…says State now APC dominated
…adds Under my watch, IGR collections will not be used to settle political boys
…says I was not on payroll for 4 years as Commissioner for Finance
…asks Sen. Abribe to give youth chance
Mr. Obinna Oriaku is a former banker and Abia State Commissioner for Finance from 2015 to 2019. He has declared interest to run for 2023 governorship election in the State. In this interview, he told Sunday Vanguard what Abians stand to gain from his government if given the opportunity, recalling that he served the state on pro bono.
By Levinus Nwabughiogu-Abuja
The end of your tenure as Commissioner for Finance was marred by controversies arising from some contracts. At some point you were a guest to EFCC. How did that play out?
Towards the end of the 2015 to 2019 in the administration of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, some vested interest vowed that I will never be part of the next administration. Everything was deployed to achieve that aim including false allegations and propaganda. They were not just happy that I held on to my position that we must move away from those negatives that have defined us as Abians. A lot of petitions were written just to paint negative pictures but we are happy today that Abians now understand who has their interests at heart. EFCC investigated a unit under ministry of finance for about N3m only, a unit saddled with the responsibility of salary payment. It had no direct bearing on me as a person as I served Abia state Pro bono. I was not on the pay roll of Abia for the four years. Most people are suprised that all the media noise about EFCC was just for N3m when we have issues concerning N576 billion belonging to Abia that has been in the cooler for years. The matter has been dispensed with as those involved are already in court.
What lessons did you learn from your experience with EFCC?
The key lesson is that it’s good to be transparent in all you do while in Government. However, the experience was a blessing in disguise because this particular issue of EFCC petitions exposed my stewardship to Abians as most of them never knew I served Pro bono and that the state never spent a kobo on the biometric capture/verification of civil servants. Under my watch we ensured that our bankers handled these projects as part of their CSR without cost to Abia state. This particular project saw to the refencing of the database of Abia workers to avoid fraud and savings of about N600m was made from salary payment figure.
Now, you are nursing governorship ambition, will the EFCC probe not work against you?
The civil servants and entire Abians now understand better what our intentions were at that time. Many believe that we had genuine intention to reform and restructure some of those fundamental issues that have held us down as a State. Many are wishing that some of those truncated reforms are concluded which will guarantee a better future for Abians. I can say that many Abians are wishing for positive change especially when they see what is going on in Ebonyi and what Soludo represents in Anambra. Even among those in present government, they believe that we can do better as a people. We are not cursed as Abians. Leadership has been our challenge and Abians are yearning for good governance and effective leadership.
As a Commissioner who had the ear of your principal, what advice did you offer to him that helped advance the cause of the State?
At inception, we had as a small group led by then late Chief of Staff, Chjioke Nwakodo whose responsibilities included reviewing all policies and actions of government. His death was a big blow to the administration and his time represented the glorious era of that administration. His death opened doors and brought those that never believed in our ideas and the paradigm changes we planned and the rest is history. I enjoyed and still have good cordial relationship with my Governor, and he gave listening ears to our suggestions while in office. His support gave rise to all those reforms like Civil service reforms, Judiciary reforms, procurement reforms, IGR reforms, Parstarals reforms and local government reforms. The recommendation of some of the reforms are yet to be implemented as these reforms brought some backclash from civil servants who joined the anti Obinna war. That’s my strength, ability to take hard decisions and that’s what Abia needs at this time to resolve our age long issues of bad governance.
Tell me the projects you attractracted to your community as a key cabinet member?
My community had fair share of government presence while I served. I am also grateful to the Governor who made those projects realised. The government provided two major roads that serve as by pass for those going to Port Harcourt through Ngor Okpuala in Imo state. They also reconstructed our local market that was forgotten due to perennial flooding. About three primary school blocks were constructed, transformers and rural electrification of villages, etc. Some graduates were offered jobs at the state and local government levels. The Mbutu/ Owerrinta people in Isi ala Ngwa south felt the impact of government while I served.
Why did you then leave the PDP that provided you with all the infrastructure for the APC?
