THE Abia State Government has decided to reabsorb most of the non-indigenes it disengaged from its civil service about three years ago. When it took the decision to “back load” or “transfer” the services of the workers to their states of origin in 2011, there was a great uproar, especially in the social and traditional media, with the Governor of Abia State, Chief Theodore Orji being called names.
Of course, the government proffered reasons for taking the action. According to it, the new minimum wage which organised Labour forced down the throats of state governments dramatically shot the wage bill of the state beyond its capacity to cope. It came at a time when a lot of Igbos were returning from the North over terror attacks, and the Abia State Government had a duty to accommodate some of its returnee indigenes in its workforce.
The state was faced with the choice of either downsizing the workforce or falling behind in payment of workers. It was at this juncture that someone in the system remembered that some years ago, some states in the South East zone, particularly Imo State which used to coexist with Abia in the Old Imo State before it was split in 1991, had unceremoniously sent workers of Abia origin packing. Years later, former Governor Ikedi Ohakim, without prior notice or consultation with his Abia State counterpart, suddenly stopped paying the pension of workers of Abia origin who retired in the Imo Civil Service. The Abia State Government had quietly reabsorbed its displaced indigenes and taken up the pension burden of its retired indigenes abandoned by Imo State.
The “back loading” generated tension between the government of Abia State and non-indigenes, especially in the commercial and industrial city of Aba, where non-indigenes are major stakeholders. The problem assumed political dimensions as the Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, started tiptoeing from the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), the party that put him in power to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). Okorocha has never hidden his ambition to add Abia to his political empire. He capitalised on the sore feelings generated by the “back loading” in the Abia civil service. Each time Governor Orji made an appearance in Aba he was roundly booed by well organised cells of pro-Rochas groups of non-indigenes. The height of it was when the body of the late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was brought to the Aba Stadium for final honours. After the governor was subjected to humiliating boos by organised groups in the arena, he went back to Umuahia and recharged his Ochendo Organisation. The booing eventually died down, but the tension remained, and so did the war of nerves between the Abia and Imo state governments.
They had frequent verbal shootouts in the media. Imo opened a new front in the quarrel, closing down the loading bays of the Abia Line Network (ALN) transport company in Owerri, citing the need to restore the Owerri master-plan. It provided no alternative outlet. Abia retaliated by closing all operational bays of the Imo Transport Company (ITC) in Aba and Umuahia. On October 12th 2013, the Abia State Government clamped down on a reception to honour Okorocha at the Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, by the pro-Rochas “rescue missionaries” saying it was a ploy to stage an illegal campaign by the APC. With the standoff between the sister states at a stalemate, the question became: who blinks first? Rochas was not even attending the South East Governors’ Forum, so there was no common ground for arbitration.
Governor Orji unilaterally decided to hang his war drums. He decided to reabsorb the sacked non-indigenes. Apparently, the internally generated revenue of the state has grown from about N150 million to a point where the state government is now targeting one billion per month. Leakages, according to its officials, have been blocked and digital methods have now cut down corruption that had diverted funds to private pockets. The state not only decided to recall the non-indigenes, it has also de-frozen employment in its civil service. Governor Orji’s critics insist, however, that he is bringing back the workers because he has now been elected as the Chairman of the South East Governors’ Forum. Besides, he is now eyeing the senate. The truth, though, is that he can still carry on with his political ambition and occupy his new position as governors’ chairman without reversing the policies. After all, he was appointed even while the “back loading” was in full force. Besides, the population of non-indigenes in the Abia Central Senatorial Zone where he will contest for the Senate is too insignificant to stop him if the people want him to go and represent them. I am of the firm belief that Governor Orji listened to wise counsel, and since the finances of the state can now accommodate the recall of the non-indigenes, he decided to act in good faith.
I call it a happy ending for a couple of reasons. The whole indigene-settler dichotomy syndrome in country is sickening. It is symptomatic of a nation that is seriously ill and in need of general psychological overhaul. Why should a Nigerian be discriminated against in any part of his country based on the circumstances of his birth and origins? Why should an Igbo person be a “non-indigene” in any part of Igboland, even if the anomaly can be excused on ethnic or regional or religious basis? Why should the Imo State Government stop paying the pensions of Abia indigenes who served and retired in Imo State? Why is the Imo aspect of the problem being conveniently ignored? Why is it only the (albeit wrongful) retaliation that is being highlighted? And why are people withholding commendations when the Abia State Government reverses itself? Why are people not hounding the Imo State Government and others in the South East to emulate the good gesture of Governor Orji and correct the wicked acts they committed against fellow Igbos in their own states? Is it not instructive that the “war against non-indigenes” in the South East is being targeted at fellow Igbos of the former East Central State, while those from elsewhere are not affected? It does not make any sense, no matter how you look at it.
Secondly, let me reiterate that it is futile to reduce a city like Aba to an ethnic or state enclave. Aba is an international city of commerce and industry. Aba is the heart of Igboland and the commercial muscle of Abia State, but it is not tailor-made for Abia indigenes alone. It is built in Ngwa land, but not a rental property of Ngwa people as Ikwerres reduced Port Harcourt to after the civil war and the Abandoned Property saga. The greatness of Aba lies in its diversity as the place to go and display your business acumen and manufacturing dexterity, irrespective of where you come from. Aba has no mineral resources like Port Harcourt, which is an oil-fed city.
Aba’s greatness is based on its human capacity and ingenuity. It is an intelligence-based economy. Therefore, it is likely to outlast cities like Port Harcourt, which are mainly dependent on extractive, renteering freeloads. Once the extractive industry dries up, the city may die unless it transits from extractive to renewable, superior human capacity-driven prosperity. Every intelligence-driven economy must open up to all comers – Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, the various Minorities, and foreigners. Everybody comes with something unique. That is the story of Aba, as well as other progressive cities like Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Jos and also Port Harcourt (especially before the civil war).
While we should chorus Governor Orji’s pledge that this ugly episode must never rear its ugly head again, we must also prevail on Imo State to follow the good example of Abia. It must pay the arrears of pensions to those it terminated years ago. As the right hand washes the left hand, the left hand must also wash the right hand. That is an old Igbo wise saying.
Let us stop hurting one another in Nigeria. It makes all of us losers.