A visitor driving into Ebonyi State especially to the state capital, Abakaliki, will learn to give way to endless rows of trucks heavily laden with chippings, stones, rice, yams, etc. The traffic points to an emerging stone-crushing hub worth over N30billion per annum and a growing rice husk mountains that indicate that Abakaliki is set to conserve foreign reserves. At the moment, Abakaliki rice is a growing market of about N20billion turnover annually.
Abakaliki has been known for years as a centre for long yam tubers, rice, stones (chippings), etc. Now, the Martins Elechi administration seems to leverage on this to create a new economy. The state government seems to bid for economic prosperity with quarry industry and rice as leading stocks.
Already, the Elechi administration has boosted stone crushing business to generate over N30bn turnover every year following the creation of a stone crushing cluster that generates N14.4 Billion in revenues on a yearly basis. The thriving cluster was created from stone crushers who were initially scattered around the capital.
The cluster supplies chippings to most parts of Nigeria, especially eastern region and the middle belt. Dealers buy the chippings at about N90, 000 (excluding transportation) and sell at about N240, 000 in places such as Imo and Rivers States. There are two corporate clusters and some isolated crushers in remote locations which produce about N15Bn worth of chippings per annum.
The major corporate clusters are owned by Julius Berger and Zee Rock who buy off stone-bearing ranges from land owners and communities and crush for sale in large quantities.
BusinessDay team which inspected the cluster in Abakaliki found that an average of 7,000 people work at the new stone cluster near the state capital. Most of the workers are women and they earn an average of N1, 200 daily, operators at the stone cluster told BusinessDay. The corporate clusters have fewer workers but produce with greater efficiency due to full mechanization of their processes.
They pay some revenue to the state government but execute corporate social responsibility projects for the host communities. There are over 300 stone crushing operators who admitted enjoying the facilities provided by the state government at the main cluster near Abakaliki with each employing an average of 22 workmen and women, producing about 60 tons of crushed stone daily.
With the success of the stone-crushing hub, Elechi moved to create three rice hubs in the state, one in each of the three senatorial districts. According to the Secretary to Ebonyi State Government (SSG), Fidelis Mbam, the strategy is to allow each rice miller to go to any hub of their choice and settle for modern rice milling business.
Destining machines have been provided at the 51-year-old Abakaliki Rice Mill centre which has over 300 rice milling companies. This has boosted the market value of Abakaliki rice. Now, the state government says the next stage is to graduate to polishing of rice. This would bring the future Abakaliki rice to world standards, since it already has very good taste and high nutritional value due to freshness.
According to Mbam, the Governor, beyond being an economist, is one of the few elders who fought for the creation of the state as the only strategy to unlock the hidden treasures in the Abakaliki axis. This must be why they pulled Elechi out of private life to Government House to complete the journey to the land of milk and honey.
The Governor knew right away that the biggest war had to be waged in the area of infrastructure. As the SSG and other top government officials explained to BusinessDay team, Ebonyi takes its name from a river that transverses the entire state and cuts up the state into inaccessible portions of land.
This made land communication (transportation) impossible and access to the state capital a dreaded venture or a near impossibility. Often, many villagers died trying to cross numerous rivers through makeshift rafter-bridges. Medical facilities and educational packages were impossible to administer to most parts of the state.
The consequence was high illiteracy level that churned out boys and girls fleeing from the farms into the cities for menial jobs. It also bred epidemics such as yellow fever and guinea worm that ravaged the area and gave it bad name.
Elechi reasoned that all of this could be solved by one economic stroke; linking all the parts by road. This, however, would not be done except bridges were provided across the numerous streams and bodies of water. This gave rise to the ambitious and gigantic project of building 36 of what is now known in Ebonyi as ‘Bridges of Unity’ with billions of naira.
The governor is said to be simply passionate about these bridges (and all his projects). He therefore carefully selected Felix Anayo Otta, an engineer, through competitive process, to specifically inspect these projects almost on a daily basis and report to him. Said to operate on the principle of utmost frugality and value for every naira spent, the governor has put 34 of the Bridges of Unity to use.
The 36-bridge project automatically required good roads to link them up, and this gave rise to a massive link roads programme that has transformed Ebonyi State. Before now, different parts of Ebonyi State related with whichever part of Nigeria that was convenient to them.
Some sections related with Imo State, some with Enugu, some with Abia while some sections such as Oferekwe merely crossed the Cross River and did business with Calabar areas or even followed the river to Cameroon while the centre, Abakaliki, suffered a kind of isolation. Now, with smooth roads and easy bridges, integration and unity have come.
It is now a matter of less than two hours to the state capital from any part of the state. There are no more deaths trying to cross waterlogged rafters.
Chuwkuma Nwandugo, commissioner of works and transport, said that the Elechi administration has so far spent N100 billion into roads and bridges. He said each of the Bridges of Unity is being built with between N3billion and N4billion, while the Abakaliki/Enugu Road alone gulped N7billion. His appeal is for the federal government to help complete the Enugu expressway and refund the state for federal roads built.
Economic fallout of the massive road programme is that the famous Abakaliki rice, yam and other farm produce can now move out freely from remote farms of the state into urban markets. This has opened up the economy of the 16-year-old state.
Government officials estimate that hundreds of millions of naira now move into the rural areas on a daily basis from urban produce buyers who now easily move from community to community. Dividends of democracy is gradually getting up stream with villages in the state gaining education, health, good water, and economic empowerment.
Coupled with the state government policies, attitudinal change and human capital development, the governor seems to have repositioned Ebonyi State into an emerging solid mineral resource centre and a food produce hub.
