Prof. Bernard Ifeanyi Odoh is immediate past Secretary to Ebonyi State Government and a contender for the position of governor of the state on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview with Daily Sun, he bares his mind on his mission to rescue Ebonyi State from going under.
Could you tell us why you are in the race to replace Governor Dave Umahi?
I am running because, currently, the indices for evaluating the well-being of the common people in Ebonyi State is one of the worst in the country and I strongly believe that we haven’t done as well as we ought to have done as a state.
Currently Ebonyi is ranked 34 out of 36 states in the country on the poverty index, and that is not acceptable by any standard.
The average per capita GDP of the average Ebonyi person, as it stands today, is about 200 US dollars, and that is terribly very poor for us as a people.
Right now, on our evaluation on ease of doing business scale, we are ranked 32 out of 36 in the country, which means Ebonyi is one of the most difficult places to do business.
So, if you don’t have investors coming in with their funds, and you depend only on Federal allocations, the state will be in a mess, and that is the situation now.
So, I am running because poverty is high and we must do all that it takes to reverse that trend.
Secondly, educationally, we are in a mess. Right now, if you look at the statistics before us, under the former governor, Dr. Sam Egwu, Ebonyi State Medical College used to rank second in the country after the University of Ibadan.
Today, EBSUTH is ranked 42nd in the country among other states. So, we need to reverse that trend. The only way we can prepare for the future is to invest in our people massively.
In Primary and Secondary education, we are also not ranked in the first 50 in the country. If you Google the top 50 secondary schools in the country, we are not in that ranking. We need to reverse the trend.
If you look at public sector, our governor’s public sector system is one of the poorest. Right now the state operates without full complements of Permanent Secretaries. There is no training going on for public servants; incentives are not there and morale is very low. Their contribution to the service is almost zero because they are working in a very difficult situation. So, we need to do massive investment in our people.
21st century is not a place where you produce people who don’t have the right skills set to compete.
Our people today can’t compete. If you look at states like Lagos and Ogun states for example, Ogun State has more than six private universities. It is because the place is conducive for investors to put in their money. We need to do all it takes to bring investors’ funding into Ebonyi State, and to do that, we must make the environment very conducive for them to operate.
In the Agric sector, we cannot compete now in food production because of our approach to farming. We are still operating on the old, ancient approach of farming with hoe and knife.
Under my leadership, when I become the governor of Ebonyi State, I will be committed to expanding the frontiers of food production by doing no less 10,000 land appropriation annually so we can grow food on a contiguous land and engage our people.
In the health sector, we want to bring in health insurance scheme to cover those who can’t afford basic, core health care system, especially those who work and earn salary.
We want to provide insurance schemes that will help them come out of crises when they are in medical situations.
So, when you look at all of these, I believe strongly that governance is about improving the well-being of the people of any society. Right now, poverty has actually grown more than any other time in our record history. We have an emergency situation that we must respond to. That’s why I am in this race.
DO you believe that the population of the youths would be to your advantage in this race?
I absolutely believe so because the World Bank statistics has it on record that 65% of Nigerian population are less than 40 years. That demography would be in my advantage, particularly given the fact that all the issues that I raised here are issues that have direct impact on their future.
The young people who are ready today, I also came from the university and I have first-hand experience. Annually, Nigerian universities graduate no less than five million people who are injected into the labour market. This population don’t have the right skills; they can’t get the desired jobs.
So, if we are not talking about the economy and jobs, we are not saying anything. So, the young people are in this category. Most young people today don’t have jobs. A lot of people who graduated with me have not even found jobs till now.
So, if we can’t create the future for them to be part of the economy, they will be left behind. So, I strongly believe that the population of the young people will be a huge demographic advantage for me as a young person in this race.
Are you following through this campaign in the advocacy for the youths in your campanin strategies?
Definitely, yes. All those who are currently working with me now in my campaign team are all less than 30. But the highest age there is about 31 or 32.
So, I strongly believe in the power of the young people. Around the world, those who are driving the economy are the young people. So, things can’t change here if we don’t get young people on board.
Their energy… we must tap into those energies. I believe strongly that if we get our young people to participate in democracy, I mean, in programmes like this, they will be giving their energies and their creativities to it, and that’s one area that we must explore very deeply.
Education is one. The ease of doing business is two. Investment in our public sector governance system is three. These are three areas we will not gamble with.
