Emmanuel Ugwu-Nwogo reports that the quest to bring development to Abia State by fixing the huge infrastructural deficit complemented with the provision of social services had been a daunting task over the years until now
The quest to bring development to Abia State by fixing the huge infrastructural deficit of the state complemented with the provision of social services had been a daunting task over the years. All the successive administrations, military and civilian, including the short-lived third republic made efforts to give Abia the much expected quantum leap in development indices. But not much success was recorded.
Blame on Supernatural Forces
It was not long before myths were invented to explain away why the state was not getting it right in tackling its infrastructural problems. It was this recourse to blame supernatural forces for failures that gave rise to the myth of 'mammy water' (mermaid) being the cause of the perennial flooding of Aba, the commercial and industrial hub of Abia.
Checkmating Perennial Flooding
Looking back now, the state governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, who has found the solution to the annual flooding of the Enyimba City, said the myth of the mermaid was laughable. Obviously, as a scientist it didn't make any meaning to him that a mermaid was behind the perennial flooding originating from Ama Ikonne and Ifeobara pond. After deploying high tech engineering works to check the flooding menace, Ikpeazu announced triumphantly that "all the 'mammy waters' have now disappeared courtesy of hi-tech engineering works we deployed to the concerned spots".
He told THISDAY that by tackling the problem of flood in Aba, he has shown that "there could be solution to seemingly intractable engineering problem".
Ikpeazu's application of scientific principles of finding out the cause of a problem before seeking the solution was also applied in fixing the roads. "It is not that those who came before me didn't attempt fixing the roads, but the roads they did failed after just the first rainy season. The reason was that they didn't do sufficient study and deep planning about what really needed to be done to solve the problems as to why the roads kept failing almost irredeemably," he said.
By taking a new direction of doing things in a different way to achieve effective results Ikpeazu has carved a niche for quality jobs. In fact, he said it was a well thought-out action plan to focus on quality infrastructure, noting that the result has already shown that it has boosted trade and commerce and returned investors to Aba.
Thus, the Abia of today has moved tremendously forward from where it was in May 2015 when Dr Ikpeazu, a renowned biochemistry teacher, took over the mantle of leadership as the fourth democratically elected governor of the state. He has jumpstarted God's own state to commence a journey with a well defined destination: holistic development.
It was in acknowledgement of these visible developmental efforts with the attendant turnaround in infrastructural development that Governor Ikpeazu launched his highly popular and successful projects inspection and inauguration tours christened "Kinetic Abia" in August 2020. He is, indeed, providing the motive energy for the motion towards unprecedented development being witnessed in Abia across different segments. This apparent burst of latent energy which translated to kinetic energy is propelling Abia in the right direction and even confounding the governor's critics. Much of the criticisms hitherto hauled at Ikpeazu had centred on the poor state of infrastructure in Aba.
But to the pleasant surprise of his admirers the governor has shaken off the inertia and moved to a higher level of performance. When the National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Prince Uche Secondus, visited Ikpeazu's Abia and joined a team of editors from national media houses on a tour of some ongoing and completed projects of the governor back in 2017, he was pleasantly shocked by the extent of work already done by the governor as at then.
Because he had not read about those achievements in the media prior to coming to Abia, Secondus concluded that the Abia chief executive was working without attracting media attention hence he dubbed Ikpeazu a "Silent Performer". While that epithet has stuck with him a new one "Kinetic Performer" has been added by his admirers in appreciation of the new reality in Abia.
The commercial city of Aba is usually the barometer with which the performance of governors is measured in Abia. That was why the poor state of infrastructure became a weapon in the hands of Ikpeazu's critics. The governor did not play the ostrich. He readily acknowledged that all was not well with infrastructure in Aba hence he vowed to change things for the good.
He said: "There was no road to Aba. I once tried getting to Ikot Ekpene in Akwa Ibom state and it took me five hours for a journey not usually beyond one hour. So, I knew that Aba was gradually ebbing away. The traders at Ariaria market were not making much sales because there was no road leading into Aba and even Ariaria.
