Urbane businessman, consumate politician and savy minister of the gospel, EYO OKPO ENE, has his sights firmly fixed on winning his party, the PDP’s nomination, to contest the position of governor of CRS. In this interview with IWARA IWARA, Editorial Lead, www.calitown.com, Okpo Ene outlines his vision for the state and addresses sundry issues. Excerpts:
For the benefit of our audience, please introduce yourself.
Okay, my name is Eyo Okpo Ene. I am a business man, a politician and I am also a minister of the gospel.
You’re a business man, a preacher, and a politician? In the midst of everything, why do you want to be governor of Cross River State?
I want to be governor of Cross River State because, I know that I have something to offer the people of Cross River State. I have the needed experienced garnered over the years from my active participation in politics and governance in the state. Most people do not quickly remember that I was Chairman of Odukpani Local Government Council from 1991-1993, at the fairly young age of 29. My achievements then, for my age, were modestly mouth watering and of course I made some useful mistakes that I have learnt from. Today, I have critically sat back and watched how governance is applied in the state and I can clearly see that I will do better than what is mostly on offer. My more than 35 years experience in the private sector, running my businesses is another plus that I bring to the table.. My first company was incorporated in 1988 and it is still a going concern. You also must quickly remember that I have had a stint in the Executive Council of Cross River State as a Special Adviser to former governor, Liyel Imoke, between 2012-2015. But most importantly, I know for a fact that governance in Cross River State is not as complex as some people make it to be. It is very simple if you can apply your mind. So I want to be governor to bring all of this my experience to the table, critically and effectively apply it so our state can rightly be positioned in the comity of states in Nigeria..
You recently purchased the nomination of interest form for the governorship position in Cross River State, underlying your level of seriousness, what are your chances of winning?
I looked at the field, I looked at the opportunities and threat and I have believe that I have a good chance to win and everything I want to do I commit myself to it and it takes me time to take a decision. When I left politics in 1993, I stayed on the side line and watched what was going on and people had asked me, why don’t you get back into politics? I don’t see politics as a profession, I see politics for me as service. I know my chances and I rate my chances very high and I know that if I don’t have a good chance to be governor of Cross River State, I wouldn’t vie for nomination because the process is not a stroll in the park.
While you may have succeeded in private business management and demonstrated competence there, I am sure you are aware that politics and governance are a different ball game. How then do you intend to go about delivering on the intricacies of this job?
Private sector management is systematic management on a scale often smaller than systematic government sector management. Now, in a recent interview I granted, I maintained and still maintain that one of the challenges the present government in our state has is a faulty recruitment system. If you are going to run a profitable business, your recruitment must be spot on. You must get the right people to run your enterprise, to run your business, so if we take the strategic approach of having the right people, with the right administrative and management competencies in place, of course properly supervised, undeniably our work has been cut short. Managing people is one of the things that we need to do in government; managing expectations and getting a profitable outcome, QED!
Politically in Cross River State, we seem to have a problem with our leadership recruitment process, who gets what? Who can do what? Who has what competence, etc. What do you think should be done differently for us to enhance and achieve a better leadership recruitment process?
