INTERVIEW: Cross River is Niger Delta state only in name – Ex-Commissioner

Bobby Ekpenyong, a former sports commissioner and chairman of Calabar Municipal Council of Cross River State, spoke to PREMIUM TIMES editors when he visited the newspaper’s head office in Abuja last week. Excerpts:

PT: You contested election into the House of Representatives on the platform of the Labour Party last year but lost. What could have been responsible for your defeat even as a former local government chairman?

Ekpenyong: I lost for the same reason we had to leave PDP. There was a high degree of impunity. Cross River is a state that everything begins and ends with whoever is the governor. I see Governor Ben Ayade as a man who is trying to break the state away from that position. When the last PDP government was in place, there was a political will of who the people wanted as the governor of the state. The then governor, Liyel Imoke, played the people to the last minute. Some of us who were very unhappy decided to dump the PDP and contested on another platform, the Labour Party. As you know, it is almost impossible to fight against an incumbent government and succeed in a place as poor as Cross River State. I did my best. For me to have even come second with such a slim margin, in a situation where one did not have security and financial resources as the state and federal governments, it was a great feat. You will understand what I was up against and was still able to pull through. I ran the election entirely with my funding. When I look at myself, I thank the people who believed in me and voted for me. With such support, I will always be ready to serve them in whatever capacity they want me, to give them what they deserve.

PT: APC, from what we hear, is making in-roads into Cross River State. So much so that people are already saying it would be a straight fight between APC and PDP in the state, come next election. And with APC having the likes of the Niger Delta Affairs Minister, Usani Uguru, the former senate leader and others, the election may just be tough. What is your take?

Ekpenyong: Candidly, as a stakeholder in Cross River state politics, and somebody who has participated actively in elections in the state, I doubt very seriously where that is coming from. It’s not about anybody, particularly the Minister of Niger Delta, a humble, God fearing man, who was the APC Chairman in the state. It is beyond him. Is the APC government at the federal level faring better? Are they having their internal party and membership crisis resolved? What about the APC states? How have they fared? After the January elections we have had subsequent elections, how have they been faring? All these would come to play in the minds of people before the 2019 elections. If Ayade is able to bring his dreams and vision to happen as planned in Cross River State, what would anybody use to stop PDP? Again, Cross River has a political mentality. That will come to play during that elections. When it is time, the people will follow the winning party. It has been like that for a long time. I don’t know what will make it change now. The people are so used to that mentality. So, it is going to be very difficult for anybody to change that now. You may confuse the village person with the voter’s card before reaching the polling unit, but when he gets there, all that he wants to see is the umbrella, the symbol of the PDP.

PT: But several top politicians from Cross River state left the PDP. Does this affect the state in any way?

Ekpenyong: I do not think so.

PT: Do you know whether the governor is making any moves to woo them back to the PDP?

Ekpenyong: I would not respond to that because I am not in Ayade’s government, neither am I in his cabinet. I would not know. The Nigerian political space is not based on ideology, but job seeking opportunities.

It is not based on what people believe in, like what obtains in developed countries. Those people that have moved out of the party in the state, what has been their political antecedents? Have they been winning elections on their own? Were their victories in elections in the past facilitated by government? I think we want a united family which Donald Duke left to be restored. Duke broke all oppositions in the state and established one united family. That was how all of us came to belong to PDP. Ayade should take steps to bring everybody on the same platform. We are not talking about a ruler, but a leadership who is ready to give as he is taking. In Cross River state, we still have opportunity to make that happen. It depends on individual mentality and understanding. Some people would say because APC is at the federal level, they want federal attention.

Some may want to be in government perpetually. Why Ayade has earned my respect is that young boys and girls who since their graduation have no jobs are being brought and giving them responsibilities in the states. It’s not about money but the platform he has given them. With the political position, the future is opened for them. They want to do something tomorrow that would boost their CVs. This what was lacking in the state. The state was all about recycling politicians and offices among the old generations. If Ayade can pay civil servants and owe political appointees, he should be commended. Imagine how the state would have been if he had paid political appointees and owed civil servants. Civil servants constitute about 80 per cent of the state’s political population. Imagine if he had concentrated on political appointees! We must look at the time. Some states can’t even pay their workers, but politicians are collecting their money. It is only local government workers who are not collecting their salaries regularly because it is a national problem.

PT: At the moment, you are a member of the Labour Party? Why are you so passionate about Ayade, who belongs to a rival political party?

Ekpenyong: It is true I was in Labour Party and I am passionate about Ayade as a person, but more about project Cross River State. If we don’t join hands to support Ayade, it is Cross River State that would suffer. From the time I was growing up till now, I still see Cross River State as a very disadvantaged state. When one looks at this, Ayade deserves pity. If people know what is involved, not many would want to be governor of the state. Every month, when one goes through the publication of the federal allocations, that of Cross River State has been the least for several months. The Internally Generated Revenue of the state is nothing to write home about since Imoke left. So, Ayade is swimming against the tide to do what he is doing. So, nobody needs distraction now, particularly at this period of economic recession. If we do not pool ourselves together, we are going to be completely disconnected. If new investments are not attracted in the state and generated revenue internally, we are going to suffer. Looking at what Ayade is doing, it is important we pull ourselves together and support what the government is doing, else we will all suffer in the state. There will be serious restiveness when people do not have jobs; when salaries are not paid; the security situation will worsen. Interestingly, Cross River is one of the few states not owing workers’ salaries.

PT: But people say the governor is not so popular in the state. What is going on?