"This is why we came with a policy of reconstructing roads leading to such economic centres of great importance to our state. If you want to jumpstart the economy of Aba, you must find a way to allow our brothers from Akwa Ibom and Cross River states to access the city. Then, you must also find a way for people coming from Port Harcourt and Bayelsa to come into Aba".
Nonetheless, Governor Ikpeazu did not indulge in lamenting about the infrastructural decay he met in Aba. Six years on, the story of Aba has continued to change rapidly as more and more roads are built. The first triplet of roads the governor inaugurated within the first 100 days of his administration were Ukaegbu, Umuola and Ehere, were roads that leads one into Aba.
"I had to do another road through Ekwereazu which takes you into Akwa Ibom state from Aba in just 40 minutes. And for the first time in 30 years, we also did Faulks (Sam Mbakwe) Road leading to the Ariaria international market from Brass Junction to the (Enugu-Port Harcourt) Expressway. We did these roads to ease access to economic centres," the governor said.
Tackling Infrastructural Deficit
The Commissioner for Information, Chief Okiyi Kalu said the Ikpeazu administration has been relentless in tackling the infrastructural deficit in the state, noting that at the last count over 108 roads have been constructed, most of which are in Aba.
In line with Ikpeazu's love for quality the roads are built to specification using rigid and flexible pavement technologies. He has equally delivered five new bridges, tackled eight gully erosion mediation projects and is tackling two massive flood control projects at Ndiegoro and Ifeobara axis of Aba valued at over N30billion.
According to the information commissioner, the governor is also actively working at 49 other road project sites in the state and has vowed to complete them before handing over in 2023. The seven road projects inaugurated with the first 100 days of the administration are good attestation to the high quality and durability of the completed projects. The roads are still strong and smooth since 2015 unlike what obtained in the past where roads done in Aba hardly lasted for more than one rainy season. Both contractors and the government profess that the roads have certified life span of more than 30 years.
In education, Abia's report card has remained impressive over the past five years as evidenced in its performance in external examinations. The state has maintained first position in the performance ranking for West Africa Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), back to back for five years.
In addition to that, Abia school children have excelled in both local and international academic competitions. "Nobody is in doubt about the status of Abia State as the number one in education In Nigeria," Okiyi enthused. "To achieve this enviable height, Governor Ikpeazu had identified and focused on three key elements involved in academic excellence: teachers, infrastructure and students".
To improve the skills of Abia school teachers, Ikpeazu brought international education service providers from Australia and India to retrain Abia public school teachers and has also established a teachers' continuous education institute in Umuahia where modern teaching methods and application of technology in learning is taught.
This ensures that Abia teachers are able to match global teaching and learning standards. In addition, the governor instituted annual car awards to encourage best performing teachers selected from the three geopolitical zones of the state.
The human capital development in the education sector has also been complemented by infrastructural development. The Governor has so far constructed 586 new classroom blocks across the state and built four new model schools. These schools are meant to serve as sample institutions for proprietors of private schools in the state to copy as minimal structural and academic environment standard before government approvals.
The improvement in infrastructure and human resources in the education sector has yielded good results. According to official statistics, when Ikpeazu took over as governor in 2015 public school enrollment figure in the state was less than 150,000 pupils.
"That was a key worry for me knowing that the average parent cannot afford to spend more than 40 per cent of family income on education of their children and still contribute effectively to wealth creation in our state," Ikpeazu had said. The end result of the measures and incentives that he applied to improve education standard is that public school enrollment improved from under 150,000 in 2015 to more than 650,000 pupils at the end of 2020.
The free school meal programme launched by the Ikpeazu government even before the federal government started its own, played vital role in school enrolment. Abia started the programme by feeding primary 1 - 3 pupils but when the federal government later came on board and took up the responsibility of feeding Primary 1 - 3 pupils nationwide, Ikpeazu shifted to feeding Primary 4 - 6 pupils in Abia's public schools, thus making Abia the first state in Nigeria where primary 1-6 pupils receive free school meal daily. To revive and sustain technical/vocational education in the state the governor launched the innovative Education for Employment (E4E) scheme, which is aimed at imparting relevant skills that will drive industrial growth in the state.
