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I Stepped On Toes To Succeed As Nigeria’s Ambassador To Italy- Amb. Etim Okpoyo


His wit radiates as a blistering light. Etim Jack Okpoyo, former Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State, former Nigeria’s Ambassador to Italy, Greece and Albania and former Civil Engineer with Nigerian Agip Oil Company, is a personality whose intellect is awesome. With his rich background as an engineer, diplomat, politician, businessman, counsellor and community leader, Okpoyo stands tall as a statesman of note; one who has posted incredible service records for his state and fatherland. In his ever passion to render communal services, the diplomat recently accepted to serve as the Chairman, Oro Leadership Forum.
When Crystal Express met the diplomat for an exclusive interview in Uyo, capital city of Akwa Ibom State on Friday, October 25, 2019, Okpoyo, with refreshing recollections, spoke on various issues including Akwa Ibom, Nigeria and his days in the foreign service. Excepts

What is your verdict on the progress of the state 32 years after creation as a stakeholder?

I think we should start by asking why the state was created. Are we meeting our obligations and reasons why the state was created? They are the probing questions we must ask ourselves because the idea of creating the state was to bring government closer to the people so that we can have development. The state was not created for selfish reasons but for the collective benefit of the Akwa Ibom people. Is it what we are getting today? Sadly, there are areas in the state you cannot still access by road. Are the factories we are talking about ,which are for employment and profit for the owners, serving that purpose? However, it is sad to note that Akwa Ibom State is filled with praise-singers who hardly tell the leaders the truth about the current realities in the state. And when one speaks the truth, he is seen as working against the government. Akwa Ibom State is making progress but needs improvement. If for instance we are talking about industries now, it shouldn’t be one which employs 10-15 people but one which takes in 400-500 people. At least, that is what I call industry. The factories for instance, are we putting them across the other 31 local government areas? I remember telling the governor as the chairman on the occasion during the ceremony to honour the secretary to the government and president general of Oro Union that we need road infrastructure in Oro especially the road connecting Uyo through Nsit Atai to Okobo and Oron. But till now, it is still not done. The time frame it is taking us to develop the Ibom Deep Seaport is becoming worrisome. Cross River State is working on a similar project and if they achieve theirs before the coming of Ibom Deep Seaport, it will be a big challenge to us. These are all the things that should worry an average Akwa Ibom man not praise singing which is the problem of Akwa Ibom State today.
A top government functionary said recently that over 95 per cent of the paperwork or documentation of the Ibom Deep Seaport is completed.
I haven’t seen the paperwork but it is worrisome that the project started since the early days of Senator Godwill Akpabio’s administration and is still ongoing. Are we going to remain on that same project for 20 years? I am talking as an elder and somebody with experience that you cannot be on a project for over 10 years and be happy about it. We need to know what is going on and if we don’t act fast, Cross River State will overtake us in the realization of the deep seaport and the anticipated benefits.

The current politics of senatorial district succession in the state appears to have buried the tripod initially canvassed, which is for power to rotate around Ibibio, Annang and Oro nations. Are you worried?

It is worrisome and sad how they have jettisoned the tripod. In 1992 when late Obong Akpan Isemin was the governor (may his soul rest in peace) and I was his deputy, we started the tripod of Ibibio, Annang, Oro. Everything was anchored on the tripod. When Obong Victor Attah came, he discovered that was the best for Akwa Ibom State and stood for it. But Senator Godswill Akpabio messed up the tripod. I have always said this and can’t stop saying it that today there is nothing like the tripod. I warned people that with the killing of the tripod, there may be a time an Annang man may not taste the seat of the Governor of Akwa Ibom State for 40 years. When the governorship leaves Eket Senatorial District back to Uyo, it will be16 years for the Ibibio man and when it gets to Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District it will be for Ikono/Ini which will be 24 years and return to Eket District which will make it 32 years and back to Uyo again to make it 40 years. Then they will know the need for the tripod. I confronted Akpabio and explained to him how the state was designed to make everybody have a sense of belonging which he ignored. He will regret his action. What I have said should be documented for future reference purposes.

Are you impressed with the developmental strides within Oro nation since the return of democracy?

Well, since the dismantling of the tripod, some people will remain at a disadvantage. This is because for every man in the helm of affairs, change begins at home, and there is nothing you can do about it. Today we were given a Secretary to Government (SSG) position. Before now it was Speaker or Deputy Speaker. I am the only deputy governor to have emerged from Oro nation and that was 27 years ago. I will at the appropriate time beg Akwa Ibom people to return to the tripod. The tripod should be negotiated in such a way that the majority may take more terms in governance but at least others will get even a term to give everybody a sense of belonging. What I mean is that the Ibibios for instance may get 12 years and no matter how they want to spread it out, it is left for them. The Annangs get eight years while the Oron man gets four or six years. Whatever that is agreed upon, the most important is to give everybody a sense of belonging. That was the idea we sowed during our time.

