Former Managing Director, Niger Delta Development Commission and the All Progressives Congress governorship candidate in the 2019 election in Akwa Ibom State, Obong Nsima Ekere, shares his thoughts with PATRICK ODEY on the forthcoming elections and the challenges facing the NDDC, among others
You have just been appointed Chairman of the APC presidential campaign rally in Akwa Ibom State. What measures have you put in place to ensure the success of your party’s rallies?
We are happy to say that the APC family in Akwa Ibom State is reinvigorating itself. We are excited that at least, we have the opportunity to be able to do something together. You know there have been loads of issues in the party before now. Some weeks ago, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Obong Umana Okon Umana, in what was supposed to be his ministerial briefing turned out to be the first reconciliation meeting of the APC in Akwa Ibom State of which we are very grateful. You need to see the excitement at the grassroots level of which for a long time the party is coming together and trying to arrange itself. We are happy for the prospects. There is a Central Planning Committee, which had started work even before I assumed the chairmanship of the committee; I’m impressed with the arrangement put together to host our presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and his running mate, Senator Kashim Shettima. They will come and give the people the message of renewed hope. That is what we are preaching all over the country. I see a successful event coming up on the 30th of January. Akwa Ibom’s rally is significant and the President, who is the leader of the party, is also coming.
Recently in Enugu State, stakeholders in the APC boycotted the exercise rally due to internal wrangling. What measures have you put in place to ensure that such is not repeated in Akwa Ibom State?
I’ve told you in my opening statement that just about two weeks ago, what would have been a ministerial briefing turned out to be a reconciliation meeting for the party. A lot of decisions were reached at the meeting and we are building on the processes. After that, other meetings have been held since then. Also, the membership of the committee is reflective of the diverse interests of our stakeholders. We made sure that every stakeholder is represented. I ran this party in 2019 when I was the party’s flag bearer and you saw that every stakeholder was accommodated; we didn’t have any issue in running the party and we are back to re-enact that. The peace we so desperately need as a party will be worked for and will be achieved. We are calling on all stakeholders to join hands and let us build a united APC in Akwa Ibom State.
The APC has yet to field a governorship candidate in the state for the election, which is just a few weeks away. Considering the limited time, do you think the party will be able to put its house in order to wrestle power from the Peoples Democratic Party?
Everybody will be concerned; every right thinking and committed member of the APC will be worried. A committed member of the party should be concerned about the issues that arose from the primaries. There are some contentious issues; there are lots of cases in court. While I’m trying not to pre-empt the decision of the court, I also don’t want to be accused of speaking on a matter before the court. But I can tell you that internally, efforts are being made to resolve the major issues so that we can have a united family, and you know that in war situations, at the end of the day after bombings, killings, etc, it is on the table that they will sit down and reconcile. So, we are conscious of that. For the first election, which is the presidential election, all the stakeholders of the party in Akwa Ibom State are united for Bola Tinubu. The problems that exist do not affect the support for Tinubu. Everybody is united for that course. On issues that we have little disagreement with, there is an internal mechanism that has been activated and you will see in the next couple of days, some of these cases will be withdrawn from court and we are working amicably to resolve them.
In 2019, you contested the governorship of Akwa Ibom State under the platform of the APC, but despite the acceptability of your candidacy, your party was unable to wrestle power from the PDP. What actually happened?
I have since moved on since then, but let me put the record straight; there was a lot of sabotage from even the Independent National Electoral Commission, the body that was responsible for conducting the election. Like I said, I can tell you that the results that came out from Akwa Ibom were not a proper reflection of how Akwa Ibom people voted and we knew so.
Some people believe that you were betrayed by some who claimed that they were working for you. How true is this?
Well, I don’t want to even talk about the betrayal, but the results that were eventually announced were not the reflection of how the people voted. We knew the manipulations but as I said, I’ve moved on and I’ve accepted Udom Emmanuel as the governor of Akwa Ibom State and will be ready to make my contributions in the interest of the people of the state.
Considering the problems of insecurity and inflation, among other challenges facing the country, do you think the presidential candidate of the APC has the capacity to pull through and deliver Nigeria from the challenges?
Our presidential candidate is an achiever; he is a man who is tested and trusted. He had faced challenges and he wriggled out of the challenges. In Lagos State, when he was governor, you can recall that there was a time President Olusegun Obasanjo withheld funding to his state because of the differences they had at that time on the creation of local government areas and he was able to run the state without receiving federal allocations for months. This is a man who knows how to withstand challenges and he has the doggedness and charisma to rule Nigeria, and he is aware of the challenges in the country. Also, our presidential candidate is good at assembling a good team because at the end of the day, the President is not the one who will do everything; he has to trust the people to do some things. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu has that ability to nurse and bring out talents that can help to develop the country. For instance, the people he put together when he was the governor, most of them are the ones running this country today.
