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A quarter so far; FENRAD X-raying governor Alex Otti’s first anniversary

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On Saturday, March 18, 2023, Abians broke their unwritten covenant with the PDP after almost a quarter-century of governance. The choice (to break this unwritten pact) was not without an electoral challenge. For days, the Abia governorship election results remained in Abuja, where the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, as the Election Management Body, EMB, reviewed the results from their own backend following protestation and crisis that trailed the number of votes cast in Obingwa LGA.

It cannot be gainsaid that Governor Alex Chioma Otti looms large with an exceptional heroic proportion among the people. He is the closest to Dee Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory, at least in recent memory, when it comes to popularity and acceptance an Abia governor would enjoy.

May 29, 2024, Governor Alex Otti clocks one year in office. This simply means that he has so far spent a quarter of his mandate, with three more years to go. There are a lot of positive outcomes to harvest, there are also areas that need improvement. Foundation for Environmental Rights, Advocacy and Development, FENRAD, a pro-democracy and environmental rights advocacy group based in Abia State, takes a survey of the one-year journey so far; examining the prospects and challenges ahead.

Infrastructure:

Governor Otti, upon assuming office as the fifth democratically elected governor, began massive road construction, with some of these roads being roads flagged off or begun by his predecessor or those simply abandoned by successive governments, like the famous Port Harcourt and Ossah roads which today underscore the infrastructural hallmark of his government. In addition to massive road projects should be added road maintenance with re-asphalting and recoating still going on in many critical roads like Ikot-Ekpene Road. Intra-city road projects are seen in Ehi, Shalom, Umuimo, Pepple’s and other roads in Aba. Umuahia, the state capital, is not left out too. The Governor had vowed to also take this massive road construction to Ohafia and Arochukwu in order to cover all senatorial zones, with the Umuahia-Bende-Ohafia road undergoing both expansion and reconstruction.

Also are streetlights being installed in many strategic locations in Aba and Umuahia, just like the Governor said when he talked of restoring nightlife in Aba and Umuahia immediately he came on board. Areas like Azikiwe Road, Emelogu Road, Aba Motor Park and others bear evidence of this claim.

Health infrastructure too has witnessed a facelift, even though the journey remains by far a long one. The Abia State University Teaching Hospital, ABSUTH has been revamped while Abia State Specialist Diagnostic Centre in Umuahia and the Amachara Specialist Hospital, both, have been rehabilitated. There is a pledge by the Governor to build a ‘medical village’ in Abia to cater to the health needs of Ndị Abịa, which when fulfilled could give the state pride of place medically. The ₦567.2 billion appropriation currently passed by the sitting Abia eighth assembly allocated 15% to healthcare. In spite of government’s resolve to address the gaps in the health sector, it will take decades to fix primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare in Abia State, according to the Foundation’s finding. This claim is hinged on the fact that with multi-sectoral challenges of governance currently facing the state, not even a two-term of eight years could address the health needs of the urban poor and rural dwellers down to the ward level, if only primary and secondary healthcare systems are to be prioritised. Nevertheless, the determination to fix the broken health sector is what is key and perhaps a leeway.

In the area of education, learning and physical infrastructure is still not largely available after one year. This is a little worrying. However, it has to be understood that the neglect and abandonment of decades in education, chiefly occasioned by past administrations, cannot be addressed in just one year. There is a seeming resolve to do better. The 2024 budget earmarked 20% of its allocation to education, a quantum improvement from past administrations when less than 10% was usually earmarked for a critical sector like education. It has to be stated too that Abia State does not yet have a befitting public library or book repository to enhance research and support the growth of knowledge economy, as what exist now are cold, dilapidated, decrepit structures. The proposed site of Aba Library, for example, has been taken over by some ticket touts since previous administrations, a practice FENRAD would want to see come to an end.

Agriculture remains key in contemporary times. Economic viability of states these days does not necessarily mean a state with a large deposit of oil and gas resources or even untapped solid minerals but also states with laudable agricultural policy that encourages mechanised, innovative and smart farming (agritech). Food crisis is not letting up as food inflation shows no sign of abating these days. Cultivating and putting the Abia arable land to agricultural use is key. Though the governor seems to appreciate the challenge when he hinted at training 50,000 Abia farmers across the 17 local government councils to ensure that the food supply chain is robust, how that policy is to be carried out remains to be seen. Abia has to prioritise investment in agriculture so as to enhance food production and processing. Research findings by the Foundation shows that states can no longer rely on federal revenue or monthly handouts as the need to look inwards keeps growing. Also, there is a plan to introduce dairy farming in Abia State. This is a welcome idea but the plan has to be structured and laid out. Rural road infrastructure will go a long way in mobilising labour, enhancing communication and creating markets for agricultural produce

Social infrastructural development is another seminal area. Recently, the Governor visited the abandoned Enyimba Hotel, a project capable of boosting revenue and creating jobs, whether direct or indirect. The talk of partnering with the private sector in this area could be a key driver of the economy.

