Igbo leaders planned meeting with Buhari: Outcome of talks will determine South-East action – Gov. Umahi

In this no-holds-barred interview, Governor David Nweze Umahi, spoke passionately about why he turned Ebonyi to a construction site; his signature projects, the security situation in the Southeast and the increasing agitations for self-determination in Nigeria.

 

Umahi also disclosed his next political plans, urging that the Southeast be given due consideration in the 2023 Presidency.

 

Excerpts:

 

It can be rightly said that Ebonyi under you has been a construction site, with the magnitude of projects you have executed. Since this is happening at a time of dwindling economy, may we ask how you are financing these projects?.

 

I see what is happening in Ebonyi State as God’s grace; God’s mercy and the determination of a people to rise up from ‘the dust of the nation’ to The Salt of the Nation. First and foremost is that no man can make any of these modest achievements we’ve recorded without the hand of God upon the person. We came to leadership by the fingers of God and we had five-fold covenant with God because it was not for us to be. We made a covenant with God, so what we see is a product of that covenant. Let me say that to head the people at any level of leadership is a product of two things: one is the fear of God and two is the determination to leave legacies behind. We thank God first; then the willingness of the people, the sacrifices of those working with me, my determination and the grace of God upon my life are what I could say are responsible for our modest achievements.

 

Mind you, if we ever borrowed, it might just be the money we borrowed internally to enable us pay salaries before our IGR and federal allocation could come. So, I can vehemently tell you that we have not really borrowed to finance any project. When it comes to foreign loans, we had not obtained any until about last two months ago when we succeeded in concluding what my predecessor started in terms of foreign loans for the Abakaliki 199km Ring Road passing through the eight local government areas of Ebonyi North and Central. Out of that 199km, we have done about 58km on our own mostly on concrete. So, the total loans portfolio is about 150million US Dollars and from June next year, we will start paying back. One success about that is that we insisted that we must use concrete because from experience in this part of the country, as you are doing asphalt, before you finish, the failure on some sections of the road will be staring you in the face.

 

We insisted and we dragged it for two years. Eventually, I signed undertaking that if they exceed the budget, I will put in state funds.

Other borrowings were those that happened before I came in as governor; like the national borrowing that all the states did for HIV/AIDS, then, for the Abakaliki Storm Water Project-one of the most beautiful flood control measures you will ever see in this part of the country. It’s about 90 per cent done and we have started repaying the loan since 2015. The other loan will be the one that is common with all the states, like from the Excess Crude Account; we borrowed for agriculture and of course, it’s centrally deducted from our FAAC Account. So, it’s important to state this very clearly that we have not borrowed as a state to put in any infrastructure.

 

What is your driving force in engaging in infrastructure development?

The people first; don’t forget that I was party chairman, I was deputy governor. So, within those years, I had under-studied the people’s needs. For instance, the Ecumenical Centre which is even better than the one built by CAN in Abuja. It’s part of my covenant with God; He told me to build a place of worship that any Ebonyian anywhere in the world that is troubled, that will face the direction of that edifice and call upon His name, that He will answer. Then the Abakaliki Mall; I feel that we should be able to have a befitting mall. I invited one of the big departmental malls; and what they gave us was very small, and I wondered why people should always think small about Ebonyi.

 

So, one of the driving forces is to rewrite the history of Ebonyi State. We can’t think small so as to build confidence in the people, and raise the integrity of the Ebonyi man; this will bring out his best to compete anywhere. The worst thing is for a man’s confidence to be eroded and poverty can do that; a combination of conspiracy can do that.  The departmental stores said that we should bring N6 billion; we will command 20 per cent, we will build the road, and the infrastructure, we put all that and in two years, we sell off our 20 per cent. I did the calculation and I knew that with N6 billion, we are done with the mall. The mall you saw did not take us up to N10 billion, including the road, infrastructure and everything. Now, we have a mall belonging to the state and we can give it to any facility manager – local or foreign to manage.