The governor seems to operate with the knowledge that the foundation of any economy is the health capacity of its citizens, and over 50 percent of diseases are water-borne. For this reason, instead of allowing the Ebonyi people to continue to drink from stagnant water sources that bread guinea-worms and cholera, the governor embarked on a N48billion water scheme broken into N12billion for main water works in three locations and N36bilion reticulation scheme that runs from Oferekwe town to the state capital, a distance of 57km.
The pipes delivering the water are said to be the heaviest load that has so far been cleared at the Port Harcourt port. Each of the pipes takes 10 tonnes of sharp sand to cover. The pipeline has created a road for the 57km that it passes through terminating at a gigantic water-work at the bank of the river at Oferekwe which will pump 100 million gallons of water per day to 13 local council areas. Experts said the scheme would cater for water needs of Ebonyi in the next 50 years. There are two other water schemes in the state that would help the main one at Okwerefe.
The rice hub system is expected to boost rice milling business that started as far back as 1962. Over 15 trucks take rice away from the main Abakaliki rice mill daily where 20 metric tonnes are milled in one day, baring hitches. The three centres coming up are expected to complete a hub that would mill almost 100 metric tonnes daily.
The major setback in the march toward a rice hub is the dispute over the relocation order to the hubs. The Rice Millers Association made up of about 300 companies (shareholders) led by Joseph Ununu told BusinessDay the government did not consult the rice millers to work out the process of relocating. The case is in court at the moment and this has stalled proceedings. Government planned that the hubs would be run by on a public private partnership (PPP) arrangement with retiring senior civil servants while the private millers would also be given some allocation at the new hubs.
The union said it has a work plan which they said the government was not ready to even look at, saying its members built the entire existing rice mill and would not be in a hurry to abandon it without adequate compensation and assurances.
Probably in anticipation of an explosive produce market, the administration is building one of the largest chain stall system in Nigeria, an international market of over 5,600 stalls with state-of-the art facilities. The market is strategically located along a new transnational highway that leads to Cameroun.
Two security towers will mark out the place that would likely become an eco-tourist zone. Traders from Onitsha are expected to find the new market useful as it may serve them as a one stop trading post that could save their customers the trauma of having to go all the way to Onitsha from far-flung towns such as Maiduguri, Sokoto, Calabar, etc.
For the first time in its young age), Ebonyi State would have a modern state secretariat where civil servants would find joy operating from. This is expected to add boost and verve to the smooth drive for efficiency and viability in the way service is rendered to the people. Above all, the Ocho Udo secretariat complex located near the international market has a recreational section that may attract leisure and tourism. The entire scenario would flash bright lights at the New Abakaliki section.
Ebonyi State receives one of the least monthly revenue allocations in Nigeria. Its budgeting profile could best illustrate this fact. In 2012, the state rolled out a mere N86.9billion budget, setting aside about N42.2billion for capital expenditure and project execution.
Despite this lean capital outlay, the administration had the courage to dedicate N16billion to its water reticulation project to ensure that it got underway. By the time BusinessDay visited the state last week, the huge pipes was running fast to Abakaliki from Okwefere water works. This year, the administration wants to spend N104 billion with about 65 percent of this dedicated to capital expenditure.
For a state that receives about one quarter of what some others receive, the application of this fund must be strict. For that reason, the governor introduced frugal expenditure system that ensures that requests are screened and re-screened, according to the SSG. To make this work, the governor decided to live by example. A close aide said the governor has never built any single house since he assumed office. “He has only managed to repaint the one he had and this alone made sleuths to marvel each time they came to review his assets form,” he said.
The administration also took N20billion bond to help complete ongoing turnkey projects. BusinessDay gathered that officials said the bond was being repaid as agreed to ensure a clean by the time Elechi is exiting so the next administration would not have any debt overhang as an excuse.
An indigene who resides in the state capital was forced to enter into an online debate on the matter, thus: “Ebonyi receives the second lowest monthly allocation, yet, the Government embarked on several capital intensive and multi-billion naira projects which are well beyond the resources of the state and this has caused delay in completing them.
These include a model state secretariat in Ochudo City, Oferekpe Mega Water Scheme, Ebonyi State ultra-modern international market occupying 48 hectares of land (with fire service, police station and banks), dualisation of the Enugu/Abakaliki Road starting from the NNPC Mega Station to Ogoja road, etc.
Work is in progress on two other multi billion naira projects started by the former administration including roads, bridges at Edda, Idembia Ezza, Ebyia etc. Ebonyi Pilot Schools project involving the building and rehabilitation of 30 secondary schools in the state, Cancer Screening Centre, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State ultra modern Staff Development Centre, a state of the art Digital Radio and Television Station which is said to be the best of government-owned stations in South East Nigeria, EBSUTH medical ward complex, etc”.
The citizen’s fear however is whether these projects would all be completed, but the governor’s aides said there is no basis for such fears. He admits that the governor’s strict measures that denied crooks of looting may have attracted hostile feeling from certain quarters but advised the governor to pay more attention to labour and tone down on fierceness.
The governor’s associates however said these were the very qualities that made the elders to insist in him in the first place and that those policies were the reason Ebonyi was transforming fast to a modern economy and an emerging market.
Whatever the case, with the vision of looking inwards to create a new economy based on solid minerals, rice, fish, poultry system, human capital base, good health, loan system to boost massive rice production to feed the new mills, the state seems to run on a fast lane of economic transformation towards a produce-economy ready for a new market dominated by local taste.
As Nigeria continues to look inward for its economic growth, it may likely look towards the states for cement, rice, wheat, sugar and a stone base for its construction industry. In this, Ebonyi would readily come handy to bail the nation out, if the work in progress in Ebonyi remains on course.