Buhari Has Offered More Appointments To A’Ibom, C’River Than Previous Regimes – Barr. Ukpong

…Closure Of Border Is In Nigeria's Best Interest



Barr. Joe Ukpong served as Special Adviser, Special Duties and later Commissioner for Environment under Arc. Obong Victor Attah’s administration between 1999-2003. He has also contested for both Governorship in 2007 and Senatorial seat in 2011 without success. A legal practitioner and APC chieftain, Barr. Joe Ukpong in this interview with Crystal Express, speaks on Buhari’s administration, the Niger Delta and other burning issues in the country.

Let Us Meet you

I am Barr. Joe Ukpong, a legal practitioner having read law in the University of Calabar. After my call to the bar, I worked briefly in Lagos and at the invitation of then Governor, Obong Victor Attah, I came back to Akwa Ibom State to be his special adviser on special projects, a full cabinet member up to 2002 and same year, July precisely, he appointed me Commissioner for Environment till the end of his first term. During Governor Attah’s second term, I was appointed a Federal Board member and afterwards, I tried contesting for elective offices. I tried to be a governor in 2007 but couldn’t make it. I also made a bold step to become a senator too in 2011. In 2007 when Senator Akpabio became the governor of Akwa Ibom State, I fell out with the PDP and joined the then ACN. I contested to be a senator on that platform but was massively rigged out. It was a bitter rigging and I pray never to witness it again. I went to the tribunal and Court of Appeal but didn’t succeed. I remained until the ACN merged with a section of the APGA led by Rochas Okorocha, ANPP, CPC and DPP came together to become APC. So naturally after the meger, I found myself as APC member and I am very happy about that.

Since you joined the opposition party in the state, are you satisfied with their impact during elections in the state?

Yes, the opposition is doing well. Mind you, the opposition is only at the state level here. We are waxing strongly. Before the 2019 elections, a lot of people came over to APC from the PDP. So I am quite impressed.

Looking at the APC government at the federal level, will you say that the government has given Nigerians the change they promised?

Yes. But we have to understand that it is not easy to rule a very complicated and complex country like Nigeria. There is strong sentiment here based on religion, ethnicity and other serious factors. Considering the rot President Buhari met and the above mentioned factors, he has tried. It is not easy to rule Nigeria. He is a very courageous and clean man.

You said the President has tried, but the people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River are not happy for lack of federal presence in the state. What is your take?

I am from here and wouldn’t work against my state. When Buhari came, the kind of offices given to Akwa Ibom people and even Cross Riverians is more than what they ever got under any previous government, especially during the PDP era. In Akwa Ibom for instance, we got Senator Ita Enang as Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly (Senate) to the president, Obong Umana Umana (MD OGFZA). We have choice ambassadorial appointments with my brother Gen. (Rtd) Umoh as the Nigerian Ambassdor to the Vatican City where the pope stays. People said it is the most peaceful place in the world. We have gotten fair share of federal appointments. Even Cross River State has Chief of Naval Staff and also the immediate past Head of Service in the person of Mrs. Oyo Ita and other federal appointments. Never have the two states felt so well. We are the oil producers but still tagged as minority while no leader used to consider us this much. But today, we are very visible in the corridor of power. Therefore the man has tried. Of course, if you consider what he was given as the votes from this side of the country vis â vis the appointments, then you will agree with me that he has tried.

Infrastructure wise, are you impressed with his strides down here?

Infrastructure wise, there is still much left to be desired. For example the Calabar – Itu Road is quite bad but when I was a commissioner under Obong Victor Attah, the two states used to come together to fix the road because although you can call it a federal road, it is mostly used by people from both states. Security votes in the hands of the governors is said not to be accounted for but such funds should be used to embark on projects that will bring peace and harmony. When there is happiness among the populace, there will be peace. Such funds should not just be pocketed by the governors. They should be used to create harmony and part of it is to embark on projects that will be beneficial to the people. If the federal government delays, it doesn’t stop both states from doing the job. Obong Victor Attah and Donald Duke used to do it. Akpabio and Imoke used to do it and asked for refunds from the federal government. The federal government does not say they should not do federal roads. Rather it said the states can do and get refunds based on federal estimates, so that there will be no cases of inflation of figures. The only issue here is that they have a standard payment for the road construction projects. We are aware that from time to time, federal government returns the funds governors expended on road constructions. Just before the 2019 elections, I remembered that Governor Emmanuel got some refunds on federal roads but I don’t know the amount. The Kogi state governor, Yaya Bello, got his own refunds too. The issue is to carry the federal government along especially on the estimates spent per kilometre and you get your refunds after work. I think nothing stops the two state governors from fixing the road and pursuing claims. Now look at an event like the annual Calabar Christmas carnival, it will be heavily affected because of the bad road. I don’t blame the Federal Government but the two governors. Nigeria is a federation with a government at the centre and federating units. Nothing stops any of the units from doing what makes their people happy. If we live in a big yard and the landlord is the one to sweep the parlor that all of us use and if he fails to do so, what stops the tenants from doing it?