 

The important thing is that we have that infrastructure which nobody will take away from Ebonyi State. We also have the Iyere flyover-bridge in Edda. Every year we lose up to 50 people within that axis. Fortunately, I was the one who started the project in 2004 under the then Governor Sam Egwu. Five companies had come and gone there; expatriates, they couldn’t do anything. That was the time you could do a road without stone base. I did that project successfully until he left office. My predecessor, Elechi inherited the road and I was able to complete it. It was one of the roads still standing until God brought me in and I was able to make it a concrete road. The section from Amasiri to Nguzu is about 45km and we have about 1.5km to complete that project. Why did we go into the flyover bridge? I have been there, seen lives lost, no big truck can carry load and climb that hill. So, the flyover bridge is to reduce the slope from 35 per cent to about seven per cent. That’s what we are doing. It’s the normal slope for bridges and flyovers.

 

What about the medical college? It was actually supposed to be a campus of Ebonyi State University for Medicine only. But when the Registrar of the Medical Council came, he said that this was more than being a campus of a university. He said I should allow the Ebonyi State University to continue to partner with the Federal Teaching Hospital Abakaliki which we handed over to the Federal Government and then let this become the University of Medical Sciences. That’s what gave birth to that, but the idea is to cut down medical tourism. In that hospital, we have virtually everything – the cancer centre which the President graciously gave us; the building and the equipment, the isolation centre under SDGs from the Federal Government, then part of the structure of the kidney transplant centre and eye centre, are also gifts from the Federal Government. But beyond that, everything there from scratch is from Ebonyi State Government. And that took us less than two years. So, we have cancer centre, the best eye centre; artificial bed, surgery centres that you can stay outside the country and perform surgery. We have over six theatres to perform surgeries; we have the kidney transplant, the liver transplant, the best lab one can find anywhere in the world. We also have what is not obtainable anywhere in Africa; the dialyzer production. This is a major component that is used to care for kidney disease and transplant. We got a company in Switzerland; then sent the Nigerian Ambassador there to go and understudy them. We’ve paid 100 per cent for the dialyzer plant, so we are going to have the plant in Ebonyi State. We have the patent; so, anywhere that the plant would be built again in Africa, Ebonyi State is going to be a beneficiary.

 

Let me also add that we recently got the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) to establish the heart surgery centre in that university. The idea of that university is a place to produce the best medical students; the idea is that we have a department for traditional medicine, where traditional medicine will be developed.  Another thing is that the university is a complete community in the sense that there is no student that is going to stay outside the campus; there’s no senior lecturer that would live outside the campus. You have everything there; the cinema, different sports complexes for staff and students, there are swimming pools, it’s a complete community that would depend substantially on solar. The water will be non-stop.  Still on your question, the road is the most important infrastructure, you have to develop the road, not stomach infrastructure. You have to send the children to school and you have to develop the healthcare system, then have to empower the people. But unfortunately, we have to revisit the desire of our people to work.  What makes China tick is that everybody is working.

 

We will still build 5km road in each of the 13 local government areas; I don’t think that there is any local government that we don’t have 20km concrete road. We know the problem of our people and that’s why we are addressing them. There is no local government headquarters in the state that we can’t access within 45 minutes from the state capital. What about the airport that we are building? We have Enugu, Abia, Cross River, Benue and partially Akwa Ibom states as the catchment areas. We are an agricultural state, so, we think of how to sell our vegetables. We want to develop our commerce. We want to develop along that side aeronautical engineering where planes can come for checks. We are also building the first concrete runway for planes and we are happy doing that. It’s over 14 inches thick; the terminal building is the largest you can find anywhere in Nigeria. Before the end of January 2021, we would have been able to build up to 2.2km of the runway, so, we will be looking at about 1.3km next year. By May next year, we should be able to hold the 7th anniversary celebrations of the administration there.

 

You were quoted as saying that direct labour was the best approach to achieving result in government. What do you mean, especially when people allege that direct labour scheme is a form of conduit to siphon money?

If the use of direct labour is a way of carting away money and it’s going to the people, then, it is empowerment. That’s the only thing I will say because even if you walk on water, your enemies will say that you are blowing dust. But the important thing is that any project that we conceive and execute, take it to anywhere in this country, you will never get that cost. Our cost is like 40 to 50 per cent and the quality is of utmost standard. When we started building the first flyover, there was petition to the EFCC that it was a way to siphon money; that one was by contract. The EFCC operatives came and stayed in the state for three months without our knowledge.

