By Chioma Onuegbu, Uyo
Obong Victor Attah was the civilian governor of Akwa Ibom state from 1999-2007. He is also referred to by many as the father of Resource Control. In this interview with journalists in Uyo ahead of the 20years anniversary of Nigeria democracy, he bares his mind on a lot of political issues in the state and country at large. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the democratic governance in Nigeria 20 years after the country returned to civil rule?
My biggest disappointment, and it remains the major disappointment for most people who want to see Nigeria progress is that we have not gone back to true federalism. I keep insisting; this true federalism is not something new. It is something we’ve always had. I think some of you would be too young to have experienced it. But it was interrupted during the civil war in 1966. It was what helped the country to grow because there was heavy rivalry between the various federating units. I am going to use federating units to illustrate what I am talking about. You could see how the various federating units developed at their own pace. Salaries were not uniform, growth was not uniform but opportunities were uniform. Let me explain what I mean by that. I lived in Kaduna for so many years and I know Kaduna at one time had so much money than for instance Cross Rivers State and they brought their money along with Cross Rivers State and invested in a plywood industry. So you could seize an opportunity in somebody else’s state to grow your own state. That is how a country should grow. It doesn’t mean that only what you have is what you should use to develop yourself. When you have resource you call in other people, please tell them this resource here you can benefit from it by supporting me. You can form a partnership or a corporation. And you could see that for instance under Awolowo that particular federating unit which was under the Western Region was able to give us the first television station in West Africa, a stadium, Cocoa House, and so many things. And I know, because I was a trainee architect working with Nickson and Borris in Lagos, we built Western House, it was called Western House because it was built by the Western Region of Nigeria in Lagos. The Cocoa House was in Ibadan. So, everybody was able to use what they have to develop themselves. But the military could not do that. It’s just not within the set up of the military to have that kind of dispersed leadership. So it is understandable that the Head of State was there and he just appointed people, go and govern this area for me, go and govern that area for me and that’s what happened. So many years after the military have left the scene and we have got rid of so many of the military vestiges, why should we keep this particular one and continue to run a unitary system of distributing money instead of generating money? That is the biggest, and I dare say, the only problem with Nigeria democracy. Recently, former President Obasanjo wrote about this Fulanisation agenda. Yes, what is going on in the country is bad, the killings, but believe me, it would not have happened if we had federalism. I would like people to always go back to the root cause of anything. If we have federalism you would have been able to conveniently control what’s happening in your unit, you would have had your police, you control your resources, and anybody who comes and cause problem in your unit; that would be an invasion. But because we don’t have the federal system, we have this unitary system of governance, anything goes.
As a former governor of Akwa Ibom state do you think the state has fared well in terms of physical development?
I have to regrettably say that we are not where I had expected Akwa Ibom to be at this point in time. And I will be very blunt about that because when we came in, we actually had a manifesto and in it we spelt out the things we thought Akwa Ibom needed to do to lift it to the next level and we were convinced that if we did those things, we would in fact very quickly get there. That’s why if you look at the projects we started, there were some interrelationships between them. If for instance you want to do something on IT (Information Technology), I said it is funny if you are trying to do IT successfully with a diesel generator, so we needed power. You want to build an airport, go and look at the problems they have at Lagos International Airport. So, you need electricity again. We need power in supporting the IT activity particularly the Airport MRO, to use in maintaining the Aircrafts. And then if people are coming here, they will need somewhere decent to stay, and that’s why we had the 5-star Hotel. Then, the IT, because that is the sign of the future; you can see what it is doing to everybody now, so we put up the Science Park. Then you look at Akwa Ibom in the regional and national context, you could see a hub for a lot of things; hence the seaport. So, we had an integrated system of systematic development which unfortunately was badly disrupted immediately after I left office, for whatever reason. The fact that we even have the airport completed, I think it is a miracle. The power plant had been commissioned by former President Obasanjo before I left office in 2007. The Science Park still remains unfinished, the University of Technology which we started has been bastardized, made into a conventional University with several campuses. Most of the things we started were dissipated. And I will tell you this, because it is no longer a secret. There was a time people in the Villa, at the time I was governor, were wondering whether I was thinking of seceding. They asked, why is Obong Attah building a Seaport, building an Airport, he is building an Independent power plant, is he going to secede? That’s the fear people entertained about the vision I had, yet, people came and disrupted that. So, I can say perfectly that I feel disappointed that, that vision was disrupted. I used the word disrupted because I believe with the new regime of Governor Udom Emmanuel, unfettered; because at the beginning it was very badly fettered by circumstances surrounding him) I think we are going to see the state flying again.
The past government said that the Science Park was not continued because most of the equipment you imported were moribund and non functional. How true is that?
