Obong Attah

• ‘I was already 60 before I decided to be gov’

•2023: Why we settled for Umo Eno to  succeed Emmanuel 

By Harris Emanuel

Elder statesman, Obong Victor Bassey Attah, is a former governor of Akwa Ibom State. In this interview, Attah speaks on topical issues in the polity.

What is retirement like, what tips do you have for us?

I thank God for good health. To be honest with you, retirement for me may not be different for many people and that’s because I was in the private sector. I came into politics not by chance; it was a deliberate decision. I came into politics after I had matured in the private sector.

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By the time I declared that I wanted to be the governor, I was already 60 which is not common these days. You see young people wanting to hold offices. And so, when I finished as governor, because of that background, I went straight back into my profession. I still practice as an architect and town planner. And I thank God.

But I do get a lot of insults sometimes for that because when I go into an office trying to get some jobs, they would say, “Oga, you were a governor; why are you still doing this thing?” And I will tell them: “You call my profession ‘this thing?’ That is what I was trained to do. Politics was just to go and serve and I have come back.” So I do things in moderation and stick to things I’m advised to do to keep me healthy.

You mentioned that before you went into politics you were in the private sector. Would you say that being in private sector is an advantage for somebody who is hoping to go into elective public office?

I sincerely believe so because when people are brought up in a bureaucracy, they see things differently. Maybe, I’m jumping the gun. But I can tell you there was an article in my second year in office in the Washington Post that clearly highlighted the fact that if you come from the private sector, you can think differently. In that article, they asked me: “Why do you want to build a Science Park? Do you know that it would be the second Science Park in Africa, after the Dimension Theatre in South Africa?” And I said, “why not? I can see the benefits of Science Park in Akwa Ibom”.

Look at what happens in Silicon Valley, what happens in India. Any government can build a stadium but a Science Park will make a difference. So when you come from the private sector, it gives you the opportunity to think slightly differently and it can help in the way you model things.

Let’s go into politics. We recently had political party primaries.  What’s your take on the exercise and how do you look at the contentious provisions of the Electoral Act which excluded people said to be statutory delegates from voting?

I am glad you asked that question and I will answer it as a broad-based question. I had been asked earlier: “What do you think of the electoral act?” And I said, apart from being specific about the punishment that should be meted out to people who commit electoral crime, what are the two essential areas of the Act? The first was the use of electronic transmission of result.

Why do we need an Act? They have set up INEC. We told INEC, “Do everything you find necessary to make sure that elections are properly conducted”. INEC had decided that the use of electronic transmission system would help for the proper conduct of election. Why do they need another law to say that it should be so? That’s what messed up the last election because the Supreme Court even threw out cases and they said, “Oh, the use of the card reader is not in the Act, therefore they should not use it. How couldn’t they have used that when the Act setting them up empowers them to do whatever they find necessary to make sure elections are properly conducted?

So for me it was a meaningless, unnecessary Act. The second was the question of delegates and I asked, “Are parties now parastatals of government? Why should government be the one to tell the parties how candidates should emerge? You have the party Constitution. So, it is a meaningless Act because we just want to duplicate things so that we can cause confusion.

And believe me, I go from there and say all of this delegate thing, why should one representative from a local government come and tell me who I should vote for as the President and yet the President is supposed to be familiar with the whole country and we are supposed to know him? But only one person from one local government will come and tell me I can only vote for this one and cannot vote for the other. 

So this system that we are using is totally unsuitable for Nigeria, incapable of allowing youths to come into politics. It is not good for Nigeria because we do not have real representation. If we have a parliamentary system, for those of you who have only known the military, there was a system that was parliamentary. Take the federal constituency as a unit, everybody would have been elected from their federal constituency.

I am talking about the national level now. Within that National Assembly they will now among themselves pick ministers, pick those who should be the first among equals, the prime minister, and then you will have a very robust house. What do I mean by a very robust house? Look at the situation in which we were told that some people stepped down for Obi and some stepped down for others, why? None of these people came from the same constituency.

So if we did not have this presidential system, all of them would have been in the Parliament and that would have been a very robust part. Let me bring it down to the state where you will fully understand. The minute we raised Umo Eno’s hand (as Akwa Ibom candidate of the PDP), everybody knew that this was the preferred candidate. Some immediately left and went to other parties and only one of them can get that position of governor. I would have loved to see the parliament in which all of them in the House of Assembly developing Akwa Ibom because they would be contributing ideas to the development of Akwa Ibom. Look at the people that have since left and gone and will not perhaps be governor. And when they are not governor, you lose the benefit of what they could have contributed to the development of the state.

