Governor of Ebonyi State and Chairman of South East Governors Forum, Dave Umahi, was recently in the Presidential Villa to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari to present the region’s request as regards the closure of Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu; the insecurity, the recent ban on movement of cattle on foot across the region by herdsmen, and the reactivation and eventual passage of the Southeast Development Commission bill in the National Assembly. Fielding questions after the meeting, the governor also spoke on 2023 presidency, saying discussing it now will undermine Buhari’s administration. Excerpts by JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE, as published this morning by Saturday Sun.
South East Governors seem to have just woken up from their slumber on the spate of insecurity in the region. How do you respond to this?
The mistake people make is that leaders in this country including governors are not supposed to be talking carelessly, security matters are not discussed on the pages of newspapers. But we have to speak out now just to encourage our people, to let them know that we are doing everything possible to secure their lives.
In our states we have forest guards, we have vigilante, we have committees from the village level to the community to local government to the state level that interface with any kind of crisis arising from natives to farmers and herdsmen. We have been doing everything possible and that is why you see a lot of calm in our states. But when these herdsmen that are terrorists and foreigners found their ways to the south-east, we started having the real insecurity problem and that is why we have to ban them from coming to the South-East.
This banning of terrorist herdsmen with AK47 is in agreement with traditional herdsmen, they are also not happy with what is happening – going into kidnapping, raping our women and making the farmland very much insecure and people are afraid of going to farms now and the resultant effect will be catastrophic because traditionally, we are farmers. It’s not as if we have not been doing things, we’ve been doing things but we can’t begin to shout on the pages of newspapers on what we are doing about security.
In recent times, South East Governors have been under verbal attacks by IPOB. Why do you think this has been happening?
Well, it’s the price of leadership and it is the price we have to pay to stabilise the nation. Don’t forget that we have over 12 million people from the South East living in the north and we do not begin to talk to make IPOB happy and to suit their demands just because we want to make them happy. We want to do things as leaders of this country that will safeguard our people in the north, safeguard the northerners that are in South East and do everything as leaders to ensure that there is peace and there is unity amongst all.
Their anger is that we proscribed IPOB, we didn’t have the powers to proscribe the activities of IPOB at the time we did to keep the country as one, to save the lives of northerners living in south east and the lives of the people of south east living in the north. Once we did that and lives were saved we were very happy. So, their threats and condemnations are the price we have to pay as leaders. The important thing is that we are here to represent our people and our conscience bears us witness that what we are doing is what will bring peace to our nation and not what will disintegrate it. Don’t forget that we are governors of south east and if we begin to talk like the youths, people will be very happy with us especially our people, but the issue is will it guarantee peace of the nation, will it guarantee the safety of our people? So we have to do things as leaders that will first guarantee peace for our visitors and our people who are also visitors in other locations of this country and beyond.
The IPOB just released an open letter to you and your brother governors in the South East making some demands before there could be truce. Are you considering their demands including that of open apology?
You see, we are servants of the people, we have no apology to tender because we represent them. There is misinformation because they said we should tender apology for proscribing IPOB, we did not proscribe IPOB because we did not have the powers. But it was within our powers to say you have to stop the activities because you are trying to endanger the visitors to south east and endanger by extension our people in the north. We had to do that and we don’t have apologies to offer for doing that and we also refuse to discuss the merits and demerits of our actions on the pages of newspapers. As leaders like I said you have to be economical with the way you speak so that you will continue to preserve the unity of this country.
In 2023, will Igbo be going for the presidency or not?
You know, it is insulting to the occupier of that particular office when somebody has not even stayed up to one year and we begin to talk about succeeding the person. What you are saying is that you are undermining the occupant of that office. So, I refuse to talk about 2023. And I have always maintained that when you are being led by God, don’t allow yourself to be led by men. When we get to 2023 we will see what God has in stock for each and everyone of us.
What was the purpose of your visit to Mr. President?
I came to see Mr President on a number of national issues and also issues pertaining to South East. I came to see him on behalf of our people on the closure of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu. We are very happy with him for ordering the closure of the airport consequent to our letter to him to intervene and that closure has saved a lot of lives because if you land at that tarmac you will see that the tarmac was gone. We are aware it wasn’t constructed by the present administration but the tarmac became bad as soon as it was completed.