Let me say this, we have a problem in the leadership recruitment process in our state and we have continued to grapple with. See, most times we have directed too much energy at political patronage, arm twisted to let Mr. A or B, take this or that position because he was visible throughout the period one was campaigning. In that mix, we are often unable to create the right kind of balance that identifies competence over political patronage and this is a challenge. Clearly, we have not really had people run government as a business, but permit me to go no further with recent examples please. But simply put, we have been recruiting people into governance positions based on what they have done for us in the past, even if we were not satisfied, we have also been recruiting people on the basis of what they can do for us in the foreseeable future, even if it be negative propaganda, without considering the recruitment of people who can perform today and carry us and our state into a beautiful tomorrow. Let me give you one instance.. When HE Liyel Imoke asked me to join his government, I asked him why he was bringing me in and he said Eyo, people like you still have a role to play in governance and I was shocked when he said that, which meant he had seen me do something in the past with met his expectations and approval and he knew firsthand that I can bring my competencies to play in his government. That is the kind of recruitment I am talking about. If you asked me to come and serve in your government, I should have the presence of mind to ask you what your expectations of me are? What are the Key Performance Indicators, KPIs that should guide and trail my engagement? By setting KPIs, I am enabled to work with your team, to make smart governance decisions about the direction of all projects. If you place all of this before me and I think I can fit in, then I’ll agree, those are the kind of things we should do in governance. When I was in the Cross River State Executive Council I met a friend who was recruited from a bank to work in a particular government agency. When I look at him today, I say to him, wow, you were selected for a position that best suits you and you did well. That is the kind of recruitment we should be looking at, getting the right people that can serve into proper positions in government and not the other way round.
How then do you react to the Ayade administration’s insistence on what has become known as the food on the table policy, one that encourages the appointment of almost everybody, not for effective governance purposes, but for pecuniary food on the table reasons?
If you give me an appointment and follow that up with a pronouncement that my appointment is for food on the table reasons, I’ll feel insulted. Now if government says they are giving food on the table through the appointment into governance positions truly it reduces governance to child’s play, elevates it to seeking handouts, ultimately encouraging begging. My challenge there is that, since these persons knows that they’re no other expectations except the elevation of begging and the glorification of ineptitude, there is no need to perform. I feel that our state has gone down few notches, I mean to recruit people just because you want to give them food on the table is truly insulting. We must be able to earn a decent living, work and get paid. People should wake up in the morning, go to work with the assurance that they’re adding value in their organizations and the promise is that, one is being paid for the value they bring to work. When I recruit staff, I’m not paying them just to be my staff. I’m paying them for the value that I want them to bring to my organization. Governance is not about sitting at home and doing nothing, we have a common wealth and people expect service. So I believe it’s a wrong thing for government to talk about food on the table.
But the proponents of this policy maintain it is a way of sustaining followership especially where they’re no set skills, where most of the people live below the poverty level and we had instances where the state government boldly told us, they have employed six thousand youths and that there is a domino effect that comes with employing six thousand aides and paying them salaries.
I still maintain that it is a very sad thing that in the economic summary of our state, somebody is appointed in 2015 and the terminal date for the job is 2023; and all the person needs to do is feed from the table or take whatever allowance for that period without doing anything. When that job terminates in 2023, the person leaves without adding value to governance in our state and he/she has also gained no on the job knowledge. Isn’t it terrible that someone can ‘work’ for this long, come out of the ‘job’ and become unemployable? They have taken a big government position with a big name and cars attached to them and promoted to the highest level of incompetence, isn’t it truly sad?. I think we should interrogate this system because it’s going to create a problem for us in future.
How do you react to clamour in the state that power should return to the southern part of Cross River State against proponents who insist that competence should return to Cross River State?
When we say power should return to the South, I talk about it within the context of rotation and that rotation had given us peace for a while so I think that rotation should be respected. In terms of competence, I do not think that the people from any part of Cross River State can say they’re no competent candidates in any part of this state, no, we have competent persons in the North, Central and South of CRS, but if we rotate power to the south then let us open the space for as many competent people to come out. People have told me that so many people have come out from the South, I agree and I have told them too that we need a big field to choose from. It is better to choose from a field of ten than a field of two; so I believe that the South has enough competent hands to vie for office but if you look at the scene, I don’t want to look as if I’m too pro rotation or zoning, I think that zoning has helped us enough. But if for our political evolution we maintain rotation it would help us going forward, especially for a few specifics and the geopolitics of Cross River. Explaining further, if somebody from the Central comes out and the person is from Abi Local Government Area for instance, remember Abi is a small LGA, compared to Obubura Or Yakurr, Abi can only take her political turn, before her other two more illustrious neighbours, by rotation. Indeed without rotation, Abi will constantly lose the opportunity to serve. Added to that, I think that our politics is too mercantile and expensive that only a power rotation process can guarantee the ascension to power of persons who may mean good for the state but lacking in the kind of financial capacity demanded by our politics. So I think that we should use this rotation until such a time that we can stay and look at and say let us open the space for all coming, it will get to that point but for now we’re too young a democracy to open the space, so I am for rotation may be not zoning. Let no part of the state stay longer than sixteen years.
