Barr. Mfon Ben is a vibrant legal practitioner, politician and social crusader. A former chairman of Uyo Local Government Area, Mfon Ben in this exclusive interview with Crystal Express speaks on issues bothering on Nigeria, Niger Delta region and Akwa Ibom State among other salient matters. Excepts
Let us meet
I am Barr. Mfon Ben, a beneficiary of life by the grace of God. Born in Nigeria, I am an indigene of Uyo Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. I started my early education in Lagos and later continued my secondary school in Holy Family College, Abak. Thereafter, I attended the now defunct Cross River State University which is today the University of Uyo and then to the University of Benin for my first degree in Law. I have been in active practice in the last 28 years and presently involved in politics and social advocacy. I have been involved in Boys Scout and most recently in Boys Brigade. So I have that social service consciousness. I was elected to serve humanity, grow in spirit and look at the society from the perspective of what we can contribute to uplift it. We need to play our roles in life because we have a short time on earth.
You mentioned that you are a politician and we knew you once served as chairman, Uyo Local Government Area. What value did you add in your era?
I will start by thanking God and Governor Udom Emmanuel who gave me the opportunity to serve and Uyo people whose mandate I held then as their chairman. Chairmanship in the council is a mandate either by election, appointment or any other form. It is a mandate that defines an interest within a defined area known as local government which a chairman is part of.
In that regard within the section of the constitution, the office of the chairman of local government promotes the rural community relationship, government intervention agency and the ability to meet the core objectives of governance. That I understood because I believe I was trained early enough for public office. From the background I came from, my father was a public servant. He served Nigeria and I grew up in a public service-related family.
I went to very strict schools and it was one of the factors that assisted me when I took over public office. In the area of how I added value to governance; I first identified what I wanted to do in office, one of which was identity.
Before I went to the local government council, it was very difficult to identify where the council was sited. To describe where Uyo Council is, one has to mention ‘A’ Division of the Nigeria Police or the State High Court to give direction. So the first thing I did was to give the council secretariat an identity. I did the entrance arch from the Barracks Road with the water fountain on one side with the four figures of elder statesmen representing the four clans of Uyo. On the Uyo Village Road side, we did a different entrance arch altogether and that gives clear indication no matter the road you are using around there to know the Uyo Secretariat. Secondly, when I was the chairman, Uyo was at the bottom of revenue indices. But by the time I left as chairman the council was at the top.
To beef up Uyo’s revenues we explored the following four factors: One, the number of social services we are providing like markets. The number of markets you have affects the amount of revenue allocated to you. From the one market people always think we had in Uyo, I proved to them we have about 50 markets. I took them around all the local markets we had in Uyo and they were surprised. In Uyo municipality alone we have over 10 markets.
Every village in Uyo has a market. Another factor to increase revenue, they said, is bed space and they calculate bed space in Uyo for only the health centre but I took them around and showed them about 15 health centres in Uyo. Obio Offot has a health centre, among others, and they all have bed spaces and when you calculate the bed spaces in all the health points, they grow to more than thousands and these are areas government considers in allocating higher revenue because they are doing social services. I am saying it today for other local government areas to learn how to increase their revenue index from the funds that come from federal allocation.
Among the indices for enhanced revenue is solid minerals and I took them round and showed them samples of solid minerals we have. I showed them that Uyo has oil minerals in Etoi, in Ikono Uyo and other parts of Uyo. When the team that came from Abuja returned, there was difference in our revenue. For instance what was in their old record is that Uyo has just one health centre and that was 1950’s record which was wrong as successive chairmen of Uyo had built many health centres. Again, anytime you bring a national programme relating to health, Uyo is the first point of contact and this puts Uyo in a vantage position to implement so many international pilot schemes which are factors in economic development not captured in revenue mobilization.
But my administration ensured they were all captured. I also created a more friendly administration between the state government and Uyo Local Government which is a basic element of growth. Once a chairman or the council is in friendly terms with the state government, you achieve more because you make the state understand you are collaborating and not competing with it. One of the advantages is that the state will oblige you when you go ask for anything from well-informed viewpoint. When I was the chairman, people told me that the park belongsed to the state government which I refused to accept. I wrote a memo to the state government explaining the circumstances of Uyo owning the park. Uyo had existed during the colonial era and was there in pre-independence time as a province or provincial headquarters. Uyo was there as a council headquarters under local government creation of 1976 till 1987 when Akwa Ibom State was created. Therefore the state cannot own something the council already had. The governor being a nice and understanding leader asked that the park be relinquished to Uyo Local Government and that shows the element of understanding between both governments in areas of interest. So it is also good for one to know one’s right and how to put it in proper perspective. Some of these are the values I added to the council in my era as the chairman. I also want you to note that there were lots of things I did that I don’t count as achievements; like meeting a council that lacked water and ensuring free flow of potable water.
