Professor Eleazar Uche Ikonne, is the anointed successor to Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu. In this interview with Newswatchplus’ Ray Ekpu and Soji Akinrinade, the successful academic discusses why he wants to succeed Governor Ikpeazu and what his successes in the academia can help deliver for good governance in the state. He also discusses the controversial Charter of Equity and why his political zone deserves another shot at the top job in this state. Excerpts:
Newswatchplus: You are not a familiar name in politics, so how would you introduce yourself and how did you get into politics?
Professor Eleazar: I am Eleazar Uchenna Ikonne, a professor of optometry, a graduate of Manila Central University, Philippines where I read optometry and became Doctor of optometry. Then I came back to Nigeria and I was a pioneer staff of Department of Optometry at the then Imo State University and since then we have been able to build that department, that programme, because it was a novelty in Nigerian universities then, except University of Benin that was offering 4-year programme, B.Sc. in optometry. But it was not as rich as the 6-year programme leading to the award of doctor of optometry. We have done well to build it. Today we have about three federal universities offering that, about state universities and about 3 private universities, including Afe Babalola offering optometry today. That means as a pioneer staff we have done well before handing over 30th November 2020. I really do not know how I came into politics. At that time, I had activities to involve me with government, but not politically but as community service which is part of my duty as a lecturer. My employment said teaching, research, and community service; so, my community services helped create awareness, helped government improve their and implement their policies in communities in my place. I keyed into the education for employment policy of the government. I sent a lot of boys from my place for skill acquisition, for training. Some went to Innoson where they learnt mechatronics and things associated with it. My wife and I engaged in rural development as part of my community service. I built health centre for my people which government came and commissioned. Government was appreciative that I am helping their policies get out to the rural areas. I will not call that politics. I see it as community service. I think that is what people saw and translated to language of politics.
Newswatchplus: With such a rich academic background, why jump into politics?
Professor Eleazar: I think it is like leadership quality because my quest to become the governor is not to play politics, it is to give quality leadership which I have experienced and it worked in the institutions where I have served – the Polytechnic and the university. You see Abia State University is a microcosm of the state. Almost every family in the state has someone, either your child, your ward or your husband is working there or you have other people working there. So, the connection is there. In other words, anything that happens in that university affects almost all the families in the state. Your leadership ability there is a judge of whether or not you can perform. At the end of my tenure, a reception was organised for me, very big reception. The governor himself attended as a sign that “you represented us well, you did well there.” The traditional rulers of the whole state came together and conferred on me a title showing some gratitude that I have done well in their university. So, it is that pedigree that I am carrying into my quest to be governor of Abia State come 2023 because a time comes when the people want a change in basic assumptions. In fact, that is even all over the country now. People want quality leadership. People are getting tired of rhetoric. Those who have been playing politics come from the political class but if you bring in a technocrat, he cannot ignore politics but his objective would be to give quality leadership and he would be able to harness the human and material resources in the state to give them a lift beyond what is operational now. People what to trust their leaders; people want to listen to their leaders who are telling them the truth, that white is white and black is black. That is what gives me the advantage.
Newswatchplus: How have things been since you jumped into politics? Are you comfortable with it? Are there problems here and there that you have encountered so far?
Professor Eleazar: Since it is a decision that I made for myself I do not think feeling comfortable is the word. There are challenges. I do not think you can really feel comfortable. I am in politics now to surmount challenges. If you surmount challenges that is the way your successes can be defined. There is no human endeavour that is void of challenges. If you have the determination, you will face the challenges given the ability you have garnered, the experience I have garnered and the maturity I have, I should be able to overcome the challenges. The challenges are there and if you overcome them you will not say you are comfortable. But if you are equipped, which I think I am because of experience I have running two institutions and recording good success, then the challenges in the wider world would not be so dauting. You will be able to overcome. I have to be alert to overcome the challenges now. I will become comfortable when I am sworn in (in) July 2023, which by God’s grace I will.
Newswatchplus: Let us ask you questions about the Ikpeazu government. What do you consider to be his major achievements as well as challenges and if you get there what would you do differently?
