Charles Udoh, Commissioner for Information, Akwa Ibom State, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, speaks on a recent press statement by the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Akwa Ibom State Council, which seemed like an indictment on him and the Akwa Ibom government.
PT: You have seen the press statement by the NUJ, Akwa Ibom State?
UDOH: I have seen it, it’s just unfortunate. The last time we had a press conference (to update the people on COVID-19), we carried them along. The reason why we didn’t do this one (invite the NUJ leadership and several other journalists) is that the issue of social distancing was flagged by the healthcare professionals, so they advised that we minimise the number. Given, I should have explained this to Amos Etuk (the NUJ chairman), but I was caught up in the frenzy of things.
PT: Why not have the briefing in a large place that can accommodate many journalists?
UDOH: Large place? Like where?
PT: A place that can accommodate at least up to 20 journalists, while you can still adhere to social distancing?
UDOH: Nobody was prepared for this scenario, we are making plans to forestall this misunderstanding, going forward. It is a one-off (thing) and, of course, we have learned from that experience. We are going to try other options.
PT: Why don’t you have an email listing so that even those who don’t attend press briefings could be sent…?
UDOH: (Cuts in) You know, what we do is that the Correspondents’ Chapel, for instance, has a WhatsApp group, so we go to the WhatsApp group. Having an email listing would be duplicating. Everyone (journalist) belongs to one WhatsApp group or the other.
PT: We learnt there is a conflict between your office and that of the chief press secretary to the Governor, regarding who manages information about this (coronavirus)?
UDOH: There is no conflict. The office of the chief press secretary is responsible for anything that has to do with the governor of the state, the office of the honourable commissioner has to do with the state, inclusive of what happens around the governor. That is why the office of the commissioner also has an oversight function. For instance, in the (Government House) press corps, every press person is a staff of the ministry of information, the chief information officer (in the Government House press corps) is a staff of the ministry of information. The truth is that because of the nature of the work, there must always be an overlap.
PT: There was this press release you issued that the state government is going to take aggressive approach towards (COVID-19) testing and then later in the day what we learnt is that the SSG said something different….
UDOH: (Cuts in) There is nothing different, look at the two press statements.
PT: What the SSG meant is that people can call in and say they want to be tested for…..
UDOH: What did I say in the press statement?
PT: Yours, we learnt, gave the impression that government may likely go from house to house to run the test.
UDOH: Please, read the two press statements.
PT: There are lots of things written about you on Facebook, there seems to be loss of confidence between you and journalists?
UDOH: Well, I am not aware of that.
PT: There is a guy on Facebook….
UDOH: You know a lot of people say all kinds of things and some of them are sponsored. Right now, I have a guy behind bars who slandered me.
PT: Some guy wrote this on Facebook, “Charles Udoh would hardly address people in two sentences without bragging…..
UDOH: (Cuts in) …. If somebody sits down in a beer palour and write something, I am not going to be reacting to those. If it is in a major medium then I can react. That means I would be throwing stones on every dog that barks at me….. By virtue of the fact I am a public officer it is expected that people will say those things about you. If anybody slanders me, of course, the law will take its course.
PT: We have seen a lot of people asking Governor Udom Emmanuel to come out and lead (in the fight against COVID-19), that the people have not been seeing more of him?
UDOH: If it is in a credible medium, I will answer. But if it is on Facebook…. See, if you have never managed a kiosk, you cannot manage a supermarket. Some guys who have not been able to manage themselves coming to advise the governor!
PT: But Facebook gives people a platform to express their feelings?
UDOH: Sorry, ask me something that are from credible sources.
PT: Is the governor leading the fight (against COVID-19)?
UDOH: This government has always said that we don’t play to the gallery, the Secretary to the State Government is the chairman of the COVID-19 (Response) Team in Akwa Ibom. President Buhari is not out there in the front leading, (but) he is the president of Nigeria. How come President Buhari is not coming out too? The Secretary to the State Government is senior enough to lead the committee just like (what is happening) in the federal structure. I don’t see what is wrong with that. The committee briefs the governor at every instance, the governor is up to speed with what is happening. The governor does not need to be physically there, going to sit at the border, wearing a (face) mask.
PT: But his people would like to see him, there is some kind of reassurance the people have when they get to see more of their governor.
UDOH: The governor has spoken with the people I think twice or so. What else would the governor do that he hasn’t done?
PT: And you think that is enough?
UDOH: What would you rather have him do? ….There is something call delegation. Leaders delegate. The chief of army staff is not in Sambisa (forest) attacking Boko Haram, he has commanders. As a leader, you don’t bury your head in the trenches, once you get into the trenches you’ll lose the strategic focus. As a leader, you sit down and develop a strategy and use your team to implement the strategy. People have different leadership style. Who is the chairman of COVID-19 in Nigeria? Boss Mustapha (the Secretary to the Government of the Federation). Who is the chairman of COVID-19 in Akwa Ibom state? The Secretary to the State Government.