Are you impressed with the impact made by the APC in the last general election in the state?

I won’t comment because the issues are still before the court. As an APC man, we worked very hard but I was shocked by the figures that came out. I believe it is subjudice to speak elaborately on the election issue as the case is before the Supreme Court. So I leave the matter for court judgment first.

With the freedom of speech well-articulated by the constitution, do you think the Social Media Bill and the Hate Speech Bill at the National Assembly are in order?

I have discovered that the National Assembly is really tinkering with the bills again. Let us see how it will come out. But already we have enough laws in the country to deal with the issues. What we lack is just appropriate enforcement.

You are aware that the nation’s borders have been closed by the federal government to check inflow of imported goods. Do you think the policy is best for the country at this point?

I support the action of federal government; the reason is to protect our indigenous business people from going down. Cotonou, capital of Benin Republic, has turned itself as a major key to sabotage Nigeria’s economy. Too many illegal things come into the country through Benin Republic border. For example, the issue of indigenous rice growers, if you allow rice from abroad especially Thailand to keep coming, our people here growing rice cannot compete with them. You don’t even trust the quality of this foreign rice. We have seen on social media how plastic rice is being exported to Africa from China. But we are sure of Nigerian rice even the one in Ini Local Government Area in Akwa Ibom State. The only challenge is to de-stone the rice well. Therefore if the local rice manufacturers are allowed to continue, with time they will become perfect. The same applies to poultry products business men. If people get bank loan and set up poultry businesses and you allow the borders open, the imported frozen chickens will flood the country to the detriment of the local producers. I am told that rice growers in China and Thailand are really in pains since the closure of border because Nigeria used to be a big destination for them but our people are now smiling to the bank including the poultry dealers. Again, you are not even sure of the quality of the chickens coming from abroad. We gathered that some of them are preserved with formalin which is poisonous and injurious and can cause cancer to the health of people. The preservatives are quite bad for human consumption. I really support the action of closing the borders so that we can sit back and grow our economy and develop at our own pace.

The economy is not in good shape and yet to be fixed after five years of the Buhari administration. Are you not worried?

I will say that it is not very nice but has potentials to grow. What President Buhari met on ground was too bad; corruption in the system was too high. Before now in Nigeria, the immigration service’s advertised for employment and jobless people were asked to pay money and still people died in the process. But Buhari has been working on the serious deficits he met on ground. Those that lost power in 2015 even set up machineries to make Nigeria ungovernable for him. In the Niger-Delta for instance, the Avengers were on hand to blow up pipe lines and oil productions dropped same time as the prices of oil dropped. So considering the challenges Buhari met on ground, he has tried. The economy may not be too good but he is putting together things that will put the economy on the part of recovery and steady progress. You have to suffer before you smile. Nigeria’s case now is like the construction of road in a neighborhood where the people are inconvenienced with the disruptions of soil by bulldozers but enjoy the facilities after the well paved and tarred roads are ready.

Nigerians should understand that the present phase is temporary. The economy is not too good but there is light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Talking about the Buhari’s anti-corruption war, people said it has been selective not holistic. Is it?

Selective how? In fact the anti-corruption has hit the APC chieftains more than the PDP members. I am going to talk with names. Joshua Dariye, former Plataeau State governor is in jail; Jolly Nyame, an APC chieftain and former Taraba State governor are in jail. Few days ago, Senate chief whip and former Abia State governor, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu was jailed. Then tell me the PDP chieftains serving jail terms. Who is talking about selective justice? When people talk they should prove it with facts and mention names. The one in jail are APC people and the party is worst hit. There is no selective war against corruption. People claim that once you join APC all your sins are forgiven, but facts on ground do not support such idle talks. We know of a former PDP governor with a perpetual injunction against his arrest or prosecution. If APC has lost three former governors to jail and PDP has not lost any, then you can say that the selective prosecution is against the APC.

