Chairman of 7 Alive support group and former Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Cross River State, Ntufam John Okon, in this interview tells DAVID ODEY, our correspondent in Calabar, that the state governor, Prof. Ben Ayade, has done well and deserves a second term mandate in 2019.
How far has 7 Alive gone with the support for Ayade's re-election in 2019?
I am the chairman of 7 Alive led by Chief Asuquo Ekpenyong. After some internal analysis of His Excellency's performance and the interest of the seven local governments of the southern senatorial district, we came to the conclusion that we have to support Professor Ben Ayade for a second term, mainly based on our own view point of equity, fair play and justice.
We keep repeating this as the hallmark of peace, tranquillity and development of our people. We have given this analysis before. Our son, Donald Duke had two terms of four years each. Our leader, Imoke had two terms. And we believe that Ayade should have two terms. That is why the south through the aegis of 7 Alive, was the first to go round the local governments in the zone to make this declaration. It was a well thought-out plan. We started from Biase, Akamkpa, Odukpani, Calabar South. All the local governments took turns before we held the mega rally. We organized the rally to come out clearly to articulate our position. And so, we are still on. We are well structured, from the polling unit, to the ward, to the local government levels. We are throwing our weight behind His Excellency, the governor.
Since the mega rally organized by 7 Alive, not much has been heard about 7 Alive again. What is going on?
It is not true. We have been present in every occasion. At our leader's birthday (Asuquo Ekpenyong) recently, it was one of the platforms to bring people around. And you heard the statement of Godswill Akpabio commending the governor for what he has done. You heard our leader, Asuquo Ekpenyong emphasizing that we should rally round the governor. But what we are doing now is putting structures in place because. 7 Alive is the most structured organization with coordinators at the local government, with directors heading various directorates. We also have five-man committees in all the wards in the seven local governments. And of course we have also penetrated our polling units, forming a coalition. So, we are more structured. What we are even doing now is bigger than the rallies. This is to ensure that our people are well mobilized ahead of the forthcoming elections. Most of us believe that there is no competition in the nomination of Prof Ben Ayade as far as PDP is concerned. 7 Alive is a support group for the PDP and His Excellency, the governor.
Shouldn't his second coming be hinged on his performance? What can you point to as his achievement in the last three years?
Performance depends on what you are looking for. To us in 7 Alive, we have sat down and articulated our position, that in spite of the limited resources in the state, Senator Ayade has performed very well. Mind you, in this first term of any government, there are always trials and problems. Take his proposal for the super highway for instance. Take his proposal for the deep seaport. It is a very big, humongous project. But in spite of his enthusiasm and the support we have for them, we must also look at why we cry about the federal structure, the approval process. Most times they blame him out of ignorance or out of mischief. You need this approval from the federal government. And when you bring investors and the approvals are not forthcoming, you don't expect the projects to move as they are supposed to. That is why people are talking about restructuring. If the governor had powers, these projects would have gone very far because there have been a lot of interest, even the sea port, there have been a lot of interest. So, those are the challenges he has but the very idea that we are going to be linked with these kind of project in the state is something we have to give chance and more opportunity because these clearance are coming. And it is only when we give him chance for a second term that we can sustain them. These are the major signature projects. But look at the other programmes in the south. Our leader is a business mogul. He is known for his economic expertise. In all our meetings, he said what Ayade is doing to bring industries to the state, particularly in the south, is going to pay off in terms of industrializing the state, rather than depending on federal allocation. By the next few months, those projects are going to be commissioned. You have gone to the garment factory, you have seen the Rice City. The equipment are already installed. The pharmaceutical factory is already completed, and some other projects springing up in the south at the Ayade Industrial Park. Those projects are bound to give our youths and others employment. They are bound to generate revenue. If you go to Ikom, there is a new cocoa processing plant there. It is going to bring value chain there. There is a rice mill in Ogoja. Even in Yakurr, there is a toothpick factory there. This is something that we import. But now, we can produce it here. It is going to generate revenue for the local people there and the state. People take payment of salaries and pension for granted. But I keep challenging them that if they go to states that are not paying salaries for three months or six months, they will know what it means. But over here, in spite of limited resources, I keep wondering how the governor is able to pay. As for the teachers, I heard the SUBEB chairman had to intervene directly for the payment of teachers at the local government level. So, with all these projects, I don't think anybody in the state will say he is not doing anything. People outside the state have been commending him. I talked about Akpabio. I have talked about other leaders who have come into this state and they were impressed with his achievements.
