National Assembly members acting like executive’s rubber stamp – Ibok Essien, PANDEF National Chairman

Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien, the National Chairman of Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) and former Deputy Chief Whip of Senate, shares with  his views on the lingering pollution of the Niger Delta region, self-determination agitations in the country and other issues.

Excerpts;

You have been in politics for a long time, what lessons have your experience in politics taught you?

I have been in politics as a youth leader and I developed interest since then. To me, politics is a vehicle for service to your people and your country. I did my best while I was in the Senate as I served my state and Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District to the best of my ability. I can beat my chest that I served my people well. There was this issue of 13 per cent derivation. When the government came in 1999, the funds were not being paid to the Niger Delta region and the other states. I was one of the frontliners that ensured that money was paid.

We went to the then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. He paid only 60 per cent of that money with the excuse that 40 per cent of the revenue from oil coming from offshore belong to the Federal Government. So, I had to join forces with my colleague to fight and ensure that the oil-bearing states got their right. I was one of those who said I would rather die than allow the Federal Government to take that money. We fought gallantly to achieve our aim. It was a very burning issue in the country at that time. So, that is the kind of thing I am talking about; going to serve your people. We made other very important laws that helped to put the Niger Delta region in the position we are. The Niger Delta Development Commission law came into effect in my time; and other laws which helped to shape the country in the direction of prosperity.

A former governor of your state (Akwa Ibom), Victor Attah, championed the campaign for resource control for the Niger Delta. Do you think this would have changed the fortunes of the region if such campaign was successful?

Yes, Victor Attah championed the fight for resource control and some other governors in the Niger Delta joined in the struggle. If the campaign had succeeded, this country would have been more developed than the way it is now. The resources would have gone to the states; some of it could have gone to the Federal Government and a large chunk of it could have gone to the states for the development of the states and the entire region.

PANDEF has always stood against the unending environmental pollution of the Niger Delta. What can be done for the region to enjoy an environment without pollution?

You have seen that the oil producing companies and the Federal Government should be making conscious effort towards achieving a clean environment, especially for the Niger Delta region. But what is happening is that there is no such effort. Up till now, they are still not showing seriousness about it. Every time, there is the fear of oil spill, which degrades the environment. So, the government should make conscious effort, strengthen the laws and carry out proper implementation to ensure that the environment is properly protected. This is because you will find out that the life expectancy of people in the Niger Delta region in terms of age is now 48 years; even the national average as of now is about 54. With this, you will realise that many lives in the Niger Delta are cut off very early, because of this environmental degradation caused by oil pollution.

You build a house in the Niger Delta region and before you know it, the aluminium roof is gone within two or three years. It has rusted because of the kind of pollution that is in the air. This is not ideal for an environment where people are living

But the laws are there to address this issue.

It is not that the laws are not there, but the will to enforce them is not there. Take a look at the Ogoni clean-up; if you look at the extent of the work that has been done since that contract was awarded, you may find out that it is not up to five per cent. So, this is the challenge we are having.

But you were the Deputy Chief Whip in the Senate at a point. What was your contribution towards ensuring that the pollution of the region by oil firms was stopped?

We made the laws and one of the laws we made imposed penalties on these oil companies that continuously pollute the region. But as I said, one thing is to make the law; another thing is to implement it. So, we made the laws during my time at the National Assembly. You will also notice that even the fines were not being paid by those that violated the laws because the agencies that were supposed to go after them would always complain that they were not empowered to do so.

Now that you are the National Chairman of PANDEF, are you still involved in partisan politics?

PANDEF is a non-political group; it is a socio-cultural political organisation. But as Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien, I’m still in politics. But I don’t use the platform of PANDEF to do so.

What is your view about the self-determination agitations in the country?

People want equality, justice and peace wherever they are. Where this is lacking like Nigeria with about 220 million people, there would be pockets of agitation here and there for self-determination because everybody feels that if he stands on his own, he will do better. Come to think of it, the kind of structure that we have currently where the ideals of federalism is not practised; it is only in words and not in action, everybody wants to be on their own and then contribute to the Federal Government. That is why in PANDEF, we are talking of true Federalism where Nigeria is restructured in way that the states contribute to the Federal Government. With that self-determination, there would be competitiveness in the way each state or region is developing because as a state, you develop at your own pace.

