by Stanley Azuakola
Governor Theodore Orji speaks like an aggrieved man. He insists that he is being treated unfairly – by the media (traditional and social), by people who have not visited Abia and especially by his predecessor and former boss, Orji Uzor Kalu, who – he says – has been leading a propaganda war against him.
Reacting to the general negative perception of his administration when he recently hosted a group of journalists, social media influencers and bloggers, Gov. Orji said, “it is about the propaganda of damaging the image of a performing governor.” On the 13th of November, a day before the interaction with the governor, his ex-commissioner of information, Eze Chikamnayo, who resigned a few days before our arrival to compete for a house of assembly seat, told us while on a tour of some projects that, “if you are a man or woman of conscience, when you leave here and you are approached by Facebook and Twitter politicians who do not know their villages but come with their verbal gymnastics to deceive you, tell them the great things you have seen with your own eyes in Abia.”
Clearly there’s a disconnect between how well the government says it has performed in the past seven and half years and what people say.
I arrived Abia two days before the start of the tour because I needed to see things for myself and speak to a few people before the guided tour. The first thing I noticed during my interaction with Abians was that the governor was not very popular especially in the commercial city of Aba. I spoke with almost two dozen people randomly in my two days in Aba, and guess how many told me they were impressed with Gov. Orji’s stewardship? None.
The reason for this might lie in something which every Abia government official we met mentioned. If the Orji administration had an anthem, it would sound like this:
Theodore Orji became governor in 2007… eya eya ooo
But he only started governing in 2012… eya eya ooo
He spent all that time first in service to, and later in battle with his predecessor… eya eya ooo
But Theodore Orji became governor in 2007… eya eya ooo
More than 7 years into his administration, Gov. Orji still puts the blame for Abia’s slow development on his predecessor. For the record, ex-governor Orji Uzor Kalu performed below par during his own eight years, but if I were an Abian, I would tell Gov. Orji that he has had enough time in power to be judged on his own record against his promises and the people’s expectations, and not in comparison with the performance of ex-governor Kalu. If I were an Abian, I would say to the governor, “Excuse me! You campaigned for reelection in 2011, if you now want to convince us that your first four years were not impactful due to the overbearing influence of the ex-governor, on what basis were you reelected?”
I heard some colleagues of mine say they never expected to see any development or project in Abia because before coming, they had heard all sorts of terrible reports about the administration. For me, I expected to see some projects of course and I did.
1. The Abia State Specialist Hospital and Diagnostic Center in Umuahia – A PPP project with six dialysers catering to a range of illnesses including HIV and hepatitis, an eye clinic and a general diagnostic centre. Not a bad project especially as the service is subsidised.
2. The uncompleted Ohobo housing project in Umuahia which is expected to consist of 1200 housing units
3. The uncompleted Abia State Environmental Protection Agency (ASEPA) House in Umuahia
4. The uncompleted new Government House in Umuahia. One of the most solid structures we saw on the tour. However, because no one was willing to speak about how much anything costs in the state, I don’t know how much the Government House will cost in proportion to what the state earns. But when I saw the state of the current Government House, I agree that a new Government House is in order if the state can afford it.
5. The uncompleted International Conference Centre in Umuahia
6. The new state secretariat in Umuahia which now houses all ministries in the state. I liked this building the moment Gov. Orji told us that it is the first building with a lift in Abia state. Wow.
7. Skills Acquisition Centre, Umuahia. Very good project, where awardees are paid N10,000 monthly while they learn skills. They are also given some money and equipment to start up something at the end of their training. Who owns it though? Officials didn’t seem too sure. Was it a project of the wife of the governor? Abia government? SURE-P?
8. The uncompleted Abia mall in Umuahia and the Aba mall which is still at early stages of construction
9. The uncompleted Abia events centre in Umuahia
10. The almost completed digital library in Umuahia
11. The Isuikwato model secondary school which was just a strange place. Completed – i think – months ago, nothing is happening there till now. Weeds and cobwebs are taking over. The governor says he has built 70 such schools. I didn’t see that many and it was ironic that with such a high number they chose to take us to one which is not occupied, was under lock and key and being overrun by weeds. The classrooms we saw were also not impressive. A school surely is more than its external structure.
12. The Abia Specialist Diagnostic Centre at Umachara. No patients in sight. Building and adjoining residential quarters for doctors look completed but it was clear that the new buildings were not yet open for business. No patients, smell of fresh wood, and the keys on the doors were still in the bunch.
