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.

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