Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Imo: Story of decay despite Ohakim's promises of a New Face

By Kodilinye Obiagwu, Guardian

NEAR a major roundabout leading to the Imo State Government House, Owerri, a billboard displays in very bold and unmistakeable features, the picture of the state governor, Ikedi Ohakim: A pair of cupped palms cradles the governor's smiling bust. Inscribed on the billboard are these words: "Imo is in the hands of God." Those words were taken from an address, "A Blueprint For The New Face Of Imo," delivered by Ohakim as governor-elect on May 16, 2007 to the 2007 Transition Committee of the new face of Imo. In that speech, Ohakim said, "I shall do a new thing in Imo State."

Two years after, the people of Imo State have experienced those "new things" in radio jingles, newspaper advertorials, glossy state-sponsored publications and colourful billboards. Very little are on the ground.

At inception, the State Government harped on sanitation of the state. Two years later, a billboard at the gate of Dan Anyiam Stadium proclaims that sense of cleanliness amid empty water sachets littering the gutters. This is despite the ban on sachet water (pure water). The story is told of how shortly after the ban, the producers of sachet water reached an agreement with the enforcers of the ban, the Environmental Transformation Commission (ENTRACO). Part of the deal was that the producers would manage the disposal of the sachets and for that, a packet of sachet water, N5 elsewhere, costs N10 in Owerri metropolis. As it is, the deal is not working.

Mr. Edwin Akubuiro an engineer and Director of Research and Publicity for the New Face Organisation, said that Ohakim's new face agenda goes beyond cleaning Imo. He claims that it is visible in the roads construction "as all the entry points into Owerri city are dualised."

However, of the five entry points to Owerri, only the Onitsha-Owerri Road, a federal road, is dualised.

The Owerri-Okigwe exit road, which presently terminates at Orji, has been under construction in the last two years. The story is that the contract was awarded to Zerok, a construction firm said to be owned by the former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, who is also chairman of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the Peoples Progressive Alliance (PPA) on which ticket Ohakim was elected. And when Ohakim fell out with Kalu, he (governor) eased up on the road after the contractor had started work. The Orji Road (a nightmare for motorists), is the shortest route to the governor's village in Okohia, Isiala Mbano. But the story is that with work dragging and in virtual abeyance, the governor opts for a longer route through the Mbaise Road.

the dualised Owerri-Umuahia Road is one point of controversy. In reality, there is nothing like a dualised Owerri-Umuahia Road. The part of the dualised road ends at Egbu, only three kilometres from the Owerri city. And derisively, it is called the dualised Owerri-Egbu Road. President Musa Yar'Adua commissioned the road as Owerri-Umuahia Road in July 2009, when Ohakim decamped to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). A bill of N6 billion is tagged on the road.

the Owerri-Orlu road is demarcated by concrete boulders and the 'dualisation' terminates within Owerri city.

Owerri-Port Harcourt Road, another federal road, is not dualised.
Another new thing according to Akubuiro is "the establishment of the Royal Orks Refining and Petrochemical Company, which is sited in Egbema, Oguta council." This is still a plan, yet to take off.

The refinery located in Umuokanne in Ohaji Egbema close to the village of the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Goodluck Opiah, is there only in name. Recently, some members of the community protested and wanted to reclaim their lands since government was not ready to commence work beyond laying the foundation. It is said that over N93 million has been committed to the project.

Another example of the new face of Imo "is seen in the Oguta Wonder Lake made up of a resort and conference centre designed as a tourist haven." This also is yet to take off. The project is linked to a N40 billion Imo State Development Bond from which the state has received N18.5 billion. It is said that the Oguta Wonder Lake has gulped the money. When the State House of Assembly approved the now controversial bond, the House ad hoc committee stated that the bond would be used to finance specific projects. The projects are: "Imo State equity investment in the Imo Wonder Lake resort and conference centre; Critical Road projects; various water schemes and all other capital projects as encapsulated in the 2008 project." Some stakeholders have dragged the governor and the House of Assembly to court over the loan.

Another "big" project going on in Imo is the dredging of the Nworie River. The dredging, has attracted a lot of controversy essentially because, few people see the economic necessity of the project. "Dredging is a wrong term for the work we see on the river or stream," said Ikenna Opara, an architect in Owerri.

In addition to the vague purpose of the project, the cost of the project is another subject of controversy. Akubuiro had said that Ohakim "used his sagacity and got the intervention of the Federal Government and N8.5 billion of Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDC) funds." He explains that, "Imo is not a counterpart funder," but got the NDDC support "since Imo is a littoral state." But a lot of confusion surrounds this. For example, in his first briefing on the project at the Assumpta Pastoral Centre, Owerri, the then Project Co-ordinator and the Commissioner for Petroleum and Environment, Dr. Aloysius Agunwa put the cost at N8 billion of the state government's fund.

The Commissioner for Information and Strategy Dr. Amanze Obi restated this to journalists in Owerri.

The former Special Adviser to the governor on project, monitoring, Ben Ekwueme, also an engineer, told reporters in Owerri that the cost was N9 billion.

With the conflicting positions of the government officials over the funding and cost of the project, sources in the project monitoring of the NDDC however said that, "the project is not on NDDC list. But the project could be listed in the 2010 budget." The sources clarified further that it is unlikely that the NDDC will commit more that N1 billion in the project and that the funding will be implemented in phases and not once and for all remittance.