If you buy the most up-to-date equipment, especially in the high tech area, what do you think would happen to it as the time progresses? Today, I think have we’ve gone past iPhone 7, because it started from iPhone 1, 2, 3 and so on. So, it is entirely possible that he was correct. But at the time we bought them they were brand new. You know why I can say so without any hesitation? I’ll tell you. The three people that gave us our ICT policy are: Dr Emmanuel Ekuwem who today is the Secretary to the Akwa Ibom State Government,(SSG). He could not have directed us to go and buy obsolete equipment, he couldn’t and he didn’t. Professor Ntuen who was working for the American government at NASA, located in North Carolina in the Science triangle. But today, he is a lecturer at RITMAN University (in Ikot Ekpene, local government area and then Dr. Uwaje- three most eminent ICT people at the time. And you know what is interesting? When the team I led was leaving North Carolina, they said they were expecting another group from Nigeria. On enquiries, we found out that that was a federal government group coming to the source three months after us to get an ICT policy. Akwa Ibom State Government got ICT policy before the federal government of Nigeria, three months before. And look at where we are today. The federal government has gone far, while our science park is abandoned.
You have been pursuing the issue of resource control and currently true federalism. President Buhari is returning to office for a second term, what are your expectations from him that would be beneficial to the Niger Delta?
Those of you that read my reactions to the results of the 2019 general elections would know that I set an agenda for Buhari. The first item on my agenda for Buhari was that he should make sure he absolutely, totally and completely stop all forms of agitations to disintegrate Nigeria. And the only way President Buhari can do this is if a federal system is re-enacted for Nigeria so that every federating unit will have a breathing space, will feel that they control themselves. I’m not just saying to him restructure, which is a common word that everybody uses, I started with the consequence. The consequence is, if you don’t do this, Nigeria is going to break up, I say it every day, Nigeria will certainly and undisputably break up if you do not allow this unit to exist as they used to in the days of federalism. So I said please, make sure you do this so that Nigeria will not break up. And I am very pleased. Do you know why I am very pleased?.because if you listened to what President Buhari said and during the visit of the APC (All Progressives Congress) governors to him, he said Nigeria at this stage of development is ready for true federalism. Those were words out from President Buhari’s mouth. So, may be this campaign is being accepted now. So, those people who said they didn’t want to vote for Buhari because he has not agreed to restructure the country were wrong. It’s just a matter of you convincing somebody, you present an idea strongly enough and any reasonable human being, a sensible person who loves this country and wants this country to stay would agree with you. And Buhari is beginning to agree with everything we have said about having a new birth and a new beginning. But it is not a new concept, we had it before.
How can Nigerians prepare themselves to receive this new birth if President Buhari obliges to it?
The way to prepare ourselves is to accept the fact that it had worked before. Go back and study the 1960 constitution, go back and study 1963 constitution. At first, I will say this, in all honesty, I was not convinced about this idea of returning to a parliamentary system. But more and more I am becoming convinced that that is the answer. I will give few reasons. One, somebody campaigns across the entire country and wins an election, he feels that he is on top of the whole country; and dictatorial tendencies will make him to begin to act like an emperor and look at the phenomenal cost of doing that. That’s why quality people are not coming out, and that’s why you cannot nominate anybody and say, I want this person to represent me. It is only the party that can commandeer the kind of money from their governors that they need for that kind of campaign nationwide or even statewide. Whereas if you allow the parliamentary system today, you and I can sit down to say, look, we come from this area; who among us is good to go to whether it is state assembly or the National Assembly. And nobody can come and rig it because nobody can come from outside and tell us who should represent us. We know better than anybody else outside who should represent us and we will send the person that should represent us to that assembly, and he will do what we want. So, the cost of election will completely come down because you are only campaigning within your own area. Then there will be no rigging because you cannot come from outside and tell me who should represent me. The party will not impose anybody on us, we will tell the party that this is the person we want and if the party doesn’t accept him, we just put him up as an independent candidate perhaps, or tell him to join another party platform. So, we will have true peoples’ representation, and the possibility of rigging will be almost zero. Then when they get there they can say; this person or that person is good enough to be our prime minister, and we all will agree because there’ll be no one party. At first, I used to be very upset that a country like Nigeria would have about one hundred political parties. Now we should have two hundred. Which means almost everybody is being elected on his individual capability, integrity and ability to represent the community he comes from. So, there’ll be no one party that can have overall majority to form a government. That is when you begin now to form coalition, talk to people and so on and you would get a national consensus on what ought to be done. And if you put up one person who is capable of making that to happen for all of us, the beauty of this is that, if he doesn’t perform, the next minute he goes and we put up somebody else.
You don’t seem to support this idea of disintegration, but some Nigerians say that, that could be the best solution to the myriads of challenges in the country?
