“The principles of a free constitution (democracy) are irrecoverably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.” – Edward Gibbon
Time and time again, Cross River State appears to be edging towards a disturbing precipice in its governance system. For a state so endowed with superabundant natural resources, what is needed is strategic and stellar leadership to transform the state to Africa’s Dubai, off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. But given the bizarre form of governance going on there, that vision is far off the radar, with no hope for change. Or if there is ever to be any (hope) of resetting the governance system, it has now been reduced to familitocracy, government of the family, for the family and by the family, and other tribal lords, one which has also become a Hobson’s choice, drenched in the quest for vainglory and self-destruction.
At the centre of what ails Cross River is the state House of Assembly. The prospect of shielding Cross River from the abyss and reset her for growth squarely lies with the assembly. But in the ensuing misfortune and missteps already entrenched, the chances of the state working for the overall public good are shrinking by the day, no thanks to the lukewarm attitude of the state assembly. From all indications, nothing at the moment is capable of slowing down the state’s downward spiral, as Cross River nosedives further. This has been made worse as the state assembly has been drained in an opaque web of vested interests, to the detriment of public good. The assembly, in cahoots with the powers that be, has acted as if it is on a dismantling mission, to dismantle the order, peace and progress that Cross River is known for and to build bridges where they are no rivers.
Granted, the government deserves applause in fighting for the poor, like exempting them from taxes and positioning the leaders “to tax their brains, than to tax the people,” even at that, the prevailing poor indexes in the state are indicative of the present quagmire. The concern is not so much about the feast of pledges and promises made by the executive, it’s about the ill whirlwind engulfing the state. It’s about the state assembly relegating its constitutional duty to act as checks and balances on the executive. Painfully, and regrettably so, the failure of the assembly to fulfil its legislative obligations has been monumental, colossal, if not appalling.
The body of evidence in this monumental failure bears witness to the cascading dereliction of duty on the part of the assembly in many respects. Since 2015, Cross River State House of Assembly has transfigured itself from a toothless watchdog to a glib lapdog for vested interests, strategically positioned for the executive branch and those whose aim is to shortchange Cross Riverians. As co-equal arm of government with the executive branch, it is incumbent on the assembly to defend and protect the interests of the people of the state through lawmaking and other legislative instruments. Rather, the assembly has acted as Peregrino House’s errand boys, caged and blinded by the crumbs thrown at it by the executive arm.
Further, while the state assembly, under the leadership of Hon. Eteng Jones Williams, was fiddling with treachery and complete betrayal of trust of Cross River electorate, good governance and accountability took flight. Before their very eyes, Cross River became a laughing stock nationwide and around the world as the state’s annual budgets became a voyage of abracadabra. Continually, the annual budgets were and are christened with Greco-Roman, grandiloquent and ‘Otapiapia’ names to create confusion while water passes under the bridge. The assembly members’ primary responsibility is to defend the interest of the people. Instead, they have all joined forces with those whose meaning of government and leadership reside only within the confines of profiteering. Weeping, crying and even a festival of crocodile tears may be on the prowl in Cross River, still, facts don’t lie. Cross River is not working for the general good. The act of governing, as far as the state is now, has merely been reduced to buying time and selling confusion, geared towards hoodwinking the people. With the deterioration of governance in the state, combined with the reign of voodoo appointments and the politics of food-on-the-table, Cross River State House of Assembly members have become “naive, pompous and busy chasing the wrong demons,” to borrow British journalist Stephen Glover’s words. Succinctly, the assembly has made naivety and kowtowing a centrepiece of its policies. The aim is to appease those with the levers of power in the state, and blaze with the lucre of ostentatious lifestyle that only political power can afford. The intention is no longer to make good laws for the growth and development of the state and her people, but to share the till, chase juicy contracts and appointments and also position themselves ahead of 2023 to run for the House of Representatives. Or return back to the state assembly and become Speaker.
Because of the rubber stamp nature of the assembly, no one has ever seen the state budget in public domain in the last five years. A reason adduced for the state’s woeful performance in the World Bank assisted Open Government Partnership (OGP) and States Financial Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programmes. In their exalted stool of revered power, the assembly members have continued to party after party, while Cross River bleeds profusely. There has been no area or aspect of governance that has not been trampled upon in order to further the sleazy egos of vested interests, with the assembly as facilitators and accomplices. Like a battlefield, from cultists spilling blood on the streets of Calabar, Obudu and Ugep, to kidnapping and to commissioners exchanging blows, the assembly has watched as the image of the state is battered.
