Punish Padding But Retain Constituency Projects – Senator Etok

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Aloysius Akpan Etok was born on 15 February 1958 in Usuk Obio Ediene in Akwa Ibom State. He has a B.Sc.(Hons) from the University of Calabar. Between 1976 and 2007 he worked in a variety of government and business posts, including a position as a board member of the Akwa-Ibom State Water Corporation. In 1999, he was publisher of a new magazine, the Ntieyong Business Review. He assisted in the foundation of Fortune High School in 2002. From 1992 to 1993, Etok was a member of the House Of Representatives where he served as minority whip. From 1999-2003, he was a member of the Akwa-Ibom State House Of Assembly, Uyo. He failed to be nominated to stand for the Ikono constituency for a second term. In November 2004, he was chairman of the transport and special projects committee of the Akwa Ibom State Assembly. Aloysius Akpan Etok was elected to the National Senate for the Akwa Ibom North West constituency in 2007. He was appointed a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, chaired by Joel Danlami Ikenya, which in 2009 was trying to push through the Financial Reporting Council Bill. Aloysius Etok was re-elected on the PDP platform as senator for Akwa Ibom North West in April 2011. In a chat with The New Diplomat’s AKANIMORE KUFRE, the financial consultant spoke on national issues ranging from budget padding, the economy, militancy and unity of Nigerian state.

How has life been since you left the Senate?

  I wouldn’t say life has not been different. There are lots of difference between office and home. Like today I wake up anytime I like and go out when I want, I fix my appointments at my convenience. Unlike when I was in the office, then you rush and get prepared to meet 10 O’clock sitting time and the rest of those things. Generally, am trying to rebuild myself and reposition my economic and social life. Be that as it may, I think it’s also a good experience.

Budget padding has become a national issue. Was budget padding observed in your time and how did you handle it?

  I just realised from the exposure of some of the things that happened when we were there. It didn’t come to our knowledge. But what I would want to say is that budget making is the work of the legislator. What the executive presents to the legislator is imputed to the budget. And then the legislator which has the constitutional responsibility of making a budget, would look at what the executive has presented; may be add or subtract and rearrange according to the needs of respective constituency. One other area I wish to appeal to both the legislator and the executive to try and preserve is constituency projects. Though with the present situation, the constituency project has been presented to the world in a different perspective, the constituency project does not mean that the legislator gets the money. It means an opportunity for a legislator to bring a project that will create a direct impact on the respective constituency represented by each legislature, it doesn’t mean that when a project is recommended as constituency project that the legislator gets the money. I can say very confidently that most of the projects in my constituency are projects which were put in the budget as constituency projects because you remember that the out-gone governor, Godswill Akpabio was against it and fought me in every dimension to make sure there was no project that came to my area. Even the road that was to pass through my village they removed the money from the budget and did not even execute the road up till today just because he didn’t like me. So apart from the constituency project I would not even have a road for me to pass to get home. The reason I pass through a lot of trouble to get old Itu Road to get into constituency project which at least helps us to come from at least Ikot Ekpene axis to go to my village. So I want to appeal to both the legislature and the executive to come to the mid-way and allow constituency projects to continue to be part of the budget of the federation because it is only through the constituency project that every legislature would have the opportunity to take a project to his constituency, a project that will impact on the life of the constituency the legislator represents.

Don’t you believe the constituency project has led to gross corruption?

  Budget making is a serious part of the legislative process carried out by legislators. You introduce the constituency project in the process of making the budget and then it is left for the executive to give that as a contract to any contractor of its choice. But in most cases, the people who would come in to do the project have some connection with the executive and then most of the projects would not have a thorough follow-up and would be haphazardly implemented. But what am saying in all honesty and sense of responsibility is that constituency project is a good introduction into the cordial relationship between the executive and the legislator.

Does the current issue of budget padding involving the Speaker of the Lower Hose, Mr Dogara, relate to constituency project?

