In this interview, Chidi Onyemaizu, Senior Special Assistant on Print Media to the Cross River State Governor, Professor Ben Ayade , speaks with Jerome-Mario Utomi, Special Project Officer, Ika Weekly Newspaper, about the State of the Nation, Nation building, the demands of his position and why all States in the Federation should adopt the Ayade model as the solution to the hydra headed problem of unemployment in Nigeria, among other issues.
For the benefit of our readers, kindly say some words to enable the readers understand more fully your background? What was your growing up like?
Growing up was fun in my rustic village in Imo state. Like any other child of that era, I did those things, those pranks and those chores that a boy of my age did at that time. However, I was 12 or 13 when I was brought to Lagos by my elder brother and have ever since lived there.
Without fear of contradiction, you have been a Journalist for close to two decades. So, tell us, what informed your choice of Journalism in the first place? And what the experience is like?
The lure for Journalism for me was largely activated by my flare for writing, my passion for writing. I started writing articles for publication when I was in primary six. In fact, my first article was published by the then Imo state owned newspaper, the Nigerian Statesman. So, journalism and writing, for me, are passions come true, though I had soft spot for law too. Over the years, journalism has enabled me partake in national discourse; it has exposed me to the nitty-gritty of the Nigerian federation, politics. Journalism makes you an opinion leader, opens doors for you and brings you close to all strata of persons in the society. The drawback however is that journalism is largely a thankless profession, and it is not a financially rewarding profession.
‘Journalism makes you an opinion leader, opens doors for you and brings you close to all strata of persons in the society’
Again, our readers would like to understand the difference between a Mass Communicator, a Journalist and a Public Relations Practitioner? Is there any relationship?
A journalist, whether print or electronic, is a Mass communicator because he decodes and dispenses information to a mass audience almost at the same time. Public Relations practitioner is a communicator but he or she may not necessarily be communicating to a mass audience, most times, he communicates to a target audience because his/ her communication is majorly about image management- person or product.
Now, let’s talk about your present position. What does being a Senior Special Assistant (Print Media) to the Executive Governor of a state entails?
As the Senior Special Assistant to the governor on Print Media, you are constantly on your toes; you are his eyes and ears in the Print Media industry. You make sure that every of his activities are adequately covered and reported by the newspapers and in doing that you interface with newspapers, editors from time to time, ensuring that your principal has a good press at all times is also key.
What is your greatest challenge doing this job?
How do you cope with the proliferation of fake news? And how can it be reduced to the barest minimum in the nation’s political space?
Apart from the pressure of meeting deadline just as you have in the newsrooms, you practically have your ears on the ground 24 hours; you sleep with one eye and your ears open because your principal can summon you at any time, an issue that requires your urgent response can crop up anytime. So, basically it is impossible to have your own personal schedule.
In media management, we were taught that it is better to ignore certain issues because responding to them help confer legitimacy on them, amplify them and give them a life they never had. This is exactly how I handle certain fake stories involving my principal.
To curtail fake news, relevant laws should be activated and strengthened to deal with peddlers of such unfounded news items.
Going by reports, your Principal appears to have an opposing view about the reality of the novel Corona Virus. Why?
His Excellency, Professor Ben Ayade does not have opposing views about the novel Coronavirus. Remember that His Excellency is a Professor of Environmental Microbiology of almost two decades standing and if you have been following issues around the pandemic closely, you will find that he is a trail blazer as far as the pandemic is concerned. He was the first to introduce nose masks made from fabrics as opposed to the imported synthetic nose masks. This was at a time nose masks made from fabrics was unheard of us. Not only did the World Health Organisation, WHO later approve of its use, fabrics nose masks are now the fad round the world.
As I speak, the Cross River State owned Garment Factory which was established by him as part of his industrialisation drive is mass producing the masks which are distributed to Cross Riverians free.
Also, Governor Ayade, as part of preventive protocols against the virus, was the first governor in Nigeria to introduce no masks no movement order which was later embraced by the federal government and other states.
As I speak to you, the Cross River Garment factory has now gone beyond nose masks production, it’s now also producing Personal Protective Equipment, PPEs for free distribution to health workers and students when school resumes.
It will also interest you to know that long before the federal governments decided on interstate movement restrictions, Governor Ayade had already shut Cross River borders with other states. In fact, His Excellency spent many sleepless nights at the various borders that isCross River shares with neighbouring states to ensure that persons from states infected by the virus did not infiltrate into Cross River.