More disheartening has been the depletion of Cross River rainforest by cronies and proxies of government, while lawmakers in particular look the other way. Shamefully, lawmakers from Boki, Ikom, Etung and Obubra, where the destruction of Cross River ecosystem has been more intense, have kept sealed lips, all for the sake of pecuniary interest and political correctness. In ignorance of the collateral damage inflicted on the state, Cross River rainforest is being sold and destroyed, while loggers masked and backed by state officials smile to the bank.
The squabbles and subsequent resignation of Mr. Odey Oyama from the Anti-Deforestation Task Force is a clear testament to the lie being sold by the government that it is protecting the forest.
In a recent revelation, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Cross River State chapter, maintained that there were only 33 medical doctors in the state. This is even alarming and denigrating, given that states within the South-South geopolitical zone have 300 medical doctors and above. Places like Boki, Biase, Ukelle, Etung and part of Akampka do not have a general hospital nor a single government doctor; N50 million can build a standard general hospital. Yet, no lawmaker has moved a motion for the establishment of hospitals in those areas. But they are quick to sponsor notorious motions and laws for phantom projects, to drain the state’s finances.
Then, another lawmaker who had no iota of knowledge how PDP came to Cross River State and how democracy birthed in Nigeria was bold enough to move a motion calling for the privatisation of all the industries, particularly those initiated by the current state government.
We are very conversant with the gimmicks, antics and anti-people law that the assembly is considering. The state assembly should not think that we are not aware of the nocturnal plans to sell Cross River to the highest bidder(s). There is even a boast making the rounds that some of them in government today want to be the richest Cross Riverian(s) after their tenure in 2023. It is one thing to shortchange the people, to evade justice is likewise not promised.
The most shameful part of the plague of naivety and lack of accountability in Cross River is the current move whereby the state assembly caused all the 18 local governments to donate N50 million for the fight against coronavirus (even when no single case has been recorded) and N250 million for Cally Air. These reckless withdrawals, which are about to be effected, will amount to N900 million and N4.5 billion, respectively, in total. What does the assembly stand to gain by sponsoring such innocuous and patronising motions for such withdrawals? What rationale is there to forcefully compel local governments that don’t even have roads, hospitals and good schools to build airport and purchase aircraft running into billions of naira? Do we need to cripple local governments before we can copycat other states by owning an airline? The aim is to kick-start the airline and turn round to privatise it and sell it to themselves. Look at what is going on in Obudu regarding the building of an airport. In the real sense, do we really need another airport now?
At the dawn of this dispensation in 2015, many had thought that the government would carry on with the third leg of the strategic development plan of the state. And that, if former Gov. Donald Duke’s government elevated Cross River through tourism, Sen. Liyel Imoke’s administration dwelt extensively on rural development and transformation, then Governor Sir Professor Senator Ben Bengioushuye Ayade’s tenure, it was hoped, would focus primarily on industrialisation and economic stabilisation of the state. This would have been tenable through building industries, revamping the agricultural sector and establishing processing plants for cash crops in the state. The aim was to benchmark some multiplier effect in the form of initiating economy of scale, job creation and employment opportunities and systematically scale up the revenue drive of the state. But with too much fanfare, hanky-panky and some sort of topsy-turvy, the whole strategic development plan idea is now racing to hug a hoax and panning out steadily like a casino economy made in boomtown. The wings of the plan, as it stands, have unmistakably been clipped by pun and consumed by the vagaries of vested interests.
Conversely, the assembly can do better than the current charade it has become. Cross River, despite all her resources that other states crave for, has been lagging behind in attaining great heights. There has never been a time that leadership has been reduced to this nadir in the history of the state, where the state is now being mocked on national TV as witnessed with the Arise TV episode with Dr. Reuben Abati. The state assembly can halt this macabre dance of shame going on there by beaming their searchlight and engaging in rigorous oversight functions that will compel the executive to account. At its best, that should be the grundnorm now for the assembly, going forward. Critically, protection of vested interests by lawmakers is antithetical to the social contract held in trust on behalf of the people in a democracy. The expectation of all Cross Riverians is for the assembly and its Speaker, Hon. Williams, to do their job thoroughly to save the state from a grim race to the bottom.
Therefore, the assembly should learn from history. The Ekureku treatment just took place some months ago and still remains fresh in our memories. That same Ekureku treatment can be repeated and replicated in 2023. Already, the drumbeat from Wadatta Plaza, Abuja, is a signpost and indicative of a bad omen tangling before their political life, if things remain the same. So, no one should think that they are invincible and unassailable. The candid advice, therefore, is for all Cross River politicians to fear God Almighty and serve the people diligently. For the lure of bad leadership could be devastating and consequential. As bitter as the truth is, our conscience can guide us all to the truth. Let Cross River State House of Assembly’s path be guided by conscience for the overall good of the state. For the perils of vested interests would and could be catastrophic. Peace!
•Obi, is a journalist and political communication expert based in Abuja