Eyo Ekpo, a former attorney-general of Cross River State and the governorship aspirant of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in this interview with MIKE ABANG, talks about his mission, the state of Cross River, mistakes of the incumbent, chances of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) at the poll, what to do about the rising debt profile of the state, among other issues. Excerpts:
What could be the worst thing that may happen to Cross River State in 2019?
The worst thing that can happen to Cross River is that we find ourselves in the hands of a governor who given his current record will definitely handover to someone that will be worse than him and if we think that things are bad now, wait until we make the mistake which I pray will never, of making the current administration continue. Every one of us will see how it is possible to keep on setting new records of depravity in governance. Why am I saying it is a bad proposition?
We depend on governance to actually attract the people that will make us live reasonably well which is what we started doing in 1999 particularly during the second term of the Donald Duke administration when Cross River actually became a destination whether for business or for leisure.
What this administration has done is to force everybody to be dependent on government and I am sorry but it is really so sad that the 3 or 4 billion naira that we get as federal allocation is being consumed by salaries and we borrow on top of that just to pay salaries, not allowances, not imprest, not pensions and definitely not gratuities. So that mantra that we pay salaries, we have been so deceived by it that if there is any state that our ‘Mumu don do’ needs to become a slogan, it is Cross River.
The indices of underdevelopment did not start today, why have you decided to come in now and does your party, the SDP, have the structure to win elections in the state?
The political challenge to those who wish to go against incumbents in Cross River is to actually present a credible alternative and focus less on the party even though what is going to be on the ballot paper is the party’s symbol. There is actually something that you can interrogate very closely and I am calling on you guys in the press to rise up to the occasion and help the people of this state interrogate very clearly what is good. It is not about empowerment alone because empowerment is all about taking my money and giving it back to me. That’s not empowerment.
Genuine empowerment is that which we give to somebody to enable the person stand on his own two feet properly and not to give you five, ten thousand or even a second hand car that you will have to look for money to maintain. Give me training, show me how to use this camera, let me buy a camera, guarantee me a loan so that I can go and buy a garri milling machine, take my idea that I have for something or the other that can be built. Give me training on human resource management, accounting, small business management, marketing and sales, put me through that school and then give me a loan that I will not have to repay for the next six months, give me a moratorium on it, three, four or five million by that you have empowered me. But what do you call empowerment today, total insult.
SDP is actually setting up a structure. It has a structure that goes into the states into local government areas, into wards, it’s a strong name. SDP is talking to us and maybe we should actually give some trial too but it does not take that long to see the truth.
Assuming Ayade is denied a ticket in PDP and he decides to come to the SDP, will the party accept him?
Nobody can stop them, you go to a ward take a membership card and join. If he comes to the SDP, with the express purpose of becoming the candidate of the SDP, well those of us in the party will have the option of either staying or going to another party. If the SDP betrays its ideals and gives to somebody like Ayade its ticket which is the right of members of the party by either direct or indirect primaries, it’s an academic question because the PDP cannot afford not to give Ayade its ticket.
How will you defray the state’s debts in view of its high rate of insolvency?
We have a huge debt profile because we are not attracting investments into our state. It appears insurmountable because we want to pay our debts from the N5 billion that comes in from FAAC every month which is for states and local governments. Unfortunately, that 5 billion goes to paying salaries and that is the basic reason why you think our debt is insurmountable. Fortunately, government cannot be declared bankrupt, public entities cannot be declared bankrupt and there will always be money somehow.
So, I’m not worried at all about out debts. Debts can be restructured and bought. Cross River state today does not have the ability, the thinking capacity in government which is very ironical considering the fact that we have the largest number of political appointees ever seen in the state. None of them is actually thinking of how to repay our debts. It’s amazing, truly amazing. Nobody is applying himself to actually sit down and come up with a valuable plan that will enable this state either to sell its debts or to pay it off and yet we have the natural resources, we have the brain in the state, we have the means to actually deal with this debt.
How much is it?
I hear that it is about 170 billion dollars or so. I’m not making light of it because it is hard work and by the way, if nobody knows, anybody that is going to be the governor that is a credible person it may be me or somebody else but whoever is going to be the governor of Cross River state after this administration is coming to suffer because your work is to persuade people that had given up on Cross River state to come back. We do not have the earning capacity to pay up our debts ourselves, it’s that simple, you have to accept that. You have to get other people to buy in to the idea once again of a Cross River that is actually bubbling and brimming with ideas and know how to execute those ideas.