Professor Eleazar: Time and space make some difference as regards challenges one experiences. For him, he was also coming from the academic world. He is a research-oriented scholar with a PhD in Biochemistry. He also taught in schools before he came in. I am sure he had some culture shock about what they do in the academia and what they do in the political terrain but he was quickly able to overcome those challenges. Instead of talking with academic colleagues, he was now talking to politicians. That constituted his initial challenge, But, because I observed his high intelligence and native wisdom, he was able to manoeuvre and surmount the challenges and have been running a stable and peaceful state. Peace is not a common commodity in Nigeria right now but under his administration Abia has been a most peaceful state in this country, especially in the south-east. God has saved us here because of his approach to issues. We do not have this dichotomy of state politicians versus Abuja politicians. He has carried everybody along and because of that he had been able to improve on the quality of life of the average Abian. You know the story of Aba, which they call the Japan of Africa? Before he came on board, Aba was almost an abandoned place as entrepreneurs ran away from the place because of insecurity. The roads were impassable; industries closed down and there was virtually no business going on in Aba. But today, he has returned Aba to its lost glory. It has become a beehive of activities even though it is not possible to do everything in a short time. All the major roads have been done; most industries have come alive and new ones are starting in the place.
In those days, people from the Cameroon came to Aba to trade, they are now back once again. His challenges had to do principally with inadequate funding. Fund is not very generous here. Of course, we know that ability to generate IGR to add to what you get from FAC is important. He is trying and I know that is one area I will want to improve on. Without funds it is impossible for you to complete most of the programmes you have in mind. Remember that the federal government termed Abia State as the SME capital of Nigeria because when the governor came in, the first thing he said was that he was not going to wear any dress that was not made in Aba. And he has been wearing Aba made clothes. He has been wearing them to all engagements local and international. Before his time, if you hear Aba made, it was derogatory. It means, it is cheap, it means it is cheap but for the governor to model Aba made dresses, everybody now started demanding them and thing now changed from Aba made to Made in Aba. They do not put made in China anymore. They cannot do their own label Made in Aba. Not just dresses, all the shoes the governor had been wearing are not Italian shoes but ones made in Aba. And he gave emphasis to the shoe industry to the extent that he took 30 youths from Aba to China to factories for them to learn some skills about making these products. In fact, we learnt that the Chinese wanted to retain about three of them because they were doing better than their own indigenes. The government bought heavy machines and established the shoe industry in Aba. They are now producing for the military, and immigration, NYSC and others. So, the problem of the industry today is to meet the demand for their shoes. This had created good jobs for the youths and has improved the IGR, not just for the state, but for the nation too because at least in foreign exchange savings. I intend to improve on that and enhance skill acquisition for our youths because that is what the country needs now. Many youths who are on the streets and are the cause of insecurity can be engaged and be of less threat to security and our environment.
Newswatchplus: You are from the academia as the governor is. What do academics bring to politics that is any different from what other politicians bring? And what kind of relationship do you have with the governor?
Professor Eleazar: Let me start from the fact that he is the visitor to the University (of Abia) and I was there as vice chancellor. I had a visitor who understood the language of state-owned universities and he taught in Enugu State University himself. It became easier for me to send my proposals and make my demands and if I explained things to him he understood. Because of that we got maximum cooperation from him as the visitor and he attended all my programmes and people were surprised because they knew how things were before then. He did a lot for us include building students centre, commissioned it, laid foundation for the secretariat of the academic staff union. He had a good relationship with ASUU. That is an indication that he had a cordial relationship, not just with the management of the university but with the student body and even the teaching staff. He knew the challenges we were having so it was easy for him to appreciate the efforts of management to keep that place peaceful and keep the academic sessions running uninterrupted. It became a source of pride for him that his foremost agency, which was the university, was doing well. Students were doing well too winning national and international laurels. He was happy about that too. So, if you ask me I will say we had a very cordial relationship with him. In fact, I assembled some academics to author a book on him which I titled: A Scholar in Governance where I taunted the politicians that we loaned them an academic to come and teach them the fabric of governance. That is the foundation he has laid now and because he wants continuity and sustainability of what he has done, I think he is comfortable if another academic succeeds him, though it is still a contest. We are still contesting. I do not want to predict what will happen but I think he will appreciate it.
Newswatchplus: There has been this debate about the Document of Equity in the state; where do you stand?
