By KAZIE UKO
One of the campaign promises of the Abia State Governor, Dr. Alex Otti, OFR, was the establishment of a ministry or an agency that would serve as a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to drive the process of revamping Aba, the commercial capital of the state.
Aba featured so strategically in Dr. Otti’s campaign for the governorship of Abia State to the extent that he was willing to introduce a full-fledged ministry to oversee the realisation of his dream of a renewed Enyimba City, where trading and manufacturing would once again flourish.
Oftentimes during his campaign outings in the run-up to the 2023 gubernatorial election, Governor Otti would, with a palpable sense of nostalgia, recall growing up in Aba, where industries such as PZ, Lever Brothers, Nigerian Breweries, Aba Textile Mills, Glass Industry, International Equitable Association, Star Paper Mills, Onwuka Nails and Steel Industry and tens of other conglomerates and private citizens owned manufacturing companies dotted the landscape of one of Nigeria’s foremost commercial nerves east of the niger.
These manufacturing entities, some of which were established long before the creation of Abia State on August 27, 1991, provided direct and indirect employments to thousands of residents in Aba, indeed Abia, and created opportunities for businesses across Nigeria. Of course, they contributed immensely to sustaining and boosting the economy of Abia State in the early nineties, right after it was created.
Aba was both a trading and manufacturing hub. As Dr. Otti would say, Aba was to Abia what Nnewi and Onitsha, put together, are to Anambra State, today. While Nnewi is the manufacturing hub for Anambra, Onitsha bucks up as the trading centre.
It is an irony that Aba’s tragic descent to infrastructural decay and socio-economic ladder was supervised largely by those who had benefitted immensely from the opportunities the city had created for its enterprising residents. Self-seeking and centred political actors masquerading as leaders had taken undue advantage of their access to power and control of State resources to rob the city of its due development and economic prosperity.
This was particularly evident in the last 24 years, when Abia State and its people struggled to survive the asphyxiating grip of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). One by one, slowly and steadily, the litany of factories and blue chip businesses that made Aba tick folded up and disappeared or relocated to a more friendly environment outside of Abia.
As in the case of Aba, so also is Umuahia, the capital city of Abia. Thirty-two years after it was named capital, Umuahia has hardly grown beyond its glorified village status. Outside of the iconic tower on the Enugu-Umuahia-Aba Expressway by the entrance to Umuahia township, built sometime between 1992 and 1993 by then Governor Ogbonnaya Onu, the Abia capital lags way behind in terms of development, when compared with her peers like Asaba, capital of Delta State; Enugu, capital of Enugu State; Benin, capital of Edo State and all the capitals of the other states created alongside Abia in 1991.
There is no meaningful development in terms of infrastructure, architecture, industry, or events that marks Umuahia out as a State capital. This is notwithstanding its great potential to be a reference point for tourism, industry, and commerce. The architectural wonder known as ‘Ojukwu Bunker’, for one, is domiciled in Umuahia. The historic War Museum, where some of the relics of the artilleries, aircraft, and other ammunitions deployed during the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War), is hosted in Umuahia. Umuahia remains the home of some of Nigeria’s iconic leaders; the first Nigerian military Head of State, General Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi and first premier of Eastern Nigeria, Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara.
For 32 years, worse in the last 24 years, Abia was run as a fiefdom by some feudal lords and their political minions, who saw the state as their private enclave. This group of people deployed State resources and crude power to muzzle opposition and voices of reason. They created mini states within the state and handed them over to their hirelings as compensation for acts of terror metted out to innocent citizens and political opponents and in the process bought graveyard peace.
But like the scripture says, evil can only endure for a while, no matter how long it lasts. So, on March 18, 2023, the people of Abia State, after several attempts at changing the status quo, eventually spoke in one voice by taking back their State. Their weeping was turned into joy, and the years of mourning turned into dancing. Indeed, ‘Help is here’. The Lord did a great thing for them whereof they were glad!
One hundred days after the silver lining appeared on the horizon with the election, inauguration, and subsequent assumption of office by Dr. Alex Otti, OFR, as the fifth democratically elected Governor, Abia State has begun a journey for true and enduring greatness; a journey that would see her truly assume that place of pride as God’s Own State.
For the first time since its creation, particularly in the last 24 years, the citizens are beginning to feel the impact of government and governance in a very unique way. Today, we have a government that is matching words with action. In his inaugural address to the state on May 29, 2023, Governor Otti declared a state of emergency in three sectors of the economy – Environment (emphasis on ridding Aba and Umuahia of wastes that were threatening to overrun the two major towns), Health and Education.
Today, 100 days in office, Aba is free of mountainous refuse heaps, an ugly legacy left behind by the immediate past administration. The same goes for Umuahia. Beyond just clearing the wastes, the government has also set up a process to ensure the sustainability of the new culture of hygiene in Aba and Umuahia, in particular, and Abia State in general.
In the Health sector, the Dr. Otti administration has taken a bold step to revamp the primary and secondary health facilities, the majority of which are in comatose condition across the state. Under the state of emergency, the government has embarked on a programme of reconstructing and equipping three general hospitals in each of the three senatorial zones of the state – Abia North, Abia Central, and Abia South. It is expected that within the next few weeks, after the 100 days of this administration, these three facilities would be ready to serve the health needs of Abians. Before then, however, the government had declared free medicals for its citizens across the state, and this programme is expected to run until the end of this year.
