Kazie Uko, who is the Chief Press Secretary to the Abia State Governor, Alex Otti, talks to SUNDAY NWAKANMA about the controversy generated by the discovery of 70 corpses in a raid on the forest around the Lokpanta Cattle Market in the Umunneochi area of the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, insecurity and other issues
Insecurity in Abia State has been a concern to many residents. How would you describe the security situation in the state?
There is no doubt that the security situation in Abia has changed tremendously from what it used to be in the past. I am talking about the assumption of office of Governor Alex Otti on May 29, 2023, when he declared a state of emergency at his inauguration. Security happens to be one of those sectors or areas that he declared a state of emergency on; he declared a state of emergency on refuse disposal and management, health, education, and of course, security. He didn’t just declare a state of emergency and go to sleep; he declared a state of emergency and followed it up.
In the area of security, one of the things that the governor did to improve the security situation in the state was the establishment of a multi-sectoral security outfit called, ‘Operation Crush,’ which comprises relevant security agencies – the Army, the police, the Navy, the Immigration, and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, among others. With ‘Operation Crush’, the state has been able to tackle the incidences of kidnapping and other violent crimes, especially as we had witnessed in the past in the Umunneochi, Uturu, and Isuikwuato areas.
Through the media, people must have heard of the activities of ‘Operation Crush’ and how it has been able to restore peace and sanity around Lokpanta, Umunneochi and other areas. Beyond that, by the time the governor assumed office, he made sure that thuggery, as we used to experience it on the streets of Aba, Umuahia, Ohafia, and all the other towns of Abia State, was promptly arrested by making sure that thugs who were before now being used for revenue generation were stopped. So, the government went ahead to sanitise that whole process by establishing a digital process of revenue generation and of course, introducing the treasury single account to sanitise that sector of revenue generation. Those are some of the things that have been done to ensure that the security of lives and property is preserved in the state and it was this same governor and this same government that did that.
How much of a concern to the state government is the crime rate in some of the identified flashpoints, especially Umunneochi and Isuikwuato?
Until about four or six weeks ago, there was hardly any week that passed without any report of kidnapping or one violent crime or the other on the Enugu-Umuahia-Aba and Port Harcourt Expressway, especially around Lokpanta. That was a dreaded area, where kidnapping activities had been going on unhindered. One of the high-profile cases was the kidnapping of the former prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria there a year ago. It was in the public domain that a huge ransom was paid as the prelate himself came out to tell the world that about N100m was paid before he was let go. It is not so much about the money, but I am sure that it was the grace of God that was upon him that touched the hearts of the captors and they eventually allowed him to go after collecting the money. I am also sure of the several security reports about the recoveries inside the forest around the Lokpanta area, and morbid discoveries in that area. In the past four to six weeks, there have not been any incidents or any reports of any kind of kidnapping or violent crime around that area.
What major actions has the state government taken so far?
One of the things that the government has done was to go into the area and some of the hideouts and places that were pinpointed to have provided a haven for criminals and all kinds of criminal activities. Security agents went there and ensured that all criminal activities going on in the area were tackled and this entailed the demolition of some brothels and places that intelligence had reported as providing a haven for such criminal activities to thrive. So, since that was done, sanity has returned to the whole area. For sustainability of peace and orderliness in that area, the government also took a position that what used to be the Lokpanta Cattle Market be made a daily market, where traders come in the day, trade, and at the end of the day by 6pm, they close and everybody goes home. The following day, you come back and you continue your business.
Beyond that, it becomes a general-purpose market, not just for cattle dealers, but for all kinds of people who are engaged in other legitimate trading activities. These include electronics, textiles, and all kinds of foodstuffs like yam, beans, rice, and other things. Of course, this will entail that different individuals and groups get together and mingle the same way it is in the markets of Alaba in Lagos, Sabon Gari in Kano, and the same way people trade together in Kaduna and elsewhere. So, it is not supposed to be an exclusive place for a particular product, but a general purpose market, where everybody gathers to buy and to sell.
It was learnt that the market was a residential place for some traders. Is that true?
It is not supposed to be a residential market. Nobody lives in the market, so the Lokpanta Market shouldn’t be a residential place where people trade and live. No. What the government is saying is that people should live within the communities around the market, so that at the end of the day, after their trading, they would go home, refresh, and then come back the following day. To ensure that this is done, the government has also started the perimeter fencing of the entire market area to further provide security for the people who are engaged in trading activities within that market. So, the entire area will be fenced and gates put in so that at the end of the day after trading activities, the market will be closed and people go home. So, that will provide security for lives and property and all the goods.
The traders there are happier about it because they have also reported incidences of robbery because they deal in cash. They have reported people coming in there to steal their money and other things. So, we believe that by the time all these are fully done, we will be sure that there will not be such incidents anymore. Even motorists who ply that area have also praised the government for this action, because in the past, the traffic in that entire stretch was horrible. However, we have controlled them and we have had reports that traffic now moves freely around there.
The reported discovery of over 50 decomposing corpses and dozens of headless bodies by the state government has continued to generate controversy. What exactly was discovered in the area and how many corpses and skeletons were found?
The figures are out there. The governor enumerated in his briefing with the media in the state, and that is the way it is and what the governor reported was based on the security report that was given to him and this is a fact. These facts are there. So, anybody who needs any further information or confirmation, or whatever should approach the security agencies and I am sure that they will be glad to give out the facts. What the governor said was based on the report that was given to him as the chief security officer of the state. I am sure that the security agencies will answer all of that (the questions). As I said, what the governor said was based on the security report that was given to him.
The northern community faulted the governor’s claim, describing it as a ploy to evict them from the area. What is your reaction to that?