Is it possible as a people to achieve a coming together of all political interests, reach an agreement signed for everyone to know that for the three senatorial district in Cross River State and for everyone in Cross River State who wants to be governor the maximum number of years is eight years? But then too, they’re people in the state who claim that if you’re rotating power to the South, the traditional Efik part of the South the South doesn’t consider Biase and Akamkpa LGAs in their political calculations. Please react.
The second part of your question is a very unfortunate situation, but I believe that if you have somebody from Akamkpa or Biase LGAs that is qualified, this assertion will pale into insignificance. Let me tell you a story; I have a friend from Biase that wanted to be Senator, I fought for him, I pressed for him, I really wanted him because he was a kind gentleman with a lot of experience and he knew the state. I refused to support my kindred the Efik people over him because I knew that he will do better for my state. That is how sophisticated I’m in my thinking. I’m not giving to too much ethnic sentiment. That my friend was well suited and qualified but he was from the minority part of the South, didn’t deter me. Yes, there could be some ethnic swing in the long run but if we have a genuine qualified people with competence I think he can fly eventually but we have a long way to go in that regard, I must point out. About getting us all together to agree on a political pact, it has been achieved in this state and it can be achieved again if we sincerely come together and address those things that threaten to divide us after every four years.
The iconic Eyo Nkpune Okpo Ene, a pastor, often referred to as the forgotten hero of the Apostolic Church, Nigeria, is your grand uncle. He was a pacesetting religious leader and we hear you were named after him. Is his impeccable character a positive load that you bear?
Pastor Eyo Nkune Okpo Ene, of Ambo Family, Mbaraokom, Creek Town (Obio Oko) who lived from 22nd November, 1895 to 1st February, 1973, was indeed my grand uncle. He was the person who raised my father and my father thought it wise to name me after this very great man of God. So that l will not be accused of blowing my trumpet, let me just say that this man had a great Christian influence on my family chain and that positive influence is still flowing down. He was illustrious to the point that he built the first storey building in Creek Town, even though it was later burnt. His contribution to the growth and development of the Apostolic Church, Nigeria, is there for is all to see.
When you come from this kind of stock; religious, educated and highly respected, you cannot lower the standard. Because I have been properly guided from within my family, maybe that is why I am old school in my thinking, in my dealings. I am old school in the sense that I consider pedigree, I consider background and forthrightness in the way and manner I conduct myself … it is the standard. When I was a young Chairman of Odukpani Local Government Area, they were so many wrong turns I would have taken but because my father constantly cautioned and reminded me of the stock I come from, I immediately knew I couldn’t stain my name and my family’s reputation. So, yes, I was long primed to do well because when your father, grandfather and granduncle have left positive signs on life’s path, you dare not lower the mark and I am grateful to God that I come from this excellent stock. My challenge now is to raise the bar if I am given the mantle, leave a worthy legacy behind, something my family and entire state, will be excitedly proud of.
CRS over the last couple of years had issues with pensions and gratuity payments, if you become governor, how do you intend to tackle this problem?
For me, pensions and gratuities are emotional things. My late father though a very wealthy man, took his pension collection very seriously. With all the millions the man had, his pension of less thirty thousand, was a payment he could kill for and will take all the trouble to go and collect that money. One day, I said to him, dad do you really need this money? He looked at me in shock and gently said, “no, I don’t need it but it’s my reward for having served the government for all that long.” It taught me early that pension payment are a reward for meritorious work, religiously done overtime. So for me it’s a very unthinkable that anybody can toy with the money of mostly elderly people, people that have served this country. How can you play games with pensions and gratuities? I think when you do that you’re not ready to leave a legacy and posterity will catch up with you.
