By Kunle Oyatomi & Tony Nyong
Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State is fighting for his political survival. His critics are from within and outside his political party, PDP. They want him out of Government House, Uyo. Some of the allegations against him border on the crime rate in his state, while others are simply a product of political manoevrings ahead of the 2011 polls.
In this interview, Akpabio addresses the issues raised by his critics and describes much of them as “a storm in the tea cup.” Excerpts:
What has the last three and a half years been like for you as governor?
It has been very wonderful, and that it is a clear situation of a promise kept. I did not know that government could work. I had things in my manifesto. I had a lot of hopes of things I would do for my people. I had gone round the state making promises to the youths, women and the elders. Three years down the road, I look back with satisfaction and say, ‘yes, it is a job well done.’
What precisely gives this sense of satisfaction?
It is like the story of the Agama lizard that went up the high tree and when it fell and hit its belly on the ground but did not die, looked behind and said,‘ if I could climb that high fence and jumped down without dying, then I can praise myself and say I have done well.’
I am not being boastful. I go round this state and when I see what we have done these few years, I say, ‘so, government can work?’ When we came in, we met about 3,700 villages but only about 1,052 of them were connected to the national grid.
Today, over 1,800 villages have been connected to the national grid. In other words, we have given light to that number of villages in the state within the period under review.
I don’t go myself to commission these projects, my commissioners do. I go for the big projects so I can see the joy on the faces of the people and listen when they start saying, ‘so government can work. I tried intervening on roads because some of our communities were cut off from neighbouring states, like Etim Ekpo and Ika which had no access roads for 35 to 40 years. These people had a bridge that collapsed immediately after the civil war.
They had to get to Aba, then to Port Harcourt before they could access a community that would have been done in 10 minutes. Many people lost their lives because of that bridge.
There was the pathetic story of a seven-year-old child who was on the back of the father’s motorcycle and the father tried to pass on that bridge and the child fell into the water and died. The father stayed at the end of the bridge for over four hours crying and wondering what to tell the mother of the child because he had gone to pick the child from school.
Today, we have delivered six kilometres of road for them though it is part of the federal road network in the state with a new bridge and Mr. President commissioned it when he came. There is a small secondary school there called Top Faith School, a private school. People come there from all over the country. It is an international school, but today you can drive from Uyo to that place under 25 minutes.
I come from a community that is called Ukana. My village is just by the federal highway that comes from Umuahia through Ikot-Ekpene, through Abak to Port Harcourt and, for over 29 years, there was no single taxi along the road because the road had not only become impassable, crossing was also difficult.
Today, that road is tarred with street lights and was commissioned by Mr. President. We have renovated dilapidated schools across the state’s three senatorial districts. For the first time in Akwa Ibom, government is thinking of the people.
Apart from renovating schools, what is special about your education sector?
We have declared free and compulsory education and we have been able to triple school enrolment in the state. We have renovated schools and built new ones. We have employed more teachers, and paying subvention, N100 per primary school child per term for logistics and N300 per secondary school child per term.
And, we have not restricted the free and compulsory education to only Akwa Ibom children. We have allowed it for all children resident in Akwa Ibom State. The reality is that because we have tripled school enrolment, we have appointed what we call -special assistants and senior special assistants on education monitoring to go round the state to make sure that no child is left behind.
That on no account of your birth should you be seen hawking during school hours or going for menial jobs. To ensure that every child of school age has an opportunity to be in school, we signed the Child Rights Protection Law.
So, we are running free and compulsory education at the primary and secondary schools level and it becomes a crime for a parent or guardian not to allow a child of school age to be in school. We also have about 650 children that came from Gabon and Lagos when they heard about the free education, poor children some whom were taken as child prostitutes to Gabon and others as housegirls and houseboys in places like Lagos and Abuja. We have provided them uniforms and they are now back in school.
What were the critical challenges you have had to confront as governor?
Security is the first. When I came in as a governor, kidnapping was limited to expatriates because the idea was that militancy was to liberate Niger Delta and the oil workers were seen as the common enemies of the Niger Delta.
But, a year after, kidnapping was extended to indigenes. When the same militants started picking five-year-old Niger Delta children and eventually adult indigenes of Niger Delta, it now moved from freedom fighting to criminality.
So, the upsurge in criminal activities in the Niger Delta, occasioned by militants’ activities and unemployment, tended to pose a major challenge to governance in the region. You also get frustrated when you realise that you are called a chief security officer but you are a commander without tools. You don’t control the police, you don’t control the army.
