An aspirant for the Uyo senatorial seat on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in 2019, Obong Ide Owodiong-Idemeko is a politician. In this interview with ETEBONG AKPAN and VICTOR ESSANG, the Ibsekpo Asutan born political science graduate is optimistic that any government that wants to liberate the minds of the people and reduce the level of inequality must first and foremost invest in public education, health, shelter, food sufficiency._
In 2019 you contested for the Uyo Senatorial Ticket on the PDP platform and after the Primary we have not heard anything from you?
I’m still a member of the PDP. I didn’t get any political appointment, beyond that, I’m a professional working through my career, so there was nothing you could have heard from me politically, but I’m sure you heard that during the 2020 Corona virus outbreak , the non-profit organization that I run, the 1001 Plus Voices Initiative for People Empowerment, did carry out three major projects. The first one was the strong advocacy we carried out to educate the people, especially the most vulnerable in the society about the devastating effect of the corona virus. We were able to empower two tailors in Uyo to help us to produce branded face masks that we went round to give a thousand to each local government area. When the Udom Emmanuel government set up the Post COVID-19 Economic Recovery Committee, we sent a memorandum to that committee on what we thought the government could do to position us to recover from post COVID-19 and build a resilient economy and move forward. Also last year, when the government set up the Professor Hillary Inyang Think Tank Committee on Education, 2020 to 2030 Road Map, we also sent a memorandum to that committee which was titled ‘changing the narratives of education for Akwa Ibom child’. So that has been our contributions for the ongoing political development discussion.
These are all lofty ideas but don’t you think you actually need to occupy a particular political office so that you can implement them?
Political development does not only involve you holding political office. It also involves how you can influence political thoughts, how you can help set agenda for government with policies and all of that. People have a distorted impression about what politics should be. It is not all about holding political office. You are also a player in politics if you are in position to advocate and influence political thought and direction. I always get amused when people say that they are not interested in politics or they don’t want to belong. I always tell them, if they like they should not be interested in politics but somehow politics will be involved with them because decisions that come out of political processes will always affect them.
How did other societies of the world get to where they got today? How did Singapore do it, how did the Chinese do it, how did Malaysia that came to Nigeria to borrow palm seedling do it, how did they do it, how did America do it to become the greatest country in the world. Is it that we are cursed? That is why some time I challenge those that say those ideas are utopians, what is utopian about the ideas? You have seen it happen in other societies.
The first day in 2007 when I was flying into Dubai, I was flying in from Europe and we were arriving about the early hours of 2 or 3am into Dubai and it was as if I was coming into a city out of heaven from the sky, everywhere was lighted up with their beautiful architecture, you could see it from the sky as the plane was coming down. We were like, is it the same place that was like a desert in the 70s that Nigeria was already saying that we have so much money and we didn’t even know how to use it? So it is just about commitment. What are my values as a leader? Moses was a leader that was concerned about freeing his people from slavery, another leader was David and even our Lord Jesus Christ, he wasn’t always about himself, then come down to all the mortals like Abraham Lincoln.
Democracy as far as I know requires eternal vigilance not only on the part of the party, but on the part of the followers. That is why you have a recall system where every three to four years, depending on your performance you have to go back to revalidate your mandate. . That is why I said the followers have a responsibility. Our people need political education so that they can differentiate between candidate A and B. The delegates who make up the Electoral College must be able to differentiate between the candidates A who will say when I am voted I will close down Bureau de change to stabilize forex market and the other who will say when I am voted I will pump money to Bureau de change. He needs understand the fundamentals of economics to make a choice. There should be a lot of reorientation.
The way you are sounding, are you not more or less advocating the dictatorship of the people?
When I talked about empowerment of the people through education, empowerment for me, first and foremost is to liberate the mind because when you are able to liberate the mind it will be able to decipher between what is right and what is wrong and cannot be easily manipulated.
When I started the scholarship foundation in this place, I went for a political meeting and when I came out, there were boys chanting ‘leader’, ‘leader’. I asked them if the purpose of their chanting is to get money, they said no. I also asked how many of them were in school, two said they were in school and I directed them to come to the foundation office and register. For me education is paramount. So I mentored those two boys and show them the difference.
So how do we tie education as the first point of liberation of the mind and then link it up with what we are talking about and then having economic independence. When people have what to do, there is no way you can deceive them, they will know the difference.
What is your take on the economy in Akwa Ibom state which is supposed to be private sector driven?
Public schools are social services and you can’t run away from that. The private sector can only come in to complement what the government is doing. It is social service which means that it is the government that drive this sector and not the private sector. Without government providing direction here you will not be able to provide education that is at the reach of the poor. So when I talk about horizontal and inequality in the system, and people ask how you can resolve inequality, I always said you can’t resolve inequality, but you can reduce inequality and there are four basic areas to do that, one is education; when the poor and the rich can have access to quality education. Two is housing, when the poor and the rich can have access to affordable housing. The poor man will not go and live in a castle but at least should have access to affordable shelter. Health care is another basic area. There should be a health care system that the rich and the poor can have access, and then food security, so those are four critical areas where government can say okay I am going to push in social commitment and private sector can complement it to have that balance. If all the schools are run by private sector, how many people will have access to education, or everybody running private hospitals, how will you have health care that works, that the poor man can access.
