By Wilfred Okiche
ENUGU State, capital of the South East geopolitical zone, has 99 problems but a shoddy intra-state road network isn’t one of them. The reason for this? The ‘Visit Every Community (VEC) Programme’ which, for ten years now, has uncovered access roads as the most pressing development need of the people.
Enugu’s impressive road network stretching for miles and connecting urban areas to rural communities is one of the state’s most impressive characteristics. These roads, perhaps more noticeable to a first-time visitor than the countless self-congratulatory billboards and posters of Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, have been credited as the most visible achievements of the state’s landmark Visit Every Community (VEC) initiative.
Started in 2009 by then Governor Sullivan Chime, VEC is a state government led initiative created to enshrine an environment where governance is all-inclusive and citizens take a leading role in solving development problems.
The model for VEC is an inclusive data gathering one and starts from the grassroots. A special committee made up of indigenous community members alongside state and local government officials, is empowered to identify the most pressing needs of the people in every single one of the state’s 472 indigenous communities.
The VEC committee gets its mandate by visiting the state’s 472 indigenous communities across 17 local government areas and finding out from the people through focus groups discussions and direct interactions, their Key Developmental Needs (KDN).
The findings are analyzed and prepared into reports, which are then fed up to the state government. Upon receiving the VEC reports, the government’s role is to budget appropriately and decide where resources are needed the most. State agencies like the World Bank assisted Community and Social Development Project (CSDP) and the Rural Water and Sanitation Agency (RWASA) are then commissioned to execute the projects.
At least that was how VEC operated at inception.
Narrating the oral history of VEC at his Enugu GRA residence, Head of VEC Directorate, Eric Oluedo, who initiated the programme during his stint as Commissioner for Special Projects, describes VEC as a direct feedback from the federal government’s now rested Visit Every Ward programme on Immunization circa 1995.
One of the drawbacks of that project, gleaned from Oluedo’s tenure as local government chairman, was that the immunization services rarely got to the wards and almost always stalled at local government level for various reasons including logistics and manpower. Oluedo recalled, “I tell you during the first (VEC) visits, some communities were shedding tears that they have never seen this kind of thing on earth, government coming to them and it was humbling.”
Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s government assumed office with a pledge to consolidate on the achievements of the Sullivan Chime administration. True to his word, Ugwuanyi kept faith with VEC, promising that the programme would form the backbone of the state’s budgeting process. In 2016, Ugwuanyi created a Directorate of VEC within the governor’s office and appointed as head, Oluedo, who also served in the Chime administration in different capacities as Commissioner of Agriculture as well as for Rural Development.
One community, one project
However, in 2017, changes were made.
VEC was repositioned and the ‘One Autonomous Community, One Project’ programme was introduced as VEC’s flagship agenda. Under this new initiative, royal fathers (Igwes), town union leaders and civil societies were pooled together to execute on behalf of their communities, projects not exceeding 10million Naira- payable in two tranches- that directly benefit their communities.
In Enugu State, the community is the simplest development unit, made up of a collection of villages. Each community is under the administration of the President General (PG) of the development union, so named because they also supervise the leadership of all the union branches in the diaspora.
Under the state’s community-driven development approach, after the VEC committee visits to the various communities, the key development needs are pencilled down to two priority needs per community. Government pays an initial deposit of five million Naira to an account jointly run by the Igwe and town union leadership, usually the PG. These two officials are automatically signatories to the bank accounts that received these projects. In the communities, the Igwe and PG set up a community project management committee, an inclusive team whose mandate is to oversee the execution and delivery of the projects.
The ‘One Autonomous Community one Project’ adjustment was to directly address and reduce the disturbingly high reports of project abandonment and duplication of efforts associated with VEC. In Akpugo Ezedike, a community located in Uzouwani local government, for instance, a water project earlier commissioned under the VEC program failed to function shortly after the contractors selected by a government agency delivered the project. The contractors were not bothered to report to the community stakeholders who would benefit from the project.
According to Prince Celestine Ozor, president general of Akpugo Ezedike community, VEC as presently designed, represents democracy in action. He explained his community’s focus: “We thought of using the first tranche to embark on the rehabilitation of the old non-functioning borehole but the greater number of people, especially women, chose a market square instead because at the moment there is no functional market in the community, outside of the roadside markets. However, we are proposing that if we get the second fund, we are going to use part of the fund to rehabilitate the failed borehole and connect the water to some areas.”
