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Sunday, 25 February 2024 07:18

[OPINION] Power, Vision and a New Aba - Chidi Amuta

It is time to pay homage to the place of my beginnings. I was born and grew up mostly in Aba. Something in me still looks nostalgically back to and draws inspiration from those beginnings. It is the beauty of every yard as a shop in front and a small factory at the rear. Literally, every yard had a cottage industry at the rear and a ‘mum and pop’ shop in front to sell some of the things made at the backyard. Making and selling things, industry and commerce have remained the defining essence of Aba Ngwa, the proud indomitable Enyimba City. It was a place of perennial hope and promise in the power of human creativity, industry and  restless enterprise.

We grew up infused with the belief that wealth was only possible if you make things people need or sell stuff to people who want them. Hard work in industry and commerce livened by education were the keys we were handed by adult society. It was an early mastery of the power of supply and demand. The original spirit of Aba still lives though battered, bruised  and buffeted by decades of neglect, governmental indifference and reckless abuse.

Many things have of course changed on the face of Aba. Land speculators and authorized scavengers have spoilt the landscape that once was beautiful and planned.  But there are constants that remain and defy the corrosive decades that have since passed. Two things principally are constant and make the Aba spirit indestructible. The famous Enyimba City has survived the decades as a centre of industry and commerce. I grew up in a city where almost everyone sells something or makes something. In Aba, what you make or sell defines you. In fact, I recall that as children, we were identified by the trades of our parents. You were “son of tailor” or “daughter of weaver”.

Over the years, Aba has struggled with how to transform its defining essence into a modern potential. It has lived on its original reputation of manufacturing and commerce by perfecting its craft and refining its standards in spite of difficulties. But over these difficult years, Aba has been haunted by a few simple questions: How do you transform from a small town of artisanal cottage manufacturing to a modern medium to large scale industrial hub? How do you migrate from petty trading and periodic importation of finished products to the distribution of home made goods to places far and near to compete with products in the wider world? How do you deploy modern logistics tools to sell your wares to places far and wide? Most importantly, how do you enable the huge potentials of this home of enterprise and skill with the infrastructure that will guarantee uninterrupted productivity and growth? How do you power and modernize the ancient potentials of a place where business is second nature? These questions have  troubled both the Aba business community and indeed successive governments of Abia State for decades.

Tomorrow, the 26th of February, 2024, the promise of Aba will literally spring to life through the commissioning of the first of two key private sector driven projects. Tomorrow, the power of private initiative and the support of enlightened government policy will say to the people of Aba and its environs: “Let there be light!”. And Aba and its environs will be lit up  never again to return to the darkness of the past. The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Alhaji Bola Ahmed Tinubu. will commission the Geometrics Aba Integrated Independent Power Project which has been in the works for a number of years.

The plant is designed to supply uninterrupted power to metropolitan Aba and a total of seven adjoining local governments in Abia state. Through a maze of political, legislative and technical obstacles, the project has finally come to fruition.

Brainchild of leading robotics engineer, entrepreneur and former Minister of Power, Prof. Barth Nnaji, the Geometrics Aba Integrated Power Project (AIPP) is a 188 MW gas powered project that ring-fences Aba commercial city with seven adjoining local governments. It is integrated to cover the entire gamut of the power value chain; it encompasses generation, distribution and marketing of power in its area of coverage. What it brings to the table is the provision of 24/7 power in the affected areas.

The second and perhaps even more consequential project is the new Enyimba Economic City project whose construction is due to be launched by the second quarter of 2024. By design and conception, it would seem that the Geometric Aba Integrated Power Project was intended to serve the power needs of the new Enyimba Economic City. The new City is conceived as a new adjunct modern city to the old Aba. Its purpose is to actualize all the modernization needs of Aba as a centre of economic development, industry and commerce,  serving the entire South East and South South zones of the country.

The new Enyimba Economic City is the brainchild of yet anther private sector giant, Mr. Darlington Uzu, frontline real estate mega entrepreneur whose footprints in the industry are unmistakable. He is the owner and driver of Crown Realties with vast billion dollar estates in Lagos and Abuja. The new Enyimba Economic City is financed, like the Geometric Power project, by the AfreximBank . To demonstrate the strategic linkage between these two signature projects, the Enyimba Economic City has signed a 90 MW Power Purchase Agreement(PPA) with Geometrics Aba Independent Power Project to service the first phase of Enyimba Economic City due to be flagged off in the second quarter of 2024.

The new city is located on 1,499 hectares of land. The initial cost of the first phase of the real estate is put at $288.7 million. The new city is located in three local governments of Abia state adjoining Aba commercial city, namely, Ukwa East, Ukwa West and Ugwunagbo. The city is designed to cover the main strategic areas of modern economic city life in an integrated whole. Its main sectors include manufacturing, entertainment, tourism/hospitality, aviation, education, technology, innovation, lifestyle and a logistics park plus a residential park with all the major modern amenities for modern convenient living. Ahead of its take off,  some major global brands in the various areas of its coverage have already signed up to have a presence in the new city. Therefore, for those who will make a living in the new Enyimba Economic City, the best of leisure, entertainment, relaxation and healthcare will complement  the challenges of manufacturing, logistics and daily office work.

