthquakes are in the winds, they are already within us. Then, we had Yusuf doing his Boko Haram.
If I still recall my elementary Hausa, Boko Haram means “no book”, they don’t want Western education. So, is that what they are talking about now? We have allowed that to fester till these opportunistic anarchists stepped into the front line space in the North, and now the next dimension is what they call bandits, and they take up arms. We have two major groups coming in, and I’m sure those who have intelligence on this would trace them to ISIS, trace them to problems in Libya, Mali, and all of that, and now in the South-east, we are beginning to treat another group coming up that call themselves eastern militants, and everybody is watching. There is no philosophy behind what they drive, no motive, except they want to create ungoverned species and enclaves for these professional anarchists to step into our country, and eventually destabilise the country. So, what I’m saying is that the security agencies should come up with a strategy and a device that is sized and technology-based that will target these problems and deal with the ruthless vigour that they deserve. If we continue to pamper the issue and pamper the problem, their agenda is devilish and they are determined to execute it, then I think we are diverting the attention on Nigerians, and giving them the opportunity to do what they plan to do.
At the heart of all of these problems, a good number of people have said, which you have also inferred it in a way, are poverty and unemployment. Of course, you know the president had said there is a plan to take a 100 million Nigerians out of poverty over the next 10 years. As a governor in the South-east region, how easy is that?
I totally agree with you. Unemployment and poverty are what I will regard as concomitant of the general malaise. They contribute to the issues, but tell me, how would burning of a police station and burning of a courtroom create employment for anybody? The easiest way to move from being unemployed to becoming employable is not to become a bandit or to reduce your integrity capital. Our people are wise enough to know that. So, if you look at the strategic nature of the institutions that are being attacked, you’ll see that what they just want to do is to create an ungoverned state so that the criminal justice system will collapse and people can no longer apprehend, or take people, or prosecute people. The civil authority is what they are attacking. Now, back to your question, here in Abia State, we realised this problem back in 2015, and we don’t believe in palliatives here. We tried to tackle the problems from such principles.
It may take time. It may seem as if something is not happening but certainly that is the way to go. Our panacea is, while we do the things we need to do, encourage start-up businesses, encourage small and medium enterprises, support automation of businesses and create market shares for our people to participate in a larger platform. We must be able to create the Enyimba Economic City for us here in Abia and in the South-east because this economic city promises to provide 600,000 jobs at once, and it’s about creating a manufacturing platform for all of us. With the African free trade, we think that’s the ideal thing to do everywhere. Our reason is that if we have these opportunities for people to take up jobs and work, then we can address the problem of unemployment squarely. The truth is that giving N10,000 or N20,000 every month may solve the problem that day, but it creates appetite. Once it creates appetite and it cannot be sustained, then what do we do? It is the appetite of consumption which crude oil has created in this country that has moved us away from a manufacturing country into a consumption country. A lot of social implications of the measures we take.
We understand that this Enyimba Economic City project was promised when you first came onboard and time is running out. We also understand that at the moment people are still fighting over their acquisition of lands without compensation. You also promised to create 700,000 jobs and you barely have one year of active work before politics kicks in. What’s going on because it appears as if nothing is happening?
No, a lot of things are happening. First of all, let me correct an impression, there is no problem of land acquisition anywhere. When you acquire 9,000 hectares of land in a place as small as Abia, you must have a conversation in a courteous manner with the land owners. Everybody is on board for that project. What has happened is that this project is a trans-generational project, it’s not the quick fixes that Nigeria knows about. You need time to create a mentality that is feasible, and this is where we are going. We experienced some setbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the international community has embraced this project, and they are coming up with all kinds of collaborations including funding, so what we are waiting for are the anchor investors to come and begin ground-breaking and begin construction.
Meanwhile, we are almost ready to start with the big infrastructure because we need to do a big road that will take us to all parts of the South-east and South-south within one hour thirty minutes, and that is where we are now. We are on course, despite the setback of Covid-19, and our eyes are on the board looking at it, but I want to say to you that the era of quick fixes in Abia is gone, we take time. We must do drainage before we do a road, we do cement on the road and do abstract at the end of the day. It takes time, but we will do it, and I don’t want to take an immediate glory in place of sustainable development, but I assure you that before 2023, we will certainly see a clear picture of where we are going, and finally, that particular project has taken up a life of its own. It’s not a state government project anymore, it’s been driven by forces that are now beyond Abia State.
Of the 700,000 jobs you promised, how many jobs have been created?
