Ogbonnaya Onu: The Man Was Good


OnuThe resignation of Chief Ernest Shonekan as Head of the Interim National Government on November 16, 1993 and the subsequent emergence of General Sani Abacha as Head of State, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria marked a turning point in the history of Nigeria.

One of the immediate actions taken by the new Head of State was the dissolution of the executive councils of all thirty states, which meant an abrupt termination of the term of office of the civilian governors inaugurated on January 2, 1992.

As expected, this sudden twist in events gave room for assessment of the tenure of these governors though mid-term had not been reached. This assessment seeks to create an objective perspective to the Onu tenure as Governor of Abia State.

The Problems

A general overview of the twenty-two months during which Nigerians experienced civil democratic rule at the state level shows that Dr. Onu and his colleagues were on the scene during Nigeria’s worst moments.

The economy was on a gradual decline and a catastrophe was in the offing. Some Nigerians were feeding from the dustbin, the value of the Naira was getting weaker by the day and collapse was imminent. The cost of health care was devastating and the nation’s schools were shut at random.

On the political scene, the nation was in transition from a military government reluctant to relinquish power to the political class in a hurry to grab power. It was obvious that the military overlords wanted the civilian governors to fail.

Difficult Times

The overriding principle of any responsible administration is to uplift the living standard of the administered. To do this, such an administration needs a lot of initiative, tact, political will, time and the cooperation of the people. Above all, the administration needs money. A government without money is like a dog without teeth, it can bark but not bite.

The resources of Abia State were very lean at the time Dr. Onu was the governor of the state.

The reduction of the federal allocation to states from 30% to 25% in January 1992, one day after the inauguration of civilian governors, set the stage for difficult times ahead. Whereas in 1991, the then 21 states of the federation shared N33 billion, the 30 states shared N28.8 billion in 1992. In effect, the states had little after paying salaries and allowances of workers (which Dr. Onu’s government never delayed).

Exactly twenty four days after presenting his Foundation Budget to the state’s House of Assembly, which was predicated on the exchange rate of N9.50 to US$1, the Federal Military Government in its deregulation policy devalued the Naira by 100% and the result was that estimated budgetary provisions were reduced by about 50%. Another deathblow was hit on the states in June as the Federal Military Government awarded a 45% wage increase to civil servants and the states were expected to do the same. The FMG also approved a new Medical Service Scale and the revised pension rates to its retired civil servants. Again the states were expected to follow suit. The FMG did not help matters when the allocation of the states from the Federation account was further reduced to 24%.

On February 3, 1993 workers in Abia State embarked on an industrial action to demand the immediate implementation of the 45% salary increase. After four grueling weeks of negotiations, the Abia State Government of Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu acceded to the demands of the workers.

If 1992 was spent on economic issues, 1993 was dedicated to political matters as a result of the decision of the FMG to try a new option of selecting presidential candidates for the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention called Option A4. So the early part of the year was spent implementing this option. The attention of state governors was therefore required in the implementation of this political system. With the emergence of presidential candidates for both parties, the presidential election was held on June 12, 1993. That election was subsequently annulled and this threw the entire country into a state of chaos. The situation in the country at the time made it impossible for state governors to concentrate on matters involving their various states as the nation was drifting to anarchy.

Unusual Problems Require Unusual Solutions

From the foregoing, the nation’s economy was in a comatose state at the time Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu was Governor of Abia State. However, it is interesting to note that a lot was achieved despite the situation.

A democratic leadership owes the electorate (the followership) a political debt, which is paid back in cash or kind. Dr. Onu’s government greatly appreciated this fact, so, even while executing projects the state could manage to pay for, he vigorously pursued other aspects of development that state funds could not afford.

The Federal Government of Nigeria had subjected this part of Nigeria, Abia State inclusive, to years of neglect. With deft initiative and doggedness, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu brought the much-needed Federal presence to Abia State:

