Viewpoint - July 1, 2021

Has Udom Emmanuel walked his talk in six years? – Part 2

By Sam Akpe

Governor Udom Emmanuel took office in 2015 with a big, repeated promise: to provide employment for the people of the state. He said one sure way of doing this would be through deliberate industrialisation of the state. As observed in my previous analysis, the unemployment rate in the state still remains high, while poverty still roams the street with unrestrained liberty. Does that mean that the promise has not been fulfilled? Let’s take a look before we conclude either way!

In order to fulfil his five-point agenda, Udom ignited an endless applause when he announced an ambitious, already-packaged, mouth-watering industrial programme. He told the people: “The thrust of our administration is industrialization. In driving this, we have revitalized and re-commissioned Peacock Paints. We have performed ground-breaking ceremonies for a car assembly plant in Itu LGA by a leading Israeli auto manufacturing company, Mimshac Merkavim; as well as the Low Energy Display (LED) manufacturing plant at Itam.”

Udom has a private sector background. He is a banker. He came to governance with the advantage of contacts established in his prior career in the private sector both locally and internationally. Guided by this experience, he set up, on assumption of office in 2015, what he called the Technical Committee on Foreign Direct Investments. It was the duty of the Committee to source for and attract economically viable and employment-generating industries. So far, Udom says the Committee has wheeled in 20 of such industries to the state. As soon as one of my friends read that, he asked unhesitatingly: where are the industries?

One of the problems I have with most politicians is that while describing their achievements; they naturally speak in the superlatives. For instance, while I am aware that there is a syringe industry in Akwa Ibom State, I cannot disagree or confirm that it is “the largest syringe manufacturing company in our sub-continent” as Udom claims. However, opposition politicians in the state are yet to dispute this claim. They are also silent on the disclosure by the governor that, “We no longer import in wholesale fashion from China the syringes used in our hospitals, (because) most of the hospitals in Nigeria now use the syringes made from our state” Could this silence by those we expect to speak out be interpreted to mean that Udom is saying the truth? That means Udom has delivered on this particular promise.

I am aware that Udom and his team have established a coconut oil refinery in the state. I know where the factory, which is still under construction, is stationed. But there is bad news regarding the coconut plantation that is expected to feed this factory with raw materials. The state government is said to have forcefully acquired the land used in planting the coconuts. That means no compensation was paid to the land owners. In return, the natives decided to place a curse on the plantation.

The implication is that years after coconut seedlings were planted on the cursed plots; they have neither grown, bear fruits nor die. As it is now, even when the construction of the coconut refinery is completed, there would be no raw material to run the factory, which is said to be aiming at providing one thousand direct or instant jobs for the people and another one thousand jobs at the coconut plantation. Down the value chain, more jobs are expected to be created.

So, is the coconut oil refinery a cursed project? One key critic of Udom’s administration told me over the weekend that the refinery was ill-conceived and planned to fail from the outset. I wanted to know his reasons. He cited one: the factory is too far from where the major raw material is available. Simple economics! He explained that in Nigeria, 80 percents of coconut available are from Badagry—and of course, Badagry is not in Akwa Ibom State. He also claimed that Akwa Ibom is naturally a no-coconut growing area. Assuming he is right, added to the curse invoked by the people of Obolom, what is the way forward for the coconut oil refinery? Has Udom failed in this regard?

While doing this analysis, I called my colleague, Nelson Utip, in Uyo to confirm a few things in the governor’s speech. I needed to know whether the orchestrated Nigeria’s “first digitalized flour mill which produces the flour we need for our confectioneries industry” is a fact or fiction. He confirmed that the flour mill has started production and that the product is sold across the state and beyond. He also confirmed that even the electricity meter factory has since started production. However, the factory only produces when orders are placed for its products. I am supposed to believe him because Nelson is one of the consistent critics of Udom’s administration.