We must invest in our people hugely. We must make the environment conducive for investors to put in their money. And we must strengthen institutions of governance. Once we have these three things, the system will flow.
Are you considering opening up other ways to generate revenue for the state if you become governor or you will continue to rely on Federal Allocations as other administrations before?
You are absolutely correct. In fact, that’s why if you listen to my earlier discussions, I have focused on three cardinal areas: making the environment conducive for investors.
There is no system in the world that can survive on government revenue. It is not possible.
So, I am not looking at government revenue from Abuja here. I am looking at ability of the state to pull in investors’ funding. Because, one thing happens, when you have funds in the system, those who sell ordinary items, people who do businesses, landlords who rent their buildings, hospitals, they are able to earn money and support the ordinary people.
So, I am not looking at revenue allocations from Federation Account. No! I am looking at investors funding coming into the state. This can’t happen if we don’t create the enabling legal framework and institutional support to investors.
For instance, people go to places where they can do their businesses and make money without harassment. If you look at Dubai that everybody runs to in the last 30 days, what happened?
What happened was that for a period of 25/30 years, they did their duty-free system, which means whatever business you do in Dubai, you make your profits, they don’t harass you; they don’t tax you.
So, I have not been to the U.S. in the last five years, but I have been to Dubai more than six times. The same thing applies to so many Nigerians.
So, people, investors are interested in making money. Therefore you must make the environment conducive for them to put in their money.
So, I am looking at a situation where, if you turn Ebonyi into a place where the average investor is willing to come, then we can have a lot more funding in the system to do all kind of things with. You know, so, this is the key thing…
Look at Lagos, what is happening? It’s investors’ funding. Ogun State, investors’ funding.
When I was in Port Harcourt some 15/16 years ago the economy of Rivers State was far more booming than what we have today. Why?
Because in the last couple of 10/12 years now, community harassment in the Niger Delta has completely chased out investors. So today, the economy there is not as strong as it used to be. So, any government that is not interested in making its environment conducive for investors is not in business; it is not in governance.
So, under our leadership, we want to ensure that people will see Ebonyi State as one of the top three destinations where they can come in, do their businesses, and support the local economy. That is the shape which I want to adopt when I become governor.
Two in the area of education. Education is an area where you will see… In fact the average household spends more than 50% of their earnings on educating their children.
The amount of funding… In fact, the whole of last year, CBN’s Forex Transfer, out of Nigeria on education, constituted more than 60% of the transfers. Most Nigerians go overseas for education.
So, if you create one of the best institutions in this country in Ebonyi State, we will reverse the traffic. People will come to our place to learn.
If you look at IT, Software all we are doing today – online and internet. There is no place in Nigeria where you have enabling environment for this kind of learning.
So, we’ll create a Hub in Ebonyi that will be a pull force to our state. This is what we must do. There is no alternative to it. If we don’t pull a force that drag people to Ebonyi State to spend money, we are not in business.
You know, so we’ll create environment where businesses can thrive. We will create educational environment where people can come to seek education from Ghana, from neighboring countries. That’s the way to go.
So, we will open up the state for business and encourage people to come in that this place is a place where you can do your business and you will be comfortable.
All the regulation tax that is going on presently, those taxes are not encouraging growth. There is no way in the world that taxes grow businesses. Taxes can’t grow businesses; it kills businesses.
Business owners want tax holidays; they want tax break because that’s the only way they can expand their businesses.
So, this is the strategy we are going to put in place when I become the governor of Ebonyi State.
Yes, the ease of doing business that I have just explained now is inter-twined with tourism. If you look at most places around the world where people go to, it is because the places are conducive.
So once we create business haven in Ebonyi, tourism will come in. There are places you go to in Ebonyi State, you begin to wonder if actually you are in this country.
If you go to Ndibe, the beach there is the beach that makers Cross River, Igbuno and Atlantic Ocean. We can convert that beach fund into an all-year-round holiday centre for people to visit. That’s one of the key things we have in our plan. We want to make Ndibe beach a place where people will come and have a cool time during their holidays. It can be summer all through the year. And it’s a natural endowment that is there.
So, tourism is a key area that must go together with ease of doing business. As we are developing our business potentials and investment drive into the state, we will also be expanding frontiers of tourism because when people come in they want a place where they can sit down and relax.
Presently now, there is no serious hotel in the whole of South East. In all honesty, if you want good places now, it’s only in Lagos and Abuja here. If you want to do an international conference that can take two/three thousand persons in a capacity centre, you can’t find that in the South East.