More specifically, what is your personal impression concerning the much talked Corona virus and the orchestrated palliatives (Food Bank) by the State Government? Has the government (both states and Federal) been fair to the people? What is your take on the current global call for sanction against China for their inglorious role in this troubling moment?
I have no personal impression other than what is already in the public domain about the virus. My advice to Nigerians is to stay safe by adhering to all the preventive protocols rolled out by the authorities.
There are undeniable presences of Food Banks in the various local governments of Cross River. Food Bank is His Excellency, Governor Ben Ayade’s brainchild, a concept he introduced as a Senator representing Northern Cross River. In the face of the pandemic, Cross River Food Bank has been of a great relief to the poor and vulnerable, they from time to time get food items from the Bank.
On China, I wouldn’t want to be drawn into the controversy over that Asian country’s role in the spread of the novel Coronavirus.
As someone very close to the government, will it be a wrong claim, to say that there is something troubling with the educational policies in the country?
Well, I think experts in the education sector are in the best position to answer this question but in my opinion, policy planners should think towards holistic education policy-theoretical, practical and vocational.
Stakeholders are particularly worried about the education sector’s inability to produce graduates tailored to meet the industrial needs. Is such assertion correct?
I agree absolutely and that is the reason I’m advocating for a holistic education system.
From what NBS is saying, unemployment in the country is presently at 28% and under-employment at 16%? What is the way out of this challenge that appears to have defiled every solution proffered by successive administrations?
The solution to the hydra headed problem of unemployment in Nigeria is the adoption of the Ayade model. I recommend the Ayade model to governments at all levels. And what is the Ayade model? The Ayade model is all about an aggressive Industrialisation and Agro-Industrialisation drive. In five years of his administration, Ayade has massively industrialised Cross River with the view to creating jobs for the unemployed. The Ayade policy of one industrial per local government is alive and kicking. All the three Senatorial zones in Cross River boast of industries established by the Ayade administration- you have the ultra modern Ogoja rice mill, the automated cocoa processing plant in Ikom, the tooth pick industry at Yakurr, groundunt oil processing company at Bekwara among others, all in the Northern and Central Senatorial districts respectively.
Then in Southern senatorial district, you have an industrial park in Calabar where Africa’s first ever automated Rice Seeds and Seedlings factory is situated. In the industrial park, you also have the Calachika chicken processing plant, CalaNoodles Instant noodles factory and a Feed Mill. Elsewhere in the South, there is also the Cross River Integrated Poultry farm at Odukpani among other industries in the Senatorial district. In all, Ayade has established over 30 industries since taking office five years ago. While some of these industries are already operational others are in advanced stages of completion.
‘THE SOLUTION TO THE HYDRA HEADED PROBLEM OF UNEMPLOYMENT IN NIGERIA IS THE ADOPTION OF THE AYADE MODEL’
Apart from being familiar with the nation’s education sector, you exude great knowledge of development and political economy. Beginning with the last observation, could you please give an objective analysis of the nation’s (Nigeria) democratic experience or is it experiment in the past two decades?
No two nations have the same democratic experience; therefore, Nigeria’s democratic experience since the dawn of democracy in 1999 has left the shores of learning and is now heading towards maturity. We may not have been 100 percent perfect but we are not doing badly. Democratic process all over the world is work in progress. We will surely get there.
From the above response, can you say that democracy is best for us as a nation or should we go back to the regional system of old as currently clamoured in some quarters?
Regional and Parliamentary systems which were in force in the first Republic were democratic in nature just as the present federal and presidential systems of government. So, for me, I’m for any system that guarantees Nigeria’s unity and development. However, I see nothing wrong with the present arrangement.
‘I’m for any system that guarantees Nigeria’s unity and development’.
What is your position on the nation’s restructuring? From the present political reality do you think that President Muhammadu Buhari can muster the political will to organize a sovereign National Conference or implement the 2014 Confab report?
President Buhari was elected by Nigerians and he is the symbol of the sovereign you talked about. Therefore, asking him to convene a Sovereign National Conference for the purpose of restructuring Nigeria is to ask him to abdicate the high office of the presidency of Nigeria, that is, to surrender his powers, office to a group of elected or selected persons who now determine the tenor of the federation. I don’t think this is possible.
However, it is up to the National Assembly to come up with the appropriate legislation for the implementation of the 2014 Confab report and similar past reports gathering dust in the archives.
