I want to return Cross River to the path of growth – Ekpo
Eyo Ekpo, a legal practitioner, energy sector specialist and public administrator, is a governorship aspirant for Cross River State on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In this exclusive interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, the aspirant says he has the competence to return the state to the path of growth given his rich resume and experiences garnered over the years in some sensitive assignments he has been able to handle. It is his belief that the state has stopped working and there is an urgent need to rescue Cross River before it is too late. Ekpo also touches on other issues. Excerpts:
A number of private sector operators are now going into politics; and you are one of them. May we know what informed your decision to do so?
Cross River State as I like to say is a state that had experienced good governance in the past. People have seen the practical result of that good governance.Foundations had been laid ad rather than continue to build on those foundations, Cross River State has fallen very much by the wayside. When you look at every item and what you may call the index of good governance and development in the country, we are not there anymore. So, bringing Cross River State back to that path of growth on which it previously was, that is my mission.Anybody who had experienced Cross River and had seen the goodness of Cross River, those of us who are from Cross River, those who have also invested in Cross River really cannot afford to let it just go away like that. Some efforts must be made to recover the state and then begin that process of growth once again. So, that’s why in a nutshell I set myself on this path.
Watching a football match from the sidelines, usually spectators see a lot of missed scoring chances. Whereas those in the field of play may not see such. What experiences are you bringing on board for the people of Cross River State?
You know, I was once the attorney-general of Cross River State; but before then from 2003 to 2007, I started out a legal practice and in 2001 I went into the public sector as a deputy director in the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). I worked on the World Bank-funded programme that saw me taking a position as the bank sector reform team lead. So, at a very young age of 35, I saw quite a lot about governance at a high level and the difficulty of reforming. I did that for two-and-half years. Then came to Cross River as the attorney-general. I was invited by Donald Duke to join his cabinet. That was a wonderful experience for me. It took me back to the state I had left about 17 years earlier as a fresh graduate to go out into the world and make something of myself. I came back 17 years later effectively after leaving in 1986 and I contributed my quota. I was privileged and I was very lucky to be part of a government that actually wanted to be a government that was led by a governor that had the best interest of his people at heart; and went beyond rhetoric and actually did things. I was privileged to be right there at the time many of these initiatives; many of those programmes and plans were discussed, activated and agreed to be executed and implemented. In sum, the lessons I learned at that time has stayed with me. I then went back to Abuja before another three years with LiyelImoke government. I resignedfrom the administration in 2010, went back to Abuja where I first started with the power sector reform team. I went back to, shall I say, my starting ground which was the power sector; joined the power sector reform team as one of the team leaders. Six months later I was in NERC. I spent the next five years in NERC and the cutting edge of electricity reform in Nigeria. I was in charge of Market Competition and Rate (MCR) in NERC and that basically put me in the driver’s seat for the redesign of the Nigerian Electricity Market which I did for five years. Again, I learned so much; I was able to implement and also learn how to work with people with various interests; people who don’t understand what you are trying to do but you still have to carry them along in some way. We had to learn how to manage failure; we had to learn how to manage people who have no interest or desire in enabling you to achievewhatever you want to achieve; people who are just basically self-interested, but also people working with you who want to deliver on the promise of bright future for Nigeria. So, NERC was at the centre of the power sector reform efforts.Unfortunately, I can’t say that we were able to produce the 100 percent target we had set; you know as the commissioner, you are one out of several other members and you have to make sure that your colleagues are on the same page with you. May be, I can’t say it was a 100 percent success, but for me it was entirely successful; because what I set out to achieve as one person, I did. I learnt a lot; I gave a lot and I left with my head held up high. When I went to the private sector GE (General Electric), transportation, it was again another two years of massive learning. So, what I want to put across to you is that over 17 or so years, between 2001 and now I have been to school once again, school of life. Along the way, I have had lots of continued education – Lagos Business School- Advanced Management Programme; Harvard- Management of Regulatory and Enforcement Agency; Harvard (again)- Governance; acquired a Master’s degree in Law; another Master’s degree in War Studies- interestingly that’s really about how to make peace and keep it; there’s another one they called ‘Understanding the Concept of National Security in the context of the wellbeing of the citizen, not in the context of maintenance of government for whatever it does, which is the way we see national security in Nigeria. So, I have learnt; I have been educated; I have been prepared. And Cross River stands at a point in its history when it actually needs informed leadership; leadership that knows what the people feel; leadership that stays among the people, leadership that can understand what is achievable and what is its dream; leadership that knows how to plan; how to design and to execute; leadership that knows how to lead. We don’t have any of these things in Cross River State now.We were raised on a diet of good governance in Cross River State but we are now being starved of good governance. My job is just to go back and bring back that goodgovernance and then make Cross River healthy again.