Most of the hotels are not properly run. People just build blocks, cement….build, build this… ineffective management system, no good training for people who work in those places.
So, we will create a place where, in the South East, if you want to do your conferences, if you want to do your events, you would be glad to come because those places will be in existence.
Nothing says we cannot have world class conferences in university environment where people can come, have their time for their businesses in the conferences of their meetings, and get the best value for their money.
So, it’s a cardinal part of our manifesto. We have developed a clear road map on how we can put in place, effective tourist system that will attract people into the state and make them have real value for their money and time.
I will tell you something that I know very clearly. If you don’t create jobs, if you like build all the police and Army in your state, you can’t enjoy a peaceful city.
So, the first step is to create a robust economy; let people have something doing. A young man and woman that has all the energy, if he’s idle, he will be lured into crime.
So, if you have a system that is busy, the economy is booming, you will have reduced issues and incidence of insecurity drastically.
Secondly, the security network that is in place today, where you have the police, the Army and all of that, if you look at what is happening in most places in the country, incidentally, the places that have best security are places that have stable economy.
So, one of the things we want to do differently is that we must commit to growing jobs in the state. If we don’t grow jobs, security will continue to be a major threat.
Effective collaboration between the police and other security agencies will be maintained in its optimal. We should be able to deploy ICT to guide our city. We should deploy smart security approach to guide our city.
All of these are things that will be properly developed in partnership with key stakeholders and those who see to the effective delivery of these services will be closely monitored, because the key thing is not even the policies; it is implementation and monitoring.
So, we believe that if we create jobs, the required volume of jobs in the system and take more seriously, the issue of security in collaboration with those who are at the head of it, we will be able to deal with the issue of security.
Right now in Ebonyi, we have what they call ‘Neighborhood Watch’ with over 5,000 people involved in it but that has not addressed the problem. Crime is still growing even as they are expanding that Neighborhood Watch; crime is growing, why? There is no job.
So, we must create job. The way to evaluate serious governments around the world is how many jobs are you posting weekly, monthly and annually?
That is the only way you can reduce incidences of crime. So, 60/70% of the efforts should be channeled into creating new job opportunities for our people.
I resigned because our policies are not tailored towards reducing poverty and improving governance in the system. I’ll give you an example: There were projects which my former boss, the leader of the government took unilateral decisions to implement those projects.
Those projects, if you put a scale of preference of our needs, those projects are not in our first 10 priorities.
For instance, we have three flyovers; between a kilometer of less than 12 kilometres. Three really massive flyovers, there is no river in those places. We didn’t do traffic volume calculators to validate the need for those flyovers.
And I am sure by the time those flyovers are completed, the state government will have spent more than N11 billion on those three flyovers.
As far as I am concerned, those are not priority needs. If you take N11 billion and invest in quality education, we will move Ebonyi from where we are now to 1st, 2nd, 3rd positions; within those first three, we will be there.
So, this investment in this massive concrete now is investment that is not adding real values to the system.
There is a project going on now at the Ebonyi City Mall. That Ebonyi City Mall will not take less than N4 billion to complete.
Construction of mall is not a public sector-driven initiative; it should be private sector. Private sector individuals who want to do business will come and government will give them land, Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) and all the incentives. They will build their mall and rent to those who want to do business.
Presently, state government is the one building malls in Ebonyi with public funds; that is wrong. The state government is doing Ecumenical Centre that is going to take more than N7 billion.
Ecumenical Centre by the state government has no meaning economical to the people. So, there’s a lot of projects going on now which I personally think has no direct impact on the economic well-being of the people. I advised against some of these projects. We had argued it in council.
So, a lot of these issues that bother on policy and governance are things that make me very uncomfortable and I felt I can’t be in a system where we are not focusing on the human aspect of our system; that’s why I left.
So there is a quarrel along the way?
Of course, we are not quarrelling. I have since moved on. And I have already declared my intention to take that same seat because he has not offered the right governance to the people.
So, when the time comes, the people will make their choices based on what we are going to offer. We have developed a clear roadmap in our manifesto; how we intend to approach things and our approach to governance is in sharp contrast with what he is doing now.
You know we are going to develop all-inclusive governance approach. Your projects should flow from the people because as a governor, you are just a custodian of their resources. It is not yours.
