Dr Alex Egbona represents the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. In this interview with some journalists, he spoke threw some light on the motion he sponsored for the dredging of the Calabar port. He also spoke on his 2023 political ambition.
A few days ago, you sponsored a motion for the dredging of the Calabar Port. Why did you think of this and at this time?
My mind is always on the Calabar Port and the waste of a public facility that would have given a boost to commerce and tourism in my state. Each time I think of the Calabar Port, my heart bleeds. Each time I remember that we have a seaport that is lying idle, wasted, redundant, just wasting away, when the Lagos port is busy and making the economy of that state to boom, I develop stomach ache. It makes me want to sometimes think that the federal government hates us. I may be wrong, but that appears to be the best way to describe the abandonment of the Calabar Port.
See, we are talking about the oldest seaport in this country. In the 16th century, goods like palm oil were being shipped to Europe and other parts of the world from this seaport in question.
Before now, it was privately operated by various shipping companies, including John Holts, until December 1969 when the federal government took over the port’s facilities and gave its management and ownership control to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). Like I said on the day I presented the motion, the development, modernization and expansion of the port complex was embarked upon under the third National Development plan of 1975-1980 and then on 9 June, 1979, it was commissioned by the then military administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Some of us have at various times expressed the concern that the port is not serving the purpose for which it was established, largely because of its shallow nature and notable sons and daughters of Cross River State, past and present governments at the state level, have cried out to the federal government for the port to be dredged, to allow large vessels to come in.
There have been diverse government proclamations on the dredging of the port dating back to the administrations of General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha but no tangible thing has been done to rehabilitate it. In 2006, Obasanjo, as president of Nigeria, awarded a contract for the dredging of the port to Messrs. Jan De Nul and Van Oord at a cost of $56million but it was abandoned. In 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan initiated the Calabar Channel Management (CCM), a joint venture company between the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and a consortium of companies led by Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited with a mandate to dredge the port. Although the Calabar Channel Management was reported to have commenced work, the port is yet to be dredged till date. So, you can see why I said at the beginning, that my heart bleeds whenever I remember what the Calabar port has been through.
And in the midst of this neglect, the Lagos port is booming. If you need to clear your goods, you must do so in Lagos and then find a way to bring your containers to the south south and south east, with the attendant bad roads and all that. Can you see what I am talking about?
Look at the amount of money that exchanges hands in Lagos and compare that with what is happening in Calabar. So, would you say that this country is fair to Calabar, or to the south- south? We keep talking about youths unemployment. We are talking of trade and commerce in the south east. Go to Onitsha and Aba and see the number of containers that enter those commercial cities on a daily basis. Those goods are being cleared in Lagos, meanwhile we have a port in Calabar.
Why can’t the port in Calabar be dredged and made to function maximally so that our boys can also go there and keep themselves busy? There was a time that cars were imported into this country and were cleared at the Calabar Port. That time, if you can remember, people were always going to Calabar either to buy those cars or do other things. That way, hotels were busy, the local economy got some serious boost and life was pleasant. Today, those who believe they are the owners of Nigeria appear to have crippled or killed the Calabar port. And in the midst of this, the same people will be crying that the Lagos port is congested. Is that not hypocrisy?
So, my plea is that the federal government must, immediately, take steps to ensure that the Calabar Port is given a life of its own. A quick completion of the Calabar Seaport will help decongest the Lagos Port and reduce the hardship of waiting for hours to clear goods.
Do you think it is necessary or it is an option to say let private investors be brought back to handle the situation, since it used to be under the private sector management?
If that will be the solution, why not? Don’t forget, like I said before, the Calabar port started out as a privately run port, before it was taken over by the government. So, if the federal government cannot make it work, the government can as well bring in private concerns who will be able to bring back life to the seaport, beginning from the dredging. Once the dredging of the seaport is done, every other thing will be activated and the seaport will be up and running once again and that will gladden our heart. Private investors can take over, fix the port and run it until they recover their money. The most important thing for me, and I think I am speaking the mind of most Cross Riverians and even the mind of the people of south-south and south east, is that the port must start working.
The federal government cannot pretend not to know of or hear about our hue and cry about the Calabar seaport. I believe it is a sin for them to continue to keep silent about this. If they do not feel okay with handing it over to private concerns, let them re-award the contract for the dredging of the port and then supervise it very closely, just to be sure that the depth would be good enough to allow very big ships to berth at the port. This is my prayer.
The motion has since been committed to the committee on harbour and I believe they will do a nice job and eventually, the federal government will see the need to dredge the seaport and make it work.
