Senator Gershom Bassey, who represents the Cross River State Southern Senatorial District in the Senate, is the Vice-Chairman, Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream) and member of several Senate committees. Interviewed by Henry Akubuiro, the senator spoke on a myriad of burning issues in the country, including the need for urgent utility reforms in Nigeria, adding value to products Nigeria has comparative advantage on and the chances of his party, the PDP, regaining power at the centre in 2019. He also spoke on the budget controversy, the state of Nigeria’s electoral process and the need for power to devolve from the centre to the state for effective governance
Before your foray into politics, you chaired the Calabar Water Board. Was that a turning point in your administrative career because of the endorsements that trailed your tenure?
I don’t know about turning point, but I do know we tried to run a water corporation in the proper way, and we adopted international best practices, and, of course, the international lending agencies liked what we were doing, and held us up as an example for water corporations in the region, especially how to adopt best practices when it came to the issue of sustainability. What we heard was that, in the past, money was sunk into water corporations and other areas, and the problem wasn’t always with the contracting, because, normally, the procurement and the contracting were done by banks. A lot of the problem came with the sustainability –when those agencies had left what then happened to the project? What we did in the Cross River Water Corporation was to adopt some form of Public-Private Partnership, PPP, and we were able to sustain the investment that had come to the water board. And these things worked, even though, at a time, I remember trying to convince the lending agencies that we could actually do PPP but they were not convinced initially. But, when we started working in the Cross River State Water Corporation, they now held as a model for local PPP –we didn’t go with national players –and they gave us a lot more money to even expand our project further.
Part of your electoral interests are water and utility reforms. Today, most Nigerians provide their own water and utility. How do you think reforms would affect the generality of Nigeria?
My hope is that we can find ways to strengthen the delivery of water to more Nigerians. As at today, the penetration is not what it should be. We hope that we can find a way, whether, through legislation or any other way, to encourage more participation in the water sector. One of the things we suggested in Cross River State was the idea of, even at the level of rural water agency, that they could adopt some form of public-private partnership, because you find that, with the amount of boreholes that have been sunk across the length and breadth of the nation, the issue of sustainability is still there. Whether in the community or in the city, you go back nine months later, and you find that it is no longer in operation. It is a problem that needs a solution, and we must find a solution to it so that we continue to deliver portable water to the people of this country.
Don’t you think it is better to hand it over to the private sector since government at all levels are finding it difficult to guarantee the much-needed sustainability you talked about?
Even in partnering with the private sector, you must find a workable partnership. It cannot just be a uniform thing for every area. There are some parts of the country where different types of PPPs will be utilized. Different PPPs work in different climes. So, it is something we need to look into and sort out, but I am for solutions to these problems.
You are currently the Vice-Chairman, Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream). All over the world, there is a growing de-emphasis on petroleum products, as solar and electric energy take centre stage. What does this portend for Nigeria, a country with petroleum as its major source of revenue and energy? Are we transiting at all?
The good thing about Nigeria is that, even though we talk about oil being a rapidly diminishing resource, we have plenty of gas. In fact, Nigeria has more gas than oil. Nigeria itself is a blessed country. Even as we talk about clean energy, gas is the number one provider of clean energy. Compared to solar and wind energy, gas is the ultimate provider of clean energy, and we are blessed with plenty of gas. But that’s not to say that we should not diversify –we must diversify in Nigeria, particularly in terms of the industry. We need to grow other industries, which is what the federal government has been doing.
You mean boosting their production capacities?
Even in the oil and gas industry, you are right; we have to add value, unlike the idea that we keep exporting raw materials (we are exporting 2.3 million barrels of oil every day). We need to start adding value –I am talking in terms of refining in the petrochemical industry. We need to add values, and, if we can add value, we will increase our national revenues. So, the whole idea of adding value is extremely important. We also need to grow other sectors, from ICT to agriculture, creative industry, services, financial sector, among others. We need to grow other parts of the industries.
Agriculture was the mainstay of our economy before oil booms came in, and the interest in agriculture reduced. Do you think Nigeria has done enough to bring back the good old days of agriculture?
Why should we bring back the good old days of agriculture? What we want to bring back is value addition in agriculture. The idea that we were the biggest exporter of palm produce at a time, I am not sure, is a good thing. I think we need to add value to the raw materials that we are producing in this country. For instance, if we are producing cocoa, we should be the biggest exporter of chocolate, not cocoa; we should be the biggest exporter of whatever they use cocoa for –biscuits, and so on. That’s what we should be producing in this country, and we should be exporting them, because there will be value addition in terms of everything. Even in palm produce, there should be value addition. I am not sure how good the old days were (laughs) to bring them back. The old days were good in so far as were producing raw materials. But we want to go beyond that. In the good new days, we want to go beyond producing raw materials.
Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari presented the 2018 Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly. Many Nigerians have faulted the budget estimates on grounds that of 2017 hasn’t been effectively implemented. What purpose would it pass passing a budget that might not be fully implemented at the end of the day?
I agree. We need to get back to implementing our budgets. But, as you know, budget is a constitutional requirement. We need to have a new budget, even though the last one was not fully implemented. The executive has given reasons why it was unable to implement that of 2017 fully. But I expect the president to implement the 2017 budget and also the 2018 budget fully except you want to go into all sorts of issues. There must be a form of partnership between the executive and the legislature. When they have problem, we at the legislative arm must understand their problems and try to support them, which is what we have been doing.
While South Africa’s budget is over 100 billion dollars and Algeria’s budget is over 60 billion dollars, Nigeria’s budget is twice less than Algeria’s. Considering that our population is much bigger than these African countries, don’t you think this budget is a disservice to Nigerians?
I agree that the Nigerian budget is too small. I feel that we should really have a bigger budget, but, then, again, we have talked about funding –if we can’t fund a small budget, then how are we going to fund the bigger budget? Let’s start by funding the one we have properly. Maybe, when we get the knack of funding the small budget properly, we can then move to the bigger budget. But I agree with you, the Nigerian problem is bigger than the budget. As we say, you have to dive in at the deepest. This small, incremental baby steps are not going to help. We have to dive in at the deepest and solve them, particularly the infrastructural challenges.
The Anambra State governorship election has come and gone with the incumbent APGA governor, Sir Willie Obiano, reelected for a second term, contrary to the fears in some quarters the election might be manipulated in favour of the ruling party’s candidate. What does that tell you of our electoral process in 2017?
I think, sometimes, when we do what we are supposed to do, we turn around and pat ourselves on the back. An election is supposed to be free and fair, so I don’t see why we should be jubilating when election turns out to be free and fair. That’s the normal thing (laugh). What does it say? It says that the people’s wishes have been carried out, and that is the normal thing. The people’s wishes should be carried out if we are talking about democracy. I don’t see why we get too excited when things are done properly. That’s the way things should be done. We should [rather] get upset when things are not done properly. But when they are done properly, it is the norm. Okay, INEC has done well (laughs).
2019 is not far away, and you are from the PDP; people are saying that, with the internal wrangling in the party, your party may not return to power. Do you think the PDP stands any chance?
Why not? Very much so. I think the so-called internal wrangling is the same for any political association. There must be divergent opinions, different contesting ideas, and so forth. So, I don’t see anything wrong in that. Right now, the main issue is the chairmanship of our party, which has been zoned to the south, and people from the south are coming out to contest. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s the way of politics. I don’t see anybody from the north coming to contest. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing abnormal about that. The PDP is on the right track.
Do you think the PDP made the wisest decision to zone the presidency to the north when there are people from the south with presidential ambitions, and the south is currently the party’s stronghold?
The PDP has zoned the presidency to the north. If it is zoned, it is zoned. Right now, you have heard one or two people from the south saying they are interested. That’s okay, but the party has zoned it to the north.
Part of your electoral interests is wealth creation for the electorate. How have you been able to achieve this in your constituency?
While I understand the reasons for what we call empowerment programme where you give people motorcycles, rice and other things –it is an important intervention, especially when there are issues to be resolved –in my campaigns, I talked about sustainable empowerment. What I mean by that is job creations, creating medium and small scale loans for business women and other people, and education. These are the pillars of proper and sustainable empowerment. If we can help 400 students with their school fees, provide jobs by attracting job creators to our constituency, thereby providing jobs to a thousand people; if we can give small micro credit loans and make people have access to these loans, I think that is sustainable, of course, alongside the traditional empowerment. That’s what we have been working on. We have our scorecard, which we have been compiling to let the people know how far we have succeeded in this aspect of empowerment.
Which other areas have you impacted on your constituency?
We have facilitated many scholarships to our people by linking them up to the agencies giving the scholarships. We have attracted a number of huge projects to our state. We have done our traditional constituency projects in various local governments where people really need them. We partner with federal government to do their own projects, whether it is the East-West Road, the rail link or the dualisation of Odukpani–Aba Road, we try to ensure we impact on the lives of our constituency.