So, we will ensure that people participate in our policies; it has to flow with them and also flow from them. That way, they take ownership.
If you take decisions as a governor and your people are not with you, they can’t defend those decisions when the chips are down, and that’s what’s happening now. Majority of people who are in the cabinet of my former boss, they are not with him because most of the projects that he is executing, they are not part of the decision-making process.
I was in Council for three years, and I know how memos came to Council and how decisions were taken. Most of those decisions were unilateral decisions.
So, I disagreed with him on issues of principles and on issues of policies and governance approach, which I think is not what our people need right now.
Decisions must be based on the critical needs of the people that must expand jobs, expand opportunities and give hope to the ordinary people.
The taxes: when issue of taxes came to Council, there were arbitrary increments in revenues that government was going to collect from people.
And I was opposed to it. You don’t raise taxes when there are no jobs going on in the city. So, the tax drive in Ebonyi has completely chased away businesses. If you go to the place right now, between 8 o’clock and 2:00pm, most of the shops are closed because of the way they are harassed to pay one tax or the other.
So, these are the issues that led to my exit. Because we disagreed on principles, those principles are principles that cannot stimulate growth in our state.
Now that you are in the race, who are you considering as your running mate?
I am evaluating certain individuals. But again, issue of running mate, you know, has to be based on so many factors. You know, so at the moment I have certain considerations but those considerations, I cannot take decision in isolation of certain key stakeholders.
So, when the time comes, we will be having all the options and we will be looking at options in terms of what value are they going to bring and what kind of values and ideas they share that is in line with our philosophy and policies.
You know, it’s something we are already looking at, but the decision has not yet been taken.
You are in the All Progressives Congress now?
Absolutely yes! Right now, the average Ebonyi person is not interested in party. He’s interested in who will best address the issues. If the party gives me nomination as I anticipate they would do, the people of the state are strongly convinced that if I am the governor, or when I am the governor, I will be able to provide effective leadership that will address the issues that we have listed here. So, APC has great chances in Ebonyi.
And what do you think the chances of President Muhammadu Buhari are in 2019?
His chances are over 60% and I will tell you why. All his strong bases are intact. Remember, he ran for election in 2011 and with a party that was completely non-existent, he pulled massive votes across the country.
His election in 2015 was a phenomenon. So in 2018, less than six months to his main elections, his solid bases are still intact.
So, I don’t see anyone in any other party who has the capacity now to unseat him. All his strong base states are still very, very intact.
And if you are a politician, if you are doing well in your strong base and your strong base has more than 60% of the capacity to give you winning, you are home and comfortable.
So, I see him having a clear victory in 2019. His chances are very high.
Honestly, I believe that power belongs to the people. The party’s decision at the NEC… for me, one of the best change that APC will leave behind as a party for Nigerians is to ensure that direct primaries is implemented.
And I will give you simple reasons. Over the last 18 years, since 1999, most parties have deployed delegate system. What happens?
Delegate system is prone to massive corruptions because it has become ‘CASH AND CARRY APPROACH’ where those who have the highest money buys off the delegates even when they don’t have the ideas.
But if you do direct primary, what happens is that every member of the party becomes a delegate. In the primaries, every member of the party will queue and vote for the candidate of their choice. You would also have the opportunity to interact with wider population.
They would evaluate you based on what you are bringing to the table. So, I am a strong supporter of direct primaries. I am opposed to indirect primaries. Indirect primary will only continue to throw up mediocrity in governance.
So, I support NEC’s position on that. In fact I did a personal letter to His Excellency, Comrade Adams Oshiomole, encouraging him to continue to push for direct primaries. It is the best thing that can happen to our democracy right now. If you are popular then go and face your people. Why run away?
A lot of governors are pushing for indirect primaries. What is the reason for that? If you have done well why are you scared of going to face your people? If they like you, they vote for you, you come back.
So, indirect primary to me is a fraud against democracy. It’s a conspiracy; it’s a rape against democracy; where a few individuals will seat in their bedrooms and decide how to buy people over.
If it’s indirect primary, if you have over 300, 000/ 400,000 members of your party and state, you can’t buy everybody.
So, what will influence their choices is based on who you are, who they know you were in the last couple of years and the kind of programs you are bringing on the table. So, I am a strong supporter of direct primary as already adopted at NEC in their last meeting of last week.
What would you do differently if you eventually becomes governor of the state?
