By Willy Eya
GOVERNOR Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State does not lose sleep over the decline in the nation’s oil revenue. The governor believes that beyond oil, every state in Nigeria has enough resources to sustain it. In this interactive session with a select group of journalists, he spoke on a wide range of issues, including the reasons he would not fight with his predecessor, Senator Godswill Akpabio. Excerpts:
The public perception is that your predecessor left a very big shoe for you. Do you think your foot is big enough to fill that shoe?
Predecessor leaving a very bid shoe, and whether my leg can actually fill the shoe; I said earlier that government is a continuum. If someone gets into power in year 2007, the shoe size is 2007. If I get into power in 2015, the shoe size is 2015. So, which one is actually bigger? I do not know how a 2007 shoe would be bigger than a shoe of 2015. The 2015 shoe size is actually bigger. At times, Akwa Ibom is a little bit different because of the way we are structured and that is why we are going the way we are going. We have structured it in phases and that is what you would be seeing in the next few years if the Lord tarries.
When my predecessor came, there was total decay in infrastructure. Mind you, when you are talking about infrastructure, you have certain infrastructure that you say, I do not want to count these ones. We met a total decay. So, what we needed to do was to try and arrest that and by doing that, it was like somebody laying a foundation. It was like doing a tiling for a skyscraper. And you would be conscious of the fact that if you have to build a skyscraper, you do not put a quack that would come and do a bungalow. If you do, you would have lost the resources there. So, if you want to build a skyscraper, you must look for a steeled manpower that would come and give you the number of stories that you want to do. In government and governance, that is why you get it all wrong in this part of the world. You just thought that any governor is coming to start afresh and alone. No, that is not how we want to run Akwa Ibom. That is not the type of Akwa Ibom that we are designing.
We are designing an Akwa Ibom that one person comes and he does a piling for a foundation of a 100-storey building. If I come and take it to the 11th floor, another person would come and take it to other floors until we reach where we are going to. This is because we have realised that within a short period, getting to Abuja to seek bail in and bail out might not work. You must be the architect of the fortune of your own state. My predecessor came, he had a focus and he attacked that. I am coming in and I would build on infrastructure but at the same time, I started by telling you that if you get to the G7 nation, they sit there because of their economic power. I am coming to let people know that there was a time Akwa Ibom was the fourth largest producer of Cocoa and today, we are not even in the top 10.
We want to go back to, at least, the first two. Why, because the flavour of our cocoa is among the best in the whole world; so, why should we let it go? I am coming to let the Akwa Ibom people know that we have a 129- kilometer shoreline and that that alone could be turned to wealth. There is nothing in Singapore than their water; so, why can’t we turn our water to wealth? I must drive a policy and governance in the mindset of the people to let them know that they are sitting on wealth. I am coming to let the Akwa Ibom people know that in a whole year 24/7, we have an evergreen area. That alone suggests that you can actually feed the entire world with the raw materials that they are looking for. So, there must be something there. I am coming to let the Akwa Ibom people know that even if the crude oil price is $150 and you put the money in your house without a solid economic foundation, that money would fly away over night. That is not wealth creation. That is not poverty alleviation. I am coming to let Akwa Ibom people know that in the past 16 years that we have been doing poverty alleviation and putting money in peoples’ hands and the next thing, they go and buy ‘I better pass my neighbour’. No money to even fuel it, that is a total waste.
I want them to know that gone are the days they were great eaters. Now, you must be a seed sower. Things have changed. We are building blocks. We are also coming because you see, anywhere in the world, what drives the economies of great nations, security is number one, number two is reliable infrastructure and three is transparent legislation. Security is ongoing and you can’t finish on that. We needed to lay a foundation on reliable infrastructure. That is what we are building on and you do not wait until you complete all the infrastructure before you now start to build on the economy.
What effects do the decline in the oil price have on the pace and pattern of your administration?