The new Enyimba Economic City is Nigeria’s first industrial township with full Origin and Destination (O&D) status. For access to major national centres of social and economic activity, the city includes an Inland Port connected by rail to both the Port Harcourt and Onne seaports. For highway access, Enyimba Economic City is linked to two major highway links. These are the Enugu-Port Harcourt highway(200 Km) and the Onitsha-Owerri- Aba (161km) highway. Access of the new city to these highways have received federal government concessionary approvals.

Most importantly, the new city project enjoys a robust international financing support. In addition to robust Federal and Abia state government buy-ins, on November 14, 2023, the Board of AfreximBank approved  a $201.7 million syndicated credit facility for the project, with AfreximBank underwriting $150 million of the total loan portfolio.

Taken together, both the Geometrics Aba Integrated Power Project and the new Enyimba Economic City signal a new hope for the realization of the vast economic potentials of the commercial city of Aba which have remained locked away for several decades.  What is significant about both projects is that they indicate a new direction in development thinking and planning in Nigeria.

First, this new direction is led by the private sector with the support of private international capital. This new approach has many positive implications for the new face of Nigerian development. The overwhelming advantage of projects like the new Enyimba Economic City as private sector driven initiatives is that they have inbuilt sustainability components and shock absorbers. This is unlike past projects that were driven by government and tended to die off once the administration that envisioned them left office. On the contrary, the actualization of either a major power plant or indeed the building of a new city are undertakings that must transcend the limitations and constraints of specific government tenures. New governments come and go. The priorities of successive incumbents change and alter.

On the other hand, what major development projects such as these need from successive government is the creation of the enabling environment to thrive and succeed. This is in the form of statutory approvals, endorsements and facilitations of the enabling environment for project implementation. Governments have the role of regulating practices and standards of construction, right of way and general city bye-laws. Governments can even invest in aspects of new cities of buy equity in power plants or rail lines and other infrastructure. But they should not own or initiate these development projects beyond the provision of enabling infrastructure.

Government present and roles in vital areas of governance control are inevitable. Contractors need to proceed  with their work without hindrance, work sites and personnel require security. Contractors require protection from unnecessary harassment and distracting litigations and the nuisance of community trouble makers as well as the distractions of land speculators.

More importantly, the involvement of international financial support and sponsorship in these major projects insulates them from the vagaries of fluctuating government revenues and financial fortunes. In many instances, fluctuating government revenue have delayed or frustrated many good development projects and consigned them into the vast heap of “abandoned projects” that litter our national landscape.

These new breed of private sector driven projects indicate a more serious and strategic approach to development of infrastructure in the country. For the South East region in particular, both Geometrics Power and Enyimba Economic City represent a departure in the direction of a concerted and multiplier development template of development and modernization of the South East Zone.

Majorly, it is an approach that places premium on the strategic preconditions for meaningful economic development. The enabling infrastructure  must be part of the preconditions for the initiation of these projects. Power supply, road network, access to ports, airports  and major highway networks  as well as rail links are being prioritized over and above embarking on isolated white elephant projects located in relation to nothing in particular which end up as mere landscape decoration.  The Enyimba Economic City in particular has had to secure government approval for access to the relevant infrastructure before sourcing the finance to power the project.

An additional refreshing aspect of these new developments is their emphasis on regional integration instead of isolated state focus. This indicates an increasing awareness that the future development of the country will have to be based on regional markets and demographics. The political and cultural map of the country indicates a clear regional concentration in the demand and supply of goods and services. This is in preference to emphasizing individual isolated state markets. These two new projects have set a new example of setting their focus on the regional galvanization of the factors of production in the South East and South South  zones. Except for states like Lagos and Kano, it remains doubtful if single state based major projects have much prospects of success in Nigeria. A regional approach therefore has become imperative.

As political and industry leaders gather in Aba tomorrow to witness the commissioning of the Geometric Power plant in Aba, it is the dawn of a new era of development and fulfillment of long held dreams not only for Aba and Abia State but for the entire South East zone of the country, an area that has for too long been dogged by stories of marginalization and violent eruptions of primordial hurt.

A new horizon is about to open in the South East zone courtesy of the courage and vision of private sector titans like Prof. Barth Nnaji and Mr. Darl Uzu with the active support and encouragement of leaders like Dr. Alex Otti, the futuristic governor of the new Abia state that is happening before our very eyes. Soon, the pride of Nigeria will not just be in “Made in Aba” products but in a whole new generation of young Nigerian technocrats and entrepreneurs who will step forward to proudly say: “I live in Aba and I am proud to be Nigerian!”

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