June 11, 2024

My constituents have been feeding Nigeria with their rice – Rep Egbona

My constituents have been feeding Nigeria with their rice – Rep Egbona

Dr Alex Egbona is chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Specialty Healthcare and represents the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency in the National Assembly.
In this interview, Rep Egbona bares his mind on the lingering issue of minimum wage, Nigeria’s democracy at 25 as well as his activities in the National Assembly in the last one year.


By Dapo Akinrefon

It’s the 25th anniversary of Nigeria’s democracy. How far, so far? Do you think we have made any meaningful progress?
I will say so far, so very well. Nigeria’s democracy is making very appreciable progress. From where we were in 1999, we have made geometrical progression and I think we should be grateful to God that for the first time in a long while, we have enjoyed an interrupted civilian rule. Gone are the days when soldiers did not allow our democratic culture to become a part of our life. Today, we are enjoying freedom of expression and freedom of movement, which are part of the hallmark of democracy.
As journalists, I am sure you will agree with me that you have been able to practice your profession with very very little or no harassments. People can say whatever they want to say and will not be afraid that the next moment, they will find themselves in one underground cell.
There is nothing as good as democracy. I think we have had it so good, so far. I know some people may have their own biases about this. But if I may ask, are we where we are supposed to have been? Maybe not. Are we where we were before May 1999? Certainly not. We have moved on. Just like a child who would walk and fall, then stand up and walk again and then later on, start running, Nigeria’s democracy has been work in progress.
You will agree with me that when we started in 1998, the picture was not as clear as it is today. At that time, nobody was sure that we would make the kind of headway we have made today. We were learning. We are still learning and I am so certain that as the years go by, things will get much better.
Even in the US whose laws we copied and whose democratic practice is age-long, they do not have a totally infallible democracy. There have been cases of wobbling here and there. In other advanced democracies too, it is like that. Ours is not different. I believe that we will continue to get it right. We are truly on course and as far as I am concerned, there is no going back. The road may look rough, but we are on track. Nigerians have come to the realization that under democracy, life has been better. But we are aiming for the best and we will get there.
This democracy has brought freedom to everybody in all areas. Under the military, you could not see the common man on the street protesting freely without being harassed. You could not see protesters freely shutting down the national grid to draw the government’s attention to workers’ salary issues. There are a lot of things that we do under democracy in the last 25 years that nobody could dare under the military. Today, we have the right to choose our leaders in an election. But it was not so before 1999. We have got the freedom to move to wherever we want. We have got the freedom to choose our leaders. We have got the freedom to enjoy what is now popularly called dividends of democracy.
The citizens have got the right to question their leaders and hold them accountable from time to time. You dared not try that under the military.
Besides, between 1999 and now, you will agree with me that so much progress have been made in all parts of the country. Like I said before, we may not have reached the destination, but we have since left Egypt and are still on our way to Canaan.
In Cross River State where I come from, for example, from the days of Donald Duke till now, you will agree with me that so much have happened. We have achieved quite a lot through the various leaders that the people brought into power.

