The Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, speaks about his efforts in developing his state, the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party and other sundry issues
From being a banker to being a state executive, what has changed about you and how easy has it been?
They both involve management and at the end of the day, what you are looking at is management of resources. The principles are almost the same but the style could be a little bit different and that is what makes the difference. What matters most is our focus; knowing what to do at the right time. Some people don’t know that you prepare for leadership. Nobody just wakes up one morning and starts being a leader. You build yourself to be one. As a leader, you can’t rest until people have access to facilities and at an affordable rate. What I can say is that the private sector prepares you seriously for focused leadership in the public sector. And that has really helped, coupled with experience and ingenuity.
From the records, Akwa Ibom State gets the highest revenue from the federation account, but you said recently that you couldn’t conduct local government elections due to paucity of funds. How do you reconcile that?
It’s relative to say Akwa Ibom is the state with the highest revenue; highest revenue on what? The only revenue you are looking at is just one line; oil, because my state’s the highest oil producer in Nigeria. But, there are various lines of revenue. You are only looking at the oil revenue and that is the one that is published. Even though I get the highest revenue from oil, there was a time that for four months, Exxon Mobil did not lift a barrel of crude oil from my state. So, you can imagine the impact of that on my revenue. Akwa Ibom State produces about 46 per cent of the entire crude oil production in this country. During recession, we can create money but we may not have cash. At times, what I get as the overall allocation is not even up to certain percentage of the internal revenue of some states. What I get as overall at times could be 50 per cent of VAT paid to one of the states in this country. There are some months I get N5.1bn and a state could get internal generated revenue of 10.6bn. How do you reconcile these? How can you then say I get the highest revenue? What I get in total, some states get like three to six times of it. So, don’t look at just the oil revenue, which is a product of quantity multiplied by price. And even the oil revenue we are looking at, we don’t know what is happening behind the scene. It’s NNPC that tells us what is happening. Whoever shares meat with his mouth is the one who would know the quantity he reserved in his mouth. It’s only what he brings out that we would see. We don’t have any other source and Akwa Ibom is mainly a civil service state. So, when the economy is in terrible recession, you know that it would also affect your IGR. Even when you raise the tax rates, the ability to pay must also be there. So, you should look at the aggregate revenue. Some have got ecological funds, but I have never collected. Some have got special funds but I have not collected any before. Some have got some refunds but I’ve not got any.
Is that why the state has not conducted local government elections?
In hierarchy of needs, some are fundamental, urgent and important. I consider meeting other basic needs of the people as more important, but we will conduct it. I don’t sit in my office and write the names of local government caretaker committee members. I leave it for the people to decide. That is what makes the difference. We call stakeholders’ meetings and tell them we don’t have money to do elections yet. No matter how small an election is, it would be in about 3,000 units. Look at the personnel I would employ; the materials I would need; the generators I would buy; the security I would need; the vehicles and other resources. By the time you put all these together, you now wonder what am I set to achieve. Just for me to have someone to govern a local government, when I can call the stakeholders and they determine that in the time being, and then we use that money to pay the local government employees who have not been paid for some time, or even pay the pensioners who could die while going to vote. Some of these things are not cast in stone, so you can look at what the law allows you to do and do that in the context of available resources and what you want to achieve for the people. I think my people are very happy. But we are ready to conduct the election now. I’m meeting with the state electoral commission on it this week and we will work on how to run the election. We will conduct the election.
Many state governors are fond of tampering with allocations due to their local governments. How autonomous are your local councils?
Exceptionally autonomous, in line with the constitution. I’ve never known where they even hold Joint Account Allocation Committee meeting. If I know what goes to the local government, it’s when they give me the spreadsheet. When things were exceptionally on the down side, I was subsidising local government salaries, because what they collected could not even pay salaries. In most cases, I even took up the payment of salaries of traditional chiefs that the local government is supposed to pay. There is only one commodity that is being sought after by every human being, including a mad man, which is money. That is the only thing people use to define autonomy here. Don’t worry, that commodity does not attract people like us, rather, we support them. We don’t go near. I have never influenced the decision of the local government, but when it comes to the issue of security, I provide for everybody. And it might interest you to know that some of us stay awake for our people to sleep well.
You initiated several projects in the manufacturing sector, like coconut oil refinery, syringe factory, pencil and toothpick factory, etc., but some people are equally making efforts to sabotage that effort by destroying some plantations. Is it that the people resist change or we blame it on opposition?
I understand that democracy can only survive well when we have a solid economy. Take away that aspect; I don’t know what would happen. I’m not a prophet of doom, but I can only advise that if we really want to move forward, we need to look at the economy. However, I cannot just say everything is about opposition. First of all, it is the mindset of people, and I would not also say people are resisting change. Do they know what it is all about? If you are holding something in your hand and you don’t know the value of that thing, there is some likelihood that you might destroy it. The task is to get the people to be aware of the value, and you would have addressed that challenge. What is opposition? At the end of the day, what matters most is the people that you are working for, but I think we are trying to look at how we can have that mental rebirth for people to see beyond how they used to see it. With that, they would know that whatever we put on ground is for them; they would have that sense of ownership that it’s for them. That would make some difference. It’s to get them to appreciate first what we are trying to do, why we are doing it, who it is for, and once we get across that line, they would know the value and once they realise that, it would minimise such actions. So, I wouldn’t blame it on anybody. Rather, we would increase awareness and bring the knowledge level to what we are doing and where we are going. Also, the projects are sustainable because of the sense of ownership. Like our coconut plantation, the communities own certain percentage of it, so there is that sense of ownership. People protect what they own. So, what we do is, even when they don’t have money, we give them certain percentage of shares. Beyond that, we make these projects run as pure businesses.
