Cablegate: Ebonyi State: Field of Dreams
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 LAGOS 002283
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON PGOV SOCI NI
SUBJECT: EBONYI STATE: FIELD OF DREAMS
Sensitive but Unclassified
1. (SBU) Summary: Making something out of Ebonyi state
will be a challenge. It's in the middle of nowhere, and with
Nigerian agriculture in the doldrums the state's prospects
seem modest. It's a new state, though, and to beat the odds
its leadership has seized on careful fiscal policy, low
overhead and good quality in the civil service, and a
emphasis on education. End Summary
2. (SBU) As Consulate records show no official visit to the
small, new Nigerian state of Ebonyi, we felt the state should
no longer be denied the aura of prestige conveyed by our
presence in its capital. We attempted to call and set up
appointments. None of the phone numbers on hand worked, so
we decided simply to go there and see who we could see. The
risk in this approach was that lacking adequate notice Ebonyi
would miss the opportunity for the pomp and circumstance
appropriate to our visit. We could only hope they might
detect our approach as we crossed the state line, so from
that point we drove slowly. It was easy to find the seat of
government in Abakaliki: the town is very small, as is the
state of 2.1 million people. To give them extra time to pull
themselves together we parked in plain view for some 15
minutes, and then approached Government House.
3. (SBU) Governor Sam Egwu was regrettably not "on seat"
(he was in Abuja), so we were ushered (respectfully, but no
color guard) in to the anteroom of the Chief of Staff to the
Governor, Chief M. A. Nwankwu. The anteroom contained a
disintegrating sofa with enough room left over for a thin
person to slip through into the office beyond. We were
invited in promptly and found the Chief of Staff
communicating effectively with a small group. Chief Nwankwu
had evidently been reading up on his role: on the desk was
"Chiefs of Staff to the American Presidents, Kennedy to
Carter" and "Effective Small Group Communication." We were
curious to see how much time would elapse before visa
problems first came up: less than 20 seconds. Apparently
Chief Nwankwu's passport has been with Embassy Abuja for an
extended period. We commiserated with his misfortune but
told him there was nothing we could do. He missed an
agriculture show in the U.S., but he still hopes to catch a
poultry show next January.
4. (SBU) The first thing Chief Nwankwu wanted to emphasize
was how important his education in the U.S. had been to him
and to others who had studied there. The impact of this
capacity building, one individual at a time, could not be
overstated, he said. He studied at the University of
Northern Colorado and has kept up his contacts there. He
wants to establish a relationship between Ebonyi and UNC in
the field of education and hopes to take his governor there
after they do the poultry show next year.
5. (SBU) The second thing he wanted to say was that while
Ebonyi is a small place in the middle of nowhere, it has
plans and ideas. Carved out of backwater areas of Enugu and
Abia States, it became a backwater with a state flag in 1996.
It has always ranked very low in the indices used to
calculate federal budgetary support, and its educational
levels have lagged. Public health is not a pretty picture;
press reports indicate it has the highest incidence of guinea
worm in the country. Its promising agriculture sector
crashed as a casualty of the oil boom (a familiar story in
Nigeria), and its rice mill, the largest in Nigeria, closed.
6. (SBU) The state has nowhere to go but up, said Nwankwo,
and it intends to go there. It has a few important
advantages. Its creation was not entirely a virgin birth (it
inherited some of Enugu and Abia's debt burden), but it was a
clean enough start that its new government began life without
the huge overhang of debt and bloated civil service that
afflict so many states. Ebonyi, Chief Nwankwo said, has been
extremely careful about taking on debt and has kept civil
service salaries to about 45 percent of the budget, a much
lower number than most Nigerian states (Ebonyi's capital
investment is 30-35 percent of the budget, a very high
number, with the balance being debt service and social
services). Ebonyi's strategy has been to go for quality:
"the right staff, the right caliber." It pays the highest
minimum wage of any state. It is the only state in the
southeast, he said, which pays federal scale and is current
in its salary and pension payments. It will match the
federal government's promised 12.5 percent pay raise, but
it's going to have to cut funding elsewhere to do it.
7. (SBU) Ebonyi has hired first class consultants to help
formulate policies for growth. These focus heavily on
education, said Nwankwo. The governor has instituted
universal free education (a very expensive proposition, and
coverage is far from complete), built a new university, and
established a graduate level exchange program with the United
Kingdom (112 Ebonyi students are there already, he said).
The government is digitizing the telephone system (which is
why our numbers didn't work) and has an internet service
provider about ready to start.
8 (SBU) Chief Nwankwo told us the Deputy Governor, Dr.
Chigozie N. Ogbu, was in town but working at home. He called
ahead and sent us over to the official residence, a large
dilapidated house with a view over the tin roofed town. We
had to wait some minutes, presumably while Dr. Ogbu changed.
He finally appeared in resplendent white robes and gold
chain. The Deputy Governor turned out to be a doctor from
Michigan, a green card holder of many years standing, who has
several children in the States. Like Chief Nwankwo, he
stressed his gratitude for his education in the U.S., and
noted how important his American experience has been
(mid-western winters notwithstanding). He discussed Ebonyi's
quasi-Appalachian past and (hoped for) education-intensive,
knowledge-based future in roughly the same terms as Nwankwo,
adding that the state government has assiduously cultivated
good labor relations and has never had a strike.
9. (SBU) For a reality check, we stopped by the offices of
the National Poverty Eradication Programme for Ebonyi, to see
A. J. Onwubiko, its director. This turned out to be our
third meeting in a row with an American-trained professional.
We spent most of the meeting talking about his youth
training programs (all cancelled by Abuja at present), but
Onwubiko did confirm the thrust of the government's efforts
as described by Obgo and Nwankwo, adding that given the level
the state is starting from there is going to be a long way to
go. It seemed to us that poverty eradication could start in
his office: the squalor was Dickensian.
10. (SBU) Comment: "Build it and they will come" (or not).
Is Ebonyi a Field of Dreams? The state government is making
the best play it can with a weak hand to make Ebonyi an
attractive destination: keeping debt low and the state
fiscally sound, hiring quality staff and paying them well
(and on time), bringing in good communications and pushing
education to the hilt. Location is working against them,
however. Their road link to Lagos goes through the black
hole of Onitsha where traffic jams add hours to the trip.
Ebonyi doesn't even have an airport. Visitors fly into
neighboring Enugu state, and the government drives over to
pick them up. These seem like determined people, but we
aren't sure all of this will realistically produce a big
improvement in the state's growth rate without a resurgence
in Nigerian agriculture to support it. Ebonyi is doing its
part: it has just built a large new poultry hatchery. If
they can get their passports back and get to the poultry show
in January, perhaps they can make it fly.