Talking about returning the state to the path of growth, there were projects that were put up which were projected to generate huge revenues for Cross River, such projects as Tinapa, Obudu Ranch, among others, but the projects are now moribund. Do you have any intention of revamping such projects or just ignore them and mount new ones?
The slogan of my campaign is ‘Recover and Restore? So, there is no question about doing new things for new things sake. We will not and we will never. But at the same time, we will do things; after we have first re-established the foundation for growth in Cross River. I told you earlier that there were good foundations laid in Cross River, they have now been broken up; so, that foundation has to be re-established. It may take a little bit of time, but that must be done. Once we have done that, like I said at the beginning, we will return the state on a growth path. The key responsibility of the Cross River government on my watch will not be to try to reinvent the wheel and doing business that is best done by business people; it will be to re-establish the perception, and the reality that people used to have that Cross River was a state that was welcoming; a state of business and leisure investments; a state that had a leadership that knew what it was about; a state that had a plan and was executing that plan. Once you have those things, you then focus on governance.
Those things take you down quite a few roads – social development, law and order, creating a place of heritage; re-establishing the things that you talked about – the Obudu Mountain Race; the Tinapas of this world; recovering the infrastructure that has become moribund across the state- state-owned infrastructure, not the ones that belong to theFederal Government. So, you see that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. In a matter of days, what I called my blueprint, titled ‘A Re-development strategy for Cross River State’ will be rolled out; it means that at one time we were developing; but we are no longer developing today. So, that is where my focus is. I really want to talk about something here; we tend to pick out individual’s projects and then highlight them as if that was what Cross River is all about. Cross River State is not about Tinapa, or was it merely about Tinapa; or Obudu Ranch or the Mountain Race; Cross River State was about an endeavour that was rooted in the conviction that we were not a ‘civil service’ state. We are a state of abundant promise; of abundant talents and of abundant resources. And it did not require that we go to Abuja to indulge ourselves in the monthly ritual of FAAC allocation share before we could live and live well. So, we want to change that perception about Cross River. The endeavour therefore, was to set up a context for growth; the context for development, realisation of ability of the people themselves which will never happen if we are waiting for FAAC allocation and civil service salaries to come. What was then set out to be done by the first administration we had post 4th Republic was to lay the basic foundation– there were programmes for rural access to roads, there wasa programme for the electrification of the state; there was programme for the industrialisation of the state, there was programme for revamping of our social welfare platforms; these platforms were developed and actually executed.So, where I am going is that there was a context and we would want to go back to that context that would make people realise that Cross River State as it was then a product of a concerted effort to develop the state, at the back of that catalystic investment that Cross River State Government had made in Tinapa to come and add to it just like it happened so many years ago in Dubai when somebody built on airport in the middle of a desert. All these skyscrapers you see in Dubai were not there 30 years ago. When that happened, people realised, we can actually do something here and then the financial centre was established and many others came up, all because somebody had built a half-way house between Europe and Asia.That is the context we should look at all these projects. We are part of the concerted efforts to expand the Cross River coast and letting the whole world know that regardless of whatever is going on in Nigeria, we in Cross River State are open for business.That those projects you mentioned have gone to where they are today is a consequence of lack of vision. Cross River problem is not Tinapa, it is not the Ranch, but it is the governance of the state as led by the present administration that does not possess the ability to lead us in the right way.
Could you please lead us into some of the contents of your economic blueprint, although it has not been officially rolled out?
I wouldn’t call it an economic blueprint; I said it was a re-development strategy.It stands on four legs. I am not going to discharge my gunpowder now, but I will describe those four legs for you.
Number one is governance that is not quite economics, even though it has a direct link- governance and our debt management. I can say to you that we don’t have governance in Cross River at the moment. We used to be a case study in the symbiotic workings with the political class; with the traditional institution, and with the people.Simple basic things- as you finish your council meeting on Wednesdays, the governor says, two of you or three of you commissioners go and brief the press.And in the process of talking to the press such commissioners will enhance themselves.
