Ogun workers suspend strike after four days
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Senator Chris Ekpenyong, a former deputy governor of Akwa Ibom State, shares his thoughts with PATRICK ODEY on why he joined politics, his battle with former governor Godswill Akpabio, and other issues
You are an Electrical/Electronics Engineer by training. You also have a Master’s degree in Business Administration and PhD in Public Administration. Why did you join politics?
You are now taking me to refresh my knowledge to what happened in 1999 when I was to join the Council of Registered Engineers. About four professors sat to examine me. The normal condition of joining COREN is that you must have practised for a specific number of years and you must also show what you have done. I was lucky that when I graduated in 1982 and served as a corps member under the National Youth Service Corps scheme in 1983, I contested an election on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria and I won as a corps member, and I did what I was able to do.
In Nigeria, many look at people with properties. But that was not what actually took me to politics. I veered into politics to give service because when I was a student, I needed support. I was an indigent student; I couldn’t see anybody to help me. I was told that there were representatives at that level that were paying them N15,000 as constituency allowance. So, I felt that would help me to grow by giving me support to do my project. But it was the person who gave me my wife that gave me money to do my project. That is why I have continued to feel sad about her demise. When I got enrolled into the Federal Government Technical Science School, Yaba, Lagos, to do Advance City and Guilds in Electrical Installation, one Prof Salau, who was my lecturer in 1975, asked me why I joined politics? I said, ‘Prof, if I don’t go into politics, my place will not be developed and my people will not be lifted out of ignorance and misconceptions’. But today, I give thanks to God because where I came from was a bush; people used to call us children of those who fetched firewood. But I was able to create Obot Akara in 1976. So, as an electrical engineer, I went into politics to render service.
Many Nigerians see politics as an unworthy venture because of unfulfilled promises by politicians. Do you agree with this?
It depends on the perception. Like I said earlier, if I had not gone into politics, I don’t think I would have been able to attract government presence and support to build bridges, which was done by Governor Udom Emmanuel. The 24-kilometre road in my community was done by Victor Attah when I was his deputy. All these were the consequences of my joining politics. Others have also come out to join politics because of these; people have gone to school; they have water, they have clinics and schools. So, I didn’t go into politics because I wanted to make money. I made money, the houses I built; even this one was not built when I was in the Senate. It was built in 2017 before my people called me to contest the election in 2019. So, when I assess myself, put myself on a scale, and I look around, I discover that I have not seen personal gains, but I have seen corporate gains.
You said Obot Akara was created by you. What do you really mean by that?
Obot Akara is a local government. I wrote the paper and defended its creation before the Chief (Arthur) Mbanefo panel that was set up by the late Sani Abacha regime in 1996.
You sound so passionate about the development of your place. Can you point to some of the things you have been able to do in politics for your people?
If I were not in politics, I don’t think I would have spent my resources to build the Obot Akara Bridge. Have you gone to Umuahia Road? That bridge was impassable between 1999 and 2001. Even when I lost my father, I was to bury him within a period of two weeks and I went and persuaded the bishop and he said I must bury my father. I had to create a by-pass to enable me to bury my father. But at the end of the day, I wore a beautiful suit and went and laid flat before Chief Tony Anenih, who was the federal Minister of Works and Housing and one minister of state from Kaduna. I persuaded them to support me to build the bridge. I remember the then governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, asking me, ‘Why can’t your governor support you to build the bridge?’ He told me that he took out a loan to construct a road to his deputy governor’s community in northern Cross River.
But the then governor of Akwa Ibom State, Attah, did not support me. So, I went and asked the then Minister of Works, and he said he had no budget for it and that if the work was going to exceed N30m, he did not see its possibility. I begged him to try and help me. And he eventually awarded the job at the cost of N49m and I took up my phone and called one engineer from here; he is still alive. I asked, ‘How much do you think that job can cost’ and he said about N24m. I said, if it is N24m, why would I go and lie down before someone? This is because at that time, I had a flourishing business in Lagos that I could afford to give N24m on behalf of myself and my people. So, I gave him N24m and he couldn’t finish the job. The Federal Government through Chief Tony Anenih awarded the job at a fixed contract sum of N49m and only released N30m, but that job was finished at N64m. So, who bore the N34m? It was me, Christopher Ekpenyong. So, when you talk about my contributions, you are passing through a Federal Government road constructed by me. I lost N34m; I did not go into politics to amass wealth but to render service.
