Cross River State Governor Liyel Imoke is in his second term in office. In this interview with Juwe OLUWAFEMI And Augustine Agbo, he speaks about the economic policies underpinning his administration, the need for state police and the plight of Bakassi people among others.
What is the magic behind the beauty of Calabar and your efforts at redefining your state - the inspiration?
What we have now as Cross State is the beginning of the realisation of a dream some of us shared of building a state, of an economy that was not oil dependent and that would have taken advantage of the people and the resources of the state to create wealth in the state. That vision is the vision that I think has led to the refocusing of Cross River State. We used to be a backward civil service state with not much to talk about. So since the advent of this democratic dispensation, we have worked on that and successive leaderships have remained steadfast. I had the privilege of being the leader of the team that put that vision in place in 1997 and we have the good fortune of having one of the members of the team becoming the governor in 1999 and another member of the team taking over from him in 2007.
Basically, that has been to our advantage; there has been no disruption or reversal of policy and of direction, so we continued to build on that vision. So the people themselves have bought into the vision and since the people have bought the vision you have been able to see that vision expressed in the environment, in the place being a little bit disciplined and in the attitude of our people. It's a long time thing; it's not something that happens overnight and, at the end of my tenure, whoever comes in can continue with that vision, to create an economy where you can actually have a situation where oil is not driving it; where you can depend on the services, an economy that provides hospitality services-conferencing, services-meetings, exhibitions, religious conferences, meetings that provide educational services; an economy that provides communication services, technology services and other services and even can service the oil and gas industry from Calabar. So we have an economy that is not dependent on how much revenue they are getting from crude oil and all of these will be driven by agriculture from the other side which employs the majority of our people.
So if we can improve on agriculture meaningfully and create a service-driven economy, then you don't have to have a typified Nigerian economy. We can have an economy that is sustained on other goods and services.
It's your second term as the Governor of Cross River State; how has it been for you?
Well, governance, I don't know how seriously people will take it but I take it seriously. If you take it seriously as I take it, then it is very challenging. It's very challenging for me because there is a lot to be done: there are limited resources; there is limited capacity and there is great expectations from the people. So your mind has to continuously work even when you are sleeping or resting. Because of the limited resources, you have to be creative; you have to think of achieving things that need to be achieved without the resources that you might need to achieve that. So it is very challenging but it is also a great privilege to be a public servant, one who has the opportunity to affect the lives of people positively. Sometimes, you can use public office positively or negatively. When you use it positively and affect the life of a rural farmer, rural market woman, and rural housewife positively so that her standard of living - the quality of her life is improved, her income improves because you have created an avenue for her to create an income. If have that type of environment, which is the type of environment we are trying to create in Cross River, then you are gratified from public service because you are able to affect the people's lives positively.
Recently, you signed a friendship agreement with the State of Maryland in the USA; what is it all about?
Oh yes, we think that one of the things we can do as a state is to take the advantage of the number of resources that are out there, that we don't know about. One of the greatest resources that are out there are Nigerians in America; huge resources, huge capacity - intellectually, financially and everything else. But we haven't been able to create an environment that takes advantage of those resources and those resources are domiciled in different parts of the US. For us, we see an opportunity to articulate a programme and to formalise it; is not a question of just signing agreement, formalising the relationship. So you build those relationships with Nigerians in the Diasporas and you also build relationship with states where those Nigerians in the Diasporas are resident. So you create an official line of communication between us.
Tomorrow if there is a correspondent or an investor who is interested in Cross River State or Nigeria, because of the official relationship, that person can go to the investment agency in Maryland (US) and get the word officially: that this is the state and what we have about the state and the persons to contact in the state as you make that investment. So it's important that those relationships are developed and are mutually beneficial. So the whole idea was that we could derive some benefits from the opportunities that the relationship creates and also, aside the benefit of that the relationship creates, we can also see investments. You see, we build confidence in partnerships when you go this route. I suppose, to someone who is coming in, and you say that 'I know the governor in Cross River' to some guy in Maryland or investor in America; off course, that person will have his reservations. But when there is an official relationship, it helps the investment growth; it helps us with technology transfer; it helps us also on a state-to-state basis, to exchange on ideas and programmes and we hope that it will impact positively on Cross River State.
Aside the State of Maryland, what other investment options are you exploring?
Well, as a state we position ourselves as a premier tourist destination. For those reasons, we work with investors from different countries; we are the only state with two Free Trade Zones - Calabar Free Trade Zone and Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort. We also position ourselves from that perspective and as a leading agricultural economy in this country; we also see ourselves well positioned. We have investors from Singapore, China and, of course, Europe in Cross River State as we speak. So we think we are well positioned in the context of Nigeria, in terms of conduciveness of our environment. I don't believe in trade missions; I don't believe in going out to solicit for investors. I believe in building relationship.This sister state relationship with Maryland started since 2009. You are building an investment that is meaningful and sustainable rather than me carrying my whole exco and say we are going to look for investors in some part of America or somewhere in the world. I don't believe in that and don't think it works.
