Charles Udoh is the commissioner for Information and Strategy in Akwa Ibom State. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, he spoke on the achievements of the Udom Emmanuel administration in the state. According to him, the governor focuses on laying economic foundation that will not only benefit the state while he is in the saddle, but also outlive his administration. He also spoke on some of the recent awards won by the state; the reason for the closure of the Ibom Multispecialty Hospital, among other issues. Excerpts:
The polity is being inundated with talks about the 2019 general election and, already, there are alignment and realignment of forces. Many people believe that a good number of elected public office holders have not justified their mandate not to talk about seeking re-election. May we know some of the achievements of the current administration in Akwa Ibom State?
In the last 30 months or thereabout the government of Akwa Ibom has focused on doing sustainable development in the state. By sustainable development, we mean developmental projects and programmes that are geared towards outliving this administration. You will recall that the current government of Akwa Ibom State came on board and reeled out 5-point agenda which is to be the anchor of whatever government has been doing and will continue to do. And to anchor the 5-point agenda, the government’s focus has been in these key areas- one, industrialisation; two, tourism and three, agriculture. Let me start with industrialisation. Many people are saying industries are hardly sustained; there have been many instances where industries were established, they ran for few years and then they went under. So they wonder, if the industrialisation efforts in the country or successive administrations have not been successful, what makes you think that you’ll succeed in this area. Then our governor says look, our dream is to anchor an industrialisation bench-marking international best practices. You’ll recall that there were industries in the country in the past, set up and ran as an extended arm of parastatals and you find out that ones the government of the day that set up the industries is no longer there, the next man in office does not share that vision, that industry is bound to die. So that’s why we have so many abandoned industries and factories in the country. But in Akwa Ibom we said we would benchmark international best practices whereby government does not dip hands in the coffers of government to build industries, but to provide the enabling environment; make the state attractive and marketable for investors to come to invest. By doing that there are whole lot of things that come into play from providing infrastructure, adequate security to making sure that the governance policy of the state will be attractive to a prospective investor who would want to come. In Africa, integrity of government has always been in question; now without integrity of government, you cannot attract that volume of investment into the state. So in Akwa Ibom State since 2015, we can proudly beat our chest that we have been able to scale a lot of those hurdles. We have been able to turn things around to ensure that our dream of attracting industries as obtained in the developed parts of the world is achieved and so much so that over this period, we can today proudly talk about four major industries in operation in Akwa Ibom State. From the Syringe factory through the metering solution factory; to the paint factory and the tooth pick and pencil factory. Now beyond the factors I have mentioned. These industries are also set up with government providing enabling environment only, without contributing any money from the state into the projects, that’s why we say it is sustainable. Government does not have the ownership of the industries. That means that these industries are set up to run like private entities and you find that we attract these industries and factories in areas where we find markets. One of the things that kill a lot of businesses is that you set up a business and you find out that it is either that your market evaporates or your raw material reservoir evaporates; but we have taken time to ensure that every investor we bring into the state must find a ready market for its product. For instance, the syringe factory- Nigeria consumes 6 billion syringes per annum and spends over 30 million (dollars) in importing syringes. Today, we have the Africa’s largest syringe factory in Akwa Ibom State and that factory cannot even meet the demand of Nigeria; so there’s massive need for expansion. That means that the industry will continue to have success; the same thing with the pre-paid metering factory. Nigeria has moved on to pre-paid metering and we have always had a challenge about that. So, we saw an opportunity and found an investor that believes in the integrity of government in Akwa Ibom State and saw the structure that government has put in place and has come to invest; the same thing with paint factory; the same with tooth pick and pencil industries. Right now, those four are fully in flight. The coconut refinery is under construction as we speak.
The flour mills and plastic manufacturing factories are under construction; and the bamboo processing plant is under construction. All these are geared towards acutalising that dream of industrialisation in the state. Now, the three anchors I mentioned- industrialisation, tourism and agriculture form the fulcrum of what government is trying to do; to diversify the economy; to also fulfill part of the 5-point agenda which I earlier mentioned – poverty alleviation; wealth creation; infrastructural conservation and expansion; political and economic inclusion. Now to actualise that, government never planned to give employment to every Akwa Ibom person but to create opportunities for people to create wealth for themselves. The international best practice is that you don’t create employment; you don’t create wealth within the public sector because that’s not realistic. You create wealth in a diversified economy. We are focusing on diversifying the economy through the routes of industrialisation, tourism and agriculture to create employment to create wealth. And as we speak, we can proudly tell ourselves, I am not sure there is any state in Nigeria in this intervening period that has been able to come up with the number of industries that we have come up with.
