The stage is getting set for the 2019 gubernatorial election. Candidates for the various political parties are emerging. For Cross River State, the battle will be between the PDP, APC and the SDP. Eyo Ekpo, a former commissioner for justice is the standard bearer of the SDP. Why is he in the race? What is he up to? What difference will he make if elected? What are his plans for the state?
These and many more questions were answered in the course of this interview. Excerpts:
You decided to go into the governorship race even when you know that it is the turn of the north to complete their two terms in office. Why?
In the minds of, thankfully, the majority of the people of Cross River State, it doesn't count. What counts is that we have had since 1999 three governors from the senatorial districts; each of them had to fight to win their ticket except the incumbent governor, Professor Ayade. From 1999, at the back of the so-called Atam Congress which is an agglomeration of the 11 local governments in the central and in the north to gang up against Liyel Imoke, it didn't work; what worked was recognising that each of the governors fought for themselves and they had to fight for their second terms.
In the case of Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke, they did fight for themselves for their second term. And they had opponents from other parts of the state so, there was no zoning arrangement that was expected by anybody. The only person, whose candidacy has been so respected out of a sense of fairness is the current governor. For him, his predecessor, Liyel Imoke, got up and said, fairness demands that we should ask the north to produce a candidate, which was why the north had over 20 gubernatorial aspirants, most of whom, if not all of whom, were from the PDP. Only one emerged which was Governor Ayade.
So, that is one side to it. The other side to it is that we never really had a zoning arrangement in Cross River State even as PDP. In 1999 everybody came out; 2003 everybody came out; 2007, 2011 everybody came out, even when some people were told 'don't go, it doesn't favour you', they still went. So, that is not a big deal in Cross River State.
The third point is that it is a misguided opinion, for me to say 'O, I am from the north, it is not your turn, stay back', and all that. It is a misguided opinion, because, I will say this very clearly and calmly too. I believe that the north has already had a governor; that is Donald Duke. You see, zoning is how people look for the lowest common denominator when you are looking for the highest common factor.
You dumb down; and look for the least problematic procedure, that's the only way zoning works. So, you have a situation where Cross River State does not have any particular one of its problems zoned to a particular party and poverty is widespread from north to east; and lack of infrastructure is widespread from north to east; our agricultural richness is widespread from north to east. The failure to exploit it is widespread from north to south; our health problems; our educational problems is from north to south and why will anybody come and tell me he has solution based on where he comes from?
We went to Donald Duke and asked him, why are you going back after the north defeated you in an election; they didn't want you; they voted against you; why did you allow us to go back and work in the north; they don't like you? He said because they are Cross Riverians. The Mountain Race is at the Ranch; the Ranch is in the north; the Rice field, and many others they are all in the north.
So, if because some of those people did not vote for you and decide that you will not give the benefit of even development to those people, who do you spite? It is yourself, because you still have to go and solve that problem. What I have tried to say is that whoever is the governor of Cross River State, whether he is from the south, north or central he has to be seen as doing the job. We have problem with Ben Ayade's legacy and it has nothing to do with the north; and this is my final point on this; that Ben Ayade, the elders know this so much, that even though he says he is from the north, he is really not for the north.
If you are from the north, you will not allow the Ranch to die, you cannot scarify a 70km road – the only main artery that goes from west to east and abandon it. You would not do that. If you look at all these, you discover that it is not about zoning, it is about competence.
Who is capable; who is best educated; who is exposed enough; who has the integrity; who has the plan; who has the ability to execute and can take us out of this doldrum we find ourselves and back to clear blue sky that we can fly again.
But there are a lot to show that the governor has done well, even in the area of agriculture.
Our agriculture should have grown by now beyond primary produce into processing. We should have gone beyond where we are now, and building on the things that had been laid down. We should have seen a phase two Tinapa underway, even a phase 3. There should have been an extension of the airport from its present location in Calabar to somewhere else with more space.
How financially prepared are you for this battle?
