Governor Udom Gabriel Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State recently fielded questions from a group of journalists including Nseobong Okon-Ekong, on a number of issues including the altercation between his administration and agents of the main opposition party in the state, the APC. He however dwelt significantly on the strides he has recorded in different sectors of the state economy. Excerpts:
Q1. Your government is believed to have facilitated many industries as part of the development plan of the state. But why are there no conscious steps at marketing these achievements?
I’m not good at selling myself. Someone gave me a hint the other day on President Donald Trump’s opinion that nobody can sell you better than yourself. Some of these things depend on the orientation. If you start a business or training from a business that is not allowed to advertise, you will not be good in advertising. I have been banker for the better part of my life. Banking is a conservative business.
Since I became governor, apart from things like a substation, which I know that there’s no substation anywhere in this country, I do not go on a commissioning spree. How can you commission a classroom or borehole, I can’t do that. It is shameful. People who would have listened to you at different investors forum, seeing you commission electricity and borehole, will say, ‘so, this guy who was lecturing us in New York didn’t even have water to drink’, and you never can tell when you will speak again after leaving this office.
There are certain things that can make you lose regard easily. I have never gone to commission a primary school building and I have done about 346 schools. I have also improved on the healthcare facilities without making noise. You know if someone has an accident, it’s the handling time that determines whether that person dies or not. If you can drive through once you come in, that period is used for suction. That determines 50 per cent whether the person lives or not. Go to the teaching hospital to check whether they have that kind of intervention or not. At the teaching hospital, as they are driving you in, they are even looking for a stretcher to carry you.
There are so many things we have done. Most of those hospitals you see are all on a digital system. You don’t need to carry a piece of paper. Once you are attended to here, your medical history is online and can be seen realtime anywhere in the world. If you have a problem, they will call us and we can easily press the button and then life is saved. Some of the things that are so consistent don’t happen by accident. We don’t take glory for it. We give all the glory to God.
Unfortunately, politics in Nigeria is a little bit tough. In your first year as governor, you are at the Tribunal, Appeal Court and the Supreme Court. And as you try to settle down to work, the first tenure of four years is over. You are already campaigning for another term. You are so distracted. You can’t just focus as a governor. If you are not careful, you can’t put anything in place. But people don’t know where we are going.
Those greenhouses you see are to make sure I cultivate in our people the mindset that you can do this. Why buy 10 jeeps when two of those jeeps can give us 10 of those green houses. That’s all I’m telling people. There are a lot of things that we haven’t delivered that will be delivered and I’m making serious move to actually get it.
Why did I promote a flour mill? Everybody eats either biscuit or bread, but people here go and deposit money either in Lagos or somewhere for flour. Imagine how long it takes to transfer flour down here. When it finally arrives, it is either we find ways to cut corners and give people a substandard bread to eat. Those days in school, if you are hungry they will say ‘go and buy bread’. If you don’t have money, they will say, ‘go and drink garri’.
Today, garri is out of reach of the common man. So, we started garri processing factories in Akwa Ibom. They fry like 100 bags each day. What’s our population? If everyday, 10 of them can produce 100 bags, that’s 1000 bags everyday. The people can’t consume 1000 bags of garri every day. That’s not the only thing they eat. They eat bread, banana and other food stuff. Once you have done that consistently for one month, the market is saturated. We were able to bring down the price of garri from N200 for two cups to 12 cups for N200.
I made sure that we were producing everyday. Right now, typical of Africa, we don’t have adequate feed from the farm. Even those ones that we planted are being stolen. It’s my policy, not to go after those who steal cassava. You can steal the cassava, but leave the stem because that stem will be difficult to get. It’s an improved stem that I brought for them.
We are in haste. We are trying to touch every aspect from infrastructure, agriculture to industry. We are talking about electricity but we didn’t think of metres. That’s why we developed a metrering factory to bridge the gap. You see the quality of roads here, I’m not mincing words, check the kilometre of roads we have done compared to what federal government has done.
It is not for me to sell what we are doing but for you to see with your eyes. The worst recession in Nigeria happened in 2016/2017. Even with that, we could achieve this. Inflation rate moved from 186 to 516 and at the same time, you are expected to perform. We did perform. We are trying to let you people see that we can be positive.
