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Athan Achonu: The apostle of Aku Ruo Ulo and the travails of a patriot

Athan Achonu: The apostle of Aku Ruo Ulo and the travails of a patriot
May 27
05:30 2023

BY NICK OPARA-NDUDU

All across the South East Nigeria and practically in all Senatorial districts within the zone, one would find the ubiquitous and conspicuous presence of billboards propagating the clarion call for investment in the Igbo homeland. The messages on those billboards which have been disseminated over the past five years have been articulated by a truly patriotic Igbo son, Senator Athan Achonu, to reinforce and support the movement that is fast gaining grounds in the consciousness of Ndi-Igbo that investment in the South Eastern homeland must be seen as a development imperative and a route towards community prosperity and enhance livelihood for citizens of the region. The significance of this message would appear to have assumed even more urgent dimensions given the recent experience of Ndi-Igbo within Nigeria.

As has been generally acknowledged, Ndi-Igbo remain the foremost patriots and believers in the concept of a united Nigeria. They have demonstrated this through their wholesome and genuine efforts at being integrated into their host communities. Wherever they find themselves, they have contributed immensely to local investments in their host communities often times making such places their homes.

The Igbo trajectory in this regard would appear to have been fuelled by their world view and expansionist vision. Where others fear to tread, their republican nature and competitive spirit have propelled them into exploits and adventures whose outcomes often marvel their host communities and have in numerous instances led to an attitude of envy and, in extreme cases, hatred.

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Whilst the Igbos continue to lead the vanguard of development in the communities where they reside, they have done so at the expense of their homeland which has continued to grapple with the challenges of underdevelopment. With unconfirmed estimates claiming that over 90% of the Igbo commonwealth reside outside Igboland, their homeland has been left in squalor and abject poverty. Of significance is the recognition that the current state of affairs is traceable to the lack of the enabling environment so critical to development and the absence of a focused and responsive leadership.

It is on record that South Eastern Nigeria was adjudged the fastest growing economy in the developing world before the gruesome and unfortunate civil war of the late sixties. This achievement was made possible by the exemplary leadership provided by the Eastern Regional Government led by Dr. Michael Okpara. Through a range of economic policies and development initiatives, they championed the transformation of the Eastern region into a conducive home to and recipient of industrial investments within the region in the years preceding the Nigerian Civil War. Save for the interregnum of military rule between 1970 to 1979, the civilian administrations continued with the Industrialisation Policy between 1979 to 1983. A testament to this fact was the rapid industrialisation that was witnessed under the Sam Mbakwe and Jim Nwobodo’s administrations in the then Imo and Anambra States. Regrettably, since the return of democratic rule in 1999, very few significant landmarks have been achieved in the area of industrialisation owing to the inability of successive administrations to evolve supportive policies that would engender industrial growth. It is instructive to note that without a supportive leadership, the South East would continue to grapple with the twin evil of poverty and underdevelopment.

Against the foregoing background, one needs to examine the experience of Senator Athan Achonu, a leading proponent of the Aku Ruo Ulo (Invest @ Home) in his private efforts to contribute to the development of his home state of Imo. Instructively, Senator Athan Achonu (through his company, Gee Plaza Ltd.) recognising the immense potentials of the hospitality and tourism sectors in the State, acquired the abandoned Head Office building of the defunct Progress Bank in Owerri with the intention of converting it to a 5-star Hotel facility. Subsequently, he also acquired the controlling interest in Imo Hotels Ltd that owned a contiguous property to the Progress Bank Headquarters from Binez Hotels Ltd (owned by the late Nze Maduakor) who had bought the legacy hotel under the State’s Privatisation Programme during the Achike Udenwa Administration.

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As the Company was about to commence the implementation of its development programme for the acquired assets, tragedy struck with the forceful takeover and trespass on its property by the Rochas Okorocha’s administration after it came to power on May 29, 2011. According to Gee Plaza Ltd, the Imo State Government in total disregard to the existing agreements, “maliciously altered part of the property by constructing roads and buildings all over the property”. As a law-abiding citizen, the Company approached the courts to enforce its rights and a judgement delivered by Justice I.O. Agugua on November 8, 2012, reiterated the rights and power of the Company and granted appropriate injunctive orders against the defendants.

The Imo State Government, under Governor Rochas Okorocha, continued in its utter disregard for valid and subsisting court orders by the continued forceful and unlawful occupation of the Company’s property and destruction of structures belonging to Imo Hotels Ltd which it subsequently acquired from Binez Hotels Ltd – concessionaire of Imo Hotels Ltd. These strange and illegal occurrences continued until the departure of Rochas Okorocha in May 2019.

