Abakaliki — In his visit to the South-east since assumption of office, President Muhammadu Buhari Tuesday arrived Ebonyi State where he remarked that the visit was a strong expression of his belief in Nigeria's unity.
The president also pledged to improve agriculture, power supply and the provision of infrastructure projects in the region when the 2018 budget is passed.
Buhari, whose visit to Ebonyi had been tagged the first presidential visit to the state in the last 17 years, was conveyed by a Nigerian Air Force helicopter with registration number NAF-540 from Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, to the army barracks in Nkwagu in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, at about 11.15 a.m.
He was accompanied by the state Governor, Chief David Umahi.
Umahi was among other South-east governors who had received him at the Enugu airport.
The president, who was received at the army barracks by dignitaries from the state, subsequently commissioned six projects and thereafter proceeded to the Government House where he met notable leaders of the state and traditional rulers from both Ebonyi and the South-east who conferred on him two traditional chieftaincy titles.
The president recalled how some Igbo leaders had visited him at the State House, Abuja, last month to express concern over the poor state of infrastructure in the region, assuring them that resources meant to address their concerns had been captured in the 2018 budget currently before the National Assembly.
The president promised to concentrate on power and agriculture projects as well as other social services in the region when the budget is operational and praised the state governor for the projects being executed by his administration in the state, describing them as laudable.
The president, who was conferred with the chieftaincy titles, Enyioma 1 of Ebonyi, meaning a trustworthy friend of Ebonyi, and Ochioha Ndigbo, meaning the leader of Igbo people, by both the Ebonyi State Council of Traditional Rulers and South-east Council of Traditional Rulers respectively, expressed appreciation for the titles as well as the warm reception accorded him, saying he was glad for the opportunity to interact with people of the state.
He said: "I am delighted to be here in Abakaliki to interact with the good people of Ebonyi State and indeed the South-east region as a whole. I want to express my gratitude to the people of Ebonyi State for their hospitality and warm reception since I arrived the state.
"My presence here today is a demonstration of my strong belief in the unity of Nigeria. As the most populous country in Africa with over 300 ethnic groups, our diversity is almost unique.
"When I met with the leaders of the South-east in Abuja last month, they raised several issues of concern including the state of the roads and infrastructure in the region.
"I will like to commend Governor David Umahi for his vision and commitment to the development of this state. Some of the projects I commissioned since my arrival are laudable.
"I am also grateful to the traditional rulers of Ebonyi State for the honour bestowed on me with the traditional title of Enyioma I of Ebonyi. I thank you for this honour and warm reception.
"I want to assure you that we will deliver on our promises. Our 2018 budget included many projects for the region in the area of power, agriculture and social services."
The president was emphatic that the Ndigbo is synonymous with Nigeria just as Nigeria is synonymous with Ndigbo.
The president, who celebrated what he described as the ingenuity of the people of South-east and their talent for trade and commerce, said the Igbo ethnic group and Nigeria were inseparable.
"The people of the South-east are known for their ingenuity, industrial and commercial talent. There is no part of Nigeria where you will not find Igbo entrepreneurs, both men and women, contributing to the development of their adopted communities.
"So, I am asking you all not to buy into the senseless propaganda for secession. Igbo is Nigeria and Nigeria is Igbo. Both are inseparable.
"We must therefore continue to commit ourselves to the development of Nigeria, a Nigeria where we sustain our national unity without compromising on our cultural identities, a Nigeria where the aspirations of its people are guaranteed without prejudice to tribe or religion, a Nigeria where we can sleep at night knowing that tomorrow will be better than today.
"The task of nation building is a continuous one. It never stops. Our founding fathers, from all corners of this country, worked together to actualise the creation of one Nigeria.
"After independence, the same founding fathers worked together to maintain this one Nigeria. Yes, they had differences and varied opinions at times. After all, they were only human.
"And yes, they had moments of weaknesses and doubt. But again, no one is perfect. However, one thing they all protected until the end of their lives was having one Nigeria for all Nigerians," he said.
In his remarks, the Ebonyi State governor congratulated the president on the chieftaincy titles conferred on him and thanked him for his enormous assistance to the state, which he said had resulted in a revolution in the agriculture and solid minerals sectors.
In appreciation of the assistance, Umahi presented 2,000 bags of rice and 2,000 tubers of yams to the president, describing the presentation as the fruit of the state's prayers that the president would enjoy the fruits of the seeds he planted.
"First is to congratulate our president for this highest honour bestowed on you today. It is an honour that is well deserved, Your Excellency, you have helped us quite a lot especially in the area of the agriculture revolution and solid minerals. And today, sir, you are with us.
