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Sen Ekwunife: S’East Govs Working On Development Plan for Region

Senator Uche Ekwunife is the Director-General of South-East Governors’ Forum, (SEGOF). In this interview with OKEY MADUFORO, she speaks on the Forum’s significant landmark moves to develop the region through a common front that will drive the region’s economy under the leadership of Governor Hope Uzodinma

For seven months or more, SouthEast Governors’ Forum has been engaged in various activities to rekindle development in the region. Would you say these activities are yielding results?

South-East Governors’ Forum, (SEGOF) under the leadership of the Governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodimma has given tangible hope to regional development, and it is making inroads into various opportunities that will benefit the people. Thus, the region has witnessed a remarkable surge in developmental initiatives.

The five governors of South-East states are showing a very high level of unwavering solidarity, unity, and togetherness in addressing the challenges facing our region, and at the same time creating opportunities for the people of the region. Their commitment to working together towards meeting the basic needs of our people is very commendable. So, I must tell you that SEGOF as the umbrella body of the Governors of the South-East zone, since I came on board has made very significant achievements in bringing our leaders together to work for the people and attract various regional developmental initiatives that will in turn open up the zone to the entire country and the world at large for business and investment opportunities.

What exactly are the major plans of the South-East Governors in the face of insecurity and infrastructure in the zone?

The governors have embarked on a bold and deliberate plan to transform the regional infrastructural deficit such as rail system, tackle insecurity, agriculture, power, human capital development, among others through strategic investments. In tackling insecurity, the governors’ dogged commitment in combating insecurity issues in the region is total. They have made various moves in the area of security which I will not say here because it is a security matter, but all I can tell you is that the governors have made significant moves to ensure a safe and secure environment for residents and businesses which was witnessed during the Christmas and Easter periods. The governors are establishing a regional command center in one of the states.

This state-of-the-art facility will coordinate security efforts across the region, deterring criminal activities and fostering a sense of peace and stability. This regional security structure will help the existing security infrastructures in all the South East states in sharing information that will help in combating crime in the region; and also, to stop criminals from using one state as a safe haven while perpetrating evil in another state. The South East governors are deliberate and intentional in handling security matters in the region.

How has the governors’ forum handled the precipitating issue of ‘sit at home’ in the zone?

The ‘Sit at Home’ is a self-inflicted injury. South-East Governors are working hard to make people see reason why the sit at home should not continue, unfortunately, some of our people are not willing to corporate with the governors in the quest to stop it. It is a syndrome that can only stop when people collaborate with the government. It is seriously affecting our economy. We are punishing ourselves, and at the same time talking about marginalisation of our region. That is not the best way to agitate for our people. Marginalisation of the zone has to be constructively addressed but definitely not by sit at home. Until we realise how injurious this is to our economy, we won’t continue to support it. People must emancipate themselves from it by engaging in their legitimate businesses on Mondays. How can we continue to fold our hands and sit at home every Monday and expect that all will be well. Some of our people now use Mondays to do village meetings instead of their businesses. All hands must be on deck to stop this trend.

What other collaborative efforts are the governors making in ensuring a prosperous region?

Like I said earlier, the governors are in healthy competition in their various states. At the regional level, there are ongoing synergy and collaboration amongst the governors to jointly embark on life changing projects that will put the zone at the radar of development in no distant time. For instance, the governors are currently working on a regional rail transportation system, power, regional security architecture, agriculture, and even solid mineral development. The governors are addressing the region’s infrastructural gap through strategic investments and partnerships. The rehabilitation of the Eastern rail line by the Federal Government through the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) is a major milestone. It is ongoing with the first phase from Port Harcourt to Aba, which is now set for commissioning.

The second phase, extending from Aba to Enugu, is also underway. Knowing the concerns of our people regarding a narrow-gauge rail system instead of a standard gauge, The SouthEast Governors’ Forum is in partnership with the Ministry of Transportation and the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) to seek interventions in that regard. The feasibility study for the standard gauge rail has been carried out, and we are talking with the Federal Government on the need for a standard gauge rail line in the region. The importance of rail transportation in boosting the economy of the region cannot be over emphasised. But most importantly there are strong plans by SEGOF to establish rail lines linking the major cities of the five states. Then, like I said earlier, in boosting power supply in the region, no aspect of the regional intervention goals has been left untouched. In appreciating the importance of reliable power supply for economic development, the South-East governors in partnership with the Federal Government have commissioned the Light Up Nigeria project in the South-East.

This initiative is a measure taken by the governors in the region to boost power supply while leveraging on the transfer of electricity from the exclusive list to the Concurrent List. The Light Up South-East Programme by the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) in collaboration with Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC), aims at providing steady and reliable power supply to industrial and business clusters in the South-East. One of the key priorities for the SouthEast Governors is the sponsorship of a uniform legislation through their State Assemblies on power, leveraging on the removal of power from the exclusive list to the concurrent list. This legislation aims to create a seamless and investor-friendly environment, eliminating encumbrances and hurdles while transacting business with the states in the region. Using the Enugu Electricity Act as a model, the governors are working hard to make ease of doing business sacrosanct so that investors in power sectors can freely transact business within the entire region without any legal bottlenecks or impediments.

