Publisher Ogbuagu Anikwe recognizes an important governance agenda item for Gov Dave Umahi’s successor in 2023.

Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State operates like a man in a great hurry to achieve things. This is not bad, except that his ambition and impatience oftentimes affect his people relationships. and the reflective part of his public policy decision-making.

Umahi’s ambition is made of sterner stuff. In 2014, he proved how impatience can become a virtue in his hurry to become Governor. This ambition drove him to play a fast one on old man Martin Elechi, his predecessor. More recently, he attempted but failed in his ambition to play a fast one on old man Muhammadu Buhari and become president. This tall ambition soured relationships among Ebonyi political elite class. It caused him to dump the Peoples Democratic Party under whose platform he twice rode to power. And it propelled him on a wild goose chase for the presidency. Predictably, this ended badly at an ill-fated APC convention night in Eagles Square, Abuja. Umahi returned to Ebonyi to count his losses, then turned his impatience to becoming a Senator. This ambition is already heating up the polity in his native Ebonyi South District.

Our interest today is however on how the governor’s well-known impatience led him to “transform” his native State. And the costs of this revolution. To his credit, his impatience ended up positioning Ebonyi as a state with perhaps the most extensive infrastructure projects in Nigeria today. It also positioned Governor David Umahi as a man of action, what his fellow Igbo politicos call “ekwueme,” aka “talk and do.” The governor has done wonderfully well in his impatience to plant legacy construction projects all over his State.

Umahi comes from an engineering background, so it is understandable that he focused on social infrastructure projects. If we understand the cost of these projects in human development terms, it becomes obvious that Ebonyi needs a successor who is more reflective and intentional about how to mainstream the projects into a holistic socioeconomic development agenda. This should not be construed as an unearned negative criticism of Gov David Umahi. As a matter of fact, there is room for some praise.

One cannot but commend Governor Umahi of Ebonyi State for the excellent job of infrastructure projects he planted in Abakaliki, the State capital. One of his media aides recently described the projects as mind-blowing, and indeed they are. Hear him: “Who could have imagined that Ebonyi State, with one of the least allocations from the Federal Government, would today house the biggest shopping mall in Nigeria, a world class Medical Center and the biggest and most modern international airport which has reached 98 percent completion, among other mind-blowing projects?”

The roads that Umahi built for Ebonyi are also unique. Government constructs them with eight-inch concrete pavements to beat soil adaptability problems that shorten lifespan of asphalted roads. The aide also boasted that the governor eats standard roads and flyovers for breakfast and cooks giant signature projects for dinner. “Projects such as flyovers, streetlights, roads, and environmental aesthetics are no longer news; they are what we provide for the people freely in this state. We have built over 20 standard flyovers across the state.”

Of particular interest however are three such dinner projects mentioned by this official – the Iyere Bridge, an international airport, and an Olympic-size stadium. Ebonyi under Umahi has become a huge construction site, a dazzling jungle of concrete and lights. The sight fills a new visitor with awe at what a poor state can scrape with its meagre earnings. Ebonyi is however not the lone culprit. There are other states with impatient governors, from Rivers in south-south to Ekiti in southwest regions. I describe impatient governors as those eager to leave behind monuments that may or may not support socioeconomic growth. Most of them bask in the warmth of their whited sepulchers, white and glitzy tombs from outside but rotten inside. For you see, using Ebonyi as an example, beyond the construction razzmatazz is a state that ranks poor in human development index measures.

The statistics bear this out. Under Umahi, almost 80 percent of Ebonyi citizens live below poverty line. Almost three-quarters of employable persons in Ebonyi remain unemployed or underemployed. Ebonyi measures 0.434 on the human development index, well below the national average, according to the UNDP. Every indicator of development gives the impression that life is difficult for the people who currently live and work in Ebonyi State.

The lesson is simple. We shouldn’t embark on infrastructure projects for their aesthetic beauty, or for self-praise. Instead, they should stimulate economic activities that create jobs and lead to improvements in human development. Unfortunately, the reverse holds in many states with majority unemployed, health challenged, and hungry. Huge construction projects predictably create rich VAT harvests not matched by internally generated revenue takings. According to BudgIT, Ebonyi ranks 33 out of 36 states on IGR performance while outperforming other southeast states on VAT takings. This is a situation that tends to make some of these construction projects look like misplaced priorities.

Here are two examples.

Ebonyi built an Olympic-size stadium without having any clubs playing in the professional league. The State does not have a discernible grassroots sports development programme. No star athletes – on indoor and outdoor sports – came out of Ebonyi in the seven years of Umahi’s reign. Ebonyi, at one point, considered buying an existing football club and leapfrogging it to the professional league. The idea went to sleep after it launched fanfare. Sports is big business; but the oxygen that gives it life is implementation of a robust bottom-up sports development policy. How else will this huge sporting facility that the governor built be efficiently and effectively deployed to serve the economic benefits of his people? It would have been better to start with a more reflective and viable sports development policy.

Then there is the airport. Like Anambra’s immediate past Governor Willie Obiano, Umahi is also leaving behind a signature “international” airport. Three functional airports with modest passenger throughput surround Ebonyi airport is surrounded by at Enugu, Anambra, and Imo States. Another airport project is ongoing in Abia, giving the tiny southeast five “international” airports, all dressed up but nowhere to go internationally. It remains to be seen whether any of these southeast airports will be mainstreamed into economic activities that deliver expected passenger throughput.

The bottom-line is that signature projects must be viable. The people of Ebonyi are about to choose a successor to an action governor. It is important that they listen to how those with ambition to rule intend to match the Umahi projects with policies that give them economic life. Umahi achievement is making it redundant for those struggling to succeed him to campaign on promises of more infrastructure. Thus, the people of Ebonyi have the right to expect Umahi’s successor as someone that can connect the giant projects with socioeconomic activities that positively impact life for majority of Ebonyi citizens who are currently unemployed, poor, and vulnerable.

Governor Umahi did the best he could, given his exposure, the talents he assembled to help him transform the state, and his effective use of those talents. Hopefully, the incoming governor will see his sole agenda as the need to apply socioeconomic balm in a way that helps Ebonyi people and businesses to thrive.