For Oluedo, one of the brains behind the VEC scheme and who has supervised the scheme for the last 10 years, he still speaks fondly of the achievements of the past nine years. Not so much the last year. His present title as Head, VEC Directorate is mostly ceremonial. Basically, a one-party state, Enugu’s economy is centred around government activities and not many people are willing to speak publicly against the government for fear of repercussions.
However, many, including civil society leaders who are conversant with the various iterations of VEC, say the ‘One Community One project’ programme leaves a lot of gaps in terms of monitoring and evaluation. Nelson Ede, who joined VEC in 2014 as a state officer observes that for purposes of accountability and uniformity, it made sense for the ministry of rural development to oversee the agencies that implement the projects.
“I believe the governor knows what he is doing but when you release government money, at the end of the exercise there should be an assessment. I believe our governor will do that so they know the communities that complied with the VEC report. No one is doing that now,” he said.
Igboke Martin, project manager, Advocacy Partnership for Good Governance (APAGG) and a VEC civil society liaison officer observes thus: “VEC is a great programme and I have seen it work when applied properly but there must be accountability and effective monitoring and evaluation when dealing with public funds or else it becomes another jamboree.”
This reporter went out into the field visiting some communities to observe the effectiveness of one community one project as well as look into rumours of mismanagement of funds and poor quality projects that have trailed the programme.
The general impression from communities visited across three local governments is that communities who have benefited from the N5 million mobilisation fee have been able to put it to use, putting up structures at various levels of completion. However, familiar challenges persist.
From abandoned projects to completed structures that aren’t functional, it would seem that despite community ownership, the main threat to VEC may be the apathy and unwillingness of government to see the project through till the end.
In Akpugo Ezedike for instance, the community agreed on a modern market and cooperation between the community via a project monitoring committee, but the Igwe and PG delivered a structure that was about 90 per cent completed at the time of this reporter’s visit. The structure looked abandoned though with overgrown weeds circling the immediate environment.
According to the PG, the market is awaiting commissioning by government officials so efforts can be transferred to securing the second tranche. Margaret Okeke, a native of Akpugo Ezedike says that the community is excited about the market. “We are impressed with the work that the PG and his team have done so far and we are waiting till they start allocating shops so that our women can have proper places to be trading goods instead of standing under the sun,” she said in Igbo.
In Ogbozalla Opi community, Nsukka LGA, a primary health centre was identified as the second key development need. It was a modest bungalow with a signpost identifying it as Gburugburu Cottage hospital (named after Governor Ugwuanyi). The building was plastered and roofed but still far from being finished as tiling, ceiling, electrification and plumbing works were yet to be completed.
The PG of the community, Ignatius Okoro in a telephone conversation confirmed the updates on the construction process while expressing hopes of completing the project with the second tranche. “We need to tile the place, do plumbing work, purchase beds, even the doctors’ quarters, then ask the governor to post doctors to assist us,” he said.
According to him, labourers and artisans who worked on the building came from within the community and from the nearby Nsukka community.
Even though the hospital is not yet functional, indigenes are optimistic that the project will be beneficial. Eddy Ogbaru, an electrician says that so far the project has brought jobs for labourers and artisans and once fully functional, indigenes can “stop travelling far distances to treat common illnesses”.
The success of the project in Ogbozalla Opi so far is tied to the working relationship existing between both Igwe and the PG. Okoro describes their relationship as “harmonious”. “My Igwe is a technocrat, retired civil servant and former secretary to the state government. So we never had any problem,” he said.
The Igwe of Ogbozalla Opi, Fabian Ogbebor, highlighted this cordial relationship as the key to the progress recorded in the VEC project. He told this reporter via phone call, “We would like the governor to come and see what we have done so far and then released the second tranche because we have so much more to do.”
This cooperation did not filter into every community and the projects have suffered for this. Ede-Enu Edeoballa community in Nsukka LGA identified the extension of the community’s secondary school as the key development need. At the time this reporter visited the site, construction of a classroom block was barely halfway done with roofing or plastering yet to commence.
Kingsley Kelechi, a community youth leader and PhD candidate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, expressed disappointment both with the pace of work and the entire structure of the government’s intervention.
According to him, government’s lax attitude towards monitoring of the project’s finances has left his community’s project at the sole discretion of the Igwe. “If you ask me, they gave the projects to carry the Igwes along politically. Our community’s project was solely executed by the Igwe,” Kelechi said.
“I offered to mobilize my own people, the youth, so that they can even offer direct labour but he never wanted us to be part of it at all. Because if you come into it, that means you get to know what is going on there. The Igwe received us very well but the response he gave us was not very clear and up till today, the youths were not carried along.”
