Oka Martin Obono is clearly established as a global scholar, consultant, leader and administrator with extensive academic, field and administrative experience. Rising early and poised to vie for the Cross River Central Senatorial district in the general elections around the corner, www.calitown.com caught up with him and questions were asked and answers were given. Excerpts
What drives your conviction that you are the man for this job? (i.e Senator representing CR Central Senatorial District)
Thank you for starting this conversation on this note. I believe you want me to explain why I am the most credible and best prepared person to serve as Senator representing the Cross River Central Senatorial District. For my answer, I will state the bare facts and leave you to draw your conclusions. I will supply that answer first from the home base and local context because some of your readers seem to be more familiar with my international roles and activities.
My entire family has a history of service to the community and I have stayed faithful to that tradition. My grandfather was a war hero and prominent community leader. My father was a soldier, a decorated veteran of the Nigerian Civil War and global diplomat who served in Nigeria’s embassy in Washington. In his last duty post, he served as Div CC to Generaal Muhammadu Buhari when the latter was GOC 3 Armoured Division, Jos. My mother is the embodiment of virtue, a rare vessel of honour filled with the altruistic spirit from whom I learned that the sacrifice you make for any person is a sacrifice you make for yourself.
My fathers were peace-loving warriors and servant leaders par excellence. They taught me by rugged example. Parents from neighbouring homesteads would leave their children in my grandfather’s care as they went to farm or even travelled to nearby communities to trade in the local markets. My grandfather would feed them, clean them, clothe them and take care of the children as though they were his own. It was a beautiful paradox to consider how this revered patriarch was serving as a babysitter for his community! I learnt from this that true greatness lies in personal service. I learnt that leadership must be brave but not proud. It should not aggrandize itself. It should not be puffed up or seek its own. True greatness is humble and derived from authentic love for one’s people and for the things they care about. This belief was ingrained in me from youth and makes me attitudinally the most prepared person to serve the Central Senatorial District as its Senator at this perilous point in its history.
The fact is that I understand our people and our people understand me. I trust them and they trust me. I know them and they know me very well. My connection to the local context explains why I was selected to serve as Chairman of the Central Coronation Committee, which was responsible for installing the present Obol Lopon of Ugep as king. My appointment to this office spoke volumes of the nature of trust and confidence that the community reposed in me. It humbled me. Indeed, the late Obol Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of Yakurr had lifted a long standing embargo on the award of chieftaincy titles in 2012 to install me as This title signifies the presence of light and the spirit of service in the bearer. It has legitimacy in all Yakurr territories but is evidently quite universal in its appeal. It inspires me.
In my capacity as Kogbogha (which literally means Light), I have retrieved from those who formerly kept them all my grandfather’s implements of war. I did this because, to paraphrase Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6: 12, in these days in Nigeria, we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against kleptocratic principalities, lying powers, against rulers of the electronic darkness of this nation, and political wickedness in high places. Our enemies are not people but the conditions of governance. Those implements were carnal and they were not safe in the hands of persons who were not in a position to keep them. I took them away. We can only fight our new enemies through knowledge, solidarity, dialogue and effective representation.
As Patron of Obam Cultural Society, therefore, I am currently directing its metamorphosis from a war society into a modern indigenous security organization. Obam is your friend. I have been working such projects for years now. This is why when I read someone asking somewhere about my local connections – “how rooted is he?” – I smiled broadly because, just by asking that question, the blogger had demonstrated that he was not “rooted” himself.
The fact is that I am a bird with two functional wings. With one wing, I fly globally. With the other wing, I fly locally and I walk on the ground with my two feet. I have used the pontoon to cross the Ediba-Itigidi River and I have sailed on the Atlantic high seas on a more sophisticated vessel. These local and global experiences form the core advantages that I will bring to my service of the good people of the Central Senatorial District as their Senator.
I am a Professor of Sociology and Population Studies at the University of Ibadan (UI) – Nigeria’s premier university. My wife, Dr. (Mrs) Koblowe Obono, and I are the only two Central Cross Riverians on the teaching staff of this university. I chair the Demography and Population Studies Unit of the Department of Sociology; and am Director of the Centre for Human Resource Development. Before that, I was the Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CEPACS), now Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ibadan.