Will you continue with the projects the government is embarking on as from 2019 like the deep seaport, Calafarm, Centricot, and the rest?
The projects currently ongoing by the present administration, like the rice factory, garment factory, Calafarm, Centricot, most of these are MoUs. Our governor is known as the MoU governor. MoUs have a very finite life usually 90, 180 days and maybe a year and they will be renewed. The reason why an MOU does not become a solid implementable project, properly financed with commercial viability is that the people who are supposed to put money into it have sense. They have come, looked and seen that there is no justification for what they were told and so they take their money and they go away.
That brings me to the project on the ground, how many of them have real private sector money? How many of them have real private sector funding? When you have a PPP, the money is from the private sector the public usually gives natural assets like land and guarantees which is not money but a promise that you will pick up a particular bill if it is not paid by the private sector. Has anybody called you to show you how we procured this project, how they procured their private sector partner? Has anyone said to you “this is the contract we negotiated with our private sector partner, this is the key financial and commercial terms, these are the guarantees we were given?”
The basic underlying rigor that enables a project to have life in a continuum is not there, its missing, so I suspect that the question that the new governor will have to answer is not whether he should continue those projects but whether he should go and resuscitate them and the answer to that question I would give is very simple. Is there anybody in the private sector that is ready to go and put his money in there? If there is none then let’s deploy our money in the right way and to the right things. If there are genuine PPPs and they are actually viable and are continuing in business, then the question answers itself, why would I as a governor want to stop them? That’s foolishness. Cross Riverians are unemployed, tax is being paid and people are coming into the state to do business, who am I to kill it? I must continue it and help to make it bigger, find a way to make it grow. That’s my job as governor of Cross River state.
What institutional framework did you put in place for the sustainability of TINAPA because several governments have cited this as a huge problem to the state?
In April 2007 when President Obasanjo came to commission TINAPA, we had already rented two out of the four malls, and about 10percent of the 216 line malls had been rented out already. TINAPA was actually a going concern on the day Donald Duke handed it over to his successor. The framework that had gone into preparing TINAPA was tremendous, we had some of the best people come and look at what we wanted to do here, and it got to a point where we actually persuaded people with private money.
This governor went round talking and lobbying people with private money to come and invest in TINAPA and they did because they knew that it was going to succeed. We got all the regulatory approvals that were required from the customs, immigration, FIRS and from NPA. It was all in place and on the day that the former Governor left office, TINAPA was viable. What happened afterwards is another matter of history. Somebody went and told the president of this country that TINAPA was a den of smugglers and it was shut down and that is where autocratic power can come in. nobody can work out any kind of antidote against that kind of thing happening, so the president’s order shut down TINAPA.
It took another 19 months from August 2007 to February 2009 for TINAPA to be re-opened and by then all the investors had gone. Donald Duke did not hand over an unplayable debt to anybody, whether it was in terms of the procurement and all that, I know that we had something that would have been the bedrock of our prosperity in this state. I know the next question will be why this guy did that. Have we all been to Dubai? Most of us have been there, I’m very sure of that at least.
The world has not forgotten that Dubai started with that guy Kutum, that Sheik, building an airport in the middle of the desert and saying to himself that I had been told that this place that I happen to be the leader of is halfway between Europe and Asia. When people travel, they must stop to drink water so they will stop here because this airport is a fantastic one and I will hand it over to the airlines of this world to use as their hub free of charge.
The idea behind TINAPA was that we have a port, we have this entrepreneurial state that is landlocked behind us, Abia State, Imo, Enugu state and they are known for trading so we will make this place a trading hub and work to improve our hinterland infrastructure. You know what; I knew that TINAPA was going to work when the people who control Alaba international market and Aria Aria put money into TINAPA. If those people, they are not foolish, you can call them anything that you like if they put money into TINAPA then it was a matter of time.
This is Nigeria where the river that runs through your own land is not controlled by you which is an aberration and the one thing that you cannot really protect yourself against is somebody sitting in Abuja and saying kill it. When I went to Abuja to fight against what they did against TINAPA in 2006/7, somebody told me this TINAPA do you think it will work when there is nothing like that in Lagos, Kano and Enugu? And I said to him we did not take anybody’s money it is our brain we used to do TINAPA, what stops Enugu State, Kano State and Ondo State from doing their own TINAPA? There is enough business to go round, but that is the kind of thinking that killed TINAPA. So how do you now expect Donald Duke or anyone else at that time to take responsibility for the inability or the failure of the people that succeeded him to move rapidly to find a way to a problem that he did not create?
Tags: Cross River