PT: People expect that the private hospital in which a doctor died recently on suspicion of COVID-19 should have been shut down by now?
UDOH: Have you been to the hospital today? We’ve done what we need to do.
Now, no one was prepared for this situation. From China, to Europe, and to the United States, what everyone is doing is that you learn as situation evolves, you adjust as situation evolves. Nobody would have thought that we would need a 300-bed isolation centre, but circumstances have forced us to build it, that is what we just went to inspect today. That is why, for instance, the Akwa Ibom state government sat down and said what do we do, our children are going to sit for NECO and WAEC exams? If we allow them to stay at home for too long they would become rusty. And so we initiated the school on radio programme. We are going to start it this week. It is going to be on AKBC-Radio.
PT: How about thousands of people in rural areas who don’t have radio?
UDOH: So, what do we do? Should we use town criers? What could we have done? If you say we should do it online, how many guys in Eastern Obolo are online? If you say we should use TV, how many people have TV set? But radio, even if you don’t have it, many people can cluster around one to listen to it.
PT: How about the challenge of electric power supply?
UDOH: They will use battery. There are transistor radio that use battery. If one person can afford it (radio set) they can all cluster. Is it not better than doing nothing?
PT: Are you satisfied with the way journalists are reporting COVID-19 in Akwa Ibom state?
UDOH: I wouldn’t want to judge our colleagues.
One thing I would want to continuously say is that we need to look at this thing beyond individuals, beyond political lines, beyond religious lines. We need to look at this thing as something that concerns every one of us; it could be anyone the next minute. No one has complete knowledge of this thing, nobody was prepared for this. That is why I am on the street, from morning till night I am on the street because we have a responsibility. Along the line we will make mistakes. Along the line, we will take decisions that people don’t quite understand. What we expect is that when people look at all that (we have done), they should say ‘look, this decision, these guys took it in good faith’. If you don’t understand, ask questions, ask for clarification so that together we can win this fight. Whether I am the commissioner for information today or tomorrow, it doesn’t change the fact that there is COVID-19. When we finish the (COVID-19) fight you can call for the commissioner of information to go.
PT: People feel the (Akwa Ibom) government has not been sincere with their information dissemination (on COVID-19).
UDOH: Can you give me specific examples? ….You see, that is a fallacy of hasty generalisation.
PT: How many persons have been tested (for COVID-19) so far in Akwa Ibom?
UDOH: The NCDC publishes the record, we don’t control that process. The tests are not conducted in Akwa Ibom state. ….. I can’t give you that update now because that happens on a regular basis, unless I check with the situation room.
PT: The last time you had information on it, it was like how many?
UDOH: Hold on. For instance, the first batch that had five cases, we sent 17 samples and then, of course, five of them came back positive. This last batch that we just did, we sent 16 samples, three of them came back positive. The NCDC supplies us test kits, we don’t have the test kits. We are looking to buy but we can’t find it.
PT: I mean the number of….
UDOH: (Cuts in) …. Hold on. Hold on. I have just given you some statistics. It is what they (NCDC) give us that we use.
PT: What you are saying is that the number of tests you conduct depends on the number of testing equipment they send to you?
UDOH: Not really. There are a few factors that determine how people are tested. One, the number of test kits that we have. Two, when people call in the situation room, there are people, professors – headed by Professor Etette – who look at and profile the patients to see whether they are qualified to be tested or not. Not everyone who complains of headache, catarrh, and cough that must be tested. We don’t even have the number of test kits to test everybody. And no one person can decide who gets tested, it is the committee that decides.
But one of the challenges we are having is that people would call in and start playing games. For instance, somebody called in and said we should come to Eket. We sent an ambulance from Uyo to Eket, when we got to Eket, to the address the man gave, he gave us another address – a different one, and after a while he laughed and cut off the call. Some call (the COVID-19 response line) to beg for money. It’s a serious thing.
PT: What’s the level of assistance the state government is getting from private sector in the state?
UDOH: Well, we still want more. A few of them has…. I don’t have the details here because we keep updating them. Zenith bank has come, UBA has come, Sterling Oil has given us an ambulance and some PPE.
PT: Some people believe that because we are not having many (indigenous) companies come out to support the government at this critical point is an indictment that the private sector does not really exist in Akwa Ibom?
UDOH: You know, one of the things we have been saying from day one since we came here is trying to move the economy of Akwa Ibom state from being a public sector-oriented to a private sector-driven economy. Look at Lagos state, for instance. The isolation centre that they have was built for them by a bank. Yes, of course, we have private sector, we are trying to change that orientation gradually. Some of them have supported us, some of those construction companies have given as much as N10 million each.