The economic benefits that agriculture brought to the regional governments in the first republic are still remembered with nostalgia in Abia. Ikpeazu has therefore decided to follow the foot steps of the late Premier of defunct Eastern Region, Dr Michael Okpara by making agriculture a top priority. He has been making efforts to reinvent the oil palm revolution of the 60s. In 2016, Dr Ikpeazu procured and distributed more than four million high yielding tenera specie palm seedlings in the state in order to replace the wild species planted by the Okpara administration.
Abia is expectantly waiting for the palm seedlings to attain maturity and transform to palm trees. The high expectation is borne out of the tremendous economic benefits to reap, including foreign exchange earnings. Dr Ikpeazu, who has always stated his preference for farmers to process their primary products in order to derive more economic benefits from the value chain, has embarked in installing palm processing cottage plants in seven local governments.
Ikpeazu also established a 150,000 bird capacity poultry cluster at Nsulu in Isiala Ngwa LGA which also serves as a center of training for young entrepreneurs seeking to go into poultry farming. A second cluster is expected to be constructed soon in Item, Bende LG. Similarly, Dr Ikpeazu established the first technology driven large scale mushroom production facility in the state which is being used to train and equip Abia's new mushroom production entrepreneurs.
Further to the efforts being made to give agriculture its pride of place in the economy of Abia the governor has jolted the state to exploit its rice production potentials. Abia is today in the rice production map of Nigeria as Ikpeazu has not only encouraged rice farmers to take action but also established five cottage rice mills in Ofeme, Acha, Bende, Uzuakoli and Abam.
He has supported rice farmers with inputs such as high yielding seedlings, modern equipment, agrochemicals, extension services and many more. With his marketing push for homegrown rice consumption, many farmers who hitherto abandoned rice fields have returned to add to the recorded improvements in annual rice production of the state.
Boost for SMEs
The reputation of Abia as the SME Capital of Nigeria has continued to receive major boost in the present dispensation. Through the governor's focused interventions Abia shoe makers and other craftsmen have benefited from uninterrupted power supply courtesy of the Rural Electrification Agency of the Federal Government. With the enhancement of the production capacity of Aba artisans due to the improved power supply Ikpeazu has followed it up with massive rebranding and promotion of Made-in-Aba products globally. This accounts for the reason Nigeria's military and para-military agencies are beginning to think home and source their boots and other kits from Aba.
Not done, Ikpeazu wants Aba producers of leather and garment products and garments to engage in mass production of their goods in order to meet up with the upsurge in demand. To this end, he supported the acquisition and deployment of modern technology in shoe making, Ikpeazu identified 30 budding shoe makers and sponsored them to China to learn automated shoe making.
On their return, he imported the equipment they trained with and established the Enyimba Automated Shoe Factory in Aba that is already producing for Nigeria Railway Corporation and such other corporate clients. Presently intellectual dimension has been added to the business shoe making in Aba.
The Aba Footwear Academy was recently inaugurated by an entrepreneur, Bently Chukwuemeka to ensure the training of well skilled men and women in shoe making so that Aba would continue to maintain its pride of place in the production of shoes and other leather products.
Ikpeazu was so excited by the initiative that he promptly enrolled as a student of the Academy. He has also promised that the Abia State Polytechnic would introduce shoe making into its academic programmes so that those who are in the shoe making business could get formal certificates as well as intellectual depth in addition to their skills. In the garment sector the governor recently performed the ground breaking of a new garment cluster in Umukalika Aba with the equipment for the establishment of an automated garment making factory already procured.
The achievements of Ikpeazu in the area of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) development is legendary with many pointing to this segment as his strongest and most impactful turf. His deliberate and well thought out engagement in the sector has helped to solve some of the challenges of access to fund, automation and power that hitherto slowed down growth unbearably within the sector.
Indeed, SMEs in Abia State have never had it this good since the return of democracy in 1999. It is a signpost of the new found verve that, during the early days of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, Governor Ikpeazu financially supported and motivated Aba entrepreneurs to lead the nation in the production of locally made PPEs such as face masks, protective gowns and hand sanitizers for both local and international markets.
