July 28, 2023, marked 60 days of the Abia Renaissance under the leadership of the Chief Servant, Dr. Alex Chioma Otti. It has been two months of setting the Abia ship on the right course after the recent history of near-ship wreck and crass pillaging.
The narrative thus far rightly approximates John C. Maxwell’s aphorism that, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” In common parlance, a man cannot give what he does not have.
The Transition Committee (TC) for the Abia Renewal Project put together by Dr. Otti with heavyweights such as former World Bank Managing Director and current Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Ms. Arunma Oteh, one-time Treasurer and a Vice President of the World Bank as well as Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and chairman of the committee, the self-effacing Victor Onyenkpa, Chief Operating Officer, KPMG Africa, amongst others was an indication that it was no longer going to be business as usual.
At the inauguration of the TC on April 14, 2023, the then governor-elect, demonstrated clarity of vision when he stressed that he would run a lean government, which would impact the appointment of a lesser number of people but for the greater good of all Abians and those who have made the state as their home.
It was heartwarming, and remains so, when he said he has chosen to frontally address the issues of Aba, the industrial, business hub and heartbeat of the state. From there, he would move to other areas, citing the industrial hub as one of his selected priority projects for Aba.
Buoyed by this, the TC chairman, perhaps with a crystal ball enthused that, “Abians and Nigerians saw Otti’s election as the beginning of the restoration of the lost glory of the state. Igbo see the change Otti would make as a catalyst that would transform the entire Igbo nation as his antecedents show him as one that could work a miracle to make the desired difference.”
And nothing can be nearer the truth than this owing to what Abia has seen in the past 60 days.
Setting the Roadmap
It is an established fact that Abia state was run aground and for anybody aspiring to lead the state must have had an inkling of the parlous state, if not the whole picture of the criminal enterprise that held sway.
It is in this wise that on May 29 when Otti was sworn-in as governor amidst deafening jubilation and hope rekindled that he spoke to the challenge ahead.
He said: “I must be frank to inform you that we have a very difficult and challenging road ahead of us. Abia State is starting, not from zero, but from an enormously negative position. While we were busy battling with the devastating effects of insincere and corrupt leadership, the rest of the world, and even many parts of Nigeria, would appear to have left us behind.
“We have a treasury that has been criminally ravaged to the extent that we have an alleged N50 billion in unpaid salaries, gratuities, and pensions. Our local and foreign debt overhang is reported to be in the region of N200 billion, in addition to other debts to contractors. We have a poorly motivated workforce, extreme youth unemployment, collapsed physical infrastructure, and a terribly frail primary, secondary, and tertiary healthcare delivery system. These are in addition to a broken educational system, urban waste disposal crisis, and a large army of citizens, especially teachers, health workers, including medical doctors and nurses, lecturers in tertiary institutions, Local Government Authority workers, and most painfully, our senior citizens, who feel blatantly betrayed by successive administrations that willfully and unconscionably abandoned them to live in wretched sub-human conditions.”
It was not just lamentation, but acknowledging the work ahead and also offering assurance. “My task is to dry your tears and help you to rediscover who you are and lead you back to the pathway of sustainable growth, development, and prosperity,” the new governor stated.
And to demonstrate his seriousness, he was about the first governor to pick his cabinet and on July 7, 2023, 16 of the 19 commissioners were sworn in after being cleared by the state assembly. And they have set their hands on the plow in redeeming the time for the state.
Aware that carrying the people along is vital in achieving success, Otti set about engaging with critical stakeholders in the state. One of his first stakeholders’ engagement was with traditional rulers, describing them “as critical stakeholders in the rebuilding agenda of his administration,” and soliciting their buy-in in his commitment to building a new Abia.
Before the meeting with the traditional institution, his first engagement was with the bureaucracy of the state civil service on June 3, barely four days after taking over the reins of leadership.