My resources are there. Friends, donors who do not know me, but have seen me talk and read what I have said are willing to help. I haven't gone out consciously to organise fund-raising. It is only my friends who have heard what I am doing and putting efforts. We will make it a mutual programme; a mutual association, whereby all of us join this thing because of the belief in what we are doing. We don't want any dividends or whatever but for the good of our people and our state; we want to see where the money is going.
What are you bringing the table, that will make you better than the current governor, whose seat you are coveting?
You know, I was once the attorney-general of Cross River State; but before then from 2003 to 2007, I started out a legal practice and in 2001 I went into the public sector as a deputy director in the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). I worked on the World Bank-funded programme that saw me taking a position as the bank sector reform team lead. So, at a very young age of 35, I saw quite a lot about governance at a high level and the difficulty of reforming. I did that for two-and-half years. Then came to Cross River as the attorney-general. I was invited by Donald Duke to join his cabinet. That was a wonderful experience for me. It took me back to the state I had left about 17 years earlier as a fresh graduate to go out into the world and make something of myself. I came back 17 years later effectively after leaving in 1986 and I contributed my quota. I was privileged and I was very lucky to be part of a government that actually wanted to be a government that was led by a governor that had the best interest of his people at heart; and went beyond rhetoric and actually did things. I was privileged to be right there at the time many of these initiatives; many of those programmes and plans were discussed, activated and agreed to be executed and implemented. In sum, the lessons I learned at that time has stayed with me. I then went back to Abuja before another three years with Liyel Imoke government. I resigned from the administration in 2010, went back to Abuja where I first started with the power sector reform team. I went back to, shall I say, my starting ground which was the power sector; joined the power sector reform team as one of the team leaders. Six months later, I was in NERC. I spent the next five years in NERC and the cutting edge of electricity reform in Nigeria. I was in charge of Market Competition and Rate (MCR) in NERC and that basically put me in the driver's seat for the redesign of the Nigerian Electricity Market which I did for five years. Again, I learned so much; I was able to implement and also learn how to work with people with various interests; people who don't understand what you are trying to do but you still have to carry them along in some way. We had to learn how to manage failure; we had to learn how to manage people who have no interest or desire in enabling you to achieve whatever you want to achieve; people who are just basically self-interested, but also people working with you who want to deliver on the promise of bright future for Nigeria. So, NERC was at the centre of the power sector reform efforts. Unfortunately, I can't say that we were able to produce the 100 percent target we had set; you know as the commissioner, you are one out of several other members and you have to make sure that your colleagues are on the same page with you. May be, I can't say it was a 100 percent success, but for me it was entirely successful; because what I set out to achieve as one person, I did. I learnt a lot; I gave a lot and I left with my head held up high. When I went to the private sector GE (General Electric), transportation, it was again another two years of massive learning. So, what I want to put across to you is that over 17 or so years, between 2001 and now, I have been to school once again, school of life. Along the way, I have had lots of continued education – Lagos Business School- Advanced Management Programme; Harvard- Management of Regulatory and Enforcement Agency; Harvard (again)- Governance; acquired a Master's degree in Law; another Master's degree in War Studies- interestingly that's really about how to make peace and keep it; there's another one they call 'Understanding the Concept of National Security in the context of the wellbeing of the citizen, not in the context of maintenance of government for whatever it does, which is the way we see national security in Nigeria. So, I have learnt; I have been educated; I have been prepared. And Cross River stands at a point in its history when it actually needs informed leadership; leadership that knows what the people feel; leadership that stays among the people, leadership that can understand what is achievable and what is its dream; leadership that knows how to plan; how to design and to execute; leadership that knows how to lead. We don't have any of these things in Cross River State now. We were raised on a diet of good governance in Cross River State but we are now being starved of good governance. My job is just to go back and bring back that good governance and then make Cross River healthy again.
You talked about Tinapa and Obudu Ranch. What are your plans for these projects?