My experience as Director of CEPACS and my role as Chartered Mediator and Conciliator mean I am well-placed as a practitioner to mediate conflicts across the six local government areas in the Central Senatorial District. I can work with our people and their internal peace mechanisms to maintain peace in Ediba and Usumutong and replace youth militancy with education, employment and proper empowerment in Abi LGA. We can beat our swords into ploughshares in Boje and Nsadop in Boki LGA; and sustain peace in Assiga, Igbo Imabana, Mkpani and Nko in Yakurr LGA – territories which have recently seen war. We can bring an end to the cultic mayhem that continue to disturb and threaten Ochon in Obubra LGA and Ugep in Yakurr. We can moderate youth restiveness in Etung LGA and end unemployment in Ikom by using well known strategies that suit the conditions of Central Cross River. Indeed, I have been invited by a coalition of youth movements in Etung to proffer solutions as a Guest Speaker to the development crisis and problems of stability at a conference holding in Etomi in early April. In each case, we must seek solutions through actions that address the underlying causes of the conflict, which are poverty, alienation and unemployment.
I am a renowned global researcher, population scientist, policy analyst, leadership consultant, and Honorary Rotarian (District 9125). I approach problems scientifically and have always proffered the best sustainable solutions. I am Regional Programme Representative for the Social Sciences Research Council in New York; Principal Strategy Consultant to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on the Community Strategic Framework (2016-2020); Principal Investigator (PI) on the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa Multi-country Assessment of Investments in Social Protection (Nigeria, 2017-8); and Temporary Adviser to the World Health Organization (1996-date). These roles bring me in direct contact with operational policies and opportunities that can help service our people’s health, and educational, economic and employment requirements.
It has been my privilege to serve at the highest levels of global, national and multilateral governance, advocating for community development and governance reform. This means I can represent the Central Senatorial District at Senate and international fora and initiate compelling federal legislation, which will not only serve the interests of my constituency but will simultaneously liberate Nigeria. I can place the Central Senatorial District on the district map of global opportunities. I am that Senator who will dialogue with colleagues in the United States Congressional Black Caucus and facilitate educational, health and employment partnerships and skills transfers through the black business community when we bring them to Cross River State.
My interests in health and conflict studies are demonstrated in my work as Principal Investigator (PI) in the WHO anthropological study of the Ebola Outbreak in Uganda (2012); WHO PI in the study of Public Perceptions of Healthcare Services in Southwest Nigeria; Member, WHO International Pre-certification Team to Nigeria (2010), and WHO International Certification Team (ICT) to Nigeria (2013), Ghana (2015) and Kenya (2017); Director of Research, Public Attitudes to Public Policy (Lagos, 2010-3); Consultant to UNECA/UNDP on Africa Governance Monitoring Report III (2009); Zonal Team Leader, European Union Monitoring Mission of the 2006 Nigerian Census (2006); Coordinator of regional network on governance monitoring; Regional Conflict/Methodology Consultant to the Consortium for Development Partnerships; and International Consultant to the West African Civil Society Institute (Accra), Population Council (New York), Open Society Initiative for West Africa (Dakar), SEEK Development (Berlin), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (Geneva), United Nations Office for West Africa, United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning (UNIDEP), among others. I can and will work to keep our people safe, healthy, educated, prosperous and happy at all times.
My antecedents point to the facility with which this can be done. All my life experiences have brought me to this point. I believe that the backgrounds I have described provide me with the kinds of education, experience, exposure, awareness and networks needed to operate at local, national, and international levels. This is the combination of assets that a Senator needs for effective representation of our District at a time like this.
You don’t seem to have been around the political scene long enough, don’t you think it will affect your political acceptance?
In assuming that is true, does it not illustrate that I have not been party to the carnage, plunder and corruption, which have kept development from our people and our people from development all these years? To be candid, it is a deep anger together with violent disgust that is propelling me to active politics. This anger is felt by all honest Nigerians. There is nobody in the Central Senatorial District who will tell you that they are happy with the way things are. The only one who does not feel the disgust I have described is the guilty politician and his naïve accomplices who routinely benefit from the corrupt self-enrichment that everybody now wants to see terminated. I have seen children driven from school for months simply because their parents could not pay their fees. Is it not those who have been “around the political scene long enough”, as you put it, who are responsible for this unacceptable situation? Should a child’s rights to education be dependent on the parental ability or inability to pay? I know that, through federal legislation, the inalienable and inviolable rights of the child to free education will be protected; health will be guaranteed; and we can commence the urgent task of putting our youth back to work again – whether in the agricultural fields, agro-allied industries, manufacturing plants, the emergent energy sector, or in diagnostics and outsourcing. We can show how employment need not be circumscribed to Cross River State (or even Nigeria for that matter), where the labour market is saturated. We can export our skills to the West African market and I know how to facilitate this.