Now, we have serious problems with pensions and gratuities and someone interested in being governor of this state, I asked my team what can we do about pensions and we started looking at the scenario that we can use to address pensions it’s a huge hole but we must get to the bottom of it. We must restructure the process, find out what is actually owed, how much money is available to pay, have a conscious payment plan and activate other add-ons. We cannot just stop at pensions. what about the state’s debt? I don’t think that even this government knows how much debt Cross River actually owes. We have a serious debt situation and as I sat with my team and asked what the debt profile looked like, I was overwhelmed when someone gave me an insight into the debt of Cross River and I asked myself, do I really want to do this? The debt of Cross River is so humongous and I asked him how can we run government with this level of debt? He called up some consultants to look into it and we were expertly advised that they’re some of these debts that can restructured; there are some things we can do here and there. You can see that I have genuine intentions to lead this state instead of being drawn to be governor because of the glamour of being referred to as His Excellency the governor of Cross River State. Indeed it goes beyond that, we need to be deliberate in fixing the pensions/gratuity problem as well as other problems.
You recently said in an interview that our problem as a state can be solved with bold, competent, honest leadership delivered with integrity, commitment and excellence. Isn’t that a daunting task and a speak before the deed?
Every word I used in that interview was well thought out. Now if you want to do something, do it well. We need to begin to instil excellence into everything that we do, we need to be honest, we need to tell people the truth, we need to go into our systems, look at them and come out with valid explanations of things we can do and the things we cannot do. When I became chairman of my local government, they were friends that helped me through the election and when I got to office, I had to confess to them that I cannot exclusively direct help their way while the larger Odukpani community suffers. Some of them felt bad but there was one particular guy who told me he was happy that I was honest to him and that he cannot be given false home, making it a point to always come to my office when I knew I wasn’t going to help. So you must be honest in dealing with people, it comes with a responsibility and challenges. We must see how we can rise above these challenges and sincerely solve the problems of our people.
You have talked about sitting down with your team and looking at the debt profile of Cross River, can you let us in on these figures?
Whatever figures I’ll throw up will be interrogated. But let me give you a whiff, something between 250million and probably 350billion naira, it is huge, something in the middle of that. It is a lot but I have assurances that with adept personnel we can seat and talk to our creditors and get something that we can use and save the people of Cross River State.
In the past, back to back Cross River administrations have tried to look at a blue print that emphasises investment and development of sectors of our economy where we have comparative advantage. Do you intend to drive state investment along this path?
I remember when Donald Duke was in office, we had a conversation while in the aircraft and he told me that if he kept our streets clean and plants a lot of green trees, people will naturally come to Cross River and that’s what he did and it worked.
We have several areas of comparative advantage that we can leverage on after losing momentum in the last seven years. Intentionally, the idea will be to get this state up again and kicking. I served three years of the Imoke eight years in office and I saw that most of the tourism-driven festivals were not government funded, they were sponsored, so what will my own government do? The idea will be to provide an enabling environment where people and cooperate bodies will fund such tourism activities and government will sit back and benefit from it. It will be a different kind of scenario in 2023 and slightly beyond because a lot of enterprises, a lot of the companies that sponsor most of those festivals have shifted from Cross River. Look at our Leboku International Festival for instance, MTN took that festival very seriously, regrettably, I don’t know whether they still have the same commitment in the festival. I know for certain that if you create a product like the Leboku festival and market it seriously, after some time people will take ownership, At this point, government will not even get involved in funding and running of the festival, it is people taking ownership of those things and I don’t think government should be directing some of those things. This is an experiment that worked in the past, going forward we can improve on this experiment and our crowd pulling festivals will return to life.
If you become governor, how do you intend to tackle the level of security across the length and breath of the State?
