Sir Sunday Udoh Akpan served as a finance commissioner during the first tenure of Obong Victor Attah as the governor of Akwa Ibom State.
In this interview with ETEBONG AKPAN, the former finance boss who retired from the state civil service as permanent secretary bares his mind on the progress the state has made 35 years after its creation. He also took time out to assuage the feelings of voters on the 2023 general elections in the country, assuring that from the experience in Ekiti and Osun State, “Votes will count”.
It is no longer news that Akwa Ibom will be 35 years as a political entity in a few days’ time. Do you think we have anything to celebrate as a people after 35 years?
I want to commend The Pioneer for surviving the environment despite the challenges. Do we have anything to celebrate? Yes, we have many things to celebrate. To start with, the circumstances of our emergence in the year 1987 indicate that God was behind what actually happened. I say so because our fathers were the initiators of state creation, but for years, we were denied, while we were in the South-Eastern State and then Cross River State. By 1985, 1986, we had started crying, when shall we see the Promised Land? Because it appeared all hopes were lost, especially when the struggle for the creation of another state, out of the then Cross Riverbecame factional. Some were calling for Calabar State; others called for New Calabar, and so on. But suddenly, at that fateful moment, the military administration under General Ibrahim Babangida, announced the creation of Akwa Ibom State. For many of us, it was like a dream and if you witnessed the exodus on that fateful day, immediately after the announcement, it was like the Passover of old. People were excited because the struggle had lasted long and even some of those who initiated the process had died. That’s why when the State was created our elders came to the conclusion that the State should be named after God, Akwa Abasi Ibom State.
Do we have anything to celebrate?
Yes, we have several, but the first thing is the God factor and how we came to be. The second is that a lot of developments have taken place since we were created when compared to the older states. I think we have done much better. Forget about the critics. In terms of infrastructural development, the road network, the connection between the hinterland and the urban areas, the Capital City of Uyo, the access by air, all these things happened in such a rapid pace that in some areas, I must confess, it’s as if we have overtaken the older states.
I’m not saying we couldn’t have achieved more, but in spite of the circumstances of that creation which was the military era. Thankfully, we had military administrators who were determined to help us develop the state. Most of them saw the state as their own and, don’t be surprised, some of them still see Akwa Ibom as their second home, such as Bako andEbiye. So we thank God for it that they have been able to take us to where we are now and I must say we are the envy of most of the older states.
At 35, do you think we have established our identity in the Nigerian Project?
I’m sure that between the Nigerian contexts, Akwa Ibomites stand out very distinguished and clearly. Maybe because, before the state was created, there was the notion that some of us who were outside the state, especially in Lagos, saw ourselves as not being first-class citizens, like the majority tribes. But as at today in the comity of Nationals in Nigeria, Akwa Ibom is so distinctive and an Akwa Ibom man is celebrated and proud in this country. So our identity is not in doubt as it is very distinctive and Thank God that our leaders promoted that.
As a former commissioner in the state, do you think we have had any improvement in the living standard of the average Akwa Ibom person vis-a-vis his per capita income?
When you talk about standard of living, you think about income per capita, you think about welfare indices like water supply, health, transportation, and education, all those are amenities and needs. I would say, compared with the older states and where we started 35 years ago, we have not done badly, but there is still a lot to be done because we are operating a Federal structure. A federal economy in which we are a sub-set, and being in that federal structure and Nigeria itself being part of the global system, what happens beyond the shores of Nigeria has impacted on the economy as well as the standard of living.