Efforts to reach the Igwe were not successful. Upon visiting the community, this reporter was informed that the Igwe was away on official duties. The phone number that was made available to reach him failed to connect after several attempts.
For some other communities in Enugu State, VEC sounds like a good idea but they have been unable to benefit for one reason or the other. One of VEC’s thematic areas is the full application of the chieftaincy, town union and neighbourhood laws in community administration. But in trying to ensure efficient use of the staff of office for Igwes and certificate of returns for PGs, the state may have alienated a percentage of its citizens.
Amuokpo Nike in Enugu East LGA has had no Igwe for about ten years now due to several tussles that claimed the lives of at least two contenders. Even when there is an active town union and elected PG in place, the community and several others in similar situations do not qualify for any VEC intervention as the traditional leadership is the first criteria communities must meet to qualify.
Engineer Joseph Ogbu is a community leader who has been involved in attracting government presence to Amuokpo Nike. He complained, “The PG is the development head of the community. Igwe is a ceremonial title. VEC is a government project. It surprises me that the VEC money must be paid to the Igwe. During elections, they come to us and we as Amuokpo Nike citizens vote. Why should they now marginalize us when it is time to reap dividends? It doesn’t seem fair.’’
Head, VEC directorate, Eric Oluedo insists that the state government takes seriously the responsibility of providing peace and security and VEC is one of those tools. He said, “When we started, for some communities, their key need was for their Igwe or community to be recognised. Some of these needs are related to simple policy and all it took was for the Commissioner in charge to be notified of what is happening, then the problem was fixed. VEC solved many of these tussles and urged communities to resolve their issues so they could all benefit.”
Another effect of the insistence on having the Igwes as co-administrators of the VEC projects is that it efficiently recognises only men in leadership positions. “The PGs all have women wings but the best that our women can hope for is to be part of the project management committees. These are women development unions that have delivered multi-million Naira projects in their communities in the past and someone says only Igwes and the (male) PGs should lead,” Ogbu complained.
Government projects tend to have a certain standard across the board. A government-built health centre in Awgu, for instance, is likely to be similar in size, structure and specification to one in Nkanu or Udi. One of the criticisms of VEC is that these uniform standards are likely to be abandoned as communities adapt VEC projects according to their peculiar needs. A government official who preferred to remain anonymous claims that because the state government allows a free hand in project implementation, substandard projects have been delivered in some communities; a culvert that does not quite function as one, roads that are swiftly eroded as soon as they are completed and civic centres that are never functional.
The future of VEC
For the communities in Enugu state, VEC’s ‘One Community One Project’ has helped bring development at a micro level that is felt by the people and the consensus among several persons this reporter interacted with is that the programme should be continued. Chike Ugwu is a community mobiliser from Amagunze in Nkanu East Local Government Area who has witnessed firsthand the usefulness of VEC projects. “Over the years, my community has gradually opened up to the rest of the state thanks to the VEC rural access road construction projects.”
Beyond that, VEC has helped reduce instances of unrealistic budgeting, project failure and duplication. Projects create jobs for indigenes, especially in rural areas, promote community sensitisation and allow citizens to take ownership, leading to better maintenance and sustainability in service delivery.
But the lapses are too critical to be overlooked. The VEC directorate more or less abandons its monitoring and evaluation responsibilities once monies are released from government’s coffers and the projects are left to run unsupervised with little attention to quality assurance protocols. Because of this, detailed financial reports for the One Autonomous Community One Project are difficult to come by and the PGs and Igwe’s do not consider keeping up-to-date financial records a priority. In the communities visited, reports were not readily available as PGs and Igwes were simply not used to the scrutiny. A promise by the PG of Ogbozalla Opi to send a summary hasn’t yet materialised as at the time of filing this report. Lapses like these make civil society advocates and watchful beneficiaries unsatisfied with the structure of VEC.
Comrade Kelechi observed: “Don’t get me wrong, the community is happy that government is bringing development to them. The community equally wants to ensure that the money is used appropriately. If the government wants to ensure transparency, they should carry the youths, the women and the church alongside the traditional rulers and the town union presidents so all of them can join hands to help one another.”
Prince Ozor is more optimistic about VEC. He said: “Don’t forget that in the past, we have had situations where no one was accountable for anything and the contractor comes from far away. Getting the community directly involved in the projects is a more useful amendment because the community owns the project and should anything go wrong, at least the Igwe and PG are from the community and can be held responsible.”
This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).