  If it is a constituency project it cannot be called budget padding. Budget padding means you introducing into the budget projects which are not relevant, which are not likely to be physically implemented or it connotes a corrupt situation where unnecessary things are put into the budget to enlarge the size of the budget without being relevant. That cannot be said to be part of the constituency projects. Constituency project are little projects, transparently and legislatively included in the budget through a legislative process of making the budget. But if by any means a group of persons would, on their own, put a project of up to ₦4billion, ₦12billion and ₦18 billion in the budget,  that is criminal. Constituency project is not a hidden thing, it is a discussion between the executive and the legislator, the executive telling the legislature how much margin they can include or add to the budget presented by the executive. In some cases, the executive can say ‘ok, the total amount of money you can include in the budget is this amount.’ And that amount would be shared between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate will now come and say each senator should put in a project which will not exceed so and so amount. And that is what we run as constituency project. It doesn’t mean you have to bring a contractor, you bring a project. It is then left for the executive to then use the normal procurement process to determine a suitable contractor who would execute the project. In most cases, those who execute the constituency project I have never met at all. Constituency project should be separated from padding, and padding should be stopped. Still I want to appeal to both the legislature and the executive to make sure they reconcile and come to terms with the sustenance of the practice of constituency project because that is the only way legislature can show and bring on to table the needs of respective constituencies.

Talking about projects, Buhari’s 2016 budget reflects ₦66billion for Calabar-Lagos railway and Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road dualisation project. Do you see these improving the economy of the region soon?

  I would like to say that the kind of projects in the 2016 Budget would make serious impact on the lives of especially the south-south people. Judging from the project such as the Lagos – Calabar Railway, I know that we fought to include that in the budget in the past. And we tried to make sure the former transport minister, Idris Abubakar, gave the consultant the survey, the viability and feasibility study of such project. We are glad that the Buhari administration has taken it up as a major part of the budget to be implemented because the president knows that if he does just that alone he will cut across a lot of states that were easily neglected in means of transportation. You know that there are two things any government can do and would directly affect and improve the living standard of the people. Give the people means of transportation, the rail, road, air and water, and you would directly improve the living standard of the people. Thereafter, give them electricity. That means that people from the south-south in particular will have access to Lagos market and then be able to evacuate the produce which mainly are agricultural, to a large market that Lagos offers while those who are bringing goods from Lagos would have cheaper source of transportation to the South-south starting from Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, right through to Akwa Ibom and Calabar. Again, the project is the best project to be implemented within this period because the government is expected to spend more money during economic recession to lubricate the economy. For instance, and if the government embarks upon these projects which is in the key sector of transportation, it will carry a heavy content of construction.  Every state the project will pass through will have a lot of unemployable hands being attended to and because when you are embarking on construction you are incidentally taking care of artisans, carpenter, welders and even the mechanics will be involve, you will also be taking care of a cross section of trading economic sector those selling gravel will sell, sand, chippings and a lot of other things. Again with the Lagos-Calabar railway, and if the government will give us at least18 hours light, you’ll see that industries will be scattered along the rail line because they know that it is cheaper to bring in their raw material to the industries and it is also cheaper to for their customers to move their produce out of the region. So you will have a lot of industries lining the whole length of the rail line. Then the Aba-Ikot-Ekpene-Calabar road  road is a key factor in the economic development of not only the South-south but the South-east and beyond because you have a petroleum depot in Calabar where ships come in to offload the products and then you know the system we are operating now where petroleum products are being hauled through the road. And you know that by the time you have the road not only rehabilitated but dualised there’ll be heavy traffic from Calabar and heavy traffic from the Aba axis and that will help to develop the economic tempo within the area. Again, that will reduce the economic burden of the people of the area because right now whenever you go from Uyo to Calabar, you have to not only service the car you will have to maintain the car because of the worsening standard of the road. So these are some of the things and we want to appeal to the president to try as much as possible to make sure that these projects kick off and if he does, that will be a permanent footprint on sands of history.

Talking about the economy of Akwa Ibom State, what suggestion would you give Governor Udom Emmanuel to boost it?