Well, I have appreciated the government that made those projects possible but our problems as a State goes beyond provision of those infrastructure in my area. Our problems are fundamental/systemic and must be addressed for sustainable and guaranteed development of Abia state in general.
Your party APC doesn’t seem to be on the ground in Abia state owing to internal crises. How would you surmount that obvious obstacle to win elections in Abia state.
It is good to be underrated in politics. I laugh wide when people say APC is not on ground in Abia. A party that has completely taken over a senatorial zone out of the three zones long before the election. A party that parades members who are in leadership positions in the national assembly. These members include the former Governor and current Chief Whip of the Senate, His Excellency Senator Oji Uzo Kalu. The Deputy Whip in House of representatives, Rt Hon Nkiru Onyejiocha, the Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Hon Benjamin Kalu including over three State House of assembly members, a party whose representatives have redefined representation in Abia state. We have not had it this good before from our representatives. Today, Abia North APC can boast of 70% of the entire votes if election is held today. We are now only focusing on the two outstanding zones and you know performance is infectious, we believe that the two zones of Abia central and Abia south will follow suit in our drive towards reclaiming Abia State. Already, Abia central is in the kitty as Rt Hon Onuigbo is redefining representation in Ikwuano/ Umuahia. APC is on ground in Abia and is poised to surprise many doubting their strength. What you call internal crisis is something that can be resolved in days, so we are not much disturbed. It’s better we address these issues now than during the party primaries. Be assured that any internal issues in Abia APC will be resolved and it will make us stronger as a party. Already PDP is shaking because many see APC as a veritable option in Abia.
People say you joined APC to avenge your oust from position of authority. Are you on a revenge mission? If not what motivates your ambition?
Remember, I was seconded from First Bank of Nigeria to serve as Commissioner of Finance in Abia and my bank (FBN) paid my salary for the four years ,credit goes to our former GMD UK Ekeh who is an Abian. I am not a regular politician that will focus on vendetta instead of keeping the eyes on the ball from day one. I served as Commissioner for Finance for unbroken four years even when State executive council were desolved on two occssions. I was about the only Commissioner left in government. I understand the problems of Abia state better. The natural thing would have been to go back to First Bank after the contract ended in 2019. However these four years opened my eyes to the level of rot in our State and I also observed how deeply entrenched these forces are. I decided that I will not go back to the bank but be part of those ready to take the hard decisions in liberating Abia from these forces. I also noticed that the changes we want will be difficult to achieve working from inside as most of these people are already deeply entrenched in the system. The holistic change can only be guaranteed by fighting/working from outside the current party in the state. We have example of changes that came fighting back from outside. Anambra state during Ngige and Obi, Oyo State under Makinde, Ebonyi under Dave Umahi, all these people brought changes fighting from outside and we all are witnesses to what is going or what went on in those states under the leadership of these people. My motivation is that I did a research on what our problems are as a people. Remember, I have all my time worked with states governments under Public sector in my banking career. I served as offical banker to Enugu State government under the administration of Governor Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu and Suilvan Chime and was embedded in works of these governments. I came to the conclusion that with right leadership, Abia can regain lost grounds. I strongly believe that a new Abia is possible and that our Abia state is not beyond redemption.
Politics is said to be a game of patience and intrigues. How can you be trusted with power when it’s alleged that you easily jump ship at the slightest provocation?
I fell out with the powers that be in Abia, the assumed owners of the state because I resisted all they wanted to do while in government. My uncompromising position on those major issues did not help matters which I don’t regret till date. They went further to humiliate themselves by insisting that the guy that won the local congress in my ward will not be accepted because he has “ORIAKU” as his surname. I did not start talking about the rot in the system now that I am out of government. I have always been an advocate of good governance even while in government. If you have gone through my resignation letter from the party, I said “with what I have seen, tangible development cannot be guaranteed if we continue to run that state the way it is. I left the PDP because of fundamental issues which cannot be corrected. Recall that this group has been in power since democracy and they have their own way of doing things which has truncated our growth as a State. It is the quest for good governance which cannot be guaranteed under the current system that encouraged my search for another platform as I am convinced that the holistic change we all clamour can only be guaranteed under a new platform that has no appendages of old order.
