Okechukwu Ndukwe is the new general-manager of Abia State Estate Development Agency (ABSEDA), who assumed office on November, 2017. In this exclusive interview with UDOKA AGWU in Umuahia, Ndukwe revealed his plans to bring the agency back to life and raise the morale of workers who have been owed salaries for many months. He also spoke on the challenges facing the agency. Excerpts:
May we know the state you met the agency?
I met backlog of salaries- 14 months unpaid salaries. I met unpaid house rent. You know we are not the owners of this place (our office), so we met huge rent to be paid, broken down vehicles. In fact, operations here were grounded. The operational system here was totally and completely grounded. That was what I met.
How have you been able to improve the fortunes of the agency since you came on board?
By the special grace of God as at today, I have been able to pay four months’ salary. It is on record; you can go round and ask my staff. They will confirm this to you. I have paid their check-off dues to their unions. I have been able to pay the house rent completely, which is one year rent- is about N1.2million. I have gone ahead to put the operations functional again. The vehicles are all working, the generator is working, everything is working, and we have been opening new sites, because the raw material here is land. We acquire lands from communities, from natives and we allocate to beneficiaries, who will in turn pay to government statutory fees, which we will in turn use in developing the estates, paying our staff salaries and running the office. So we have been able to open four new land sites, among which is Ojukwu bunker, Ikputu Phase ll and Umuobia. We have been able to go to our abandoned sites like Amibo-Ubakala where some miners who mine kaolin have put in bad shape by their mining activities. We must commend our governor here, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu because he intervened and stopped the mining activities there. We are moving in to recover that site and then push in our beneficiaries there. We have gone to Ohiya-Umudara, where we have abandoned site also, without beneficiaries moving in there, because of misunderstanding with the original land owners. We have almost settled with them and the mining activities there have been stopped. We have also gone a step further to move into our permanent site, where one of the past general managers of ABSEDA, now permanent secretary, Ministry of Health, Nkwachukwu Agomuo started. I told you we are here on rent, while we have a space for our permanent building. Nkwachukwu Agomuo then general manager started it and got it to a certain level. Since then no general manager has done anything there. So we are in there now, work is in progress. So we are doing a lot of things, we are on course in the area of staff welfare and staff promotions. These facts could be verified by mere interaction with our staff, they are verifiable facts. It is not that as the general manager of ABSEDA, I am here feeding you with this information. You can just move round this establishment and ask questions.
What is the level of relationship between you and land owners?
We have some procedures for land acquisition. When they give us a letter of offer, telling us that they have a land for us to use for developmental purpose, we will do what we call perimeter survey to know the size of the land. After, we do their customary or traditional rites. We give them compensation based on a standard. There is a standard ratio between the office and the real owners of the land.
What motivated you into taking all these actions within a short period of assumption of office?
What motivated me is in line with Governor Okezie Ikpeazu’s 5-point agenda of putting smiles on the face of Abians and giving hope to hopeless Abians. When I came here, I saw that their faces were rough. There were no smiles on their faces, frustrations all over the place, they were hopeless. In fact, the first day I paid them their first salary, I was passing along the corridor. I saw one of my female staff, she was praising God. I heard her say, ‘today my children will eat good food’. I am telling you that was what happened and when I heard her say that I was moved. You know the woman didn’t know I was listening to her. She was also praying for me. She said: ‘God will bless this new man, at least today; my children will eat good food’. That alone motivated me the more, because in governance, Dr. Ikpeazu said he will do everything possible to do the will of God. In doing the will of God, he strives to make Abians happy, that is the line we are toeing, because he is our leader. He is our governor and he is our father. So, he has set this agenda for both himself and for the state, so all of us who are under him must key into his agenda of making people happy. You know when people are happy, there is peace, when there is peace, there is harmony. When there is harmony and peace, progress must flow, that is it.
What are the prospects of your Agency?
By the special grace of God, in a short time, people will be scrambling for this agency. People will be lobbying to be posted to this agency in the next few years, because by the special grace of God, we will bring this agency to an enviable height. I know if we harness all our avenues; if we harness all our resources, I mean there is no parastatal in the state that will challenge us financially. That is where we are targeting, that is where we are focusing. It is a matter of time. God keep us alive, you will see that in the next couple of years, the kind of lobbying people will be doing in this state to be posted to this establishment, you will remember what I told you today. It is not that I am boasting but I am speaking by the grace of God, you will see it happening.
What are the challenges?
My challenges in this office are that past managements, who had left this agency, have not really left the agency. From wherever they are, they tend to fight this agency. They have not left this agency because they did one thing or the other which they want to cover and they still have some of their loyalists in this establishment, who they use to carry out this malfunction. So, I am trying my possible best to tighten up the security of this place in terms of security of personnel, security of documents, security of infrastructure. You understand, we are doing our best. We have already contracted the services of one ICT company who will by God’s grace, next month come here to computerize the valuation department and all our activities here, so that staff or any other persons do not have free access to documents and other files. Sometimes, you will look for people’s files here and you won’t find them. They have been taken away by the people who were here, who have their agents here. You will think that we have your information here; you don’t know that your information is outside. So we have contacted an ICT company from Lagos State, who will come here by next month, by God’s grace they will be at work here to computerise the activities of this place to make it more efficient. Secondly, our beneficiaries in our estates are not helping matters. There are some specified dues that they are supposed to be paying to this agency on annual basis, like the annual development levies. In other states like Enugu State, they charge fees like maintenance fee which is about one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand naira, depending on the kind of building, high rise or bungalow. But here, we charge as low as ten thousand to twenty thousand naira annually, still our beneficiaries find it difficult to pay those levies. You know when they pay those levies judiciously, I mean this agency will be swimming in milk and honey. That is another handicap we have here.
What steps have you taken to compel beneficiaries to comply?
You see, we have called them for a meeting, the beneficiaries association from various estates. We have sensitised them on the need for them to pay all these levies and fees. You see, we are self-sustaining agency and we need these fees to thrive. So we are working out our modalities, we are liaising with the Chairman, Internal Revenue Committee of the State, the BIR, to see a possible decent way of approaching them, making them realise that they need to do the needful. Most of them in fact don’t even know that the estates belong to government. They think that the various villages own them. In fact, I don’t blame them, the past administrations here have played into their hands and most of them are friends. They tell them to forget the payment, forgetting that it is from there that you are earning. We are trying to tighten up those areas and with the support of the BIR committee, we hope to overcome that problem.
What were the alleged bad activities of past managements and steps taken to correct them?
You see, what you have to do first is to do your little effort. Put in your little effort in stopping that. When there is huge resistance, we will then run to our Papa, the governor and tell him so that nobody will say you are victimising him; you are probing her or you are doing this or that. So, we will do our own internal protective measures here and then see how we can stop it, which we are doing right now. When we see that it is not being productive, we don’t have any other option than to go to the government.
How can you describe your relationship with staff?
I shouldn’t praise myself. You can go round and find out. It is very cordial. The other day, the former acting general manager who was removed came here, my staff nearly lynched her. Their reactions even made one of the army men that she came with to come and have a handshake with me and said ‘Oga, please I see you are good. I see you are doing well, continue with it’. So the relationship is very cordial.