Interestingly, the value chain that these industries bring about does not just revolve around direct employments. You see direct employments; and then the impacts on the communities.
You hope the industrialisation drive will be sustained after the current administration?
Yes, our dream is to ensure that by the time the current administration will be exiting, the economy of Akwa Ibom State would have gone a full turn around whereby it will be no longer dependent on the government but the private sector funding the governance structure.
So, we have done that and we are proud to say that the results are very encouraging. While we are doing that we also ensure that we continue to oil the machinery of government structure.
Yes we want to have a turn around and that does not mean you neglect the necessary things that will ensure the people’s comfort. You must continue to fuel that engine. The engine of the economy of the state for the greater part of its 30 years has been the government and that’s why we are insisting and ensuring that the salaries of civil servants are paid promptly. As at December last year, salaries of civil servants were paid on 20th, days before Christmas.
Today, you find that the civil servants in Akwa Ibom are promptly paid. Again, our goal is to ensure that every Akwa Ibom child is educated so that we prepare the next generation of leaders. Our role is to play leadership role.
The governor recently won some awards in sports from the Federal Government. Can you please talk about it briefly?
Talking about sports for instance, when our governor came on board in 2015, his assumption of office coincided with the epileptic performance of Nigeria as a country in the sporting arena.
I recall how badly he felt when Nigeria fell woefully at the Olympics where we came back with a solitary bronze medal in a country of nearly 200 million people whereas smaller countries with as small population as Agege went home with gold medals.
And he said look if somebody fails to show the way; Akwa Ibom State was willing to take the lead. That’s how our government began to reach out to various sporting bodies to partner with them. We started from home; we made sure that our home team moved from being a relegation struggler to a championship winning team; the same thing with the national team. Today, we can see that things are changing with the National Team. We have also provided the best sporting arena in the country and it costs a huge amount of money to maintain sporting arena, when the National Stadium is struggling, the one in Lagos has become a bar. But in Akwa Ibom State we have great sporting arena. In recognition of the contributions our government in Akwa Ibom has made to sports development in the country, the governor was given three awards recently. The awards were for sports infrastructural development, sports development and best supporting state for the Super Eagles.
They were in recognition of the role the state has played in recent times in providing sports infrastructure, grassroots sports development and providing the platform for the qualification of the Super Eagles for the FIFA World Cup. The awards were for the part the state has played in recent times towards sports development in Nigeria. You will recall that the Super Eagles qualified for the World Cup. All thanks to the logistics support and the support from fans in the state during their qualifying matches in Uyo.
You also recall that for the first time match bonuses and other entitlements to the players and other logistics were not a problem for the team. The state government had a hand in that and that contributed to their seamless qualification.
In sports development you also recall that two teams from the state qualified for the finals of the FA Cup last year. Akwa United eventually won the male version while the female team lost on penalties to their Rivers’ counterpart and this shows the level of inputs we have made in sports.
We also hosted a nouvelle competition, the state youth sports festival which was used to discover budding talents from the grassroots and that is a plus for total sports development not just football. Akwa United is also representing the country in CAF Confederations Cup and that is courtesy of the level of funding of that club.
In the area of sports infrastructure the Godswill Akpabio Stadium has continued to enjoy superior maintenance and provides the country with the best playing turf, especially for the Super Eagles.
In addition we are continuing with the building of 10 sports centres in the 10 federal constituencies of the state and work on a new stadium for Eket city has started. That stadium will have an artificial turf so that our football clubs can also be accustomed on such turfs since most of the pitches they use outside Akwa Ibom are artificial.
There’s lot of controversy over the industries you spoke about, particularly, their location. Some people say they were located at the governor’s part of the state. What actually is the truth?
