Abia is in a stage where anybody talking about equity, rotation, zoning must be living in denial – The Alex Otti interview

Dr. Alex Otti is a Nigerian economist, banker, investor, philanthropist, and politician. He is widely believed to have won the 2015 Abia state governorship election but in a dramatic turn of events, the Independent National Electoral Commission announced Okezie Ikpeazu as the winner. The Court of Appeal which sat in Owerri restored his mandate. However, the Supreme court of Nigeria on February 3, 2016, reversed the verdict of the Court of Appeal and affirmed the election of Ikpeazu.

Not deterred by the events of 2015, Dr. Otti, again contested the 2019 Abia governorship election but came up against the same entrenched institutional framework that worked against his victory in 2015.

For the faint-hearted, that would have been enough reason to quit the fight. But not Alex, as he is fondly called by friends, admirers, and supporters. Earlier this year, he declared his intention to, once again, run for Abia state’s top job on the platform of the Labour party, and political pundits believe he is the man to beat in the race to replace the disastrous governor Okezie Ikpeazu next year.

Alabingo.com caught up with Dr. Alex Otti recently in Lagos and wanted to know what makes his case for the Abia top job compelling. The transcript from the interview is published below…

Question: You first ran for election in 2015 for Abia state’s top job on the platform of APGA but was frustrated by the system despite winning the election. You contested again in 2019 and in March this year, you declared your intention to contest again on the platform of the ruling APC. What was the reason behind your recent decision to pursue your ambition on the platform of the relatively unknown Labour Party?

Answer: Thank you. Before I left APC, I actually issued a press release, where I stated why I was leaving the party. The major reason was that a few days before the primaries, an internal memo was leaked, raised by the National Legal Adviser of the party to the National Chairman, attempting to force aspirants who had bought the very expensive forms into a strange arrangement that allocated offices to people without contest. That, I considered unfair, actually illegal, and strange to the electoral act, because the electoral act makes it clear, that there are only three ways to select candidates from aspirants. One of them was direct primaries, the other, indirect primaries and the third one was consensus. So, what the party was trying to do was more of coercion, banding people together and allocating some seats to them, as against the rest of the people, and I thought that was undemocratic, and against what we stood for. As at that time, about six people, if I am not mistaken, had purchased forms for governorship, out of the six people, five of them were on one side and one person was on the other side. What the party wanted to do was to allocate the governorship ticket to the one person on the other side, and the others were not only going to be disenfranchised but were not going to be allowed to contest. I felt that was wrong, and I wasn’t going to participate in a process that had already been rigged. So, I decided to withdraw from the primaries and subsequently, the party and joined the Labour Party and I believe the Labour Party offers a credible platform through which the ambition of serving Abia people could be realised.

Question: Going to Labour party is like starting from scratch even though you had structures you ran with in APGA. So how are you going to collapse the existing structure into Labour party and convince people in the state what your candidacy is about?

Answer: Well, it will interest you to note that the structures have already been collapsed into Labour party. As a matter of fact, most of my supporters had seen all the challenges we were going through in APC and had actually spiritually left APC by the time I left. So, it wasn’t a problem collapsing our structure, and again, a lot of other people who came from other parties, including PDP and the people that left with us from APC and others who were nonaligned before now, also, have collapsed into labour party. You may also know that as at the time we joined APGA in November 2014, the party was not very strong in Abia, just like the present party which has now been strengthened by the number of people joining, so it shouldn’t be a problem. It is people who make up the structure of the party and thankfully, we have the people. Another thing is that unlike 2014 when primaries held around November – December, and elections were in February, with the timetable we are operating now, we have quite some time – about seven to eight months before the general election. We are confident that we will be able to cope.

Question: I know you must have said this over and over again. What is it that you want to do for Abia people? What makes your candidacy compelling?

