The Cross River State Conundrum: Passing On A Stained Banner?

Former National Publicity Secretary of the PDP,  Venatius Ikem, in this piece, delivers a frank and succinct assessment of the political propelled economics of Cross River State and what will be probable outcomes in the future.

By Vena Ikem

For those interested in politics for the passion of it’s fundamental value to society’s growth and development, it’s potentials to enrich and improve the quality of the lives we and our people live, this is a time to speak up and act. A time to fashion out workable solutions to the problems created over a long period because we chose the wide road which is leading us to perdition. Our state is not just broke. Our state is bankrupt. I know I have not said anything new.

We all mouth this truth without appreciating the critical dept it means to the declining lives we are living today. Yes, our lives are declining in quality and expectancy; in the future investment in our children as we decline in every national development indicator. As businesses and people relocate from the state so the quality will keep declining. Counting a few persons building houses from access to some Govt patronage as an indication of “growth and development” is mischievous.

Successive Governments have borrowed CRS into a debt trap that makes Nigeria look very solvent. The Duke Administration’s acclaimed investment in Tinapa has remained a very sour mention in “Investment”. I don’t like to throw mud at ex Governor Duke. He is a man I literally love for many reasons. First of which is his contribution to my personal self awareness and development. I tell those close to me that he taught me to think! He also has incredible drive and passion for what he does. But he is human and he makes mistakes.

The mistakes of our two previous Governors have been largely due, with the benefit of hindsight, to their inability to relate to the reality of the Cross River State experience. They attempted to import some fancy models of development into a state, not totally ready for them, or not ideally positioned for them. In Duke’s case, I think he was derailed by the sudden massive cash inflow from the federation account, following the oil windfall of the early millennium.

From a paltry allocation of under 300 million monthly in 1999, the state suddenly started earning in excess of 5-7 billion naira monthly! In classical third world leadership style he abandoned farming and replaced it with tourism as his policy priority! The consequence has been investment without appreciable returns. The more credible investments in social capacity have not been consistent.

To be fair, Gov. Donald Duke could have done much better, i often argue if he had persisted in his investment in Agriculture. Just see what Wilmar is turning our abandoned Palm plantations to! It is normal to make mistakes. It is human. He didn’t get the Agriculture policies implementation right at one try but the policy was without doubt the future. When faced with challenges he abandoned the policy which the entire state had already bought into passionately because of course we are an agrarian State and can relate to Agriculture. But alas, the pilot jettisoned and left the ship afloat.

He changed course to Tourism with Tinapa, Ranch and carnival as flagships. While the carnival has thrived, Tinapa and the Ranch Resort have remained a drag on the entire state economy threatening and taking the rest of us down with them! It not only cost more, it has added absolutely nothing to our economy since construction.

Successive Administrations have had to grapple with what to not only do with the project, but how to manage the huge debts incurred from it’s construction, since 12/14 years ago! Servicing those debts is the major reason for our downward spiral. We can neither have our monthly allocations ( because it was spent 15 years ago! ) nor borrow because we have been officially declared bankrupt by the DMO!

The Imoke Administration, equally took off with many social initiatives especially in developing rural infrastructure but soon abandoned that in search of “Lagacies”! I thought legacies were a natural consequence of the sum total of one’s service. But what do I know? Alas, he embarked on the construction of projects for “Legacy”, aptly tagged “Legacy Projects”, albeit unofficially! I don’t know if the CICC is as worthy a legacy as the rural roads he initially started with.

Unfortunately, these have left us in additional debt needlessly, while negotiating and rescheduling of the outstanding debts to the future. Now that future is here as PMB has categorically said no to rescheduling of debts and the state can do so little without access to all funds from her allocation none at all from the financial institutions.

