Developing South East through regional integration

South East governors at a recent security and economic summit in Owerri, Imo State

By Emeka Nwosu, PhD.

Regional integration has been identified and accepted globally as one of the most potent approaches for rapid economic development, especially for states that share cultural affinity or geographical contiguity. According to Wikipedia, regional integration is “the process by which states within a particular region increase their level of interactions with regard to economic, security, political, or social and cultural issues”.

A 2011 report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) titled, “Regional Integration and Human Development: A Pathway for Africa”, similarly sees regional integration as “investments in regional infrastructure, harmonization of regulations and standards, common approaches to macroeconomic policy, management of shared natural resources, and greater labour mobility”. 

In simple terms, what regional integration means is the coming together of states located within a defined zone with a view to pooling their resources together and leveraging on their collective strengths to promote the welfare of their citizens and improve their living standards. It is one of the powerful strategies of fighting poverty, creating wealth, promoting shared prosperity and overcoming common challenges.

Historically, regional integration as a concept of development has been found to be efficacious and effective. It was first applied in Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War in 1945 to address the devastations and destructions the European states suffered as a result of the War. The Americans came with the Marshal Plan to assist in the reconstructions. This helped in the fast recovery of Europe from the ruins of the War. All the efforts led to the establishment in 1951 of the European Union (EU), which has been championing the economic and political integration of Europe since then. 

What regional integration does is that, amongst other things, it helps the cooperating states to tackle common development challenges, especially infrastructural challenges that ordinarily would have overwhelmed individual states if they were to act alone.

Essence of Regional Cooperation 

Now, if the South East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo are to cooperate and embrace regional integration, they would be in a position to turn around the fortunes of the region and unlock the huge economic and industrial potentials of the area widely known for the creative and enterprising spirit of her people. Since after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war which devastated lives and infrastructure in the South East and the subsequent creation of the present five states, the region has remained one of the least developed in the country in terms of infrastructure. It has the worst road network, lacks federal presence, suffers epileptic power supply and has very poor aeronautical coverage amongst other challenges.

Unlike what happened in Europe when the Marshal Plan was introduced for the complete rebuilding of the countries devastated by the Second World War, in the case of the South East of Nigeria, the promised programme of 3Rs (Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation) by the Federal Government was hardly implemented. This explains why major social infrastructure have remained in decrepit condition more than 50 years after the war. 

The fixing of those infrastructure is beyond the resources of the individual states. With the failure of the Federal Government to rebuild the war devastated infrastructure in the South East, it is has become incumbent on the States to come together and leverage on their collective strengths to turn things around for the good of the people.

Commendable Regional Initiatives in the South East: 

It is against this background that some of the initiatives that have been taken by the South East Governors to change the economic narratives in the area deserve critical appraisal and appreciation. Only recently, the Anambra State Governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo held the first ever Anambra International Investment Summit in which several MOUs were signed between the State Government and local and international investors with a view to getting these companies to set up shops in the State.

Part of the deals was the engagement of an international consortium of consultants to carry out a feasibility study on the design and construction of railway lines linking the major cities of Awka, Onitsha, Nnewi and Ekwulobia. In addition, the Government in partnership with some local and international players in the automobile sector, is setting up an industrial park in the Aguata axis of the State. The MOUs also cover other areas, including manufacturing and the establishment of a brand new and livable city near Awka, the State capital. At the Investment Summit, Governor Soludo also noted that discussions were ongoing with Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) to dredge the River Niger to enable barges come to Onitsha River Port.

In the neighbouring Imo State, Governor Hope Uzodimma, in collaboration with the Nigerian Navy, is reported to have made major strides in opening up the Orashi River and Oguta Lake to the Atlantic Ocean. The whole idea is to connect Imo and, by extension, the South East economy to the maritime world.

Similarly, the Governor of Abia State, Dr. Alex Chioma Otti, recently performed a ground breaking ceremony for the establishment of the first ever Abia Industrial and Innovation Park (AIIP) in the strategic oil-producing town of Owaza in Ukwa West Local Government Area. The AIIP which is conceived as a free trade and export processing zone is to host a cluster of industries with interests in manufacturing, energy, and oil and gas which are found in commercial quantity in Owaza and other parts of Ukwa. Speaking on the occasion, Governor Otti noted that Owaza was only 30 nautical miles away from the Atlantic Ocean, stating that his Government would seek the necessary approvals from the Federal authorities with a view to establishing a sea port around Owaza to serve the AIIP. 

