My Ten Cents

Friday, November 7, 2014

Abia State: TAO, the Legacy Projects & Job Creation

Legacy:
1.       A gift of property, especially personal property, as money, by will; a bequest.
2.       Anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.

Projects:
1.    Something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme
2.    a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment

Legacy Projects:
1.       A large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment, handed down from the past, as from a predecessor.
In preparation of this article on the much-publicized legacy projects of the T.A. Orji administration in Abia state, it was important for me, and I hope the readers, to first understand the definitions of both legacy and projects in the context with which it is being applied by the Abia state government; that is why I selected and combined what I consider to be the likely definitions of both words to come up with a suitable definition of legacy projects as may be used by a government or its agency. Now, let us attempt to look at these projects, and their economic and social benefit to the people of Abia state. First, why are they necessary?
I will refer to the reason proffered by Ms. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, for why the coalition of US and EU partners toppled the Gadhafi administration. According to her, there were no foundational structures upon which to build a civil and democratic society; there were no judiciary, civil service structure, fiscal and monetary policies, etc., upon which a democracy could function. Gadhafi was running everything by himself as he wishes. For a democracy to function, one must have a functional and well entrenched legislative, judiciary and executive institutions – along with their various attendant bureaucracies. These structure/institutions, supposedly, were lacking or not functioning in the appropriate environment in Abia state for the 20, or so, years of its existence.
To anyone who cared to listen – and there are many -, the Theo Oji (TAO) government have been quick to shout it from the rooftops that they inherited no economic and social foundational structure from their predecessor, the Orji Uzor Kalu (OUK) administration, even though the current governor was part and parcel of that previous administration for the better part of its tenure. So, one is inclined to accuse him of culpability in the maladministration of the state by the much-maligned OUK administration. In any case, that is not the issue for review here.  Yes, given his youth and exposure outside the shores of Nigeria, and having experienced the benefits of good governance in developed countries, many expected OUK to attempt to lay the social and economic foundational structures TAO is doing now; unfortunately, one can take the horse to the stream but one cannot force it to drink. Admittedly, OUK was a disappointment to Abia state and her citizens. I had the opportunity to tour government offices in Umuahia in 2002, including the governor’s office, some commissioners’ offices, the secretariat, and those of some permanent secretaries; to put it modestly, most of these offices were not suitable for junior staff of the Biafra government at the height of the civil war.
Of the many legacy projects touted by the TAO administration, my attention was drawn to seventeen, of which ten were of particular interest. Some of them are the ministerial offices, government guest house, renovated federal and state secretariats, the broadcasting station, the house of assembly and constituency offices, high court, account allocation office, and the new governor’s lodge. One would easily notice that none of these legacy projects include a factory or an industrial complex of any kind, a specialist post-primary institution designated to the training of young Abians in the sciences and technologies of the future, an agricultural production and processing industry, or plants for the manufacturing of anything. That is, there are no continuous job-creating and sustaining projects on the list.
My argument is not the usefulness of these projects in some ways; yes, they are very useful in their own ways. However, in a state with a very high rate of graduate unemployment, very low functional industry concentration, and very minimal provision of social infrastructures beyond the two major cities of Aba and Umuahia, the construction and/or renovation of office buildings all over the capital city does not go far in providing a permanent or continuous solution to the huge unemployment problem facing the state.
One could argue that the construction projects provided employment, and created accessory business for the communities around these construction sites; that may very well be so for as long as the construction lasted. What happens to the hired hands when the project is completed and the construction company packs up and leaves? They go back to being unemployed and a security risk and a burden to government and society; and, since buildings last for decades – regardless of how many the governments construct in a fiscal year –they can never secure permanent employment. Therefore, there will always be frequent downtimes in employment among this segment of the workforce.  The ministerial offices, court houses, constituency offices, governor’s lodge and guest houses, the secretariats, and account allocation offices are simply government providing better working environments for the existing staff; there are no new recruits to the existing staff strength attributable to the construction of a new or modernized building. Therefore, their construction or modernization does not lead to a reduction in unemployment in Abia state in any way; neither does it improve the efficiency of the current workforce, or reduce the cost of governance in the state. At best, and for a period of five years, they just provide a comfortable working environment.
