Former Lands and Housing Minister under President Goodluck Jonathan and two-term federal lawmaker, Chief Nduese Essien, who has remained in the Peoples Democratic Party since its inception in 1998, is optimistic that the failure of President Muhammadu Buhari to substantially meet the expectations of most Nigerians who voted for him in 2015, will make the election of former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, and presidential candidate of the PDP, easy in next year’s elections.
Essien, who was the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Anti-Corruption between 2003 and 2007, also describes as daydreamers those who claim that the APC will win in Akwa Ibom State in 2019 due to the defection of the former governor, Godswill Akpabio, to the APC.
Excerpts: It is only a few months away from 2019 election, there are fears that Akwa Ibom State, which has always voted PDP, is likely to go the way of the opposition given the defection of the former governor to the APC.
I think whoever is thinking that APC can take over Akwa Ibom State is day- dreaming because Akwa Ibom State has been a PDP state from the beginning and the people have benefitted from the PDP government.
First, during the period of Obong Victor Attah as governor, that period was used to lay the foundation for the state and Obong Attah being an architect is very familiar with laying of foundation. So he took up the struggle to ensure that the state derives adequate revenue from its oil production.
It was from that huge revenue that Godswill Akpabio used to do a lot to what is now called ‘uncommon transformation’. This brought the state to limelight during his tenure. That was what also emboldened him to try to bring a successor who would try to keep the pace and he succeeded in bringing a successor which most governors could not do at the time and he aptly described the emergence of his successor as the will of God. So I think people are misconstruing the strength of APC based on Akpabio’s defection from the PDP to the APC. Let me say categorically that the defection of Godswill Akpabio from the PDP to the APC has turned out to be a blessing to the state. First, with his defection, the bond that existed between him and his successor was broken and his successor has since then become freer to take decisions without looking back, and without being hindered by his benefactor. So in fact people have now come to realise that since August when Akpabio defected that the governor has performed even at a faster pace; he is taking quick decisions nowadays and a lot more is being done in the state.
Akpabio’s exit from the PDP has equally created problems within the APC in the state. The APC in the state was operating on a fragile platform because of the dissensions within its ranks; so his going into the APC has even made it worse for the party. His entry into the APC has created more problems than solutions. The first statement he made was very damaging. While referring to the war waged by Hitler, he said, in 2019 ‘Warsaw will see war and war will see Warsaw’. In other words, Akpabio is taking the 2019 election in Akwa Ibom as a war and that the state must be won by the APC at all costs. He also contradicted himself by saying that Governor Udom’s emergence as governor was one of the mistakes he made in his life, when he has always said that it was God’s will; which means that he is now saying that God made a mistake to give him Udom as the governor of the state. He also castigated himself by claiming that for 16 years, the PDP did nothing for Akwa Ibom State. But within that period, he was governor for eight years, which also means that he didn’t do anything for the state. You can see the serious contradictions and dangerous propaganda that the former governor is creating to damage himself all in a bid to be making political statements in support of APC, his new party.
He has been making so many careless statements, even saying that the federal government has done the road from Calabar to Itu to Ikot Ekpene when in reality the contractor for that project has not yet been mobilised to start work up till now. So that is why I am categorical in saying the PDP in Akwa Ibom has even become stronger since the exit of Akpabio to the APC.
Can you say that the PDP remains stronger even with the claim by some that the governor has not lived up to the expectations of the people? Some even say that there is nothing on the ground to celebrate the governor.
Well, that is a result of the propaganda, which the APC has embarked upon. They say that the governor has not lived up to expectations but first you need to look at the circumstances relating to his emergence and what was on the ground as at the time he came on board. When Udom came into office, he had the initial difficulties of sorting himself out with his opponents during the election because there was a protracted court tussle that delayed him from taking off smoothly. Again, the huge debts arising from the so-called ‘uncommon transformation’ from the previous administration held him back from taking on many key projects immediately until some of the debts were paid or sorted out.
So he had to contend with the rising expectations of the people spearheaded in the days of uncommon transformation with bloated oil revenue. Akpabio had given the people of Akwa Ibom state the erroneous impression that there was so much money in the state and that he had done everything. But it was not so. There is so much to be done and the people’s expectations are very high.
But in all of this, Udom still had to manage the bad situation, not willing to expose, hurt or ridicule his benefactor, Akpabio. So, this was not an easy task but despite all this he was able to get through. It was because of his financial training and expertise and the fact that he comes from a strict and puritanical Christian background that he was able to weather the storm.
They accuse the governor of not doing anything but he has been able to pay salaries and pensions regularly since coming into office. He has been able to clear the backlog of pension and gratuity from 2012 till December 2015.