There is a common belief that Abia is retrogressive because of its inability to harness the potentials in IGR collection. How would you boost IGR in Abia should you become the next governor?
A new Abia will guarantee sustained reforms in IGR that will engender developments of our state. We have huge IGR potentials in Abia but a lot needs to be done by the government and the people. These reforms were started and maybe abandoned but what is sure is on our conviction that all these are achieved under a focused leadership. Fundamental changes or reforms are needed just like in other states that are doing well in IGR. Leadership is also key in driving these changes. IGR collections will not be used to settle the political boys and enforcement will be 100%. The political will to do all these will be guaranteed. “If Oshodi in lagos can be reformed, then note that we can achieve all if the willingness is there”. Under our watch, Abia IGR will grow to the extent that we can plan with it.
How’s your relationship with your former boss and colleagues now?
I enjoy robust relationship with colleagues and my Oga, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu especially when you remember the close relationship that existed between us while in Government. We did not quarrel, just that circumstances especially some vested interests made things difficult after the first tenure. There is no regret working with him in that first term and am grateful for that opportunity to serve our people and it made me understand our challenges better. I have had cause to apologise to our colleagues that served during the first term. Most of them served under very difficult circumstances. That service was sacrificial as most were focused towards paradigm change championed by then leadership. They are worried how things have changed as some of those reforms were truncated hence my decision to call them in that regards.
What’s your disposition corruption in the past, present and how will you tackle it now that is almost endemic?
Corruption in government is becoming endemic by the day even as government is coming up with strategy to reduce fraud in government at all levels. In Abia, a lot was done to introduce automation of processes which reduced fraud but you find out that structures are not in place to support these reforms, no wonder they have almost gone back to Egypt. I have always believed that fish rots from the head. We will ensure that our heads are straight. We have been tested in this regard and I am sure alot more will be done to discourage fraud including consequence management which is lacking in government. Some jokingly say if I am in the saddle, that hunger will kill them. I assure them that whoever works will be paid but Abia money will not be shared under my watch.
Abia is seen as one of the states under the control of political godfathers. Who is your God father?
God and entire Abians are my god fathers. We are going to work together to achieve our desired goals. This does not take away the fact that we have elders that we may consult or seek their understanding in some major policy decisions. This is normal even in immediate family circle. There won’t be that kind of godfather you are referring where every approval must be sought. We will together deliver Abia for Abians.
People in Abia North want power return to them after Governor Ikpeazu’s tenure. But at the same time, the people of Abia south, majorly the Ngwa/Ukwa clan where the present governor hails from still want to retain it arguing they want to be at par with old Bende zone in terms of years. How do you think this will play out eventually?
While we appreciate that equity in zoning political offices engenders peace in polity but we must note that Abia state needs leaders that have all it takes to take them out of where they are presently. We will not encourage any zone clamouring for the office to throw away integrity, competence for zoning. Today, both sides are laying claim to which zone should produce the governor. Depending on the prism you are, Abia needs competent leaders that have been tested with local experience and are passionate of delivering. Ukwa la Ngwa strongly believes that 16 years and 16 years is equity while years and 8 years and 24 years is unfair. For me, we need a leader that has competence, integrity, zero tolerance to corruption and passionate about Abia fast development but garnished with equity which will guarantee development of our State.
Aren’t you afraid of Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe who has since declared his ambition to run for the same office as you?
Senator Abaribe is one of our respected elders in Abia and beyond. Senator Abaribe has been consistent and we all adore him in Ukwa la Ngwa and amongst Igbos in general. Dee, as we fondly call him, is eminently qualified to run and has got experience too. However, we the youths that have distinguished ourselves are only asking to be given a chance as our own generation is already beclouded by the present leaders. When will we showcase our leadership skills after undergoing mentor/mentee training?