The people have been considered. Ours is now a movement. It is no longer a campaign. Nobody else can say this.
Having said that, though, bear in mind that I have never been too far from the political scene as an objective observer. I was Team Leader of the International Republican Institute (IRI)’s International Observer Mission that was sent to Cross River State to monitor its governorship election in April, 2007. Earlier the same year (February, 2007), I was IRI Resource Person for Lagos Political Campaign School for Female Candidates and, in January (2007), IRI Resource Person for the Lagos Political Campaign School. I was also selected as a member of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) team, which was led by the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme to monitor the Liberian elections that brought Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power in 2006. These kinds of experiences afforded me a chance to see first-hand the nature of massive electoral malpractice in our country. I know how to stop it.
I have broad ranging political visions, which are deeper, more expansive and implementable than anything that the identifiable interlopers among us can come up with. This is no time for chicanery. The inclusive plans that I have developed in strong partnership with the people cannot be matched by many of the puppeteers on parade who cannot shake off their complicity in the high crimes and misdemeanours perpetuated against this country. What they know more than I do is how best to deceive the people, rig elections and steal money. That is one thing that is going well for our movement. I have built enduring relationships of trust with the people over the past 30 years. What I offer them this time around is an alternative to the banal scrimmage for power that is the desperate hallmark of persons who cannot point to any serious professional accomplishment outside politics. The tragedy is that this scrimmage is also a visionless one.
For someone clearly established in the world of academics, why are you abandoning academics for the murky world of politics?
You have made me sad by that question. I really wish I did not have to leave academics. But if you were dressed up all in white and going for a major ceremony and your child fell in a murky gutter, what would you do? Would you stand there and criticize the child and rush to write a newspaper editorial on the incident? Would you proceed unperturbed to your distinguished ceremony? Or would you step into the gutter and lift that child up and place her on safe ground on the kerb? Would it matter that your white robes were stained?
That is my position. You have made me recall the sombre precincts of academia. Of course, I will miss its serenity and the rational selfless processes by which we arrived at decisions. Who had ever left his love without a dull ache in his heart and except it be for an unavoidable duty? I must put that bigger duty before me now, and place it far above my personal comforts and preferences. That is the nature of duty. My father’s estate is at stake.
So, it is true. I am clearly established as a global scholar, consultant, leader and administrator. I have extensive academic, field and administrative experience, spanning work at the University of Calabar (1990-8), which conferred on me the Distinguished Award in Academic Excellence in 2010; I have taught also at the University of Ibadan (1998-date); Brown University (USA), 2000-2; Bowen University (2005); Centre for Sustainable Development (2009-date); Nigeria’s National Defence College (Abuja); and as Visiting Professor to Leiden University, the Netherlands (2010-2011; 2015); and the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa (2011-2). I have turned down the invitation of a University President in the USA to spend my sabbatical leave at Bennington College (Vermont, USA), starting from 2018, in order to run this race and serve my people. That was something difficult to do. At a time like this, it is fair to say that sacrifice must precede service.
I serve on the Technical Advisory Board of the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (AndChristie Research Foundation); Governing Board of the Association for Asian Studies in Africa and founded Millennium Advancement Initiatives, which I used as a vehicle to drive development back home. At UI, I serve as a Member of the Council Committee on Community Development; the Senate Curriculum Committee; and am Chairman of the Senate Ad hoc Committee on Matters Related to Restitution and Academic Integrity. I have over 150 published essays, including path-breaking international journal articles and social commentaries. I maintained a weekly column in BusinessDay on the manifestations of social policy in everyday life but have come to realize that those who lead us do not read us. Our leaders are not our readers. In misreading us, they keep misleading us. Our politicians are too busy getting rich to stay informed. That is about to change.
I will give up academics but I will certainly retain my ties with my students and colleagues. They have been my life all my life. The point is that I have been doing my job all these years. I have been focussed and committed, mentoring young people, watching them dream and, years later, seeing the sparkle fade from their eyes. They have lost the lustre I once saw as a result of this misbegotten reign of psychotic kleptocrats. I have trained people across continents and through several generations only to see them stuck in a society where that training cannot be put to use through gainful employment. This disheartens me.
