So that we are on the same page with our readers, please introduce yourself.
Yeah…my names are Thomas Ofem. I am 45 years old from Ugep in Yakurr LGA of Cross River State. I graduated from the University of Calabar in 1990 with a B. Sc degree in Medical Physiology. I also hold Masters Degrees in Mass Communication from the Enugu State University of science and Technology and in Public Health from the University of Liverpool. I am married and blessed with 3 children.
What are you presently engaged in?
Currently I work fulltime for the USA-based Johns Hopkins University/Center for Communication Programs (JHU/CCP) as a Senior Technical Advisor in Health Communications. I have been working in Malawi supporting the Government of Malawi in the design and implementation of an Integrated Health Communication Project spanning 6-health program areas- Nutrition, Maternal and Child Health, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Hygiene and Sanitation, and Family Planning. As part of the project I led the development of Malawi’s first ever National Health Communication Strategy and an accompanying national campaign called “Life is Precious: Take Care of it”. In July of this year, I moved back to Nigeria to provide support to the National Malaria Elimination Program of the Federal Ministry of Health. What I am doing basically is to help the Federal Ministry of Health design and roll out a communication strategy that will inform a campaign addressing the problem of substandard and falsified malaria medicines in the Nigerian Market.
On the side I do a lot of coaching and mentoring for young people including my current pet project- the Ijom annual soccer tournament that is hosted in Ugep every August. Last year I also started another pet project- “An Evening of Yakurr Arts”, which unfortunately did not hold this year due to some personal challenges.
Stating clearly, what drove you into running for Chairman of Yakurr LGA in 2005?
Hmmm…that is an episode of my life that I have not given much thought to recently. It was actually in 2007. Back then I was working for Family Health International (FHI) in Abuja as Senior Strategic and Behavioral Change Communications Advisor. It was a nice job for a young man and I was enjoying it until that overwhelming urge to bring to bear my International Development experience on Yakurr Local Government Area overtook all sense of caution. I resigned from my job in 2006 and plunged into the race for the Chairmanship with my life’s savings and every other thing that I got. Prevailing common sense then was to flow with the ruling PDP party, but I didn’t believe for once that the PDP would provide me the platform for the development agenda I had drawn up for myself. I literally brought the defunct AC to Yakurr LGA and through massive mobilization made it a household name in the LGA. Yakurr people especially youths were strongly behind my aspiration and were ready to vote out the PDP in that election. So my reason for running was that I got tired of ineffectiveness and lack of development impact by governance at that level. I got fed up with the laziness, the timidity and the lack of strategic thinking that has come to be the hallmark of governance at this level. I got tired of prevailing narratives that have successfully reduced youth empowerment to motorcycle and cash gifts…
Are you sure your campaign promises then, matched the expectations of the Yakurr people?
Yes I am very sure. We drew up a 3-point agenda after extensive consultations with key segments of the Yakurr Population. Yakurr is one of the most vibrant LGAs in Cross River State with a very educated Youth cadre. Naturally our priority was to build skills through formal and semi-formal approaches that are sustainable and targeted at making the majority of our youths employable or able to employ themselves. Our second priority was strategic support to our farmers through training on new farming techniques and methods, access to improved crop varieties as well as paving and improvement of farm roads to facilitate the easy evacuation of farm produce to markets. The third priority was to deliberately expand access to fast and reliable Internet services in the LGA to enable our people key-in to the enormous potentials of the World Wide Web. If you were in Yakurr LGA on the days preceding the election, you would have not failed to notice that these promises resonated with the people and they came out in force to support us…
But you didn’t win the election…
Yeah…unfortunately so. I didn’t vote either. The election materials never got to my polling booth, and the majority of the polling booths in the Local Government. My supporters and I couldn’t vote. We later found out that the materials were carted away to some place where hired thugs massively thumb printed in favour of Mr. Ubi Itam Ettah, the PDP candidate. Of course he was announced the winner of the election by Mr. Patrick Otu the CROSEIC commissioner. The rest is now history.
Unfortunately, it is commonplace in Nigeria today that almost all the states sit on local council allocations and council chairmen are unable to execute projects because of paucity of funds. What other revenue avenues do you think can be explored in the face of this anomaly?