I see such things as responsibilities of a chairman and not an achievement. For about 11 years before I became the chairman of Uyo, you could hardly pass from one village to the other one in my community. It was that difficult that when I became chairman, I decided I must do the road. I approached the then commissioner for works, Mr. Ephraim Inyang-Eyen, now chief of staff and explained to him.
He quickly intervened with heavy-duty equipment and job started. However, after some days, the rains at the time worsened the situation of flood at IBB Avenue and the equipment was withdrawn to contend the IBB flood situation. I called people with technical knowhow and we agreed to do the remaining part of the job with a little above N4 million and we were able to grade the road and compact it enough that three years after I left office, the road is still motorable; but was same road our people could not use for 11 good years.
Most of the roads in the rural areas that were not motorable, we were able to compact them and luckily when the governor’s wife came to commission the children’s church I built in my village, she took same road and I believe this administration will take interest in that road as it is the only road linking the entire Ikono Uyo as a clan.
Fortunately, all the other clans have good access roads. Of all the Ibibio nationalities of Nsit Iman Ibom and Ikono Ibom, Ikono is the only place within the nationality that doesn’t have any place leading to their home. Ikono clan has 18 villages jointly on one straight line and there is no road connecting them. We had gone on inspection of the area with the then commissioner for works, Mr. Inyang-Eyen, and the governor too is aware of our plight. I knew the governor promised our late paramount ruler during his first term campaign that he would give us that road.
Your tenure was limited to a little above one year and perhaps you would have done more if you had more time like other elected chairmen. Any regrets?
Government is relatively time-bound whether one month, one year or three years. The problem with transition committee is that you are not sure of your tenure so you cannot plan ahead. When you have a tenure revolving around six-six months, you cannot plan beyond that. The tenure of that administration was one year but we stayed for one year and five months before the inauguration of the incumbent administration. I recall that when we came in, we were confronted by debts of the previous administration which we had to pay and technically speaking in the one year and five months we stayed, I had only two allocations without any constraints.
Those two months were the ones we used to do the funeral services of the late paramount ruler and we left one month for the incoming administration to have some funds to take off. I don’t have regrets but I will advise that a project like an assault response centre be built where people could lay complaints when they are victimized. With the increase in population of people in Uyo, anybody who has issues relating to assault, rape, gender-based violence can report immediately; the reason being that most of such cases fail in court because of the time between incidence and report. When we have an assault response centre, it means you can report immediately it happens and medical report can be issued and that gives you a good background for investigation and to get the culprit immediately. The assault response centre which will have both the medics and police personnel is very necessary now in Uyo. That is one area I was working towards, but could not achieve because of timeframe.
Akwa Ibom recently celebrated her 33 years of statehood and in your opinion, do you think the state has fared well 33 years after creation?
Beyond just an opinion to the scope of my knowledge, I will put it clearly that between 1987 and today, the state has consciously developed because of the quality of leadership God has blessed us with. From the era of Tunde Ogbeha and the infrastructure he met on ground till date, it is a story of progress. Uyo Local Government Council played a major role in hosting and handing over council structures for the assumption of state administration by Tunde Ogbeha. Late Obong Aniefiok Uwah was the chairman of Uyo who handed over the structures of the council used as government house to Ogbeha. Creating Akwa Ibom out of the old Cross River State was a kind of liberation for self-expression and ever since we were handed our own state, we have thrived and surpassed so many states created before us. I can also sincerely say that we have superseded Cross River State in every area of development. What I used to see in Calabar in the 70’s are still what is there but today new infrastructure are emerging in our state on a daily basis.
Nigeria at 60 is plagued with crises and calls for either restructuring or succession by component parts. What is your take on the nation at 60?
When history meets up with reality, it questions philosophy because philosophy tends to tell you about the future. As young people, we had believed that the military would never at any point in time come back to rule Nigeria after 1979 but our lecturer, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, said the military will never leave power after tasting it. He was candid about it and said the worst they can do is to change from their Khaki to agbada and continue ruling Nigeria. We laughed over it but that is the reality today. We have had three military generals that came out to rule Nigeria as democratically elected presidents. The military rule changed the psyche of Nigerians, especially after the killing of Dele Giwa, and the fear of death cowed most Nigerians. The people, though afraid and intimidated, are today expressing their opinions from collective groups since they are too afraid to individually speak out. The various ethnic nationalities in Nigeria now have their groups through which they collectively speak out.