You have nothing under your control as governor. You only try to coordinate and play along with them. You don’t even have control as to who is posted to you and so it becomes difficult to protect the state and provide security to your people. People also try to make political capital out of the unfortunate situation of kidnapping. People try to accuse the state of not doing one thing or the other.
My suggestion is that the Federal Government must actually begin to think of how we can decentralise the issue of the control of security, particularly in terms of policing.
What kind of assistance have you received from the Federal Government till date?
The Federal Government has started hitting militant camps in Rivers State and the militants are now running to Akwa Ibom State to find sanctuary. I thank the military for their help. The Presidency has approved a new naval base for Ikot-Abasi and I believe there would come the naval troops to police the waters.
The Chief of Army Staff on the directive of the President has visited the state and government would likely set up additional military barracks around Obot-Akara to Essien-Udium along the borders of Abia to check the influx of criminals and third we want to employ technology. The opposition who cannot fault us have decided to use security as their weapon of campaign.
Recently, we had a situation where the wife of a former military administrator, Sam Ewang, was kidnapped and he went to town and on the internet to say there was complicity with government, but I thank the Federal Government that sent a team from Abuja that eventually apprehended about eight of the kidnappers.
But, uptill today nobody has apologised to the state government after having found out that the state government was not involved.
There was also the case of the kidnapping of the brother to Air Vice-Marshal Nsikak Eduok, and finger was pointed at government officials. Incidentally, I have not manufactured any new person in my government. I am working with the people I met and had been in government right from 1999 when I was in Lagos. I have not changed a single person, not even a messenger in my office that worked for Victor Attah. The youths of the state were the same youths who worked with Victor Attah.
I was a commissioner under Victor Attah for five years, at that time I was not a cultist. The only four people that I brought to the state are one Don Etim who was a manager in the mint, now commissioner for works, then Dr. Bassey Antai, a medical practitioner who has his personal clinic in Lagos but today commissioner for lands. The third person is Dr. Louisa Ukpe who was a pediatrician in the Presidency who is the commissioner for health and the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Aniekan Umana, who was with News watch.
The other person was Victor Iyanam, who is no longer with me, the attorney-general who was a legal practitioner in Lagos. When people start saying the government is surrounded by cultists, you start wondering if the people are not in the state. When they complain that the people in government are cultists, why were they not cultists in 1999?
Why have they suddenly become cultists? Why was I not a cultist when I was a commissioner for Attah, why am I a cultist now? The workers of the state, the youth of the state, the chairmen of local governments are the same people who worked with the past administration but who today are branded cultists.
Have you ever been in a secret organisation, cult or anything of the sort?
I have never joined any cult in my life. I have always been in leadership position. I was the senior prefect of Federal Government College, Port Harcourt. I was the speaker of the Student Union Parliament, University of Calabar. I came here and was commissioner in three different ministries and I was a managing director of a pioneer telephone company.
There is the perception out there that the youths of the state are unhappy with your government. How true?
In Akwa Ibom State, the youths have never embraced any government more than now. Do you know there was no militant camp in Akwa Ibom State?
I made most of the youths to be engaged in local governments. Many of them are local government chairmen, while others are special advisers, and many of them are supervisors. There are some of them in the party. In Akwa Ibom, more than 30 youths are special assistants in my government.
With all these, how can the youths of Akwa Ibom State be unhappy with me?
How come then that some of your close associates have turned against you and have become your fierce opponents?
Blackmail, pure and simple. In this state, we have people who have become used to a particular way of doing business. I came and changed that approach. This change favoured the people of Akwa Ibom, and not a few individuals. It is these individuals who appear to have lost out that have resorted to blackmail. This issue of blackmail has become a national problem.
If I had continued with “business as usual”, you wouldn’t hear any complain. These negative things being said about me are as a result of the changes we have introduced in our approach to governance.
For instance, Senator Udoedeghe, who used to be my campaign manager, has indicated his readiness to contest the governorship against me. Not long ago, this friend would tell anybody who cared to listen that Godswill Akpabio was the best thing that ever happened to Akwa Ibom State, and, for that reason, I must run a second term to serve for eight years. Now, we have parted ways; why? This is the story.
We were in the banquet hall of a hotel when one of my aides alerted me that the Uyo local government chairman had been announcing on radio that Nnwaniba Road along NEPA Line leading to the five-star hotel had been renamed Senator Akpan James Udoedeghe Street.
The senator and his wife were sitting by my side at the time; so, I asked the aide to call the chairman immediately. When he arrived, I simply told him, ‘Go back now to the radio station and announce that you made a mistake, and that after consultation with the governor, the road has been reverted to its former name.’