Professor Eleazar: I had the opportunity studying that document because at the 22nd anniversary of the state, I was asked to deliver a public lecture on the Charter of Equity and I had to get hold of the document and study it. When we had the larger Imo State, there were senatorial zones. Down here we had Umuahia senatorial zone; from Umuahia down to Afikpo, constituted a senatorial zone, then down to Aba is the Aba senatorial zone. The two divides came together to ask for Abia State. At that time people from Aba senatorial zone said no they do not want to stay with people from Umuahia; they do not have cultural affinity and their culture was more to the Mbaise side so they will not join with them but the other side needed them in order to make up the size that will enable the military create a state. So, in order to assure them that they will not be dominated by the other side, that is what gave rise to the Charter of Equity. So, the Charter of Equity was between the people of Aba senatorial zone and the Umuahia senatorial zone. It was signed August 10, 1981, ten years before Abia was created. And the major content there is that power will rotate between the two senatorial zones. So, nobody should dominate. And the capital city would not be in Umuahia; that it should be in the centre, in a new city between Umuahia and Aba. These are the two major points of the charter. It was in 1999 that senatorial zones were created and Abia now has three senatorial zones which was not the basis on which the charter was drawn.
The first democratically elected governor was Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, who came from Afikpo, Afikpo was then in Umuahia side. He was there for two years before the military dissolved them. After him, Orji Uzor Kanu came also from Umuahia. After him came Chief T.A. Orji who is also from the same Umuahia senatorial zone; all of that making 18 years they had been in power. It was only the present governor that came from Aba zone and he is about completing his eight years. So, if you look at the equity, the Umuahia side has done 18 years whereas the Aba side is just about to complete eight years. Now if the governor hands over back to the Umuahia side again, it will be a big disrespect to the Charter of Equity. It will be an abuse of the wisdom of the founding fathers of the state. The rotation is not by senatorial zone; that is not what is in the document. It is between the two divides. So, our people are now saying that those from the Aba divide would now have to complete 16 years. We are not even talking about the two years of Ogbonna Onu. It was an accident. Aba people are ready to let the two years go but let us complete the 16 years in respect of equity. If after we have completed that we now agree to go by senatorial zone, then we know the senatorial zone that will start. I come from Abia Central, I come from Aba senatorial zone and I am justified by the dictate and the spirit of that charter to vie to become the governor of Abia State. And if by God’s grace I get there and do two terms, then we would have equalled the 16 years of the Umuahia side.
Newswatchplus: The din over this issue is overwhelming? So how do you cross this bridge?
Professor Eleazar: The bridge is there; the bridge is strongly built so if you have the truth, as I am telling you now, we will cross that bridge. There is no time everybody will agree. Even when the incumbent was contesting for election, the other side contested too and dragged him to the Supreme Court four times. And this means they never respected the charter. It is very deceitful for them now to talk about the charter. Yes, I am from Aba but I want to be Abia governor which means every part of the state will feel the impact of government without discrimination.
Newswatchplus: Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is from this state and today he was taken to court and whole state was paralysed and the other states in the southeast. What is your own solution to this problem?
Professor Eleazar: Like I said earlier, we are enjoying relative peace in Abia State. Today’s sit-at-home was peculiar but before then, the regular Monday sit-at-home, we were not really observing them here. Because of the pragmatism of the incumbent governor, he has been able to manage the situation well. I sympathise with Nnamdi Kanu’s case because he is speaking the truth to power. Many people may not agree with his method but what is saying is the right thing. In his own wisdom, which I grant him, the method he is using is the best one, but what pains me as an individual is the suffering of the youths who follow him. Sometimes they are shot, they lose their lives. We cannot continue to lose the lives of our youths like that. I wish there were a better way to achieving the objectives that he wants. If you ask us, anybody from the southeast whether you support his ideology it would be yes. Every Igbo man wants the ideology of Nnamdi Kanu, what may be different is the methodology of achieving it. The youths want militancy but it has its own challenges. Other people may think there should be a dialogue or civil disobedience to make government that has conscience to listen people. But unfortunately, we have a government, at the national level, that does not sit down to analyse human feelings and adopt the best approach to resolve the matter. Public debate can do that, so can a referendum. You and I know since after the civil war things have not been well for the Ibo man. But God bless the Ibo man that on their own they can struggle and survive and they are all over the nation and even if you achieve the objective we will still live peacefully with other parts of Nigeria because we have businesses all over the place. Some school of thought have also said there is another ideological way of achieving Biafra and that is for all the Ibo entrepreneurs establishing businesses all over the place, if we have regional unity in terms of infrastructural development which will create congenial atmosphere, for all those factories in Lagos, Epe, Ogun State owned by the Igbos can also be started here. For example, if you go to Anambra or Nnewi, in particular, you will see indigenous business. We can serve Nigeria from our place.
