•Says heavens will not fall if we do
By Chioma Onuegbu
Senator Christopher Ekpenyong represents Akwa Ibom North West in the 9th Senate on the plank of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
The former deputy governor of Akwa Ibom State, in this interview speaks on many national issues, how Nigeria has fared 21 years into civil rule, the nation’s economy and the situation of the Niger Delta region among others.
This is 21years of Nigeria’s return to civil rule. In your assessment where are we?
Nigerians of good conscience have to evaluate each administration on what they have done to sustain the democratic government. It is not how many years but what each administration has done to improve standard of living, job creation, poverty eradication, good roads and transportation system, food sufficiency, quality and functional education, etc. For me, we had 16 years of effective democratic rule by the party I belong to, that is the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. But then Nigerians said they wanted change. And when the All Progressive Congress, APC, government took over power they promised us that we were going to be taken to the next level. We are still looking forward to getting to that next level.
In terms of improving the economy, they told us that they were going to make sure that the exchange rate component, dollar to naira rate is reduced. People were thinking that magic would be done by President Muhammadu Buhari but unfortunately their hope was dashed because as at today naira is exchanging for nearly 500 naira to one dollar in the black market. They said PDP was borrowing too much, and today Nigeria is still borrowing, and even more.
Now the president is seeking approval for a fresh loan of $5.5billion from international development banks and financial institutions, the IMF, World Bank African Development Bank and the Islamic Bank to cushion the effect of COVID-19 pandemic. So what has changed?
Nigeria is still a mono-product economy, that is why we are always borrowing. It is surprising. Surprising in the sense that we had thought that with the emergence of the APC Government and the change they promised Nigerians that issues of diversification of the economy would have been put into practice, that the Agriculture sector, solid minerals sector would have been vigorously pursued, that corruption would have been a thing of the past. We were told that if we didn’t fight corruption, corruption would destroy us, but it looks to me like the president has allowed corruption to fight back. And today we see cases of some individuals, when they were in the PDP and served as administrators of either states or government institutions, they were alleged to have misappropriated or mismanaged resources, but when they move to the ruling APC they become angels. Is that a proper thing? It is a food for thought. And we don’t even know how long it will take the EFCC to investigate such individuals.
Yes, it is 21years of democracy, how effective has the practice been ? Democracy is defined as government of the people, for the people and by the people. So let us look at the level of inclusion by this government. Has this government included all sections of the country or is there derailment of the consideration on nepotism?
I believe that Nigeria belongs to all of us, so we must ensure that there is no section that is denied the right of participation in nation building. Obasanjo did well during his administration. Jonathan, my brother also did well. Obasanjo even gave Secretary to the Government of the Federation slot to Akwa Ibom State. Since this government came I am yet to see somebody who is from this section of the country that is in the kitchen cabinet of the president.
Also, a lot of people thought former president Jonathan didn’t know what he was doing on the problem of Boko Haram; and that president Buhari would deal with Boko Haram insurgency the same way he dealt with Maitatsine when he was a military head of state. But today Boko Haram has overrun the resources of the nation.
All said and done, 21years of democracy is better than being in 21years of dictatorship. In a democratic government the freedom of speech must be properly practised or allowed.
For those of us that believe in the doctrine of pure democracy, the views of the elected and the non elected should be respected.
I am happy that we have reached 21years of democracy, and we will continue because it is the best form of government. In a democratic process people change those who run the affairs of the nation based on their philosophy or ideals. So if the ideals of this APC government do not take Nigeria to the next level they promised Nigerians we will look for alternative, that means we will return to the PDP in 2023.
What do you think could be done to salvage the economy of the country?
We need the right people to re-position our economy instead of putting square pegs in round holes. Because of political sentiment we always throw away our best brains like Okonjo Iweala that could help re-position the economy. And the president must be someone who is focused and able to chart a direction for the nation. So the president should to tell us, where are we going in education, Agriculture, industry, etc? We have not seen that happening yet. He is supposed to give us direction where to go.
