by Ogbonnaya Ikokwu
Gov. Alex Otti came into power at a time when the Abia economy was in dire straits and needed a quick revamping.
Available statistics prior to the emergence of the governor showed that the state’s unemployment rate was 51 per cent, which was about the highest in the country.
Abia was also ranked 32nd in the ease of doing business index, which means that an investor has to consider 31 other states before thinking of Abia as an investment location.
The debt profile of the state increased from N45 billion, from the administration of former Gov Theodore Orji to N150 billion under the immediate past Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu.
The state coffers were really looking dangerously bad. Abia was struggling to pay workers salaries with whatever comes from the Federation account, which was not enough to pay all the civil servants in goverment ministries, agencies, parastatals as well as pensioners.
The immediate past administration also came up with a draconian system of payment of salaries, which classified the state workforce into core and uncore civil servants. While the so-called core civil servants were receiving their salaries though not as at when due, the uncore civil servants particularly, those in goverment parastatals and pensioners were owed for several months.
The above situation further stifled the state’s economy because the purchasing power of those owed by the government was reduced and those into buying and selling suffered low patronage.
Commercial banks had also for many years stoped giving loans to civil servants in Abia state because of the inconsistent payment of salaries.
The state’s internally generated revenue was left in the hands of contractors working for the government. The contractors were saddled with the responsibility of collecting taxes and remitting the same to the government. But since many contractors were involved in the task of collection, double taxation became the order of the day.
In the transport sector alone government’s task force, often regarded as touts, were seen all over the major cities in the state collecting revenue from motorists with the use of brute force. Traders and hawkers were not left out as they were usually forced to pay double taxes by the revenue agents working for the government.
Failure to comply led to the seizure of their wares by the touts who often destroyed them as in case of poor hawkers and old women selling vegetables who could not afford to pay.
The result of the above scenerio was that Otti inherited a huge N200 billion debt, which included salary and pension arrears as well as loans incurred by the last administration.
Little wonder the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iwuala, while delivering an address virtually during the inauguration of Otti’s transition council, said, “I congratulate you, Otti, as the governor-elect but I don’t envy you”.
Okonjo-Iwuala, who was a former Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minister of the Economy under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, already knew that the task ahead of the governor was enormous.
Gov. Otti, a renowned banker and economist, also understands that it is only a purposeful and responsible leadership that can bring the state back on track economically.
The governor had posited during his campaign in an interactive session with the Abia professionals in Umuahia during the campaigs, “Abia would become a failed state if nothing was done to change those in the corridors of powder.
“This year is going to be very difficult. When the PDP government goes, whoever succeeds it will find it extremely difficult because the state is badly broke. Any mistake in the choice of a governor will make Abia a failed state,” Otti had warned.
Since assumption of office on May 29, the governor has never shied away from the oneous task and high expectations from the Abia people, who had before now longed for a change.
“Abia is one and the same people,
I have taken a responsibility that I will not disappoint them, our goverment will be a government of zero excuses and hundred per cent action. We know the tasks ahead are enormous, but the good news is that we came prepared,” Otti had declared in his inauguration speech.
One hundred days down the line have been continuously engaging as the Otti-led administration has left no stone unturned, while laying solid foundation for Abia economy to thrive.
The governor without delay had confronted the powerful forces that controlled the state’s internally generated revenue by terminating all the revenue contracts entered into by the previous the administration with the contractors.
Abia residents did not believe that such a policy could survive, considering the powerful individuals who were in charge
of revenue collection before now, but Otti, being a man who do not play with standard, had maintained his stand, which has resulted in sending the touts off the streets.
The governor also directed that all payments accruable to the state government should made through designated bank.
Not yet done, the state chief executive went ahead to launch a new digital tax system that would help the state to eliminate fraud and intermediaries in the revenue generation.
The new tax system came with an added advantage of integrating free medical insurance scheme for all commercial vehicle drivers, Keke and Okada riders in the state.The move was intended to aid the state to maximise its revenue potentials.
Gov. Otti had also set September 1, as target date to migrate the state into a Treasury Single Account (TSA) which has already taken off.
The implication is that all monies accruing to the state would be paid into a single account. Likewise, all payments by the state government would be made through the same account. With the TSA in place, all the channels for double taxation and payments have been successfully eliminated.
The state government had also announced that it would soon set up a commission on the ease of doing business.
The governor had said that the commission was necessary in order to eliminate the obstacles citizens and potential investors encounter in their efforts to set up and grow their businesses.
He announced the move when he played host to a team of Central Bank of Nigeria, officials led by the Abia State Branch Controller, Mr. Olaoba Ayotunde, together with the Abia State chapter Chairman of the National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Mr. Eze Linus Okezie.
The governor had also directed all the stakeholders in the transport sector to work hard to achieve the Inland Dry Port at Ntigha in Isiala Ngwa North Local Goverment of the state, in order reduce the sufferings of the business community in the state.
All the efforts of the current administration to reposition the economy had been followed by the willingness of the private investors to make huge investments in the state, which will attract new industries.
Also in the pipeline is the proposed Abia Innovation and Industrial Park that will be sited in Owaza, Ukwa West Local Government Area.
The industrial park,which would house manufacturing companies, oil and gas companies,a refinery and other concerns is expected to have 90 per cent funding by the private sector, while the government would contribute 10 per cent of it.
The governor had assured the people that the money to be used in setting up the industrial park is already available. It means that the state will soon become a manufacturing hub in Nigeria in the coming years.
There is no doubt that governor Otti is laying a solid foundation for small and large scale businesses to thrive in the state.
Abia will be great again since a leader who is ready to create the enabling environment for the economy of the state to grow is on the saddle now.
Ogbonnaya Ikokwu Journalist/public affairs analyst, writes From Umuahia.