What is your take on Bayelsa and Kogi election that APC were declared winners amidst protests?

When PDP wins, there is no problem; but when APC wins, it will be a case of democracy being under threat or democracy is about to be butchered and buried alive. Look, APC won elections in Zamfara State where PDP was rejected, but the Supreme Court upturned the victory. All those who were rejected earlier at the polls were declared winners and people will say that PDP is been prosecuted. Look at the Bayelsa State election, if you go down memory lane, the problem of former president Jonathan started with Governor Seriake Dickson when he insisted that he wanted Dickson in place of Timipre Silva. He made Dickson the governorship candidate of PDP and he eventually became governor. But Dickson took power and ignored the former president. I gathered that even after imposing his own candidate on the party that a group loyal to the former president pleaded that they be given a deputy governorship slot, which he declined. He forgot the former president made him who he is and funny enough, he wanted his successor from the same senatorial district with him. I saw the downfall of PDP in that state coming. However, I must tell you that the mistake people make is to label states after political parties as their strongholds, which to me is not a true reflection of politics. Politics is like football, nothing is permanent. Manchester United recently defeated Manchester City away in Etihad Stadium. Every day is not the same. APC did a good job by picking a candidate from a thickly populated local government area, when PDP was already in disarray. Why won’t the APC win in Bayelsa? There is no APC state or PDP state; anything can happen at any time. Look at the northern states, people thought they are the strong-hold of the PDP, but the results in some states have shown otherwise. The northerners were more interested in Buhari and after his election, they left the governors to face their individual battles. In Kogi, APC won even though the PDP gave a good fight.

There was this issue of N10 billion released to the governor for already done federal projects few days to elections and it was widely believed to be used in votes buying. What do you think about it?

The two parties fought according to their strength. Kogi state was not the first state that got such refunds before elections. It happened also in Akwa Ibom State. The funds spent by governors on federal projects are often refunded. When Akwa Ibom State got theirs, there was no problem because it was a PDP government but when an APC governor got same money, democracy came under threat.

You worked under Victor Attah as a commissioner. How would you describe the man and his administration?

I have tremendous respect for Arc. Obong Victor Attah. He is a true father, very modest, not corrupt and loves Akwa Ibom State. He has passion for development of the state. He drew the architectural master-plan of Akwa Ibom State. He is a good Christian and very broad-minded. He is a very detribalized person. I am from Annang and he is an Ibibio man but we are very close because he doesn’t care where you come from. I still keep some of his valuables till date. He has only one daughter who is married to an Annang man and he is the one that ensured power shift to the Annang ethnic group. Of course there are people who hated him for that action; they believe the majority tribe should continue to dominate the politics of the state as seen in some other states of the country. But Obong Victor Attah is not in that class of people, a very fantastic man who came ahead of his time. He is very intelligent and I pray that he lives very long. I am also happy that Gov. Udom Emmanuel has named the Ibom Airport after Obong Victor Attah which makes me happy. Notwithstanding that I am an APC, I do appreciate and commend good things done by Governor Udom Emmanuel and will also condemn the bad ones. Obong Victor Attah is a rare personality.

Most people still don’t know what led you out of the PDP, a party that gave you the opportunity to serve in different capacities in the then government of Victor Attah, to ACN at a time power shifted to your zone. Why?

I had irreconcilable differences with the system at that time under Chief Akpabio and I am vindicated today as even the major principals of the system then are now with us in APC. I left a vehicle I considered not too good to another and those I left behind suddenly realized and have joined now. So I am vindicated in my life time.

Now that you have Chief Akpabio in the same party again, can you work together with him?

Of course, Chief Akpabio is my in-law and that one is for life by our tradition and culture. We read law and played students politics together in the University of Calabar. We also served in Obong Victor Attah’s government together in the first term. So it is not difficult for both of us to work together. We are brothers from the same Annang ethnic stock.

Are you impressed with the strides made by Chief Akpabio’s administration vis â vis the funds received under his tenure?

Chief Akpabio tried his best whether it was good is left for history to judge. He did what he could do to the best of his ability.

How would you describe the administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel who promised industrialisation and is implementing it?

He should do more for to whom much is given, much is expected. It is not good to judge him till he finishes.

As a stakeholder in Akwa Ibom, which areas do you advise the governor to improve upon?