You once said that you would support anybody who Governor Udom Emmanuel anoints as a successor, even if the person is a cripple. Why did you say so?
I know that Governor Udom Emmanuel had been the man that always had confidence in me, because it is through him that I contested the 2019 senatorial election with my opponent, Godswill Akpabio, who said the election had already been won, and that I was Akwa United Football Club and that he was Arsenal Football Club. He (Akpabio) also said the election would be concluded in three hours. I went to the immediate past Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, Mr Mike Igini, a very committed and patriotic Nigerian. I was returning from my farm and I told Mike Igini that I had not gone to the Independent National Electoral Commission since I left office in 2005 as the deputy governor.
So, I went to him and he received me in his office and asked me what my mission was. I told him I was just coming back and the news came up that my opponent, Godswill Akpabio, who had moved from the Peoples Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress, said that because I was nominated to contest against him, I was not a match. So, I came to confirm from you if the election had already been concluded. Then, I was 64 years old and I didn’t want to waste my time and my resources. He (Igini) said, ‘Your Excellency, I used to hear about you but I have not met with you one on one, but I want to say that I come here to do elections and that naira will not count, neither will dollars count. So, if you go and campaign and your people vote for you, it is the result of whatever your people will decide that you will get; if they reject you at the polls, you will get the result’. So, I went and campaigned in 108 wards and more than 300 units and at the end of the day, the result came up. It was even in Ikot Ekpene that I lost; he (Akpabio) won in Ikot Ekpene by 1,500 votes, but I won in Ukanafun and the rest. The credit goes to Udom Emmanuel because he supported me. I had good support throughout from him. But I also sold my properties both in Abuja and Lagos to prosecute the campaign. I told my son that the man (Akpabio) probably wanted to disgrace me. I have been out of politics for 12 years and people suddenly said come and contest. Everybody ran away; they didn’t want to challenge him (Akpabio).
I was the sacrificial lamb. When I won the poll, people still believed that he would defeat me at the tribunal. Of course, he did all he could at the tribunal here in Uyo, but they gave me victory. He then took me to Calabar, Cross River State, to appeal and he was able to get his way when we were asked to go back for a re-run in his local government. By the grace of God and the goodwill of the people, I still emerged the victor. That is what has sustained me in the Senate. I returned back to the Senate on January 29, 2020. So, I don’t see anything spectacular, but to whom much is given, much is expected. People were just political jobbers and I said well, if Udom Emmanuel brings somebody, whoever he brings, I will support him, and if the person is a delight of the people and the state, I will support and I have never changed from that. I am still in the PDP and so, if he has a candidate that is acceptable to the people, I will support him. Good enough, we have the Electoral Act, 2022 in place that does not allow you to carry ballot boxes and run away. Now, it is one man, one vote.
How will you describe your victory over a two-term governor of your state?
It was God’s victory. If someone said that I was not a match to him, and then God decided to turn whatever He desires to my favour and gave me victory and he (Akpabio) became the victim. So, it is God’s own victory and the people’s victory.
Can you tell us why you didn’t want to go back for a second term in the Senate despite the interest in such a position among politicians?
You know politics has a lot of bearing. There was an event on a Sunday, people gathered at the deputy governor’s office and I was invited. People showed interest in the senatorial position. People also made observations that it shouldn’t be that fellow that it should be me. Among the 10 local governments that converged, I never lobbied, I never requested for anything, but they said, ‘Na you we want’. I appreciated them for giving me that kind support and opportunity. That was the beginning of the battle and I promised that I was only going to do one term. I will be finishing the term at the age of 68 plus and I don’t intend to be in the corridor of power forever. Some people called me ranking by age in the Senate because they give me a lot of respect.
As a senator, are you worried about the prolonged strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities? What has the National Assembly done by way of intervention?
Incidentally, I am not a member of the Committee on Education, but I share the sympathy with ASUU. It is a failure of the government in power. But I’m still worried that our then President, the first time we had a PhD holder as a President, was highly educated yet there was an ASUU strike for many months. I had thought that he would be the one to find a solution to the ASUU problem, but he couldn’t. ASUU had complained of brain drain. Our educational system is highly dysfunctional and for the government to close their eyes and not adopt solutions being suggested by ASUU for the growth of education as well as manpower is catastrophic. I am not in support of the government folding their hands and saying ASUU should do whatever it likes. There should be an agreement between ASUU and the Federal Government.