Going by the National Bureau of statistics (NBS) recent reports; over 13.2 million Nigerian children are presently out of school. About 112 million Nigerians now live below the UN poverty line? Also, the world-poverty-clock (WPC) in mid 2018 declared that 86.9 million Nigerians are extremely poor and has overtaken India as host to the largest number of world’s poorest people? The country has equally been declared lately by the world financial market as a very high risked borrower despite the abundant natural resources.
There are no challenges that cannot be surmounted. Biggest and strongest economies of today were once worst than what Nigeria is passing through right now.
Sir, looking at this catalogue of negative reports, what would you say is the problem? Is it leadership? If yes, what is the way out of this appalling situation? What is it that our leaders are not doing well that impedes socio-economic development of the nation?
As I said earlier in this interview, nation building is not a one-step movement. At a time in history, many first world countries were work in progress. Our leaders are doing their best and I dare say that nation building is collective, collaborative effort between leaders and the led.
Now, let’s talk politics; first, are you a politician? Do you think PDP is prepared to bounce back to power at the federal level, especially the Presidency in 2023?
Is Igbo Presidency achievable come 2023?
I am not a professional politician but I’m an active participant in political discourse and political process. I am quite aware of my political environment; I am not an alien to the political turf.
As for PDP bouncing back, the party is not on its knees, PDP is not on death throes, PDP is still formidable and commands massive followership round the country, we cannot therefore, be talking of bouncing back. ‘PDP is not on death throes’
I cannot speculate on the 2023 presidency as regards the aspiration of the South east because 2023 is still in the womb of time. However, I make bold to say that the two major political parties- PDP and APC- owe Nigerians a duty to be fair and just in their 2023 projections and decisions taking into account, historical and prevailing political realities.
How would you evaluate the Governor Ayade and PDP led states?
Other PDP states should speak for themselves; I want to restrict myself to Cross River and His Excellency, Governor Ben Ayade. Here is a man who has re-engineered Cross River for the better. Before his coming, Cross River was referred to as a civil servant state, a euphemism for being a consumer state rather than a producing state but within a space of five years and with meager federal allocation, His Excellency has successfully recalibrated the economy of the state with the view to decoupling it from over dependence on crude-oil induced income. This he has done via rapid industrialisation of the state. As I said earlier, within five years of his governorship, Governor Ayade has established over 30 industries spread across the state.
His Excellency is visionary, a humanist, pan- Africanist and detribalised. It may interest you to know that I’m not the only non- indigene in Cross Rivers stateholding critical position in His Excellency’s government. Apart from me, there are other Igbos in his government, there are Hausas, Yorubas, Edos, Akwa Ibomites etc. appointees in his government
His brand of politics is devoid of bitterness and his philosophy of politics with ethic is one of his guiding principles.
What is your impression about the APC led Federal Government? The nation is facing a lot of security challenges now, what would you proffer as solution to the security threats in the country?
I think security agencies charged with fighting banditry, insurgency and kidnapping should double their efforts so that Nigerians can sleep with two eyes closed.
Stakeholders are calling for regional outfits as a way forward while others are saying true federalism. What are your thoughts on this?
I have already dealt with this topic at the beginning of this interview. As I said earlier, I’m for any system that can bring unity, progress and development to our country. Whether federalism, Parliamentary, Theocracy or Monarchy, no system of government drives itself, a particular system is good or bad depending on how its drivers and implementers manage it.
Apart from call for restructuring, is there any other thing wrong with the Nigerian nation?
There is no country without a problem; there is no human society without a problem. There is a national conversation calling for the abrogation of the Local Government system and method of appointment/election of public officials into local council positions. Sir, our readers would want to understand more fully if this will serve the best interest of Nigerians, particularly those at the grass roots. Please, be explicit.
The local government system which is the third tier of government was designed to bring governance and development to the grassroots and it has been serving this purpose. There is no need to scrap it.
There is so much corruption in the country. Does it worry you?
Agencies saddled with fighting corruption are doing their job.
What Igbo Cultural Practices do you cherish so much that you will not like to fade away? Please be explicit
The Igbo has a rich and proud cultural heritage but this is not to say that there are no aspects of the culture that need tinkering. For example, the osu caste system is a demeaning tar on Igbo culture and should be done away with. The system is akin to the then Apartheid system in South Africa.
Just before we go, are you a believer in Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB? Is he headed on the right part?
I do not subscribe to the disintegration of Nigeria, but I subscribe to equity, fairness and justice.
Sir, your final message for Nigerians particularly our youths
Nigerians, particularly the youths should be patriotic, love their country and flee from crime. And in the face of the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic, I urge them to stay safe.