There are certain things you need to know. The cost structure when the economy was running on $128 per barrel, $130 and $140 would remain the same. It is not easy to change that cost structure under a democracy especially in a system where most of our people rely on government. Here, government influences a lot of things even the financial services. If there is no statutory allocation, look at how liquidity would dry up in the system. A whole lot of things are wholly dependent on the direction of the government. The cost structure when the oil price was $140 is not coming down; it is rather going up because inflation is not static. The population is growing, people are growing from new age grade to another; that calls for certain classes of demand for goods and services in addition to the cost structure you are running.
So, you are running a cost structure that the revenue that you are earning today is less than 25 per cent of the revenue that actually put that cost structure in place. So, that calls for ingenuity in managing the resources. We are not boasting but go and check it. People think Akwa Ibom collects so much. It is a relative term. What we collect today is relative to what we used to collect that our cost structure was based on. Every state government is in the same situation but what would differentiate you is a little bit of ingenuity, ideas and creativity. That is why you do not make noise about it.
How can you tell the whole world that you are paying salaries? But in Nigeria, it is an achievement if you are paying salaries and pensions because when you turn around and you see others, owing eight and nine months, you come back home and say, God, I have tried now. Take, for example, this month, the local government and primary school teachers; you know we run free and compulsory education at basic level for even people from our neighbouring states.
So, the enrolment is much. I have a lot of primary school teachers because people from neighbouring states come to my state to go to school because it is free. As at today, the statutory allocation from the federal government for primary school teachers and local government employees came barely N2 billion. But I have done all the biometrics, I have put all the checks and balances and I still have a structure of N2. 77 billion. The question now is, if what you are getting could barely meet that, how are you managing to pay the salaries and still run general administration of the state and be able to meet all other challenges of governance? That is when creativity, ideas and ingenuity would come in. That is why I tell you today that those that are paying salaries, it is a big achievement. There are challenges but the question there is as I said earlier, what brings out the best in a good leader is when you are faced with those challenges. For somebody like me, that is when you put me in my best and make me to put on my thinking cap. So, those challenges are meant to bring the best out of us. Probably, if I met oil price at $140, $150 per barrel, I would have like those days we used to enter Molue, to say ‘Go on Song”. I would not have checked those things that make us to move forward economically. That is not the thinking of today. That is not where the direction should lead us to. We should not behave like the days of manna falling from heaven. These are the days of tilling on the land. People must be able to work to create wealth. That is a challenge and that is why you see a whole lot of our economic policies being channeled toward addressing that.
Many are wondering how you are managing the usual Nigerian predecessor/successor crisis
One thing is how to manage fellow human beings. So predecessor/ successor ’s relationship in Africa as a whole occurs because people don’t know how to relate.
Two, you must put a round peg in a round hole. If I am a professional in politics, I must also know if a professional in politics would succeed me to ensure there wouldn’t be problem. If I am a professional in politics and I go and look for a professional politician, there would be a problem in his own ideology and so on.
Three, it also depends on what you are looking for. Because that is the question many people don’t bother to answer. I am looking to set my dream and if you are also looking to set your dream, then you must face that project. And if you are facing that project, there must be no problem. So, here we have no complaints, our goal is to make Akwa- Ibom a better place. So, that goal actually unites our sense of direction and purpose.
And also, there must be personal determination because they say determination is victory. If you are determined, the banana peel that others marched, you wouldn’t march it. Because it is a banana peel, we’ve just decided two of us won’t march it irrespective of the pressure.
You see at times, some of the pressure is from the press because in Nigeria, people don’t believe that two people must work in harmony. If you work in harmony, they start looking for a name for you, because they expect you to quarrel with your predecessor. That is what people expect and if they don’t see that happening, they say no, he is subservient to this one. You know it does not work that way. We must learn to work with one another for this country to move forward because it is going to be a major distraction for you to leave what you are doing to be doing what does not benefit a common man. How does that bring food to the table of that poor girl inside a village that has never eaten since morning?
So I don’t pray that Nigeria should continue that way. People should also learn to know where they are going to and design their style of living and everything because at the end of the day, what matters most is the people, the citizenry and we must be able to actually take them from where they are to a better place.