You are in support of Umo Eno to replace Governor Udom Emmanuel. Do you think he has the needed experience to win the 2023 governorship election?
What matters is the views of the people; you can bring anybody; you can take a horse to the stream, but you cannot force it to drink water. It’s one thing to bring someone into a political foray, it’s the decision of the people; it’s true that I said any person that the governor brings I’ll support, but I’m not going to force the people. I belong to the PDP and if the people say they want him, why not? Who am I to object? I abide by the party and what the people say.
You were the deputy to former governor Victor Attah and you contributed immensely to the success of the administration, but you did not complete the eight-year tenure with him. Was there any disagreement between both of you?
Why do you have to go to the past when we should be looking at the future? Something that happened 17 years ago? I am moving forward. Today, I am a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, why should I not focus on the few months that are left for me to finish the tenure? I offered myself like so many people to be the governor of Akwa Ibom State, but couldn’t make it because of political intrigues. That is why we see what we are seeing today because the intrigues will not allow the best material to emerge.
The National Assembly handed down an impeachment threat to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), over high insecurity and poor economy. What is the way forward?
Yes, I’m among the group, a ferocious member of the group. You see, we are in an economic miasma; things are not moving. In 2014, when he (Buhari) was campaigning, naira was 160 per dollar and he said the economy would be jump-started. It’s going to be the best economy in Africa. He talked about the insecurity that he would make it to be a thing of the past. That time, we had only the Chibok girls who were kidnapped and the then President was unable to bring them back and he (Buhari) said that would also be a thing of the past, and being a general in the army, we were like, oh, he has the magic wand.
The infrastructure programme he talked about was already started by President Goodluck Jonathan; the design of the rail line, the design of the Second Niger Bridge, reinvention of the airports, those were the road map of the PDP government under President Jonathan and he said he would be better than him. Now, what do we see? Even in Abuja, terrorists are threatening that they are going to catch him and the Governor of Kaduna (Nasir El-Rufai), and they made good their threat; they came close to Aso Rock where we have the Law School and the school was shut down and then they came close to kidnapping people. Look at the train attack; people were abducted in the train, and the train service has been suspended. So, in all these failures, people in the Senate, because we’ve always been on the side of the people that elected us for the national interest, this time around, it is quite bipartisan, whether you are in the PDP or the APC, you look at it, you know that this country has failed. That is why we say he must go. Recently, I heard him say by December, insecurity would be over, that shows he is doing our bidding because we said if this and this was not done, we would impeach him. So, we will review to see if he has done something better for us to rescind our decision.
Is it not belated to issue such a threat considering the fact that the President has a few months to go?
Was President Donald Trump not threatened? He was even impeached by the Congress except that he survived impeachment till the last day. So, no time is too late for any politician to be impeached. Was I not threatened with impeachment until the National Assembly investigated and found out that I was not culpable of the allegations? That it was political intrigues of succession. They told Attah, ‘If you allow this man to stay beyond December 2005, he is going to succeed you’, but if I had succeeded him, you would know the magnitude of the work I would have done. I told you what I was able to do as the deputy governor; I would have cited industries in the states, because I know the importance of that. The ones we had, had been sold off. Look at the battery industry at Ikot Ekpene, the Quality Ceramic industry in Itam, you have about 95 per cent clay to produce and we allowed that industry to rot away and our children are graduating every day, roaming the streets and have no place to work. I don’t blame Governor Udom Emmanuel, because he inherited a dysfunctional government from Akpabio.
You voluntarily resigned as the deputy governor, what motivated that action?
Yes, I voluntarily resigned and if I did not take that action, I wouldn’t have been here talking to you. I resigned for my safety because I found out that people were very dreadful then. We had a large rice farm at the Ini Local Government Area. Bad governance; this was the thing I saw and I said it was better for me to go and stay alive and fight tomorrow.
What are the chances of the PDP taking back power at the national level amidst the crisis between the presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, and Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State?