For example around 2008-2009, when we thought the economy was coming up and we were making quite a lot of progress, and the oil price was rising, we suddenly had the financial meltdown in America that affected the global economy and being part of the system, our standard of living was affected. Just recently, the rate of inflation, globally,caused by the instability in the world economy generally and especially the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has impacted the world economy including Nigeria. And because we were not yet developed to be able to take care of our needs, we are still import dependent, including dependency on ordinary fuel, kerosene, gas, household domestic items, we are still importing food items like rice until recently, so our standard of living therefore depends on those external factors as much as on the productivity in our own economy. We all know that the country had been mostly an agricultural economy, 80-70 percent of the population are peasant farmers, the rest are civil servants, and only about 10-15 per cent are in manufacturing. We all know that the major source of income that fuels our budget is oil and this crude oil production is deflated by foreign capital. So even though our GDP, in terms of what we are producing might be growing, what comes back to us as citizens of Nigeria, after deducting the cost of import, you take account of the foreign exchange, all these have impacts on our standard of living. So I say, yes our standard of living has not been on a steady increase as it ought to be just because our economy is underdeveloped, it’s civil service dependent.
The question now is how do we remedy this situation? This now creates another challenge, in that economic development is not something you just invest today and tomorrow you reap. It requires a process of developing and nurturing before it starts bearing fruits. For example, we need to improve our agricultural production so that the output of our farmers would be increased, because if they improve the farm input, then the standard of living will improve. And you get stuck with bad roads and with ‘bothering’ nerves of bad exchange. Sometimes the farmers produce the items and there’s nobody to buy from them. There’s transport challenges and because of that, the economy has not been developing in a sustainable basis, and there is fluctuation in the process. Then you have frequent changes in policies. Today the Federal Government comes up with a programme, another administration comes in and changes the policy and so on. This frequent change of policies affects the productivity that will sustain an increasing standard of living.
For us in Akwa Ibom, our State is dominated by civil service employment and over the years, the salary increase in the public sector has been very marginal, compared with the rise in inflation. What that means is that the N30,000 that workers were receiving as salary, when one dollar is exchanging for over N600.00, has rendered that level of salary meaningless and it certainly has to affect the standard of living. So you have a situation in which the workers’ earnings like they say does not take them home. That is the challenge, but we must realize that this challenge is connected with the stage of the development of our economy and that requires all hands to be on deck, the government, the workers, the people, the private sector, to address the issue of productivity improvement, because without improving productivity it’s very difficult to sustain an increase in the standard of living. That’s my take on improvement in the standard of living.
The current state administration came to power on the mantra of industrialization. And, despite its huge effortstowards this direction, it seems the effects are not felt by the people, what do you think is responsible for this?
The major plan of this government was industrialization. The question is why industrialization? It is industrialization because without starting industrialization, we are not going to be able to improve the productivity in agriculture and other sectors of our economy. The bulk of our population are engaged in farming but there is no manufacturing or processing to off-take the production and add value. Therefore, to improve the capacity of our local producers we must start to systematically begin industries; micro, small scale and big manufacturing industries. What that means is that you have to import first the technology of industrialization. So the decision of the state government to key into industrialization was therefore very strategic. People should not see it as s short but a long term investment. Long-term business in the sense that you have to kick start and sustain it over time for the benefits to flow.
Thankfully, we have somebody who is familiar with private sector investment in the person of Governor Udom Emmanuel. The private sector is important because the government cannot be doing business as well as running a government. Government should only provide an enabling environment for business, because the government is a bad business manager judging from the experience over the years. We had a lot of industries and projects started by previous administrations that were government-dominated that they could not survive. Yes, some of the factors were external, but often, most of them died because of internal mismanagement, because of the orientation of politicians that had access to those companies. That is why this private sector ledindustrialization by Udom Emmanuel, our governor, must be seen as a necessity to kick start. What I mean kick start there is that once that process permeates the environment. For example, you have a foreign company that brings in foreign capital, brings in foreign technology and perhaps foreign raw materials, sheer forces of competition from other producers outside, because we have an open economy, countries that would want to dump products in your country for example, that company that is located in your own territory would start to look for substitutes from local produce. A clear example is bread, because of the scarcity of wheat caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war. Those who own bread manufacturing industries are considering local substitutes, dictated not by government policy, but by sheer economic forces, by the desire of that factory to survive in that environment. So, overtime that foreign owned business would start to integrate with the environment, what we call backward integration. They will look for local raw materials in that locality, for example cassava or maize to substitute the imported barley.