They will gain confidence and ability, and understand better how to speak in public. That was a basic teaching. In the civil service, we had fewer permanent secretary then than we have now.You could see at that time there was a close connection between policy makers and the political class. Policy is advancing the cause of the civil service.That reflected in the way policy was developed and executed. We have to bring that back and it doesn’t cost too much money to do. The second one is social welfareinfrastructure. This will include the health care, education, etc. Then the third leg is hard physical infrastructure; which in budget we call roads and bridges. We have a huge stock of infrastructure in Cross River State– power, transportation, (both land and sea); we have not done much about maintaining not to talk of building up on that stock. Those federal roads that I talked about earlier are gone. The state urban renewal programme is gone, everything is gone. So, there is really need for us to work out a strategy that manages our debt in such a way that the fiscal space is opened and then we can take funds (capital) and place into investment not into recurrent which isonly where our money is going. We are spending all our money in paying salaries. We live from overdraft to overdraft in Cross River State.The government and the governor do not have time to think through how to clean up these infrastructures.
Youth unemployment is high in Cross River. Many of these youths have their PVCs but they appear disenchanted with the goings-on in government.They even think that their votes may not count this time around.What level of mobilisation and sensitisation are you doing to ensure that this mindset is changed and then the youth will participate in the voting process?
There are no two ways about it.
I cannot win an election from my sitting room. One has to go out. The name of SDP (Social Democratic Party) is resonating across the state. People are definitely aware; you can never gauge too well how it is going, you can only talk to people. I only call on people and it is what I love doing. For me, it’s been tough; but disciples are being won purely on competence; particularly among the youth demography; the name is spreading. My focus, everything I am doing is to increase our spread, and not just increase our spread, but to make sure that people will buy into it.
You are a new entrant into the game. The issue of election rigging has been with us. Some politicians are entrenched in it. How would you ensure that the votes meant for you are not diverted?
The SPD, our party, has a very unique structure.The structure doesn’t go down and stop at the world level, it goes below the ward level into the polling unit level. So, we are going to have on day of election, at least 15 to 20 people at each polling unit. We will have those polling units well monitored. We will have our people ready and willing and able to fight for their rights. We will have our people trained to understand how the rules work. We will have our people inside these places; we know what they are trying to do and we will not allow them. So, our party is growing, it is growing exponentially at the grassroots level where all parties have their eyes on.
How have you fathomed in the issue of power shift in the state.If you happened to win, would that not distort the arrangement because that would mean that the incumbent who is from the North senatorial district would no longer complete the two-term of eight years which may put his district at a disadvantage? Again, wouldn’t that consideration affect your chances?
In the minds of, thankfully, the majority of the people of Cross River State, it doesn’t count. What counts is that we have had since 1999 three governors from the senatorial districts; each of them had to fight to win their ticket except the incumbent governor, Professor Ayade. From 1999, at the back of the so-called
Attan Congress which is an agglomeration of the 11 local governments in the central and in the north to gang up against LiyelImoke, it didn’t work; what worked was recognising that each of the governors fought for themselves and they had to fight for their second terms.
In the case of Donald Duke and LiyelImoke, they did fight for themselves for their second term.And they had opponents from other parts of the state so, there was no zoning arrangement that was expected by anybody. The only person, whose candidacy has been so respected out of a sense of fairness is the current governor. For him, his predecessor, LiyelImoke, got up and said, fairness demands that we should ask the north to produce a candidate, which was why the north had over 20 gubernatorial aspirants, most of whom, if not all of whom, were from the PDP.
Only one emerged which was Governor Ayade.
So, that is one side to it. The other side to it is that we never really had a zoning arrangement in Cross River State even as PDP. In 1999 everybody came out; 2003 everybody came out; 2007, 2011 everybody came out, even when some people were told ‘don’t go, it doesn’t favour you’, they still went.
So, that is not a big deal in Cross River State.
The third point is that it is a misguided opinion, for me to say ‘O, I am from the north, it is not your turn, stay back’, and all that. It is a misguided opinion, because, I will say this very clearly and calmly too. I believe that the north has already had a governor; that is Donald Duke. You see, zoning is how people look for the lowest common denominator when you are looking for the highest common factor.