So we have discussed the timeline for the completion, we are all aware that towards December, we have a lot of heightened socio-economic activities in South East and Enugu is our base – it’s our capital, what Kaduna is to the north, it’s what Enugu is to the South East. So we pleaded with Mr President for the extension of the tarmac so that it can accommodate bigger aircraft, we pleaded with Mr President to do what he did when we had the same issue with Abuja International Airport which he intervened in a number of ways. He provided a number of palliatives like buses with armed escorts, provided helicopters (though government didn’t pay for that but they paid for vehicles) which they did through a number of transport companies.
Mr President also very instructively, did the funding through an emergency funding programme. I know that in the last administration we had to rehabilitate Port Harcourt International Airport and because it went through budgetary provisions it lasted for two years. But similar intervention by Mr President on International Airport Abuja, he had to provide special funding and then it was later included in the budgetary provision and the fund was accordingly replaced.
So we are pleading for similar gesture for Enugu International Airport so that special funding could be given to the Minister of Aviation. And I also thanked him for the choice of the Minister of Aviation as a full minister because just merely requesting for him to do a meeting with leaders of South Eastern governors in 24 hours he was with us, he was very passionate about the lives of our people and he is very passionate about his job. We thank him for that.
We also discussed with him about the request of our people to see Mr President jointly – the governors, leadership of Ohanaeze, leadership of Nzuko Umunna, the clergy, bishops and national assembly members; our people want to do an interaction with Mr President.
We also told Mr President about the foreign herdsmen that come to our land with AK47, it has heightened tension in the region, they kill and maim our people, rape our women and people are very much afraid going to farms and most of these people are in the tick bushes in the South East.
So we requested for joint operation with security forces to flush these people out. We don’t really have issues with our traditional herdsmen some of them have been living with us for quite a time. But the foreign herdsmen most of them don’t even speak Hausa neither do they speak Fulani or English and a number of them are being caught by security agencies and it’s introducing a new dimension in the name of herdsmen. We have informed Mr President that as governors of South East, we have banned these foreign bandits in the name of herdsmen. We also reminded Mr President about railway to south east and to extend gas pipeline to the industrial zones if the south east.
Lastly, we are aware that with diversion of flights to Owerri, all the route leading to Owerri airport now is going to be the den of armed robbers and kidnappers, we are looking at how all the routes leading to the Owerri airport should be given some facelift through the federal ministry of works and housing. We had to tell Mr President to note it and see how he can direct the ministry of works and housing to do that. And of course, lastly, there is going to be increased activities at Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri and so we requested for a facelift of the airport. These are the things I discussed with Mr President on behalf of the South East governors and leaders.
What was the President’s response to your demands. Secondly, your zone has always talked about regional cooperation, yet businesses are dying because of bad roads and other infrastructure. Can’t you address these issues jointly?
The President is well disposed to the request we made to him and I am sure he is going to meet our demands. Don’t forget that the last time we came we made a demand for accelerated process of awarding the Second Niger Bridge and that Mr. President granted. I think the Second Niger Bridge is the fastest in terms of progress amongst Mr. President’s projects.
On regional cooperation, we have a number of projects we have lined up for economic integration but first, we said what are those things we have comparative advantage individually as states and what are those things we can benefit together. That gave birth to what is called the South East Economic Development Commission. We are working on that and we thank Mr. President for the southeast commission and we had requested for all the stakeholders involved to reactivate the process again. Because, the last assembly had passed it again but the president has not assented. So by the process it has to go back to the National Assembly another enactment before they pass it to Mr. President for assent. So we are very sure that when we come in our group visit to Mr. President, we will also request he talk to the National Assembly though we have been talking to them through our representatives. So we have been doing a lot for our region together. For instance we have now joined the committee for south east security being warehoused in Enugu.
IPOB has placed travel ban on the south east governors, are you going to heed it or defy them?
There is no constitutional responsibility placed on IPOB to have the right to place a travel ban. Incidentally, when I travel I will let IPOB know that I am coming to that particular nation. They remain our brothers, it doesn’t matter the misunderstanding. A woman was telling the dog that we can stay together, it is a matter of understanding. So, I believe if we don’t have understanding today, we will have understanding tomorrow.
Source News Express