Oh well, that takes me back to what I’ve been trying to move you away from, and some jobs are in place, especially with people who are doing construction, there is a new university coming up there now which will be ready for commissioning this year. There is a new shoe factory going on there, and all of that, so if you want me to tell you our efforts in job creation, apart from the Eyimba Economic City, that would be a good question for me to respond to, but specifically, on Eyimba Economic City, I assure you that there’s a university there, there’s a shoe factory going on there today, and there are seven companies that are involved in the conversion of metal to other products like conversion of plastics to batteries, managed by Chinese. So, lots of activities are going on, but these are people’s businesses and very soon everybody will see what we’re doing in that part.
What’s going on with teachers because at the moment we understand that public schools have been shut, primary and secondary schools, due to outstanding salaries and even polytechnics, Abia teaching hospital, some of them are complaining that you’ve not attended to the backlog of salaries they’ve got. What’s happening in that regard?
We have about 24,000 workers in Abia State, and as I speak, 20,000 of these workers are up to speed in salaries, but there are a few agencies and parastatals that are having issues with salaries, and in Abia, under my watch, what we talk about is wage bill management and not salary payment. Wage bill management in the sense that we must try to see the workers, we must try to evaluate their output and now begin to think of how to pay. Primary school teachers, I think their salaries are up to speed. The ones we have issues with are secondary school teachers. Last December, to be specific, we paid three months, and we promised to continue to pay the current month and etch up on what is outstanding.
The issue of salaries is an issue I inherited. I recall that in 2015, I was able to pay 11 months to the Abia state teaching hospital. Those of them who were earning N500,000 a month went home with N5,500,000 that month. I hadn’t stayed 11 months at that time, so it’s an ongoing conversation, but my problem with that hospital is that they mismanaged and bloated their wage bill system, and yet they claim that their revenue is N6,000,000 and we’re saying that it’s not good enough. You must do something about your internally generated revenue while you merge with the subvention given to you so that you can run.
They said they needed the road to that place to be done, and that road is almost completed now. So we want everybody to be on board so that we can work together. The same thing is happening with Abia State Polytechnic. We have gotten to the root of the matter. At a point in that polytechnic, we had 60 people manning two gates, we had 170 people working in the canteen, and we are saying that government is not a Father Christmas anymore, and we are aware that from 2015 till now, the governments that are centred at the various states have been on life support. The times are not easy at all, and we are asking that the time for free lunch is gone. So, gradually, we will bring these parastatals and schools that are worried about salary problem up to speed with the rest of the state, going forward, starting from my promise in December to pay backlogs with the current month, I think we will get there. I’ve had a conversation with the teachers. They also received a backlog of three months salaries in December, and I was surprised that they came up with a strike this January, and if our conversation fails, it may mean that we will apply the principle of no work-no pay.
For some of them, they feel that they have worked and they need to be paid, but those are the ones working, what about the ones that are retired, specifically retired primary school teachers. What’s going on in that area?
I have said it time and time again that pension management is an ongoing issue and problem, not only in Abia but in most places. The pensioners in Abia are not angry with government, reason is that before now, it used to take two years before you enter into the payroll for pension, but now we have deployed science and technology to ensure that once you get out of service, you begin to receive the current pension going forward. Those who mismanaged the pension of the state are not politicians, they are civil servants, they are the same people who bloated the pension scheme, put people who were dead, people who were long gone from this earth as pensioners. So, each month, we keep discovering padding of pension. I’ll give you an example;- I commissioned a study last month to enable me pay the January pension and what I discovered was that the figure given to me by the leadership of the pensioners in the various local governments tallied together was far less than what the civil servants at the pension board provided as the data in the state, and we had to now remove excess, non-existent, ghost pensioners to be able to get enough money to pay the current pensioners, and I think that payment is ongoing as we speak.
So, we are saying that this government is committed to the welfare of her workers, that is why we are paying 95% of all the workers regularly. All other parastatals like schools, polytechnics, they should sit up. What we give to the polytechnic is subvention, we don’t pay salaries to polytechnic lecturers, and we are saying this because the management of the polytechnic can decide to go and employ Prof. Wole Soyinka to teach Literature, then they must be able to pay him, so it’s up to you to manage your workforce. If you have 170 people working in the canteen, and now you can’t pay them, it becomes your problem and not the state’s problem.
Your Excellency, could you talk to us about this Abia Microfinance. There are reports circulating that about N200 million was misappropriated by that agency. Is that correct?
That’s fallacy. That agency doesn’t have N200 million to be misappropriated by anybody. What happened is that at some point, we wanted to support the small and medium-scale enterprises in Abia, and part of their problem and challenge was financing, and we didn’t want the destiny of these people to be left in the hands of the big financing agencies controlled by the federal government. We needed to create a small microfinance bank through which they can aggregate their activities, and if possible use it to get support from the federal government, and that was how we acquired that microfinance bank, but information came that a certain amount of money was supposed to be paid. N250 million was supposed to be CBN and all of that, and I think that has been resolved, but it is not a question of misappropriation at all.