You know you don’t correct anomalies by letting them be, and then looking for alternatives. Anomalies should be made normal. The normal is that the Nation’s constitution envisaged a 3-tiered government- Federal, State and Local. Each of these tiers has expected roles and responsibilities that come with financial burdens. It is only logical that the LG, which is in actual terms the closest and most important to ordinary Nigerians enjoys the same autonomy the state government enjoys. After all, when folks at the local government do not feel the benefits of governance, it is the LG Chairman that they hold responsible. So we need to fix this anomaly before it finally makes nonsense of the local government system.
This does not mean that LGs should not pursue additional and complementary means of income generation. Agriculture remains the mainstay of our local economies and it is high time Local Government authorities invest in this sector. To make money, you need to spend some money. Take Yakurr LGA for instance, we have large expanses of arable land right around the LGA- much of these having been left to fallow for several years not because the land is not in demand, but because there is a lack of accessibility to these lands. The LGA can create access roads to these lands and then partner with the community members to cultivate plantations- rubber, oil palm, plantain etc. I am sure the council can make money from such a venture to enable them finance other community development projects. Such an arrangement will also create jobs and wealth.
What programmes do you think Gov. Ben Ayade should vigorously pursue?
Ben Ayade seems like a man with lots of ideas but I am not able to determine exactly what his strategic approach is. It is either he does not have a strategic approach or his communication team is doing a bad job getting us to understand the Governors’ vision for the state and how he intends to achieve this vision. I have heard a lot of noise about his signature projects- Super highway, garment factory etc. I will be happy to see such projects come to fruition, but I am not sure how the local populace will key into these projects. I see the role of an executive governor as that of a coordinator or facilitator. He should communicate his vision for Cross River State to Cross Riverians continuously and clearly. He should then sit down with his cabinet to review the manifesto under which he campaigned for office and revise it according to the realities on ground. Such revisions if informed by intelligence gained from a mapping/baseline assessment exercise of the state can become a strategic approach. By mapping/baseline here, I mean a conscious effort to answer the following questions: Where is Cross River State now? Where does Cross River State see itself in the next 25 years? Why is there a difference between where we are as a people and where we want to be in 25 years? How can we address this difference?
Unfortunately we think governance is about the Governor. Unless we collectively answer the questions I have asked here, Ayade and his signature projects will come and go, just like Duke and Tinapa came and went. Or is Tinapa having any impact on the lives of Cross Riverians?
Now that he has formed a cabinet, I will advise Governor Ayade to sit down with his Commissioners and other stakeholders and answer these basic questions: Where is Cross River State now? Where does Cross River State see itself in the next 25 years? Why is there a difference between where we are as a people and where we want to be in 25 years? How can we address this difference? In order words, Ayade needs to go back to the drawing board if he wants any of his signature projects to respond to the yearnings of Cross Riverians. I pray though that his cabinet members do not become as sycophantic as Commissioners have been in the immediate past government.
Do you believe Gov. Ayade will walk the talk?
It is difficult to say now. The relevance of his commissioners and the extent, to which he will work with them, as a team player will help one make that decision, say within the next 6 months.
Duke built Tinapa, Imoke built the Convention Centre, now Ayade has come with his Signature projects. Do you think in your honest estimation that these projects come with a positive impact on the Cross River State economy?
Yes and No. The building of Tinapa came with a lot of media hype and grandstanding in Duke’s characteristic showmanship. This put Cross River on a pedestal she had never enjoyed. This combined with the tourism re-positioning of the state opened up space for external investments. But were Cross Riverians ready to cash in on this? No. For example, more hotels have sprouted up in Calabar and its environs since then in anticipation of an influx of tourists and business people, but services at these hotels are still so poor that first time visitors will think twice before coming again. I don’t know if the University of Cross River State provides training in catering, recreation and tourism, but a visit to any of the Southern African countries will immediately show you that these countries are ready to tap into the global tourism market. Cross-River state is ready in talk, but the work needs to be done.
The establishment of an Institute of Technology and Management in Ugep by Imoke was a step in the right direction especially given the school’s specific mandate to train low to middle level manpower for the state. But again, does the school offer training that is tailored to the peculiar needs of Cross River State? Has Ayade keyed into Imoke’s vision for establishing that school? Or is it another case of Duke out with Tinapa and Imoke out with the ITM? If that is the case and the pattern, it means that by the time Ayade leaves (as he certainly will), his successor might follow the trend and cosign today’s signature projects to tomorrows waste dump.