People say he started so many projects instead of concentrating on a few and that is why most of the projects have not been completed and commissioned. Do you agree with that?
I had that kind of challenge when I was the chairman of our party when I used to discuss with the governor. He is a man of ideas. He is somebody who is in a hurry to achieve these things. He is somebody who says if he doesn't announce these things, he is not challenged. He believes that when you launch a project, you are challenged to complete it rather than leave it in your mind. The public are seeing what he is trying to do and they are criticizing. And when you criticize him, you engineer him to complete the projects. If he doesn't mention any project, would they have any area of criticizing him? All those projects they were criticizing him about, they are being completed. Look at the Rice City, they were criticizing and saying MoU, MoU. The equipment have been installed there. Even the power project is coming on. I was one of those who told His Excellency, “why not take these projects in piece meal?” But those things are materializing.
With the lean resources the state has, do you think he can complete those projects, won't they become white elephant projects?
I don't know about white elephant projects when equipment are there and already installed. Once there is equipment and personnel, it is going to be functional. The white elephant projects are abandoned projects. If he constructs the super highway and tolls it, the money will not come to him. The money will come to the state government. And you cannot give him four years to achieve that kind of project. That is why we have to give him another chance. I keep saying that if you were in this state, most of Donald Duke's projects came during his second term. The first term was experimental, if you remember pineapple, cashew in the north, they fizzled out. But that did not stop him from buckling up to build viable projects that are the envy of the whole country. Like I said, Ayade has done well in the first term and we can only encourage him to go for a second term because a new government that comes in will introduce its own programme and all the ongoing investments and projects may not be achieved. I am still waiting for someone to tell me “this is the alternative to Senator Ayade”. I keep saying if not Ayade, who? For now, nobody has given me this option.
But there is someone who has come out of PDP as an aspirant Who is the person?
Emmanuel Ibeshi from the north
Emmanuel Ibeshi is a friend of Ayade. He is my friend. Clearly I am talking as a former chairman of the party. I don't see PDP, and the way Ayade has performed, and the structure of the party, I don't see how Emmanuel Ibeshi will get the nomination. Just by the structure and the performance of the incumbent, I don't see how he can get the ticket. But his entry into the race is good for democracy. I know Emma very well. But to be frank with you, I don't see Emma overturning the quest of His Excellency, Governor Ayade. We have put structures on ground. I can boast of that. 7 Alive and other support groups are in the seven local governments in the south. I am an automatic delegate to the governorship primary. And there are other automatic delegates. They are called super delegates who are already biased towards Ayade.
Are you worried about the ugly situation in Tinapa, the abandonment of the place?
Yea. We are all worried about the abandonment of Tinapa but we still blame the federal structure. Tinapa was a concept of free trade zone. When it was commissioned by former president Obasanjo, that was the vision. But you discover that when companies started coming in, this issue of customs duties came up. A different angle came up and it stalled it. And when it was stalled, investors moved out. And when investors move out, it will take a lot of energy and time to be able to attract them back. There was this clear concept that Tinapa will be a free trade zone so that when you import goods they can penetrate into the market. Without that it cannot be viable. We are still looking for investors, we are still talking to customs, that whoever that is going to come, that the zone should remain as a free trade zone as originally conceived. In fact, the idea of building the International Conference Centre nearby, the monorail and the Lakeside Hotel, was to be able to have that synergy by linkage. But it is not something that you can control. If you meet an investor that is the question he will ask. He will ask,”my problem is, will I be able to get a fair tariff that will enable me enter the market with my goods?” Because if the tariffs are high, you will not be able to make any profit. So, these are the challenges.