Barr. Bassey Etienam is a former Senior Special Assistant to the former governor, Chief Godswill Akpabio, on Project Monitoring. In 2011, he was elected into the State House of Assembly, representing the people of Urue Offong Oruko State Constituency. In 2015 he made unsuccessful attempt to go to the Senate after which he returned to his legal practice. Etienam speaks on issues concerning the country, Niger Delta, Akwa Ibom State and also explains the reasons for his short spell as an All Peoples Progressives Congress (APC) member in this exclusive interview with Crystal Express.
What is your take on the Social Media and Hate Speech Bill now in the Senate?
Those bills are dead on arrival. The reason is because an online personality is a virtual personality. So if such a bill is passed, I can take up one’s personality, hack one’s account and post incriminating things and the person whose account was hacked will be held liable. Now if we also look at article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Nigerian Constitution, there is a basic right to receive information and right to express and disseminate information within the law. So you cannot prohibit anyone’s right of opinion or freedom of speech. We also have existing laws that could treat issues of internet falsehood and manipulation bill. We have the penal code and others. Why the duplication of laws? Section 25 of Cyber Crime Act is enough to tackle the issues of internet manipulations and fraud. There is no reason for duplications of laws and that is why I insist that the bill is dead on arrival.
What is your take on the forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as ordered by Mr. President and what is your impression of the Agency performance wise?
I will say that the NDDC has not fared well in the development of the Niger Delta region from inception till date. The reason being that the Niger Delta region whose God given resources are sustaining the country, deserves better. The setting up of the NDDC was an opportunity to help turn around the fortunes of the region and her people. With the amount of money being remitted to the Agency, it is sad today to note that there are still areas within the Niger Delta Region that are yet to be connected to the national grid. For me, the forensic audit is a welcome development if done properly. It will be best if an independent body will do the audit without interference of anybody, whether the supervising ministry or any top politician. The forensic audit should not be used as a political tool to deal with the opposition. Only an independent body devoid of any form of manipulations can successfully carry out an acceptable forensic audit of the NDDC.
Can we have your comment on the recent closure of Nigerian borders to check smuggling of contraband goods?
It depends on the borders you are talking about. Is it the one in the South South, South East and South West because the boarders in the North are still open I don’t know the borders you are talking about. How can you claim to close borders while foreign goods are daily brought into the country and selling in our supermarkets? We are using imported cookers and imported generators. We don’t even have energy to power lights. If we are to set up factories, are we going to run it on diesel? The border closure is doing more harm to the economy of the nation. How can you close one border and open another one? Is the essence of closing our borders to manufacture our own products even when we still use generators produced abroad, gas cookers manufactured in China to cook the local rice? Is the closure of border just for food stuff? Let us get it right. We don’t have power to steam our factories that will manufacture products and not even for the mills that will produce the rice. Are we going to run our businesses on diesel? If the cost of production is high, the cost will be transferred to the end users who will bear the burden.
Itu-Calabar highway linking Akwa Ibom and Cross River States is in a terrible condition and is not even included in the 2020 budget of the country. What is your opinion on this?
It is very sad especially when the oil production sustaining the economy of the country is being exploited from the two states. If such an important road is ignored in the 2020 budget, it is a clear indication that the leadership of the country is not interested in what is happening in the South- South and South-East regions of the country. They probably remember Lagos because of its vital position to the economy of the nation. The states that add to national purse of the county are no longer accessible by road. The people of the South-South and South-East should come together and take their destiny into their hands. They should unite as one body and start looking inwards to help themselves.
Before the end of your tenure in the State Assembly in 2015 you defeated to APC and returned again to the PDP after the election. What informed your initial defection to APC?