What level of co-operation or support is Oro nation enjoying from oil firms operating there and has government given your area adequate recognition as an oil producing community?

I spent 18 years in AGIP before coming out and can tell you that any community in which oil firms are drilling from their land or waters can make any demand. However, most oil companies operating are not even paying their taxes. We need an organisation which will be advising the government on oil development matters in the state. We have such organisations in other states but it all depends on what government wants to make out of that sector. Maybe they are satisfied with just the 13% derivation but there should be other things like ensuring that the firms give employment slots and considerations to indigenes of their operational base. It will not be a good idea for firms operating in a particular community to contract out even menial jobs which the immediate community members can do to support themselves. The entire scenario depends on government. For the places we operated when I was with the AGIP, I know the things we did to please the people of the various communities. But the firms are not even doing such things here.

Can you take a holistic view of the Governor Emmanuel Administration in the state? Are you impressed with the strides?

I am one of those who will not tell you when you are writing exams that you have passed; that is praise-singing. I will only advise the government of today that they are writing their exams and one day their script will be marked and that will be done at the expiration of their tenure when the praise-signers are gone. So mine is more of advice which is for government to be alive to her responsibilities and shun sycophants as they will all melt away when the verdict of their tenure will be scored in the public domain.
If I cite an example of what the government is not doing well now, I will get a reply that it is in the pipeline and the next will be that I am criticizing the administration but what is clear is that at the end, there will be stock taking followed by the verdict.

In essence, you don’t want to go into details?
I don’t want to go into details because if you talk about deplorable roads, you will hear that contracts have been awarded but I will advise that road projects should be awarded to qualified and competent firms. A road like the one leading to Okopedi in Okobo Local Government Area is grappling with the third contractor in a stretch, so all is not well. As a civil engineer, I have my reservations on the capacity of even the third contractor to execute that job well. When I was deputy governor to late Akpan Isemin, whenever my advice was sought on matters relating to this, I do advise that if we are building a house and supporters needed to supply cement and sand etc, they should be given but if it is road project, competence not friendship should be the priority. But that appears not applicable on that road leading to Oron and that is why we are having this problem now. The man working there is the third contractor on the same road. You can imagine how much would have been spent for a very little job done there and that is why I said that one will be remembered for what he/she did after office. Therefore I will advise this government to ensure that only qualified and capable contractors are handling her road projects. Otherwise, they will just waste their resources.

Talking about the security situation in Akwa Ibom State, can you see an improvement from the past?

To be honest with you, what we have as a security situation here is better than what is obtainable in most states of the South-South geopolitical zone. Outside minor cult activities, it is not that bad at all compared to many states. In terms of security, Akwa Ibom State is doing well; people move freely without molestation or being killed. The state is secure.

As a former ambassador, do you think that the manner the Federal Government handled the xenophobic attack on Nigerians by South Africans is satisfactory?

I will not support or condemn the federal government on this matter. Sadly, a lot of Nigerians abroad are very mischievous. I know what I passed through as Nigeria’s ambassador to Italy with Nigerians. When you go to a country, there are laws you must keep but most of us disobey these laws. I know that South Africans too have no right to take laws into their hands but as you make your bed so you lie down on it. Lots of Nigerians are not law abiding. Let the blame start from within ourselves. Some go there selling drugs and some go for prostitution. I was ambassador to Italy and I know what I passed through there in terms of human trafficking and prostitution. I witnessed lawlessness; people going for armed robbery. When you engage in these things, the repercussion comes. But it is not proper for South Africans to take laws into their hands. Like I said earlier, I pity Nigeria because I had a terrible experience in Italy. I saw Nigerians indulge in armed robbery, human trafficking and prostitution. When you hear that Nigerians are repatriated from Egypt and Libya, they are merely on transit to Italy and Spain, mainly Italy. So when you take laws into your hand, some people may be forced to give it back to you same way. Nigerians travelling abroad must learn to be law abiding. Take note that I said it is improper for South Africans to take laws into their hands but if lots of Nigerians have been law abiding, most of these things would not have happened. I am talking from my experience as Nigeria’s ambassador to Italy. I started deporting Nigerians from Italy back home during my time. I consulted the then president and he asked me to do so immediately. He even asked if I needed an aircraft but I said no, that the Italian government has offered me an aircraft and that was how I started sending dubious Nigerians back to the country. A big man confronted me and asked if I was working for the Italian or Nigerian government and I told them to be careful because I am working on the directives of Mr. President.

