By Lekan Bilesanmi
Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River has come a long way, from being a presidential adviser to a minister and then his present office. At 50, the governor, in this interview, reflects on his entry into politics, his tenures while in Abuja, his philosophy of life as well as the high and low points of his life. Excerpts:
Prior to your election as governor, you served as minister of power. Many people still believe the state’s interest would have been better served if you had stayed on in Abuja. Do you share that perspective?
As governor, you’re closer to the people and can affect their lives more meaningfully than as a minister. Also, I’ve always been a grassroots person. I grew up in the village, unlike many of my peers who grew up in the urban areas. I had a good fortune to have a father who decided at a point that he would go back to the village. So, I ended up becoming a country boy. That affected my outlook on life. That is why it gives me joy to give attention to the people and the rural communities.
Can you say you are meeting the people’s expectations now?
If you want to serve, you must do it across board, evenly. You shouldn’t say let me only serve the people that cry the most about bad roads and leave out the person who cannot afford to take her child to the hospital. You should not only serve people who have access to you or the media; so that when you do, they make the loudest noise about being served. Rural people must not be ignored.
Because of our extended family system, our people are not well served the way others are in more advanced countries. In our own society, the extended family takes care of that responsibility but, as we develop, the extended family gets smaller and smaller; so you find out that there is an elite class that is emerging, that doesn’t necessarily have to send money to the village to take care of cousins and all that. But those cousins are still there who may not have had the opportunity to leave the village. Governments are not doing much to serve those people in the villages. So, you have the poor getting poorer and the rich tend to get richer.
Of course, the definition of success in our society is how you serve those making much noise. I can award contracts and the big boys get the contracts. I can build the biggest hospitals that are just empty, maybe only with beds, and I’m praised for doing well.
Anytime you see us promoting ourselves, opening roads, buildings, commissioning water and so on, whether they are functioning or sustainable or not, people may think we are successful. This thing is very difficult to explain to the majority of our people but that’s the reality. So, in government, you have to choose between trying to be loved by everybody and hailed or decide to bury your head and serve the people well. If you have conscience, you consider what I call the human factor. It is something that can’t be measured or quantified. You have to develop the desire to overcome obstacles to be able to get to those who need to be served.
How do you see the NIPP (National Integrated Power Project) that you helped to midwife under the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo?
I really don’t want to be dragged back to that because I’m enjoying my current assignment as governor. But, I can explain one or two things about it. When I was in the NEPA Technical Board, there was a target of 4,000mw. When we came in (in 1999), there was a week or so of total darkness across the country. I was winding down OMPADEC in Port Harcourt when the president set up the NEPA Board and summoned me to Abuja and gave us the target.
At the end of 2001, we had completed our job, and I went back to my work as special adviser on utilities. In 2003, I was made the minister of power. In 2005, it was clear that delivering the target was not sustainable because we had not invested enough in power generation. The first time we went in there, we rehabilitated the old plants to get the 4,000mw. Most of the plants had been built under Obasanjo as military head of state in the 1970s .So, in 2005, there was a big debate about either privatization or the government adding new capacity.
From 2003 to 2005, we were trying to pass the electricity reform bill. It was stuck in the National Assembly for two years. During that period, the government could not invest in capacity enhancement because some people were still arguing for privatization. Nobody anticipated that it would take two years for the bill to become law. When it was passed in 2005, it became clear that unless you invested in the capacity, what you had would continue to degenerate because they are machines.
By the time the president made the decision to add new capacity, it became clear that we had lost many years and that something needed to be done quickly. It also became clear that selling NEPA would not happen in six months or even two years.
We then had to work on the process – preparing the company, breaking NEPA into 18 different companies, setting up electricity training, creating the market operator, creating electricity regulatory commission. All those things were not in place, yet we were supposed to sell the facility. We had different groups seeking different things.