Answer: Is the same thing that I have been trying to do for my people since I started and because I have not been able to do it… because nobody has done it and I still have the passion and I believe that this time around I will be able to do it. The major thing is to institutionalise good governance in the state. If you have any contact with the state, you will agree with me that it is one of the few states where workers are not paid salaries, at the moment pensioners are being owed for over 38 months, workers of Abia state polytechnic in Aba are being owed for 35 months, teachers and workers at Arochukwu College of Education (Technical) are being owed for 32 months, lecturers at Abia state university teaching hospital who are owed 25 months’ salary arrears have been on strike for several months leading to the withdrawal of the accreditation of the teaching hospital about two months ago by the National University Commission. NUC is arguing, and correctly so, that if lecturers are permanently on strike, then you cannot guarantee the quality of teaching at the Teaching Hospital. Civil servants are being owed, teachers are on strike as we speak, I consider this as a very little part of governance – paying people that work for you and like I argued in my acceptance speech, after winning the primaries of Labour party, because I understand how the economy works, and I understand that anytime you do not pay salaries and allowances of workers, you are wittingly or unwittingly cutting them out of the economic system. If you have an economy that is weak, that is challenged, what you do is to stimulate that economy by putting money into the system, when you don’t, you are suffocating your economy because the breadth in the economy is money. So, it is actually in the best interest of managers of the economy, to put money in the system. To pay people, to pay contractors, and then… the simple explanation is that if you work and don’t get paid, you cannot buy anything and if you don’t buy, that means demand will continue to spiral down which will, in turn, affect supply. When supply is impaired, then you cannot create jobs, and if you are not able to create jobs, your level of unemployment will continue to go up. Today, we are screaming that the general level of unemployment in the country is very high at 33.3% but that of Abia is about 51% – heading to twice the national average. There are some states that have better reports at about 12-13%, I think Osun is one of them… and Benue too. So, for Abia to have these numbers, it means something is wrong. It simply means that nobody is paying attention to the supply side of the economy. The supply side of the economy cannot operate when the demand side is weak. So, if you want to stimulate demand, you must put money in the economy. When you put money in the economy like I explained, you create jobs. Anytime jobs are not being created, and people are graduating and coming out looking for jobs, you may not know that you are also not helping the security situation in the state because when people cannot find jobs, they become tools in the hands of criminals who would offer them alternative jobs. That partially explains the upsurge in kidnapping, robbery and banditry. All the people you see involved in these acts are not all born criminals, some of them are forced into crime for want of what to do. Some of them are paid N10,000, N20,000, N100,000 by the end of an operation, for them, they will rationalise it by saying it is better than nothing. Of course, they will equally tell you that the risk of being killed in a robbery operation is equal to the risk of dying by hunger, squalor or disease. Again, the level of poverty in the economy is so high as we battle with India as the World’s Poverty Capital… fixing the economy is so important and… so how do you fix the economy? You need to look at infrastructure. Aba today has become decrepit, completely destroyed, no matter the propaganda that the present government wants to dish out, Aba is not working! The biggest market in the state, if not in the south east, the Ariaria market has been so badly damaged, so somebody who knows what to do, who is committed, with a vision will need to come in and rescue the state, otherwise, the state will become a failed state. The health care delivery system is in ruins, the educational system is badly damaged, the civil service system is on its knees. We cannot continue like that. Agriculture which used to be the pride of the state receives little or no attention from successive governments. How about industrialisation, you don’t even need to talk about that because government has not created the enabling environment for that to happen. So, there is a whole lot of work that needs to be done in Abia and I understand it and I believe that it is people like us who have a vision and track record of performance that can fix the state. Details of how to do these have been articulated in my manifesto soon to be released to the public.

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Question: Abia, and indeed the entire southeast is grappling with a high level of insecurity right now. Recently, the prelate of the Methodist church was kidnapped in Abia. People are scared, businesses are shutting down. The sit-at-home order by IPOB is not helping. If elected, how do you intend to deal with the activities of these criminal elements and the impact of the sit-at-home order on businesses?

Answer: Well, like I said earlier, the question of unemployment cannot be divorced from insecurity, but you must also take note that insecurity is in two facets – There is natural crime and criminality and there are circumstantial criminals – those people who are forced into crime not necessarily because they are criminals but because of condition. I may not have the statistics, but I believe that the security forces do have, but my sense is that a lot of people who get involved in criminal activities is for want of something else to do and as a way of survival and if you provide alternatives for them, they will quit crime. There are also professional criminals who will require the deployment of maximum state force to root out, force is not necessarily the force of arms, there is also technology and there is intelligence. With intelligence and technology, you will be able to demobilise and reduce insecurity to the barest minimum, but you must do the right things first, create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive and create jobs for the young people. You will be able to mop up those people who are involved in criminality because of circumstances. At the end, you can now focus your attention on those who are actually criminals and deal with them accordingly. No matter how you look at it, there is a limit to how much criminals can do if the state decides to go after them because the state has a monopoly of violence. So, generally, the level of insecurity cannot be divorced from the challenges that the economy is facing.

