Governorship candidate of the Social Democratic (SDP)Party in Cross River State, Eyo Ekpo, in this interview with DAVID ODEY, our correspondent in Calabar, speaks with candour about his background, his mission to become governor in 2019, among other issues.
What were you doing over the years before you joined the governorship race?
Immediately before now, I was an executive with General Electric Nigeria responsible for the transportation business of General Electric in the country. Before that, I was a commissioner in the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission. Before that I was Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice of the state, and special adviser in the government of Liyel Imoke, that is after I had served Donald Duke in his second term. Before that, I was the deputy director of the Bureau of Public Enterprises. All those have spanned the last 17 years, both in the private and public sectors. I was a practicing lawyer. Before I joined the BPE in 2001, I had done 13 years in private practice and became a partner in a very successful law firm called the Law Union in Lagos. We also have offices in Port Harcourt and Abuja.
What did you learn from your parents while growing up?
First and foremost, the virtues of humility. I was born to well-to-do parents but they never let me think for a second that that was a very big deal. It was never a big deal. My father was at one time number two in the country; military vice president. That was not an issue. It was never a big deal in my home. So, humility, first and foremost. Also, the virtues of integrity, transparency, particularly in your public conduct and public affairs. I am a fourth generation of public servant in our family. Public service dates back three generations; my father, my grandfather, my great grandfather were all public servants of their community, their country, and in the case of my father, the state also. And so, I have taken off, without thinking in that tradition. So those are some of the values, and also ability to enjoy yourself and your family and to live life to the fullest and to live life striving to bring value not only to those that come into contact with you, but also to bring value to yourself through working with them.
At what point in your life did you think of becoming a lawyer?
I never thought of becoming a lawyer. I wanted to become a soldier. My father didn't allow that so I had to take the next best step which was becoming a lawyer. That was in 1982. My father's lawyer, friend and cousin, Chief Effiom Otu Effiom Ekong Bassey Inyang, now deceased, intervened. I had gained admission into the University of Calabar to study Sociology. He heard about it, intervened and took me to the Dean of Law Faculty, Prof Umozurike to whom I am very grateful. He took one look at me, asked me questions, what was my JAMB score. I told him my JAMB score was 309 which was very good score then. It turned out to be higher than the score of the first person on his merit list, which was 298. So he said he is going to ask for me to be transferred immediately from social sciences where I matriculated. He asked that I should be transferred from social sciences to law. That was how I was transferred. So, between Chief Effiom Otu Effiom Ekong and Prof Orji Umozurike, I owe to them the ease with which I found myself in the faculty of law where I studied law. This was in 1982.
What was your experience in court the first day as a young lawyer?
It was on the 26th of October, 1987. My first appearance was at the High Court of Lagos state. It was a motion for substituted service, very easy motion but at the time it was a big deal, you can imagine. I was very fortunate also. My first appearance was before a very urbane and accommodating judge named Olusola Thomas who became the chief judge of Lagos state and also in a way a mentor and older friend to me personally. I entered his court with my motion. I was very nervous. I wasn't sure of how to move the motion. I was just watching all the other lawyers as they were doing their thing. And when it got to my turn, I still didn't know what to do and he realised that I was a very fresh, young, new wig. My wig was still very new. So he more or less did my matter for me by asking me a series of questions. The only answer was yes, yes, yes. There was a lawyer beside me, P.O. Jimoh Lasisi, I can't forget that name. He told me just answer yes. It was later I realised that Jimoh Lasisi knew what the judge was doing. I didn't know what he was doing. He just said answer yes to all the questions the judge asks you. The judge asked me if it was a motion for substituted service, I said yes. He asked; Do you have an affidavit? I said yes. He asked, do you have affidavit of nine paragraphs, I said yes. And that was it. I had done my first case.
What challenges did you face as commissioner for justice under Donald Duke?
Motivation. Motivating members of staff in the ministry. And that wasn't difficult to do eventually. You can motivate your team by setting example. So the first thing I did was to have an understanding of my ministry. And secondly, I read the personal files of every lawyer in my ministry to get to understand who they were and I knew where they had been. I came up with a three-year plan. I said to the governor that by the end of 2006, we would have achieved a number of things. I remember we had three or four main objectives I was going to achieve at that period. Good enough the governor had so much confidence in me. And by the end of the year 2003 when I entered the ministry, I had made sure that everyone in the ministry understood my mission and understood what I wanted to do and also what they needed to do, all of us together to achieve these things. I told members of staff in my ministry to be professional and be diligent. I told them to eschew lethargy because if they do, I will be there to sanction. And if they did well I would reward them and I made sure they were rewarded. There were sanctions and rewards that were handed down evenly to those that deserved them. About 12 months later, I was told that we were one of the best ministries in the state. Within two years we were the best ministry in the state. We were the most disciplined ministry and that was how it continued until 2007 when I left the ministry.
You are contesting against an incumbent with a heavy war chest. How are you going to cope?
Have you counted his war chest? How do you know he has a heavy war chest? He doesn't have a war chest. He has a budget for the state. He is spending the state government's money. He is spending our money. He is spending my money. So I cannot say it is his war chest.
How are you going to confront the power of incumbency?
To be candid, every incumbent has that aspect going for him. That is true. However, I believe sincerely that the verdict of the people of Cross River state is that the governor does not deserve a second term. It is not my judgement. Take your phone to the streets for a vox pop. Ask a hundred people about whether they will vote Ayade for a second term and they will say they don't want him. It is not personal. It is what the people are saying. The one thing that an incumbent has is the track record. And it is a visible track record. But in his case it is invisible track record. What people see is what they have experienced. You cannot just blame economic depression or downturn in the economy. Ogun State too has economic depression. Enugu state has economic depression. Akwa Ibom has economic depression. Kaduna has economic depression. So, economic depression happens across the country but the output from these states is very different from the output in Cross River state. What is it that the people perceive rightly or wrongly? But they believe that the governor has not done enough for them. So, they are reluctant to support the idea of going back. What we have been doing is to persuade them that they actually have a hope. I have a manifesto, a four-point manifesto. That manifesto is what we are presenting to the people across the state.
How come leaders from the northern and southern senatorial districts have endorsed Governor Ayade for a second term?
That is 46 votes. That is fine. Leaders at the end of the day will show their true colours. There is a reason why the Fulani man stays with his cows. He doesn't go and sleep in a hotel when he is carrying his cows because if you don't sleep with your cows and go through what the cows are going through, they will leave you alone. If these guys who say they are leaders are truly leaders, let them take the communique to their villages, call village meeting and say that is what we want you to do, and let us see what the outcome will be. It is 46 votes at the end of the day. I can afford to write off each and every one of those 46 votes and get additional votes because people are not stupid. We have been stupid for too long. It is enough.
So, what is your game plan ahead of the election?
You want me to tell you my game plan? If the governor should tell you his game plan, then I will tell you mine. Preparations for the campaign are going pretty well. We are blessed. We are fortunate. We are not only delivering the message of hope but also a message of competence, a message that Cross River state can be recovered and restored. A message that we should work together and throw off the yoke that is currently on our backs so that we can restart our lives afresh. We don't have to wait till four years for that to happen. So far, the response we have got from the electorate has been very good.