Ekpenyong: I disagree totally with the view that the governor is not popular among his people. On what basis are people saying that? In any case, governance is never about popularity contest. Popularity depends on how one looks at it, whether good or bad. With his dreams and vision; trying to give a direction to the state, he is very popular. He has always been a popular figure, even before he became governor. His achievements would boost his popularity the more. In politics, no matter how popular one is, there would still be some persons who would not agree or see anything good in what you do. Those are the critics. I once belonged there when Donald Duke was the governor. I was in the opposition party, the ANPP. We used to criticize what Duke was doing. Even where those things were good, if we did not see anything to criticize, we would say we cannot comment, because we were in the opposition. One time, as the secretary of the party, I could not hold back my feelings about the execution of the Tinapa Business Resort in Calabar. It was the project I loved so much. I commended Duke for it. I incurred my party’s wrath. This could be the situation you are referring to. If one hears some criticisms against the Cross River State governor, one needs to find out first where do the critics belong to and may be their antecedents.

PT: So, one is right to accept he is not popular among his people?

Ekpenyong: No, that’s not the point. Not all the people. Few persons; a few people from his own part of the state. People would tell you there are certain persons in Cross River who are experts in petition writing right from the days of the military. For me, I see the governor as a victim of his people’s conspiracy, not that he is not popular. I don’t want to name names. One could have seen that these are people who every day and night they are on social media posting things.

PT: There is also the allegations of nepotism against the governor in his appointments. One report even said his brother, Frank Ayade, was recently quizzed by the EFCC over some fraud. Would you also blame these on the critics?

Ekpenyong: There is no law that says as a president, governor or holder of any political office your relations do not have right to take up appointments in the states. The issue of nepotism is a complex one. It is about competency. As a governor, if you have a brother who is competent and qualified to handle a particular official responsibility to your confidence, what stops you from appointing him? Or are we saying once one becomes a governor your brother who has been in government would have to quit? It’s not done! If the governor has a brother who is competent to handle the political trust for you, there is absolutely nothing wrong in you engaging the services of such a person, as long as it is within the law. I have carried out investigations, I have not seen the governor’s brother, Frank Ayade, sign any government memo to award a contract or given approval for anything. If the governor decided to engage the brother to be his “eye” and “ear”, to check some of his appointees, run some private errands for him, to get the result he wants, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The question the critics should ask is: Is he competent? If the brother is not competent, and is just making noise around the state, that is where it should call for concern. I also know that Frank Ayade has been running his brother’s business as a private man, when the governor was never in politics. Then he was neither a senator nor governor?

PT: There is this controversial issue of compensation for some indigenes of the state who were displaced by the superhighway being constructed by the state government. Can you tell us more about it?

Ekpenyong: Every government understands there is no way land would be claimed from owners, including the destruction of economic trees and crops that compensation would not be paid to the communities. I am sure the government is working on that. The issue of the delay in the construction of the highway after the groundbreaking by the president is as a result of such issues, including the conclusion of impact assessment and compensation to the people.

PT: Let’s talk about Bakassi. Has the excision of Bakassi from Cross River State affected the state in any way?

Ekpenyong: Yes, we lost Bakassi completely. We lost money. We lost oil wells. We had political settlement that a certain amount of money was given then to Cross River State. Now they say we are part of the Niger Delta region. But, in truth we are not. We are a member by name. In terms of what accrues to Niger Delta – oil money, we are not. We are not receiving the oil money. Federal allocations are based on certain indices. But, we are completely out, because there is no single oil well in Cross River State based on the Supreme Court ruling. The federal government ceded Bakassi completely to Cameroon. So, there is no oil well in Cross River state. That has made the state look like all other states that do not have this opportunity to earn extra money from natural resources. Look at the Federal allocation since February this year. Sometimes, it’s zero allocation. So, how do you think a government would function with this kind of situation? The only way out is to look inwards, by going back to look at the state and diversify its sources of income. Cross River is depending on itself. The state cannot depend on itself by the people fighting and tearing themselves apart, all in a bid to discredit Ayade, so that next election you will put in your person. What magic would that person perform under this same circumstances I am talking to you about? Of course, we had persons who held positions as senators, minister, member of House of Representatives, commissioners and local government chairmen. What did they do?

PT: Are you saying these people did not impact the lives of the people?

Ekpenyong: For me, if they impacted on the lives of the people, why did some of them lose their elections? I don’t want to go into that. My point is that it is not about tearing ourselves to discredit Ayade. It is about pooling ourselves together for the state to survive. Now, Ayade is there, let us give him that support. Donald Duke did eight years. People complained. Imoke came and did his eight years. Ayade is there now. He has just done one year. Let’s support him so that the state would not suffer. We are not any other state – Rivers, Delta, Lagos states, with the population of the kind of leaders that can fight and speak for us in the highest level. What we have now is ourselves.

PT: What do you say about the upsurge of crime in Cross River as a result of the activities of “Skolombo Boys”? How do you tackle this level of crime? And who do you blame?

Ekpenyong: The Skolombo Boys’ phenomenon started about three years ago. Cross River State has never had that level of insecurity. So, one cannot put it squarely on the laps of this present government. One is not holding brief for government. Government’s major responsibility is to provide security of life and property of citizens. But, the security challenge in Cross River is not just about the state; it is a national issue. We have serious security challenge in this country at all levels. When you have such a challenge and you don’t have the resources to fight, you are in a big trouble. That is the situation the state has found itself. For some time now, we are happy that the Cross River State government is working with security agencies to contain this Skolombo Boys menace in the state. With that broad day robbery and kidnapping have drastically reduced. Government is working seriously on intelligence. This is key. No matter how good your security agencies are, if you lack credible intelligence, you are wasting your time. The Cross River State police command is equally fishing out these criminal elements in the state.

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