By Ochereome Nanna
The decision by the Abia State Government to to recall the non-indigenes discharged from the state’s civil service and throw the doors open for an all-inclusive hiring of new staff comes as a big relief. It was certainly not the easiest or best decision to take, even by those who initiated it.
The policy put Abia and Lagos states on the spotlight as states that took discrimination towards non-indigenes to a new level. While Abia was seen to have sacked “fellow Igbos” because they were not from the state, Lagos was portrayed as deporting fellow Nigerians to their states of origin because they were poor and destitute non-indigenes. While the Abia episode is no different from the routine degrees of discrimination against non-indigenes in all the 36 states of the federation, especially in terms of employment opportunities and other privileges such as education and bursaries for students, the Lagos State matter was an outright assault on the constitutional rights of Nigerians to settle and live freely in any part of the country without let or hindrance.
Also the case of Abia became so politicised and drowned by noisy sentiments that the facts of the matter were no longer important to most people. It is not true that Abia State Government sacked non-indigenes. Categories of staff from other South East states of Imo, Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi were asked to transfer their services to their states of origin. In the Abia State Civil Service, there are Nigerians from almost every state of the federation outside the South East who were not affected. These include those who distinguished themselves during their service year as youth corps members and were granted automatic employment based on merit. Some of them have risen close to director levels. This is a verifiable fact.
The policy was restricted to civil servants from other South East states because of the negative consequences of creation of states. Once Abia State was created in 1991, a huge tranche of civil servants, particularly from old Imo State, were told to go to their new state. Abia did not respond in kind. Rather, due to the cosmopolitan nature of Aba, the “non-indigene” phenomenon was not obvious. It was the successive governments in Imo State in particular, that brought this to public consciousness when former Governor Ikedi Ohakim stopped paying the pensions of Abia State civil servants who retired in the Old Imo State.
The burden fell on the Abia State Government. It was not until the new minimum wage was implemented that the government found it just could not carry the excessive burden. It decided to transfer the non-indigenes from other South East states to their states of origin in retaliation of a policy that the other four states had carried out much earlier. Because Imo indigenes were affected the most, the state government started spearheading the propaganda war which, to me, was most hypocritical. They were pointing at the speck in the eyes of Abia when they had not removed the log in the eyes of Imo.
The Abia State Government says it has cleaned out the leakages that helped pad up the wage bill that gulped nearly 85% of its monthly revenue, through the introduction of biometric payment system. After weeding out ghost workers and unqualified staff employed during the previous administrations as part of political patronage, and raising internally generated revenue to sustainable levels, the state now feels able to rectify the anomaly of discrimination against non-indigenes.
For me, the Abia State Government deserves to be commended for its decision to right its own wrong. Hope it is not a mere lips service. I am also eagerly waiting for the Imo State Government to resume paying the pensions of Abians who retired on its payroll. Same goes for Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi. And I expect those who whip-lashed the Abia State Government to turn their whips on the other states until they correct themselves. Whoever comes to equity must do so with clean hands.
Even if the other states decide to persist in their discrimination, I urge the Abia State Governemnt never to deviate from the rightful course of action. Abia prides itself as the last stand for the Igbo man. The late Igbo legend, Dim Chukuwemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, acknowledged this, hence his insistence that his body must make a stop in Aba before it was buried. Aba is the only place in the entire former Eastern Region where non-indigenes contest and win elections. It can never happen in Owerri or any other state or zone (except, perhaps, in Lagos due to its cosmopolitan nature). Aba is like the Lagos of the East, minus the international airports, seaports and capital status.
Aba is one of the cities in the country that can never be ethnicised. It was in Aba that Justice Udo Udoma flourished as lawyer, publisher and founder of the Ibibio State Union. It was also here that Dr Margaret Ekpo, while hailed from Calabar, built her political career in the defunct National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons, NCNC. She won elections to represent Aba in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly and beyond.
The Enyimba mystique is not an Ngwa thing, though Aba is built in Ngawaland. It is not even an Abia or Igbo thing. It is beyond all those, and this is illustrated by the fact that most streets in Old Aba bear pan-Nigerian and African identities. Aba was built by the hard work of Igbos, Ibibios, Ijaws, even Yorubas, Hausas and foreigners, all of whom are still fully present in their numbers contributing to the greatness of the city. And Aba is the heart of Abia State, even though Umuahia is its political capital.
It is just a pity that Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sardauna Ahmadu Bello introduced the odious tribal and regional politics into Nigeria, which later degenerated to extreme tribalism and statism, pitching brothers, friends, neighbours and compatriots against each other and disrupting the socio-political development of Nigeria.
We must trace our footsteps back from where tribal and statist politics has dumped us and beat a new one in which Nigerians will see one another as one people bound for a great future that no force can withstand once we come together.