Newswatchplus: Do you mean to say everybody here buys into the Igbos leaving Nigeria?
Professor Eleazar: No. That is not secession. But the Ibo man should be respected, he should be given a pride of place in this country, as a bonafide citizen, with full rights and not to be discriminated against. We cannot have a situation where they cannot be Inspector General of Police or be found in security services because they are security risk. That means the war is not over. If we are treated like any other Nigerian, why would we want to leave? We are contributing to the economy of Nigeria. Our people live everywhere. In fact, we are the true nationalists.
Newswatchplus: What are the hinderances to developing this state faster than it has been?
Professor Eleazar: The state of development when you take over will determine your speed. If you are going to lay a foundation before you take off, it becomes more difficult. But if a foundation has been laid and you take off from that it is easier. I think in his case, he has laid some foundation and it was difficult for him to excavate the ground, lay the foundation and bring it to DPC level. I am talking metaphorically about development. That is the way I can explain things. For instance, you cannot talk about development in this state without talking about Aba. If Aba is functioning, and business is going on as before, you will see the state bubbling. Aba was in a state of decay. Businesses were closed down, entrepreneurs ran away, there was insecurity, the roads were impassable and the condition of Aba affected the rest of the state. For instance, Guinness Brewery abandoned their factory in this state and went to Enugu State where they now make Heineken. That is revenue lost by the state. Now that the incumbent governor has laid the foundation, what we will do at our own time it to take it to a faster lane of development. All the major roads have been done or are being done, what now needs to be done further is to bring in connectivity, do the feeder roads. There are still some moribund industries that need to be revived. We must create a conducive atmosphere for businesses to return here. We will sit down with our entrepreneurs to come back here and create businesses. There will then be IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) and the state will become a beehive of business activities.
For me, coming from the academia, I want to emphasize quality education, in terms of human capital development. What I mean is education has to do with critical thinking for the youths. We can create an atmosphere of learning in an environment of technology. Some of them can get into artificial intelligence, robotic engineering, even youths at secondary school level. We are talking about education with skill acquisition. This will return the pride of Abians. In fact, what I want to set up is participatory administration. Government is good at funding education but it is not good at managing it. We can meet ourselves midway in public/private partnership, just to make sure everybody connects.
Newswatchplus: Does participatory government define your philosophy of governance?
Professor Eleazar: It is really not a definition. It is a mode of achieving what I have in mind. The philosophy is to restore the confidence of the Abians in the leadership of the state. When the citizenry believe in the leadership, then it is easy for them to follow your vision. It will make them more patriotic. It will help them to obey regulations. It helps them to be more disciplined. I tell you even with the best constitution in this country, because of the lack of discipline, it cannot work, we cannot get things right. Maybe because of the lack of belief in the leadership, the citizenry is always looking for loopholes to disobey the law. Also, if the leadership is not disciplined then the followership will also not be disciplined. At all levels now, people are looking at what their leaders are doing and are saying “they don’t care for us.” So, it is like the survival of the fittest. I think that by restoring confidence as the philosophy, one of the methods is to do participatory administration.
Newswatchplus: Insecurity has become a major problem in Nigeria and no state or zone has any immunity from it. What do you think ought to be the solution? Some people have said state police. Even a committee set up by the ruling party, El Rufai Committee, recommended state police but the federal government seems uninterested. What are the solutions to this intractable insecurity problem we have in Nigeria?
Professor Eleazar: In their wisdom they recommended state police but the powers that be for reasons best known to them, rejected the recommendation. You can create what serves the purpose of state police but without the nomenclature of state police. For example, when I talk about participatory administration, if the government recognises traditional rulers and some functionaries in the villages, in those villages, communities can set up security committee and they would know who a stranger is and what he or she is doing in that community. So, while we are waiting for community policing, we create what looks like it that would perform its functions without answering the name Community Police, using the indigenes in every community. You must make sure that they are supported and supervised. Our governor here set up the Ministry of Homeland Security in this state. Young men were trained in all the communities and they are there in the villages. In fact, maybe that is why we have relative peace in Abia. And of course, where there is good governance there will be peace. For God’s sake a lot of agitations come because there is maladministration. People get frustrated and resort to violence. If the citizens know that their government cares for them, especially the youths, I think that will be half the battle won. So, it is a multi-sectoral attack to be able to curb insecurity. We will show concern and we will create something to them to do so that we can empower them. And I do not mean frivolous empowerment, empowerment tied to some responsibility. With that they can even become security men themselves. They will own the government themselves., especially the youths.