The infrastructural turn around of Aba and the boost that SMEs are receiving has not gone unnoticed by the organised private sector, which has lauded Ikpeazu for his efforts. President of the Aba Chamber of Commerce Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ACCIMA) Chief Lawrence Obeta in his remarks during the inaugural of some of the newly built roads in Aba, said the business community was the greatest beneficiary of the new direction Ikpeazu has positioned Abia.
Recently, the National Bureau of Statistics reported that Abia received the third highest foreign investment in Nigeria only behind Lagos and Abuja. "This is seen by many as a culmination of the efforts of the Kinetic Governor of Abia who has worked hard since 2015 to make the state investment friendly through improvements in ease of doing business, provision of durable infrastructure to support new investment and consistent relative improvement in security that has ensured that Abia is rated as the most peaceful state in Nigeria and one of the top five most secure states in the country," Okiyi said.
While building infrastructure Ikpeazu is not unmindful of the health needs of the people. It is a truism that good roads, street lights, and other social amenities would be of insignificant benefits if the people are not healthy enough to enjoy them. Ikpeazu's response to the health needs of Abians was to initiate healthcare innovations, some of which were deployed to achieve success during the intense battle to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
The healthcare innovation that readily comes to mind is the Abia State Telehealth Initiative launched in 2017. The programme, which its promoters said "is the first of its kind on Africa", involves more than 20 medical doctors providing round the clock medical consultancy services to citizens seven days of the week. It also links 772 Primary Healthcare Centers (PHCs) in the state.
The "Dial -A -Doc service which was launched by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on April 13, 2018, who had then noted that "mobile phone serves is a means of delivering healthcare to the people especially the most vulnerable and downtrodden and ensures even communication with doctors through local language or dialects'. The project was crucial to the coordination of the state's response to the outbreak of the pandemic.
Another innovation is the provision of free medical services to elderly persons above 70 years Governor Ikpeazu has equipped and made functional four new General Hospitals in the state and is currently constructing a first of its kind Mother & Child Hospital in Umuahia. Public hospitals have been equipped hospitals in the state with modern equipment for diagnosis and treatment of sundry diseases".
In the South East region, Abia Is said to be the only state with three COVID-19 diagnosis laboratories including PCR and GenXpert equipment procured by the Ikpeazu administration. Indeed, the administration's management and response to the pandemic is regarded as among the best in the country. To cater for medical emergencies in the state, Dr Ikpeazu launched the Abia State Emergency Medical Services program with four fully equipped mobile clinics and a pool of nine ambulances.
According to available data, the focused intervention of Governor Ikpeazu's administration along the three spectrum of the health care chain, namely mother/child, geriatric and medical emergencies has contributed to life expectancy in the state being above the current national average of 54.81 years.
Ameliorating Security Challenges
Even before the present security problems that have spread across the nation, Abia has always been relatively peaceful. This is largely due to the robust security architecture put in place by the governor with multiple layers of structure to prevent and control crimes. To date, he has donated more than 100 patrol vehicles to security agencies in the state and also deployed technology to support crime fighting and prevention.
The governor has built a built a befitting new headquarters complex for the Zone 9, which enabled them to relocate to their permanent site at Ogurube Layout. He has as well constructed eight housing units to ease the accommodation needs of some of the officers.
Though crime can hardly be completely be wiped out in any society major crimes are becoming rare in Abia. For instance, it is on record that since the inception of the Ikpeazu administration, Abia State has not recorded a single successful bank robbery.
The prevailing peace and security has contributed in attracting investments to Abia. The recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) ranked Abia as number in attracting new investments in 2020, just behind Lagos and Abuja.
With just two years remaining for his administration to wind down, Ikpeazu believes that he has done his best to make Abia put its right foot forward in the development journey. He told THISDAY that his objective of making Abia much better than it was when he took over the reins of power is being achieved as Aba and other parts of the state are already wearing new looks.
"To the glory of God, we have recorded modest achievements that have improved the wellbeing of our people. We hope to do much more in the remaining years because the energy exists to drive our kinetic movement to excellence," he said.
With all these achievements, Governor Ikpeazu is certain that Abia has set its feet "on the path of irreversible development".