13. The uncompleted Ubani Housing Estate
14. Abia Broadcasting Service building in Umuahia
15. The Umuahia market and Timber market. Two very good projects that have helped reduce traffic in the capital as the two markets were relocated from their previous spots to the new locations by the governor.
16. Uncompleted Umuahia High Court building
Unfortunately, almost all of those projects above were initiated two years ago. That’s why most are still uncompleted. It is a problem for me if a second term governor invites me to his state and 70 per cent of the projects he shows are uncompleted. Abians did not elect the governor to hear excuses about why he was immobile for several years or why up till now most of his projects are concentrated in Umuahia – the capital – and its environs. Of the 16 projects listed above, only 5 are fully functional and fewer than 5 are outside Umuahia. I am willing to bet with my six-months miserable editor’s wages that Gov. Orji won’t be able to complete them all before May 2015. If he insists that he can, maybe he will be kind enough to bet with his one month wage as senator, the office he is likely to occupy post-2015 as Abia effectively has no serious opposition. I did not see a single APC poster in my one week there.
Aba, which is Abia’s most important city, has been unlucky. At least in Umuahia, there were several projects – uncompleted or not – to justify the hundreds of billboards with the governor’s face that make the capital look like an Orji estate. The story was different in Aba, where someone described the neglect as “criminal”. One Aba resident told me, “What are we even asking the governor to do? Is it to marry wives for us? Is it not just to build roads so that we can do our business? Yet that is too much for them.”
The governor said that the number of roads he has built in Aba is “unprecedented.” No single person I spoke to in Aba agrees with that. Even my eyes did not agree when they saw the condition of Aba roads. Sure we saw some good, motorable roads but the majority were in terrible shape. While on the guided tour of Aba, we hardly left the main federal road when we got into the city centre, however we could still see to the left and right of the federal road, how bad the state-government owned roads were. (For the record, the FG road was also a mess.)
An awkward incident happened in Aba. The special adviser on media to the governor, who rode on the same bus as I did was involved in a shouting match with the driver of a tricycle at a very bad spot on the road. The tricycle driver, seeing that ours was a government bus, screamed at the SA, “God punish you! No be your useless governor wey no gree do road?” There were lots of uncomfortable faces in the bus when he said that.
Gov. Orji told us that former governor Sam Mbakwe was called “the weeping governor” on account of how he wept over the state of Aba when he was governor. If Mbakwe was the weeping governor, Theodore Orji is “the sleeping governor” over Aba. Gov. Orji analysed the problem of flooding in Aba to us, and then he said, “Unfortunately most of them build on the drainages. I wonder the governor who will come with a lion heart to demolish buildings belonging to your father and my father. That is a tough decision.” Case closed – the governor will not weep over it or sweep away the mess… it’s a tough decision so he’ll just sleep.
If truth be told however, one can see that in the last year or so, the governor seems to have realised that he has a short time left. A sense of foreboding over his legacy seems to be forcing his hand to ensure that some impact is made. And because the development does not have a serious visionary underpinning, it is being done in a pell-mell manner with some projects fitting the definition of white elephant.
Like I said earlier, Gov. Orji will likely end up in the senate. Someone asked him – during the interactive session – why he doesn’t just want to retire and rest after 25 years in the civil service where he ended as a permanent secretary, eight years as chief of staff to ex-gov Kalu (now his arch-rival) and eight years as governor. His response made me laugh for the first time that evening. “The senate project is the project of the people,” he said. “The form I bought was not with my money. You just don’t disobey the people. Besides, my experience in the civil service, as chief of staff and as governor are all different experiences. I have never experienced lawmaking before so let me experience it too in other to become an all-rounder.” Hahahahaha.
Abia is a lesson on how Nigerians have made gods of men through their words and actions. The thing Gov. Orji needs more than any other in his life right now are “truth tellers” in his inner circle. Looking at him during the interaction, it was clear that here was a man who loves to be praised. “If you had come to Abia by 2007 and 2008 and you are here now, you will be hailing me as soon as I entered here,” he told us as shouts of “Ochendo Global” – his moniker – rent the air. As his aides took turns adulating him, you could see the smile on his face, his hands clasped in front and even nods every now and then. “Our god-sent governor, our father, the saviour of Abia and the founder of modern day Abia. The only governor who has received over 50 awards,” one aide said before speaking. The sycophancy was painful to watch. With such a rigged feedback mechanism, it will be tough for leaders to know where they truly stand with the people; they will remain in their bubble of praise songs until it bursts on May 29th and they realise that they had been naked all along.
– Follow this writer on Twitter: @stanleyazuakola