  The economy of Akwa Ibom is pathetic because  the economy has already been destroyed by the former administration causing high debt profile which shouldn’t have been the case judging from how much we have gotten from the federation account. There is no justifiable reason for such level of debt profile in the state. But thank God that the successor, Udom Emmanuel is a banker. He has to go back and wear his banking cap, make sure he looks at the economy and lay all economic factors on the table because in every recession the government must be the bigger spender. And in this case, where would he get the money? But then as a banker and a governor who has promised to develop the state he must look for a way. But certainly he must have to manage and be very conscious of unnecessarily increasing the debt profile. He can rearrange the debt, convert it into a longer-term debt, convert it into a bond that will spread to about 20 to 30 years repayment period to be able to bring in a little bit of short-term fund. And when he brings in the fund he must look at the key sector of the economy and stimulate development in that area— like  construction. Again we have put in so much money into power right from the time of Obong Attah to Akpabio. It is time power comes to the people, because if the people see the power, that in itself is a key economic indicator to improve and to encourage entrepreneurial activities among the people. It is when the people begin to find something to do that their economic burden would be lessened. This is the time the people must begin to benefit from the money sunk into the power sector within the state which has drained a good proportion of the state’s revenue. At least between 16 to 18 hours of power supply and the entire economic landscape of the state will change. So my advice to him is to see how to diversify the economy, encourage people to take to small-scale industries and see how to stimulate the construction sector.

Udom is a seasoned banker just as peter Obi, former Anambra State governor. Are there similarities among these states’ economies?   

  For now, there is no comparison.Look at what is happening in Anambra. Anambra State, from the bottom, is the 7th in the list of federal allocation. But today Anambra state is not only stable, it is very, very resilient, well managed and it is not owing one kobo to anybody. Anambra has paid all allowances, salaries and pensions up to date as we speak. I remember, I think 2013 or so when I went to attend the National Council of Establishment, and in the address the governor, Peter Obi told us that the economy of Anambra was managed in such a way that if they had problem for about 18 months or three years, the  state would continue to pay salaries. I was so touched. If you compare that to what happens in Akwa Ibom State where we received the highest revenue in this country for so many years, we were the highest receiver of revenue only next to federal govt. Ask yourself what we have on ground. I am not talking about media projects, am not talking about projects that are implemented and commissioned in the media.

But Akwa Ibom has had ground-breaking ceremonies for industries, including automobile, coconut refinery, hatchery and many more. What is your comment on these economic activities?

  Well, those are all good projects in the direction of industrialization but do we have the resources? Unless we have very reliable managers of the economy who would be able to negotiate and give the people the assurance of sustainability, profitability and viability. One of them should be power, do we have the power? We don’t have the power! That attraction would have been power that would say “come you would not spend so much in buying diesel”. Why most industries are dying and moving out of Nigeria is power.

How should we tackle the paucity of funds in Akwa Ibom and other states where there is backlog of salaries and huge pensions for ex governors? 

  I have always said it is criminal for the governors to have sat down and determine what they would receive not minding what is happening to the economy of the state. It is time the federal government, and  National Assembly stepped in to arrange for a scale of pension to be paid putting all the states and grading them on different economic scale and then begin to prescribe what should be the pension accruable to governors and other retiring officers. And again, like what you are saying, it is not right for a governor to receive his entitlements and allowances in the National Assembly plus huge pensions from the state. Most of them are serving in the National Assembly. There is a law that says in summary that when you are a pensioner and take up full-time appointment, the pension must be deducted from allowances or salaries payable to you. So, that is what the governors must do. That is what the system must do on those collecting this huge sum in the National Assembly, including those ministers. We must deduct from what they are collecting or in other words they collect the higher one and leave the lesser one. It is not fair. That is one thing that must be done at the centre because there is a serious abuse of power in the states. If not, the essence of state creation as development entities is defeated and reduced to mere political reward for greedy individuals. At times when you talk they hide under the House of Assembly. Who owns the House of Assembly? The houses of assembly are owned by the governors, they put them in their pocket and bring them to the table to do what they want and they do it. Everybody knows. Gone are those days when we have houses of assembly who would draw a clear line between the legislature and the executive and they would want to do the will of the people at least 70 percent and 30 percent for the cordial relations with the executive. But today the voice of the people in the state houses of assembly is not up to 10 percent.