The assignment in Italy must have been a challenging one for you?

Yes I stepped on people’s toes to succeed as Nigeria’s ambassador to Italy. Could you believe that a woman approached me right in the Nigerian Embassy with her two daughters complaining that while her elderly daughter was co-operating with their prostitution business, the younger one has refused to co-operate and to my utter shock said that I should now talk to the junior one to start co-operating for them to succeed? What I did was to quietly call the Ministry of Foreign affairs to intimate them and arrange security and on their way out, they were arrested and deported to Nigeria. It is so sad that some came to Italy for robbery. We had cases of old Italian men, some above 80 years, who usually sit out in the evenings to play draught, drink tea and coffee, being robbed of their belongings by Nigerians and we reported such incidents to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before now in South Africa, they had not been driving away Nigerians so, why now? Maybe they have done what they shouldn’t do.

The presidency still cites past administrations as the reason for hardship in the country after 5 years. Do you believe such excuses?

I think it is laughable for a government that spends over four years to ever advance such excuses for non performance. A government that governs for four years should be able to put certain things right. They should invite capable Nigerians to help fix the country. In Akwa Ibom State today, there is no federal presence; you can’t even go to Calabar from here. The same applies to going to Aba, Abia State -no access road till date- and yet we are oil producers. The minister and our National Assembly members should, as a matter of urgency, tell the people of Akwa Ibom what they have for them from this federal government.

Recently, the federal government called for forensic audit of the Niger Delta Developing Commission (NDDC) after petitions from Nigerians who believe that the agency has not lived up to expectation since its establishment. What is your take?

For government to go into the issue of forensic audit means they may have gotten security report to warrant it. So if the federal government that created the commission decides to know how funds sent to them were utilized, they should be encouraged to do so.

As a stakeholder in Oro nation, is it proper for the president general to take up appointment as Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the governor, and for those criticising her for taking the appointment, is it proper too?

If you are in government and take a position or carry out any action, don’t think you will have support of everybody. Only ensure you are doing the right thing while sooner or later your critics will see reasons for your action. The governor has the right to appoint anybody as SSA and commissioners so far it is spread across the state.
For Oron Union, we have had president -generals who were working. The one the incumbent took over from was working too. If you go though our records, most of our president generals were working while serving as president general, so why should we waste our time on such a matter? If she can cope with both jobs, it is okay. Concerns should only come up if the new appointment derails her from doing her job as president- general. The criticisms are too early and unnecessary. I have already congratulated her and believe that the appointment may even help her to perform better because for certain things she may want to do in Oro, she would have easy access to the governor if it requires his attention.
I am speaking as an elder. Most young people are impatient. Let us support her to succeed.

Recently you have been appointed the leader of Oro Elders Forum. What do you hope to achieve with the new appointment?

Some time ago, people approached me and told me to provide leadership for them as a political and opinion leader. I accepted and have been carrying people along in this assignment. One of our major challenges presently is the problems of Council of Oro Traditional Rulers (COTR) which I have tried my best to mediate. When the Ahta Oro was alive, he sat down with me and formed the executives of COTR and both of us endorsed it. But the paper was discarded, I still have my copy in my file.
We have had several meetings to resolve the problem involving the COTR though several meetings to no avail. At a point, I pleaded with the paramount rulers to meet with clan heads and village heads to find solutions yet the problem persists. So I discovered that people allow personal interest to override the community interest.

With the demise of Ahta Oro recently, do you see a solution to the matter soon?

It would have been sorted out if the people involved were realistic. Some of the demands people make are not realistic. In the past when they are meeting, it is Ahta in council but today there is no Ahta Oro. Is it proper for the COTR to have a chairman or president presiding over it when we have five paramount rulers in Oro nation? That is where I differ and lots of rights thinking Oro people are in the same position with me. The late Ahta Oro told me how he felt going for a meeting in Akwa Ibom and his brothers will bypass him without greeting him. He asked if we must continue this way. I have tried severally to bring them together but some people are still opposing the right thing. Please Clan Head, one day you will be a paramount ruler, then will you sit down as a paramount ruler and allow a clan head to preside over a meeting. Even if you are a title holder as a clan head, you are not a paramount ruler. COTR is not council of Oro title holders. So they should allow COTR to function and that is my position for which some people are criticising me today.

Have you asked for government intervention through the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs?

I wouldn’t like us to bring in the government. Paramount rulers and clan heads belong to each council area but what we have as Oro belongs to us. My desire to bring everybody to live together in peace is not acceptable to some people yet. That I said it is not proper for a clan head to lead COTR that is made up of five paramount rulers is the offence I have committed. But I will stand by the truth.

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