 

One of the pillars we were casting was what frightened the people they sent. After three months, they took pictures and went back. Another thing that happened was a similar petition to the ICPC. They sent people to come and see what we were doing. Those who came were biased; they were bought over and they went and wrote stinker against us. The then Chairman said their report was inconsistent with what he was seeing in the social media. So, he came by himself using taxi from Enugu. When he got to Ebonyi State, he took Keke disguising himself. He told us this during the award they gave to us. So, after visiting the place, he went back and asked them how they got the report they had submitted. He then told them that they had to go back to Ebonyi with their own money to do the job well.

 

The important thing is that if you say that direct labour is a conduit for siphoning money, siphoning it to where; has any of these projects been evaluated if there is no prudence? Direct labour jobs are given to the stakeholders and the ministries, so, how do you get the money back from them? It’s the most dangerous thing to do. Whether it’s direct labour or contract, you don’t make more than 10 per cent profit from here. And I bet anybody who wants to try, let him come and take any of our flyovers. Our twin flyovers cost us less than N1.3 billion, each one up to 500m length, some are 300m length. Who can build that at that rate? The Senate committee came with their equipment and tested the flyovers; you can ask them their comments.

 

Even when your critics agree that your projects are of high quality with some of them well ahead of the state, but there are many who also believe that some of these projects have no bearing to the needs of Ebonyi people, while others are worried about their sustainability. What’s your take?

 

That’s exactly what I want to do; to build projects that are ahead of time, projects of the future. One of my critics had even said that I build flyover where there is no water; but bridges are built where there is water and not flyover. What we are building is to secure the future of our people and it’s beginning to yield results. If you check, before 2015, you wouldn’t see holdup anywhere in Ebonyi State. But security-wise, the infrastructure and roads we are building, in the evening you will see a lot of holdup. So, without these flyovers, you imagine what could have happened. We have about six flyovers on the African Trans-Saharan highway running from Enugu going down to Ebonyi, to Ogoja to Cameroun. Imagine how busy that road would be without flyovers.

 

Before we built these flyovers, in the presence of my wife, some children were crushed to death at some of these intersections as soon as we came on board. So, lives are being saved through these flyovers. These projects are actually well thought out for the future of this state. For instance, the medical college. Government runs nothing, we had advertised for those who can run it, but because of COVID-19 and insecurity in the country, we didn’t get response from foreign investors. We actually want foreign investors who can run schools and hospitals to take it over. So, the last alternative is to talk to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference because they have their own university and it’s an organised community. They came and said that the way we described the place was much lower than what they saw. So, they are very much interested. We have agreed to run the university as a state for a year, then, they take over.

 

During my tenure, they will take over the place and run. We’re working on an MOU. The NUC has approved; admission is ongoing and we will do the first matriculation in December and a lot of people are applying. All the equipment that we have for specialised areas of medicine, we have agreed that there will be retainership for maintenance and running for three years. It’s part of our payment agreement and we have paid for over 95 per cent of these equipment. We are also making some contingent plans to ensure that these things are out of the hands of government. We have advertised for the running of the mall; no government runs malls.  We are currently processing the advertisement; over 50 persons and companies have applied.

 

When I went to see Mr. President and sought for financial assistance to help me get some equipment for the airport; some of my friends started criticising me, saying why are you not sourcing funds for Southeast, why are you doing so for Ebonyi? My response to them is that I’ve done a lot for the Southeast as Chairman of the Governors’ Forum. Through my effort during a delegation to Mr President, he approved N10 billion for the rehabilitation of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport through the Ministry of Aviation; note that government spent N5 billion for the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Concerning the Second Niger Bridge, when the former Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari was there, he was always in touch with me over the project. We made efforts to ensure that the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority is funding the project. When the initial railway corridor to Maiduguri was designed, Abakaliki and Awka were excluded. I went to see Mr. President for that. So, if you are building for the entire family, you have to also build for yourself.

 

There is nothing wrong in asking for financial assistance for my state from the President. A lot of states have asked for assistance – Ekiti and Kebbi have asked. So, what’s wrong with my asking for assistance from Mr. President? He is the father of all. We have agreed that when we finish, we will hand over the airport to the Federal Government to concession and run. Entering the airport, one side is for the aeronautical engineering while the other side is what they call medical economic processing zone. We’ve already gotten the approval; what is left is for them to start work. We want to leave most of our projects in the hands of private investors.

 

The most critical issue in the Southeast today is insecurity. As Chairman of South East Governors’ Forum, where are we on the issue?