There are some states that are on speed lane, and they don’t want anything to slow them down for them to come to other people’s level. There is no country in the world that develops at the same pace. People should be allowed to use their resources for their development and then make contributions to the central government to help those who cannot cope. The current situation is what is causing these agitations. There is also the issue of injustice, imbalance in appointments. Take for instance the NNPC; if you go to the top hierarchy and management of NNPC, you will notice that even those who come from where they are producing the oil are not there at all.

When decisions are to be taken, there is nobody from the area to talk about what is affecting the area. If other people are taking decisions for you and you are not there, it is like they want to shave your head in your absence. This is not right at all.

Do you think the Federal Government should engage in a dialogue with the leaders of self-determination groups like Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho? 

The Federal Government does not have to go through those people; there are organisations like PANDEF, Afenifere, Ohanaeze, Arewa Consultative Forum. There are known regional structures that are made up of people who really care about this country. So, they should discuss with these people. The Federal Government can discuss with Igbo people. Then the governors and every structure, political organisations, the National and State Assemblies; the governors (in the South-East) should naturally come together and say this is what we want. We have done that before at the National Political Reform Conference in 2005; we did it again at the National Conference of 2014. All it takes is for the Federal Government to take these reports, bring a few leaders together and put a new structure in place for the country. This will help us.

On the 2014 National Conference, what do you think should be done?

A committee was set up led by Governor Nasir El-Rufai; it is for the Federal Government to bring everyone together, get all these reports together and then implement the recommendations.

The Federal Government plans to remove fuel subsidy next year and has proposed to pay N5,000 each to 40 million poor Nigerians, what do you make of that plan?

I don’t know who the economist that advised them is, but I think that decision is the worst thing that will happen to this country.

Why did you say so?

The truth is that with the removal of fuel subsidy, nobody will be able to control inflation any longer and everything will go haywire. The exchange rate has already gone haywire. I even wonder what those who will receive N5,000 each will do with the money when it cannot even buy the fuel. I don’t support that move. On the plan to remove fuel subsidy, this government came in on the premise that they would bring down the price of fuel further. Now, fuel that was N97 per is now N162 per litre. Diesel that was between N120 and N130 is now between N350 and N370. So, what are you talking about? Even the subsidy that was paid at that time, they are paying three times the subsidy now. So, what are we talking about? Who is fooling who? I think the present government should address issues for the best interest of Nigerians. I will not say paying N5,000 is stupid, but I will say it is the worst thing anybody can think of in this circumstance. Where in the world have you heard of such a thing?

The Nigerian government has continued to borrow to meet its financial obligations; what can be done to wriggle out of the current situation where borrowing has become the order of the day?

The unfortunate thing is that all of us in Nigeria are in for it. By the time you calculate how much they have borrowed and continued to borrow, every Nigerian is being mortgaged to somebody else; either China or wherever they are borrowing from.  If you look at the national budget, a substantial percentage of the budget is going into debt servicing and this is not even repaying the loan, it is the paying of the interest. It is very insensitive for anybody to continue to borrow. What are we borrowing for? Where is the infrastructure that you are borrowing for? Is it to build a railway to Niger Republic and not even your country? You are borrowing to build a railway to another country. What is the economic benefit of that country to Nigeria? It is the most unwise thing to do.

What then is way forward?

The present government has already determined what it wants to do and so the way forward is that we need to pray that we don’t have this type of government anymore in this country.

Insecurity has continued to unsettle some parts of the country. What can be done to solve this problem?

I think it is the entire country; it is everywhere in Nigeria. There is no place that is secure in Nigeria. It is government’s responsibility to secure the lives and property of its citizens. But now, it is so bad that people are scared of travelling from one place to another because of insecurity. The government should sit up and beef up the security of the country. There is no other way to do it. America secures its citizens and that is why if something happens to one American, you will see the entire United States of America coming to the person’s rescue as they did in Nigeria when an American was kidnapped.

What is your view on Nigeria’s removal from the religious violators’ list?

Nigeria is a multi-religious country and my view is that for Nigeria to be removed from the religious violators’ list, it means it is a message that there is freedom of religion in the country. Everywhere in the world, there is always one spot where they have issues. Though it will be good to completely eradicate religious intolerance, we appeal that since everybody wants to make heaven; whether Muslims or Christians, I think people should stop violence as far as religious things are concerned. People should respect the faith of others.