Your state falls under the catchment area of the NDDC, and there are so much criticisms by oil producing communities across the Niger Delta that they are not getting enough from the agency. How justified are these claims?
Yes, Cross River is a member of the NDDC, even though we are not a major oil producing state. I think the entire concept of the NDDC is a good one, but I think, in meeting its mandate, the NDDC has to rethink its approach so that the real impact of the NDDC can be felt.
What do you mean by that?
I think that the NDDC, given the kind of funding it should have, should task itself more in terms of providing major infrastructure in the oil producing communities. Sometimes I think the NDDC is spreading itself too deep, into many things, and I feel it should be focusing on a few things that will impact on a lot of people.
Don’t you think some oil producing communities may feel shortchanged if that would limit what is due to them?
There are certain projects that are encompassing. If you are providing a road project, for instance, and you link up everywhere, it will easily impact on everybody, especially if the road goes all the way to the hinterlands. Even though NDDC wants to focus on one or two things, whether it is road, education or whatever it is, it should limit what it’s doing, because I find that NDDC is doing a lot of things, and I wonder whether it is not doing too much.
You belong to the famed three musketeers of Cross River politics, which included former governors, Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke, who received tutelage from former governor Clement Ebri. Rumours have it that you are eyeing the governorship seat in 2019. Have you made up your mind?
I don’t know. Look, I believe that Donald Duke did two terms; Liyel Imoke did two terms; so the current governor has a chance to do two terms. Our hope is that he will be able to do two terms. For now, I am not looking at the governorship.
You are a first-timer to the National Assembly. How has the body faired, compared to previous dispensations?
We have done well despite all the challenges. You recall that the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, spent a year and half in court concerning the Code of Conduct Bureau issues. Despite that, this is one of the most productive –if not the most productive –National Assembly we have ever had.
Why did you say so?
For a number of reasons. It reflects in the number of bills that have been passed and motions as well –in fact, by every parameter you use to judge the performance of the National Assembly. I congratulate my colleagues; I congratulate the leadership of the National Assembly.
One and half years to go before 2019, are there things you intend doing for your constituency that are stuck? How broad do you expect the impact to be felt before then?
My wish is to continue to give them effective representation; to represent them proper and to ensure that they are carried along in the Nigerian Project.
Calls for the restructuring of the country haven’t died down yet. What is your take on this?
If restructuring means efficiency, trying to look for more efficient ways of doing thing, I am for it. I have always believed that the centre is too bloated. In fact, I strongly believe that Nigeria is designed to be efficient. We need to look at the country in such a way that it will be more efficient. For instance, there are many things to concentrate at the centre. It doesn’t make sense. The president is not a superman. He has 24 hours a day like every other person. So, I think the fewer things on the table, the better for him to handle and make him a more efficient president. So, I am talking about devolution of power. Power must devolve from the centre to the states. We have 36 chief executives and we have the president, and I think that, by devolving power to the state governors, it will help the president in making sure this country takes the shape we want it to.
There are calls for a single five-year tenure for elected officials in the country. Is the National Assembly considering that? Don’t you think five years can serve our purpose and reduce the fight for second term?
I understand what you are saying. A four-year tenure can be disruptive, because, effectively, it means that, in your third year, you are busy campaigning. So, I understand the whole issue of getting whoever the elected official is to work for four or five years and better don’t think about another election. But, on the other hand, if you look for experience, in terms of legislation or the executive, what you find is that most chief executives are more effective in their second term than in their first term, which is more of a learning process. The same goes for legislation. You find that the legislators in their second or third terms are far more experienced than those of us in their first term; they really understand the job better. These are things you can sacrifice if you go for s single term.
You have an award-winning band, Masta Blasta, which performs at the annual Carnival Calabar. How did you come about that?
It was in 2005 or thereabout when the then governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, asked a number of us to accompany him to Trinidad, because he was interested in starting a carnival in Calabar. So, we went to Trinidad, and observed not just the carnival itself but the entire business of starting a carnival for tourism purposes. When we came back, he challenged a number of us to form different carnival band, and of, course, the Masta Blasta was one of the bands that was formed.
How have you been able to drive it over the years?
I have been able to drive it because of interest. Really, Calabar being a tourist haven, the people have a number of attributes that lend themselves to a carnival, and I have been pleasantly surprised with the level of participation we have had year in, year out for the over 12 years we have been doing carnival. The faces have changed, but the interest has continued to grow and grow.