Reducing poverty and inequality is the goal of every government. Poverty, relatively, according to the National Bureau of Statics, NBS is at 30%, appreciably lower than 40.1% national poverty index. But Abia can do better. Reducing poverty to a single digit before the end of 2027 should be the task before the government. According to statistics from Dataphyte and other local rating agencies, Abia is one of the six states with an alarming unemployment rate, something that represents a far cry from the 4-6% unemployment stood at in the first four years of return to democracy in May of 1999. Currently, the state ranks tenth as one of the states with high cost living. While these are cumulative effects of poor governance of years ago, they should guide the current government in mapping poverty, decision making and other projections, the Foundation believes.

Financial discipline remains yet another critical area. The Governor has vowed to make financial/fiscal discipline his watchword. To cut the cost of governance, Dr. Otti appointed only 19 commissioners, something less than the number (over twenty) seen in the past where even armchair media aides operated without an office. The best way to go about financial prudence is to make financial disclosures regarding public spending quarterly, reports of which should be domiciled on the Abia official website for easy access, referencing and viewing. The issue of the ‘missing airport’ failed to holistically indict past officials in any financial misdemeanor, even though the ‘financial review process’ (not a forensic audit report) revealed how seven companies owned by persons in government received contracts awards without competitive tender nor listing, and how procurement was slanted when alternative payment system was used instead of payment voucher. The seventh house owes Ndi Abia an explanation for its role in the whole thing; especially how the house sanctioned the release of ₦10 bn one day after receiving notice from the former governor. The question is, was the airport project duly debated at the floor of the house, and if so, are there available records of such proceedings? It is necessary to vet past administrations, but such exercise should not be pursued to the extent that it becomes diversionary.

The environment is yet another area where the narrative is changing. For one, there is a consciousness to keep Aba and Umuahia clean as roads are swept daily, gutters cleaned and rubbish evacuated. The unbundling of waste management sector seems to be rewarding, at least for now. But all these alone are not indicators of a sound environmental regime. Though the Governor declared emergency prior, creating laws that help Abia have recycling plants, key in to the globally accepted adaptation and mitigation measures will give Abia an advantage in the era of clean, renewable and sustainable development.

The issue of pension and salaries is one that has become a gray area, even as the governor has tried to live up to his promise of paying salaries on or before the 28th day of the month. Yet, there are workers who are not captured during previous capturing aimed at reducing the number of ‘ghost workers,’ and possibly reducing the wage bill of the state. This does not look good on a government elected on the platform of the Labour Party (workers’ party), especially considering the fact that the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, is threatening to embark on a statewide strike through its state chapter. Also, the rumours making the rounds that the current pension regime failed to clear all arrears as claimed, is another one the government must address.

On the security front, Abia seems to be improving though there are still some gaps with street cultism, coordinated attacks by gunmen, that need addressing. Recently, attacks against posts and beats manned by security agencies became rampant, though this is gradually reducing, the fact that the aftermath of these killings have not birthed a breakdown of order or tension escalation as recently seen in Delta State and Banex shopping plaza in the FCT shows how the Governor manages order in the state, albeit it calls for improved civil-military relations.

Lastly, with Governor Alex Otti going the way he is going, the possibility of foreign investors coming to the state remains quite massive. The enabling environment needed to attract these investors is gradually being put in place: security, which the governor had been trying to fix with his Operation Crush that has helped in checking kidnapping menace in the dreaded Umunneochi-Lokpanta axis; roads, through which the Governor is trying to create arterial nexus in the state; and electricity, which began in what is now the Aba Ringed Fence Area (comprising 9 local councils) since the Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu days, subsequently aided by successive administrations, including that of 2015-2023 which purchased shares in Geometric Power equity in the name of the state.

It is important to also emphasise the need for grassroots governance as germane to every democracy. It is in this regard that the Governor may be found wanting. After one year in office, like other governors, Dr. Alex Otti has yet to ensure conduct of elections at the grassroots. While this is sad, given Otti’s campaign pledge to have elected local council chairmen/women as enshrined in Section 7 of the 1999 constitution, as amended, it denies the grassroots people a sense of governance. The fact that Governor Alex Otti would name his appointees ‘mayors’ is a breach much like ‘transitional,’ ‘caretaker’ committee and ‘provisional’ chairmen as such designations, be they offices or appellations, were never contemplated by the 1999 constitution itself.

One year is not enough to pass a judgement on any government, but more than enough to pass an assessment.

Comrade Nelson Nnanna Nwafor is Executive Director Foundation for Environmental Rights, Advocacy & Development FENRAD. An Environment justice campaigner and Human Rights Activist. 08033383708. He writes from Aba, Abia State.

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