…A LEADER WHO CAN THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Obong (Engr.) Offiong Usen Akpabio is an engineer, businessman and technocrat of no mean repute. Akpabio, a former special adviser to ex-President Ibrahim Babangida, is a cerebral and down to earth administrator.
With his distinctive leadership qualities, he emerged recently as the leader of Uyo Senatorial District Leaders’ Forum, a formidable socio-cultural and political group in Akwa Ibom State.
An alumnus of the University of Technology, England and other foreign and Nigerian institutions, he is a development expert. In this exclusive interview with Crystal Express, Obong Akpabio speaks on a wide range of contemporary issues in Akwa Ibom State, Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole. Excerpts:
Let us meet.
I am Obong Offiong Usen Akpabio, an engineer, businessman and technocrat. I had division one in my West African School Certificate at Lutheran High School, Obot Idim, Uyo; Higher School Certificate with three principal papers in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at Government College, Umuahia. I equally had my GCE (Advanced Level) awarded in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at Government College, Umuahia Centre.
Fortunately enough, we were recruited as Shell scholar by Shell B.P after a rigorous examinations and interviews. We were about 250 students across Nigeria and at the end, only 18 of us were recruited. I went and obtained my Bachelor of Engineering in Britain and got integrated into petroleum engineering in the Shell Institute at The Hague, Netherlands. I returned to Nigeria and worked for Shell B.P in Port Harcourt, Warri and Lagos states. After that, I went into private practice as a consulting engineer both for the oil industry and other related engineering practices. When I left Shell, I joined the services of the Cross River State Government as an engineer and rose to the rank of chief industrial engineer and by 1985, I voluntarily left the Cross River State Government services and went into what I called my core interest, which is consulting engineering. I was doing it until 1991 when a friend of mine introduced me to former Nigeria’s President, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who recruited me as a special adviser and mandated me to bring about the first export processing zone in Nigeria. That was how the premier export processing zone in Calabar came into life. From that point onwards, it became some kind of odd jobs here and there, one of which was my assignment as a member of the National Education Technology Board in Kaduna and the Lagos International Trade Fair in Lagos. Outside of that I am till date a member of the economic development team of Akwa Ibom State. That in a summary is what I can recall apart from my core interest in industrialization. While I was in Cross River State Government, I started and brought into being the five industries sited in the present day Akwa Ibom State. They are the Qua Steel Product Limited in Eket, Sunshine Batteries Limited in Ikot Ekpene, Quality Ceramics Limited in Ikot Ebom/Ikot Ekwere in Itu, International Biscuits and the restructuring of Cross River Breweries known as Champion Breweries today. It was restructured from 500 hectolitres to 1 million hectolitres. That has been how I went into my core area. Outside of that I am a member of National Association of Small Scale Industries and other Chambers of Commerce (NASSIMA). In the social areas, I am a member of Ikoyi Club, president of Calabar Sports Club and a trustee of Uyo Sports Club.
The industries you earlier mentioned are all moribund today. What led to their demise in your opinion?
To be very frank with you, those industries are not moribund and they were properly conceptualized and executed. All that is required is for government to have industrialization drive behind them. All that is required is to detach civil service approach to their management. Industries do not need the bottleneck in approvals of items as seen in civil service but swift decisions in ensuring the progress. When we were in service we de-emphasized on government full control of industries. However, since the industries were built by government, the government’s equity participation was largely in ensuring they owned it. If you set up an industry, it is better allowed to be run by the public and let people come in with fresh ideas into the industry for progress. Government must stay away from direct running of industries. Akwa Ibom State has the best clay for tiles, ceramic products, water systems and others, but government bureaucracy, which is alien to industrial growth, never allowed the ceramics industry here to flourish.
The managing director of an industry should have powers to make minute by minute decisions and implement actions that ginger growth without bottlenecks. Industry is target setting and ability to meet the targets. If you don’t meet the targets, you should be able to have an answer as to why you have not met the targets and should be able to have a mechanism that will clear your obstacles in order to meet your targets. We don’t need bureaucratic bottlenecks of civil service in managing industries because time is money and time is industry. Government and industry cannot meet. Government has the money and can set up Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT). Once you can set up such operation, allow experts to run it.
They can allow people to buy into the industry. As an industrial engineer, I discovered that the best government can do is limit itself to industrial issues as a lender like the Bank of Industry to such industrial outfits and provide them with enabling environment to ensure that their products get to end users.