These may be mere small-scale industries as someone has derisively called them. But let’s imagine having two of these in each of the 31 local government areas of the state. Without going into details, there are several industrial clusters planned for the state. Most of them are still on paper, while others are slowly taking off. They include the plywood factory; the toothpick and pencils factory; there is another one for plastics, tissue papers; the rice mills and several cassava processing mills.

The good news however is that while government is directly involved in the establishment of these small-scale industries with plans to fully privatise them in future, private investors—local and foreign—are behind what I love to call the big league industries, which are expected to employ thousands of people across the state.

These include the Liberty Oil and Gas Free Zone, which has been approved by the Federal Government. Another one is the Ibom Deep Seaport project. A few days before his May 29 broadcast, the required ground breaking ceremony for the construction of Sterling Petrochemicals and Fertilizer Production Factory was performed. This is located in Eastern Obolo. These three big industries are expected to generate employment for Nigerians, particularly the state indigenes. The big question however is: how prepared are the people to step in and occupy the envisaged vacancies? Are there plans for manpower training that will qualify the indigenes to work in these places?

The birth of Ibom Air was so quiet and sudden that a lot of conspiracy theories greeted it. But I must confess that during my first flight in one of the aircraft, I felt strangely excited. It was clean and refreshing. Then arguments started as per the ownership. Some people believe it is hundred percent privately-owned; and that government is laying false claims to it.

My position is simple: irrespective of who owns it; this airline has created employment and provided ease of air transportation for the people. Despite the initial doubts, in Udom’s words, Ibom Air has since become a national sensation because “the colours of Akwa Ibom State now dominate the Nigerian aviation space.”

If what we have been told about this airline is true, it has become one of, if not, the biggest achievements of Udom’s administration so far. It started with three CRJ 900 series. Within a short time, it added two more CRJs bringing the total aircraft in its fleet to five. There was a celebration the other day to herald the arrival a newly acquired brand new Airbus, one of the expected A220-300 series. I quite agree with the governor that “irrespective of one’s political affiliations, Ibom Air carries the collective pride of Akwa Ibom people.”

Wait a minute! Before we go further, is the Peacock Paints still producing? The answer is categorically no! Why is the factory dead? Who killed it? Somebody said the name has been changed to Ibom Paints. What difference does that make! Established in 1979, the paints factory started production in 1980 and was for several years regarded as a star industry even after the creation of Akwa Ibom State. With its motto: “quality with pride,” its fall was not a sudden one. In September 2015, Udom re-launched the factory. That seemed to have been a mere political jamboree. The news making rounds in the state now is that the factory operators merely re-package and sell paints acquired from other producers. This could not however be officially confirmed.

Perhaps, the biggest and the most significant foreign investment yet in the state is the envisaged $1.4 billion Ammonia and Fertilizer Plant. Already, a memorandum of understanding on the project has been signed between the state government and its Moroccan counterparts. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is expected to perform the ground breaking ceremony soon.

I did not give myself this assignment so as to pass a verdict on Udom and his administration. Rather, it is to lay bare the promises he made six years ago and to remind him that the expectations of the people must not be cut off. For instance, the people of Itu are happy that machines are being mounted for the take-off of the car assembly plant by Israeli’s Mimshac Merkavim; but they are not sure whether the Low Energy Display (LED) manufacturing plant planned for Itam is still coming. Nothing has been heard of it at all.

My conclusion is this, Udom has not failed, but he is yet to deliver fully as expected—and as promised. The consolation, however, is that he has two more years to go. That’s a huge window for him to exploit. Whatever he has done in Akwa Ibom State in the last six years is what he was elected to do; and what he promised to do. The reason people celebrate when state governors build roads or give water to communities is because these are basic statutory responsibilities others in the same office refused to perform.

I do sympathise with Udom for the slow pace of performance; but I appreciate his energy. The most important thing is that he came loaded with a realistic vision. So, far, he seems to have his eyes on the ball; despite multiple distractions. As earlier mentioned, economically, it has not been the best of times for the state and the nation. However, across the world, people only celebrate success and not excuses.

Akpe, a journalist and Communications Consultant, is based in Abuja

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