Between Duke, Imoke and Ayade, who do you think is the real deal?
Well, Duke is gone, Imoke is gone, but Ayade has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of these guys and make himself the “real deal”- an appellation that will mean different things to different people.
For a state with amazing agricultural potentials, what do you think has not been done so CRS can reap the benefits of these potentials?
There is no real farming in Cross River State. Our people are still involved in subsistent, peasant, household farming that cannot even feed those households. Most of our farmers have never seen fertilizer, neither have they ever-experienced how easy crop production can be when tractors and other farm machinery are used. Cross River youths have left their villages for greener pastures in cities often leaving behind arable farmlands to open doors for people in banking halls or sell newspapers on the streets. How can we blame them, when to stay in the village and farm has become very unattractive? The reason hundreds of lorry loads of food products move from Northern Nigeria to Southern Nigeria is because Agriculture in the North is mechanized. Local governments have farm machinery that farmers can use for little or know cost. Farmers also have access to fertilizer and improved crop varieties. To improve the lot of Cross Riverians, the state government needs to constructively engage with practicing farmers with a view to improving their farming business while at the same time putting in place policies and strategies to attract secondary and even university graduates to farming.
Do you accept that it is time for a new generation of political leaders to step up and take charge in CRS?
I think we already have a new generation of political leaders- Duke, Imoke, Ayade, Ndoma Egba, to mention a few are all of a new generation that replaced the likes of Nsan, Offorboche, Agabi, Ebri etc. What we do need are a different kind of political leaders- those who will approach governance of the state from a business perspective and consider the improved welfare of the majority of Cross Riverians as the profit for this business. Visionaries who will lead in a contingent manner, – putting our fires where they find them, and at the same time proactively solving problems before they happen.
As a Yakurr man, how do you feel about the appointment of Ibokette Ibas as the Chief of Naval Staff, CNS, and the nomination of Usani Usani as Minister of the Federal Republic?
Naturally I feel pride in these two sons. We should emulate them. Ibas has served the Navy diligently for years. Becoming CNS is the climax of an illustrious career. Usani Usani and a few others in Yakurr and Cross River State backed the “right horse” during the last presidential elections and it is only logical that they should reap the fruits of their labor. My happiness will be complete when Okoi Obono-Obla, another Yakurr son who supports Buhari unflinchingly is given a role to play at the center too. I fore see a shift in Yakurr politics towards more inclusion and proper strategizing especially if Usani Usani and Okoi Obla work as a team with a common overall goal.
I see you made no reference to Bassey Ewa?
What reference would you want me to make? I think Bassey Ewa has done his bit, but the space is opening up for additional actors. Yakurr needs this plurality and it is the reason why I am also happy over the emergence of Goddy Ettah and John Inyang as Commissioners in the Ayade government. We can only wait to see how all these Yakurr sons can come together for the advancement of the Yakurr nation.
How you think government can solve the problems that becloud her before they happen?
I will answer that with an example. If the tuition per student in the University per month is N50, 000, it will be problematic, actually impossible for a civil servant who ends 120,000 per month as salary to have all three children in the university at the same time. But this is a problem that could have been solved long before the children where born. If each of these children is older than the other by 4 years, it is possible that all 3 will not be in the university at the same time. So one way of solving this problem would have been for the civil servant and his wife to avail themselves of existing family planning services. Additionally, If the civil servant kept aside 10,000 of his salary per month for the express purpose of children education, he would have had 1.2 million naira in the bank if he did this continuously for the first 10 years of his first child’s life. This money would surely have given him a head start in his child’s education. Solve problems before they start simply means taking preemptive actions earlier. Like the Kanuri say: “The best time to plant a tree, is twenty years ago”.
Finally, do you still consider yourself a politician and would you be running for office in the nearby future?
Hahaha…that looks like a tricky question. But yes I am still a politician- but I hate the idea of earning a living by being a politician. I think that has caused us a lot of problems. Politicians should have another source of income and not depend entirely on political office or political appointments in order to feed themselves and their families. It is one of the reasons why there is so much corruption. And yes, I will run for office again…God willing before my 80th birthday…
It has been a great pleasure Thom, thank you for your time
Thank you calitown.com
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