Nigerian government must be honest and holistic in its approach in ensuring that during the post COVID-19 era we are be able to re-position our economy. And the diversification of our economy is important. Agriculture is important. Also, we have to define mining, and not to continue to talk about the hypothesis of mining everyday. We must in practice ensure that mining is conducted and the proceeds brought to the national coffers instead of depending only on crude oil and VAT.
So we should think of the gold in Zamfara, the Tin Ore in Plateau state; the Uranium in Borno. We must also ensure that we start now to harvest the Bitumen that was found in Ondo for many years. Also we must ensure that states are given the opportunity to develop at their own pace. For instance Akwa Ibom wants to develop its seaport, why are you not giving it the authority? A state wants to build a refinery you don’t give them the opportunity. All they are doing is killing the desires of any state that wants to get up, it is wrong. States must be encouraged by the Federal Government.
In America, the Federal government intervenes based on quantum of jobs that they are doing. But in our situation everything is being handled by the centre. The centre is taking charge of Agriculture, Health, and that is why we are unable to handle COVID-19 pandemic. If we had allowed the states to develop their healthcare system ranging from Primary Health Care centers, while we are fighting community infractions on this COVID-19, people would have gone to their Primary Health Care centers to be tested, to be educated.
There should be diversification. Apart from diversifying the economy the Federal government should devolve power with corresponding resources. Allow the states to generate the money and bring part of the money they generated to the centre. The centre should just manage few things, like Foreign Affairs, the Army, and then in managing Education, federal government should prescribe the form, how it should look like, the minimum standard that each state should develop educationally.
The essence of government is to provide security, food, and opportunities for the citizens. Security is not about marching the Army against criminal elements, security is about knowing how many people you are governing. I thought that by now this Government led by President Buhari would have have conducted a true census.
By World Bank projection, we are about 220 million people in 2020. Where are they situated? The demographic entities of Nigeria should be well established to know bonafide Nigerian citizens. From there we should be able to know how many are educated, what are they doing? How many are farmers, what kind of farming are they doing? What is their income? Then for those that are unemployed, what do we do to mitigate their suffering? It would have been very easy for you to give palliatives like what we are doing now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And how can you for instance give palliative like we are doing today to people you don’t know, and the population you don’t have?
As a prominent leader in this country, do you agree with the opinion that without crude oil, there will be nothing like Nigeria?
I think we should have learned our lessons from what has just happened in this Coronavirus pandemic; the more reason our governors should look inward and think something beyond oil. That is why I love Governor Okowa of Delta State, Wike of Rivers State, and former governor of Bayelsa who just left office, Dickson, they are always thinking of something outside oil. My own governor, Udom Emmanuel, as an investment banker has never relied on oil. He is always preaching that this oil will dry one day, so he is already thinking ahead. And I love what he is doing.
And I am believing that one day God will be so annoyed that He gave oil to the people here but they have been subjugated, marginalized in the sharing of the proceeds and, in the management of the resources. When God’s annoyance comes there will no way you can stop God. The oil resources are gotten from here, but people over there that do not suffer from the effect of acid rain, people somewhere that don’t suffer from the devastation of the environment are benefiting more from it. Look at Ogoniland, they said they were going to clean up Ogoniland since 2015. Has it been done? Has Ogoniland been cleaned? Is there any restoration of our environment? So when this whole area has been completely destroyed as a result of oil drilling, is that when they will now go? So it is a cohesion because of oil resources, it is a false marriage, where they say you must remain with me until whenever I say I am tired of you. But I say God will decide things very soon.
Recently the United States repatriated $311m of Abacha loot to Nigeria and the Federal Government listed some road projects the money will be used for. Do you agree with some prominent Nigerians that the money should have been shared among the states?
You said they listed road projects, but did they mention Calabar- Itu road? Port-Harcourt Ikot Ekpene Road, the uncompleted East-West Road? They did not. So is the President fair?
That is one of those things that we are talking about. And I am not also in support that the money should have been shared because Abacha didn’t loot from the proceeds of Kano, Abacha looted the money from oil sales. The people who suffered from the negative impact of oil exploration, acid rain as a result of flared gas, what is their benefit? So the president has to show statesmanship by ensuring that equity prevails in spreading such money that he has recouped. But then, is the Abacha loot the only one that people have looted in this country?
