Obong Victor Attah was a two-term governor of Akwa Ibom state. In this interview, he speaks on the feud between ex-Gov. Godswill Akpabio and the incumbent, Gov. Udom Emmanuel. He also proffers solutions to the herdsmen menace as well as the lingering fuel scarcity in the country. Excerpts:
By Omeiza Ajayi
Your successor, Sen. Godswill Akpabio recently threatened to withdraw support for his successor, Gov. Udom Emmanuel as a result of allegedly abandoned projects in the senator’s constituency. How did you receive this news?
I was quiet astonished because even if it is true that Udom Emmanuel has neglected or failed to complete some of Akpabio’s projects, I did not think that Akpabio would be the one to complain about a successor not completing the predecessor’s projects because of what happened during his tenure. But I am not going to look at it from that point of view.
I want to rise completely above all of that and express my worry over what I see happening today in Rivers and even in Kano State. As an elder statesman and a leader, I want to do everything I possibly can to see that nobody brings that sort of situation into Akwa Ibom.
When I was in government, I did everything within my power to put Akwa Ibom together; to make sure that we were cohesive, we acted as a people, that we had a common purpose, which formed the agenda of my developmental programmes. But today, Akwa Ibom is so fragmented; so divided- ethnic groups, cult groups, personality groups and so on. So, the first major thing that we must do, and I have taken it as a task, is to put Akwa Ibom back together so that we can develop that bond of unity, cohesion, and brotherhood that we know is the only thing that can help the state to grow and move forward.
What I admire about Lagos is the fact that one governor comes, continues with what was started, and that is why Lagos is making the kind of progress that we are witnessing. I will be the first to admit that nobody should feel obliged to throw good money after bad.
If somebody deviated and indulged himself in outrageous projects, I do not see why an incoming governor should feel obliged to continue with whatever had been wrongly done. But for a successor to deliberately destroy and turn his back on what was there, that too is wrong and does not serve the purpose of good governance. But all of these, in the end, depend on the people. If a governor knows that he is there courtesy of the will of the people, does it matter if one person threatens to withdraw support or whatever? It does not matter. Let me tell you a story. In 2010, there was a meeting between me, Godswill Akpabio and two other people.
I do not have to mention their names. It was a long meeting which started from 10 am and lasted till 6pm, and we did not even break for lunch. After all the rigmarole, Akpabio asked me whether I would support him for a second term and my position was that the question was not properly framed.
I said to Akpabio that what I felt he should have asked me was whether I was happy with what was going on in Akwa Ibom; with the way Akwa Ibom was being administered or developed and whether I would like that to continue for another four years. And I said to him that my answer would decidedly be no, but on the other hand, if there was a promise, an indication that things were going to change, then why not? So, this personalization of issues…of course from what I have said, you can see that I did not support Akpabio for a second term, but that did not stop him from going on to win the election in the manner that he did.
So, there is no one person that can say ‘I am going to support you and you will win or I am not going to support you and you will lose.’ If there is a free and fair electoral system, if the people decide that they like what you are doing, they will bring you back.
Can you imagine a situation where only 12 out of 43 previous United States presidents had second term? So, if there is a proper electoral system, you have to earn a second term from the people, and that is why I do not agree with people who are suggesting a single term of six years. Why do we want to throw the baby out with the bath water? Anybody that is good should be able to have an opportunity to do two terms. The important thing is to make sure that that second term is earned from the people and that goes back to our electoral system. So, we must effect some electoral reforms. I thank the Senate very much for the recent reforms.
The card reader has been introduced; I pointed out to the Ken Nnamani (Electoral Reform) Panel that the bigger problem is really with collation and I thank God the Senate has now insisted on certain things that would make collation a lot more plausible without incidences of people running away with ballot boxes and all that.
There was even another idea that I gave to the panel, and I do not know whether it will be accepted. What has always made it impossible for people to win election cases outside of some other extraneous shenanigans, is this dictum of whoever alleges must prove. Now, for you to prove that INEC did not conduct elections properly, you need the materials from INEC, the same people you are accusing.
So, they (INEC) will make sure that the materials are not available to you. So, I told the panel that if we look at that dictum very carefully, we will see that by the time INEC announces election results, INEC is alleging that it has conducted proper elections. So, INEC should be put to the task of proving that it conducted a proper election.
If we do that, we would have more credible elections because INEC will have to preserve and present materials that would show how it conducted the elections transparently in a way that nobody should kick against. I do not know if that will ever be accepted in law, but if it is, believe me, it will be the one thing that will make sure we have proper elections. Put the onus of proof on INEC.
Do you see Akpabio’s statement as a distraction?