It is generally estimated that the revenue that will come to your state will reduce in the next few years; how do you intent to bridge the deficit?
We have never been a wealthy state. We have made two mistakes in our development as a people: the first one is the over reliance on infrastructure, so we developed the infrastructures across the board whether it is road infrastructure or any other type of infrastructure, some times at the expense of developing the most important infrastructure in the world - the human mind. So, as a people, because we haven't paid the attention to developing the human mind which is the only thing in the world that creates wealth, now we get nervous about the fact that you think that your revenues are going to dwindle. Whereas, if you develop the human mind and use it effectively, you create wealth and you create revenue. So Bill Gates did not have oil wells, neither did Steve Jobs. They had a mind, an incredible mind.
That is what it takes, but in Nigeria we think it is either resource control or infrastructure. We fight for resource control, so resource is on the agenda and I say what is this resource control? To control your resources, what it means is that it's yours, you control it, you administer it, and you utilise it as it pleases you. If you give us in the Niger Delta what we want, which is the control of our resource: do we have the capacity to drill? do we have the capacity to exploit? do we have the capacity to change that thing in the ground into wealth? Well, why do we say we want to control our resources? Without bringing a whiteman to come and drill the resources, some of us cannot control the resources. As a people, we have failed woefully to develop the human capacity, and that is our strength. God has given us two things so amazingly - physical strength and intellectual capacity. If you look at the 100 metres race that was run recently at the Olympics, there was not a single whiteman or Chinese man in the lineup. The entire athletes in the line-up were blacks. It is not an accident, it's what God has done. Today while there is that lineup winning the 100 metres race, there is that black man as the president of the United States. So it is our ability to harness these - the mind.
You sound more like an intellectual than a politician; who exactly is Liyel Imoke?
I always say that in politics and because of the perception of politics, some people in politics are already stereotyped. The average politician is stereotyped and stereotyping is very negative. It doesn't help us and it doesn't create communication with the constituent because there is already a perception; so you can go to a state where there is good governor who is really working but there is already a stigma on governors and he also has to carry that tag. For us, who got into politics early, we are very idealistic. I was a senator when I was 30, so I was very idealistic; I wanted to change the world; I wanted to change Cross River; I was not interested at 30 in being a billionaire, and I wanted to change things. Maybe that is why I may be a bit different and, of course, I come from a political family but I believe very strongly in public service; that' has always been my background.
There is so much insecurity in the land. Interestingly, we have not had so much of that coming from your state. How were you been able to manage the situation?
What we have been able to do and I must say it's a big challenge for us is this: first, I must say that the average Cross Riverine - not to stereotype them - but the average Cross Riverine comes from an orientation that is also largely public service, missionary and he is a good citizen. But having said that, we have urbanisation and cosmopolitan society and there is crime, but being able to manage proactively because very important - that's what we try to do in Cross River State: we don't wait for the crime to build up, and we don't take everything as a serious crime; whether it is cult boys fighting one another and using matchetes, we consider it to be very serious crime and we react to it in that manner. So we put up a machinery that complement the effort of the police, because, sometimes, leaving the police on their own will not deliver the expected outcome. As a state, we have tried to complement the efforts of the police and the other agencies in the state. And I think that is giving us very good security record. We don't have any problem of security even though I believe in state police.
Even with the current security challenges in the country?
I have my views on this and some people will think it's extremely radical. I think that the reason that we had a police is to fight crime; that is the first and foremost - fight crime and keep law and order. If now we all agree on that and you will all appreciate the fact that to be able to get the police to fight crime effectively in a state - we have 36 states - that police force must be fully accountable to and responsible to some authority in that state. I think in Tanzania or Zambia, they have Local Government Police in addition to State Police, in addition to the National Police. What are we afraid of? Do we want to fight crime or not! We cannot use the excuse that politicians will abuse and misuse them as a basis for us not to look at the current inefficiency in the police force. I have been governor for five years, I have had five different Police Commissioners, and none of them did I know before they arrived in Cross River State, none of them had known their jurisdiction - the environment. Why can we not have a police force where I know that the police boss - let's not call him the Police Commissioner, let's call him the Sheriff because his roles are different; it's like a community police man - he comes from a local community.