"The prayer of everyone is that you plan to see it; you will be alive to tap from the seeds that you are planting. Today, you gave us a giant leap in agriculture and so we have here with us 2,000 bags of rice and 2,000 pieces of yam to give to our president.
"It is a prayer answered because you have sown in the land of Ebonyi and God has given you the strength and health to partake in that seed that you planted. We are grateful to give back to our father who has given so much to us," Umahi said.
Among the initial projects Buhari commissioned were a 700-metre twin Trans-Sahara bridge linking Enugu and Ebonyi States with Cameroon; the Senator Offia Nwali flyover; the 14.5km Abakaliki-Afikpo road; foundation laying of the Ebonyi city mall; foundation laying of the Muhammadu Buhari bridge; and unveiling of the Akanu Ibiam statue.
Also, at a reception for the president at the state's stadium, the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, thanked Buhari for his visit to the region barely a few weeks after Igbo leaders had visited him in the State House to draw his attention to infrastructure deficit in the South-east.
Nwodo then painted the horrible state of infrastructure decay in the region and appealed to the president to address it.
He said the decay included the rotten state of the Enugu airport, recalling how an Ethiopian Airline aircraft recently lost a tyre while landing as a result of the bad runway.
He also said livelihoods in the region were threatened by the infrastructure decay including the dilapidated state of the Onitsha-Enugu expressway, Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway, stoppage of work on the Second Niger bridge, unemployment, hunger and starvation, among others.
Nwodo demanded the concession of collapsed major roads in the South-east to the governors of the region to enable them rebuild such roads the way they want them.
The former minister, however, lauded the president's decision to pay pensions to ex-Biafran policemen and damages to victims of the Nigerian civil war.
Also speaking at the stadium, Umahi urged the president to call some of his appointees to order, accusing them of frustrating efforts by the state to obtain loans meant for the development of the state under the guise of politics.
He also requested the president's intervention in certain challenges confronting the state such as non-functioning dams in the state totalling 30 in number, which he said would have boosted rice production.
Umahi pointed out that the dilapidated dams had restricted rice production in the state to only the rainy season.
He also sought the federal government's intervention in the existing hydropower dams in the state for electricity generation, which he said would go a long way in improving the wellbeing of the people of the state.
He also drew the attention of the president to some federal roads that his administration had constructed, lamenting that such projects were not captured for a refund in 2018 budget.
Responding to issues raised by Nwodo and Umahi, the president who was clad in an Igbo Isi-agu (loin head) jumper with a red cap to match, praised the entrepreneurial skills of the people of the South-east, saying Igbos are found in every part of Nigeria.
He deplored the activities of persons he described as misguided Nigerians agitating for secession, noting that they did not witness the debilitating effects of the Nigerian civil war and counselled that as the founding fathers of Nigeria had sustained the unity of the country despite their differences, the nation's unity must be sustained.
On issues raised by Nwodo and echoed by Umahi, Buhari said his government was working aggressively to improve infrastructure by building roads and improving power supply, adding that efforts were being made to guarantee food security for the nation.
He told the rather excited gathering that his government had recently resolved to mobilise contractors back to the Second Niger bridge.
He also said N10 billion had been earmarked in the 2018 budget for the Enyimba Industrial Park and the Nnewi Auto Park which he said would be implemented in collaboration with the states and the private sector.
The president also disclosed that payments to ex-Biafran police officers had commenced 17 years after they were pardoned, adding that an upgrade of the Umuahia Diagnostic Centre in Abia State was in the pipeline.
He again commended Umahi for his stewardship in the state and expressed appreciation for the chieftaincy titles conferred on him, saying: "I am Enyioma l of Ebonyi. I am Ochioha Ndigbo," which earned him further applause.
The president will depart Abakaliki Wednesday for Awka, Anambra State, to lead the grand finale of the All Progressives Congress' (APC) campaign rally for Saturday's governorship election in the state and will return to Abuja later in the day.
Among those who received the president were the deputy governor of Ebonyi State, Dr. Kelechi Igwe; Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu; former governors of the state - Senator Sam Egwu and Chief Martin Elechi; former Senate President, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim; former Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ambassador Frank Ogbuewu; ex-Minister of Health (State), Mr. Fidelis Nwankwo; former deputy governor of the state, Prof. Chigozie Ogbu; the zonal Vice Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Austine Umahi; and Chief Executive Officer of Orient Global Ltd, Chief Chukwuma Odi.
Other dignitaries who visited the state to welcome the president were Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu; Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema; and his Trade and Investment counterpart, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah.