“I still don’t understand why the civil war was fought in the East but Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction started from the West” — Akpabio.
In this interview with THEWILL TV, Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State speaks on various issues from politics to governance and development. Excerpts.
On being the most decorated governor in Nigeria
I think it’s not really a function of Godswill Akpabio. Nigerians really appreciate good governance. The other governors you mentioned are also receiving awards. I recall that last year, governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, received award for microcredit financing from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
This year, I was honoured by the same CBN, and it referred to me as ‘Mr. Infrastructure’ for what they believe is the infrastructural revolution that I have put in place. Governor Fashola of Lagos has been commended many times, even though I believe he would have done better if he were a PDP governor. Adams Oshiomhole has also been commended by his people.
But be that as it may, I think the major thing is that positive things are, indeed, happening in governance in various states of the federation. I think that’s the message for the Diaspora — that positive things are happening in governance in various states. So, it’s no longer so much of stories of lamentations. You can see the flicker of hope that yes, indeed, governments are working and things are turning around for the better for Nigerians.
Now, the reason why there are so many awards for Godswill Akpabio is because it is God’s will. It’s the will of God. And don’t think that the awards are for nothing. I believe that they are in recognition of efforts of the governor of Akwa Ibom. And each time I see the governor of Akwa Ibom receive an award, I get excited even as a citizen of that state, that yes, indeed, honour is being given to the right man for the right reason, because he has worked very hard and turned things around.
You’ve been to the state recently, and I’m sure that when you leave here, you are likely to organise THEWILL’s award for good governance, which you are likely to give to the same Godswill Akpabio, based on what you saw. This is not a story; you are now an eyewitness to the miracle that is happening in the state, to the uncommon transformation that he has unleashed on the state in the last five years.
When I was contesting for reelection in 2007, I told my people that if I wasn’t contesting election, I would have voted for Godswill Akpabio, because I am a beneficiary of his good governance.
Areas that never saw roads now have roads; communities that never saw light now have light; children that never thought they could be in school are now in school; mothers that couldn’t go to hospitals in the past and ended up dying during childbirth can now walk into hospitals because of the free medical treatment in hospitals; areas that never saw hospitals in farfetched locations now have hospitals.
So, it’s a situation where even people who never thought agriculture could work are now producing; food sufficiency is now a major issue in government’s front burner. And then you can see that for over 50 years, the state was a pedestrian state; but he has turned it into a destination, and people can fly in directly into Uyo: for you to come in from the Diaspora, enter into Abuja, and then enter Uyo; not to talk of those going on pilgrimage, who no longer need to struggle for two and a half hours to Port Harcourt. You just walk to Uyo Airport, 15 minutes later, you are on your way to Israel. Or you may go to Rome or Greece, as it also happens. You can now imagine that, yes, indeed; God’s will was done in Akwa Ibom. So, those were the reasons why I said that if I wasn’t contesting election, I would have voted for this Godswill Akpabio.
Is there any one in your cabinet or government who shares your vision and can continue from wherever you stop?
There are so many people in my government who can continue from where I will stop on 29th May 2015, by God’s grace; there are so many of them. I have personal assistants, special assistants, commissioners, members of the executive council, who have all learnt from me; I also have those who are consultants to the government, who are not necessarily portfolio holders but who believe in what I am doing and have made their contributions; they are equally very capable of continuing from where I will stop. I am very hopeful that the same way the Akwa Ibom people used binoculars to fish me out in 2006 out of 58 aspirants, God will lead them to do the same in 2015; because in 2007, I emerged as governor not because I was contesting for governorship but because we went down on our knees, and we said the situation we found ourselves in could not continue. We wanted God’s will to be done. And when I emerged, God’s will was done in Godswill, and God’s will was done in Akwa Ibom State.
On his dismissal of the then federal military government’s post-civil war efforts at the 3 Rs: Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation.
As a young man, you definitely will not understand me. But I was a victim of the Civil War. I was one of those who suffered the pains of the war. I was born sometime in 1962; the civil war came really into our area in 1967. So, I was probably five or six years old during the war; and if I had been around nine years, I would probably have been conscripted.
I saw parents throw their children into pit toilets because they did not want their positions to be made known to the enemy. I saw devastation; I saw kwashiorkor; I saw hunger; I was thousands of people and bodies littered everywhere and smelling while vultures had a field day every day. I saw houses destroyed; I saw families scattered such that till the end of the world, they can never gather themselves together again. There were children who were shipped away to Gabon, and they can never come back to Nigeria again because they were small. How would two-year-olds and three-year-olds ever know where they came from? They are proud Gabonese and I don’t think Nigerians are even asking questions. So, during the Silverbird Man of the Year Award, there were pictures that were shown of the Civil War. Somebody, sitting by me, who is from the West, was asking if those things were acted: the Kwashiorkor-ridden children with their swollen tummies, ugly shapes and bony structures because of hunger and starvation.
The then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon attempted to explain that he tried everything to avoid the scenes that were being shown on the screen, that he did not want the war. The other person who could have answered him, unfortunately, that is Emeka Ojukwu, is dead. He said he tried everything to stop the war from breaking out but it’s only Ojukwu who could have answered whether he equally did his part in avoiding the war.
But something struck me: it was said that Gowon should be commended for initiating the three Rs: reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. And I asked a very simple question, that I came with a written text but I wasn’t going to read it. I thanked Silverbird for the award; and I said I did not want to criticise my leaders because I am also now a leader. But I asked to be allowed to ask a question: how come reconstruction started in the West when the war was actually fought in the East? They started the Third Mainland Bridge, the National Theatre, the international airport, and so on, in the West, while the war was fought in the eastern region. And if we really wanted to ensure total reconciliation, how come every account holder in the eastern region was given only £20? It did not matter whether your father had £10,000,000 or £50,000,000 before the war; you were given just £20. It was a take it or leave it situation. If your family survived and there was an account holder alive, he/she went to the bank, and collected just £20.
Could £20 pounds solve the Kwashiorkor that we were seeing? Could it reconstruct the houses that were burnt? Could it produce food? A lot of other things happened that I did not mention on that occasion. Don’t forget that it was shortly after the war in 1971 that the policy of indigenisation started, where most of the foreign industries and companies were sold to Nigerians, and the war-ravaged eastern regions, which include the entire South-South and the rest of them, could not buy, because no one who did not have money to even feed or clothe himself would have had money to buy any industry. So, I was just wondering, as a young man, if that was true reconciliation, because one would have thought that the government would have gone to any extent to give them more money so that they could truly rehabilitate themselves.
They needed money from reconstruction, and I would have thought that reconstruction would have also started from the East. I just asked because we were lucky to have the dramatis persona of the war right in front of us: General T. Y. Danjuma, General Yakubu Gowon, General Muhammadu Buhari and others. It is very rare to see these past leaders in just one place, so I had to ask. I said also that it is important, even for the current leaders, that we continue to take actions that will unite Nigeria. And we should purge ourselves of actions that tend to cause pains to Nigerians. For me, I believe that because of certain policies of the federal government after the war, the war did not cease in the eastern region until about 30 years after the war.
Your relationship with the governors of the south-south states in view of the legal tussle over oil wells between your state versus Rivers and Cross River States.
All those lawsuits were not instituted by my administration; they were done in the administration between 1999 and 2007. I became a governor in 2007. For instance, the reason we are in court with Rivers is because certain oil wells were realigned and a lot of Akwa Ibom oil wells were given to Rivers State. They took us to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the two states should share the 172 wells equally. Supreme Court is the final court, and its judgment cannot be argued against. So, that’s one.
Secondly, the International Criminal Court (ICC) also handed over Bakassi to Cameroon. The last government took 75 oil wells in 2005 and gave to Cross River on the condition that Cross River would have a seaward boundary, because Nigeria was negotiating to retain Western Bakassi as part of it. In 2008, unfortunately, Western Bakassi went to Cameroon; and therefore, the 75 oil wells that were taken from Akwa Ibom were returned. And Cross River State went to court. They have a right to exercise their fundamental human rights. But these are not issues that can cause friction between me and my brother governors because they were not our making; they were on the ground. And even in families, the wife and the husband have disagreements once in a while, but it doesn’t mean that they will not continue with their marriage.
So, to be honest with you, despite the small misunderstandings that we met as governors, we have managed to bond together. There would have been no BRACED (Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Delta) Commission that you see today if the south-south states were not united. So, barring the minor differences that we met on ground, we have attempted to focus on regional integration, to bring the entire south-south region together, so that we can accomplish projects that will show that we are a focused region. Today, we are looking at regional power, regional railway; and in future, we will be talking about regional bank, regional agriculture, regional marine transportation, and so on. Regional marine transportation will make it easy for someone to move from Warri or Sapele to Akwa Ibom by sea, and it will be easy for us to move goods and services from our various ports and then supply to the rest of the eastern region. Those are things we should focus on, because we, as governors, think that if we continue to focus on individual development, we will only have staccato development; and it will be uncoordinated. The only way to have coordinated development is to think of how to integrate the various efforts of the governments of the south-south region. That focus is very clear, and I do not think the minor issues on ground can come between us. I think we are bonded together very seriously.
Why are many members of the Governors’ forum opposed to financial autonomy for state legislatures?
