THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma
By several accounts, the South-East Summit on the Economy and Security in Owerri on 28-29 September 2023 was successful on various metrics. The indices include the attendance and participation of the region’s governors, influential stakeholders, robust discussions, and the feel-good element of positive expectations. The communique was not ready on Thursday, 5 October 2023, but the organisers are preparing an Action Plan for the governors.
The region needed to convene. It has been some time since Prof Greg Ibe hosted the first of several gatherings at his Gregory University, Uturu, under the auspices of the World Igbo Summit Group. The first one raised great expectations, which the Igbo had yet to realise.
World Trade Organisation DG Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gave an outstanding speech that outlined the Trade & Economic Roadmap for the South-East 2023-2033. She started with a SWOT analysis of the region and an environmental scan. The strengths include industrious people scattered around the world, many entrepreneurs, and human capital. The South-East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo feature on the WAEC School Certificate Top Ten performers for 2022. Abia led, followed by Anambra. Weaknesses include excessive individualism that weakens the community bond, fragmentation, and insecurity.
The former Finance Minister asserted that good governance could solve the security challenges of the South-East. “The governance of our states can be stronger and deliver more. We are Ndigbo, and we should hold ourselves to higher standards. We need to do better.” This column will analyse the Okonjo-Iweala South-East Recovery Manifesto in the coming weeks.
Expectations are abuzz in the region. The Secretariat of the South-East Governors Forum ran my article of 10 September outlining a new vista of hope (https://enugumetro.com/the-awakening-in-the-southeast/) in their new South East Journal released to coincide with the Owerri summit. Dr. Uche Nworah coordinated and sought views and perspectives from citizens. I shared as follows.
We will examine what the various state governments are doing, starting with Abia State.
“What is your expectation from governors of the Southeast, and how will you assess their performances so far with emphasis on your state?
“I expect Big, Hoary, Audacious Goals (BHAG) from the South-East governors, particularly Abia State’s governor. A BHAG is a visionary and compelling goal covering 10-25 years that should stretch the government and citizens because it appears impossible. It should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. An example is the plan to restore water in Enugu within 180 days after more than 20 years of no potable water.
A BHAG in the South-East was the establishment of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as an institution not tied to the apron of any other. Others include Governor Sam Mbakwe’s industrial projects and iconic infrastructure in Imo State or Jim Nwobodo in Anambra State.
Such a vision has yet to happen in Abia State. However, when challenged, the Government has promised an agency to manage Aba; I expect it will include a clear vision for the city that will stretch the imagination of citizens and invite our participation. The only soul-lifting pronouncement is the vision of creating a six-lane driveway into the state capital.
We need BHAGs for industrialisation or industrial revival, agriculture, AI, and human capital. South-East is the laggard in Southern Nigeria. Realising this and acting will cause a revival.
THE STIRRING IN ABIA STATE
Abia State has stirred to indicate possibilities. Governor Alex Otti took two giant steps of flagging off work on expanding the access road to the state capital and the Abia Industrial and Innovation Park (AIIP) foundation on over 1,000 hectares of land in Owaza, in Ukwa West Council. Congratulations. The most critical following action is implementation.
Not surprisingly, the road expansion work ran into a storm on compensations. It requires sensitivity and sensibility. In 1987, I reported for ThisWeek magazine about the outrage of the Obiangwu Community over planned compensation for the lands the government acquired for the Sam Mbakwe International Airport, Owerri. They took to the streets.
I read it in my office in Port Harcourt and drove down as the Regional Correspondent. The crux? The Imo State Government calculated compensation at below-market rates. Payment for such a massive loss of land, houses, memorabilia, and treasured haunts should be decidedly above the market.
For instance, Abia State expects to pay N771m for 130 structures.
Compensations would range from N2m to N50m per structure, according to a report in The Guardian. It does not cut it at first glance. A straight division yields N5, 930, 769 (N5.9M) per building. The experts would then have to examine the specifics. There are hotels on the Ossah Road of at least two floors (two deckings in Onitsha-speak); it is inconceivable that they would not fetch a minimum of N200m compensation each.