The Ministry of Trade, Investment and Industry is planning a trade fair to exhibit these things, but for a trade fair to be attractive, you can’t just go and show three or five products. We still have a whole lot more to introduce to the market. We are producing for the local market. What brought China to where they are today was the domestic market. We call our own Made-in-Aba.
Those ones abroad we call them Made-in-Taiwan. The Made-in-Taiwan people were consistent. Their local market absorbed the products. Their companies grew from one shop to factories to mega factories, now they are multi-national. What happened in our own case? What we are doing now is to make sure the domestic market is actually absorbing them as much as they can. The strategy is to make sure there is good quality, then, we can saturate the local market. It creates a challenge. This is where we are. First of all, satisfy the local market and that will actually give you room to expand.
Q2. Are you satisfied with the number projects you have done so far?
In terms of quality, I will say yes. In terms of speed, I will say no. We came into governance with a blueprint. But nobody knew that 2016 and 2017 will witness one of the worst recessions ever, so, in terms of speed we are not there. Second, there are typical African problems that we are having. Some of them are a little bit frustrating. For example, we were thinking that by now our deep seaport would have gone.
However, our consultants believe that it’s one of the fastest ever in this part of the world. When we came in, I said, ‘to lay a proper foundation for economic development, we needed to look at the three gateways, land, water and sea’. We are looking at the whole three at the same time. We are targeting the whole three with aggression. As usual, there are bureaucratic bottlenecks here and there. I don’t think I’m up to speed with what I have in mind.
Second, the whole world has taken note of what we are doing. Lagos is on autopilot in terms of foreign direct investments. That’s where the money market and the capital market are. Even if you don’t lift a finger, there must be some direct investment, because of money market and capital market. Outside Lagos, Akwa Ibom State is number one in terms of foreign direct investments.
In the midst of bad press about Nigeria in the outside world, because it takes you almost ten times the effort to sell Nigeria today than what it used to be in time past. We have had a lot of challenges on security, so to convince someone to bring one dollar to Nigeria today takes you about ten times the effort. The other point is that money is one of the worst cowards you can ever think of. Money doesn’t go to where it doesn’t feel safe. To let an investor know that one dollar is safe here, your power of persuasion must be excellent skill.
Q3. You talked about the recession. Can you give us a picture of what you went through sourcing for funds for these projects?
I keep letting people know that there’s a difference between money and cash. You can develop a lot with money but you may not have cash. The essence of my being here at this time is to create money to develop my state. If you don’t source cash, you won’t have. We have been able to create money to develop the state.
You have several projects littered everywhere, are you confident you can complete these projects between now and February 2019?
The problem with Nigeria and Africa is that we are too short-termed in our thought process. That’s what is affecting our investment decision. If you go to any city, every inch is a kiosk helping the Asian market to grow their small and medium scale enterprises. We are so much in haste. Ninety per cent of what we are doing are not short-term, because we can never do them in short-term. That’s why Nigeria has not developed small and medium scale enterprises.
We are not doing what will finish in February. We are doing something that people will see the value. Irrespective of what God decides tomorrow, those things should go on. The factories are all driven by investors, apart from the coconut refinery. Government doesn’t even have one per cent share in them. It’s only in the coconut refinery, where we want to make a statement. If tomorrow government says, ‘we don’t want to have a hand in this thing again’, we will sell that investment at a profit.
You need only one million nuts everyday to make a profit of, at least, USD220 million a year in that refinery. How many state governments in Africa can boast of that kind of profit? You can actually see how we are developing. There’s a plantation. We are targeting to plant two million seedlings. Let the worst happen, there’s no way that we won’t come back with, at least, over one million. We have done our computation. We are not doing a typical white elephant. We are doing projects that we can privatise and realise the initial investment from the IPO, which will give us room for expansion.
Virgin coconut oil in the international market is USD6 per litre. Multiply that and know how much it is in barrel. Even if one million nuts survive out of the two million that we are planting, we will still operate at maximum capacity. Coconut can grow for 99 years. You don’t need fertiliser. It doesn’t drop in terms of yield. We are trying to make a statement to the whole world that at least we are a people, who can see tomorrow. We see beyond what others see.