A billboard at the dredging site, which displays a picture of President Umaru Yar'Adua and Ohakim hints at the idea behind the project, something to the effect that, "Ohakim wants to create a waterfront along the banks of the river," explained Opara. A taxi driver said: "The money being spent here could have been used to revive some of the dead industries like the Standard Shoe Industry so that unemployed graduates will have jobs. The governor cannot point to any project that has had an impact on the lives of the people."

Of serious concern is the state's debt profile. The revenue allocation to the state by the federation account allocation committee for the month of September alone shows that the contractual obligation, the Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) for Imo amounted to N358, 424, 768.53k, a staggering debt, a substantial part of which was traced to the era of the late Dr. Sam Mbakwe. Those who spoke about it, sounded quite worried particularly when put beside the N40 billion Imo State Development Bond. A fallout of this is that at maturity, the loan will be deducted from the state's federal allocation at source and 27 councils show that on the average, the councils of the state are directly suffering from this. The details of revenue allocation to the 27 councils show that on average they realise about N75 million monthly. But they get between N20 million and N25 million monthly. The National Chairman of the African Liberation Party (ALP), Chief Emmanuel Osita Okereke, believes bankruptcy is staring Imo in the face.

Ohakim's agenda on rural roads seems pegged on what is called IRROMA (Imo Rural Roads Maintenance Agency). Despite the investment in this agency, not much is seen in rural roads. The Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Kezie Ogaziechi had told an interviewer that the money deducted at source from the joint account with councils was used "to fund seminars, workshops and IRROMA." Actually, caterpillars, heavy-duty trucks and some equipment were purchased and distributed to the councils. But a council chairman who preferred anonymity said, "they came and carried away all the trucks. And we hear they used them to set up a very visible construction company in the state."

Although road construction and maintenance got N16, 066,422,000 in the 2008 budget, in Owerri, most layout roads are not tarred or constructed; and most of the major roads are in disrepair. The Assumpta Cathedral Roundabout popularly called 'Control' is chaotic as vehicles coming from or going to Port Harcourt (Rivers State) or Onitsha, (Anambra State) or to the New Owerri pass through it. The ring road network in Owerri, which is designed to divert traffic from the city centre, is not functional because the roads are bad. The access road into the park of the Imo Transport Corporation (ITC) in Owerri and the entire park is as if the place is recovering from the physical devastation of a war.

The kerbs or walkways in New Owerri, are overtaken by weeds and in various stages of abandonment; the gutters are filled with sand. Most parts of the median on the dualised carriageway into New Owerri are overgrown with bush. The joke is - "there is so much green and no clean in New Owerri." The Kim Kim tricycle and the Keke Keke New Face, which replaced the commercial motor bikes (okada) find it difficult to manoeuvre through the bad spots while the flood ravaged urban roads in Orlu urban beg for maintenance.

Early this year, the Federal Government released N12 million to Imo for control of erosion. When the money was released, members of the New Face Organisation in Ideato South in a newspaper advert praised the governor. Despite their praises, work is yet to commence on the Dikenafai Ideato South, erosion site, one of the worst erosion spots in the state.

Other points of concern are the epileptic solar powered streetlights in New Owerri and the abandoned residential houses for parliamentarians, which was built by the late Mbakwe. The buildings are overgrown with bushes.

The Ohakim administration touts the maintenance culture. But little of that is seen at the Imo State University Teaching Hospital (IMSUTH), which was commissioned by former president, Olusegun Obasanjo on May 23, 2007. Although the lawns are well kept and the flowers are green, but the road leading to the hospital is in a state of disrepair. Equipment like the Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (MRI), CT scan etc procured by the former administration have been abandoned for sometime now.

However, the health sector boasts the accreditation of the Imo State University College of Medicine and the graduation of the first batch of medical doctors this year.

On his first visit to Imo on January 21, 2008, President Musa Yar'Adua commissioned the Okigwe water scheme. The scheme, built since 1980, had laid waste since 2006. The government claimed to have spent over N1 billion to rehabilitate the project, but the scheme is not so functional. Public water supply is poor despite the other water schemes the government said it has put in place.

President Yar'Adua laid the foundation stone of the New Imo Government House in the New Nekede Area. Weeds have taken over the place, no access road, and the only sign of work is the foundation of a multipurpose hall. On July 25, 2009 Yar'Adua commissioned the ultra modern complex of the Court of Appeal, the digitalised studios and transmitters of the over N2 billion Imo Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) in New Owerri and the new secretariat of the PDP. But the radio did not even transmit on the day of its commissioning. The Appeal Court complex is a refurbished building that used to house a trade union secretariat.

In Imo, there is lamentation in many quarters that the governor has mobilised for a relentless media campaign whose refrain, "a new thing is happening in Imo" is rated as fictitious.

An Imo resident, Noberth Ekendu stated: "It is time Ohakim and his men started documenting the number and length of roads they have either built or rehabilitated in each of the 27 councils, the number of schools and hospitals they have built or rehabilitated, the number of water works they have initiated, completed or rehabilitated, the number of social amenities they have built or rehabilitated, the actual contribution they have made to the security of the state, the structures and institutional facilities they have erected for the past two years, the number of employment they have generated and where and what they have contributed to the growth of agriculture, science and technology, sports; what they have done to the industrial development of Imo. These are the measures they would be judged with and not the number of pages of newspapers they buy to celebrate their fictitious achievements or the number of giant bill boards they erect to advertise themselves."

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