You aspired before, from your experience how do you prepare for the uphill task before you?
Well, the uphill task is uphill that is why it is uphill. We can only keep on trying. If people believe that I have the quality and capability to provide that leadership, we are open and walk together. To me politics is not just about vying for political office. When you get that opportunity, you are probably at a better position to do more in terms of access to resources, but if you can’t, you keep on pushing. We have seen Akwa Ibom growth but we can also see how we can expand that growth exponentially or geometrically. It is about service, whether you are a local government Chairman, councilor, house of assembly member, house of representatives, senator and governor, once you take that attitude that you are there to go and serve people, because it is to your own best interest to serve the people, then we are good as a people but if you think you are going there to serve yourself, for your own personal aggrandizement so that you can come and lord it over everybody, it is unfortunate.
There is a saying that there are people that will toe your line of reasoning even within the elite class and there are also people within the elites class that sees you as a threat to come and upturn the apple cart, how do you manage this kind of idea that you have with people who don’t share similar views with you at the upper echelon of the society?
That is a leaders role, he is meant to facilitate and reconcile different interest. With my experience in life and I think I’m not a new person to that challenge of being able to reconcile different interest or aligning different stakeholder’s interest in the society. Is about aligning those interests and making sure that everybody focuses on that direction and that direction is development. So who doesn’t want the development of our people, is that person not an Akwa Ibom person, if you are an Akwa Ibom person, you want the development of our people and that development does not exclude you, you are included, so that is the way I will like to put that.
2023 governorship election is not too far again and in your party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), there is this arrangement on ground you call zoning which has been very effective, do you think the next governor of Akwa Ibom state should emerge through the zoning process or it should be thrown to every Akwa Ibom person?
There is a constitution which allows everyone to contest, the only issue is the mechanism put in place by PDP to be able to build an inclusive party and that is good, but if people feel that they have legitimate right to run for an office regardless of what the PDP has put in place, that is their legitimate right to do so. I am a member of PDP, as it is, the mechanism is very clear, the governorship candidate are determined by senatorial district. So it is the turn of Uyo senatorial district. That’s what the zoning mechanism provides. Talking about micro-zoning, I don’t think it is in the party purview.
You have not held any political office before but you work with the private sector, has there been any project executed by you to give you that exposure to aspire for the top job?
If I start talking about my experience, we won’t leave here. October this year will make me 30 years in the oil and gas industry, I have had the opportunity of working in Nigeria, Europe, middle East, North and South America, handling different projects. When I was in Europe, Middle East Headquarters in Brussels, I was in charge of 12 countries and I was the one that recommended what will be the benefits, compensation and strategies to the different countries under my portfolio, so I needed to understand the economy of those countries, the market and work with consultants to make analysis and recommend, I read the first concept paper when we were going to Iraq, so I have managed a lot of projects, such as involved IT solution in 1999/2000, so I have been there.
*Apart from the four critical sectors you have mentioned, what again do you think the next governor of Akwa Ibom state should bring on board to add value to the system?
Upgrade the science park, build a digital economy, invest in our culture and tourism potentials and ensure we get the Ibom deep sea port.
How will we as a state make the people be beneficiaries of most of these gigantic projects?
Let’s take Ibom deep sea project for example. The deep seaport is going to produce enormous jobs, as a government we need to define what type of jobs that Ibom deep seaport will draw and get our people prepared to take over those jobs, the same way with the Bua refinery. We are going to need operators, technicians and engineers and all of that. We need to find out if we have data base of those that have these skills set that are able to participate in the development of this refinery project. We have to be proactive in managing our human resources to be able to get our people ready to participate in the job. If we build the Ibom science park, it’s going to be an exposure especially in this age of digitalization. Our young people will be making use of the place.
I have been a human resource person for 30 years, what else do you need to develop the state, people like me, we know what it is to develop talents and get people ready for the two projects I have mentioned which include Ibom deep seaport and the Bua refinery that is coming. So I am ready to help get our people ready.
What is your take on security. How can it be improved and how can we get people to be security conscious?*
One of the key things about having effective security system is about having information and data. Last two years I was moved into a role in security, senior manager security, so last year I have already developed my skill in that area. Do we as a government know how many houses we have in Nigeria, do we know how many people exist in a household who is there, where are they from, no, do we have any information of people that come into hotels, all over night visitors, does the country have the security apparatus and information, no, we don’t. We need to set up a frame work that enable us to know exactly what we are securing, who we are securing and when we are securing them. So these are the kind of things I will like to put in place if I have the opportunity to work for the state, I want to know the properties that we have in the state. Just like in Uk, in an event of fire outbreak, the man in the control room could throw up the basic information about the house , the street and the rest because they must have had the plan of the house in their data base and immediately passing the basic information about the house to the fire service. Lagos has an idea of this and they did it. This are the things we need to do, it is about applying digitalization, planning, the right frame work and we need to train people because is not going to be easy. We need to have the blue print. In the next couple of weeks we will have the blue print of the state. The 1001 Plus Voices initiative is working on it and we will start to engage the public then you will see most of those things we are saying and ask how we will do it.