Akwa Ibom State is lucky. When we were to get the perfect site for the airport, I flew around the state on helicopter and drove by road and discovered that our state is not that big, just about 7000 sq km. We have very limited land mass unlike states like Niger and Cross River states. So the government can quickly inter connect the state through good road network. We can turn this state into one big city. Dubai is about 4000 plus sq km not up to 5000 sq km and it has become the world’s hub. Akwa Ibom State with all the money it has can achieve that. They need to start with road network in villages so that farm produce can get to the urban areas. In Abak council area, I am from Otoro Clan and there is a junction called Abak 10 miles which has been impassable for many months and has killed the economy of my people. Before the election, the government started work on the road and shortly after stopped. It has been difficult for road users to ply that road now. The people are cut off from the rest of the state and can’t access Uyo or Ikot Ekpene. We need government’s attention there. Another one is the primary school in my village which has been done by the NDDC but the Abak ten miles road needs serious government’s attention to save the people from further distress. I urge the governor to do more on roads, do more on security, do more to solve unemployment and harsh economy. A lot of young men have resorted to self help and that is wrong. It is more frustrating to be graduates without jobs. It will be more disastrous to have graduate criminals. If master’s degree holders without employment resort to crime, then it will be a very sophisticated venture. Health care should be improved to save more lives. People should be given support, loans and grants to start up businesses. Lots of small businesses are collapsing. The middle class is almost wiped out. These are basic things I think the governor should also look into. I don’t want to be seen as demanding too much.

What is your take on the recent directive of the president on forensic audit of NNDC and secondly, do you think NDDC has lived up to its mandate?

Well I don’t have full facts on that directive and I have also seen my party chieftains singing discordant tunes on the matter. I have seen our deputy national chairman, South South condemn the interim management committee of the NDDC and I have heard the Senate president asked the screened board members to be immediately sworn in and get to work. I have also heard other APC chieftains say the same thing but the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs supports the forensic audit, saying he has the president’s mandate. So I don’t have all the facts and since I am not flippant, I won’t say much here. On the performance of the Agency, they have tried. The Niger Delta is a very difficult terrain and construction of roads is very herculean owing to marshy soil. A road contract that costs N1 billion to do in the East or Western part of the country is much more expensive here. In some areas of the Niger Delta region, to build a single bungalow house is very difficult.

How do you see the prospects of APC in Akwa Ibom State?

Very good. There is hope, all we need to do is to fine tune our acts and put them together. APC has big potentials in the state. We need to ensure everybody has a sense of belonging. After what we saw during the APC rallies, we were shocked at the results that came out of the election. APC is very strong in Akwa Ibom State. All that is left is for people to trust themselves. Let those that came to join the party recognize those that were there before them. Let those that were there earlier openly receive those coming in with warm embrace. Mutual suspicions should cease and nobody can stand APC in the state.

Some people thought that the coming of Akpabio into APC will turn the party into winning ways in the state. What is your take?

A few things were wrong with the elections.
Am talking about Akpabio’s entrance into the party
He has his supporters and some said he did not consult or carry them along but these are our brothers. We know ourselves. The state is closely knitted and we are one and meet and exchange banters while travelling by flight. What happened in APC is known to those in PDP and vice versa. When he came, some joined him, others stayed back for one reason or so. But I must confess that there is room for improvement. APC is alive in Akwa Ibom State.

Having lost at the Election Tribunal and Appeal Court, do you advise APC’s 2019 governorship candidate Nsima Ekere to continue pursuing the matter to the Supreme Court?

It is his right and he should exhaust it. Have you not seen election being upturned at the Supreme Court level. Umana Okon Umana got the tribunal to nullify some Local Government Areas in 2015 and the Court of Appeal nullified the entire 2015 governorship election but the Supreme Court gave it back to the incumbent governor. So Ekere should exercise his rights to the fullest and exhaust his options; nobody knows tomorrow. If the 2015 election ended in the Supreme Court, why should this one not get there?

2023 elections is coming and what are your plans? Will you contest?

I have no plans to contest but I will never be neutral. I will support somebody. There is nothing for me to go for again in this state apart from governorship which is zoned to Uyo Senatorial District outside my Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District. I have been a special adviser, commissioner, federal board member. I have contested governorship primaries under the PDP but didn’t succeed, tried the Senate under the ACN and now in the APC. Therefore what will I go for again outside governorship?. It is not our turn but I will never be neutral. I will always at all time support somebody. Right now I am the leader of the APC in Abak Local Government Area.

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