I am a change advocate. I don’t mean the type of change being used today by the APC in Nigeria. Change advocate because I want to see Nigeria get better today for our children and grandchildren. The impunity that went on in the then PDP before 2015 was something I could not stand. I remember before my then defection to APC that we were in Otueke, Bayelsa State, the country home of the then President Goodluck Jonathan for an event and to my utter shock at that time, I don’t know about now, Otueke, was not connected to the national grid. I wondered how others will benefit from him if the home of a sitting president is not connected to the national grid. The Niger Delta region that is supposed to have been developed was stagnated. Therefore at that time, I said we must look for a better hand to govern the country; to take Nigeria to where it ought to be. That was the reason for my movement. However, on moving to APC, unfortunately what we met and what we saw and what we are seeing today is worse than the government of Goodluck Jonathan. There is no pretence about it because I don’t like compromise. The government that said they came to fight corruption is deeper in corruption than Jonathan’s government. For me, it was not about personal interest but the larger interest of the majority of Nigerians, the people of the area I represented and my state. It was not about negotiating for anything. When I saw the truth that the political party called APC has nothing to offer Nigerians, I decided to return to PDP to see if true change could be effected. APC is seen as a place where people who committed crime go for rechristening as saints. I wasn’t prepared to stay in a party that pays lip service to corruption, so I decided to return to the PDP.
Are you saying that the Administration’s anti-corruption war has been selective and not general?
There is no anti-corruption war in Nigeria. Apart from the recent conviction of Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, who still has the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court to go to and in between anything can happen, until it gets to that stage and the same judgment is handed to him, then I will maintain that they are not serious. As long as I am concerned, the anti-corruption war in Nigeria is a mirage.
In your time at the State House of Assembly from 2011 to 2015, the then governor promised 31 industries and the Assembly approved it without anything to show today. How would you rate the incumbent governor’s strides in industrial revolution?
I will score Governor Udom Emmanuel high because the way to go is industrialization. In the last administration it is sad to note that we passed the budget of industrialization and the industries ended up on papers. Today we are beginning to see industries spring up in different areas of the state. It is a big welcome development.
Looking at the general economy of Nigeria today, do you think that the government of APC has improved in anyway?
From the financial indices, it is clear that the economy is in shambles and has taken a downturn. There is no improvement in any aspect of the economy.
Having served as a state lawmaker and unable to make it to the Senate in 2011, do you hope to contest again in 2023?
I have a different opinion towards politics. For me, politics is a call to service and not a career, the reason we find ourselves in the situation we are in Nigeria today is because people have decided to make politics their career. I am a lawyer by profession and right now I am practising law, and working harder to build up my career. But If I am called upon to serve, it will be my desire to serve the people rightly and correctly. Politics should remain a call to service and not for self-aggrandizement. When we see it in that light, then we will open up the right vistas for a better Nigeria.
When you opted out of PDP to APC in the twilight of your tenure at the State Assembly in 2015, you were denied all your entitlements by the then speaker. Did you regret taking that step?
I don’t regret the action because that decision was not based on personal interest. It was based on the larger interest. If I have the same opportunity again to serve and defend my people, I will to do it again. I have no regrets at all.
It is on record that you have shown immense compassion to the less privileged in different homes around the state especially during your tenure as lawmaker. What motivates you to do so?
First and foremost, I am a practicing Christian and biblically, it is written that the heart of the less privileged is close to God. That is why the Bible says that he who gives to the poor, lends to God. Apart from the fact that my late father served people as house boy before he became who he was, if people did not look at him with compassion at that point, I don’t think he would have been raised to the level he attained later. I don’t see why there should be segregation between the rich and the poor. If God blesses you, then lend a helping hand and lift your brother up. That is my belief.
It is also on record that you do organize seminars and workshops for youths with several motivational speakers to impact knowledge on them. Why the interest?
I practically do this because they are the future of Nigeria. I believe that the human mind is like a computer; garbage in and out. If we truly want to grow, we should begin to groom the next generation of leaders that will move the country forward. Therefore, the investment you put into the youths today is what they will manifest tomorrow. So I hope and dream for a better Nigeria and decided to invest in the next generation to brighten the chances of a better and greater Nigeria and take it to the level we all want it to be.