What has happened, in all honesty, in the last couple of years the crises in our communities and in our boundaries have actually increased more than it has been in our recent history, and I will tell you the reason why? My former boss, in fact, if you are popular he doesn’t like you.
So, what has happened is, in many of our communities, he has influenced choices of people who emerged as town union presidents and town union leaders.
In the busiest unions going on in the state such as Mechanic Village, Rice Mill communities, all the unions including Keke Napep, Tipper Drivers, he has virtually influenced who emerges as the leadership of those associations.
So, what has happened in the last year is that he has also sabotaged real internal democracy in most of the system. What you see today is that every system is heated up. If you allow people to choose who becomes their leader, there will be no crisis. But the moment you come in as governor and say ‘put this man for me’, ‘remove this one’, you heat up the system.
So, most of the crises in Ebonyi now are around the choices of people that have been enthroned to lead, either communities, or unions, or all kinds of things.
So, the system is heated up now because of human factor. For me, a governor shouldn’t have business in those kinds of things. If the communities are allowed to make their choices then the community will be at peace.
So, when I become governor, I will not meddle into internal community business leadership and all of that. I will face policies and governance. If a leader in a state faces real governance issues and let the system evolve itself over time, there will be confusion.
But the problem is that most of us who have emerged as leaders, we want to control everywhere.
When I become the governor, I won’t meddle into issues of community union, town union, who becomes leader of Mechanic Village, who becomes leader of Rice Mill and all of that.
These are where the issues are coming from. The moment you force people in a system, the system revolts against such actions and decisions. So, this is what we intend to do differently.
Most of our borders, we have crises between our communities and neighboring states. These crises, some of them have been there for more than 30 years, more than 40 years. And I think, honesty, it is the key way to go.
We must be bold enough to make some certain decisions that may be painful today, but over a long term we will benefit from, both sides of the community, either our state or the other states.
So, I think there are issues around sincerity that we must be able to deal with.
Like I said at the beginning of this interview, unemployment will go down when you have jobs. You can’t have jobs if your environment for business is not conducive. If we make our environment for business the best in the country, investors will come. As we have investors, jobs will be created. The job of government is to make policies that fit into business owners’ plans. So, for us, the cardinal thing like I said at the beginning, we must be able to make Ebonyi a destination for investors.
We must be able to invest in our education such that our people come out with different kinds of skill set that fit into today’s kind of labour market.
We must be able to invest into our institution of governance. For example, if you want to set up a company that produces… let’s say Android Technology in Ebonyi State, and it takes the investor one year to process permit, to get C of O, to sort out issues that have to do with opening of business; within the first thirty days, the investor becomes restless and he goes.
That’s the situation now. There are people who got approvals from Bank of Industry to get loans to grow their businesses, but for a period of two years they couldn’t get C of O.
The Bank of Industry withdrew their loan. There are several incidence of self-discouragement from the system.
So, the moment we remove those bottlenecks that stifle businesses, businesses will flow into the system, external funding will come in and jobs will be grown.
So, we are very optimistic that if we do the right thing and make the right policies that are friendly with businesses, jobs will be grown. That’s the key thing.
Government on its own cannot grow jobs but government can put in place policies that will help investors to come in and grow those jobs. These are the things we must do differently.
My final parting shot is very simple. Today looks bleak. People are frustrated; they can’t see how to come out from the economic mess they find themselves. But there’s great hope.
I am in this race to inspire hope in the minds of our people. I am in this race because I was part of this system and I made sacrifices to leave the system because I knew that the system, the way it is being run cannot take us to our desired destination.
So, there is hope for tomorrow. When I become the governor of the state, we will reverse these trends. We will invest in our people. It is very critical.
If you look at Singapore, all the first world economies today, what they did differently were to invest in their people. You can’t grow anything if your people are ignorant.
So, we must consciously commit to invest in our people and get them ready for the labour market of the future. So there’s great hope.
All I seek for is support of our people – Ebonyians. If I have their support, the frustration they are facing today will definitely go down.
We will invest in our people and the future will be bright. So, my message to them is message of hope, that there is still hope for a better tomorrow and working together with our people, we will build Ebonyi of our dream. This is not the time to allow commercial politicians to buy votes.
It is time to protect our tomorrow. We have had 19 years of buying of vote and buying of delegates. We are in an emergency situation now. If we must come out of this we must do things differently.
So, I bring message of hope to our people that there is great hope in our place.