Senator Christopher Ekpenyong is currently representing Ikot Ekpene Senatorial district of Akwa Ibom state on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, after defeating Senator Godswill Akpabio of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2019 elections.
He served as deputy governor during Obong Victor Attah’s administration. In this interview, he bares his mind on the agitations for self determination by some sections in the country. He also spoke about the chances of the Peoples Democratic Party, to reclaim power at the centre following failed promises of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC.
How do you assess various agitations for self determination by IPOB and Odua Peoples Congress?
I don’t know what happened this morning, I prayed to God to strengthen our unity. I believe in unity in diversity. No tribe in Nigeria is so self sufficient. God blessed every part of this country with both human and natural resources. The North with its vast landmass produces potatoes, onions, Gold, Tin ore, tomatoes, and many others.
Bitumen, Cocoa are found in the West and from South East down to the South South, we have oil palm, coal, limestone, and the mighty crude oil which is the only thing that is keeping Nigeria one today. So for me, if Oduduwa and Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) are saying they want to secede, I am waiting for them to take the first step, then we will follow after them.
We are marginalised, humiliated, oppressed, yes, but let us try not to make the mistake of the past. I saw the civil war even though I was very young. Those boys that are agitating for war today have not seen war. I believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with Nigeria, but our diversity can work if we do the right thing.
Unfortunately, you see one part of the nation oppressing the rest. Today all security apparatus are headed by one tribe, which has never happened in the history of Nigeria. We have over 250 tribes in Nigeria, and why can’t we interact with each other, coexist, why can’t we respect every group, instead of one ethnic group oppressing others. I was six years old when Nigeria had its independence and after 60 years I am still crying about the marginalisation, subjugation, denial of rights, oppression of people of my area, the then eastern region. So, I wouldn’t say no to Oduduwa, I wouldn’t say no to IPOB because it could be they feel that their people have been pushed to the wall for too long.
In your own opinion, how has Nigeria fared generally since 1960?
Since 1960 we have made tremendous improvement in some areas. The airports that are available today were not there. Most of the Universities that we have today were not there. I think what we were able to build was University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN, then Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria ABU, University of Ibadan.
So, most of what we have today is a product of our independence. However, the decayed infrastructural facilities are worrisome and with our massive wealth, most of our roads are still in bad condition, particularly in the South South, South East. Since the civil war that ended in 1970, we are still not seen as part and parcel of Nigeria.
We are marginalised, humiliated, that is the way I look at it. But as an independent nation we’ve tried to grow. We would have made mistakes, yes, but we have tried to correct our mistakes. As a result of our mistakes, there was a civil war between 1967 to 1970. And if not for many years the military was in power, I think we would have fared better today. Even after they handed it over to the civilian government in 1979, they still came back in 1983. We were regions, doing well too and the military came and balkanized the country, they created States. Even the states they created, there was inequality because you see one ethnic group having more states than the rest. Annang where I come from was a province. If they had wanted to do justice in the creation of states, they would have turned every province into a state.
So, I believe Nigeria would have fared better today if there were no military interruptions. And after 60 years our political system has not changed for the better. Unlike in those days of old, most leaders we have today are people who represent their personal, selfish interests. The COVID-19 pandemic has so exposed a lot regarding our health sector. If not for God, this one they said they are doing testing, how many testing centers do we have in each of the local government areas?
How will you assess the leadership of the APC government so far?
To state the fact, this administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari came on board in 2015, so Buhari has spent about five years now. Let me remind you, when he was campaigning ahead of the 2015 general election, he promised that he would solve the myriads of problems of Nigeria, ranging from security to economic problems in six months if elected. They said Boko Haram would be a thing of the past because they had the theory and the strategy. So we said, ah! a magician is coming to make a difference.