What that means is that the local farmers will benefit and that will create employment. Or you have a company that comes in to establish a brewing industry and it depends on imported raw materials, over time the sheer market forces and desire to make profit for that company would compel it to look for backward integration and in the process of doing that, the indigenes, the local people will benefit. What I am saying is that starting industrialization is not an easy venture. It requires focus, determination, commitment and vision, knowing that eventually, the community, the environment will benefit from the investment.
I’m trying to highlight some of the processes and the challenges because His Excellency, Governor Udom Emmanuel, has done very well by bringing some of the industries we did not imagine could be located in Akwa Ibom. For instance, the Syringe Manufacturing, the Flour Mill, the Coconut Refinery. I’m not going to mention all of them because you already know them. Now, the significance of that is that yes, it’s possible it imported capital, it’s possible it imported technology, but the significance of it is that over time, they will be compelled to do backward integration and that would eventually change the culture and the economic strategies of the citizens in the locality. It requires, therefore, for people like you, the media, the people who are patriots, who are committed to the long term development of this state, first to be patient. Secondly, not to be afraid, for the educated people to key into this initial stages of development because if they don’t key into it, and become onlookers because you are having an open economy, you are in a federation, there are no borders… For example, if you have a fertilizer blending company in Akwa Ibom and it produces enough fertilizer and the indigenes of the State are not interested, others will come and buy the fertilizer and make the profit. Let me come home. We had a factory in my constituency Ini and I was there when it was opened and the manager happens to be an indigene. We went back after the opening to find out what was happening and the complaint of the manager was that they were in need of local rice to produce because the local production in the state was not enough for a week’s production. So they were looking for local rice and you know the rice is grown in Ini, but the rice grown in Ini was not enough to feed even one day of production. So what that meant was that the indigenes of Ini must now start seeing rice cultivation as a business so that they can produce enough to feed the factory. What is happening is that people from Abia State, from Abakaliki were the ones bringing raw rice to the factory, they would process the rice for them and after processing they will take it back to their states and our people would go and buy from them. That’s what’s happening now. That is the raw rice being processed there is brought by outsiders who will take it back to their states and our people would go and buy from them. The challenge now is, how do we support our people to take advantage of this factory? Over time, Ini people have been planting rice in small quantities, mainly for consumption purposes. They need to do it on a larger scale and make farming a business. That means there must be a mindset change that growing rice in that community can be done as a business. It requires educated people to go in and not just peasant farming. It requires an organizational ability to sell rice in large quantities, and merge together to have big plots of land. So that takes time. That is why education and advocacy are necessary to champion this process which is very important for us.
You have been privileged to witness so many elections in the state. What do you think will make the 2023 elections different?
Yes, elections in Nigeria, so far, have been affected with rigging, manipulation, snatching of ballot boxes, violence and the declaration of false results and because of that ordinary citizens, the voters, have lost faith in the system because they now believe their votes don’t count. That has been the mentality and that is creating a problem for democracy in Nigeria. Therefore, there should be serious voter education so that people can believe that their votes will count in 2023. The indication so far from INEC, based on what they’ve experimented in Osun and Ekiti, is that they will apply technology to enhance the process of voting and vote counting so that the votes will count. That is going to be the experience where votes will count. That means our politicians have to change tactics. They have to go down to the grassroots. It’s no longer the process of sitting down in your private corners, hoping that on the day of the election you will snatch materials.
If INEC has the support of the federal government to institute the application of modern technology in the electoral process, then 2023 elections will be different, in that the votes of the electorates will count. That is going to be a very important improvement in our democratic practice. I’m praying and hoping that we would all live to see that day when people will file out to vote and their wishes, their desires will count.
You are a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, what do you think is responsible for the recent defection of some members of your party to the newly formed YPP?