  1. At a time the FMG had discontinued the establishment of new universities, Dr. Onu got presidential approval from former President Ibrahim Babangida to establish the Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike-Umuahia. Dr. Onu’s tenacity in issues concerning Abia State was manifested by the fact that just three months after the approval, a decree was enacted legalising the establishment of the university whereas other Federal Universities of Agriculture established in Abeokuta and Makurdi long before that of Abia State had not received such enactment.
  2. Contrary to expectations, the erstwhile Federal College of Agriculture was not upgraded to a University because Dr. Onu was able to convince the Federal Government to establish a new University while retaining the College, which had to be relocated to Ishiagu. Abia State thus became the only state with a Federal University of Agriculture and a Federal College of Agriculture.
  3. The power supply situation in Umuahia was pathetic when compared with other state capitals. However, Dr. Onu’s government got both Federal Government approval and award of contract for the extension of 132KVA line from Aba to Umuahia at a total cost of US$19 million and N70 million which was about N1 billion at the time.
  4. The Federal Government also gave its blessing to the establishment of a commercial bank to be owned by Abia State in order to enhance the economic development of the state though it had ceased further establishment of banks in the country.
  5. Due to the enormous cost of road development in Nigeria, Dr. Onu persuaded the Federal authorities to take over the development of some state roads. These are: Alayi – Item – Nkporo – Osso Edda – Akaeze – Obiozara – Onicha – Onueke; Nneato – Isuochi – Umuchieze – Uturu – Ofoeme – Umuahia; Ohafia Junction – Nguzu Edda – (Osso Edda) – Amangwu Edda – Amasiri – Okposi – Uburu – Ishiagu – Enugu/Okigwe Expressway; Uburu – Onicha – Isu – Oshiri – Ugwulangwu – Okposi road; and Ishiagu – Mile 2 – Ovim road. The total cost of these projects in 1992 was N46billion. No state government could have afforded to embark on this magnitude of road development at the time. Dr. Onu also persuaded the Federal Government to build a bridge across the Cross River at Ndibe in Afikpo and dualise the Umuahia-Umudike road as well as Tower of Peace to Okpara Square in Umuahia. Also, as a result of the pressure mounted by Dr. Onu’s government, the Federal Government awarded contracts for the development of 3 existing Federal roads: Umuahia – Ikwuano road; Okigwe – Uturu – Afikpo road; and Umuahia – Owerri road.
  6. As a result of the enormous erosion menace in over 159 different sites in Abia State, Dr. Onu’s government was at a difficult position: on the one hand, the resources of the government were lean, on the other, the lives and agricultural development of Abians were at a risk. The government was able to secure a grant of N162 million in 1992 from the Federal Government. When compared with the grant of N6 million given to old Imo State in 1991, the determination with which Dr. Onu pursued the problems of Abia State would then be appreciated. Some of the erosion sites include the landslide at Okpara Square, Akara – Abiriba Junction, Ihube – Isuochi among others.

Modest Achievements

As a result of the economic situation in the country as described earlier, no state government could have embarked on enormous projects such as road development and the like. The alternative would have been to obtain credit facilities from financial institutions but Abia State was handicapped because such loans taken by the Imo State Government in the Second Republic had not been paid. Consequently, the Federal Government refused to guarantee more loans to states like Abia State as the state’s share of the Second Republic loans was to the tune of about N1 billion at the time. Dr. Onu caused a letter to that effect from the Federal Ministry of Finance to be read during his chitchat with public and civil servants in Abia State at the Umuahia Sports Stadium.

Despite these, a number of remarkable and modest achievements were made by Dr. Onu’s governments, which are obvious to sincere and objective observers of his government.

  1. Water Supply: Onu visited the Umuahia Regional Water Scheme on the very day he was inaugurated. He subsequently rehabilitated the scheme and commissioned the Aba Emergency Water Scheme. He also commenced work on a number of rural water projects as Akaeze Water Scheme.
  2. Education: Onu’s government established the Abia State Polytechnic, Aba and the College of Education (Technical), Arochukwu. The government embarked on accelerated development at the Abia State University, Uturu with the commencement of new and ongoing capital projects such as student’s hostels, staff quarters, and erosion control as well as increasing the monthly subvention of the University by more than 380%. Computers were acquired for some primary and secondary schools in Abia State. Even more importantly, Dr. Onu’s government completely eliminated the industrial actions syndrome by primary and secondary schools in Abia State that was prevalent in other states of the federation at the time. The government did this by going the extra mile to provide financial relief to some Local Government Councils (irrespective of party affiliation such as Umuahia North Local Government which was being controlled by the opposition Social Democratic Party) that were unable to pay teachers’ salaries even though the Federal Government had decreed it to be the absolute responsibility of Local Government Councils. Abians were quick to notice that teachers’ strike surfaced again in Abia Sate when Dr. Onu’s government had been vacated by the military. It is also to his credit in the education sector that on Dr. Onu’s exit, Abia State had the full complement of Higher Education institutions: a Federal University and a State University, a Federal Polytechnic (Unwana-Afikpo) and a State Polytechnic as well as a Federal’ College and a State College.
  3. Infrastructure: Onu’s government constructed some basic governmental infrastructure for the young state such as office blocks for ministries and departments, the State Auditorium, Government Guest Houses, Broadcasting Corporation of Abia State (BCA) – Radio (the first in magnitude and clarity among the nine new states, the permanent headquarters of the Agricultural Development Project. The government started work on the Isieke Housing Estate, a number of road projects in Aba as well as some rural electrification projects.
  4. Social Welfare: Umuahia, the capital city, was arguably the cleanest state capital in Nigeria with the introduction of street sweepers by the government of Dr. Onu, as never experienced even in old Imo State. The government also exhibited great care for the less privileged by increasing the annual subvention to the Amaudo Centre, Itumbuzo (for the mentally ill) and Hopeville Rehabilitation Centre (for the handicapped) from N8, 000 to N100, 000 at the time.
  5. Foreign Investment: Onu secured the interest and approval for the establishment of an Automobile Assembly plant in Aba, Abia from one of the auto giants in South Korea as well as the development of television infrastructure from the American TV idol, Bill Cosby. All these were suspended as soon as Dr. Onu’s government was terminated by the military.
  6. Resource Derivation: Onu’s government secured the recognition and accreditation of 28 oil wells to Abia State hitherto accredited to Rivers State, the basis upon which Abia State’s revenue base is currently enhanced through the 13% Derivation Allocation from the Federation Account.