Our thinking then was that probably the exchange rate that was N160 to a dollar at the black market would reduce, because of what he did in 1985 as a military head of state, by ensuring that the exchange rate then was nearly one naira to a dollar. Some of us also thought that our debt profile was going to be reduced because as a head of State, Buhari brought the concept and theory of bartering which at that time helped in the payment of the debts Nigeria was owing using proceeds from oil, which is our common wealth. So we thought that same magic would be done too so that Nigeria would be debt free.
But the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed is telling us a different story today. For goodness sake, today it is almost five hundred naira (N500,00) to a dollar. We were told that food would be sufficient. In fact, I also thought that by now the security forces; the Army, Police would have been properly equipped and well paid to ensure the security of the country against kidnapping, insurgency, banditry. In the 1980’s we didn’t hear of banditry in this country until recently. They promised us steady power supply, but the epileptic power problem is still there today.
And today this government has gone to sign an agreement with the Siemen company, the same German company brought into this country by late M.K.O Abiola to handle our communication system that almost ruined Nigeria. Our communication system would have stagnated if Siemen was still around today. I can’t even understand why people would go and bring back Siemen to come and handle our power system, when other companies are there.
And the main problem of power in this country is not generation but transmission. For me, unless the Federal government hands off the control of electricity completely, there will be no improvement. In spite of their failure to fix things you still hear some people sometimes saying if you are in APC, you are a saint.
Most of them that are in APC today were in PDP yesterday. So how can you now say the party that offered you a platform to serve is now a filthy party? Amaechi was in PDP. He came all the way from Ghana and was installed as governor of Rivers State, and he served for eight years on the platform of PDP. Because he is now in APC he is a saint, when was he washed and canonized a saint? The same applies to the man I defeated, Godswill Akpabio, when he was in PDP, he ate, drank PDP. Immediately after he went to the APC he became a saint.
This is the problem we have in Nigeria. So, I get worried that things have not changed that much. This is a failed government. Under this administration, there is problem of lopsided policy in terms of appointments, employment, the insecurity has worsened. They even promised that they are taking us to the next level, is being killed on daily basis all about taking them to the next level?
With the alleged failure of APC to fulfill its promises to Nigerians, do you see chances of your party, the PDP returning to power in 2023?
We have enormous chances. In fact my prayer is that God should open the eyes of Nigerians to what is happening today. I am happy that Edo people voted wisely and put Adams Oshiomhole to shame. When he (Oshiomole) was a governor he was shouting against Godfatherism and today he wants to be the political Godfather of Edo State. And for me the Edo election showed that Nigeria is unhappy with the APC government.
But you will see some of their leaders going to the television, radio to say “we are doing well.” How are they doing well when in their states there are no good roads, nothing? They are doing well and they cannot pay workers salaries, they are doing well and they cannot pay pensioners. If Nigerians want to survive, absolutely there should be a change of power. So the only way Nigerians can come out of this prison the APC government put them is to vote them out in 2023 like we witnessed in Edo State.
How will you react to alleged inability of the 9th Senate to challenge the executive on some issues such as incessant borrowing which has made the legislature to be seen as a rubber stamp?
I am from the opposition party (PDP). And we were about 44 PDP senators until we recorded few deaths recently. I want you to know that the senate is made up of people of integrity. The senate is where you will find people of noble professions, people that have held different positions of authority in the society before they came to the Senate. So, we are not rubber stamp. We don’t support anything that is not in the best interest of Nigeria. The fact that we don’t call for impeachment of the president doesn’t mean that we are rubber stamp.
We, in the opposition minority try to encourage the majority to ensure that the promises they had made to Nigerians such as the issue of security are realised. For instance, when they bring a bill that probably seeks an increase in the revenue for the Army, or Nigeria Police Force, or any of the armed forces, rationally we should support it.
But then we have to do oversighting to know to what extent the new resources you are looking for will help to check the menace of insecurity, the insurgency in North East, the kidnappings, the banditry in the north west, the militancy in the Niger Delta, no rational senator will say he will not support such a bill. So supporting such a bill doesn’t mean that we are weak or rubber stamp, no, we are not.