A second set of these legacy projects, like the Dialysis and Diagnostic centers, modern market, youth empowerment vehicles, and the international conference center, though necessary, will only create minimal employment opportunities. Twelve years of experience tells me that a fully utilized dialysis center capable of accommodating 16 to 20 patients during two 8-hour work shifts needs only three nurses per shift. That is 6 people right there. A diagnostic center also requires about that many staff. As for a conference center, unless it is in use, it only requires a janitorial staff of about 4, and a clerical staff of about the same number to run it. Were it to be in use, it would only employ temporary staff for the duration of the conference. Again, not much is there in terms of tackling the state’s unemployment figures. Construction of a modern market is the same as building a new secretariat; government is only attempting to decongest the city center by moving the congestion to the suburbs. A few more stalls may have been added in the new location for the benefit of those who never had one; other than that, employment could only come from the market authorities adding a few more people the existing staff strength to help keep the market clean and secure. Altogether, not more than 50 permanent jobs would be created by this set of legacy projects.
Of immense curiosity to me is the youth empowerment project: the idea of buying transportation vehicles of any kind for use by the unemployed on some contractual agreement with the state or its responsible agency. In doling out these vehicles, the government may be well-intentioned; however, in a society where a reliable tracking system is, to say the least, non-existent, how would the government know that its intent is being realized? Most of the beneficiaries of this arrangement are city dwellers, since the program is not really grassroots-based or replicated in the 17 local government areas of the state. Also, the terrible state of roads outside the two major states makes this venture less profitable for rural dwellers where these services are much needed. So, though the idea may be lofty and the goal well-intentioned, the result is only favorable to a small percentage of the unemployed.  Also, as with many government projects, once the TAO administration ends in May, 2015 the chances of the state recouping its investments on this transport-for-employment scheme vanish with the administration.
Legacy projects are two-fold: monuments in forms of office buildings, or industries in forms of factories which create jobs; the likes left behind by the late M. I. Okpara and his team – Modern Ceramics, Golden Guinea Breweries, Nkalagu Cement Factory, Rubber and palm oil plantations, solid interconnecting roads and rail system, etc. These legacies not only provided direct employment to the people of Eastern Nigeria, they spurned secondary and tertiary businesses like distributorships which, in turn, created more jobs; a much-desired multiplier effect. With today’s Abia state legacy projects, such results as witnessed by the Okpara projects cannot be envisioned. Now, were the diagnostic and dialysis centers to be replicated in all the 17 local governments of the state, the prospects of increased employment would be increased, and rural beneficiaries, kidney patients, will not have to travel long and tortuous distances to Umuahia to avail themselves of the services. That would have been a plus for the state government.
A preferable legacy project that would go a long way towards reducing unemployment in the state, as well as preparing its citizens for the jobs of tomorrow, would have been a well-funded, well-equipped technical and vocational training centers in each of the local governments of the state; creation of industries geared towards the extraction and processing of the natural resources of the state, like gold, salt, limestone, lead and zinc; a small business loan program under a contracted financial institution  tasked with not only disbursement of such loan, but complete recovery of same, with minimal interest, at the end of a generous period of time. Abia state generates about NGN5 billion a year (broken down to less than NGN500m per month), close to the same amount it collects every month from the federal government as allocations. So, it would have been more beneficial to the state if the legacy projects were focused on laying the foundation for increased IGR in the years to come.
This piece is not a criticism of the TAO administration, though many – especially, those in government – may see it as so. It is rather an opportunity for stakeholders of both the current and the next administration to review where the state is headed, what it needs to get there, and how it can go about acquiring that need. One thing is undeniable; Abia state needs to create jobs for its citizens, and in order to do so it needs to significantly increase its IGR; to achieve this, it needs to invest in revenue-generating ventures, and office buildings are not high on the list of such ventures. The state, with all its natural resources, cannot continue to run cap in hand to Abuja for salvation.

Felix Oti

Felix.oti@gmail.com
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