Recently I was reflecting on my time as chairman of Odukpani Local Government and it was on record that for the period I was chairman of local government, there wasn’t one boundary problem, why was this so? It was because we took time to relate with members of warring communities/ disagreeing communities and tried as much as possible to get them to sit on the table for discussion. We did not succeed in dealing with the problems but the fact that we’re discussing helped us. Now going to insecurity, if we have an environment where people trust government, a lot of the security challenges we are experiencing will be out of the way. See, let us make security a community thing. I have lived in one house for the past thirty years, everybody that lives in my community knows me and I know them. When a new face is spotted, we immediately want to know who that person is or who he or she is looking for. So we can take security to the communities, our nooks and crannies, our villages and begin to engage and empower our traditional rulers to play an integral role in securing our communities. In the urban centre, it may be slightly difficult but if we take our ward system seriously, within our ward system we can create units in the ward and get people that will monitor our security; we can do it and it will work. Let us democratise security, let’s not just get somebody that sits in the governor’s office and collects security votes that have no impact on our security situation.
How vigorously are you campaigning?
I met somebody a few days ago who said I came out late and I replied him that I didn’t come out late, I have been campaigning long before I came out, I had supporters even before I came out that is why I really needed to show seriousness by buying my form but you know that our party primaries is a delegates primaries. So I am holding discussions with several delegates and I’m happy that most of the delegates are young people, I’m amazed at the youth level of our delegates especially those that are the statutory delegates; people in their thirties to mid forties and I have been engaging them and telling them that their future starts today because I am in my mid fifties and my administration will be a transition administration, to transit from my retiring class to the younger people so I tell them that they need to get somebody that will properly midwife the transition because we must transit both by age and by system. We must let people know that this money politics must stop, let us not take our future for granted. The money politics is killing Nigeria. I’m running my campaign on goodwill, I’m running with my resources and network. I do not have a pot of gold seating somewhere and what encourages me is that people have come and decided to support me because they believe I have what it takes to govern Cross River, so that goodwill is what I use and I have been campaigning based on that and my antecedents, reaching out to the youths, telling them that look, your future starts today.
Who is your mentor?
My mother is my mentor. She taught me everything I know and it wasn’t because I was not close to my father, but my mother was very extremely deliberate about teaching me most of the things I know. That is the singular reason why I believe that our society should respect our women …they have done so much work and I respect my mother, I respect my wife, I respect all the women in the world.
What is your message to Cross Riverians; what are the expectations, are we about to see the light at the end of the tunnel?
When I become governor, one thing that Cross Riverians will be hopeful of is that I will be very open and carry them through the tunnel to the light at the end of it. What I think Cross Riverians should expect from my administration is an administration that is open, speaks the truth, and is remarkably determined to rescue and restore us to being the positive envy of all. Specifically and importantly, I want Cross Riverians to know that the darkness of these couple of years can be reversed. We have all it takes to reverse it. Let me give you an example; I visited Uyo, Akwa Ibom state a few days ago and I asked my personal assistant a simple question. “What do you see in Uyo that you don’t see in Calabar?” His reply was simple, “the streets are clean, but the sides of the streets are not as clean as we have in Calabar” and I agreed with him. We have a system that can work. What previous governments from Donald Duke who did things and the believe is still there that we can all set ourselves the collective task of getting it right. Today the pavements on our streets are littered with refuse, turned into what has never been; these are some of the things we must reverse to get back our open spaces. We really need to take care of our open spaces and use them properly. One of the key things I noticed about Liyel’s government is that we didn’t have potholes for a long time and why? It was because the was an agency that had zero tolerance for potholes. Every pothole that you don’t fill, a few months down the road becomes a crater. If things are fixed immediately they occur, challenge things as they show up, we will fix Cross River. You don’t have to wait and make excuses about resources, they’re somethings that money can not do but shared determination can do for us. My government will make our people get back to trusting the system.
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