In the process of attempting to manage the debts ex Gov Imoke went into the Bond Market to borrow 40bn Naira, at the twilight of his Administration, which I vehemently opposed at the time and petitioned the debt management office. In the end the Bond was issued out of political sentiments because PDP was in Power at Federal. Today I understand that the same Debt Management Office, (DMO) that wrote to explain to me how CRS was solvent is today completely blocking any effort the state initiates to raise funds from financial institutions for reasons of bankruptcy! In fact I was shocked to learn recently that the state has been able to access only 8 bn naira of the 40bn naira Bond issue because DMO insists on “cleaning up the accounts” of the state! Everything about finances of the state is opaque and nobody speaks up! Who are we “repaying” these many billions to anyway? We have to start asking questions.

It is to his credit that Gov Ben Ayade has not incurred any serious debt in the last more than 4 years of his Administration. I don’t know if that is a policy but most likely it is the consequence of the State’s insolvency status. It is fashionable to blame the current administration for all the economic bashing we are taking without asking questions. The official policy of successive Administrations in the state has been ” Speak no evil” of the previous one! That is why I started this piece by asking that we demand answers and thereby seek solutions to the problems confronting us as a people.

I have no doubt in my mind that there will always be enough money for every new occupant of Peregrino House, to make and somehow, evict himself and his family from the poverty trap but the rest of us will remain tied to “food on the table” and continue to grow poorer and blame ourselves for lacking in initiatives! The truth is that the environment for wealth creation in our state is eroding by the hour.

The state itself having been driven out of access to funds because of the debt trap is competing with citizens on avenues for revenue and in the process squeezing businesses out of existence. We are creating a vicious economic circle around mainly federal allocations from various sources: FAAC, Local Govt allocation, SUBEB, Bailout and conering the few viable IGR sources from Solid minerals development ( read quarrying).

With this background Gov. Ayade’s attempt to create a new state economy based on Agro Industrial development is welcome but in practical terms at best still wishful. It hasn’t helped that it looks to me that he is putting the carts before the horses.

And don’t get me wrong. I believe that his initiatives are nevertheless better than doing nothing. I believe that in his hurry to be seen to “perform” he is sometimes pushing the right initiatives the wrong way and prioritizing wrongly. I wish for instance that he put the development of the Cocoa processing plant ahead of the rice seedlings factory. If only the state had already started processing Cocoa beans! I wish the ground nut processing plant in Bekwarra is already working. I wish there is a massive cassava processing facility somewhere because growing cassava, ground nuts and Cocoa has become traditional to us! Imagine if in the process of doing these, we have taken the farmers along more actively and created enablers for increased cultivation of those crops we plan to process.

But clearly this is the roadmap to the future if only he will step back a little and pay some attention to Palm plantation development as is in the pipeline, cultivation of crops like corn also in the pipeline etc. The point I’m making is that of ATTENTION AND PRIORITISATION because Agriculture takes time and persistence! We should be lifting these initiatives from paper to the farms. The time is running out !

In trying to do the impossible under this financial entrapment the state is in, Gov Ayade has unsuccessfully wasted time, energy and resources in sourcing elusive foreign investment to the embarrassment of many. The truth is bitter: Cross River State cannot borrow because she is bankrupt. Sign all the MOUs you like it still boils down to the same thing: credit. Without prejudice to additional efforts to sidestep this reality that the Gov is pursuing, we have very little room to manouvre.

If we build Agro processing plants and don’t get them fed and fully functional, the next Administration will abandon and possibly scrap them! Even if they are privatised the next Administration can cancel them out beginning from probing the processes that led to construction and ultimate privatisation!

There are initiatives in Agriculture, no doubt but only with half hearted attention. Indeed the Ministry of Agriculture in CRS seems completely oblivious or at best lukewarm in involvement with the implementation of the many Agro initiatives except as everyone else in Govt or in politics. Nothing is being driven from there and there is no serious symbiosis between the ministry and The Agro Industrial initiatives. This is dangerous.

In conclusion, I think the state is in dire need of a forum to discuss our future. Groping further in the dark will lead us nowhere. We must have a forum to discuss how far we have come, take account of stewardship from past leaders and evolve a robust plan for our future as a state before the next election.

I don’t like the future I’m seeing!

Vena. A Ikem wrote in from Calabar.

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