The issue of politicians suddenly defecting from one party to another party, yes, students of politics will tell you is normal, as in keeping with freedom of choice. They will tell you afterall politics is about personal interest. Defection from one party to another is expected in a democratic environment. But the pity and the regret I personally have, as an individual is to observe that some of the players, who are defecting from one platform to another, are doing so for purely, narrow personal reasons. Some, at the expense of the ultimate good of the constituents they claim to be representing. That’s my regret. They are defecting at the expense of the welfare of the well-being and long-term development of the constituents they represent. For instance, in most of our areas and constituents, the fathers of that constituency, the elders, whose words are supposed to be words of wisdom, normally support the zoning arrangements so that peace can be maintained because without peace there is no development when there’s violence and killings, then all you are doing is vanity. There must be peace so that human beings will live and enjoy the dividends of democracy. So for the ultimate good of the majority of the community, this zoning or rotation is put in place and the irony of it all is that some of them defecting now may have benefitted from that convenient zoning arrangement. Some may have built up themselves and their families and when it is time for the others, you now use defection to destabilize the community, to mislead some people.
Secondly, I personally believe that for the long-term development of party politics, people who form parties should belong and form that party on the basis of ideologies. The ideology they believe in, that this party is in favour of this ideology which is patriotic, the long term development and sustenance of democracy, for the sake of the economy, the development of the society. If they are convinced about that, then you should, when taking action, ask yourselves, this action I’m going to take, is it in conformity with my ideology? That philosophy? But what you find now is different because a lot of the defections have no basis in terms of ideology in that today you are in Party A, the next day, another party and the ideology is almost the same. All they are after is how to amass wealth, and accumulate power, sometimes at the expense of the next community or the next zone and this is very unfortunate.
The PDP has nominated Pastor Umo Eno as its gubernatorial candidate for the 2023 elections, but it seems this did not gone down well with some members of the party. What do you think should be done by the party to assuage their feelings?
Yes, I cannot pretend not to know that all is not well in our party, the PDP following the emergence of Pastor Umo Eno as our governorship candidate. Now, when you look at the situation critically, you will find that those deficiencies are not the makings of Pastor Umo Eno. It’s not its own making and that’s why I told someone, you see this Pastor Umo Eno, God’s finger must have been on him. You remember at the preliminary stage where other aspirants were lobbying for the support of the governor and the people, Pastor Umo Eno was not significantly mentioned but when the thing was down, he emerged. So I think, it’s the way God uses to do things. They say God uses the simple things to confound the wise. For me, I saw it with a very humble attitude and has stated before that God might be behind what we are seeing, because sometimes He acts in a mysterious way to pour scorn and water on our pride. He springs up things we think cannot be to be, so that you’re humbled. I remember when His Excellency, Godswill Akpabio came as one the governorship aspirants of the PDP,members of his own family disowned him. They said, if Governor Attah wanted to give Annang people a governor, why him? I mean members of his household oh! Not outsiders oh! Eventually, Akpabio became the candidate of the party and later the governor. Did the same members of his family not smile, thank God or celebrated? You see, that’s why I said that God uses mysterious ways to confound our own thinking and wisdom. When you see something like that, all you need do is to be humble and say Lord let your will be done. I know that there was that challenge in his emergence, but when you look at the circumstances of his emergence you find out that more of these circumstances were not of his own making. Will you tell me that if I were the one so favoured, I will run away? No? How do I know if that is God’s grace beckoning on me? I encourage Pastor Umo Eno to stand firm till the end of the matter. For those who are aggrieved, my prayer is that God will touch their hearts, so that they also can remember how they came to be or started out in life.
Number two, the party should employ all avenues to negotiate with those who are aggrieved and those who are in charge of the party should have an open mind to the people in order to reunite the party so that the PDP can emerge a stronger force against their opponents ahead of the elections.
Do you think Pastor Umo Eno is the right choice for the state? If yes, what would be your advice to him if he succeeds Governor Udom Emmanuel?