The Education sector is also receiving very urgent attention. Apart from coming up with a formal policy on Education for the state, the new government has already concluded plans and now in the process of setting up 17 model primary schools, one in each local government area of the state. Also, public schools, especially primary and secondary schools, whose lands have been encroached upon and either appropriated by former office holders or used as compensation for politicians and other cronies are being retrieved.
The ‘New Abia’ State Government, under the watchful eyes of Dr. Alex Chioma Otti, was unequivocal in its promise to ensure that public workers in the state receive their salaries on or before the 28th of every month. Salary payments of civil servants in the state, local governments, and other public sector workers, before now, had been a subject of controversial segmentation between the so-called “core and non-core” civil servants. Worst, still, payment of salaries in the last eight years before the coming of this present administration had always been conducted in arrears, many times falling past due by upwards of three months.
Since assuming office, Dr. Alex Otti has kept to his promise and has paid all categories of civil servants in both the state and local governments latest by the 28th of every month. The Governor has also paid the two months’ salary arrears – April and May – inherited from his predecessor. Beyond prompt and regular payment of workers salaries, Governor Otti has also started the fulfilment of his promise to ensure that verified pension arrears of retired workers, in some cases excess of over 40 months, are defrayed by December 31, 2023.
Whereas the Otti administration may not be putting emphasis on celebrating the first 100 days in office, like some of the other states, the government, however, has certainly accomplished so much within that short period.
Much earlier in the life of the administration, the Alex Otti government initiated a process to sanitise the internal revenue generation system in the state. Before this time, the state’s revenue generation programme was shared out to all comers, including political thugs. The process of getting citizens to fulfill their civic obligations to the state was everything but sane. Thugs applied all sorts of violent and intimidating tactics to subdue and extort hapless citizens in the name of revenue generation. Some of these crude strategies on several occasions resulted in fatalities on our roads and in our markets.
Today, however, with the introduction of the digital system of tax payment and revenue generation, Abia State has succeeded in ridding the streets and markets of brigands who had hitherto made life hellish for citizens, especially traders and other small and medium scale entrepreneurs.
Addressing a townhall meeting shortly after the launch of the digital tax system, Governor Otti told the gathering of stakeholders, including transporters and market men and women, that the new government in Abia is a responsible one and will always put the people first in policy enactment and implementation.
The Governor said that the whole essence of digitalising the tax regime in the state is to eliminate all forms of sharp practices, including fraud, diversion of proceeds, and middlemen.
“Now, you can pay from the comfort of your home or office, get digital receipts on your mobile devices. We can authenticate your receipts through a code, I believe it’s a QR code. We can read your receipts and know whether they’re authentic or not.
“This scheme is carefully designed to develop and empower our people. It will lead to employment generation and also give confidence to our people that their payments are getting to the right place,” Governor Otti explained.
In under 100 days, the Otti administration had embarked on several projects to better the lives of Abians. Every sector was a priority. Security, roads, health, environment, education, power, agriculture; even sports, youth development, information, women affairs, all suffered neglect under previous administrations and particularly in the last 24 years.
Some of the other significant achievements of the Alex Otti government within 100 days in office are the ongoing reconstruction of no fewer than 11 roads in Aba, most of them at various stages of completion, and the launch of the ‘Operation Crush’, a multi agency security Taskforce to combat crime in the State.
Shortly after he was inaugurated as the fifth democratically elected Governor of Abia State, Governor Otti hit the roads in Aba, where he handed over nine critical roads to some reputable construction companies among which were CCECC, MCC and Craneburg, for either total reconstruction or palliative works. The roads include University Road, Green Avenue, Udeagbala Road, Shallom Road, Umuimo Road, Old Express Road, Abak Road (with adjoining streets), Queen’s Street and Jubilee Road. The number was soon to increase to 11 with the addition of Cemetery Road and Emelogu Road.
In Umuahia, the State capital, the government has signalled the intention to widen the Ossa Road, leading to Okpara Square, the city centre. The road, which was poorly dualised by a previous administration, will be turned into a six-lane double carriage way by the time Governor Otti is done with it. Compensation package has already been worked out for owners of properties whose houses would be affected by the reconstruction, talk of a government that cares about its citizens.
Meanwhile, while waiting for Ossa Road to commence, some strategic roads in the State Capital are receiving face-lift with ongoing palliative works. Also, as part of the overall plan to jump-start the rejuvenation of the economy of Umuahia, the government has embarked on what it called, ‘Operation Light-up Umuahia’. It is believed that this project would help establish a nightlife for the capital city that usually goes to sleep once it gets dark.
With about 30 brand-new Toyota Hilux vehicles equipped with communication gadgets already deployed for the operation by the State, Operation Crush is the Alex Otti administration’s answer to violent crimes, including kidnapping for ransom. The Umunneochi-Isuikwuato axis, which had been a hotbed for kidnapping activities, even before the Otti administration, is a major reason for setting up this security task force Barely one month of operation, sanity is speedily returning to the Abia end of the Enugu-Umuahia-Aba Expressway, especially the sore points around Lokpanta in Umunneochi.
Indeed, the journey to rejuvenating Abia has started in earnest, and Dr. Alex Chioma Otti, from emerging accounts, obviously has his hands firmly on the plough and not looking back. The days, weeks, months, and years ahead will tell more.
•Uko is the Chief Press Secretary to Abia State Governor, Dr. Alex Otti