The few who individually speak out are being reprimanded or condemned. So many things in Nigeria including vibrant leadership are dead. What we see today in the Niger Delta region is that we have been made the victim of Nigeria. The blessing we had in form of our oil is becoming our problem. If the Igbo people had carved out their Biafran enclave without including South-South states, there would have been no civil war. If the Hausa Fulani man had wanted the Igbo man to go with the oil-filled region of South South, there would have been no civil war. While the North was struggling for the oil, the Igbo was also struggling for the same oil and their interest is having the oil-rich region of the country which is what fuelled the war. So when they tinker with what they want in Nigeria today, the question remains, in whose interest and benefit, do they even consider the goose that lays the golden eggs? Those asking for separation, what is it for? Perhaps separate to control the oil in Niger Delta? The truth is that the Hausa/Fulani man will want the Niger Delta tied to his apron strings.
The Igbo man will say that he is part of the Niger Delta while the Yoruba man will sit in the middle and enjoy the benefits of the struggle and fight between the North and the East. During the Biafran War, Obafemi Awolowo emerged finance minister of Nigeria. I want you to know that the last Biafran War had major casualties down South-South which affected up to my village and we were the major victims of the war. No bomb was thrown anywhere in the North. Therefore any form of restructuring of Nigeria should go back to pre-1960 Independence Constitution. The minorities asked for independence but the majority said ‘no, when we get there we will define the terms’ and till date the terms of the minorities are yet to be defined. So when talking of restructuring, it must be one containing every point of view on people’s choices and preferences. There is agitation everywhere now. Even Uyo where I come from is not happy with the recent creation of wards that never included them. There are injustices everywhere so there is need to put a framework for collective justice administration. It must be the universally accepted justice, not one man’s definition of justice. We have conflict of interest everywhere in Nigeria; there is need for dialogue. Nigeria got independence to liberate herself from colonial rule and then again joined the Commonwealth under the leadership of the same leader of Commonwealth, the Queen of England for further enslavement; the major reason being that we have refused to grow our economy. We became dependent again on them economically. We have great natural and human resources but are greatly underutilized.
That is why I do commend the leadership style of Governor Udom Emmanuel in Akwa Ibom for his futuristic ideas and plans for the state. The governor’s public-private-partnership (PPP) approach to the industrialization of the state is the best model. The industries in the state started within the capacity they have and will expand from it to greater heights.
How do we address these agitations across the country?
We have had about three constitutional conferences with all geared towards addressing Nigeria’s problems. But the last one by former President Jonathan was near to addressing the issues but truncated. I will keep saying that politically motivated restructuring of Nigeria will not solve the problem. We must have the position of the people reflected not just in the Constitution but in our way of life.
The people must be consulted by their representatives to galvanize their opinions in order to reflect the wishes on any restructuring agenda. The politically motivated one will only throw up the views or thinking of few elite. We need to go back to inputs from our communities. Everybody has a say and contribution to make towards making the country work, not only the opinions and views of those in public office. We need a collective input of every Nigerian. At the end, all we need is a structure that will put Nigeria in peace not in pieces.
Nigeria gave Niger Deltans the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) and later the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) all for her development. Do you think it is enough for immense contribution to the country’s development?
I like the statement ‘Nigeria gave Niger Delta’ these things and that is the problem we have. Nigeria giving to Niger Delta? That is you are giving to a man what belongs to him. Why must you give me what I have? The truth is that Nigeria should not be giving to Niger Delta but Niger Delta must own their resources.
Niger Delta doesn’t need trustees anymore. They need ownership rights and till the rest of Nigerians remove this trustee element, they are enslaving us. They gave us OMPADEC and utilized it to their benefits. They gave us NDDC and utilized it to their benefits. They are the people who decide what goes to the NDDC at the National Assembly, meaning that I only get what you approve for me, getting only 2.5 per cent of her natural resources back is nothing but a Greek gift and that Greek gift should stop with my generation and not to be transferred to my future generation. We don’t need gifts anymore in Niger Delta but partnership or ownership of our resources. It won’t be a bad idea if the international oil companies go into partnership with multinational oil firms. Operating here it could be 20 per cent to Niger Delta, 30 per cent to oil firms and 50 per cent to the centre and we manage our own 20 per cent in the way and manner we want it. We don’t need them to manage for us again.
Akwa Ibom contributes over 30 per cent of her resources to Nigeria without any tangible federal presence in form of any infrastructure. What is your take?
