Monday, August 4, 2008

The Southeast economic commission

by Obi Nwakanma

I have been an unrepentant advocate for a joint Eastern Nigerian Economic commission, that would bring to bear the enormous but wasting capacity of the old Eastern Nigeria, and unleash the profound potentials of this region that has spent the last 38 years since the end of the civil war, looking outside, rather than within itself for a solution to its problems.
The absence of an organized and coherent process of economic and social planning, joint action initiatives, and such interlinks, that should bring together the currently atomized and disparate energies of the East would, more than anything else, inspire an internally defined, in-ward looking, creative and regenerative initiative for the benefit of the people.

And I hope that this may be replicated by other regions of Nigeria as it suits their interests, to make economic planning initiatives more regional, decentralized, more cooperative, and more driven by internal dynamics for the development of people.

Indeed in a number of my articles in the past in this column, I had advocated an Economic commission of the sort that has now been announced called the South East Economic Commission, currently championed by the African Institute for Applied Economics (AIAE) based in Enugu in concert with Ohanaeze.

I think it is an important first step towards a broader Eastern Nigerian commission. I was in fact elated by the possibilities of that initiative, particularly as I saw, on the list of the trustees of the AIAE, names like Professor Ukwu I. Ukwu, a distinguished economist, former Commissioner for Economic Development in the now defunct East Central State

And one who had spent a lifetime doing social research at the famous Center for Economic Development at the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus. Such wealth of strategic experience, a lot of which has not been put to the great use in the East in the last two decades or so, would, I have no doubt, be of immense benefit to any coherent initiative aimed at rebuilding the Eastern Economic axis from what has often been described as its unpardonable doldrums.

To be quite candid, Ohanaeze has a unique credibility burden, given its known pedigree, but this initiative is, when seen from just its potentials, an indication that some serious thinking is beginning to emerge from those quarters. But even then, I was startled by an e-mail sent to me, emanating from Nkemjika, and that is just his name. Like his brother Chinweizu, he sees no earthly reason to burden himself with “Ibekwe,” his family name.

This distinct choice to affirm singularity might tend to suggest him to be a maverick in the Nigerian sense. But there is no such devil that should stop anyone from being maverick for as long as the head sits firmly on the shoulder, and for as long as that head is a thinking one.

Well, there I was when I was startled by this e-mail from Nkemjika which basically dixed the plan for a South-East Economic Commission. Nkemjika’s urgent plea was to alert the Igbo, proposed beneficiaries of such a plan, that the SENEC was a storefront scam, allegedly masterminded by Mr. Chris Okoye of Harvard Trust Mortgage Bank, and others towards their private end and enrichment.

In a blistering attack on the SENEC idea, Nkemjika raises a number of issues, to which Dr. Dozie Ikedife responded, although quite frankly, the response is a bit flippant and sentimental.

It merely called Nkemjika names, reaffirmed the commitment of Ohaneze to South Eastern Nigeria’s economic development, and urged us all to support the move to organize SENEC. It did not address some of the quite valid concerns which Nkemjika raised, mostly regarding the structure, and the legal instruments that might create the commission.

I do not for one moment think that Chris Okoye and the AIAE, and the Harvard Trust Mortgage Bank are storefront scams, out to bilk the South East. I think that they may indeed be on to something that could significantly reconstitute and transform the East as an economic and social zone.

But it is important to pause a bit, and listen to some of the concerns raised by Nkemjika, because those concerns are fundamentally, at the core of what may make or mar this initiative.

It would also be important to get the structure right, from the very beginning, so that this initiative would become a truly organic public trust, aimed at the economic and social revitalization of the East. Part of the plans by Ohaneze and AIAE in this proposal is to establish the South East Nigeria Development Fund.

It is an important and vital move. But Nkemjika raises these equally vital concerns: “A scheme whose “critical first step” is to step a South-East Nigeria Development Fund (SENDEF), which would then deposit mobilized fund in banks and micro-finance companies for interest accruals, before any thought is given to what projects to execute, cannot be an effective platform to develop Igbo land.

In all intents and purposes, SENEC has the potential of only enriching those whose banks and micro-finance companies would hold mobilized funds for its yet to be determined projects, if any.”
It is a healthy skeptical stance. And it calls to question the fundamental issues: who would be the trustees of the Development Fund?

By what criteria would they be chosen? What would be the relationship with the governments of the East? Is the AIAE an Ohanaeze think-tank, or is it a private initiative whose interests are driven by pecuniary aims?

These are questions that should be clarified for us all, as we make our leaps of faith Ohanaeze, in its attempts, quite rightly, to establish a shadow authority over Igbo affairs.