Why do they feel so? Because they want a kind of breathing space. That is what I am saying. Did anybody ever think about disintegrating the country when we had federalism? Nobody did. But when you come and take all my oil, take somebody else’s gold and give to somebody else, however benevolent, the person distributing it cannot be totally fair to everybody. Even if he tries, somebody would always have cause to complain. That’s why I said that Nigeria will disintegrate if you don’t do federalism because there is so much discontent. But that discontent will be dissipated completely if you allow federalism.
You said earlier that when you started the integrated kind of development in Akwa Ibom State during your administration there were fears expressed about seceding. Why the suspicion?
Would that have happened if there was true federalism? It would not. Did anybody suspect that Awolowo was seceding when he brought the first television station, free education? Nobody did. Everybody was now striving to be like Awolowo. That is the beauty I’m trying to get into young people’s heads because they have not experienced these things. But if it was this kind of unitary system, they would have said; we must stop Awolowo, why is only the Western children going to school, children from other areas are not going to school free. But they could not stop Awolowo because the federal system allowed that to happen. And nobody would have a feeling of wanting to leave the federation if you give them space to do that.
What do you think should be the best solution to the increasing insecurity in the country?
Federalism. I will tell you something, even this oil theft, if Bayelsa knew that it is going to survive on this oil dues and it has its own police and enforce the rules against theft, do you think it would allow anybody to steal that oil? So all these things about insecurity, killings, before a Fulani person would come in here, he would apply properly for land to graze his cattle. Where is the oldest cattle ranch in Nigeria? Obudu is the oldest and it is in Cross River State. So, there were no issues because you had a federal system that allowed that type of thing to happen. Federalism is what will even bring back the sense of being one country.
Many Nigerians have advocated several solutions to the myriads of problems faced by the country, sadly, some of the things advocated are not taken into consideration. What is your take on this?
There is only one solution, federalism. No other solution. If we just have federalism, all those things would disappear one after the other.
Why is it that Nigerian leaders are not interested in returning to federalism?
Because we are not shouting enough. If you have been shouting enough, Bahari might have reached that position much earlier. So, begin now to shout federalism!. Everybody should shout federalism, and believe me, tomorrow you’ll have federalism.
But many Nigerians have expressed the fear that in spite of the ongoing agitation for true federalism, the government may reject it.
Why do they think so? Because they have made up their minds that the person sitting there called President Buhari is not going to do it. It is their own problem. At one time he said he didn’t understand it. The manifesto of the party that he is running, particularly the CPC component, starts with the fact that there will be federalism. So, people sitting there and saying Buhari won’t do it, did Obasanjo do it? Did Jonathan do it? And these are southerners, they should have laid the true foundation for democracy and we won’t be talking about this today. Buhari would have just come into it. But now we want to blame it on Buhari.
During you tenure as governor, you introduced parlimantary system of government at the local government level. How good was that system then?
One of the problems I had with my party was that they accused me of being too independent, that I was doing anti-party and that the party said we must do presidential system, I went and did parliamentary system. I challenged the party; ‘you told me to conduct an election, to elect people you called councilors for whom their law is made by the state house of assembly and you don’t allow them to be selected as supervisory councilor, education supervisor, works supervisor, none. So, what is their function? Why have I elected these people? Is it just to sit down and share money at the end of the month? That is how stupid and absolutely idiotic the concept of presidential system at the local government level is. So, I said it would not happen in Akwa Ibom. I said if I go to the trouble of electing people as councilors, I will give them jobs, that they cannot just be sitting there, sharing salaries at the end of the month because they don’t make their own laws. Let somebody sit down and tell me what are the functions of councilors? Nothing, unless you give them what to do. And it is only the parliamentary system that would give them something to do. The presidential system doesn’t. So, I ran a parliamentary system at the local government level. If I was allowed, I would have ran it at the state level as well. But the constitution would not allow me.
How would you rate the outcome of the 2019 general elections in Akwa Ibom state?
I am very very happy with the results. I’m not talking about how it was done, or how it wasn’t done, but, at least, this time I voted. The last time, I wasn’t allowed to vote. So, I have to say it was very good. There is no question about that. People voted. It was the people who put Governor Udom Emmanuel there for a second term, and we know it.. As as far as I am concerned, the results are very satisfactory to me.
Akwa Ibom residents attest to the fact that you laid the foundation being built upon by your successors. One of the projects you conceived, the Science Park is yet uncompleted. Do you think Governor Udom Emmanuel sees the need to continue with it?