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On the issue of sit-at-home, I have always held the view that most of the agitation in the country are a fall out of lack of good governance. I also believe that force should be the last resort to deal with insurgency and agitation particularly when the parties involved are not armed. My approach would be hinged on dialogue. The truth is that there are sufficient reasons for people to be angry but the way and manner their grievances are addressed will go a long way in determining how to deescalate tension. I have written extensively about this in my Newspaper column, ‘Outside The Box’ and I will advise those interested to read them.

Question: In 2015, the people of Abia gave you their mandate, but somehow, you ended up not being the governor, we could to some extent, say the same in 2019. Institutional roadblocks played a large role in both instances but I think the new improved electoral act is expected to provide a level playing field in the 2023 elections. However, what steps are you taking to secure your votes this time around?

 

Answer: I think you have succinctly answered the question by referencing the amended electoral act. That is a major step. If you followed the 2015 election, you would know that every step that needed to be taken by us was taken because we protected our votes, we ensured that the criminals in government were not able to rig, and by the time they saw that it was difficult to do anything at the polling units, they waited at the state collation centre having forcefully stolen result sheets for two local governments – Obingwa and Osisioma. Haven alerted INEC, and as they tried to smuggle them into the collation centre, INEC promptly cancelled them. Given that we were leading with over 75,000 votes, just before final declaration, they criminally and shamelessly badged into the collation centre and physically took the returning officer and intimidated him into admitting those fake result sheets. You see, when a government in power begins to commit crime, there is little or nothing you can do. What we are doing at this time is to ensure that more and more people are involved in the process. There is only so little one person can do. I believe that a lot of Abia people are sufficiently angry, angry at the way the state has been governed, angry at the dilapidation, angry at the looting of the funds belonging to everybody in the state – funds that should be deployed to serving the people. I think the challenge is for everybody to show interest so that we can arrest this sad development in the state. I think the most important factor is that the electoral act has been amended to recognise electronic accreditation and transmission of results. If you remember, the supreme court ruled that the card reader was not specifically mentioned in the electoral act, I didn’t agree with them then, but haven given the ruling, that became the law, but I think that mischief has now been cured and I expect that things will not go the way they did before.

Question: Just the last one… What are your thoughts on the much talked about Abia Charter of Equity?

Answer: Well, unfortunately, a lot of people that are talking about the charter have neither seen nor read it. There is a document like that, but quite frankly, it is a moribund document. A document that is of no use. That charter of equity was referring to Abia state as then constituted and the zones or divisions in Abia that were mentioned were the acronym for Abia. A, standing for Afikpo, B, standing for Bende, I, standing for Isuikwuato district and the final A, standing for Aba. It recommended that power should move from one zone to the other among the four districts. I believe that the last surviving signatory of that document, Dr. Anagha Ezikpe, passed on recently and he was the one that actually made a copy available to me in 2014. So, that document also negated itself because towards the end, it states that the document can only be effective if it was passed as an act of parliament by the Abia state house of assembly. That document, to the best of my knowledge, up till yesterday has not even been tabled before the house, how much more debating the contents and passing it as a bill. Also, note that the configuration of Abia has since changed with Afikpo now in Ebonyi State. So, as far as I am concerned, it was just a document where a few people expressed their opinion, it is not binding given that the document cancelled out itself. The most fundamental point for me, is that Abia is at that stage, where anybody who is talking about equity, rotation, zoning and all that must be living in denial and involved in an exercise of self-deceit. Where we are now, we need help and anyone that can help the situation, I think, Abians should embrace with two hands. I have always argued that if you have a serious ailment, and require medical attention, I am not too sure that if you manage to get into a hospital, you will insist on a doctor from a particular zone to treat you. You will rather want a doctor that is competent. For now, I believe, we are in that situation. Abia has actually entered the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital and has been wheeled to the theatre for surgery. It needs the best surgeon to perform the procedure instead of a particular doctor from a particular village.

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