When they say he has not paid pension and gratuity, they are referring to the ones from 2016 that he has not been able to pay because he had to clear the backlog first. There has also been massive infrastructural development particularly in areas of road construction, in the health sector and educational facilities. He has also made industrial development a key aspect of his administration. As soon as he came in, he was able to bring in many investors to the state because of his international connections. Some left as a result of the economic recession that struck Nigeria, while others are working steadily in the state and producing a number of products boosting the economy of the state and Nigeria as we speak. One of them is the Metering Company that produces meters, which is the first in Nigeria. He has also brought a company that is into flour milling, syringe production, pencil and toothpick and is working also on a Coconut oil production plant and many others. But as you know in politics, the propagandists will never agree that he has done anything for the state but the imprints are all over the state. The propagandists are the ones trying to paint the governor as not doing anything in the state.
But the irony of the political situation in the state is that Nsima Ekere of the APC who is challenging the governor also hails from the same Senatorial district as Governor Udom. Will that not sharply split your votes especially as Nsima has reportedly used NDDC money to do some big projects in the state?
It is true that the challenger of the governor comes from the same senatorial districts with him. But you must note the fact that it was not easy for us to get our turn to produce the governor in 2015 because even Akpabio was not considering giving the ticket to Eket Senatorial district even though it was due for that. So it was a number of us that set up Eket Senatorial District Assembly and made a strong case for it before Akpabio accepted and that was how we got our turn to produce the governor. Having done so, the people of the senatorial districts realised that governors usually perform better in their second term as is the case with any other office holder.
So since the people have realised this, they do not want to miss the advantage of having the same person to do a second tenure and bring relevant benefits to them and that is why people of the senatorial districts are not looking at any alternative to the present governor in 2019 because the other senatorial districts had produced governors for eight years each. Nsima Ekere has been a deputy governor in the state and he is a nice man. But we believe strongly that if he stays back at the NDDC and completes his tenure that would be a better service to the state and its people than running away to Uyo to come and struggle for the governor of the state and leaving the slot for a new person to come and learn the ropes.
Akpabio was the poster boy of Akwa Ibom PDP, elders and those who matter in the state. So, were you surprised when he left the PDP?
Yes, he was our poster boy and we very proud of him. All of us were encouraging him but when he defected we were surprised because it was very rare for a political leader, in his case, the
But the argument of some people have is that even though you say that ‘Akwa Ibom is PDP and PDP is Akwa Ibom’, many top politicians in the state have been moving to the APC since the exit of Akpabio to that party. Why is that so if the state is not leaning towards APC?
The truth is that some of the prominent people in Akwa Ibom who are now in APC ran away from the PDP because of the ‘uncommon defector’ and now the uncommon defector has gone to join them and has created an uncommon problem in the APC. Don’t forget that the APC in the state was already in a serious crisis situation because of the disagreement amongst its leaders. But upon his entry, Akpabio came with his own problems and tried to silence all others in the party, a situation that is now forcing many of the key leaders to find exit route and leave the party for the uncommon defector.
Are you saying that even some people in the APC are working for the PDP now?
The point I am making is that many of them are trying to come back to the PDP.
Is it true that one of his family members is even opposed to what he is doing?
Yes, one of his nephews is strongly opposed to what he has done and even his political mentor and godfather Chief Afangide, is stoutly opposed to his surreptitious defection from the PDP, which he helped to establish. Chief Afangideh’s argument is that it was Akpabio, who brought Governor Udom to them to adopt as governor and that it would be unfair and uncommon for them in Annang land to abandon an in-law. They have told Akpabio that they will not abandon Udom because he marries an Annang daughter,
There is fear that given the rivalry that is brewing between the APC and the PDP, the state may slide into violence during the next election if care is not taken by the two sides.
We pray for peace to prevail and not violence. Udom is a man of peace and he will not allow any form of violence to rock the state. We know as a fact that the state witnessed turbulence since 2007 as a result of unprecedented kidnapping and assassinations. In fact, the crime wave became outrageous to the extent that the expatriates who were working in the oil companies in Akwa Ibom State left the state; government officials sent their families outside while many others relocated because they could not stand the wave of violence unleashed on the state. However, we are happy that since Governor Udom came on board, the crime rate has drastically reduced and many people are now able to sleep with two eyes closed. Peace has since returned and that is why investors find it easy to return to do business in the state.