Some people have expressed disappointment that he has (Tinubu) failed to talk about his blueprint during campaigns; rather he is busy attacking his opponents. What do you say about that?
But you know he was the first candidate who brought out his manifesto; just take out time and read it and come back to me.
Ahead of the February 25 presidential poll, what are your concerns about the APC presidential candidate, especially with regards to the Muslim-Muslim ticket?
Nigerians should rise above some of these considerations. Ideally, it would have been nice to have a balance, but that’s not what determines a good government. What we should look at is the capacity; can this man deliver? Does he have a background, a track record that suggests that he can weather the storm or confront the issues facing Nigeria today? We will find ways of handling the issues of sensibilities of religion etc, which should not be the primary consideration.
What is your assessment of the current regime? Nigerians have said the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has not done much, but he insisted that he has tried his best. What is your take on that?
For the President, working within the challenges of the present time, for instance, see what the price of crude oil is today; compare it with the 16 years of the PDP. Take a look at how much we were earning and what we are earning now and compare to that time, you will know that truly and realistically, with the kind of resources at his disposal, he has done a lot particularly on infrastructure like road construction. Roads that were not attended to for years were constructed under this administration; look at the trains and the rail lines across the country. Agreed that we still have a lot of problems, particularly the economy, and with inflation, but justifiably, inflation is a global problem, in the UK, America and everywhere.
I know the major problem is the exchange rate and the exchange rate is also determined by the amount of resources in circulation vis-à-vis the demand. In Third World countries, if the government can put its feet down and get some things done, the country will move forward; Asiwaju (Bola Tinubu) is an accountant and I’m sure he will address that. The exchange rate virtually affects everything in the country because we are largely a consumer economy.
From your background in the oil and gas sector, how can Nigeria come out of oil price fluctuation and rise?
The best thing is to produce locally. Why should Nigeria be importing petroleum products? That was why I said the exchange rate was the problem that we have; we are exporting crude oil at the current exchange rate and when you want to bring refined products in, it will be at the current rate. For instance, last month or last two months when the exchange rate was N600 to the dollar, you want to bring the refined products this month, the exchange rate rises to N750 or N800, you have to adjust the price so that you can go back to import. Initially, when the exchange rate was N304 to a dollar, the government made away with the subsidy but immediately the exchange rate came above N700, we are talking about subsidy. The truth is that if the government allows the price to be reflective of the cost of bringing in the products, the price we will be paying for petroleum products will even be higher. I’m not justifying it. The greatest challenge we have is the exchange rate and (lack of) local production.
So, what is your position on the proposed removal of fuel subsidy?
Subsidy is not justified; I don’t support subsidy; I think subsidy on petroleum products should be removed using the scarce resources of the country to subsidise the demands of the rich is ridiculous. I have SUVs and when I’m moving, about three or four will join me in a convoy and I’m buying petrol and a poor man on the street is paying for it because the public money the government would have used to do things for the poor masses is being used to subsidise fuel that I’m using to drive. Does it make sense? So, subsidy should be removed.
You were the managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission between 2016 and 2018. What will you say were your major achievements while you were in office?
I executed a lot of projects. During Godswill Akpabio’s time as Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, he went over the places, saying the NDDC did nothing. For whatever reasons, maybe he didn’t take time to go through the records or he wasn’t properly briefed, but under the present minister, Obong Umana Okon Umana, they did a compendium of the list of projects carried out by the NDDC, which was taken to the President; even Mr president was amazed, and that was why I said anyone who was given the grace to manage a department of government should be diligent enough to go through the records before they speak. They should not be sensational. If you see a lot of things they said that turned out to be false, you will ask, ‘Shouldn’t they be held accountable for what they said while in office?’ People should be held accountable because there is no point coming out to deceive the whole world and say things that are sensational. Anybody that has the opportunity to be part of the government should be responsible enough and say things based on fact.
It was alleged that the NDDC’s forensic audit was targeted at you. How will you react to this?
Why? I’m not the only person who was the MD of the NDDC; there were other managing directors before me. The forensic audit was from the inception of the NDDC. The President approved it and that’s okay. So, what is wrong in doing the audit of an establishment? Even people who were shouting forensic audit didn’t even know that a yearly audit of the NDDC is done. That is why I said public officers should take time and study whatever situation they have to run, learn it and get the facts and figures before rushing to the press to talk because they just get sensational on things they don’t have information about. The NDDC accounts are audited yearly by the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation and signed before giving it to the National Assembly. I’m still waiting for the outcome of the audit.