Having traversed the oil and gas sector and civil service, at what point did you join politics and what impact have you made in politics?
We are all political beings and politics is one’s ability to make life better for others. Governance of the people by the people for the people – that’s politics. Therefore at every time, you are both interested and also participating in politics unknowingly sometimes. In 1990, I was ‘captured’ and brought into politics; that was the year I joined General Ibrahim Babangida’s government as a special adviser. And that was the year, under the tutorship of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Industrial; the two groups came together and wanted to give Nigeria a regime of export processing. So I became a member of the team. However, I did not know how I was chosen to join the team. So we were trained in Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland and South Korea where the training dovetailed into a feasibility studies for the project called Nigeria Exporting Processing Zones Authority. Finally we went to Turkey where a group of people groomed us and I was chosen as the Nigerian counterpart leader. After all said and done, Calabar was chosen for the project and the project is resident in Calabar now ahead of areas like Tin Can Island and Apapa Port that were already choked up. One of our findings at the time was that Ibaka is the only area that has natural depth that will not need any sand dredging for seaport. That was why the decision to make Ibaka a deep sea trans-shipment centre was taken. Trans-shipment in the sense that big vessels will come from far and wide with tons and tons of containers and when they arrive here, if you don’t have a bay that can accepts big ships, then you will have a problem. In West Africa there are only two areas with such depth; namely Cotonou and Ibaka. Cotonou is a small place and most of the cargos into Cotonou are from Nigeria. Therefore Ibaka became a useful spot for deep sea trans-shipment centre, so that at least all the cargos can come into Nigeria. And once all the cargos come into Nigeria, at least there’s one single customs territory that you deal with. But if it goes to Cotonou before coming into Nigeria, you have to deal with two customs territories; which means you are inflating your cost of delivery. So there are so many gains therefore to explore in Ibaka as the hope for the future.
To answer your question directly, so 1990 is the year I got inducted into politics and I started playing marginal politics. Resident only in Uruan Local Government Area, I was involved in raising leaders at different levels and ensuring that they kept to their manifestoes. I was also part of the team that brought in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999. It was in the President Olusegun Obasanjo’s era that I accepted to serve as a member of the Nigerian Board for Technical Education in Kaduna for four years. I was also involved as a member of the Board for Lagos International Trade Fair Complex. Beyond that, in Calabar, I was chairman of Cross River State Limestone Limited. I was chairman and a member of all the boards of the companies you find in Akwa Ibom now because we were at the restructuring and the building stage. Even up to when Ime Umana was chairman of Champion Breweries, I was a member of the restructuring board.
But outside of that, here I am, coming to the politics of Uyo Senatorial District. I am a member of the Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum by benefit of the fact that I am a leader and also from the zone. I took over from Obong Peter Ekpe Atakpo who passed on recently. After his obsequies were conducted, I was invited by leaders in the nine local government areas of Uyo Senatorial District (Uyo, Uruan, Nsit Atai, Itu, Etinan, Nsit Ubium, Nsit Ibom, Ibiono Ibom and Ibesikpo Asutan) to come forward and assume leadership of the group. They cited my experience, competence and capacity to move Uyo forward. They said I should take over from where late Ekpe Atakpo stopped and pilot the affairs till when there will be next election. I was humbled by their request and accepted the mantle of leadership as the leader of Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum.
How is your group working to ensure that the process leading to the election of candidates for 2023 is free fair, transparent and violence-free as leaders?
If you look at the terrain of Uyo Senatorial District, we have had a routine of zoning, just like the mantle has fallen on them to produce a governor in 2023. I can tell you that Uyo is more than prepared to produce the next governor because when you look at the array of aspirants, each council area that makes up the senatorial district has between two and five aspirants. They are all men of character and all have some level of ability to give the state the expected leadership. The aim of Uyo District leaders is to objectively and transparently look at the aspirants and ensure that the popular and most acceptable emerges. The primaries will come and one person will come out each from known political parties and whoever wins, the people will queue behind him and give support necessary for him to succeed.
There is this cry for micro zoning from Itu/Ibiono Ibom Federal Constituency for consideration in producing the next governor in 2023. They claimed it is their turn now. What is your take?