The slogan of my campaign is 'recover and restore? So, there is no question about doing new things for new things sake. We will not and we will never. But at the same time, we will do things; after we have first re-established the foundation for growth in Cross River. I told you earlier that there were good foundations laid in Cross River, they have now been broken up; so, that foundation has to be re-established. It may take a little bit of time, but that must be done. Once we have done that, like I said at the beginning, we will return the state on a growth path. The key responsibility of the Cross River government on my watch will not be to try to reinvent the wheel and doing business that is best done by business people; it will be to re-establish the perception, and the reality that people used to have that Cross River was a state that was welcoming; a state of business and leisure investments; a state that had a leadership that knew what it was about; a state that had a plan and was executing that plan. Once you have those things, you then focus on governance.
Those things take you down quite a few roads – social development, law and order, creating a place of heritage; re-establishing the things that you talked about – the Obudu Mountain Race; the Tinapas of this world; recovering the infrastructure that has become moribund across the state- state-owned infrastructure, not the ones that belong to the Federal Government. So, you see that there's a lot of work that needs to be done. In a matter of days, what I called my blueprint, titled 'A re-development strategy for Cross River State' will be rolled out; it means that at one time, we were developing; but we are no longer developing today. So, that is where my focus is. I really want to talk about something here; we tend to pick out individual's projects and then highlight them as if that was what Cross River is all about. Cross River State is not about Tinapa, or was it merely about Tinapa; or Obudu Ranch or the Mountain Race; Cross River State was about an endeavour that was rooted in the conviction that we were not a 'civil service' state. We are a state of abundant promise; of abundant talents and of abundant resources. And it did not require that we go to Abuja to indulge ourselves in the monthly ritual of FAAC allocation share before we could live and live well. So, we want to change that perception about Cross River. The endeavour therefore, was to set up a context for growth; the context for development, realisation of ability of the people themselves which will never happen if we are waiting for FAAC allocation and civil service salaries to come. What was then set out to be done by the first administration we had post 4th Republic was to lay the basic foundation– there were programmes for rural access to roads, there was a programme for the electrification of the state; there was programme for the industrialisation of the state, there was programme for revamping of our social welfare platforms; these platforms were developed and actually executed. So, where I am going is that there was a context and we would want to go back to that context that would make people realise that Cross River State as it was then a product of a concerted effort to develop the state, at the back of that catalystic investment that Cross River State Government had made in Tinapa to come and add to it just like it happened so many years ago in Dubai when somebody built on airport in the middle of a desert. All these skyscrapers you see in Dubai were not there 30 years ago. When that happened, people realised, we can actually do something here and then the financial centre was established and many others came up, all because somebody had built a half-way house between Europe and Asia. That is the context we should look at all these projects. We are part of the concerted efforts to expand the Cross River coast and letting the whole world know that regardless of whatever is going on in Nigeria, we in Cross River State are open for business. That those projects you mentioned have gone to where they are today is a consequence of lack of vision. Cross River problem is not Tinapa, it is not the Ranch, but it is the governance of the state as led by the present administration that does not possess the ability to lead us in the right way.
There has been a serious apathy towards elections because a lot of people believe that their votes will not count. How can the people's mindset change, especially the youths?
There are no two ways about it.
I cannot win an election from my sitting room. One has to go out. The name of SDP (Social Democratic Party) is resonating across the state. People are definitely aware; you can never gauge too well how it is going, you can only talk to people. I only call on people and it is what I love doing. For me, it's been tough; but disciples are being won purely on competence; particularly among the youth demography; the name is spreading. My focus, everything I am doing is to increase our spread, and not just increase our spread, but to make sure that people will buy into it.
How would you ensure that the votes meant for you are not diverted?
The SPD, our party, has a very unique structure. The structure doesn't go down and stop at the world level, it goes below the ward level into the polling unit level. So, we are going to have on day of election, at least 15 to 20 people at each polling unit. We will have those polling units well monitored. We will have our people ready and willing and able to fight for their rights. We will have our people trained to understand how the rules work. We will have our people inside these places; we know what they are trying to do and we will not allow them. So, our party is growing, it is growing exponentially at the grassroots level where all parties