Akwa Ibom is a very unique state. It is a state that probably has the highest number of local newspapers. In fact, you have much more number of newspapers in Akwa Ibom alone than you have in the entire country. Now, people are playing politics with development, the current government is not playing politics with development. The governor is not a person who desperately wanted to be a governor. He is not a person whose life or successes depended on being a governor; No. He is a man who was comfortable with his career, just like some of us who are in government today. So, the focus of government today is not to do things the way it used to be done. Our focus is, as our governor stated from day one, that he was focusing on people-oriented governance; driving sustainable development. If our governor is the kind of person who wants to focus on public applause; who will say, ‘O let’s do things for public acclaim, or do things people will see you and clap for you’. No. The reality is that in everything as a country or as a human being, there’s something called resistance to change; especially when people do not share the same ideology with you. All they think about is to run you down so that they can take over government. But he has constantly said to the people of Akwa Ibom that because you are on the other said of the political divide does not mean that you have to debase the state because you want to get to power; No; you need to join hand to build so that if God gives you power, you will have a better state to build on. What you will not see our governor do is to abuse anybody. He has never abused or used any foul language on anybody. We are focused on development; we are focused on moving the economy of Akwa Ibom from one point to the other and the signs are showing today. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in the last two years has visited us as the state with the 2nd highest volume of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI); that is credit to the government and that aligns with the thoughts of government. We are only behind Lagos State which is understandable. When people come and say ‘O, what they are saying is not true’, we tell them come and see for yourselves. That’s why when we wanted to commission the syringe factory, we brought the Vice President of Nigeria; we have a 30-minute documentary on it. But the people on the other side will go to sponsor some things in some newspapers to debase government which is all blatant lies. They want to debase the government so that they can get to power; so when you get to power what next? Are you going to come back to tell the people ‘O that thing I told you was a lie’, or what are you going to do?
For us, integrity is key. If you don’t have integrity, no investor will come to you. The syringe factory has about eight production lines; each of those machines costs one million dollars. There are several other installations in the factory that costs several millions of dollars. It is the largest syringe factory in Africa and it is zero naira commitment from the state government.
Foreigners coming into Nigeria from far country to put down such huge amount of money demands trust and integrity on the part of the governor; because it is not possible for anybody to make such investment if he does not trust the governor or if the governor’s integrity is in doubt. He believes in government and knows that this government has integrity. Now to the question why are the industries concentrated in some areas? One, state has a development plan; two; we don’t have absolute control where an investor wants his industry to be sited. Many of us were students of economics, where we were taught factors that affect the location of an industry. These industries are not built by government. If I were an investor and I wanted to set up a ranch; I would ask myself which is the best part of the state to do so? I would then do my own feasibility study and the people would give me land which is their equity contribution, then I build my industry. The third reason is that it makes business sense. In order to cut cost, because there are major costs to incur, cost a power, security, etc; now, if you check, industries in the undustrialised world are built in clusters because of shared services – they can share the same power source; same security, etc. And that’s what we also try to do. Again, you look at the coastal area, that’s where we have the coconut refinery; the seaport; where we have the industrial city; that’s a cluster. We are feeding them with a power plant. The other area where you have the metering factory; syringe factory and flour mill, it is all about the choice of the investor.
The decision of the state government to shut the Ibom Multispecialty Hospital, again, has become a controversial issue. Why was the action taken?
Like I said clearly; the current government in Akwa Ibom state, led by Governor Udom Emmanuel, is focused on running government like a business, purely business orientation benchmarking international best practices. If we are investing so much money in a hotel that is over 10 years and we are making zero naira in return; investing billions of naira in a hospital that has the best facility in Nigeria and then for the period it operated it made zero naira returns. Any reasonable government would say, ‘let’s look at this thing again and see what the problem is.’ That is the sensible thing for any forward-looking government to do. And that’s what the government in Akwa Ibom State is doing. How come other hotels are making money and the one here is not generating anything? Let’s look at the books; let’s rejig the system and see where the pitfalls are and correct them.
But the managers are not confortable with that; and we are also not confortable with the state of things with the specialist hospital and we say let’s go back to the drawing board. It will be a very big disservice to the government and people of Akwa Ibom State if we had continued in that model; because it wouldn’t make sense. It is about our focus to build a sustainable development, and for that to happen it must be run as a business.
The decision to close down the hospital now is noting political. We do not focus on applause, otherwise we would have allowed it to continue the way it has been, but because the government in Akwa Ibom is not after pleasing a few people, just to answer good name and get their applause; but is focused on bringing development and sustainable progress to the state, it had to take the sensible step it took.