There is no crisis in the PDP. There is a perceived crisis; it is imaginary. Normally in a political space, you must find disagreement and that disagreement will actually have a negative consequence on the strength of the party in winning elections. If you remember that the PDP came into being through people’s desire in 1998 and I was one of the people that played a vital role in the formation of the PDP. Initially, I was not a member of the G34 headed by the late Chief Alex Ekwueme. Some of the people you find even in the All Progressives Congress were members of the G34. It was the group of people that agitated for military rule to be set aside for civil rule, which of course took a democratic process. I later joined them when they were G13 and transited to the PDP in our Catholic hall in August 1998.
We went to form the different arms of the party. It was the then governor Attah who designed the flag of the PDP; Chief Don Etiebet, the leader of South-South PDP, and capable people like Chief Tony Anenih had to succumb to him. So, when somebody calls us young people, or young children, we should not totally disagree because most of us were not there when the party was founded. Somebody like Prof Jerry Gana was the protem secretary of the PDP when I carried Don Etiebet’s hand as the South-South leader of the PDP. So, most of the people agitating now about the misgivings of the PDP were not there when the party was founded. Just like me, I can afford to steer the crisis in Akwa Ibom State because things didn’t go the way I planned, but I wouldn’t do that. Those that enjoyed the PDP and left were not in the formative stage. You cannot say without you, the PDP cannot stand. Why must somebody say that because it’s not you? If there is a crisis, there will be a solution, but there is no crisis. I answered Bode George the other day that what does it take a southerner to tear the South? I asked if (Governor Ifeanyi) Okowa is not a southerner. We have a policy in the PDP; we said the presidential office shall rotate between the North and the South when we started in 1999.
President (Olusegun) Obasanjo from the South enjoyed that arrangement, then the late President (Umaru) Yar’Adua and it was abruptly terminated due to his demise and power came back to the South for the then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, to succeed him. Then power should go back to the North. For the APC, President Buhari has completed his eight years and power will move to the South. That is the APC, but in the PDP, it’s the turn of the North and when we went for the nomination, all of them pledged to accept the outcome because the presidential nomination was thrown open and was not zoned to the South, though we made a law that caught up with us. We were just watching as statutory delegates. Governor Nyesom Wike said that even if he was not nominated, he would remain in the PDP. So, we take him by his words; let him be a man of honour. Whatever action he takes, I don’t see how it will have an adverse effect on the party. For me, I will talk to my people here to vote for the PDP and I don’t think his action there will affect my people here. We all enjoy one way or the other from the party.
Are you not worried that the presidential candidate is from the North and the party chairman is from the North?
When they were hosting the PDP convention, they agreed that any office occupied by the North would come to the South and vice versa. We asked if the presidency should be zoned, but the people said it should be thrown open. Do we understand the politics of Nigeria? We are talking about the candidate, not the President; allow him to win the election first, then things will shift because the North cannot hold the presidency and the national chairman of the party at the same time. It happened in Obasanjo’s time; we are just making inconsequential things to become consequential.
In the Akwa Ibom chapter of the PDP, a reconciliation committee was set up to reconcile all aggrieved persons. Is the committee living up to expectation?
I’m not a member of the committee; I’m not angry with the party and nothing concerns me. I don’t know the terms of reference of the committee. I want the people’s right to prevail.
The Niger Delta Development Commission was established to speed up development of the Niger Delta region. Are you satisfied with the performance of the agency so far?
I’m one of the people who laboured for the establishment of the NDDC. I played a role in the establishment of resource control; Attah was the arrow head. The then governor of Delta State, James Ibori, supported it; former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, of blessed memory supported him, though some other governors did not. Former President Obasanjo resolved to seek judicial interpretation, though that battle was won. The next thing was the creation of the NDDC, and you know that the law establishing it was not assented to by the President. It was a law enacted by the National Assembly and it returned and the National Assembly overrode it, then there were various departments and directorates instituted in that formation; take three per cent outside the 13 per cent so that they can use it to develop the region. A group of managers led by Timi Alaibe came and set up the Niger Delta Development Bank, but successive administrations did not follow that road map. It’s unfortunate and they turned it into a money-making machine and you see when the headship is called to give an account at the National assembly, you see them collapse.
Did you subscribe to views in some quarters that the NDDC should be scrapped?
No. My view is that we should not scrap the commission. The forensic audit that was conducted, we’ve not seen the result; they should make it available. The people of Niger Delta should get up and take their rights.
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