Q4. Where would you really say Akwa Ibom has a competitive edge?
You don’t arrive at a score if you don’t finish the examination. We are not so quick at scoring what we have done and what we have achieved. Let’s use a classroom example, after the lecture there is an examination and there is always a score. In life, you are not good until someone says you are good. You be the examiner and then tell us if we are good or not. No student teaches himself, sets exam for himself, marks and scores himself. If you speak, based on what you have seen, we will be accepted worldwide.
What you are seeing on the ground concerning our attempt to industrialise the state is actually aimed at that. But the biggest employer will still be agriculture. We are doing a whole lot. We are setting up factories. So, agriculture and agro-allied business will still be the biggest. That’s why you see us setting up a rice farm here. We have, at least, 26000 hectares of cocoa plantation. We are bringing one of the best cocoa processing plants.
What differentiates the cocoa you get from Nigeria from the cocoa you get from any other place is the flavor, because of the processes through which we dry cocoa in Nigeria. That’s why even with all the cocoa we have in this country we didn’t make anything out of it, because we didn’t invest on the processing of that cocoa to make it to international standard.
The international market will not accept that so we couldn’t get appropriate pricing for the cocoa we produce in Nigeria. One of the best flavours you can get in terms of cocoa is from Akwa Ibom, because of our vegetation. The local way people dry cocoa is to spread it on the road. We are giving you modern processing that will give you the flavour so that the cocoa can be sold anywhere in the world.
Q5. What is really happening in the state between the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which has an indigene of the state as its head and your government?
I believe that anyone who holds an executive position in any development-oriented MDA should not seek political appointment. It’s extremely contradictory. It’s only in Nigeria where we find such a thing. There are certain positions you hold and you cannot go for an elective office so that you can concentrate and focus on your immediate assignment.
Second, I am not talking propaganda. When you go round the state, find out if people can show you one road constructed by the NDDC. We are the largest contributor to the entire NDDC fund. NDDC runs the budget of nine states and all I0Cs contribute two per cent of their budget to the NDDC. I’m not talking profit here; two per cent of their budget goes to NDDC. In the whole of Akwa Ibom, show me one road that is up to two kilometers that’s constructed by the so-called NDDC.
We don’t play politics with development. It’s our money. We contribute more to the NDDC than any other state, so why would we stop development? Can we even see anything on the ground for what has been contributed, so far? The transmission line between Ekparakwua and Ikot Abasi the NDDC started almost five to six years ago and up till today, it’s not completed. I have completed many substations. I cannot touch transmission lines, because it belongs to the federal government.
I can show you new roads that we started. There is the one in Etinan, where we want to link East-West Road. We are building ahead of the seaport that we want to do. Most of these federal agencies will go and put bitumen on top of clay or top soil, as they are leaving those things are gone. If you sincerely mean to develop road infrastructure, we have the road from Odukpani in Cross River State up to Aba.
Pending when the full contract is awarded, the essence of FERMA and NDDC was to bridge this gap. Not even one bridge has been constructed in this state by a federal agency. How come those roads are impassable, even with all the moneys you have collected? We have done the Eket-Ibeno Road, which was not passable before. NDDC held that road for several years. The money has been disbursed and nothing was done until we came. We are talking capacity here. Sorry, you can’t give what you don’t have.
Q6. Your administration appears to have given good attention to youth development, is there a particular reason for this?
You may not understand, because of the stage that we are now. In Eket, we are building a sport facility that will require the least maintenance. You know there are two different things. You can put up asset that requires least maintenance or you can put up an asset that the maintenance cost under a medium term can be as much as the cost of construction. What we are building in Eket has very minimal maintenance cost.
Number two, what’s your vision? It’s already two years down the line since we launched it, so we have five years more to go. Our target is that out of every 11 players you find on the field in the national team, at least, five must come from Akwa Ibom. That is for soccer. We hope to produce the next batch of Serena Williams and so on from here. In order to do that, you must provide the facilities. We have talents. We have to raise more.
Within three years of my being here, we have won the FA cup two times. Excellence doesn’t happen by accident. You must have a deliberate strategy to achieve that. I’m trying to catch them young. This is the only state that runs youth sports festival yearly, where we are discovering talents. We are going somewhere. That’s why we give ourselves seven years. We have done two, add five more years, you will see how we will produce sports stars from Nigeria.