Also if the executive through the President brings a request that he wants to borrow money and shows that the money is not going to be used for aggrandisement but to provide infrastructure, what we now do is look at it to see if the infrastructural development they want to carry out that the Federal character principle is reflected. That is why sometimes you see people saying South East, South South is not accommodated, why is it so? Of course the majority will have their way, but the minority will have their say. So it is all about politics of rationality, and wanting the nation to get out of the present condition of infrastructural deficit.
And even sometimes when we the minority say this loan you are requesting for should not be collected because what you said it will be used for is not well defined, and the majority APC will say, don’t mind them, when their party was in power they were also collecting loans, and they never told us what they used it for. People look at it as a kind of weakness, that we are rubber stamp because we are not carrying guns, we are not abusing the president. Senators are people of integrity.
As a prominent stakeholder in the Niger Delta region, how will you react to Governor Udom Emmanuel’s request to the Minister of state for Petroleum to ask ExxonMobil to relocate its headquarters to Akwa Ibom?
I was a deputy governor of this state for six years, one month and five days and we started the fight for the relocation of ExxonMobil to Akwa Ibom then, but we did not succeed. What we did was to go back to the drawing board with Governor Victor Attah demanding promotion of our indigenes in ExxonMobil, and that was why Udom Inoyo became a beneficiary of that struggle, and of my write up too. As a deputy governor I was writing, using some national newspapers.
At a stage I found out that we were fighting a lost battle, because the location of the administrative office of ExxonMobil was based on politics. And most of the major shareholders of ExxonMobil are our brothers of the West, let us state the fact. The then governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu worked there, he was a treasurer of ExxonMobil. My suggestion then as deputy governor to my governor, Victor Attah was “let us not fight a battle that we will not win, but we should ask for the relocation of the Oil Servicing companies”; that is probably why you can find some of them (servicing companies) in Eket today. In 2001 there were about 150 oil servicing companies.
Aside that I asked my governor to tell ExxonMobil, that as a matter of commitment, they must also employ indigenes of Akwa Ibom state. Also, we said we could look at our children who were competent and send them abroad to further their studies so that when they came back ExxonMobil could employ them.
So the governor should not beg, he should exercise his authority as a governor of the state. The land which ExxonMobil is drilling is Akwa Ibom land and as a governor, you can decide to withdraw their C of O. Why is he begging them? However I commend my governor for the 21-storey building which provides good ambience for the oil company to relocate some of their administrative offices to the state, so that they will no longer have an excuse of not having office accommodation.
Do you support the argument in some circles that the next governor can come from any of the senatorial districts after Governor Udom Emmanuel must have completed his tenure in 2023 ?
We have a political platform and our party is yet to tell us what it is planning for 2023. But if the party decides to throw the governorship position open, I will contest because I have everything to my advantage to contest. And I assure you that I will make one of the best governors. I will run an inclusive government. I will deliver. What will I be looking for now at my age except to give my people good governance.
What is your take on the removal of fuel subsidy by the government?
My take on subsidy removal is simple. I am appealing to Nigerians to allow subsidies on petrol products to be removed. If we don’t remove the subsidy, it means that we will continue to have an increase in the pump price of Premium Motor Spirit, that is fuel.
But from my own understanding if subsidy is removed our refineries would be made to start working again. I believe the effect of the subsidy removal will only last for a while, people will survive because when more refineries are established in the country and they start refining here, the product will be available and the pump price will go down. Some of our leaders even in the Senate are against removal of subsidy because they are benefitting from subsidy.
I have come to see that it is not the common man on the street who is enjoying subsidy. And so my appeal is that Nigerians should not allow the money or the benefit from subsidy to continue to be in the hands of a few rich individuals in this country. Some of us are not in the All Progressives Congress party but we are progressive thinkers. Nothing good comes without suffering.