We then went about identifying (generation) sites, places close to gas sources. When the locations for the power plants were identified, the question then was how to develop them, get the funding. To develop them fast, we needed to take them completely out of the NEPA system. That was how the NIPP came into being. It was a project where we seconded the best hands in NEPA to the project unit. Because of the nature of the project, there were several stakeholders. We couldn’t build the plants without gas, without experts on properties – public lands, without transmission lines to evacuate the power, without a legal department drafting agreements. So, all of them became part of the project team. It had on board Nigerian Gas Company, NNPC, transmission company and everybody sitting in one room to design the project. We thought of standardizing our equipment and developing our capacity to maintain them locally. That was how the NIPP came about.
Initially, it was to deliver 2,500mw or thereabouts in the short-term while preparations for the privatization were on-going. The NIPP commenced in that manner but the funding for that kind of (huge) project became an issue. That was how the state and local governments were invited. They also had representation on the project team and the vice-president at the time became the chairman of the steering committee. That was the original design of NIPP. Because of its sheer size, it became the biggest power project in the world at that time.
The project commenced in 2006. Of course, I left (as minister) later that year because of the deadline for resignation for those with political ambitions. I left when the project was beginning to gather momentum.
What kind of impact have you made on people?
I’m setting up a Foundation to mentor young people as my own contribution to humanity on my 50th anniversary. Instead of putting my pictures in newspapers, for those who wish to congratulate me, let them put the money in the Foundation. It is that important to me. Supporting the Foundation will help to build it.
What is your motivation for the Foundation?
I grew up as a local boy. I went through my early life in the village. Of course, I went abroad for 10 years. When I returned, I noticed that something had happened in terms of societal value. I had actually started before I left (during the military era). When I was doing my LL.M, I worked on structural adjustment in third world countries and what it had done to them. Based on what I knew at that time, I wished Nigeria had not embarked on SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme). It had a negative impact on our economy and our people. Of course, with military rule, all our societal values changed. People became rich very quickly. The children after us didn’t have the privileges and opportunities that we had. Professionals in those days did not have to cut corners to send their children abroad to school or holiday.
There was a respectable middle class in Nigeria. What happened to that class?
By the time I left Nigeria, the middle class was dwindling. By the time I returned, it was virtually non-existent. Those of us who had the privilege of being members of that middle class should educate the ones coming behind us and try to recreate that middle class by giving them opportunities and hope so that they do not make the mistakes of the past.
In setting up this Foundation, I hope that we can bring in mentors, people of my age-group who have done well, who were beneficiaries of that period, to be able to mentor a new generation of young men and women. The second aspect is that I have found out that there are lots of vices in the society. Cultism bothers me a lot. You have boys and girls in secondary schools who take blood oaths on the ground that they are joining a particular cult group. We need to reform them. That’s the reform component of the Foundation.
The other aspect is mentoring young people for leadership, no matter your profession. I want to do it in a manner that the Foundation has the resources to sustain itself. Not that because I’m a governor now people will associate with it and leave it thereafter. I want to set it up professionally. Executives will run it professionally.
Who are your mentors in life?
My father. My father wrote a book about his life when he was in his 70s. He wanted me to read the manuscript and I did. I discovered that 13 years of his life, representing his political career, were missing. I asked him why that was so. He wanted that period to be silent. I pointed it out to him that the book would not sell because his political life was more popular. When I told him that I was going to work on the missing part, he said that was my problem. So, I went to the archives in Enugu and tried to obtain relevant information about his political achievements that not even his children knew about. That effort was in 1992. I had started working on the book in 1990. That experience influenced me greatly. He wanted to be remembered more for his contributions to humanity as a medical doctor.
And you, what would you want to be remembered for?
The privilege to serve at different levels has given me joy. But being governor has afforded me real opportunities to affect people’s lives. I feel good making other people happy; people who ordinarily don’t expect anything especially from government. If a person knows that with only a card, she can go to a hospital and be treated for free, that is good indeed. She can use that money for something else. What of water? Some communities had always known streams and nothing else. For others, they had only seen electricity cables pass over their heads. Now, they can turn on the switch and have light. These are things that change their lives. So being in Abuja as a minister was good. But being a governor, able to commune with your people, is much better.
The people in the rural areas are much more appreciative. Even paying fees for their children to enable them to sit for school cert makes them very happy. For their children to get jobs means a lot.