I have had five different Commissioners of Police coming from different jurisdictions, coming into Cross River State for the first time as chief of police of the state. Even in the United States of America, the Chief of Police for the State of Maryland cannot come from the State of Louisiana; he has to be member of the Maryland Police Force and it's completely different from the Federal Police Force. So, do we want to fight crime effectively and attract investments, deal with the challenges of security in the country? If we do, then let address these issues. You will be shocked at how community policing can reduce even bombings and crimes. I don't think that we should shy away from some of these issues; I think they are things that we should put on the table for discussion; we must address crime.
Recently, the Governors Forum came up with a resolution on that; what is your take on it?
I knew I was giving you the cannon folder now. I think we need to look at the current police force. We need to have the police at this level, a national police, very important. I think they can be responsible for everything - even up to elections. But I am talking of crimes in Cross River. Right now, the Civil Defence is doing a bit, you know what I mean. Find a name for it that gives them legitimacy and that's why I say the Sheriff's Department and you call them Sheriff's Deputies. In America, they have Sheriff's Department, then they have the County Police. The Sheriff's Department is the local village police. Each village has a Sheriff, each town has a Sheriff, then there is a County with a County Police; then there is the State Police and a Highway Police (Highway Patrols) and there is Defence. How effectively is crime rate and management in those places?
As the Governor of Cross River State, what do you think is going on right now in the minds of the people of Bakassi?
Bakassi is such a controversial issue, they are citizens of Cross River State and we have a duty and responsibility to listen to them. So we listen to their agitations and we understand their agitation.
Could you tell us your rural transformation drive in Cross River State in the area of infrastructure provision?
As an administration, I have a policy: my policy is to take government to those who need government the most. It doesn't sound logical because the next question will be: who doesn't need government? I try to make a point that those who need government the most are the most vulnerable in the society - the poorest, the people who will never see the governor, the people who never have access to the commissioner's office - how to get government to those people, because those are 70 per cent of your population. That's why we came up with Rural Transformation Agenda and we had to do it through a number of agencies. We set up, for the first time, a Rural Development Agency in Cross River State and we gave them specific responsibilities and we legislated the creation of that Agency. Then we set up the Ministry of Social Welfare which was now supposed to manage the social safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable and for the women, pregnant women and children under the age of five. So once we set up those agencies and a few others, we were able to now start to focus on rural development. We also set up by law what I called the State Electrification Agency. So we were able to get the relevant regulatory environment to deliver rural transformation. So we proceeded thereafter to now embark on projects that had meaning to these people.
Before the rural development agencies started functioning, we went to consult with the local communities to ask them their priorities and there is one other agency we set up - which is the Border Communities Development Commission. That agency was responsible for border communities. Most of the most neglected communities in the society are the communities that are on the borders. So we set up an agency that focused on the border communities, not dealing with boundary issues but on the development of border communities, and they had a mandate to go to the border communities and ask them to prioritise. So we had border communities that wanted fiilling stations, some wanted police stations, some wanted schools, some wanted health facilities and so on. We were able to take development to these rural communities through these agencies. It's quite effective; literally every community you go to in Cross River State today, you are going to find the presence of government - which was what we intended to do. It doesn't make us very popular with the elite who like the big life a little bit, but it has an impact on the majority of our people. When you a road in a rural community and the women can now take their garri to the market and buy their school uniforms for the child or pay whatever it is that is the development levy in the community, it goes a long way. We have been able to impact on the lives of the people of Cross River through these programmes and initiatives. We wanted to provide meaning healthcare delivery, so we also did some free healthcare programme which is effective and now being responded to by the people.
Your Excellency, your state is known for tourism. So far most parts of the world strongly believe that they can generate so much money from tourism, Calabar is known for Carnivals, how are you consolidating this prime position your state maintains in the tourism sector?
For us, tourism has always been at the top of our agenda. We have invested significantly in some tourist assets like the Obudu Mountain Resort, Tinapa and just to enhance the already existing natural tourism assets that we have. We have a large natural forest; we have a rare species of grills and gorillas - the only state in Nigeria left with the species of gorillas; one of the few states where you can see elephants. In terms of ecotourism, we are the leading state and they are God-given natural resources. We have also a few other God-given sites: we have the Monolets, the Abokoni Falls, the Kwa Rapids and several other natural sites. And off course, part of tourism is the cuisine. Our cuisine is one - Calabar Food, you know what I mean. Then you have the right set of people: they are nice, they are welcoming, they are hospitable that adds to all that.
To develop that sector sufficiently, you must understand that it is a competitive sector. To stay ahead, you have to have tourism products that make tourists want to come to Cross River because every tourist has a choice. The tourist in Abuja has a choice as to whether to come to Cross River or to go to Bauchi-Yankari or to go to somewhere else. What do we do to make that person come to Cross River, that's Cross River Tourism? So we continue to invest tourism even though our products are very popular.