We have seen cases where governors embark on several projects and leave some of them uncompleted. Given the number of projects you are embarking on at the same time, how do you intend to sustain the funding and deliver them before you leave office?
The syringe factory is a total private sector investment; it’s just part of attracting foreign investors into the state. A lot of those factories you see us setting up is not state government-owned. Some are not even under PPP; they are pure private sector-driven investments. In terms of sustainability, you cannot actually get to where you want to in four years. It’s almost impracticable. You don’t look at four years; it’s now left for the people to decide what they want for themselves. If they want you to continue, they know what to do and they are the ones who hold the power, which is the voter card. Can Udom do it in eight years? The answer is yes. Can he do it in four years, the answer is no. So, the people have the power to decide what they want in that case, but I know my people very well.
Are you implying that no government can make radical changes in four years?
It’s impracticable. Knowing the way our democracy works, the first year, you are in court throughout, from tribunal to Appeal Court and to Supreme Court. So, one year gone. Practically, what you have seen that we are calling two years in office is what we have done between March last year and now. So far, it’s about 12 months, under severe recession. You can imagine that once the economy comes back to full stream and then you allow the term run for eight years, we should be able to do more. We came with a blueprint and we are on track to get it done. It is not rocket science. I feel challenged on few things that we have to do.
Sometime ago, the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, promised that Nigeria would start producing pencil by 2019. What capacity are you looking at the state level?
I don’t reel out statistics, but let me tell you what I heard; that Nigeria spends about N750bn importing pencils annually. The question then is that, is producing pencil a rocket science? The answer is no. Akwa Ibom State has everything it takes to produce the pencil, except the lead in the pencil. With the new attention on environment, you can actually use papers to produce pencil. Things like pencil, toothpick are things we do under small and medium enterprises scheme, not what we take to be our major project. Once the passion is right, nothing is impossible. What we did was to identify that need gap. Akwa Ibom State runs free and compulsory basic education. So, looking at how many schools we have and the fact that they would need pencils. Instead of importing or buying, let me use the money I would have used to import to produce. In that process, I would employ people, and by the time you look at the whole value chain, I have done something with the economy and the effect would be there. The pencils we are producing are not only for Akwa Ibom State. As of today, we are selling to two other states. I don’t want to mention the states, but we need to keep increasing the capacity and perfecting the quality. Some people say the lead was made in China, but we must start somewhere. If as a country we started this, say 57 years ago, today, the whole of Africa would have been buying pencil and toothpick from us. Now we are even making the casing. Encourage us. From casing, we would start producing the lead and from that, we would start producing the machine that makes the pencil.
Poverty seems to be endemic in Nigeria and some governors resort to buying wheelbarrows and motorcycles. What approach are you taking in your state?
Poverty cannot go out completely but it can be minimised. How do you intend to tackle poverty? Minimise corruption. That is a very simple formula. Few things we know that can affect the society include greed. It’s only in Nigeria that one person would have 40 vehicles, and most of them are sport utility vehicles. If you put the cost of all those SUVs together, it can set up a starch factory where many people can work and make a living. How many cars do you drive in one day? Beyond that, we are making people to believe in themselves because a lot of Nigerians don’t believe in themselves. Even when we have something, we don’t see something good about it. Let’s start seeing what is good in what we have.
How many jobs have you created in two years?
I’ve not actually taken count of this but I can tell you that in a period of recession, I make sure a lot goes into capital projects. I was talking to one of the construction companies and they told me they had 400 employees, and it’s not even the biggest. So, you can imagine others and how many they have employed. In a period of recession, you need to revive the economy by pumping in money. I know we are going somewhere. In those days, when somebody tapped wine, you would think he’s the poorest person, but it shouldn’t be. Research has shown that the ethanol from palm wine is one of the best on earth, for cosmetics and alcohol manufacturers. What do we do? We will create a storage system, so that once they tap the palmwine, we extract the ethanol and from there, we get molasses that will create yeast and so on. Not a rocket science; simple knowledge. All I need is electricity to process that and I would get that done very soon. We have also intervened in cocoa plantation, maize farming, etc. How else do you create job. It’s not that difficult. It’s a matter of focus.
Sometime ago, there were rumours that you planned joining the APC due to issues with your predecessor, Senator Godswill Akpabio. How close are you to the APC?