I am so surprised. Go and look at the budgeting. Just get this very clearly. It’s a very funny situation. I see those things on the pages of newspapers and I keep smiling. The federal government shares money to states in arrears. For example, if you hear FAAC accounts of May, it is actually that of April that is being shared. So, the federal government is always one month behind. This means that money is always available at the federal level; but the state government spends its money whenever it becomes due. So, it is what states collect in a particular month that they spend the same month. If as a state, you collect FAAC money before 20th of the month, it means that you pay your salary from the 21st or 22nd, and then know your expenditure. And therefore, there’s nothing for you to have by way of financial autonomy to pass to the legislature, because you don’t even know what will come to you; you have no idea what you would collect that month; you have no idea what your resources would be. But the federal government has a reservoir of funds and does it in arrears.
If the states, for instance had money, then they could afford to say that there is financial autonomy for the legislature, and then release the money in advance. Go and look at all the federal ministries, you will notice that they get money in advance. By November or December, federal ministries return unspent money to the federal government account. But it is not the same at the state level, because you only spend when the money comes. The state only estimates. So, when you look at financial autonomy, you have to consider that there is difference between estimate and reality.
Budgets are only estimates, these monies are not available. So, if you are going to do financial autonomy for state Houses of Assembly based on estimates, then you are going to cause a lot of confusion, because the House of Assembly that budgets N155, 000,000,000 expects to have N155, 000,000,000. But can it have it? No.
No state will have that kind of money to give its House of Assembly. It is as it comes in. And sometimes, a state can budget N400, 000,000,000 in a year and what eventually comes in is N200,000.000. So it has to make do with it. If within that N400, 000,000,000 that you have budgeted for that year, the House of Assembly’s share was N50, 000,000, 000 then the House does not want to hear stories; it expects the N50, 000,000, 000. If at the end of that year, what comes in is N200, 000,000,000, it means everybody’s budget will be reduced by 50 per cent. Will the House of Assembly accept to take 50 per cent of its budget? It will become an impeachable offence against the governor.
So, when I hear these arguments on the pages of newspapers, I always laugh. It is not the same thing as what happens with the federation account. At the federal level, the money is already available, so each year, you just give each ministry its money once the budgets are concluded. Then, towards the end of the year, when they have not spent what was budgeted, they return. Have you ever heard of any state or any ministry in any state returning money?
The money is never there; states only depend on estimates and projections. So, are you going to have financial autonomy for a House of Assembly based on projections? And some of them are so young (due respect to them) that when that projection is not met, they won’t understand the difference between estimate and reality. The expenditure is different from budgeting because you can only spend what comes in. What you expend is different from what you budget for. If you projected N300b and at the end of the year you end up with N1880b, then it is only N180b that you can spend.
So, there are certain provisions that cause confusion when you put them in the system. The same thing happens at the federal level, where the federal government will issue a circular to increase salaries for its workers, and then workers at the state level will say it must be applied to them, and the next thing is that there are strikes all over the country. Just like the issue of minimum wage: if the federal government can afford it, can some states? The answer is no.
So if you practice financial autonomy for the legislature at the federal level, is the state set up for financial autonomy? Unless you want us to practice true federalism, which means that everything that comes, the federal government keeps and then gives to the legislature, judiciary and so on, and then budget on what is left. But that is not the situation. We are dealing with projections and estimates only. And if you are dealing with such, when the projection fails, then there is impeachment, and there is confusion, and there is crisis. It would cause crises in the various Houses of Assembly. So, it is not as if governors are against it, it is just that it is impracticable.
Why has President Jonathan not used the Akwa Ibom model to solve the country’s problems?
A state is different from a federation. The problem of a federation is unique; the problem of a state is different from that of a federation. That is the first thing you need to know. So, what works for a state may not necessarily work for a federation. And then you need to know that at the state level, I am only emulating the policies of the federal government; I am copying the policies of the federal government. The federal government is undertaking transformation in all areas, from power to the industries and then to road transportation. I copied that policy but I turned it to ‘uncommon’ level. So, while the federal government is undertaking transformation, I am undertaking uncommon transformation, because the federal government is going to transform an already existing power sector or an existing railway system that has become moribund, but I am going to Etinepo-Ika that has never had a road 65km long, that has needed a bridge right from 1967 when the one done by our colonial masters collapsed; and I am going there to build a 56km road with a bridge, so mine becomes uncommon transformation. The federal government’s is already existing, so it’s is transformation, while mine, which is not existing, is uncommon transformation. So, who’s copying from whom? I’m copying from the federal government. The federal government is setting the standards and the policies; mine is to turn them around to suit my own state, because a state is different from a federation.
And you have to give President Goodluck Jonathan time. Godswill Akpabio has been in office for five years. How long has President Jonathan been in office? Just one year. He was elected last year as President and he is barely one year old. In the other one year when he was acting president, he was struggling to unravel the policies of late President Yar’Adua. So you have to give him time.
