Director General of the Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta (BRACED) Commission, Ambassador Joe Keshi, a retired diplomat to many countries, including Togo, Ethiopia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Namibia, Sierra Leone and the United States, where he served as Nigeria’s Consul General in Atlanta, spoke to South-South Bureau Chief, GODWIN IJEDIOGOR, on how political differences among governors of the zone impoverish its people as well as the Commission.
With the face-off in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), governors of South-south are hardly meeting to peer-review activities. Where does this leave the BRACED Commission?
Well, it leaves the BRACED Commission in the doldrums; it leaves the Commission in another unfortunate situation similar to what it suffered in 2015, when the then PDP governors in the region also had their differences.
As a result of the differences and the bitterness of the succession politics in some states of the region, the new governors that emerged from the 2015 general elections could not meet for about five years, because the bitterness and fallout of those disagreements amongst them were huge and lingered for a long time. The BRACED Commission thus became one of the casualties of the political disagreement of the era.
To compound the situation, we had a chairman, who despite all appeals, even from some of his colleagues, was completely reluctant to call a meeting, because he did not like the faces of one or two of his colleagues.
Now, another election circle is here and the Commission finds itself in a similar situation, and I even think the current situation is worse than that of 2015. I am hoping that if the ongoing reconciliation efforts in the PDP succeed, and the governors put the interest of the region above self, maybe that will encourage the current and outgoing Chairman of the Commission, who is now the party’s vice presidential candidate, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, to call a meeting, if only to ensure a proper handover.
He is particularly not happy either with the unfortunate situation the Commission finds itself again.
Even if he does not, I think that the future of the Commission will depend on the next chairman, who is arguably going to be the Governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Obaseki. A lot will depend on him and his Bayelsa State counterpart, Senator Douye Diri.
Frankly, I am hoping that if Obaseki assumes the leadership, he will be able to revive the Commission, given the fact that he was among those from the private sector that give birth to the Commission.
Before the differences among the governors, how did you manage the issue of Cross River’s Governor Ben Ayade not being in the mainstream with his colleagues?
I honestly have no idea why the governor of Cross River State adopted such a highly negative attitude towards the Commission and indeed the region. Remember that the pioneer chairman of the Commission was the host of the Summit that gave birth to the Commission, the then governor of the state, Senator Liyel Imoke, who very clearly understood the stakes and did a fantastic job of driving the Commission’s vision. As a result, you would think that Ayade, as Imoke’s successor, would keep the flag flying and build upon the legacy of his predecessor.
But Ayade, for reasons best known to him, has just been completely aloof and has shown no interest in the Commission. I can only hope that the next governor of Cross River State, who certainly has a tremendous amount of work to do to reposition the state, will join hands with his colleagues in the region to move the South-South forward.
Could it be that the Commission was not beneficial to his state?
I honestly don’t know! Some governors in Nigeria just don’t want to touch what their predecessor started or has done. If there has been tremendous support from all the six governors, all the states would have benefited immensely, one way or the other.
For example, I once met the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel, on how the major road linking his state and Cross River could be reconstructed, with permission from the federal government. My idea was that the two states, and indeed, governors in the region, should compel the big companies on that road, whose vehicles are largely responsible for the bad state of the road, to reconstruct the road.
But I was told that the federal government had refused every overture, even from Emmanuel, to fix the road; hence it remained terrible.
Sometimes, the federal government itself doesn’t do things very well, and I think that is due to their limited knowledge of some of these areas that are far away from Abuja, or out of the mindset of Abuja to control the whole country. It would have been easier to compel the cement factories and other big companies in that axis to rebuild, expand the road, and toll it, if possible, for them to recoup their monies, and the people of both states would have a very good road connecting them and improving their economies.
That said, you can imagine if the governors of the two states were working in tandem to persuade the federal government to allow the states and the companies to handle the reconstruction of that road.
With this situation, how relevant is the Commission? Can its objectives of regional cooperation and integration be ever achieved?
You are no doubt aware that the BRACED Commission was the outcome of the first South-south Economic Summit, which took place in Calabar, the Cross River State capital. The Calabar Summit was the brainchild of the governors of that period in 2009 and top members of the private sector of South-South extraction, mostly from Lagos, led by Prof. Pat Utomi, including Dr. Atedo Peterside and others, who wanted to help change the narratives of the region.
The Commission was established essentially to foster economic cooperation and integration among the South-south states. The main objective was to create a sustainable zone of economic development with the capacity to create employment and prosperity, as well as to make the region globally competitive. This was based on the natural endowments of the region, which if properly managed, could rescue the region from its underdevelopment and poverty.
They did a fantastic job and suggested that this was the way to go, but regrettably, politics has not allowed us to move forward.
The objectives remain noble and achievable, but would require great political will and the determination of the political leadership to do what is necessary to make the Commission work. That is, if the governors realise the importance of the Commission.
Today, if the Commission, as envisaged, was working optimally, the South-south would have formed an economic bloc to drive its economy and would have been the fastest-growing region in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, the required political will and clear understanding of what needs to be done is lacking. It will take a strong set of leaders in the region, who understand the imperatives for economic cooperation among the contiguous states, to make the Commission succeed.
When the Commission was active, what were your achievements?