But in order to do this, its leadership must consciously transform itself, from “a socio-cultural organization” into a fully constituted capacity to do more than write tepid press releases and make compromising solidarity visits. Indeed, if Ohanaeze fully organizes its potential, it would never need to make solidarity visits.

It would be too busy working to do that. And one of the fundamental works in its hands, right now, in this attempt to organize a joint South-Eastern Nigeria commission is to establish a platform that would meet with every Igbo organization with the aim of creating a common front.

This would reduce the credibility burden, which already threatens to undermine this initiative. Nkemjika also makes a very useful, and compelling suggestion that should be worthy of the consideration of Ohaneze, and indeed, the South-Eastern governments: the revitalization of the Eastern Nigerian Development Corporation, fully established by law to be the investment arm for the Igbo governments and people.

Towards that end, the law establishing the SENDC would require the governments of the South East to contribute an agreed “fixed percentage” of its federal grants annually to the SENDC.

And I should also add, so too should the various Igbo communities, including from the adjoining Delta and Rivers State, who must contribute a minimum of N10m spread over ten years, but who must also then receive full and regular accounting by the public trustees of the corporation, as well as receive the full benefits therefrom.

I should add here also, that as an investment and business arm of the governments of the East and the communities of the Igbo who may be interested, the various public corporations – the Golden Guinea Breweries, the Aba Glass Factory, the Niger steel, the ACB, the Owerri Shoe factory, the Amaraku and Oji River Power stations, all such publicly owned corporations both defunct and in various stages of decay should be handed over to the SENDC which must run it on behalf of the people for profit.

It should also make future investments in city and property development, shipbuilding, Defence industry; steel, Intercity rails, and so on and so forth.

The new SENDC would also possibly be the basis for establishing the South-Eastern Nigerian Trust Fund, the accruals of which should go to supporting public works, and such other public initiatives, that would be made to the wider and general edification of the people.

I totally agree with Nkemjika on the score that the governments of the South-Eastern states must fully take their roles more seriously.

What he calls to attention is the problem of accountability, and nothing more. It is important that those who are the heads of this initiative do not just dismiss his concerns, but work to clarify and harmonize them for the greater benefit of the people.

Zumunta, Sultan, Archbishop, CISA, IWA, WIC, Ohanaeze

The Zumunta Convention this past weekend in Los Angeles has generated a lot of heat in this forum. Therefore, I intend to add my little input into this discussion based on my presence during this three day event.

In order to establish a foundation, I wish to disclose that I responded positively to a request from an old friend of mine to help Zumunta organize her convention in Los Angeles. Mr. Dan Musa, President of Zumunta California Branch needed help. Several hours of discussions followed on the logistics, location, activities and the invitation of quests to the Zumunta convention. This led to the disclosure that the Sultan of Sokoto, Abubakar III, has accepted the invitation and plans to be in Los Angeles for this convention.

About the same time, in an exchange of emails within the CISA organization, an interest was expressed in holding a meeting with the Sultan of Sokoto, who is also the head of the muslim religion in Nigeria. I therefore disclosed to the members that Zumunta was planning to hold a convention in Los Angeles and the Sultan has expressed interest in coming to this convention. Since I was already helping Zumunta to organize their event, I was therefore in a position to ask for a meeting between Sultan Abubakar and CISA during the convention period. After discussions, CISA decided to authorize me to make inquiries into the possibility of this meeting. Thus, using my contacts, a request was made to the Sultanʼs office to inquire about the chances of such a meeting. When a positive response was therefore received, I informed CISA to confirm her continued interest. CISA then consulted with IWA and received IWAʼs blessing to go ahead with this meeting. IWA also passed the information to Ohanaeze for their overview and comments. Ohanaeze approved of the meeting also. With these Igbo groups backing, a proper request for a meeting with Sultan Abubakar was then made through his office in Sokoto and a date was then set for the meeting. To the best of my knowledge, no other organization had requested a meeting during the Zumunta convention at this stage of the planning.

With the meeting date set, I went ahead and contacted Marriot Hotels (venue of the convention) and rese rved a meeting room, a set of teleconference facilities (telephone and speakers) and lunch for ten participants. As far as I know, no other Nigerian organization made any attempts to reserve a meeting room for the time period of 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm of July 27th, 2008. It was necessary to rent teleconference facilities because some IWA members in Europe and Ohanaeze members in Nigeria wanted to have a chance to participate in this meeting. With less than a week to the convention, I was told that WIC and Egbe Omo Yoruba now want to meet with Sultan Abubakar and two days later the secretary of WIC published the proposed meeting in the internet. The CISA leadership discussed the potential conflicts with WIC at the Zumunta conference and proposed that both organizations should attempt to go to this meeting together. The Chairman of WIC rejected the proposal on the basis that he does not wish to be seen with CISA and he expects to have their WIC/EOY arranged meeting with Sultan Abubakar. That was the end of any discussions for a joint meeting.