The issue of insecurity in the region is a little bit complex. Our problems are self-inflicted. We started on a good note; note of marginalization, note of not having equal treatment and I say yes, but they needed to be defined. You can’t make a blanket argument and you can’t insult the governors; you can’t insult the president, is it part of the agitation? I wasn’t in tune with the method of the agitation. There was a time we came together as governors and leaders and said let’s know the agitation; it didn’t start today. Of course, Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu started it and at some point made a blanket statement, saying we shouldn’t do another civil war.

 

And then came Ralph Uwazuruike of MASSOB, but there were all peaceful dialogue during Uwazuruike, which of course, our brother Nnamdi Kanu was part of it before he broke away. Whatever happened that made these agitations turn to hate speeches against the leaders of other regions and also against us, I do not know. But I don’t think that it’s the right way to go. If you want to be on your own, you don’t need hate speech to do that. If there was marginalisation, did it just start with this administration? The answer is no. We had had virtually all the opportunities in the previous administrations. Why was it that our people did not use those opportunities to redress these issues? Why didn’t they do it during Obasanjo or Jonathan?

 

Today, some of the people in vantage positions then are the ones writing open letters to Mr. President. In the Southeast, you see several abandoned federal projects, probe a little; you will discover that some of our sons and daughters frittered the funds meant for those projects. So, when it comes to the issue of marginalisation, Mr. President believes that we should sit on a table and discuss it. If our people are shortchanged in terms of promotion, just say it open, Mr. President this is not right. A lot of things are happening in my government which I don’t know, but unless you bring it to my knowledge that’s when you can hold it against me. That’s where we are; we want our children to bring their points so that we reason together. Don’t forget that the Federal Government had sent a delegation led by the Defence Minister to find out what was the problem; they urged us to bring our strong points so that we reason together. We can’t resort to violence and say we want a nation of our own.

 

The unfortunate thing is that the matter has gone beyond IPOB. The kidnappers, the armed robbers, the cultists; they now get themselves recruited without the endorsement of IPOB and we see the killings that are going on now, they are carried out by these armed robbers. There have always been armed robbers; armed robbers are found everywhere. They find it so easy to wear the toga of the IPOB and commit their evil. And we said to IPOB, you need to redeem your name whether proscribed or not so that we now know these criminals and deal with them accordingly.  Don’t forget about people talking; some are talking out of fear, some are talking out of profiteering, some people are talking out of political benefits. I don’t talk about all these things because when God gives you leadership of any sort, He will demand a return for it. I know that the way we are going about it is not the right way. Whether our brother Nnamdi Kanu is before the court or not, I prefer that this violence should stop; I prefer that we identify the people doing the killings and face them squarely. IPOB said that they are not the ones; but they need to redeem their names while we seek political solution. We need political solution to the issue.

 

Ohanaeze Ndigbo has set up a committee that has gone ahead to collate all the problems- marginalisation and other issues. They have given it to us and we’ve shared it to the five Southeast governors; we are making inputs and by the time we do the collection, we would be able to know where we stand. We would hold another meeting and we will go before Mr. President and say ‘Sir, these are the feelings of our youths’. I feel this is the way to go.  That is the basic truth; anyone who wants to deceive himself or herself can go ahead. I am not a politician; by the time 2023 comes and if it pleases God, I will go back to my business. But while I am on this seat, I owe our people the truth, I owe God the truth to see what we can do to bring peace in the Southeast. I am not looking for anything. I am not worried because this is a phase.

 

I am doing everything possible to bring peace; to bring understanding, to let our people have a collective of voices into one and let the Federal Government say to us go to hell. Then, we come back home and say what do we do as a people? You don’t shave a man’s head in his absence. There has never been a time there was a referendum where all the Igbo came together and said they want Biafra. So, you may want Biafra; I don’t want Biafra, but everybody should come together.

 

Those who want Biafra, if the Federal Government says to us ‘to hell’, then they can have Biafra. Those who don’t want Biafra like in Ebonyi State, we don’t want Biafra, because when we were together, we were badly marginalised; our people were good for house boys and girls and nobody is thinking not to do that again. It could still repeat. We are afraid to be house boys and house girls again. For self-determination sake, allow us to come to the level of other states and then we can compete. Right now, we can’t compete.