As a former MD of the NDDC, what do you observe as the major challenge of the agency?
The greatest problem of the NDDC is the high turnover of management. Management comes in, they have their plans, programmes and projects, but before they settle down to understand the system, they are changed. A new group comes in and they start from scratch. Before they will know what is going on, they are changed. So, the greatest problem to the proper functioning of the NDDC is the high turnover of management. When I was the MD, one of the first things I did was to restructure the commission. We came up with the four ‘R’ strategy to restructure and reposition the commission. The four ‘R’ strategy was held by every organisation in this country. I believe that even if the present management goes back because they have the records, those strategies are there. The balance sheet can be reduced and management can be restructured etc. I know that if they can still go back and look at those strategies, it will help them because the country is changing, the world is evolving, but it can give them the background or the basis on which they can work from. However, the major challenge is the high turnover of management. Since I left office about three and half years ago, about five or six MDs have been changed. So, how do you function like that, even if it’s a private business you run like that, you are definitely going to have problems.
Some people have called for rotational headship of the NDDC based on tribe. How do you see it?
Nigeria must grow above this sentiment of tribe; it is not good for national development. The law that established the NDDC specified clearly how the management should be appointed. You just follow it up and at every stage we think that the law is no longer relevant, you change the law. I am saying that we should run that commission based on the provision of the law, but at any point, where the people feel that the position of the law does not capture what they want, they can go back to the National Assembly to change it.
What is your advice to the newly constituted board?
They should run the commission based on law. One of the problems of the commission is that it has been overtrading due to high turnover of management. Every person that comes in awards a contract and the balance sheet is now bloated. They should stop creating more liabilities. They should prioritise awarding new contracts and check the ones with the greatest impact on communities and desist from creating new contracts and new liabilities for the commission. It will be better if we can try to shrink the balance sheet.
People have raised concern that a lot of funds have been given to the NDDC and nothing much has been achieved to show for it. How will you react to this?
That’s a very false impression. I’m sure this was promoted by the immediate past Minister of the Niger Delta. I want you to go round the states in the Niger Delta, you will see many projects; some completed and some uncompleted. The truth of the matter is that the money that was specified in the enabling Act to be given to the NDDC by the Federal Government, which was about N1.5tn, was not given. I want to thank President Buhari because before I left, I wrote a letter to him, saying that according to the law, the commission was supposed to be given so much and we did the calculation and it amounted to N1.5tn. He promptly approved and asked the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Budget and National Planning to meet and agree on a timeframe to first of all, reconcile and agree what the outstanding figure is, and agree how to pay the money considering the available resources. So, a lot of that money has not been paid and some has been paid.
So, the NDDC basically runs on contributions from the private sector and the oil and gas companies. The contributions from the oil and gas companies have been helping the NDDC. A lot of things have been done, and maybe more could have been done because I’ve talked about this problem of high turnover of management. If truly we can address that, let’s have a management that can run its full tenure so that the team members can sit down and plan. Let’s do away with this issue of sole administrator and acting MDs who have been used by some people to manage the operations of the commission, because that’s the major problem itself. If you have a constituted board, the checks and balances that come with the impression of a full board is also sufficient to control the operations of the commission.
Sometime last year, you were invited by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over allegations of fraud. How were you able to wriggle out of the situation?
You see, for every public functionary, once you leave office or even when you are there, there will be petitions. The EFCC can invite you to clarify yourself, and when I was invited, I went and clarified myself; that was all.
Back to your party, the APC; are you not threatened by the growing popularity of Peter Obi of the Labour Party?
See, we are not moved by social media popularity. What percentage of Nigerians is on social media? Very negligible compared to the number of real voters. Peter Obi is very popular on social media, no doubt about that, and you know that talk is cheap. The people in the rural areas of Zamfara and Gombe states don’t know Peter Obi. Even in Akwa Ibom here, go to Ini, Ikono and Eastern Obollo, they don’t know Peter Obi. For you to be elected president, according to our constitution, you must have 25 per cent spread in each state of the federation. But the APC is known all over the country; we are not a regional party. I don’t want to talk about Peter Obi because I’m not in his party. If it were the APC, I would gladly talk about it.
There is this issue of insecurity in the country, how do you think it can be tackled?
Insecurity is a big problem in Nigeria, especially in the North. My take is that the easiest way to tackle insecurity is to employ technology. We live in a world that technology has advanced. If you deploy it, you can sit down here and know what is happening in Daura or anywhere else. The government should empower and equip the security agencies.
What is your take on restructuring as successive governments have failed to uphold it?
The government should go back to the report of the conference that talked about restructuring. It should be sent to the National Assembly, and if there are issues that will come up, let it come from the National Assembly.