But suddenly there is a new wave of criminality following the declaration that the election is going to be a ‘Warsaw saw war and war saw Warsaw’. That shows you that the same people who perpetrated the criminal tendencies of the past are now back to work. Akwa Ibom is afraid that because they claim they have federal might that they will bring all the security forces as was done in Ekiti and Osun but they forget that this election is going to involve many more states. It is not going to be a one-state election like we had in Osun and Ekiti states, where security forces were deplored in large numbers.
And they also forget too that these security personnel are Nigerians who are suffering and frustrated by the poor governance during this period. You can send your soldier to the war but the way he feels may determine the seriousness he puts in it. You know what happened with Boko Haram and soldiers, who refused to fight during President Jonathan’s time because they were unhappy. The same situation will likely play out in 2019 because most Nigerians are frustrated because of the poor governance of unleashed on them by the present administration. Nigerians want this government to be voted out.
How would you then assess the performance of the federal government in Akwa Ibom State since Buhari came in?
I would concede that Buhari’s government has appointed more prominent Akwa Ibom indigenes into federal positions than any other government we have seen in recent history. But in terms of infrastructural development, Akwa Ibom is completely forgotten.
What of the Calabar-Itu Highway which the government has just awarded contract worth more than N55 billion for dualisation?
Nothing is happening on that road. The Calabar-Itu Road was awarded for N55 billion since last year but the contractor has not been mobilised up till now. But you can be sure that the project is billed to fail given the ridiculous amount approved for the job and the number of bridges and the swampy nature of the road. That may be why the contractor has not even bothered to mobilise to the site since last year. So you can see that in terms of developing the state, there is nothing you can point to as a mark of the Buhari government imprint in Akwa Ibom State. But we have to accept the failure because the uncommon transformer had already given the impression that there was nothing for the federal government to do in the state while he held sway.
What would you say about the fight by the present government against corruption?
The fight against corruption I would say started from the Obasanjo administration when he created the ICPC and the EFCC. Obasanjo’s effort in fighting corruption was very prominent particularly with Nuhu Ribadu as chairman of the EFCC, although it was selective fight but at least the people selected were from the same administration, he was not looking much at the past.
But the present administration’s fight against corruption is to pick people from the previous administration and when you defect to the ruling party you become a saint. The attitude of the present government therefore encourages more people within the system to commit more corrupt practices knowing that they would not be punished. That is why you now have top government officials cutting mere grass with N200 million and nothing happens. The current one is the feeding of a man and his wife who are in prison with N3.5 million monthly; so you can see even some ministers say they would prefer to go to prison so they can eat well. Obasanjo dealt with cases in his government. But it is different now. People in government now get away with corrupt practices. And they know that eyes are not on them so there is even impunity on there side. These things are being noted by the people, so the Buhari administration is making things easy for Atiku to win. The anti corrupt fight now is not a serious one. They are simply actively committing more corrupt practices in the country. But the Atiku government will address all these shortcomings with effect from next year.
It appears that you are very certain that Atiku is going to win the election.
What makes you so sure?
As for winning the presidency that has gone out of the hands of the APC completely; the same situation that led to the exit of President Goodluck Jonathan has reoccurred now even at a worse dimension to the extent that most Nigerians do not want the current administration to continue. They want to have a change and Atiku we all know has a lot of influence, resources, connections and the goodwill of the people on his side and he is going to win the election with ease. What the people have suffered under the Buhari administration is enough to make the people to forget whatever was credited to Atiku in the past since Nigerians believe he has what it takes to make the country better for all.
But Atiku has a corruption tag bandied on him even by his principal?
The corruption tag has never been proved; he has not even been charged with any offence many years after leaving office as Vice president. So, where is the corruption? Nigerians are not even interested in such allegation anymore.
But what do you think the PDP under Atiku will be able to do differently from what is being done by the present administration?
I believe strongly that the PDP having been in government for 16 years and having noted the mistakes they made, has now taken almost four years to re-assess itself, to do a rethink on what went well and what went wrong while it was in power and why it failed. I believe the party has become more sober than it was in 16 years. That perhaps explains to you why Atiku has taken time out with his campaign planners to re-assess the entire situation. He went to a quiet place without any interruption and distractions to re-examine himself and his party and what needs to be done in the years ahead once he takes over the mantle of leadership of Nigeria next year. He has re-positioned the party and has drawn up good programmes for the country to make the required impact on all the sectors of the economy and move the people out of poverty and strife. As a founding member of the PDP I can say with confidence that we have learnt from the grievous mistakes of the past and the type that has now wrecked the APC government. So I believe PDP will be in the better position to offer good governance for the development of this country more than it did in the previous tenure. Possibly too, when APC steps down now, in the next four or eight years they would have re-organised themselves in readiness to do better which would be better for Nigeria.