Concepts as Part of Development          ,

Leadership of a people does not involve just the disbursement of funds and the execution of projects alone. It also involves the generation, disbursement and execution of ideas, concepts that serve as a guide to the general development of a people, human and physical.

The concept of the Abia Dream as conceived and introduced by Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the first of its kind in Nigeria was a novel approach to reinvigorate and excite Abians to greatness through industry, creativity and hardwork so that every citizen of Abia State can believe that he can be what he wants to be in this competitive environment. Developed societies such as the United States of America had and still have such concepts (the American Dream), which still serve as the basic foundation to their greatness.

Dr. Onu also introduced a new concept of indigenization whereby anyone living in Abia State would automatically be an Abian and so entitled to all that is due to Abians such as employment, appointment, admission to schools, government contracts, etc. In implementing this concept and despite stiff opposition, he appointed two non-indigenes, of the State as Directors General in his administration as well as retention of the then incumbent Vice Chancellor of Abia State University, Uturu.

In appreciation of the fact that countries such as Japan attained greatness through technological advancements over time and in fulfillment of the adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, Dr. Onu conceived the establishment of a Technology Village. This was to hasten that day when Nigeria will be in the comity of technologically advanced nations.

Unlike other stales’ Houses of Assembly where maces were broken, chairs flying up and down, and governors threatened with impeachment notices, the harmony that existed in the then Abia State House of Assembly was phenomenal and the relationship between the executive and legislature imitable. This attracted a special commendation from the Presidency.

The government of Dr. Onu also sought to interact closely with the people of Abia State through weekly Public Forum held on every available Friday. The Forum brought Abians from all corners of the state face to face with their Governor without prior appointments. The Governor also established the Joint Consultative Council with him as the Chairman, the Deputy Governor as Vice Chairman and Chairmen of Local Government Areas as members. The Council, none before it in Nigeria, enhanced the general security of Abians in areas such as border disputes between communities and even Local Government Areas. The National Council on Inter-Governmental Relations recommended Abia State’s model of the Joint Consultative Council to other states. It is also on record that cases of armed robbery and other social vices were on a sharp decline in Abia State as a result of Dr. Onu’s government’s encouragement to the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies.

The First Timer’s Disease

When an individual occupies a public office for the first time, he is bound to make certain mistakes due to inexperience. This is the case the world over. For example, President Bill Clinton had a tumultuous and incoherent experience during the first half of his first term in office, which necessitated the democratic ejection of his party’s control of the US Congress during mid-term elections. However, he restored his faith with Americans who subsequently re-elected him two years later.

The key element is the willingness of that individual to learn.

This factor of inexperience surfaced early in Dr. Onu’s administration through certain political appointments, frequent trips outside the state and misplaced project priorities, which were subjects of criticisms from citizens of the state. Though the trips were in the overall interest of the state as he was wooing Abians in other states of the federation to come and invest in their state, he significantly cut down on them as his administration progressed. He also subjected his government to a drastic structural administrative overhaul even before his tenure went half way, which restored the faith of Abians. These were signs of a listening Governor and an administration that was willing to learn.

So Let It Be Said That He Performed

In the light of these problems and achievements, it is my sincere opinion that Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu did his best to deal with the situation at the time. The financial, economic and extra-political handicaps of the times were not his creation.

I believe strongly that:

If the economy was buoyant and democratic as it was during the Second Republic and even now, Dr. Onu’s government would have executed a lot more projects;

If the nation was not embroiled in political turmoil as it was during his tenure, Dr. Onu’s government would not have been as distracted as it was;

If the tenure of the administration were not terminated as abruptly as it was, Dr. Onu’s government would have recorded more achievements.

Despite all these, I submit that the man was good. So let be said: “He performed”.