If Umo Eno comes on board, there are quite a number of what I call ‘missing links’ in the present dispensation that needs to be fixed, so that the state can move on a sustainable path to development. His Excellency, Governor Udom Emmanuel is already taking this state to a very high level of development, both in terms of infrastructure, industrialization and in terms of massive participation in the democratic process. Presently, there are areas that I call the missing link. Let me start with my constituency, the public service where I served and retired as a permanent secretary, then as a commissioner. I still regard that as my constituency. There is a need to prioritize efforts to enhance public service management so that it is positioned to support sustainable development because without having a public service that is supportive of whatever policies,programmes the politicians we make, it wouldn’t work.
I am speaking from personal experience because I have been on both sides. I’ve been a commissioner, so this is very important. It seems to me that a lot of our leaders at various levels, local government, state or federal level, don’t appreciate the power of the public service in terms of service delivery. You could make all the policies and programmes but without the support of the civil servants, it doesn’t work.
The policy maker has to make deliberate efforts to ensure that civil servants key into their programmes butunfortunately, most of our politicians don’t know this and that’s why you see them announce policies and programmes after three or four years, nothing is heard of such programmes, because you failed to involve the professionals in the ministries who are trained to implement the policies and unless they open up and support it, it would not work. In other words, policymakers must be productive and champion of that programme so that if you leave, they will key in. At the same time, civil servants themselves have to be prepared, especially at the top ranks as directors, and permanent secretaries,because they are working with the policymakers and they must be effective in delivering the mandates of the office or positions which they occupy.
The summary of it is that we as a state that anchored the Resource Control struggle during Attah’s administration. We must still take that as a major programme of reform for the Nigerian state. And the major item in the resource control struggle was for decentralization of power to the federating units. Where performance is actually taking place, when you decentralize power to where performance is taking place, you also decentralize the funding accordingly. What they now call the exclusive list which belongs to the federation is overcrowded. Take out things there and send it down to where it should actually happen, because when you give the power, you also give the money for execution.
So I’ m saying that one of the programme the state would have to pursue is to continue to advocate for Resource Control for the interest of our nation and the progress of our state until we are able to control our resources. And if we are able to control our resources, we would be able to manage our endowment because Akwa Ibom is well endowed that if we were a different country in charge of our resources, we would have been developed as fast as China or Japan. If in spite of the bottlenecks as a federal structure, we are able to make this progress. Finally, the issue of peace and security, which the present administration has been able to sustain, must be accorded top priority, because without peace and security no development can take place. Thankfully, God has been with the present administration. Peace and security is not something we should take for granted. It requires serious commitment, and carrying along everybody in the state to achieve that vision of maintaining peace and security so that meaningful development can take place. Industrialization has already started, but it is still at the initial stage. It will require deliberate effort to domesticate it and integrate it to our environment. For instance, some of the industries that have been kick started, that are dependent on foreign raw materials, we have to deliberately pursue local production to support those industries, in spite of whatever challenges they may face. Reason is that this is very important. You cannot tackle youth unemployment unless we give priority to industrialization and job creation. Because that’s the only avenue we can create jobs for graduates coming out of our universities. And when I talk about our universities, I must not forget to mention our secondary and primary school system. The new policy on education in place emphasizes skilled and entrepreneurship education and that’s an area, if we must solve the unemployment problem, the state government must carefully look into, particularly from primary to the tertiary level.
Skill training is very important, because the civil service is already congested. The alternative is to open up avenue in the private sector, and opening up avenue in the private sector means you have to invest in capacity building, build capacity of school graduates so that they can be market driven. Lookfor how to create business rather than searching for none existing jobs. Those are tasks that require serious attention and thankfully the incoming Governor, Pastor Umo Eno is a self made man because he started with self employment and has gotten the experience. In other words, we are hoping that such background would dispose him to appreciating the need to man meaningful skill training for the employment of our people. Because when we say youths are the leaders of tomorrow, if they don’t have what to do how will they be? So we have to create employable skills. That’s my take on that.
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