The presidential system is completely wrong and does not help Nigeria. I am advocating very strongly and the youths can never find the money to fight all those established people because it has become a money game. In the parliamentary system, you come to my community and say “I want to be your representative.”  Believe me it does not take INEC or any rigging system or whatever to tell me or my community who should represent us. We will get together and say “this is the person that is representing”. So you will get true representation. And when you get that kind of representation, he has an obligation to his community.

He will be able to go to parliament and if he wins, and the prime minister at the federal level or premier at the state level says “I want to do this”, he will be able to speak for his community. But we do not have that kind of situation in the presidential system. I have read every day about how many bills have been sent to the President and how few he has signed .The parliament in presidential system is lamely useless. They are not contributing. What the President wants goes; what the governor wants goes. Full stop. It is not right. It should be what the people want and people should mean everybody, youths, women, and others being full participants and full representatives of their communities.

But talking about true representation, the Electoral Act makes provisions for direct primaries, indirect primaries and consensus. Which of them should Nigeria adopt?

I will not adopt any because I don’t accept the system. I will adopt the parliamentary system that allows the people to bring out people from their communities. I completely reject presidential election and therefore completely reject any other system that would bring out a candidate.

You mentioned Pastor Umo Eno earlier. Was the choice of Pastor Umo Eno that of the governor or that of the stakeholders of the state?

Pastor Umo Eno was identified by the stakeholders and luckily the governor also agreed that he will be very happy to have him as a successor. That is the truth. So it was the stakeholders who identified Umo Eno along with a few other names. And I can tell you with quite a few of others, there was the issue of “if this person wins, he will hand over the government to so and so and so” because they had a group.

Umo Eno did not have a group. Umo Eno has Akwa Ibom as his community. Tell me, who are Umo Eno’s groups? Nobody! It is all of Akwa Ibom. Besides, he has the humility to listen. I have known him for quite some time, he is prepared to ask questions, “Why was this like that?” Or “could we do it a different way?” He has also the ability to implement.

From reports, you were the one who presented Umo Eno during a stakeholders’ meeting. Can you tell us the qualities you saw in him to believe that he is the person to take Akwa Ibom to the next level?

Everybody that came to me to say they want to be a governor, I said I am not allowed to have a preference because when the day comes, I will be the one to announce the preferred candidate. But I will bless you to go and work. If they accept, I will lift your hand and say, you are the preferred candidate. That is the role I played as a political leader of this state. And I have already told you these things.

As I said, it was not just me, it was a lot of stakeholders identifying not only him but a few other people and the governor happened to identify fully with him. What we saw, I have already told you and what we saw; his sense of commitment, humility, loyalty and the ability to ask questions. If you look at Lagos State government, it has benefited from the fact that there is continuity. But what this state, for instance, suffered from was that in the words of Winston Churchill, “If you pick a fight between the present and the past, we would have lost the future.” In this state, we picked a quarrel with the past.

My Science Park was abandoned, my seaport was abandoned, my university of technology was abandoned, my power plant was abandoned, and several other things were abandoned. We started new things. We pick a quarrel with the past and in the process everybody seems to agree that we have lost the future. Umo Eno will not be like that.  He will listen. He will go along with what was in the past and build up to the point where we can have the Akwa Ibom of our future.

We have heard various accounts of events on the day that you presented Umo Eno to stakeholders. What was the mood? Were there dissenting voices and all of that?

Honestly, there was a standing ovation that was difficult to bring to a stop. It went on and on. But there was one strong voice; there was one of the aspirants who raised his hand three times but could not speak and at the end he voiced out complaining that this was not fair; they should have been told; they should have had a private meeting with all the aspirants before this happened. But he stayed till the end. But there were two other aspirants who quietly accepted the situation as it was.

And after that, the speech I made was that, “I know by what I am doing, quite a number of people will feel disenchanted”. So I reached out to all of them. I could not get to two aspirants. But I talked to all the others and said “it did not fall on you. So please accept the situation as it was”. So the mood was that of full and total acceptance. 

One of those who partook in the primaries actually instituted a court case over certificate forgery. How did that come to you?

 First I laughed; then I said maybe I shouldn’t laugh. Let me try and verify the facts. I have heard about this certificate thing. Didn’t you hear when Buhari was accused? Every time somebody seems threatened, cannot cope with competition, they have to find a way to eliminate that competitor.

Sometimes it is not only for the purpose of eliminating the competitor, but just for the purpose of planting doubts in people’s minds. Did we do the wrong thing? Could this man have forged his certificate? But I am satisfied again because I called him and asked questions. I was satisfied with the answers that I got and the court will tell us whether he was right or wrong.

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