The National Assembly approved the conduct of direct primary for political parties to choose their candidates. Do you think this is good for democracy?

I think it is the best thing for democracy if direct primary is entrenched in the country. What we have been having for indirect primaries is something that looks like an appointment where two people agree and appoint somebody to be there. But for direct primary, every eligible party person contributes to the nomination of a candidate. In indirect primaries, somebody can just buy all the delegates, but in direct primaries, you can’t buy the delegates. You have to be popular and you have to let people know that you are coming to serve.

What is your view on vote-buying before and during elections?

It should not happen in any election. We have developed this democracy over the years. We have been there for 22 years. Vote-buying should not exist; it should be discouraged. People should vote according to their conscience and vote whoever they know will serve them well.

You won a seat in the Senate in 1999. Were you involved in vote-buying then?

There was no vote-buying as at that time. I won based on my popularity and I won 81 per cent of the votes in my senatorial district because everybody knew me and they knew what I stood for.

Some Nigerians see the current National Assembly as the executive’s rubber stamp; what is your take on this?

When something looks consistent in the way things are done, then the people are bound to believe that it is what is happening. The National Assembly is supposed to be an independent arm of government; it is the fulcrum on which democracy stands. But sorry to say, the way every bill that comes in gets passed shows that they behave like rubber stamp. This is not supposed to be so in the Assembly. The National Assembly members are supposed to speak the mind of their constituencies. But you find that many of the current legislators do not consult their constituencies on any issue. In my time, we usually held constituency briefing. For every bill, you come and present it to your people and take the opinion of the majority of the constituents. But that doesn’t happen these days.

How would describe the performance of President, Muhammadu Buhari within the past six and half years?

I think everybody agrees that everything is going very poor in the country. Insecurity, inflation, killings here and there; the exchange rate; it is not the type of government we wish for Nigeria. He could do better.

Do you think power should shift to the South after the current President’s tenure?

It is always the North and South factor, and the President, after spending eight years, I believe power should shift to the South.

But some people are saying power shift cannot be automatic and that the North can still vie and win? What is your take on this?

I think equity should be the answer. Since we began this in 1999, it has been between the North and the South. It is not constitutional, but it has come to be what the norm is. So, I still believe reason will prevail. After Buhari’s eight years, power should come to the South.

The NDDC forensic audit report has been submitted to the Federal Government, but it has not been made public, even when many, including Niger Delta stakeholders, have called for the document to be made public and indicted persons punished. What is your view on this?

It is just about two months or thereabouts since it (forensic audit) was submitted. Maybe the Federal Government is still studying the report. So, we expect there would be a White Paper on it. We believe it won’t be one of those reports that would be swept under the carpet. We believe and pray that the White Paper should come out. If somebody is indicted, he should appropriately be punished so that it will serve as a deterrent to others.

The rate of unemployment is high in the country. Many link it to the rise in crime. How can this be addressed?

In a country that is not productive, there will always be unemployment. Nigeria is a consuming country. We import even toothpick; we import everything. Local production is not encouraged. How would you borrow at an unfriendly interest rate? Which manufacturing company have you established? That is why you have a high level of unemployment. Everywhere you go, you see it, and that generates crime because somebody graduates and stays two to three years without a job, he will tell you that he has to survive, and the only way of survival is crime, one way or the other. So, the government has to make a deliberate policy to encourage production.

Everywhere in the world, it is production that drives the economy. You can’t be importing small things that we are supposed to produce in the country. Also, people find every means to get into politics. Government must ensure that its policies encourage production. The rate of unemployment in the country is alarming, and without government doing something in the short term, the crime rate will get worse.

There are moves for the creation of more development commissions like the NDDC in other regions. Do you think this is advisable considering the need to cut down on government spending?

Every region would want a development commission and if that would help the regions to develop, it’s okay. But I think it is not a development commission that would drive development; it is restructuring that will drive development. But in Nigeria, when something is done for one region, the other region wants the same thing done. At the end of the day, you will see that those monies meant for the development of the region will be squandered. For now, I don’t think creating development commissions in other regions is necessary. – Punch.

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