Talking of governance in your state, can you really say that state governors have been fair to the people, especially under the government of Senator Ayade?
Again and again, I can beat my chest and say yes, the governors did well. From the days of Mr Donald Duke who came on in 1999 till the present day government under Senator Bassey Edet Otu, the man we call the Sweet Prince, I can say that the people have enjoyed democracy dividends. The level of sweetness may not be the same. If you have ever tried your hands on cooking, you would have noticed that sometimes when you are cooking, you may have salt and pepper just satisfactorily okay. You may have plenty of meats and even fishes in the same soup and at other times, you may have just no protein in the soup, but you cannot call it a different name other than soup. The difference may just be the missing protein. And then when a different cook enters the kitchen, you are very likely to have some remarkable difference in the taste and integrity of the soup.
We have had all kinds of cooks in Cross River. Duke was excellent, just as Imoke. Duke paid so much attention to agriculture, tourism, the environment, among others. Cross River was in the map of the world for very good reasons. After Duke came Imoke. And all the local communities, the rural areas tasted development. Roads were done in virtually all the rural areas. Schools were either built from the scratch or were reconstructed. Education got so much attention, just like agriculture. He also built on what Duke did in the areas of tourism and international trade promotion.
You made specific mention of the tenure of Senator Ben Ayade. I will say that Ayade did not do very badly. He may not have done so much as Duke and Imoke who governed before him. But you cannot write off what he did completely. He must have had his own style of governance, he may have had his own challenges, but in all, Ayade cannot be said to have failed woefully as governor. There are areas he also did fairly well. And one of the things he did that made people fall in love with him was his insistence that power must rotate to the southern part of the state, after his tenure. He worked with the people on this agenda and it was achieved. That was how we had Senator Otu as the current governor and within one year, you can see that Cross River is gradually regaining its pride of place in the comity of performing states.
With Otu, I am glad and proud of my state again. I am glad to hear that Tinapa is bouncing back. I am proud of the new Government House that Otu has given us. I am proud to hear that focus has returned to agriculture in our state. I am glad to hear that Calabar is beginning to wear a new look again. I am glad to hear that the abandoned state library in Calabar is soon to wear a new look. I am happy that investors are looking at the direction of Cross River again. I am glad to hear that our state is now a safe and secure place. I am glad to see that my governor is working hard to reposition the state. It shows that democracy is working in Cross River. What more can we ask for?

What do you make of the ongoing debate on minimum wage and how do we think the prevailing hunger in the land can be tackled?
I agree with the organized labour that our workers deserve a living wage. I agree also that in pursuing the issue of minimum wage, the suffering of Nigerians should not become maximum. Labour has a good case. They are fighting a just cause and I am equally elated that Mr President is not taking the matter lightly. Mr President has shown sufficient commitment to the welfare of workers. I will urge the NLC and the TUC to give Mr President sometime to sort things out. The more they call out workers on strike, the more hardship will continue. Just in case you did not notice, the very moment a strike notice is served by the NLC, fuel station owners will lock up and cause artificial scarcity. Then fuel will become even more expensive. There will be less number of vehicles on the roads and the cost of moving from one point to the other will go up. This high cost will also affect other sectors. In the end, it is the masses that still suffer. I do not think this unending strike actions is the way forward.
The truth of the matter is that no matter how much a worker earns, if he does not think outside the box, hunger will still bite very hard. And to me, the solution is in farming. Good enough, our laws permit everybody to engage in farming while still working for the government. No matter what office you occupy, at the end of the day, roll your sleeves and enter the farm to make extra money. That is one way of chasing hunger away.
If all of us decide to go back to the farm, no matter the size, hunger will reduce. We have too many people today who think that once they graduate, the next thing is to move from one blue chip firm to the other in search of white collar jobs, where they will wear fine shirts and suit and work from 9am to 5pm, then at the end of the month, they get paid.
No. That is not the way to go again. Farming is the solution. Where I come from, in Ekureku, Abi Local Government, we produce rice and garri in commercial quantity. In case you did not know, bulk of the locally produced rice that we it in this part of the country come from my village in Ekureku and other parts of Abi Local Government. There is hardly any part of my federal constituency that you won’t find farmers doing their own thing and making it big. My mother saw me through school from proceeds of farming and till the day she died, she was doing well as a farmer. I am a proud farmer. There are scores of others who are into farming.
People from neighbouring Ebonyi state come into my village and buy rice from the local farmers and take same to Abakiliki for processing. Then Nigerians will go and buy from Abakiliki and they will claim to have bought Abakiliki rice. That is not true. It is Ekureku rice. And this is so because our people have not got a mega rice processing mill. This will soon change though.
Nobody will have time to go into the street to protest if they are busy in their farms. Nobody will be talking of engaging in acts of terrorism or other vices if they are busy in their farms. You find a lot of our young boys today getting involved in yahoo yahoo, because they do not want to work. They want quick money. This is sad and should not be encouraged.
Everyone should plant something. In your compound, plant something. If you have land and you are not ready to build, plant something. You don’t have to buy everything in the market. Plant something and you will discover that life is sweet for farmers. You cannot get it wrong.
I urge all Nigerians to arise and have a change of mindset. Hard work does not kill. Politics is not a profession. People should learn to work. Unfortunately, in our clime today, a lot of people depend on government. How many people can the government provide for? How many people can the government employ? We can generate employment for ourselves in our little corner.
People like us who are in public offices are doing our best to train people in various vocations. But believe me, there are people you train and give starter packs to go and start life, the next moment, they will sell those things and continue begging. I don’t know why people behave like that. There is no alternative to hard work. Most people believe more in begging than in working. They don’t want to work, but they want money. It baffles me. Nigerians need to change their mindset and go back to the farm. That is where our wealth lies.