Would you say the five governors of the South-East have done well?

In your assessment, how do you see their performance so far? The commissioning of the Geometric Electric Plant by Governor Alex Ottih’s is a massive milestone in the region. The Geometric Plant launch will boost economic activities, improve the livelihood of residents, and attract new investments to Abia State, especially Aba City. With a boost in industrial and entrepreneurial activities in Aba, the entire region will scale up eco nomically. With this drastic measure in tackling power challenges in the region, the deficiencies in power will be history soon. His intervention in massive and solid road infrastructure across Abia State commendable, the people of Abia state have in this short period heaved a great sigh of relief and earned themselves the title of ‘Japan of the South-East.’ Governor Ottih is offering services which Abians have never seen before. It has never been this good for Abia people. Another major milestone in the region in recent times is the completion of an N4.2 billion gas plant in Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State by Governor Hope Uzodinma. The plant will generate 120,000 cubic meters of gas per day to power industries and homes in the state. Governor Uzodimma has also, through robust economic policy, embarked on life changing projects across Imo State, which earned him overwhelming support across the 27 local government areas of the state in the last election. His innovation and intervention in road infrastructure, health service delivery, and education are topnotch. He has embarked on massive road infrastructure as well as a leading light in human capital development.

Then, Governor Chukwuma Soludo’s revolution in the educational sector is commendable and exemplary. The recruitment of 5,000 teachers for state schools across the state has continued scaling up the position of Anambra as the best state in the country in terms of education. Also, his massive intervention in road infrastructure across Anambra state is highly commendable. He has also invested hugely in other sectors of the state economy. Governor Soludo is quite intentional in providing solutions to key areas of governance in Anambra. Governor Francis Nwifuru’s strands of achievement in Ebonyi State is a testimony of when tenacity, strength, and knowledge meet leadership. His intervention in the state has seen the state scaling up economically. Understanding the dynamics of Ebonyi State, he has channeled more strength into human capital development, agriculture, infrastructure, and health. Intervention in the Ebonyi Airport is a laudable project that will boost the economic status of the state. His equipping hospitals with state-of-the-art facilities and manpower is a commendable step, as health is wealth. Furthermore, his efforts in agriculture are a major milestone that is changing the narratives in the state. The road network in Ebonyi state has been expanded to an appreciable extent. Then, Enugu State Governor, Dr. Peter Mbah has made significant achievements in improving infrastructure, security, and economic development in the state. Notable amongst his strands of achievement are the construction of ongoing New Enugu City, rehabilitation of 71 urban roads, expansion of water supply to the state capital, procurement of vehicles for the Distress Response Squad, initiation of a statewide CCTV camera network for 24/7 surveillance, establishment of a Security Trust Fund and signing of the State Power Act into law to regulate electricity and attract investors. Governor Mbah’s achievements within this short period show someone who is prepared for the job.

It has been rumoured that SEGOF does not have any operational base. How do you run the affairs of the forum without an office, and what are your landmark achievements so far?

Remember the last Governors’ Forum under my predecessor sat last in 2021. There was no office space and other clerical staff then. So, what I did immediately when I assumed office as Director General of SEGOF was to facilitate a functional Secretariat and have secured a befitting office for SEGOF headquarters in Enugu. The facility boasts of stateof-the-art amenities and is poised to serve as a hub for administrative functions and stakeholders’ engagements.

The building has been remodeled to create offices for each state representative, meeting rooms, and conference halls for stakeholders’ engagements. The secretariat, when opened, will run normally like other sister offices where the daily activities of the forum will take place. The office has to be on and running whether the governors are around or not. We have started the process of registering the forum as a legal entity to enable the Secretariat to engage more effectively with other local and international organizations. I have also interfaced with the Chinese Ambassador in order to reduce the stringent policies on the issuance of Chinese visas to our entrepreneurs who are doing businesses in China.

My office has had interactions with Federal Government Ministries, especially the Federal Ministry of Environment, on issues concerning the devastating erosion menace in the zone and environmental pollution by the sand miners. SEGOF Secretariat has also reviewed the recommendations from the last South-East Security and Economic Summit held in Owerri and other similar conferences in the past to put action plans and timelines for easy implementation by the governors especially as it concerns Anya-Oha security structure. SEGOF is following up with the leadership of the National Assembly for the timely conclusion of the passage of South-East Development Commission (SEDC ) bill before the National Assembly for onward transmission to Mr. President for his assent. The establishment of South -East Development Commission SEDC will not only elevate the living standards of the populace but also serve as a catalyst for economic growth by fostering a conducive environment for increased economic activities. SEDC holds the promise of unlocking the region’s potentials by attracting investments, creating employment opportunities, and bolstering economic development initiatives. By addressing critical infrastructural needs and promoting strategic development projects, this legislation is poised to drive sustainable growth and enhance the overall socio-economic landscape of the South-East region. We are working on a regional master plan for the development of the region. This regional master plan will run with a 50-year growth timeline.