I recall vividly the futile efforts I made as the Chief Economic Adviser to the Imo State Government under Rochas Okorocha’s Government to get the parties to a round-table discussion to amicably resolve the dispute. My motivation then, and as it is now, was to prevent the impression being created that the Imo State Government was averse to encouraging investments in the State by its citizens. I believe that the greatest enabler of investment is the existence of a supportive policy environment. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Rochas Okorocha’s administration in this regard was certainly hostile and unacceptable.

Following the advent of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha’s administration in 2019, Gee Plaza Ltd was invited to several meetings with the State Government aimed at amicably resolving the disagreement. These efforts culminated in the Imo State Government reversing its previous actions and issuing a letter to the claimants (Gee Plaza Ltd) to continue its occupation and management of Imo Hotel as provided in the Sale Agreement and reinforced by two (2) separate order by courts of competent jurisdiction.

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Incidentally, the tenure of the Emeka Ihedioha’s administration was short-lived and another change of guard took place on January 14, 2020 with the ascendency of Governor Hope Uzodinma to the governorship of Imo State. Since then, the implementation of the Company’s development programme for its duly acquired property has been stalled.

Yet again, some time in December 2020, the Federal High Court Owerri in a well-considered judgement upheld the powers of the claimant (Gee Plaza Ltd) and declared unequivocally that Imo State Government cannot run the affairs of Imo Hotels Ltd in the absence of the Claimant as majority shareholder and owner of the Hotel. It equally granted some injunctive orders against the defendants.

Whilst the impasse lasted, one of the structures – Imo International Convention Centre (IICC) – caved in and had to be pulled down by the Imo State Government for public safety reasons. Curiously, it is now understood that rather than yield the property to its rightful owners, the Imo State Government is going ahead to construct another structure on the grounds of the previously dilapidated structure that has been pulled down in disobedience of valid and subsisting existing orders.

One would have thought that the ongoing action by Imo State Government in contravention of valid court orders should have been discontinued given its grave implications for the State’s finances and the overall investment climate. Based on available evidence, law and order and the observance thereof, are, perhaps, the most important instrument in investment promotion. Investors would definitely not be interested in investing in jurisdictions where their investments are forcefully taken over by government and court orders are not obeyed where aggrieved parties approach the courts for protection and remedy.

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What Senator Hope Uzodinma’s government is doing with the action is to discourage potential investors from investing in the State since the Gee Plaza saga would always be a negative point of reference. I would urge the governor, in the interest of our State, to seek ways of resolving this unfortunate saga.

With two court judgements in its favour, there is the likelihood that Gee Plaza Ltd, may ultimately emerge victorious at the end of the litigation. And it is settled law that all developments on a disputed property would be inherited by the owners of the land. And in this instance, this would include all past, current and future developments by Imo State Government, which developments and improvements would have been done with taxpayers’ money.

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The challenge of development in the South East has been exacerbated by the absence of leadership and the failure of Successive governments (with a few exceptions) to encourage investments in their homeland. Sadly, what is happening with the Gee Plaza/Imo Hotels property saga is bound to reinforce this thinking. It is my prayer that Governor Hope Uzodinma would not allow himself to be cited as being part of this retrogressive leadership that has left Igbo land in poverty and manifest retrogression. He certainly deserves a better imprimatur in the development of the South East.

The governors of the South East must be seen to be the frontline apostles of the Aku Ruo Ulo (Invest @ Home) drive and they must not be found discouraging the active participation of their citizens in the development of their homeland.

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As I write, I doubt if Governor Hope Uzodinma is aware that Senator Athan Achonu (through his Company, Numo Farms) has invested close to N6 billion in the agricultural sector in Imo State. Numo Farms in Ehime Mbano, which he owns, has the capacity and built-up infrastructure including tarred roads, to produce N1 million fish monthly, a feed mill and over 200 (Two Hundred) greenhouses installed and awaiting installation in its determined bid to be the leading farmer and producer of fish, vegetables and fruits in the South East.

A patriotic citizen with this level of investments in his home state and employing hundreds of Imolites deserves commendation and encouragement. The unfair treatment which Senator Achonu has received is certainly off-putting and Senator Hope Uzodinma must do the needful to redress the situation.

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Opara-Ndudu, F.C.A, a former bank director, was at various times the chief economic adviser to Imo state government and commissioner for budget & economic planning.



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