In the mean time, other Nigerian community organizations now wanted to be part of the meeting. Sultan Abubakar and the Archbishop therefore decided to invite all of them to this meeting since it will be impossible to hold another meeting later. After discussions with the managers of the convention, the aides to the Sultan and myself, we accepted to hold an open meeting with all groups participating. Some of the groups=2 0represented at this meeting were Rivers State, Akwa Ibom, NIDO, ANAC who then joined CISA members who were already seated for the meeting. WIC/EOY did not attend this meeting. Given the sudden expansion of the assembly, CISA had to shelve her planned program in an effort to accommodate others. The teleconference facilities were therefore, not used and the meeting proceeded with only the individuals who were present in the room. We setup a head table with six seats which accomodated the two visiting Emirs,
Dr. Nwachukwu Anakwenze (for IWA/CISA), Sultan Abubakar III, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja and Dr. Femi Ajayi who is the Vice President of Zumunta.

Sultan Abubakar and CISA to hold future Meetings

The discussion was free following throughout the room with individuals asking a variety of questions after an opening statement from the Sultan, the Archbishop and Dr. Anakwenze. Interestingly, Sultan Abubakar and the Archbishop work so closely together that one usually defers to the other to speak in public gatherings while the other person simply concurs. In this case, Sultan Abubakar spoke extensively and Archbishop Onaiyekan concured with all that was said. During the main convention event in the afternoon of Saturday, the Archbishop gave the major presentation and the Sultan concured. This relationship seems to be working very well for both of them as they attempt to harmonize the message from the leadership of Nigeriaʼs two main religions groups in an effort to minimize friction among Nigerians. The central theme of this convention centered around Ethnic and religious conflicts and the ongoing work to control them. This issue, therefore, dominated the discussion at the meeting. Unfortunately, CISAʼs program and prefered discussions suffered a setback due to changes and new participants. Overall, the entire meeting was successful as new developments in the area of inter religious relationships in Nigeria were brought to the attention of those of us in the Diaspora. I am still waiting to see how this new relationship translates to the lower level believers of these two groups as they struggle to keep their faith and make a living in the difficult economic environment of Nigeria. Some of the new arrangements within the leadership look promising and the governmental institutions should be encouraged to augment this work.

Going forward, I am glad CISA/IWA understand that Ndigbo can only have permanent interests and not permanent enemies. Ndigbo are so vested in Northern Nigeria that it would be a mistake to take the security of Igbo lives and properties in the North for granted. CISA, as I understand it, has also held meetings with Izu Umunna, the umbrella group representing Ndigbo in Northern Nigeria and the meeting with the Sultan is, as I understand it, only just the beginning.

My private observations
All the contributors to this topic so far in t his forum have done a good job in moving this discussion forward, especially Obi Nwakanmaʼs. Only the Governors of Rivers and Delta States honored the Sultanʼs invitation to join him at the convention in Los Angeles. These two did not attend the Saturday night banquet. Over forty members of the ACF were denied visa to the USA for the convention. Non of the Federal Ministers and no Senators showed up. The Deputy Minority Leader of the Federal House of Assembly was also present to represent the Governor of Kano State, who sent a letter of apology and sent his wife to the Zumunta convention. There was also a Federal Appeals Court Judge and the new Nigerian Ambassador to the U. S. A.

The diversity of the Zumunta membership is quite impressive, but the strenght of the membership maybe low. Organizing events of this magnitude may continue to be difficult for them unless they reach out to friends from outside the Northern region of Nigeria. Contrary to what some of us believe in this forum, Zumunta certainly has a majority Christian membership (about 70%) and the Hausa/Fulani are not that dorminant in the association. Yet, like most communities in the North, the lingua franca is Hausa.

The highlight of my presence at the Zumunta convention was my chance to have lunch on Saturday with the Catholic Archbishop (Dr.) John Olorumfemi Onaiyekan, President of CAN and Rev. Yakubu Pam, President of CAN in the North Central region. Some of20you should remember Rev. Yakubu Pam in his encounter with President Obasanjo during the Christian/Moslem conflicts in Plateau State. The conversation was very interesting.

I am writing this article to lay a foundation for what I sincerely hope will be a useful exchange of opinions on how the Igbo Diaspora can help to move the Igbo agenda forward. To me, the concept of not talking is un-Igbo. Ndiigbo historically have advanced our agenda by working with people on issues of common interest. Three of the greatest Igbo leaders in history, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Micheal Okpara and Odimegwu Ojukwu are easy references on this subject.

Ndeewo nu.

Ugo Anakwenze