A Google check yielded the following. “The average price of land for sale in Umuahia is ₦2,500,000 per plot. The most expensive land costs ₦10,000,000 per plot, while the cheapest costs ₦1,200,000 per plot.” Note that this is dated.
We expect wisdom and the spirit of “Is it fair to all concerned?” to prevail. Citizens on that development axis should not get a raw deal as the price for everyone; they should enjoy a premium, rewarding experience. It is a worthwhile project.
Otti then broke ground for the Abia Industrial and Innovation Park (AIIP), “conceived to serve as a launchpad for our economic rejuvenation, leveraging the many advantages of this location, including but not limited to the oil and gas deposits, nearness to Aba and Port Harcourt cities, n abundance of skilled labour and a secure environment for smooth and uninterrupted production and other industrial activities.”
AIIP fits into the framework of BHAG. Governor Otti stated, “The Abia Industrial and Innovation Park shall exploit the oil and gas wealth in Owaza to drive the socio-economic development of all of Ukwa. This land has suffered untold neglect in the past two decades and more. In other parts of the state, we shall set up structures that tap into the communities’ significant raw materials and human resources to jumpstart the local economies.”
Otti added, “Our target is the international market. What we produce in our farmlands in Obingwa, Isiala Ngwa, Isuikwuato and Umunneochi, Bende, Ikwuano, Arochukwu, and Ohafia will be sold in markets and malls in Europe, America, China, South Africa and across every part of the world. The era of being restricted to the local Ogwumabiri market is over.”
AIIP will host modular refineries, petrochemical and fertiliser plants, and several other chains of enterprises.
“Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Total Energies Limited and the Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone Authority partners in the project have expressed commitment” to its realisation, Businessday reported. Hon Benjamin Kalu, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, assured federal government support.
More of the positives from the governor. ‘The location of AIIP is attractive because it has access to the Atlantic Ocean. At about 30 nautical miles from the Ocean, we shall set up a seaport here. All necessary approvals will also be sought for the designation of the Park as an export processing and free trade zone.
“AIIP is poised to make history as the first cluster in Nigeria, where LPG, CNG, Jet fuel, PMS and Diesel production tank farms will be co-located with other supporting infrastructure for more efficient and commercial production of our made-in-Nigeria liquid fuel.”
AIIP has many optimistic projections, like the Industrial Parks of Anambra State. A caveat is necessary. The bureaucrats in both states got their governors to promise that the projects would create ten thousand (10,000) jobs each over an undefined period.
Check again, gentlemen. Those figures may sound nice, but they are disappointing. At its peak in the 80s, Afprint Textiles in Isolo Lagos had on its roll 4000 workers. It was similar to the Kaduna Textile Mills. The Aba Textile Mill staff strength increased steadily from an average of 1000 in 1980 to 2900 in 1999. The average staffing of Nigerian textile plants also increased steadily over the same period, from 500 in 1980 to 2400 in 1999.
The point is that a projection of 10,000 jobs over four years needs to be revised concerning an industrial complex that would house several firms. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff! The challenge it confronts is genuine and more than just for PowerPoint presentations or for the files of bureaucrats.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 2022 unemployment rates for our states indicate Abia, 37.6%; Anambra, 33.8%; Ebonyi, 31.7%; Imo, 35.9%; and Enugu, 32.5%. These figures are higher than the national unemployment rate of 33.3%, the highest in the world.
While we acknowledge and commend the governors for dreaming big rather than the previous worship at the altar of small goals, this column urges them to remember that Jobs Are Priority Number 1 in the South East.
The unemployment challenge in the region manifests in a lack of job opportunities, underemployment, poverty, and insecurity. It accounts for the ease of recruiting our youngsters into what they would have dismissed as nonsensical.
Free trade zones, seaports, and such sound interesting. The Enyimba Economic City, stymied in red tape, is a 9464-hectare tax and duty-free special economic zone. The dry port at Ntigha has yet to take off despite the best efforts of its promoter, Mr Bill Nkemdirim. In other words, implementation is the real deal for Abians.
Go forth, South-East governors. Dream Big. Execute masterfully. Change the narrative.