By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
Senator Gershom Bassey represents Cross River South in the Senate where he is Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Petroleum (Downstream). He is a founding member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Cross River State. In this interview, Bassey speaks on Governor Ben Ayade’s May 20, 2021 dumping of the PDP to join the All Progressives Congress (APC), insecurity as well as the benefits of the Electoral Act if passed into law. Excerpts:
With the defection of Governor Ayade, it is believed that Cross River is now an APC state. Do you agree?
That is just a pie in the sky. There is nothing like that. Cross River is a PDP state and remains so.
Why do you say so? Remember, governors as chief security officers of their states wield a lot of power. And when it comes to elections, they are very strong to decide who gets what?
We are in a democracy. Just like you and I, he has just one vote. Are you saying as chief security officers of their states governors rig elections? If they have just one vote like you and I, how are they going to rig? Or you don’t have confidence in the electoral process?
But he has the support of the federal might?
What does federal might mean? It means he has the full support of the center?
Again you are saying he is going to rig elections. Otherwise in a free and fair election, how does it work?
Are you saying the federal might has not worked in previous elections in some states?
Well, now you have moved away from Cross River State to the National Assembly and then to the Electoral Act and then the President consenting and signing off on the Electoral Act. You will recall that in the Eighth Assembly, the President did not sign off on the Electoral Act.
But this time, we believe that the President will sign off on the Electoral Act and the Electoral Act that is coming through the Ninth Assembly will plug a lot of loopholes that you would have said are opportunities for what you call state might or federal might or Senate might.
It moves us closer to free and fair elections. The key issue is the issue of collation of results. And the key issue in collation of results is where you collate. The question is what happens at various collation centres.
Now you are aware that at the polling units, people vote and protect their votes; in other words, after you vote you will remain at the polling centre and wait for the result to be announced. The next thing is for the results, to be in the INEC guideline which, like we saw in Edo State, to be uploaded to the cloud.
Once they are uploaded to the cloud, you reduce what they call the opportunities for tampering. And tampering comes with rigging. So we believe that in the type of Electoral Act that is going to come out of the National Assembly, we’re going to greatly reduce opportunities for tampering with results.
So what are the chances of PDP retaining power in Cross River come 2023?
100 per cent! Why did I say so? Cross River is a PDP state. The other day, you saw what happened when the PDP National Chairman visited Cross River State, you saw the outpouring of people, and the outpouring of support at the airport, at the state Secretariat and all over the state.
You see what’s going on today; today people are spontaneously holding meetings in every ward in Cross River State. In my local government for instance, almost all the 12 wards hold meetings, rallies and these are spontaneous gestures.
I have not given them money, it is because of the love that the people have for the PDP. It is the same in all the 18 local governments. So you can see that this is a PDP state. In fact, those crossing are being forced to cross to the APC, they are being coerced, including people who have medical bills to pay, who have children’s school fees to pay.
They are being told that, if you don’t cross to APC, we will not give you the money that you have earned as an appointee to pay your medical bills, to pay your children’s school fees. Do you think those people are truly APC members?
Of course they’re not APC members, they are being forced like a gun to your head, you are being asked to do something against your will. So you find that half of the new appointees, new people moving into APC, are being coerced but all these things will play out in 2023.
Knowing the role that the local government plays being close to the grassroots and with most of the chairmen crossing over to the APC, don’t you think it will affect the party in 2023?
You know that 18 of the local government chairmen were not elected. In fact there were hardly elections. And a lot of people even within the PDP cried out about the hand picking of candidates. Half of them are in court, if not all of them within the PDP itself.
The PDP was angry with the governor. Candidates in the PDP, who were sidelined, were angry with the governor for not allowing free and fair primaries for candidates to emerge. So we know that because the chairmen were handpicked, the councilors were handpicked, the grassroots is not there.
Therefore you have a situation where the impact that you talked about which, naturally, should be there is not there. So in answer to your question, the impact is minimal.
In Cross River State, there is rotation of power among the three senatorial districts. Donald Duke took the turn of South, Liyel Imoke took the turn of Central and Ben Ayade the turn of the North.
Are you sure this rotational understanding will be retained come 2023?
Why not? Rotation is ingrained in the polity right now. So it is no longer the issue of Gershom Bassey or anybody saying that power must rotate or even any political party saying that power must rotate.
Even within all the political parties, they have come to understand that rotation of power is real. It started in the South, it has gone round once and it has come back to the South. So anybody that wants to challenge it is free to do so.
But the truth is that the people themselves are the ones insisting on rotation of power in Cross River. So I believe it’s the turn of the South.
What are those issues that you think need to be addressed that can make Cross River State to be at par with states that are working?
I think the basic thing now for Cross River is to create an enabling environment. Clearly, government doesn’t have enough funds to embark on huge projects at this time. What do I mean by enabling environment?
I mean basic infrastructure, security and the likes must be in place. What encourages investors to come is the ease of doing business; that is the issue we need to address now.
I think that if Cross River creates a business-friendly environment, businesses will come, investments will come, employment will be created and you will see economic growth. Nobody wants to go into a place and do business where you’ll be kidnapped.
In fact, we’ve had an exodus of traders operating in Cross River; they’ve left the state because of kidnappings that have been going on in the past few years.