And I have always told Nigerians that we have to be patient. The rot we have found ourselves in took over 50 years to happen. I did not cause the situation; Jonathan did not cause it, so we have to give him time. I can tell you that in the next one to two years, some of the policies he is enunciating today will begin to crystallise. And I’m very hopeful. He recently added two key presidential initiatives; one was on power, and I was very impressed with what is going on in the gas sector, because it is one thing to build all the turbines trough the NIPP, and it is another thing to have gas available to turn the turbines around and give electricity to Nigerians. He is also trying to deregulate the sector, to enable big players come in, in terms of transmission and distribution. And these are things that were never there before. Don’t forget that it was really when we unbundled NITEL that it was possible for the MTNs, the V-mobiles, and the Etisalats to come in; and today, we have over 100 million telephone lines. But when NITEL was sitting down like PHCN is doing, people believed it was impossible. So, the President is now trying to unbundle PHCN, and that is the policy of deregulation that is going on. He is also pursuing it with the idea of making gas available, and increasing power generation and increasing the transmission lines.
I am very hopeful that these policies will bring result to Nigerians very soon. And also there is the job sector. There is ATIC, that is Agricultural Transformation Implementation Council, which has never been done in the history of this country, to begin to diversify the economy, so that we can take away our dependence on crude oil, so that we do not focus on a mono-economy. And Nigerians can then think of food sufficiency and employment generation through agriculture. These are not just mere policies, but initiatives that are being implemented on ground. I am a member of that council, and I’m sure Mr. President put me on the council because he knows that I have something to contribute.
How can Nigerians in the Diaspora key into your policy of ‘uncommon transformation’?
I plead with Nigerians in the Diaspora to look homewards. We have a saying in our language that no matter how high the birds fly in the sky, the legs must point to the ground. No matter the country you stay in, your natural place of birth still remains Nigeria. So, they must not overlook the country. I will like them to come into the country and partner with us to get us out of the situation we have found ourselves in. We must have a collective effort to create employment opportunities for our children.
And what we have done in Akwa Ibom State is that we have about N30b, which we have set aside, in the budget, for industrialisation. We want to come in as security partners, as contributors to create industries — at least one small industry or factory in every local government in the state. That way, we can create employment opportunities for our children. So, I will like Nigerians in the Diaspora to look into that direction, to come in and join us in any area. The power sector is still a virgin area; my state has produced the independent power plant, the Ibom Plant; and as I speak now, we are doing the expansion. We are also thinking of the transmission line as well as the distribution; these are areas which the Diaspora can come into.
We produce so much of cassava; and as I speak now, we may end up with a cassava glut. Unless we can go into the process that can produce starch for the pharmaceutical industry and also produce noodles, which of course, will also make food available. At the same time, we are surrounded by water. So, the seafood is there. People are coming in to take away our shrimps, the best in the whole coastline. So, in terms of preservation, there is space for the Diaspora.
We are also looking for people to partner with us in the aviation industry, to run, maintain and repair other facilities we have at the airport. Even in tourism, our people in the Diaspora can come in to set standards. We are building a second five-star hotel. Luckily, we have the big names coming in to run our hotels; we have convention centres, shopping malls and cinema places. People should come to join us in building the state, particularly in health. We are building a lot of hospitals and we would like to hand them over to our sons and daughters in the medical field in the Diaspora. The same standards we see there, they should bring them here, so that we can stop capital flight and stop the idea of medical tourism to India.
They should forget about the insecurity they hear about; these things will not last. The government is working very hard to bring the situation under control. And in spite of all the stories you hear, your country still remains your country and you cannot run away from it. Come and join us, and I assure you that your security will be taken care of. We are working very hard and we are minimising insecurity.
How can those interested access these opportunities?
If it is in my office, I have a special assistant on Diaspora affairs. His name is Clement Ikpatt. We also brought in a former minister of commerce as a Special Adviser on industry. He is working with us because of his experience. We have set up a big Akwa Ibom Investment Corporation; and we have set up a robust team to go on a road show to China, Malaysia and other places, to look at seedlings and also look at the manufacturing sector, and see what we can do to make people partner with us. The Diaspora cannot be left out, because in all these things, if our people do not have percentages in them, we will end up building all these things and handing them over to outsiders; and in future, it would still lead to capital flight. So, it is important that you come in now, because this is the best time for you to invest, no matter how minimal. The state is ready to offer its assistance, so that together, we can create employment opportunities and take our people to the next level.
Where is Godswill Akpabio going after his tenure expires in 2015?
I pray that 2015 will meet all of us alive. I see myself as an elder statesman, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, sitting down as a development consultant, giving advice to the youths from the local government level to the state. I also want to be there for my family especially my kids who will need me to guide them as they grow up.