I do not like to read motives into what people say, but he must have a reason for bringing this up at this time. Maybe, for whatever reason, he wants to back somebody else, or he wants to leave the PDP.
I don’t know, but this is definitely a distraction, and it is unnecessary. It is just going to create more friction within the state. As an elder, I am glad that the youths and even elders of Eket Senatorial District have said this must not happen.
My concern is, do not bring what is happening in certain other states to Akwa Ibom. Let us see how we can follow the example of making government move easily from one transition to another.
You mentioned INEC, are you not concerned about the proliferation of political parties?
When you start making exceptions because you want to please certain people, you end up making nonsense of yourself and the situation. We had a rule in this country, that yes we can have a thousand and one associations but if you cannot show that you are a national association, you cannot win a certain number of states, you cannot show national spread then you are immediately removed from the register of parties.
From Day One, we broke that law because if you remember, the Alliance for Democracy AD did not meet that requirement but some people said if we delisted them then the Yoruba race would feel cheated and that was what gave room to all these things that are happening, and it is now out of control.
It is absolute nonsense to have so many parties in a country like Nigeria. Rather than that, go back to what Prof. Ben Nwabueze and I advocated years ago.
We had advocated, at the time that President Babangida wanted a return to democracy, which he should not allow parties to be formed because they would be forced associations; there would be no ideology. We said if everybody should contest as an independent candidates, some people will win elections into the Houses of Assembly and the National Assembly.
They will debate issues, and before you know it, groups are formed, and by the time you get first and second terms, definite groups of strong, divided opinions will emerge. Those would then be the foundation for the formation of parties in future, and they would have been formed based on shared and common ideas or philosophy.
Some of these people that were forming parties did that because INEC was giving money to parties. Some of them do not even field candidates for elections. Why form parties when you know you won’t be fielding candidates for elections? What is going on now is very unfortunate. I still believe it is nonsense to have that number of parties in Nigeria.
How do we stop the herders-farmers conflict?
There is no denying the fact that something has gone wrong and the federal government has failed the country.
But believe me, if I say this, some will say it is because I am an advocate of restructuring, all these things take root in the fact that we do not have a federal system of governance. The largest cattle ranch in this country is Obudu Cattle Ranch, and it is not in the North.
I do not know how it was established, but the presence of that ranch in the South shows that there was a time we considered ourselves as one country. However, because of tsetse fly in the rain forest, cattle breeding was essentially done in the North. The cows were then transported, mostly by rail or trailers to Umuahia in the East and to Sagamu in the West. From there they went to Lagos and were foot- driven along a road that was named after them – Malu road.
Localising breeding in the North made it possible for us to develop our hides and skins industry. With the control of trypanosomiasis which we call sleeping sickness, breeding can now take place even in the South. What is not acceptable is this system of walking cattle across the country, destroying people’s farms in the process.
The system is not even economic. By the time you walk cattle around that much, they lose body weight. Young calves begin to taste like sinews. It is not sensible.
Besides, the herdsmen cannot develop a proper sense of family or home; their children cannot go to school. It is complete destruction of the social fabric of society. In the process, they are now armed with rifles and other dangerous weapons to kill, pillage and rape. This cannot go on.
To claim that these people are not Nigerians does not make sense either. Take a small country like The Gambia; no herdsman can enter that country without being fully documented. Their cows must also be documented, and they must show that the animals have been inoculated. Gambia is also a signatory to the ECOWAS Treaty on free movement. Why has freedom of movement turned to a license to kill in Nigeria?
How can Nigeria put an end to this persistent fuel scarcity?
I had a licence to build a hundred thousand barrels a day refinery.
I even had a purchase agreement and in fact, a payment guarantee which amazed the then Minister of Finance, (Ngozi Okonjo Iweala) but we still could not build the refinery because Nigeria just does not want to accept the fact that government should not interfere in certain things. Refining, marketing is a private business. You want to tell me that when Dangote finishes the refinery that he is building, somebody will come and tell him that he must sell petrol only at a price determined by that person? He might even choose to sell it at less than that price if he still makes a good profit.
We just don’t want to create free enterprise in certain areas, and yet if we did, things would go smoothly.
Then you go and set up another very ridiculous thing called Petroleum Equalization Fund PEF. What nonsense? So, petrol must cost the same where it is refined and where it is transported to, not minding how many miles away? Look at even your newspapers.
You produce your newspaper somewhere, and somebody tells you there has to be a uniform price for it across the country. There is too much government interference in business, and they are just creating room for corruption, and yet we say we want to fight corruption? If the Central Government of Nigeria would just accept to do only those things that it used to do within the 1960, 1963 Constitutions, then we would have a country because right now, I am afraid, we don’t have a country. That is why everything is so sectional, and there is this unrelenting demand to restructure.