 

Why is it that the Southeast governors can’t speak with one voice even on the issue of security for the region; just recently the Anambra Governor was said to have accused his colleagues from the zone of being responsible for the violence in his state? Also, we noticed that the new medical university is named after you, why?

 

I don’t think the Anambra governor had said that. I spoke with Prof Charles Soludo to ask him whether the governor actually said that and he said contrary to that, that the governor said that Ebonyi governor is a gentleman. This happened just few days back because I wanted to respond to that. But what I had said to that piece of material on social media is that this is a very critical time; all leaders must avoid hard drugs and alcohol because for anybody to say that, he must be a product of hard drug and alcohol. I wouldn’t know how the governor of Imo State would send his people to go and be killing people in Anambra State or the Governor of Ebonyi State would send people to be killing people in Anambra. If there is anybody from Imo State that is causing violence in Anambra, so far he is in Anambra, that person is an indigene of Anambra State. Just like Anambra people that are here, if they are causing insecurity, I cannot say that Anambra people are causing violence for me; they are my subjects and I have to deal with them according to the law.

 

Let me say that I never saw Governor Willie Obiano say that; I never heard him say that. Regarding the Ebubeagu; the last time we were in Enugu, it was agreed that all the states must inaugurate the security network before the end of the year. Abia State has signed Ebubeagu into law. In fact, this Ebubeagu are not new; we all had our vigilantes before now, but the Southeast leaders were looking for a common name and common joint action, so that what is happening in Imo will be happening in Abia and there will be collaboration. There will be a control centre in Enugu and, of course, we would have our tracking system. There was no time that we said Imo people would be recruited and posted to Ebonyi State. There’s nothing like that. In Ebonyi State, Ebubeagu is fully functional, not partially functional.

 

This month, we are going to launch it because we agreed to launch it individually and before January, we will do joint launching in Enugu. I don’t want to discuss security on the pages of newspaper, but if you ask the security people, they will tell you the marvelous achievements that the Ebubeagu had recorded in the state. For me, we are speaking with one voice. It was the Neighbourhood Watch in Ebonyi that was turned to the Ebubeagu. It’s the Forest Guards in Enugu that was turned to Ebubeagu; we had the Bakassi Boys in Abia State turned to Ebubeagu; we had the Kpochapu in Anambra State turned to Ebubeagu.

 

These are not new, but they are working. But the problem is that everyone that the Ebubeagu arrest, they would shout that Ebubeagu are after IPOB. This person might not be a member of IPOB, but once he is into criminal activity and is arrested, they would shout that Umahi is after IPOB; Ebonyi is after IPOB. That’s the impediment. If you say that our people are not speaking with one voice, I will say yes, but whether governors are speaking with one voice, I will say yes because we cannot afford not to speak with one voice. So, the Ebubeagu is working and you have to also know that Ebubeagu is a rebirth of our vigilante that has always been there. And some opposition people have been worried whether the Ebubeagu would be used during the elections, but we have been asking for state police. If you are pushing it in the National Assembly, the Ebubeagu is also something like state police that will have their own command and all that. Nonetheless, when you commit a crime here and you’re a member of the Ebubeagu, we have the law; we have sent some of the Ebubeagu people to face the law when they misbehaved.

 

Our law on Ebubeagu is very strong because if you don’t do that, it’s like you are training a lion. If there are no codes to train the lion, it can turn against the owner. That’s why you do not do politics with security.  On the naming of the University of Medical Sciences after me, it was wholly the idea of the State House of Assembly.  One day, one governor called me and asked why I named the university after myself. I said to him: ‘build your own and name it after yourself.’ What is your problem, is to build it or to give it a name; what’s in a name? The truth is the name of that university now is David Umahi Nweze University of Medical Sciences, but that’s not my intension.

 

My intension is that it can answer King David University, referring to the King David of the Bible. I sent a name to the House of Assembly, but in their own wisdom, they changed it to David Nweze Umahi University, and for me, it sounds odd. So, when we go to the House of Assembly to turn it to a private university, we are also going to insist that it bears King David and if the Catholics are running it, it will bear King David Catholic University of Medical Sciences. But let me clarify that the equity is different from the investment. The investment is 100 per cent,  but the equity would be worked out. What is important is that this thing is available for our people for profit making and the future of our people. What is important is that this thing is there; it creates its own chains of businesses and economic activities.

  • To be continued tomorrow.- The Sun.

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