The voice of the people has led to the cleanup of Ogoni land by the federal government how would Akwa Ibom benefit from this exercise?

  I have not read the entire package. But what I know is that the clean-up of Ogoniland is a United Nations programme. They took up the Ogoniland situation because even if you as a person go to Ogoniland you will agree with the UN that the place must be cleaned. Akwa Ibom being an oil-producing state has suffered some level of oil exploration environmental degradation. The government by extension should begin to look at those areas the people are suffering degradation, look at the aquatic life of the people. For instance if you go between Eket and Ibeno on both sides of the … you’ll see what is happening there. The aquatic life of that area is lost completely. You see that a major oil reach out to local government areas that are not listed as oil producing areas. It affected my area, Ikono. Some people saw something in the stream and I was invited.  I went there, I saw the oil spill. I was informed of what happened in the stream passing through Nkwot and you see that it happened so. Even in ibiono, they had the same effect. Now it is left for govt after cleanup of Ogoniland to begin to look into other areas to see how to clean up and maybe upgrade both the aquatic and other environments. Many of the people who live around where the degradations occur have not benefitted in any way from the profit of oil exploration. So we must encourage them to begin to look for other ways of engaging themselves in economic activities to have sustainable living.

Talking about degradation and agitation in the Niger Delta, do you think the federal government should use force against Niger Delta Avengers?

  Well, I would not want to judge because it depends on the circumstance on ground. But what I want to say as a statesman is for the government to continue to offer a channel for dialogue to the agitators. It is also reasonable for the agitators to accept to dialogue with government because you cannot just say you are agitating and you are not talking. If you are not talking, how do we know what the problem is? Like those they call the avengers, you must know what you are avenging. If you are avenging, that means you must have been hurt, must have been brutalized, ill-treated and you are avenging. You must tell somebody what you are avenging. And certainly, in all honesty I must say as a Niger Deltan, we must not derail the government  attention in trying to ease the problem. It is coincidental that it was a Katsina man, the late Umaru Musa Yar’dua  who came in to look at the issues that have been on ground for a long time and then gave us the east-west road, gave the Niger Delta militants amnesty programme, disarmed and trained the ex-militants, de-radicalized them. It is another situation with another Katsina man, Buhari. Why don’t we tell him: “From where your brother stopped come and do this one for us”. Let’s be honest, we appear to be faring better when we are talking to our brothers in the North because of what happens with the last administration of our brother, Goodluck Jonathan. Apart from the little that was being spent for the militants, the infrastructural development, the upgrading of the economic fortunes of the place were left undone.

Quite unfortunate for the central government is another distraction of Fulani herdsmen attacks. What should Buhari do to address this?

  You have a group of people engaging in criminal activities; the government should do everything possible to bring their activities to an end. It is criminal. They are all criminals and must be brought to book. How can you go to places and begin to kill the owners of the place, burn their houses destroy their farm, it is not acceptable. The same manner the government is dealing with Boko Haram  fundamentalists, the government must go after them too.

How do you see Nigeria’s unity under Buhari?

  For me, a man doesn’t know the goodness of a wife until he marries two wives. What I would like to say is talk to those who were of age and witnessed the civil war and what they went through. I remember  talking to one Sierra Leonean, he laughed and told me, “Senator, you don’t know what you are enjoying by being in peace and together. It is the day that you start war that you’ll know that peace is better than war.”
Up till today Sierra Leone is still at war. Talk to a Somalian you will know what is happening there and therefore we must pray. Sudan was split into two — Sudan and Southern Sudan. But there is still no peace. And what is likely to happen in Nigeria is likely to be a religious war which is the worst war to have in any nation. I think all of us must pray for peace and we should begin to look on those things that will stabilize, that will make our unity stronger so we can begin to derive the benefit of international recognition by our size and strength. It is better to jaw- jaw than to war-war.

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