Dr. Clement David Ebri, is a former Governor of Cross River State and member All Progressives Congress (APC) Board of Trustees. In this interview granted Apex News Exclusive, he bared his mind on the socio-political and economic crises bedeviling Nigeria presently, and hopeful that President Muhammadu Buhari can surmount them with greater determination. He also opened up on his expectations from his own state administration. Excerpts:
By Akpan David, Calabar
What is your advice to the President on the Nigeria situation?
The President has to step up in a number of things. Security has been very poor and there is much poverty in the land. Every government exists to reduce pain, want, anger and conflict and that is why governments are instituted. He must reduce these things. We still have about two years to go and I believe with stronger determination he will be able to achieve something. President Muhammadu Buhari came in on three grounds: economy, security and corruption, so its not an unwieldly template, it is very straight forward. If you can heal the economy, naira is now 500 to the US dollar, he should be able to reduce this to a more reasonable level. Let Nigerians see that he is putting his best and giving all those sectors his best shot. The greatest problem we have now are in these three areas: corruption, economy and security. The unemployment rate also is another important issue.
Cross River is now an APC-controlled state alongside the government at the centre, so what is your candid advice to those in power?
The governor has safely moved to the APC. He has thus connected the state to the national political grid. I believe that will come with a lot of benefits. The movement into the APC is good. The party is already star studded. The quality of people that are there even if they could not win elections because of the incumbency factor will ignite the process of development of the state because we have quality people there. If the governor listens to advice coming from people like these, I believe we will be able to achieve a lot more with, at least, two-thirds of the cream of the political class because the people in APC in the state are tested politicians who have won elections and highly paced. It’s a much stronger union right now and that union will add a lot of value to our political and economic growth so I am hopeful the governor can end his tenure in glory if he can adjust a few things and listen to the advise of the people who are now within the fold of the APC.
When you were governor in 1992 in the days of National Republican Convention, you brought in young elements and today the likes of Donald Duke, Liyel Imoke and the rest are still in focus. How do you feel about them and are you happy you were able to mentor such young people?
I do not regret. What I need to let you know is that I did not go all out and say it must be young people. I had the older people alongside. For instance, in my board appointments, I tried as mush as possible to put very senior citizens as chairmen and then back up with younger ones so that they could learn. For example, if you went to a place like Calcemco, the chairman was Dr. Emmanuel Utange, a well-established person and I had some younger men as members. I went to Cross River Estate Ltd (CREL) at the time Dr. Beno Aruelia was chairman. Gershom Bassey, the man who is now one of the Supreme Court judges, Emmanuel Agim Akomaye were members. That was the kind of thing I did. I went to some institutions like Equity and Investments Company and had Professor Charles Effiong as Chairman, Bolaji Anani and a few others as members. So, essentially, I put them in what is called a holding pattern, it’s like when you are flying you talk about the pilot being in a holding pattern, you are up there waiting to be given instructions to land and that experience you acquire I believe it is one of the things that really gave them capacity to survive beyond my time. Mr Donald Duke, for instance, was my Commissioner for Finance. The basis for bringing him was that I did not want all my commissioners to have only Cross River experience. Donald was in Lagos and was a lot into investments and all of that so I felt that in a cabinet of seven, I should have one person who will come with ideas from outside the state and that was the basis for that.
For Imoke, I also brought him in from Lagos to run for the Senate. He was not even around when I became governor. He was not even a member of the National Republican Convention. Somehow, I was inspired and in his own case God just spoke to me and said look this guy’s father, S.E. Imoke was Minister for Education and he had signed my school certificates. So, I felt a name like that should return through his son. And he had told me that he wanted to follow in is father’s footsteps. Being one that had so much respect for those that paid their dues at that time, I felt that his father had done sufficiently well to be able to have his name back in the political arena through his son. Again, I have no regrets.
The deputy governor was my Commissioner for Agriculture. Ekpo Okon was in House of Representatives. My aim was to build up the younger generation to also work with the older ones. Let me tell you that dichotomy was not there at all. My campaign was even led by older people like Cornelius Achima, Chief A. B. Odey, Mark Obot, Ukandi Gabriel Ogar and all those people.
It was not youths that led it at that time. We just had a Cross River that had a good blend of the old and the young. Somehow, I found out that the younger ones I brought were able to survive beyond my time.
They were able to survive because of their survival instinct. It was not easy for me to win elections at that time especially when all the big guns were all against me. But having done that the young men learned the lessons of perseverance in the face of adversity and that is what has seen then to this point today.
How do you see Cross River today. Are you happy over how things are? Is this what you had envisaged?
Well, I thought we would have done better than now but every era has its own challenges. Don’t be surprised when I became governor, I did not borrow a dime, a single kobo and never even collected a single overdraft from bank at that time. That is the way things were at that time coupled with my own background as an economist and also the fact that I sat on the board of two banks. I was director at Mercantile Bank which was a state-owned bank and also Savanna Bank which federal government had controlling shares. Having looked at that and seen how small loans of maybe N100, 000 grew to N10 million because of compound interest over time I just felt that I would not want my state to be in such situation. Again because of my background as an economist and project manager everything had to be reduced to the profitability calculus of price economics. If it will not yield dividends it will not fly. So, the projects had to add value, not constitute a burden and that will be particularly relevant to our stages of growth at that time. You don’t put something, for instance, that is very expensive and you don’t have traffic to patronise it, you had to grow side by side with it. If something was there it had to be within the reach of the people. It was not a one size fits all. What you find in Lagos, you just bring it here even when our people will not be able to cope with them. So, you have to do it in a very gradual manner and that was the way we went about. A lot of those things, economic arrangements, have been distorted but I don’t have a monopoly of knowledge. Each government comes in with its own ideas and this becomes a testing ground for people. I came with my own theories and I have no regret because at that time that was the direction I wanted the state to go. The years after me have been different but since the prevailing conditions are not the same but I wish we had gone further, beyond what we have now because the debt burden has made it difficult for much progress to be made and again the economy of Nigeria has not been favourable to the growth of some sectors within the state. So, all of those things have impinged on us. When I came in, it was five naira to the US dollar later it became N8. Now, you are talking about N500 to $1. It compounds the whole thing but I still believe we are not where we ought to be at this time.
Nigeria’s unemployment rate is alarming. Your take.
It is a time-bomb. A few days ago, I was talking to my friend’s son, a chemical engineer, five years now no job. I studied at University of Nigeria Nsukka. At that time even before we sat for the degree exams employers would come from Central Bank Nigerian, Customs, Immigration, UBA, First Bank. In fact, I had ignored all the interviews because I was so sure I was going to get a job. It was however during my National Youth Service that I saw an opening somewhere. I applied and got the job. But today we have lawyers, engineers and doctors in the house unemployed and this is a time-bomb. I can say clearly that the mine has been laid and we are only waiting for a spark to explode it. We should not wait for a spark. Every effort must be put in place to ensure that this aspect is seriously addressed.