Frankly, as someone with a fair knowledge of governance, I will tell you that in government you fight for what you need. We once had a minister for works from here who told us that if you told them at the Federal Executive Council meeting that your roads are bad, they would tell you that yours was even better and that they were interested in opening up roads for those without anyone at all. Before the independence or a little thereafter we had one straight single road that came from Lagos through Benin, Onitsha to Oron in Akwa Ibom State. That was the only road we had. Then there was no Calabar-Itu Highway; so you must get to Oron to go to Calabar through water. However, as other roads expanded in the country thereafter, the road from Lagos to Oron has refused to expand. Lagos today has expanded such that Epe and Badagry hitherto rural areas are now big cities courtesy of Federal Government’s assistance. Most of the big projects in Lagos today are done by the Federal Government. The same thing however cannot be said of Akwa Ibom. The state however has recorded modest achievements via its own efforts.
The administration of Obong Victor Attah recorded immense achievements in opening urban roads with urban renewal funds from the World Bank. Attah needs to be recommended for his immense efforts in modest opening of urban roads in this state, with the building of the Ibom Plaza and construction of Nwaniba water trough. He turned the rural setting in Uyo to an urban city. Chief Godswill Akpabio came and expanded Uyo roads to Ikot Ekpene and Abak council areas. He did some expansion of roads to Ibesikpo including Idoro Road. One of the most commendable one is the Abak to Ikot Ekpene Road which was abandoned for years. Therefore he did well in intercity links. Today in Governor Emmanuel’s administration the road linkages started by Akpabio are now being taken to Eket.
The federal presence in our state is very little. What we see is what the state government is doing. However, you will hear that whatever the state is doing, the Federal Government will refund and that is difficult to get. The state is constrained into using her resources in doing most of those things. Governor Emmanuel has also done lots of road projects across local government areas with Eket and its environs as major beneficiaries. The incumbent administration has also done a great job by tarring many urban roads in Uyo metropolis more than any other government before it. All the roads around Wellington Bassey Way and those around Mbiabong Etoi, Osongama and many others are tarred. Thus in terms of infrastructural development, Governor Emmanuel has done very well putting into consideration the number of commissioned projects and the ongoing ones.
Governance is beyond the infrastructure to their impact on the economy and the environment. The governor who is a reputable banker has applied very well the resources of the state to give her the very best in the present dispensation. The governor has prepared Akwa Ibom for the future. His managerial expertise came to fore again during the Covid-19 pandemic in which he applied the resources well with the state recording the least impact of the dreaded disease. He thinks beyond the immediate to the future for the benefit of the people of Akwa Ibom State.
As a former council chairman, could you address the issues surrounding the Joint Allocation Committee (JAC) which some people see as an oppressive instrument the state uses against local government councils?
It is a great misconception on the part of the people. You need to be an insider to understand better. Today the state government is paying salaries of all workers at all levels, from local government areas to the state. When you look at the number of nurses and the wage bill in Uyo alone, and where the chairman fails to pay one month salary to them which is over 100 million and if that happens and council fails to pay for three months, then that administration will collapse. Governor Emmanuel came up with a model which ensures steady payment of salaries and also made payment of salaries a first line charge. You cannot do any other project when the first line of charge has not been met. If you don’t pay salaries, families will be dislocated, fees will not be paid and many people will go hungry. A lot of people plan with the hope of getting their monthly salary. The idea of owing workers salary is no longer an issue in Akwa Ibom; that era is gone. From the Federation Account, you have the state joint account and they are both creations of the law. You cannot disband JAC without disbanding the FAC. JAC simply tells you that for instance if you have N40million, N25million is for your salary directly and the balance goes to you. Again, like the issue of security in some areas which the council may not be able to contain, the state can get others to contribute to help stabilize the area through common agreement and that is why we have good security and peace in the state over the years. JAC is a good arrangement which is like telling the citizens to go to sleep while I go to work for you. The past challenging security problems witnessed in Ika, Ukanafun, Etim Ekpo local government areas may not have been overcome without joint action of other stakeholders in JAC.
You earlier mentioned that Uyo Local Government has oil and gas. Has the council been captured as an oil producing area?
Unfortunately no. Uyo is not yet gazetted as an oil and gas producing local government area. In my own village where I come from, we have over 30 corked oil wells presently. The gas pipeline going through Ukanafun to Calabar passed through my village. Uyo has corked oil gas wells. We also need to understand that not where you drill from that has the oil but where it is deposited. Oil can be drilled diagonally or horizontally. I discovered when I was in Southern Petroleum that the map of Ibagwa oil field includes my area but the general name is Ibagwa oil field because they use a land mass to capture an area.