I think it depends on the governor. At one time, a group of well-meaning Nigerians from the North and elsewhere came down here and said they wanted to do a reconciliation between me and former Governor Godswill Akpabio. I said reconciliation was a wrong word because I was not quarrelling with Akpabio. They took us to the cathedral and mass was celebrated by Bishop, Joseph Ekuwem. And when we were asked to speak, I got up and said I have told my Governor that I was out of office but not out of ideas. The situation remains so till today- I am out of office but not out of ideas. But if somebody does not come and talk to you and seek your ideas, how do you offer those ideas? I am not the one to be writing agenda for government. People feel if they come and complete a project, the person who started it would be the one to get the credit. Please, let us get it right that government is a continuum. The fact that somebody started something and you come and complete it does not mean that nobody would recognize the role you played. So, completing the Seaport, the Science Park, and re-establishing the University of Technology is a continuation of government. We don’t need another conventional university for goodness sake. It is a University of Technology that we need. If you know the programmes that we were going to put in place in that University, believe me you would shed tears that it didn’t happen. When you finish those things, people would say yes, this man came and built on a foundation that was established.
Your government started a project that was very dear to Akwa Ibom people ‘AKWASOL’, but there was a litigation on it. Will you like to address that?
Yes, I can talk a lot on that. I finished in Columbia University in 1966. Then at one time, my wife was heavily pregnant. The airline we were to board was insisting she had to travel home immediately because of her condition. And you know there were rumbles about the war in Nigeria and so on, and she had never known the place called Nigeria because she came from the West Indies. So I asked her to go to her home in Barbados, with the intention that when the rumblings disappear, I would go and take her so that we would return to Nigeria. But it didn’t work out that way because by the time I went to take her, the war was already on. My first employment as a qualified Architect was in Barbados in the West Indies in 1966, that was where I started. And interestingly enough that was the year they had independence. I even entered the competition for the design of their flag. Then I noticed that every house in that country used Solar water heater, so that their main power source was for industry. When I returned here, I started importing and trying to sell solar water heaters. I didn’t have the technical backup, so it wasn’t a successful business. I abandoned it. But I knew it was something that could happen here. So, when I had the opportunity as a governor, I went there, I sat down one-on-one with the Prime Minister and requested that the technology be brought to Akwa Ibom State for investment because we had such a large market. That Prime Minister agreed to give one million US Dollars to technical people, while I agreed to provide one million US Dollars from here. Of course, they came and set up AKWASOL. It was in production, but one of the evil things that the next regime did was to come and accuse me of engaging in money laundering, that, that money which came from Barbados was actually my money. So, they shut down the place. It was just evil mindedness because they knew the truth. A thriving producing industry was shut down for evil reasons that were invented by them for purposes of shutting down the business.
But is it possible to bring it back?
Yes it is possible. I have discussed it with Governor Udom Emmanuel. As you know, we are in the days of solar and renewable energy. I want to pray and hope that he will do something about it.
You fought the resource control for the Niger Delta and people said that fight affected your interest in the presidential race?
You see to say yes will sound like a very simple answer. But people actually thought that they should just stop me because they suspected that I was planning a secession. So that is a very grievous thing to charge anybody with and it is still hunting me. But the problem is that even the Niger Delta people don’t even appreciate what I did for them . The then president of Nigeria shouted at me, shaking his fingers at me in Port-Harcourt, when people were given party flags, saying you, you are the cause of militancy in the Niger Delta; you are the one that went and put resource control in their head and now they are fighting, they are breaking our pipelines. I was accused of starting the militancy in Niger Delta simply because I preached resource control.
But do you have any regret for taking up that fight?
If I have any regret it is because the people of Niger Delta did not appreciate what I went through. But I am still fighting it to the next level. And the next level is this federalism thing. But let me not say that I regret it, but what is regrettable is that a lot of the people of the Niger Delta don’t even appreciate what somebody went through to make them what they are today.
Your successor, Senator Godswill Akpabio lost his re-election bid. How do you react to that?
Don’t force me to repeat what I have already said. I said Godswill Akpabio was a very uncommon governor, who had suffered an uncommon defeat and rejection at the hands of the common people of Akwa Ibom state.
What that means is that people have taken over and he should be glad that people have taken over.
Ethical and Attitudinal Re-Orientation Commission, EARCOM, was set up under your government. Are you satisfied with the present state of that commission?
The philosophy of Dakkada is rooted in EARCOM. But they must not forget some of the basic fundamentals. I told people apart from integrity, good character, and commitment to duty, simply say please when you ask for something. Say please bring me water and say thank you when they have brought you that water. And if you annoy somebody, learn to say sorry, that’s all. Please, thank you, and sorry. We don’t even know how to say it. Just try it,. You always hear people say, ‘Go and bring me that thing’, who are you ordering about? I’ve entered an elevator abroad. The operator there is paid to take you up to where you are going. And you get in and shout four; he just sits down and looks at you. Four, Four, when you are tired you say four please, then he will punch four and the elevator will take you to the fourth floor of the building. Believe me, its a fact. We don’t even know how that man should be told please, simply because you think he is doing his job? You have to learn to say please.