Until his appointment as the Abia State Commissioner for Finance, Chief Samuel Onuigbo, was the Commissioner for Lands. He is a man adept in the politics of the state and has followed the vision of the state Governor, Chief Theodore Orji with passion. In an interview session with journalists in Umuahia, he spoke on the financial situation in the state, the vision of the governor and why Abia has not borrowed any money or gone to the bond market. EMEKA OKAFOR was there.
What did you meet on ground when you were appointed Commissioner for Finance in Abia State?
When I was appointed the Commissioner of Finance, I met a few challenges; prominent among which is the dwindling revenue from Federation Account and that has impacted on what the government set out to do for the people because the essence of running a government is to take care of the needs of those who have given you the mandate to govern. So, with dwindling receipts, we now had challenges.
However, it is important to observe that His Excellency, Chief Theodore Orji, has actually demonstrated that he is a prudent governor. This is because he has managed this scarce resources in a prudent and judicious manner. We are trying to make sure that things are in order, that things that ought to have been done like having comprehensive data with which to plan, make projections, having a centralised payroll and taking very close look at how people do their jobs and how they fit into the assignments they are given to ensure that these things are done and done very well.
Abia State 2013 budget was christened “Budget of Hope”. Can you throw more light on it?
Governor T.A.Orji has the interest of the people at heart and you know when you are given mandate by the people, you must exercise it in the most judicious and transparent manner so that people you are working for will see that you are truly working for them.
You have made promises and you want this promises redeemed. So, Abians are made to know that this budget is clearly and directly targeted at them. To redeem the promises made to them, know that governance is not all about running up and down but to touch the lives of the people. I can tell you from my position that all hands are on deck to realise this. I can tell you so many projects that this government has embarked upon and these projects are targeted on the well-being of the people.
For instance, several health centres have been built; over 250 of them all over the state. This requires money. Even if it’s in a situation where you have to provide counterpart funds, you have to do that to be able to get other money to execute the projects you are undertaking. Apart from those community health centres, you can think of the hospitals, the specialist hospitals, the diagnostic centre.
I know a lot of hospitals that have been upgraded and renovated and more are on the line to make sure he delivers on his health promises. Also, when you run a government as I said before, you want to make sure that you deepen and broaden the confidence that people have in your administration. May be, I should start naming some of these projects.
The housing projects that he is embarking upon gives people hope; it makes the people to know that they are going to own their individual houses. When you have hope that you have good health, you will be happy for it. As the governor always says: it is the man who is healthy that talks about whether the roads are well constructed, whether he is flying in an aeroplane and whether he is wearing a new cloth. If you are not healthy in the first place, you cannot do that.
Government is creating conducive environment for business to thrive. People are doing their businesses all over the place. For instance, at Umuahia Ultra-Modern Market, the governor is constructing over 3,500 stores. It means that people who did not have shops before now have the hope that they will have shops, their hopes, their expectations will be realised. But all this involves money for it to be done and the governor is going about doing it in a focused and transparent way. We believe God and we are encouraged by the achievements of the government.
if you go for instance to the Okpara Auditorium which we have had as a conference centre for a long time, the place is totally inadequate, the capacity, facilities are inadequate. They are not modern but the governor has raised the peoples hope that he will build an international conference centre and you will be shocked by what he has done when you get to the site of the international centre.
When I was the Commissioner for Lands, I have just been in this government for a year and about five months but the international conference centre that is now at an advanced stage of completion, I was the Commissioner for Lands when we carved out the land for the international conference centre under the directive of the governor.
Today, you will marvel when you get to the site. Those that have the hope of getting a place better than the Okpara Auditorium for their ceremonies, they are going to see that hope realised in 2013. I am sure, very soon, the building will be commissioned. It is the same thing with the secretariat for workers.
Abia is about 22 years and it’s a bit troubling that 22 years after the creation of the state, it is Governor T.A.Orji that is building a secretariat for the workers. Then, when you talk of Budget of Hope, you are talking about the budget that realises the expectation of the people. You can now see that workers that were staying in those tiny offices scattered all over the town, they now have the hope that they will stay in a modern office very soon.
So, from many ramifications, when you describe this as a Budget of Hope, it’s a budget that is aimed at achieving those things that over the years were neglected or looked at as impossibilities. So, when we give the governor credit for what he is doing, it’s not that we are trying to massage his ego, but to state the obvious, to state what is verifiable. There is the new Government House that is being built.
Where the governor is staying now as Government House is a building that belongs to the late Chief Emeka Omeruah. This place, if you ask me, is out of tune to modern day Government House and the governor is on it, to build a befitting one. After 22 years of the state creation, it is now that a Government House is being put in place and you ask yourself what the previous government that stayed for eight years in office did.
His predecessors should have done most of these things but he is the one now laying fresh foundations. I think the governor deserves kudos and heavy commendation. When this budget is described as the Budget of Hope, it is predicated on achievements that are verifiable.
What is this attitudinal change that government has introduced in the state?
If you listen to some of the speeches of His Excellency, you will hear him saying: “do not look at us through the prism of other people, be an Abia, be proud about it, stand up and be counted.” Why does he say that? It is because over time, people either withdrew or are suspicious, something was just bothering them that they were not quite open but this governor has come to say that there is a positive change in the way things were done and he is leading by example. So, the people now have more confidence in government and they are adjusting towards the standard set. Naturally, Abians don’t take back seat.
If you go back to the days of Michael Okpara, you will discover that we have always taken the front seat. We have always had very powerful people who stood and sat in front. So, we cannot suddenly become a conquered people and begin to retreat, the governor has been preaching on this, that there should be an attitudinal change; we should also move in doing things in a very modern way.