In the meeting with permanent secretaries and heads of departments and agencies, the governor promised to prioritise the welfare of Abia workers even as he promised to tackle ghost worker syndrome in the state civil service through forensic audits of various ministries, agencies, and parastatals.
He further gave the assurance to confirm the genuineness of the actual amount owed to civil servants in the state and work towards tackling the challenges of backlogs of unpaid salaries, gratuities and pensions. It is imperative to note that available figures show that the state has arrears in salaries and subvention at N18,162,102,692.92; pension arrears N21,283,876,789.80; gratuity arrears N27,012,996,061.64; and contractors arrears N4,563,186,896.65.
Further engagements were held with Aba Landlords Protection and Development Association (ALPADA), the various market unions including retired judges in the state to resolve the issue of outstanding benefits and pensions due the retirees for the past 16 years.
In all of these, the good news is the readiness and commitment of the various stakeholders to work with the governor in realizing the Abia Renewal Project.
Knowing the importance of infrastructure, especially roads, to the socio-economic well-being of the citizens, Otti has embarked on massive urban renewal of roads beginning from Aba as he promised. Already, nine roads are undergoing massive rehabilitation. The roads are Azikiwe Road, University Road, Abayi, Green Avenue, Udeagbala Road, Shallom Road, Umuimo Road, Old Express Road, Abak Road with adjoining streets, Queens Street, and Jubilee Road.
Plans have been concluded for the dualisation of Ossah Road Umuahia from the Enugu/Port Harcourt Express Tower Junction to Michael Okpara Square, right inside the Umuahia City centre.
These are in addition to major reconstruction of the dilapidated Port Harcourt Road Aba, and other strategic roads in the commercial city set to begin.
To achieve prosperity for all does not only entail running a lean government, but blocking leakages through ghost workers, illegal rates and levies collection, and the absence of a verifiable accounting process. To this end, the state government suspended the collection of transport levies to pave the way to sanitise the revenue collection and bring an end to all kinds of extortion, intimidation, and harassment of motorists.
The verification exercise for civil servants and local government staff has yielded a remarkable outcome as over 2,300 ghost workers have been weeded out saving the state a princely N220million on monthly wage bill.
Already, there are testimonies to the grand transformation that is taking place in God’s Own State. Take Chief Alphonsus Udeigbo, President of Aba Landlords Protection and Development Association (ALPADA), who believes that the sacking of touts from collecting government revenue and interacting with major stakeholders on priority areas of the tasks of repositioning Abia, was a solid foundation process embarked upon by the Alex Otti administration.
He said: “As I said earlier, Aba landlords and other stakeholders will be monitoring the activities of the government. It will not be business as usual, as was the case for past administrations. We have been giving thumbs up to Dr Alex Otti, for commencing the laying of a solid foundation, that would re-prioritize and reposition the total infrastructure of Abia State, for purposeful development.
“Otti has started engaging in wide interactions with many sectors of the society, including the business, commercial and professional arms, on areas to commence immediate work of rebuilding dilapidated infrastructure. This has come as a surprise to us, as no administration before his, had done so, in the past.
“Otti’s posture had surprised me and my group, in that in the past, we were always ignored, despite writing letters, pleading to have an audience with new governors, to suggest possible areas of development. To me, Dr Alex Obioma Otti has begun on a solid foundation with the posture, to carry the people along in the planning stage. If you want to build a skyscraper, you must lay a strong foundation that will carry such edifice, so that it will not collapse.”
Udeigbo is not alone in appreciating the good work ongoing in the state. A resident living in Ukegbu Road, Elder Kalu Nnanna, acknowledged the efforts of the present administration in Abia State.
“To be honest I have lived in Aba for most of my fifty-nine years and can say that there has been no administration that has hit the ground running like the Alex Otti government. The way they (Otti and his deputy) are going, we’ll soon have the Aba of our dream,” he said.
• Ukpabi, a public affairs commentator, writes from Ohafia, Abia State.