When Mr. President came in in 2015, he said he was going to fight corruption, that if we don’t fight corruption, corruption will destroy Nigeria, but then what happened? I think the government should define the rights of everybody, define the rights of the citizenry, the rights of the operators of government, and also provide good governance for the people.
Do you see the lessons from COVID-19 bringing about the restructuring of Nigeria’’s economy?
A lot of people are afraid of restructuring. They think that when we talk about restructuring it is to dismember Nigeria. Even if it comes to that level, why should we be afraid? The Heavens will not fall. Most nations of the world that did that like Ukraine, today are they not surviving? Ukraine came out of Russia, Republic of Croatia from Yugoslavia. So why is it that in Nigeria we are so afraid? If you want to restructure Nigeria now based on regions, some people will not allow that. For instance South-South, South-East were together before independence.
It was in 1967 that they brought the issue of state creation. And the essence of state creation was to give you strength to live your life, grow at your pace as a state. But I have not seen the states living their lives, they still carry plates to Abuja to be fed. So if we are talking about restructuring, let every state grow at its own pace using whatever available resources that it has. For instance if you can produce potato and Onions, go into such production, produce them well to grow your economy.
How would you assess the security situation in the country lately?
Well this is two months now since I came back to my state and I have enjoyed relative peace. Since the state governor Mr. Udom Emmanuel came to power in 2015 there has been peace in Akwa Ibom unlike in 2007 to the time he took over power, when you could not sleep in your house and closed your eyes.
But are you not also worried about the herdsmen attacks in some Niger Delta communities in recent times. What have representatives of the region in the Senate done about this?
Those of us from the South South, South East regions have been talking about that. Initially, before the emergence of COVID-19, the issue of farmers/Herdsmen was in the front burner, and that had precipitated the formations of the regional security apparatus where the West came out with Amotekun, and the South East were thinking of something. The South South governors also met and were planning of something about establishing regional security. That was at the level of governorship.
But whether we like it or not we have to sit down and talk about Nigeria. We are saying people should not take us for a ride. You see, it is one thing to be in the Senate talking about how to make laws for good governance, but the issue is that we make these laws but if the implementation is faulty, what should be done? What should be done is that we should sit down and think about our marriage, our affinity, our consanguinity. Is there any love still existing? Or has the love collapsed?
So it will be absolutely wrong for herdsmen or anybody,in whatever guise herdsmen come to the South South states and attack the unsuspecting citizens. I don’t think we will fold our hands and close our eyes and be subdued, we won’t, we will resist it.
What challenges do you face in engaging people of your constituents as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Serious one. The challenges are enormous. When I came in here on 21st of March, after I returned from a retreat in London I was told to go on self Isolation. (The retreat that took me out, I was not even paid the Duty Travelling Allowance but People would be thinking you went there to enjoy) And I asked myself ,where should I go on self isolation? Should I go to my House in Lagos which I built in 1990; or should I go to Akwa Ibom, my home where I was elected as a Senator ? And the answer was yes that I should go to Akwa Ibom. So I flew in.
Actually I thought that I would go back to Abuja, before the federal government had declared a lockdown. The state government also announced a lockdown. So while I was here I received so many phone calls , text messages from my constituents, I had to think of what to do to assist them. Mind you I went through two elections, first election on 19 February 2019 and then the second one was on 25th January 2020. And I said let me use the opportunity to again to show gratitude to my people.
And I asked the leadership of each of the 10 local governments to provide one person per ward for me to impact on their lives and that was done. So I went to bank and borrowed money. I gave one hundred thousand naira to one person per ward. We have 108 wards. And told them that the money is for them to use to start up venture like poultry. I even demonstrated to them practically with chicks.
And in April I said okay, let me repeat the gesture. So I asked the leadership of the wards to send me one person again, and they did, and this time it was held at the Ikot Ekpene hall and I gave them N100,000 each. Even those who could not come there, they were directed to come to my Hotel Eemjm and sign for the one hundred thousand. So I have been able to touch my constituents. The lock-down as a result of COVID-19 really caused serious hardship on the economic life of the people especially people that make a living on daily basis.