For instance, in my ministry, we have said, under the directive of His Excellency that we should stop payment by cash and we have been working on this over time to make our people go to the bank and make whatever payment they want to make on behalf of the government instead of giving their money to an agent that comes to meet them and you don’t even know whether these agents are real or not, because some of them that parade themselves as government agents are fake because we have caught some of them. We are appealing to our people to be able to take in these changes, absorb and key in into the new system.
Attitudinal change is important in that it is going to help our people to turn a new page, to move to the next level. If you go and pay your money to an agent that cannot account for it, the money is lost. So, we are urging and appealing to our people to always make whatever payments they want to make on behalf of government in the bank and obtain automated receipts. This is very important, so as to enable us collect the revenue that is needed for the development of the state. So, there is a policy shift towards doing things better.
But has the advice of not paying cash brought any increase in the State Internally Generated Revenue (IGR)?
Of course yes but it has not been tremendous and that is because when you are bringing in a change particularly a system that is a little bit old, you find that the change will not be automatic and that is why we are talking about this attitude towards this new desired change. We are beginning to witness a gradual increase in the IGR and I would like to say that above all, the government is totally focused on transforming the IGR. Government has now hired consultants to do a comprehensive inventory and data enumeration. The essence of this is to ensure that the process of collecting all revenues is done in a technologically-based, scientific and above all productive manner.
It is a manner that enables you to do projection. With it, you know how many houses you have, how many tax payers, how many traders you have in any particular market. This aspect of transformation by His Excellency is very important. It is a critical infrastructure for planning, development and if you don’t have it, you cannot plan meaningfully. This issue is one of the policy trusts of this administration and we are working on it. When you have all the available data needed, it helps government to plan.
You must know which houses are commercial, residential or industrial, which ones are schools. This is the kind of things that the state is moving into now and there is no doubt that by 2013, which is just by the corner, we should be in a better position to make the right projections and work harder on what we are getting as IGR.
How soon is the automated system going to operate?
We are already on it. We are not pressurising anybody to go and pay their money in designated banks but we want it to be internalised in them as the best process if we are sincere at improving our IGR to enable government fulfil promises. We have already started and that is why we are saying that all payments must be through the banks. We have about 12 banks that we have listed.
We have said that it is important the people contact our ministry in case any person comes around to tell them that they are the ones collecting money on behalf of the government. We do not allow cash collection any longer. Our revenue courts and the enforcement units they are going to continue to do the job, even more vigorously from next year. We have phone numbers that people can call when any one that claims to be government agent on revenue collection comes around.
How is your ministry tackling the problem of ghost workers?
Let me roll back a little bit. Today, what Abia State gets from the Federation Account is in the neighbourhood of N3.5b and out of it, government spends about N2.5b to pay salaries. Now, when you take a critical look at that, you will find that perhaps some of the money was not paid to all the genuine staffs. So, how do you want to address it? We have now put in place a plan, a group of consultants have been engaged to look at our pay roll to enable us have a centralised one.
Once we are able to do that, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will be able to reduce the wage bill and end the incidence of ghost workers. It is one of the fundamental areas of our paradigm shift and by 2013, the results will be trickling in. With a centralised pay roll, we will be able to tackle the incidence of ghost workers. We are bent on improving the IGR to even get to N1b by 2013. That is why we are putting structures that would block loopholes within the system.
As the Finance Commissioner, you must know the movement of money and some of the projects of government...(cuts in)?
Of course, but the projects are many that I may not be able to recall them now. But I can tell you lots of infrastructures are being fixed. Roads are constructed, in the areas of public utility, agriculture development, poverty reduction, education promotion, employment generation and youth empowerment, housing, construction of Adelabu Estates, new international conference centre, new High Court buildings, improved and secured environment through improved security, health sector that has received tremendous improvement, commerce and industry as well as the transportation sectors among others have been given serious attention.
There is the new secretariat as I said earlier and the power sector where government is evacuating power at Ohia, making the state to have steady electricity. The things that are being tackled are simply numerous and worth commending. The governor is doing all this with the support of the wife, Her Excellency, Odochi Orji. She has been empowering indigent people.
How healthy is Abia financially?
The state is very healthy financially. We have done all the reviews that are required by the Debt Management Office and by the last analysis, Abia debt profile is within the acceptable financial threshold. We are rated by the National Assembly as one of the healthiest. People are coming in to invest and our finance is getting better too. Abia is the safest state in the federation and we are witnessing great investment boost. To cut the story short, Abia is financially healthy and of course you know we are not involved in taking bonds or unnecessary borrowing.
We are not owing any bank. So, we can confidently beat our chest on our strong and healthy financial status. The state is healthy financially, socially and in terms of security we are number one. The governor knows that security and the people’s welfare are the primary reason why government exists. So, he has ensured that no sector suffers undue neglect. Any news from anywhere that the state is not financially healthy, is false or perhaps a propaganda to run government down. We are not indebted in any way. This is because the governor is focused and prudent in the management of the moderate resources at our disposal.
Is the Federal Government doing enough in terms of security challenges in the country?
The situation in the country is what you witness sometimes in a developing country like Nigeria and government usually comes up with different approaches in resolving it. I do think that the government is doing enough, government is following it methodically. Why? This is because this type of situation which you know is complex and hydra-headed, if you don’t approach it in a methodical way, putting all the parties and stakeholders into consideration, it has the potential to get out of control. So, I think the Federal Government is doing enough and we should not forget that things like terrorism are what we are not used to in this country. It means we will not overcome it overnight. And I will add that the situation has not been mismanaged.