They misconstrued the good intentions of the governor and the Abia State Government. Nobody has asked anybody to leave Abia State; not the Governor of Abia State, Dr Otti. He definitely will not do that. This is a governor who does not discriminate. This is a governor who has all kinds of people from different ethnic groups in the state and even outside of the state serving in his government and occupying one government position or the other. I believe that this (ejection insinuation) was an attempt by the enemies of the state, who believed that this was a way to get at the governor and put a dent in the good works that he was doing in the state.
So, by the time the government felt that the market should become a daily market and a general purpose market and that the market was going to be fenced off, some enemies of the state, people who have been in the government for a very long time, thinking that Abia State had become their inheritance, went to town to start propagating falsehood that northerners had been asked to leave Abia State. There is no truth in that. Nobody has asked any northerner or any other tribe to leave Abia State. We need all these people to help us develop the state. The government of Abia State, led by Dr Otti, is faithful to its promise to develop this state holistically and we need people from every part of the country and beyond to join us and to help us in achieving this objective.
How has the governor been able to douse the tension generated by the incident, especially as it concerns the Igbo living in the North?
The governor was outside of the state when that falsehood broke out, even though we took measures to be able to speak with the leadership of the traders and even met with the northern community trading at Lokpanta. But, by the time the governor came back to the state, he called a meeting with the leadership of Umuchieze (Lokpanta) Cattle Market and he was able to explain what the government was doing. As God would have it, their leaders and other northern stakeholders from outside of Abia State, some of whom were in Abuja, also attended the meeting. They listened to the governor and he spoke clearly and told them that nobody had asked anybody to leave Abia State, but that the market should become a daily market; that it should become a general goods market. He also said the government was going to provide security around that market by fencing the whole area.
He explained to them and they understood and realised that they had been misled by the propaganda that the enemies of the state had pushed out there. Of course, they (northern community members) apologised to the governor and expressed their satisfaction with the appropriate government policy to make the place a daily market.
Did they make any demands?
The only thing they said was that the government should help them. Even before they asked for it, the governor himself had already offered to help the vulnerable among them, who were not able to rent accommodation within the communities around the market; he said the government was going to help to see how they could secure accommodation, but definitely, not providing accommodation within the market. The governor said expressly that nobody was going to live inside the market anymore. Everybody should live within the community around there. At the end of the day, they came out and rescinded the directive or threat that the Igbo trading in the North would have 14 days to leave where they were. So, they immediately rescinded it and peace has since returned to the market and the areas.
People should be vigilant. They should watch out for the extraordinary, they should be law-abiding, follow directives given by the government and also be able to cooperate with the security agencies in the state. All we need to do is to humble ourselves, obey the law, and cooperate with the security agencies. This government cannot condone iniquities and lawlessness, whether from a citizen or a security agent. Everybody needs to conduct themselves in an orderly manner and according to the law of the land.
A few weeks back, the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Security visited the state. What was discussed during the meeting with the governor?
It was an oversight. Naturally, they will come down to Abia State to hold meetings with stakeholders and it was natural that they come in to visit the governor and to also hear his side, which they did, and they expressed their profound gratitude to the governor for the measures that he had taken even before they came into Abia. They said that the governor had already gone ahead to do their work for them. They merely came and applauded the governor and thanked him for the measures he had taken to ensure that peace and security returned to the Umunneochi-Uturu-Okigwe-Isuikwuato area, particularly on the expressway. They applauded the governor for his efforts to make sure that security returned to that place.
What other measures has the governor put in place to reposition the state?
At the time the governor assumed office, he suspended the activities of louts, who were masquerading as revenue agents and who flooded the streets, harassing business owners, residents, and others. The other thing he did was to ensure that there was free movement of goods, services and people in our cities, particularly the commercial nerve centre of the state, Aba, and the state capital, Umuahia, where the roads have gone so bad and hindering movement. We heard all kinds of reasons why the previous governments could not mend roads like it was the rainy season, they had no money and all that. But in the space of about four months or so, even in the rains, this government has embarked on massive infrastructural development, particularly road works.
In Aba, we have commenced work on over 11 roads and more are being considered. Out of the 11 roads that were initially started by the governor, about six of them have been delivered. We have delivered Cemetery Road Phase 1, and Emelogu Road from Ikot Ekpene Road down to Orji Uzor Kalu Bridge. We have delivered Shalom Road, Udeagbala, Umuimo, MCC, Old Express and many more are still in the pipeline. In a short while, other roads around Aba will be delivered. Of course, Jubilee Road, which was impassable for so long, has been delivered, and most importantly, the state capital, Umuahia.
Still in Aba, the Port Harcourt Road, which had been abandoned by previous governments, has been awarded for rehabilitation and that project is being handled by Nigeria’s foremost construction company, Julius Berger, and in the next 18 months, we will have a brand new Port Harcourt Road. You know the state of the Port Harcourt Road before now and know what it is currently, but we thank God that this government and this governor came in and took the bull by the horns by awarding the reconstruction of that road. We all know how strategic and important the Port Harcourt Road is to the economy of Abia State and Aba in particular.
This is a road that will easily take you to Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, and we know how businesses on that corridor have suffered due to the inability of past administrations, particularly, the last administration, which had gone into that project, demolished people’s houses without even paying them compensation and all that, to fix it. But this government has come in and within four months, a contract for the reconstruction of that road has been awarded to a very credible company. You saw the excitement displayed by the residents of Aba for the mere fact that they heard that Julius Berger was the one going to do that project. People came in there and kept vigil at the time that the company was just mobilising for the ceremonial commencement of the project. Those are some of the things that the government has done to ensure that security is further strengthened. The government adopted a digital option for revenue generation.
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