I’ve never considered that. It is unthinkable that a pillar of PDP like me would ever think of leaving the party. I don’t do that; I’m a very loyal person. The church I was born into by my grandfather is the church I’m still maintaining till today. I’ve not changed, not to talk of political party. I can’t go anywhere outside PDP. Know that Udom is PDP, and PDP is Udom. PDP is in my blood, unless you drain my blood before you take PDP away. PDP can never die; it is the largest party in Africa, forget propaganda. It is the only party that you enter any ward in all the 774 local government areas in this country you mention PDP and nobody would ask what you are referring to. In fact, PDP in my state is like a religion. PDP is the only place you can see quality leaders, I mean elected leaders under PDP platform. Anything you hear or see today in Akwa Ibom is PDP. So, how do you expect my people to leave PDP? It’s the only party that I know.
There were also some reports that you had issues with the former governor. How true is it?
I’m not aware of that. We don’t have any issue in the direction that you are looking at. Somebody told me one day that it was a banana peel, and I told him we won’t match the banana peel, even if they put it in front of us. So, when you read those things, just ignore. There has never been any issue and there would never be. So, our relationship is as expected.
People looked forward to the maximum use of Ibom Specialist Hospital and the Health Minister also said during a visit, that with the facility, no need for Nigerians to go outside the country for medical treatment. What is the issue with the hospital, that the President and other Nigerians cannot patronise the hospital?
I will restrict myself only to Ibom Specialist Hospital. I have absolute respect for anybody who is on top of me, so I don’t discuss anybody on top of me; I respect the system. Talking about Ibom Specialist Hospital, one thing is to have facilities, another thing is for the facilities to get to where it would deliver optimum result. Where are we today? We’ve gone somewhere, but I cannot say that we have fully equipped it to that level of the vision that we have. That was why we called on the Minister that we need to partner with the Federal Government. Mind you, within that period he made that statement, dollar dropped from N186 to over N500, while revenue dropped by almost 75 per cent, which affected the planning. No matter your level of ingenuity, you cannot create something out of nothing, so, that was what actually affected the speed of us getting to where we want. The question is, would we be there? The answer is yes. There are lots of other partners that we are looking at, but we also need to make sure that our equity contribution is in place. We would be there; Rome was not built in a day.
You were the chairman of the PDP zoning committee that zoned the national chairmanship of the party to the North East. Do you agree with those who see Senator Ali Modu Sheriff’s emergence as a mistake, because some people say it is the greatest mistake the PDP ever made?
I was the chairman of the zoning committee but I had only one vote. And mind you, the committee members were over 100 and we worked under democracy. We had to do zoning arrangement that would balance the party. We did it on the basis of geopolitical zone. It was when we zoned it to a particular zone that those from there would decide the state it would go to. In the committee, I had one vote; I was just the first among equals. So, it didn’t mean I lord over everybody.
Do you agree with those who say his emergence was PDP’s worst mistake?
I think people in PDP are human. Even Shakespeare, with all his wealth of knowledge, could even tell you that you cannot look into a man’s face and tell the construction of his heart, not to talk of a committee of over 100 people. So, PDP has never claimed it can tell the minds of people based on facial outlook. Once I take a decision, I don’t have regret over it. I took that decision based on the best facts that were available for me at that time. So, it was best of judgement at that minute. Things changed; it’s only God who does not change. If situations change or the characters of people change, it doesn’t matter, so you don’t sit back and regret over that. That is where your ingenuity in management of crisis comes in. It doesn’t call for me castigating somebody’s character. No, we don’t do that. At the point we took that decision, we stood by that decision and that was the best at that point in time. And be assured that before Sheriff was nominated to be the chairman, the forum talked to so many other people. There was actually an interview process, I’m just leaking that to you now. It was a consensus and everybody in that committee accepted that. At that point, was that the best decision taken, the answer is yes. Can that decision change the next minute? Yes. That’s why we are mere mortals. We are not God. We must stand by our decisions and manage ourselves out of it. That is what differentiates between a man and someone who is not a man. That is the difference between a general and a recruit. When you hear people just sitting down and criticising, they are recruits in this field, they are not yet generals. They are supposed to manage themselves out of that situation, not criticising it.
People are waiting for the judgement of the Supreme Court on the PDP leadership crisis. Whose side are you?
I belong to PDP and at the same time, I belong to everybody. Once you are a PDP member with all sincerity of purpose, you are my party member. Human beings expect that they live in this world without minor hiccups and challenges, it’s not practicable. Anywhere you have two or three people, there are bound to be one or two issues. When you hear people say if the judgement goes the other way than they expect they would leave, know that the person is not a PDP person. Any PDP person would stay to build PDP. After the judgement, the name would disappear and party would remain. The day I was voted into office, I wasn’t voted as Udom Emmanuel, I was voted as PDP, so people go to the poll, they vote the party, not the individual. So, how come somebody would be talking about the individual now and not the party? Once you see people talking like that, know that they are not true party people. Whatever side the judgement favours, I remain in PDP. I want somebody to look tomorrow and tell my children that Oh! You are from a family of PDP. One thing about politics is that it is about negotiation. All those who are creating those scenes are just looking for basis of negotiation. We will negotiate with all of them. When you see people jumping from one party to another, they are greedy people. When you see them, look into their faces and tell them you are a greedy man. Judgement won’t change our umbrella and it won’t change anything about our party. Judgement is just to decide who heads.