You have done the first one year of your second term in office as a member of the House of Reps. What can you say you have achieved?
To God be the glory, we are moving forward in my constituency, the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency. You must have been aware that I was dragged to the election tribunal by my brother, Mr John Ifere of the Labour Party, after I defeated him at the polls. I won at the tribunal and he dragged me to the court of appeal. I also won.
The entire legal processes took about six months. And that means six months of distractions from my legislative and development blueprint. Although my major duty as a lawmaker is to make laws, I can gladly tell you that in Abi/Yakurr, just as I did during my first four years, it has been good news all the way. I started the second term mandate with another mega empowerment programme that affected the lives of everyone in the constituency-people from all the 23 wards. People had all kinds of machines with which they now use to eke out a living. There were grinding machines of all types, pumping machines for water, motorcycles for those who are interested in commercial transportation at that level. There were sewing machines, hair dressing machines et cetera. Those who had earlier been trained during my first term were provided with cash and facilities to start their fish farming businesses and I am so happy with the feedback I am getting from the beneficiaries.
Through my intervention, about 200 of my constituents have been empowered with cash by SMEDAN, to boost their businesses and I have also assisted many of the constituents to secure job opportunities at the federal level.
I have facilitated the restoration of public power supply to the Eminekpon community through the provision of a transformer. That community has been in darkness for ages. My bill for the establishment of a federal medical centre in Itigidi has reached the public hearing stage and very soon, it will be passed and same handed over to Mr President for his accent, to pave the way for the birth of that medical facility which my people have been waiting for. My motion for the dredging of the Calabar port also received serious attention and I have the hope that following the resolution of the House, the seaport will soon receive some presidential attention. This will boost commerce in my state.
The moment the 2024 appropriation law is implemented, my people will begin to witness federal government’s attention in various ways. For example, there will be solar light in selected health centres in the constituency, there will be more skills/capacity building training programmes for the people to enable them stand on their own financially. The Federal Government’s leather institute which came to the constituency through my efforts is also expected to begin active academic work during the next academic session. Some staff have already been sent to the monotechnic. Only last week, I got a commendation letter from the institute over my assistance in getting a temporary campus with buildings for the take-off of the programmes in that institute. As chairman of the House committee on specialty healthcare, I have been involved in a lot of oversight functions, including the interactive session/hearing on the need to implement the national mental health Care Act across the country.
Also, I am working in close contact with my state governor on development projects for our constituency. For example, I have reached him on the need to tackle road projects in my constituency, including the Ekureku Ring Road, the Ugep-Usumutong/Ebom-Bazuhure/Igonigoni Road, Ediba-Abeugo-Afafanyi Road, Ediba-Usumutong Road, Agbara Farm Road, Ebgoronyi-Ikwo Road, Eminiekpo Road, EdibaTown Road, Mkpani/Ago Ibami Road, Ekori/Imabana/Assiga Beach Road, Adim/Idomi/Ugep Road, and the Nko/Agoi Ekpo Road. These are some of the roads that we identified as needing urgent attention, when we went campaigning before the 2023 election. So, I believe action will be taken on them as soon as it becomes practicable and depending on availability of funds. These are some of the things I am doing quietly and I know my governor is also taking quiet actions on them.
As the farming season progresses, plans are also afoot to distribute fertilizers to my people. There is so much in the offing. I do not even want to talk about the fact that whatever I earn as a legislator is shared with my constituents through assistance in school fees, food, hospital bills and rents, social and cultural events and so on. Sometimes, the salary finishes a few days after I got it and I do not regret spending it on the people because I am where I am today because of them. I doubt if there is a day I do not get up to 100 requests for financial assistance and there are many of them that you cannot ignore. But in all, I thank God that they trusted me with their votes in the first place. I will continue to serve them to the best of my ability

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