A few weeks before you sponsored the motion on the Calabar port, you had sponsored a bill for the establishment of a college of agriculture in your state. Don’t you think we are having too many of these colleges?
Did I hear you say too many of these colleges? Where? In my state? You see, we cannot have too many educational institutions, especially monotechnics of this nature. A college of agriculture is a specialised school where specialised training is given. The truth is that if it were possible to have these schools in every local government, we should have them. And I am talking about specialised schools, schools where you will have hands on training for students. We are in the age of skills. Gone are the days when people will go to the university, study, graduate and then come back to roam the streets in search of white collar jobs. In fact, look around your neighbourhood. How many graduates do you have that are still looking for jobs? I know the pressure I receive from graduates who are looking for jobs that are not readily available. But if you went to a college of agriculture and you were taught the rudiments, believe me, when you graduate, you can eke out a living from your farm. Don’t forget that with technology, farms have been modernised and have become a huge source of revenue.
So, why Abi?
Why not Abi? There is nothing to be sentimental about. Agricultural endeavour requires a lot of things. To have a college of agric that would be worth its name and purpose, you will need a large expanse of land, not just for the structures, for the classrooms, but you need enough land for the farms. In Abi where I come from, we have land. When I say that we have land, I mean it in every sense.
I am not just talking about land that is not useful, I am talking of land that is fertile, land that was blessed by God and prepared by nature for us to grow special crops. Have you heard of Abi rice? Maybe one of these days, I will invite you guys to Abi to come and see what I am talking about.
There is hardly any family in my place that does not own a rice farm. People come from neighbouring states to buy our rice. Then they will go and process them and sell to all parts of this country and we are proud to say we are eating local rice. See, it is possible that if you ate rice in your house this morning before you came here, the rice you ate was grown in Abi. The challenge we have is the financial ability to procure and install rice mills. And then the training of the manpower in line with present day realities. Once we can achieve this, believe me, we can satisfy the rice needs of this nation.
So, that answers your question. Abi local government of Cross River State is a major stakeholder as far as rice farming is concerned. And apart from rice, our land is blessed enough for the growing of many other crops. There is no aspect of agriculture that we are lagging behind. But what we need are the manpower training and the resources to do the magic.
In that bill, I had said that the proposed college of Agriculture in Abi, when established, will adopt a holistic approach to the development of agricultural education, knowledge skills and the telescopic vision that will accelerate growth, enhance farmers’ income and generate employment for all categories of persons in the country. We cannot continue to depend on oil. Now, it is back to land. The time to go back to the drawing board and invest heavily in agriculture and agricultural institutions is now. In my state, in my federal constituency, in my local government, we have the human resources to achieve this but what we lack is trained manpower to galvanize the sector to an optimal standard.
The proposed college is capable of providing a platform that will impact positively on agriculture through intensive research.
If you come to Abi, you will notice that over 80 per cent of the population is engaged in different areas of agriculture. So, this makes it very necessary to establish the college to promote and enlighten the community and the state on the best way to maximise their potentials.
2023 is by the corner. What are you thinking of?
If you come to me in the next few weeks, I want to believe that you will get a satisfying answer to this question. A lot of people have asked me this same question and my answer has remained the same. The time is getting very close, when I will make my next political plans known to everybody. Right now, I am pre-occupied with my legislative and other oversight functions for the benefit of my people.
But let me also say this. I am not one of those politicians who will tell you ‘my people have called on me to go contest so and so election.’ I believe in telling myself the truth. I believe in telling people the truth. Check out all those who lie in the name of their people, ‘my people said this, my people told me to contest so and so position,’ check them out, how do they perform?
If somebody is being pressurised to contest an election, when he wins and gets into office, he may not perform because he had no plans.
For every election that I have contested, right from when I contested and won as councillor till now, I have always had a well thought out plan, then I will take the plan to my people and seek their opinion and support.
That was what I did when I went for this election in 2019. I knew what I wanted to do for my people. I developed a blueprint. I doubt if there are many people who did that.
When I won the election, even in the face of legal threats, I took the extra mile of undergoing a tour to find out the actual needs of the people, to see if they were different from what I contemplated. Check out the things I have been able to achieve, they are all in line with what
the people said they wanted. One of them is this college of agriculture. I am pushing it and I believe it will become a reality soon.
Recall that before now, I had sponsored a bill for the establishment of a federal polytechnic in my constituency. As I speak to you, that school is alive and working. Academic activities will soon commence and this is what gives me joy.
So, as we prepare for the next election, as a politician who is interested in service and making sure that my people get the best from government, I will, very soon, make public my next political plan. And that will be done after due consultations.