So once we can address security issues and create basic infrastructure, repair the roads, ensure that the Water Board is working, you have 80,000 cubic meters of water in the Water Board but nobody’s feeling it, it is as if we don’t have water, people are still digging boreholes all over the place.
The other things are already there. We have the Tinapa Resort, we have the Summit Hills, and then you have a few of the factories that the governor is trying to do.
But I think that what may be missing now and where I think that the government should have focused is in the area of basic ease of doing business, which includes basic infrastructure and security.
Cross River used to be among the most peaceful states in the country but with the situation now people are getting frightened. What can be done?
It’s no coincidence that the security situation has worsened since 2015. In 2015, the only other thing that changed was that we had a new government.
So I think that once the government is up and doing and is focused on its responsibilities, especially in the area of security, things will improve and things will change.
Recently, we saw the former governors of Cross River State (Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke) whose relationship had been strained before now come together. What do you think that reunion portends for the state?
First of all, let me tell you, Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke were superstar governors as far as I am concerned. Donald, who was the first governor of our state in this republic, ran a fantastic leg.
He did his super leg, which is like a relay race and put Cross River State on the map. Liyel Imoke on his part, took the baton and ran with it. He did a super job in terms of rural infrastructure, in terms of creating fundamental processes of government. You can’t beat Liyel for that.
And then he handed over to our current governor, who seems to have slowed everything. But to answer your question, I must say that the coming together of the first two governors in this republic reminds us of the limitless possibilities of Cross River State.
We have untold possibilities and, given the right governance and given the right man at the helm, you can take this state to any height. So if you say what does it mean? It means that Cross River State is about to get back on track.
How have your representation in the Senate benefited the people of Cross River?
That question is not for me, it’s a question for them. Why not go and ask them? Because if I say anything, it’d be like I am blowing my own trumpet. But what I do know is that I’ve given my people effective representation.
When I say effective representation, we are talking about representation in all its ramifications, whether in terms of your primary assignment, which is bills, motions, debates, oversight etc.
Then your secondary assignment, which is to ensure that whatever is due to your constituency gets there, be it projects like roads, water, electrification, solar light, training, you name it, we have done some of those projects.
For instance, we have just finished solar light and some roads, but we are still doing more roads and solar light. We have just distributed buses to our constituents, we have given out motorcycles.
Today (Tuesday), I took up a bill for a second debate on the floor of the Senate about the School of Fisheries and Research in Bakassi local government area. And that bill has gone for second reading and now it has been sent to the Committee on Agriculture.
We’ve also moved motions on illicit financial flows. We also moved motions on the economic bill. So I think I’m doing well. Incidentally, they ranked me, I think, in the top 10 of performing senators in the Senate by the last ranking I saw.
Are you in support of this bill in the National Assembly to gag the media?
The bill to regulate social media is not the same as gagging the media. Social media is different from mainstream media. Well, I don’t know, I haven’t seen that bill, I haven’t read it. So I don’t know the details of the bill.
I know that it has not gone through the Senate yet. So I’m waiting for it to come, then we will go through it clause by clause. That’s when we will make our input.
But I definitely believe in the freedom of the press. For instance, the banning of Twitter, I believe that Twitter should not be banned. There should be freedom of expression.
These are constitutional freedoms that are guaranteed to us. So I fully aligned with the Constitution, apart from the fact that of course I have sworn to uphold the Constitution. I mean, I understand that Twitter itself has to behave more responsibly. But banning Twitter, there’s no reason for it.
What’s your take on the clamor for the South-East to produce the President come 2023?
Well, I think it’s because different parties have different positions. The argument in the PDP, for instance, is that we’ve had the presidency for 16 years and, of those 16 years, 14 years have been in the PDP, two years have been in the APC.
Of course the other argument is the one you just asked. So we’re looking at it, I am a party man and I will tow the party line whenever they decide.
What’s your take on the ongoing Constitution review to address some concerns in the country?
I’m all for it 100 percent. I’m a member of the constituent review committee. I am 100 percent for the review of our Constitution, especially as it concerns devolution of powers because I believe that one of the biggest problems in Nigeria and why things don’t work is largely because of the concentration of power in the centre.
It’s just humanly impossible for so much power to be concentrated in the center and for you to be effective. So you need to devolve power so that other people can help you do this work. And then you maintain the essential areas that you feel you can concentrate on in the centre, but we should devolve power to the states and to the local governments too.
What do you think is responsible for recent agitations in the South-East and the South-West and what should be the solution?
I don’t know what’s responsible for the agitations because I cannot pretend to be in the minds of the agitators. But what I do know is that there must be fundamental fairness in the way we conduct our businesses in Nigeria.
And if we can achieve fairness for all in Nigeria, then I think some of these agitations will reduce. For instance, take the South-East, it has five states, and then you have seven states in the North-West, there is a problem there.
And then other geopolitical zones have six states each. So simple things like that, fundamental issues like that, we have to look at them as a country and try to be fair to all.
The issue of open grazing is still raging especially with the President insisting that open grazing must continue?
Well, you know, I’m a southern senator, and we back the position of southern governors 100 percent. We have said that in our communique. So that’s my position, my position is that of the southern governors.