Newswatchplus: What do you think about your party’s (PDP) attitude to zoning?
Professor Eleazar: I think throwing the contest open, you will agree with me is the most democratic thing to do. People should be judged by their ability. Like we had agreed earlier, zoning comes because of maladministration. If a party has the courage to say let us throw it open, I think it deepens democratic values.
Newswatchplus: But does the stop the agitation of those who say the Igbos have not been there before?
Professor Eleazar: You see agitation does not even make the thing come to you. So, in the absence of that throw it open. Let it come naturally. And if you are talking about agitation, it is only southeast that can genuinely complain.
Newswatchplus: That is what we are talking about. If another northerner is fielded for the presidential race, how does that further or even support the equity doctrine we have been talking about?
Professor Eleazar: It will not stop the agitation but academically, what I have said is the tenet of democracy – allow everybody to contest. But if by consensus the rest of the nation say it should be southeast so that there would be peace, it would help. It would dampen down the agitation because that is part of what Nnamdi Kanu is talking about. That would now be an arrangement that is made towards bringing down tension. But on a general level, to uphold democracy, it should be thrown open to allow those who have capacity to contest
Newswatchplus: Abia is one of the oil producing states, now we hear stories about oil theft. Oil theft is not petty thievery, it is big business. What do you think can be done to stem the tide of oil thievery?
Professor Eleazar: As a clinician by training, you do not start treating a case without proper diagnosis. If we want to stop oil theft, we will do a research and find out why? Why are people in this oil theft? Why are they successful? And what categories of oil theft? Is it bunkering and selling on the high seas? Is it the local refineries that refine themselves? There are those who know the colours of the pipes and know which on carries kerosine. They know when kerosine is coming and they take kerosine; they know when PMS is coming and they take it. How do they get to know? Who are the people in cahoots with them? So, we need to get these facts and sit down and do an analysis of the information and then know how to proffer solutions to the problem. For example, Governor Wike has been fighting some of these local refineries. In fact, that is when they said the price of diesel went up. That means they were supplying the market. But it was illegal; they did not have license; they were not paying royalty to government. If we discover such things what do we do? We are not able to build big refineries. Can’t we legalise those ones? It means the technology is there but the infrastructure is not. To solve the problem therefore would need a multifaceted approach. But first of all, we have to do a holistic research and find out the factors and now have the courage to deal with them. If the staff are involved, you have to deal with that. There was even a time they were accusing the military, the navy and security of involvement. We must instil discipline. Those things we call illegal, we can legalise them, monitor them, and add it to our economy. Today we cannot repair refineries, we keep importing, we keep subsidising, yet those people we call illegal, people are patronising them.
Before I forget, you know what the governor of Abia had done in collaboration with Geometrics of Professor Barth Nnaji? Aba and its environs will have steady power supply. They are producing megawatts that is higher than what is being consumed in Aba. That means if it is run purely on commercial arrangement the rate may be higher than it is supposed to be. There will be effort in our time improve upon this. The governor has mapped out industrial hubs in the environ of Aba. We have the Osioma Industrial Hub, Owerinta Industrial Hub. We will pursue this with greater vigour because the incentive is there that you will have steady power supply. There are some moribund factories that people have abandoned, we will get them to revive them and even establish new ones. That is the foundation I said the government has laid. If power is there, a major factor in production, it would be easy to attract investors to the area. We want our people to start thinking of production. It is a better way than trading which is just buying and selling. We will try to change this orientation.
We will give recognition to those people just like the governor has done with the fashion industry. The tailor in Aba is now proud. He calls himself a designer now because his products have gone international. If you go to New York, they are at fashion exhibitions. If you go to UK now, you will see shops specifically for Made in Aba fashion. They are now confident of acceptability of what they do and their standard of living has very much improved. Graduates here are now distributors of made in Aba fashion. That is what the present government has done and we will improve on that and put is on a faster lane.
We are also and agrarian state. So, how do we help the farmers as we cannot continue with this traditional methods of farming? Although it may be difficult to just break from that tradition, we can have a hybrid of methods of farming and you can attract the youths to see it as agribusiness and not as traditional farming. How do you do that? Assuming, for example, you are producing rice, you will now introduce a rice mill close to the rice farm and make a road to that place. That is why I said we will have even development of the state based on comparative advantage. Thank you.