You tried but couldn’t make it to the Senate in 2015. Today you have Dr. (Mrs.) Akon Eyakenyi as your senator. How will you rate her performance so far?
Dr. (Mrs.) Akon Eyakenyi has done very well in her short time in the Senate and we will not have wished for a better senator. I believe that God in His infinite mercies will continue to strengthen, bless, guide, lift and direct her steps so that she will continue her good works in the National Assembly. Eket Senatorial District and Akwa Ibom State is already enjoying her sound representation in the senate.
There are mixed feelings among Nigerians about how the Department of State Service (DSS) re-arrested Sahara Reporters publisher, Sowere within the court room. What is your take as a lawyer?
I wept when I saw what happened because even when Nigeria was under military dictatorship, there was no time in that era that the court was desecrated by any arm of government with such impunity. I saw people parading themselves with uniform written (DSS) Department of State Service, which is not known to law because the act that established the Agency was known and called State Security Service. It is sad that such an agency desecrated the court without due regards to the rule of law. They charged him and he is on bail and the case pending in the court. They should have allowed the law to take its due course. How come they became a judge in the same cause they took to court? Today we are lamenting over lack of foreign investors’ interest in the country. Do you expect them to come when the leadership of the country has no regards for rule of law?
On the planned re-run between Senator Akpabio, now Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, and Senator Chris Ekpeyong of PDP, what is your take considering the interest of the state?
If I am the one involved and for the interest of the people whom I wish to serve well, I will not run in that election so that the people of the senatorial district will have a minister and a senator still representing same area. There is no guarantee that the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, will re-contest and win the re-election. So if he decides to run and resign as a minister, whether he wins or loses, the senatorial district will have only a senator representing them and would have lost the minister. For me there is no wisdom going for a rerun by the minister. If he wants to take the risk, it is all about him and the people of the senatorial district.
2023 is around the corner and politicians are jostling for positions, what type of governor in your opinion do you think Akwa Ibom should look out for after Governor Udom Emmanuel?
Akwa Ibom will need a visionary governor, one who is intellectually sound and closer to the people. You can be visionary, intellectually sound but not close to the grassroots. You must be one who has suffered the pains of the common people and will be able to translate his vision to the benefit of the people especially in the grassroots. He must also be a man after God’s heart, a practicing Christian and a detribalized person. The coming governor should be able to know people by their names and appreciate their challenges. He must have a great vision for the state and also be very compassionate.
Ibom Deep Seaport is gradually becoming a reality as physical construction will soon commence. Do you think the project will change the economy of the civil service oriented state?
I don’t know the level of implementation of that project yet but I am aware that about 15 or more other applications for deep seaport projects are with the relevant federal authorities for approval and the competition is now high. Cross River State, Badagry, Lekki, Bonny and others are all places still looking for approval for deep seaport. As at my last count, there are about 15 or more. We have to do more to achieve results by getting all the necessary approval that will enable us to kick off.
If the deep seaport kicks off, then Akwa Ibom State will be opened to the world. Singapore was a Third World without any oil but has a good deep seaport which launched it to the entire world. Today, Singapore has moved from Third World to First World country. Therefore if Akwa Ibom is slumbering on the issue of the deep seaport, they must wake up now and put more efforts. That project must be realized for the state and her children, who will be the greatest beneficiaries of the gigantic project.
In readiness for 2023, groups are politicizing and strategizing, how ready is Oro Nation to negotiate a better deal ahead of 2023 elections?
There is this adage that says that united we stand divided we fall. It is high time the people of Oro came together as a body, sit down, brainstorm and decide what they want. I can’t speak for Oro people alone. We need to come together, and agree as a people what we want in 2023. Then we approach our elder brothers the Ibibios and Annangs and present what we have collectively agreed upon as a people. Oro nation must have a collective bargain and united position as a people to succeed in 2023 politics.