Q7. What specific initiatives has your administration taken towards lifting the standard of education?
Biblically, they say what you sow is what you reap and that’s quite true. We started first of all by reviewing the quality of teachers we put in schools. Everybody knows if you are a teacher and you can’t teach my child in private school, then, you can’t teach another person’s child in a public school simply, because that person can’t afford the school fees in a private school. I have been training teachers. We also have education monitors. These people go round to check if the children have the opportunity and facilities.
Most of them love the village setting. Everybody must not leave the village so you take the education to where they are, rather than, drawing them out to go somewhere else. The schools people tend to neglect are schools without quality teachers. When I visit communities, I go into the classrooms. There’s no how you enter a community classroom that you won’t see where the teacher wrote what they taught on the board.
A sharp child can even correct some of those grammars on the board. We reviewed about 5000 teachers, who were in the pipeline to be emptied into the system. I picked the English language that they are going to teach in Class One as an exam for them. Do you know so many of them failed? I was able to sift 3000 out of the 5000.
Those local schools have good teachers. Nigerians are ingenious. This is the only country that even when your phone is completely cracked, the next day they can give you a new cover that looks brand new. Nigerians are geniuses, we can recreate out of the very minimal scrap that we have.
You have been challenged recently by persons who promised to go all out and make the 2019 elections a war, how do you respond to this?
You can only return fire-for-fire if you have the fire. What we have is peace. We say peace begat peace. That’s what we preach. Our own is to preach peace. Their own is to preach war. I want Nigerians to ask those preaching war where their children are. Who are these children you want to plunge into war when you have gone to hide your own somewhere? We are aware they have even gone to sow fake army and police uniforms and try to bring in all kinds of ammunitions through different routes. We believe all their plans will be frustrated.
In the real sense, they are actually preparing, but whether they will succeed or not depends on God. If your intention is to serve, why do you need to kill the same people you want to serve? If you sincerely want to serve your people, why do you want to kill them? It means they have other motives than service. Some of them are coming back to loot and that’s why there is no development in Africa.
You can touch peace with your hand when you land at the airport in Uyo. What we try to do is to make sure the state is peaceful. The people of Akwa Ibom know what they want. Our people are so enlightened, well-educated and politically savvy. They know someone who has the capacity, one who is sincere, not a camouflage.
They can differentiate between the two. I believe the people will speak when the time comes. Those times of deception are gone. They won’t buy into that again. This is the time for us to redefine and restructure. Our people are ready to move forward. They don’t want to be caged any longer.
Q8. How prepared are you for the 2019 elections, given that the opposition APC in the state appears to be growing stronger?
The level of confidence here has no probability. We are talking about the biggest party in Africa that has units everywhere. There’s nowhere you enter in Nigeria and mention PDP and people will be lost. We have structures in all the units in country. The PDP is a party that has brought development into Nigeria. I’m not building on probability. I believe it is PDP or no other party. Unfortunately, I don’t mention any other political party. I don’t know of any other outside PDP.
Q9. On the issue of gratuity and pension, how far have you gone? You probably inherited enemies of the people that brought you into government. What is your relationship with Obong Victor Attah?
Obong Victor Attah is one of the leaders of the largest ethnic group here. We call ourselves the Ibibios. Being an elder statesman, everybody accords him that respect. He’s somebody I respect a whole lot. Victor Attah is an elder no two ways or politics about, that at all. He has that respect from all of us and he’s also somebody that loves the state. He planned this state and laid a good foundation.
When people talk about gratuity, unfortunately, anybody you see on the street is an Akwa Ibom pensioner first, whether it is local government or state government. Even the elitist group refuses to understand this. It’s you, the governor, who knows that this allocation is for the state and that is for local government. Everyone expects you as the state governor to do something.
For local government gratuity, I paid 10 years arrears. We even have the letter they wrote to me appreciating that. After that, there were a whole lot of issues. I’m still trying to clear old pensions of local governments. It’s not my responsibility, but we don’t want to cause that disharmony. Under the state government, we have cleared the gratuity we inherited in arrears and brought it up to December 2015.