It will serve as the basic guideline on regional interventions and economic activities. The secretariat is equally working with some stakeholders to modernise the apprenticeship programme (Igba Boi) for our youths and make it attractive and productive for good and sustainable growth. Over the years, the apprenticeship or Igba Boi system has been taken over by sales girls and boys. We are working to adopt at least 1000 youths from each state on a yearly basis to help restore the economic glory of the region. The target of this initiative is to raise at least 5000 young millionaires yearly in the region. Remember, it was this apprenticeship that was part of what made NDIGBO what they are today. The secretariat is also developing a template for legal protection of our businessmen and women that will bring and relocate their businesses home. We are equally working to give them legal backing and incentives. Diaspora business is also not left out in the plans. We are in talks with development partners in capacity building initiatives for our youths, which will equip them with the knowledge needed to drive industrialization in the region. SEGOF has set up committees to review all federal government ongoing projects in the zone in order to follow up with the ministries for timely completion. This is to reduce the number of abandoned projects in the south east. Presently, we are working hard to resuscitate the national youth center that has been abandoned for years in Mgbakwu, Anambra State. This will enable the governors to utilise such projects where necessary. In the area of agriculture, the SouthEast Governors’ Forum secretariat is interfacing with global organisations in the area of making very massive inroad into agriculture. With the stable and arable land within the zone, agriculture is top of the list of our priority programmes aimed at giving the South East facelift economically.

You made mention of the apprenticeship system in business. What exactly is SEGOF planning in this regard?

The apprenticeship scheme, which we call “Igba Boy” or “Boi Boi” system, will come back but in an improved way. There is going to be a regional system where the entire states will be opened up for young people to engage in business. It is unfortunate that the Igba Boi system is no longer there. The Boi Boi system where our rich businessmen took young men into mentorship and after which they were settled to start up their own businesses is no longer there, and it is affecting businesses in the region.

If you look now, you will see that the Boi Boi system is gradually diminishing as secretaries are taking over the work. So SEGOF is working on a regional system of apprenticeship where a certain number of young boys and girls who are not ready to further their education will be selected from each state and trained in the art of business after which they will be empowered to start up their own business. In doing so, we will be churning out millionaires every year from all the states within the South East. This will not be limited to male gender. It will be both Sex as women are also created to be wealthy.

How do you intend to select the youths, and what other efforts are being made to ensure that real people are chosen and not political patronage?

We will reintroduce it and make sure we are starting with 1000 youths in each state. We will start profiling the beneficiaries and carefully select them. After the training, we will incubate them. This is to ensure we get what we want and that those who do well would be selected and empowered and then unleashed into the system. The idea is to bring back that unity and economic agenda of our forefathers who used the system of apprenticeship to build many young men and discourage idleness and crimes.

Apart from infrastructure, what other collaborative efforts are the governors putting in harnessing mineral resources in the zone?

The governors are fostering economic growth by attracting investments and creating an enabling business environment. The South-East is blessed with an abundance of natural resources that are underutilized. The region’s abundant natural resources and fertile land for exploration and development. To further boost economic activities, the governors are constructing mega cities and industrial city parks. These projects will serve as magnets for businesses, creating employment opportunities, and stimulating growth in key sectors. I can tell you that the South-East region is poised for transformative growth under the leadership of its governors. The fast-tracking of developmental projects and the focus on regional concerns; infrastructure, power, security, education, agriculture, and economic growth will create a vibrant and prosperous region for all its citizens

In all these programmes, what specific plans does SEGOF have for the youths from the zone in the face of the japa syndrome?

SEGOF is in talks with the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Investment through the National Talent Export Programme (NATEP) to mitigate the migration of our young professionals from the south East region to other areas and connect them to international jobs while working from home. This can be done through opening business point outlets (BPO) in the South East.

This will help in job creation, poverty alleviation, and shared prosperity. Foreign exchange earnings and improved economic growth, improved security, increased internally generated revenue and taxes for the region, development and growth of the BPO, and talent. South-East Governors’ Forum is committed to working with the Federal Government, stakeholders, development partners, and international organizations to accelerate regional development.

We are actively partnering with different international agencies and organizations like the FCDO, ChinaAfrica Trade and Economy Trade Promotion Council, USAID etc, to attract more investment in the area of industrialisation of the region. Interactions and deliberations are underway on the construction of mini solar farms for both industrial and residential clusters and the manufacturing of solar panels in the region. We want to see how the South-East will be an industrial hub of Nigeria. The Governors are determined to make the region investment friendly in order to massively increase their economic growth and reduce crime drastically.

What are the plans you have for the forum in coming years?

We have a lot of outline programs that will stimulate the industrial, commercial and welfare of our people to which we have put together and are waiting for approval to start. Godswill all will be well.

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