This young man was recommended for appointment as caretaker LG Chairman by the senator. Now, we had plans to honour Samuel Peters, who was then the interim world heavy weight champion, by naming that street after him. Peters and Udoedeghe are from the same Uyo Local Government Area. The senator was furious that we didn’t give him the honour instead.
And, without discussing the issue with me, he went straight to the young man and asked him to go on air to announce that the street was already named after him – even when we hadn’t taken delivery of the road from the construction company working on it!!!
Another incident had to do with a business transaction. He wanted to buy the Oku Iboku Newsprint, and he came saying that his company had won the bid from BPE and that I should give him N3 billion to buy the place.
I refused. Then my friend turned around with this story that I offered him N4 billion to step down from contesting against me. Step down for what? When I contested election, we were 57 in 2006/2007.
There was no person who was a threat to me, is it now that I am a sitting governor that I would discourage people from contesting election against me? It is nothing but blackmail. What you have seen happening is because things have so changed drastically from what it used to be.
Eighty per cent of the budget goes into capital projects, it never happened before. We have completed 3,000 projects. There is no local government area in Akwa Ibom State that cannot boast of 75 per cent projects either in terms of potable water, building of classrooms blocks, in terms of electrification project or roads.
Is Senator Udoedeghe really a threat?
No, he can never be. He has always been a politician and he would always be there but never a threat to me. This is not his first contest. In 2003, he came out against Victor Attah. He knows how he ended. To me, he is like a storm inside a tea cup. My projects would speak for me. The people of Akwa Ibom are wiser. The campaign of calumny is organised because they cannot fault me.
When I saw a recent magazine which did a story that presented us in bad light, I called one of the editors and I said to him, ‘I have children. When you destroy other people’s children, what are you doing? You are simply building destruction for yourself and your children’.
The story in the magazine, as far as I am concerned, is that, if it is a true reflection of Godswill Akpabio, it will be well with the writer and the magazine, but if it is a paid job and not a reflection of my life and I have never in my life encouraged or involved in kidnapping as alleged by that magazine, then God will judge that person and the magazine and those who wrote it will live in this life to testify that they wronged an innocent person. I believe that after the judgment of man, there is the judgment of God.
That is why I would not go to court. I raised my hands to God in prayer and said, ‘God, if I have ever involved myself in kidnapping, abetted and encouraged it, let it never be well with my children but if I have not, bless my children and bless my efforts and for those who have ganged up against me to collect money and blackmail my character, may God judge them’; because, for every single thing we do, we leave something for our children or for our families.
They are looking for killers and kidnappers; so, killers and kidnappers would follow their families. I say so because nobody should accept to do that kind of dirty job in an election year when you know that some people are desperate to gain power in whatever way. Kidnapping happens everywhere but that of Akwa Ibom is orchestrated.
Back to the question of security. What success have you achieved in dealing with the crime wave in Akwa Ibom State?
The few people we charged initially, we couldn’t get conviction because they were able to use text messages once they got into prison custody to frighten people. That is why I am discussing with the Presidency. The National Assembly must step into the situation. They must create special courts for things like this because it has to do with national security.
There are instances which you cannot tell a security man to give you the details of how he achieved the arrest of a particular criminal otherwise it exposes national security. So, we may require special courts, at least for evidence.
So, how safe is the state then? Are investors confident that they can do business here?
You know a company like Julius Berger cannot work anywhere except they are sure of their safety and security. They moved out of Bayelsa and Rivers states because of insecurity, but they have moved their regional headquarters to Akwa Ibom State.
They are building their life camp and we have a lot of expatriates working here. Akwa Ibom still remains the safest state in the Niger Delta, and investments are coming.
Investments are coming because the state has not witnessed the kind of kidnapping you see in other states. I speak as a governor and a citizen that the case of Akwa Ibom is that you have one or two people who have access to the media and who believe in blackmail.
I had written a petition to the Presidency on the plot that they want to make me the Mbadinuju of Akwa Ibom State because, in 2003, they infiltrated the rank and file of Mbadinuju’s security and killed a lot of innocent people and blamed it on the governor to the extent that they removed the governor from going for second term and charged him with murder. But every attempt that these people are making will fail.
With all the “blackmail”, criticisms and the opposition, are you confident that you can win a second term in 2011?
I will come back as governor with a landslide victory. There was opposition in this state only in 2003 and 2007. Today, 90 per cent of these who were in opposition are with me. We have turned this state round and the people know it. They will give us their mandate again.