In the nearby Ebonyi State, quite a lot is going on in terms of massive infrastructural development which was initiated during the administration of former Governor Dave Umahi. One of such key infrastructure is the Ebonyi International Airport at Onu Ebonyi on the outskirts of Abakaliki, the State capital. Speaking at the commissioning of the Airport a few months ago before he left as Governor, Umahi disclosed the plan by the Ebonyi Government to build a railway line that would connect Abakaliki and the Airport. The current Governor, Rt. Hon. Nwifuru is building on the foundations already laid by Umahi.

Enugu State is also not left out in the ongoing efforts to reposition the economy of the South East for greater possibilities. The Governor, Dr. Peter Mbah, early last month held an Investment Roundtable in Enugu which brought many key players together to discuss and chart a way forward for an economic turn-around for the State. The roundtable which had in attendance, the Deputy High Commissioner of the UK in Nigeria, Mr. Jonny Baxter, and representatives of the World Bank and African Development Bank came up with a roadmap that, among other things, proposes the Ogurugu Port Development project around the river town of Ette in Nsukka zone, which is to serve as a trans-shipment terminal for Lagos and Onne ports as well as support shipment to Onitsha, Lokoja and Baro in Niger State.

From the various ongoing initiatives, there is no doubt that the individual State Governments have laudable ideas on how to scale up economic activities in the South East and boost the fortunes of the zone. What remains to be done to achieve maximum effects, is to properly coordinate and harmonize these projects and deliver same to the people at competitive costs. This is where regional cooperation and integration become imperative.

It is heartwarming to note that the present crop of South East Governors are willing to toe the path of regional cooperation in tackling the challenges facing their individual States. The recent South East Security and Economic Summit which took place in Owerri is a clear acknowledgment of the importance of collective approach to the development of the zone. 

The summit which was organized and sponsored by the South East Governors attracted rich attendance from all the relevant stakeholders in the zone, including the leadership of Ohaneze Ndigbo, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization. With the exception of the Ebonyi Governor who was represented by his Deputy, all the other Governors were physically present. The discussions were robust, engaging and far-reaching. It is expected that the decisions of the summit would provide the impetus to drive the regional integration agenda of the South East. 

To make the South East region livable and prosperous, there is the overriding need for the various States in the region to begin to pool their resources together and invest in those projects that would not only serve the common needs of the people, but also quicken the industrial, social and economic transformation of the zone.

Connecting the Eastern Cities through Functional Railway Lines:

One can only imagine the quantum leap the zone would achieve in terms of social and economic advancement if the various proposed investment and industrial corridors and major cities in the region are connected by modern railway lines and functional highways. At the moment, only a few major towns in the region, namely, Aba and Umuahia in Abia State, and Enugu and Eha-Amufu in Enugu State, are serviced by the existing antiquated colonial railway lines which were deliberately left out by former President Muhammadu Buhari in his rail modernization programme in the country. There are no connecting links with other key towns in the other States. 

Now that the issue of railways has been removed from the exclusive legislative list, the South East States should come together and jointly invest in this critical infrastructure because of its huge potentials in transforming the economic fortunes of the people and the area. 

A joint action by the States can deliver a railway network that would connect all the major cities in the various economic corridors in the zone. For instance, on the Enugu-Anambra-Imo corridor, a line running from Enugu through Udi, Oji River, Awka, Onitsha, Nnewi, Ihiala, Orlu to Owerri and terminating in Aba can be considered. On the Abia-Ebonyi corridor, the railway line can be extended from the existing station in Ovim, Abia State to connect Ohafia, Arochukwu, Afikpo, Abakaliki, Nkalagu and terminating at Nsukka. A spur can run from Ovim connecting Okigwe, Umunze, Aguata and terminating at Nnewi.


These proposed routes should be studied and evaluated by experts who would also advise on how to go about the funding. It might look quite ambitious, but it is achievable if the political will exists. It is my considered opinion that the project can be done in phases to ensure it is fully consummated. This singular project with its multiplier effects will definitely unlock the investment potentials of the zone, leading to wealth creation and poverty eradication, especially amongst the youths. 

~Dr. Nwosu, a Political Economist, writes from Abuja. 

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