There is what is called dynamism. It is the ability for change. Before now people travelled quite a long distance to pass messages to others but today they are just a phone call away, making the world a global village. The world is evolving. In Uyo, we need to produce and present our first level. Akwa Ibom has to keep moving forward beyond where we are presently. So we need people who can think outside the box; somebody that will take the state to the next level after Governor Udom Emmanuel. The nine local government areas that make up Uyo Senatorial District have credible aspirants and I won’t be part of closing any space. Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum is for all aspirants. Micro zoning should be talked at the level of the state. Those clamouring for micro zoning have their reasons and the right to clamour for it. However, the right is not cast in stone. That is to say that if the right is not given to them because of the evolving nature of life, it is not a death sentence.
Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum is not a political party but we are ready to deliberate on issues that come to us to ensure justice and fairness to all persons at all times. We are not to be insistent or adamant on any issue. The governor recently said he has a vote and that it is just for one person whom he has chosen but that does not foreclose others from aspiring to achieve their goals. The truth is that government will continue, no matter who emerges the winner at the end of the race. The more in the race, the merrier, it is. We are not bound by micro zoning even though there is growing clamour from Itu/Ibiono Ibom Federal Constituency, which is also justified. Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum will not get itself entangled with issue of Micro zoning or macro zoning. We are going to be father for everybody, open our gates to all, align and realign. Each member of Uyo Senatorial District has their own vote and mind and can stand with anybody in democracy. There is freedom of choice. It is the rule by the people for the people.
Don’t you think that the governor’s open endorsement of one aspirant will confer an undue advantage to the person against others in the race?
If you have cross-checked well, you will realize that I am not totally African-oriented in my politics. By 1967 I was already in Britain and I have listened to politics across the globe. The governor in his own wisdom has to play politics the way he wants, that is his method and style. There is enormous power and interest in governance and decision taken at that level affects everybody but people should not lose sleep. In Akwa Ibom, the governor has taken a decision which has some effects but it should not stop anyone from exercising his freedom to aspire.
Is the Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum open to all people of certain age bracket, political party; or who are eligible to be members?
I am very pleased you asked. The group is Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum, not Elders Forum. You are a leader in your own right. If you are from Uyo Senatorial District you are entitled to the forum but whether you like to belong is your own personal decision. If you decide to belong, you apply. It is so simple to be a member. We follow due process and hardly reject anybody.
As the new leader of the forum, what’s your vision for the kind of leadership you want to bequeath to the people?
I will like to say that the present forum is feeble and can hardly rise to any occasion. They are reactive not proactive and hardly set the pace. I want to believe that the forum I will lead will be a think-tank. The forum has many professionals in different fields and committees will be set up. The committees will work timelessly and bring up ideas that will enable us assist government in moving the state forward. The committee on industry should be able to interface with the Ministry of Industry at all levels and give its input in a manner that is not offensive but suggestive. Again, let us look at a place like Ibeno Beach which has the longest shore line in West Africa, with the best white sands outside that of Madagascar. We are not maximizing our tourism potentials. Tinapa is aiding the economy of Cross River State. If you harness your tourism potentials well, you will have more money from it than oil. There is so much money to make from enhancing our tourism sector and Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum will give adequate advice and suggestions to the appropriate quarters. In the same vein we will also team up to pursue the relocation of ExxonMobil Headquarters to the state. In the whole of Nigeria, it is in Akwa Ibom State that you get plain gas – gas which is not associated with water or oil. The same plain gas is what Russia has and the entire Europe respects Russia for it. Russia supplies the entire Eastern and Western Europe gas through sea. It is Russia’s only item of export. Uyo Senatorial District Leaders Forum has thinkers who will bring up ideas that will help in developing the state. Through positive thinking ideas that will enrich the individual and the state will emanate.
You talked about being proactive than reactive. Can you say that we are maximizing our potentials within the South South region?
Unfortunately we are not. I am a member of the South-South People’s Assembly and the group promoted the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency with the level of pressures we put on Nigeria’s government. We were at the forefront of the approval of the Doctrine of Necessity that helped usher in his presidency. Akwa Ibom State, within the confines of the South-South, is the largest producer of the crude oil, plain gas and other associates. But we have not taken the benefit of being the number one. My advice is that we must be united irrespective of our dialectical differences. We must subdue the issue of tribe and promote togetherness and love above every other sentiment. No matter our dialectical differences, since we still speak one language all of us understand and until we achieve this unity, we cannot win the war.