I am now like the man who inherited an estate from his father and, because he was busy working elsewhere, hired people to work on the estate for a handsome fee. Indeed, not only did he pay them well, it is said that his hirelings began to pilfer and loot the estate treasury as they went along until its businesses began to fold up. The man sacked them and hired a different set of workers. Some of the old workers smuggled themselves in among the new. They all did worse. They grew even more corrupt. The estate was in a bad state. He sacked them again and hired new ones. This last set was worse than all the previous ones put together. They began selling off the estate. They privatized it among themselves. They were buying the houses in the estate and converting them to private property. The whole thing was terrible. If you were that man, what would you do?
That is the point I’m making. I am taking charge of my father’s estate. I will personally apologize to the withering flowers and promise to tend the gardens again. I will make the premises impeccable the way they were in 1960. And I will set guard dogs that will ensure that those unscrupulous employees never gain access to the premises again.
Is there a political void you intend to fill? Point us to it.
There is a void everywhere you look. We need leadership coalescence in the Central Senatorial District. We need to commence that process. It will be accomplished inclusively. There are many magnificent elder citizens and party stalwarts with unimpeachable integrity that we must look up to for wisdom and guidance. Among these are HE Chief Clement Ebri, Chief Wilfred Oden Inah, Professor Eyo Etim Nyong, and Messrs. Paul Adah and Victor Ndoma-Egba.
This list is by no means exhaustive but, with suitable coalescence, the Central Senatorial District could be transformed into a haven of peace, prosperity and development. As you can expect, legislation on health, agriculture, security, education, employment, and infrastructure and nutrition would be among my focal priorities. I will encourage support to, and investment in, small and medium scale enterprise because that is what puts food on people’s table.
I will ensure that no child ever has to stay away from school again because the parents cannot pay fees. I will institute a social security system that will grant assurance of a decent life to all persons, with particular reference to the vulnerable masses. These are not new things. They are the signposts of modern democracies. If the rich countries have student loan schemes, why shouldn’t we? I will be that Senator who proposed a bill that makes student loans of a million naira per session mandatory in our state and federal universities. I want to be held accountable for this promise.
What political platform have you chosen and why?
My political platform is the All Progressives Congress (APC). I chose this platform because every natural progressive would gravitate to this party. Its change mantra and anti-corruption stance are phenomenal and unprecedented in the nation’s history. The kind of legislation I wish to bring about requires a progressive platform to see the light of day. Nevertheless, in my approach, I am optimistic that we can transcend partisan politics when it is important for us to come together as Nigerians and Cross Riverians in the interests of our people. Poverty, hunger, disease, and unemployment are not card carrying members of any political party. It is together that we can overcome these foes.
Lend your voice, for or against the current political agitation that the CR Central Senatorial slot should ideally go to Old Obubra.
This is a fairly settled debate, I think. The political demand that the Cross River Central Senatorial seat be assigned to Old Obubra rests on the argument of equity and the requirements of natural justice. There is no need to beat about the bush. We can walk a straight path through the debate. Not to support this positional shift is to cast aspersions on one’s moral credentials and to expose the hollowness of one’s claims to the democratic impulse. If the Northern macro-hegemony in Nigeria has been successfully ended on these principles, why should a micro-hegemony continue in Cross River State? To even have to agitate for this is already repugnant to equity. Old Obubra should produce the next Senator for the Central Senatorial District and it will. Listen to the wind blow.
Now, several persons of Old Obubra extraction, have indicated interest to represent the Central Senatorial district in Nigeria’s senate, is there any possibility that you all can synergise and have common ground?
There is always a possibility, and desirability, of dialogue. We can synergize and have common ground. If you look at the gentlemen in the race right now, they are the kinds of people you would identify as reasonable. Desperation is always a bad sign. It is an ominous declaration of incompetence. We can synergize around a people’s agenda – a bill of rights and entitlements that defines what the priorities of governance should be from the people’s perspectives. Then it wouldn’t matter who is this or that – the people’s needs would be fulfilled.
Was there to be that kind of synergy to have all of you collapse structures for one person, will you accept that kind of arrangement?
Were there to be synergy, I would welcome that kind of arrangement and be grateful for it. It would be kind and wonderful.
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