You dumb down; and look for the least problematic procedure, that’s the only way zoning works. So, you have a situation where Cross River State does not have any particular one of its problems zoned to a particular party and poverty is widespread from north to east; and lack of infrastructure is widespread from north to east; our agricultural richness is widespread from north to east. The failure to exploit it is widespread from north to south; our health problems; our educational problems is from north to south and why will anybody come and tell me he has solution based on where he comes from.
We went to Donald Duke and asked him, why are you going back after the north defeated you in an election; they didn’t want you; they voted against you; why did you allow us to go back and work in the north; they don’t like you? He said because they are Cross Riverians. The Mountain Race is at the Ranch; the Ranch is in the north; the Rice field, and many others they are all in the north.
So, if because some of those people did not vote for you and decide that you will not give the benefit of even development to those people, who do you spite? It is yourself, because you still have to go and solve that problem. What I have tried to say is that whoever is the governor of Cross River State, whether he is from the south, north or central he has to be seen as doing the job. We have problem with Ben Ayade’s legacy and it has nothing to do with the north; and this is my final point on this; that Ben Ayade, the elders know this so much, that even though he says he is from the north, he is really not for the north.
If you are from the north, you will not allow the Ranch to die, you cannot scarify a 70km road – the only main artery that goes from west to east and abandon it. You would not do that.
If you look at all these, you discover that it is not about zoning, it is about competence.
Who is capable; who is best educated; who is exposed enough; who has the integrity; who has the plan; who has the ability to execute and can take us out of this doldrum we find ourselves and back to clear blue sky that we can fly again.
You said agriculture is abandoned in the state or that it is not being given enough attention; but that is the major area of preoccupation of the state government and the governor says he is doing a lot in that area; what is happening?
What I did say was that it has not given us the optimal that it should give us. Our agriculture should have grown by now beyond primary produce into processing. We should have gone beyond where we are now, and building on the things that had been laid down. We should have seen a phase two Tinapa underway, even a phase 3. There should have been an extension of the airport from its present location in Calabar to somewhere else with more space.
How liquid are you; I mean do you have the financial war chest to drive your aspiration given the fact that it is about money and you are contesting against an incumbent that may be funding his second term ambition from the state coffers as it is done in this part of the world, or are you doing crowd-funding?
My resources are there. Friends, donors who do not know me, but have seen me talk and read what I have said are willing to help. I haven’t gone out consciously to organise fund-raising. It is only my friends who have heard what I am doing and putting efforts because I am not a candidate yet. But as of this moment, I am speaking to you; am the unofficial candidate of my party; because I am the only aspirant for governorship on the platform of SDP in Cross River State. We will make it a mutual programme; a mutual association, whereby all of us join this thing because of the belief in what we are doing. We don’t want any dividends or whatever but for the good of our people and our state; we want to see where the money is going.
In the area of security; what do you intend to do to enhance the security in the state by virtue of the growing number of unemployed people in the state?
Yes unemployment is a huge issue. In terms of insecurity in the state; perception has changed now. It has changed based on events that had happened – the communal clashes we thought had died down both interstate and intra-states; and a lot of these clashes, particularly intra-state, where it is stated that a lot of people even those in government are fighting each other for supremacy. So, along with that has gone the reputation of law and order because the government has never gone to visit any of the communities that have been attacked. The proliferation of small arms has affected us a lot. So, a lot of small arms are dancing around and one worries about the election, but we really have to work to just go back to the basis – the collaboration between the federal agencies; but a situation where some people in government have been accused of sponsoring these clashes or are known to be cult members, you begin to wonder who is governing; who is really taking care of security. So, we have a situation where it seems we have lost sight how we used to manage our relationship with the security agencies and we need to go back there.
Someone said that elections are not won or lost at the polling booths but during collation. Given what we have seen in the recent elections; the issue of vote buying and all that, how in your opinion can this be mitigated?
Education. Education; very important. There must be a number of repeated broadcasts; a repeated talking about dangers of giving money; of taking somebody’s N5,000. We are poor in Cross River; but then we also have people who are well educated; we have people who understand the choices before them. So, whether people will go with the money or go with their common sense is what I am waiting to see. We will definitely try our best to make sure that people go out to speak with their conscience and understand that this is something that we all are interested in. That is the idealistic side. In practical terms, the SDP is organised down to the polling unit level as I have earlier said. We will properly and adequately man our polling units. We are waiting to see how it goes.
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