CHIBUIKE Rotimi Amaechi is a man in a hurry. The governor of one of Africa’s richest natural resource areas, Rivers State in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, Amaechi aims to make his four years in power count.
“We have a lot to do in Rivers State. Our leaders have abandoned the area for a very long time,” says the outspoken leader, whose bold statements and fearless approach to change have occupied many column inches in Nigeria’s media.
Governors in Nigeria are extremely powerful politicians and Amaechi’s importance to the polity is further highlighted by the fact that Rivers State is the richest of Nigeria’s six oil states, producing 60% of the country’s massive gas reserves and 40% of its oil.
I caught up with Amaechi on his recent visit to Johannesburg to participate in the SA-Niger Delta Investment Conference in Sandton. He is no stranger to the country and there are a number of South African companies already doing business in Rivers State, including Protea Hotels and SAB Miller.
He was accompanied by a team from the Port Harcourt City Development Authority, an agency established to drive the governor’s ambitious 50-year plan to transform the city, which has become the capital of Nigeria’s oil producing area. The plan involves upgrading the existing metropole and building a new city adjoining it.
When he came to power, Amaechi warned that an illegal economy was growing in the Niger Delta, long known for breathtaking corruption by politicians running these mini petro-states. He faced a rising tide of criminality, not just in the establishment but also as a by-product of rebel activity by armed militants in the area fighting for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth. This has taken the form of kidnappings for ransom, theft of oil from pipelines and armed robbery.
One of his first tasks on assuming office was to declare war on crime. “In 2006 and 2007 even children were carrying weapons on the streets. People were too scared to go out at night while the government was cocooned in State House.” Criminals were hiding behind ideology, he said. “When I began to enforce law and order people looked at me like I was mad. But I chose to be a madman .”
The criminals fled to the creeks of the delta, he said, and a measure of stability returned to the streets of Port Harcourt.
Trying to turn around years of underdevelopment, political neglect, massive corruption, rising criminality and economic mismanagement is a tough job and Amaechi admits it is not easy. “I live on Red Bull and Panado.”
Although Amaechi keeps a keen eye on the oil price, his vision is to use resource revenues to drive economic diversification. The oil industry is well established, with most of the oil majors having a presence in the state and it is the rest of the economy that needs tackling, he maintains.
But Amaechi is encouraging investment in both value addition to the oil sector — such as the conversion and transport of gas for residential and industrial energy — and also to other sectors of the economy. The governor’s current budget of 432-billion naira (2,7bn) may sound like a lot but there is a large development backlog. The former governor, Peter Odili, spent eight years in power feathering his nest and doing little for his people.
In his address to South African business people, Amaechi outlined opportunities in agriculture such as the development of large palm oil and rubber estates. The government has already invested in three gas turbine projects to provide nearly 300MW of power by the year-end.
There are plans to grow the maritime industry and develop Port Harcourt, which has two ports and two airports, into the transport hub of the Niger Delta. Water supply and reticulation and waste management are also on the list.
Amaechi is aware that investment and security are closely linked outside the resources sector. As part of the law and order project, Amaechi is tackling youth development. Education and training are high on the list of priorities with hundreds of youngsters going overseas for training. More than 100 new schools and 150 health centres are being built. Amaechi says that the government must provide the basic infrastructure to allow a society to run smoothly and leave the rest to the private sector. “I believe if you develop the economy, people don’t depend on you so much. If nothing else is working, people tend to rely heavily on government.”
He has also introduced a raft of legislation to rid the state of corruption, such as the Public Procurement Law, the State Responsibility Law and the Public Private Partnership Bill. “These remove the discretionary power of the governor, which is important in reducing corruption,” he says. It puts the power into the hands of institutions such as the tenders board . He concedes bureaucracy might be slowing things down but says the sacrifice is necessary.
On the other hand, he is impatient to get projects up and running, saying the financing pipeline is too long, with public- private partnerships (PPPs) taking three to four years to put into place. “We have four years in power. When it ends I don’t want people to say that all I did was wait for a PPP to get under way. If you don’t bring your money, we will pay for projects ourselves,” he told business people in Johannesburg.
Amaechi has had a long career in the state government, holding the position of speaker in the Rivers State House of Assembly for eight years.
His ascent to the post of governor was not without its problems. Although he won the governorship primaries of the ruling People’s Democratic Party ahead of the 2007 poll, political interference, allegedly by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, led to the imposition of another candidate.
Amaechi went to the Supreme Court for redress, and won.
He has frequently said he will not stand for a second term in 2011 because of the stress of the job. “People say all this work will be undone if I do not see it through. But I am really tired.”
His performance at the Johannesburg event showed scant signs of tiredness. He energetically took issue with several speakers and was at pains to drive home his point that it is not business as usual in Rivers State. He offers potential investors his cellphone number and private e-mail address, even his jet for hire when it is not in use — for a small fee.
“Every investor has the right to deal with me directly,” he says.
His critics say that although Amaechi’s plans are worthy, he cannot operate in a vacuum in a difficult neighbourhood where security problems and corruption are still big issues and where the federal government still seems to be paying lip service to funding development.
But Amaechi’s thesis is that if you clean up your own back yard, others are likely to follow.