When the Commission was active, especially between 2010 and 2015, we came out with some frameworks for cooperation, particularly on agriculture, education and health. Our focus was to use agriculture as a fulcrum for economic development in the region. For about one year, we did studies and research and had meetings with the states, donor agencies and some international organisations on how to develop agriculture in that region.
We came out with a framework that was approved by the governors of that period, which we called 1+2 Agricultural Framework. Simply, we looked at the agricultural strength of the region and proposed that given the fact that in the sixties until the 1970s when oil was discovered, the South-south was part of the defunct Eastern Region that survived on oil palm production and still has the capacity to grow the oil palm industry.
We decided that, working with the private sector, all the states should focus on developing oil palm across the value chain to make it the second oil (apart from crude oil) in the region.
Also, even though Nigeria was a major producer until crude oil was discovered, today Malaysia and Indonesia are the two largest producers of oil palm. We thought that if all the six states invested in oil palm across the value chain, it was possible to raise our production, as well as create employment because of the multiplying effect of agriculture.
This is not to mention the impact this would have had on our current foreign exchange problems.
The second recommendation we made to complement the oil palm policy was that all the states, besides investing in oil palm, should select two other products they have the comparative advantage to produce. This was from seven or eight other products that were identified that the region has the capacity to grow and develop across the value chain.
For example, Cross River State, which has the advantage to produce cocoa, would have been doing so along with one other product, in addition to oil palm.
If the states had invested in agriculture in 2010/2011, when these recommendations were made, they would have been earning a lot of money from it, unemployment in the region would have been low and issues of oil theft and criminality in that region would have been very minimal.
Unfortunately, this was not implemented at the state level, even though it was approved.
On education, one of my greatest regrets is that we had a Summit on education and brought in experts from as far as Finland and Canada to help craft our educational framework in such a way that we insisted that the six states should leverage science and technology to drive education in the region. We were working to establish partnership with Samsung at one point to help us leverage Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to drive education in the region.
If this had been done in 2011, the South-south would have been the leader in ICT penetration and development in the country.
At every meeting, we canvassed the need to engage the federal government for the development of the roads in the region, the seaports and especially the construction of the Calabar to Lagos railways. We touch on how to utilise sports, particularly school sports, to develop and inspire the youths.
But all of these were never implemented by the states.
Why was this so? Could it have been due to a lack of willpower or they were content with oil revenue?
I think these were parts of the problem. When you have free money and it comes to you all the time, you are not likely to be innovative and strategic. You probably think better and more strategically when you don’t have money.
What challenges did you encounter and how did you address them?
The challenges are legion, but mainly around the issues of leadership, political will, appreciation and understanding of the imperatives and what it takes for economic cooperation and integration. The inability to mobilise the people of the region, especially the civil service, to support and promote bold initiatives is part of the problem.
The way states are administered, in my view, contributes more to the crisis of development in Nigeria. I have always argued and will continue to do so, that the Federal Republic of Nigeria is not working as it should work because the states and local governments are not working properly.
Then there is the challenge of finance. Between 2010 when we started operating and 2015, only two states- Rivers and Delta- paid part of their statutory financial contributions to the Commission. When the Commission was revived in 2020, we came up with another formula for payment. As we speak, only Delta State paid in full for 2020 and none has paid anything for 2021/2022.
So, you can imagine the dire strait that we find ourselves. How exactly do you expect such a Commission to grow if, in two years, the owners refused to put in a kobo? It’s unbelievable. In fact, some of the staff that are still there, occasionally I manage to find money from my own purse to assist them with their family issues.
Frankly, everything centers on leadership and if we must move forward, the next generation of leaders in the South-south must realise that they need to be bold, determined and innovative to drive development in the region. The region has no reason to be poor, but it suffers from leadership deficit across board.
I mean, how can you have a place like Port Harcourt not growing like Lagos or attracting investment? When Senator Godswill Akpabio was governor of Akwa Ibom State, the deep seaport in Ibaka was conceived and Emmanuel has been working and trying to move it forward, but when compared with the Lekki or is it the Badagry seaport that was initiated a few years ago and almost completed, you get the point I’m trying to make.
We need to wake up in the region, put politics and showmanship aside and focus on the development of the region.
What is responsible or who is to blame for this?
That is a question for the people of Akwa Ibom. All l can tell you, and the record would show, is that at every meeting, we kept lobbying them on the issue of the seaports.
Apart from Lagos, the other major seaports are in the South-south and we continuously urged the governors to engage the federal government to develop these ports to even reduce the pressures on Lagos or go ahead and decentralise port operations in Nigeria, so that every port in the country will have a port authority and develop on its own, rather than focusing on Tin Can and Apapa Ports alone. Now, another port is being built in Lagos, nobody is talking about developing the ports in the South-south.
So, when you hear people talking of decentralisation or restructuring, it is because of this perception of neglect. I refuse to believe that nobody in Abuja realises that these ports in the South-south are necessary and that if you develop them, Nigeria will grow faster. But everything, we choose to put in Abuja.
I was hoping that Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, as minister of Transportation, especially as he knew of some of our plans about the ports in the region, would push for the development of the ports and the Lagos/Calabar rail. Unfortunately, again, nothing substantial happened to any of the ports while he was a minister.
So, without the right and supportive political leadership, there is nothing the Commission can do, the way we were structured. We were hoping that when we grow strong, we will be able to reduce the political influence and depend on raising independent capital for our work.
Unfortunately, it was at the point when we had gained the confidence of some donor agencies and institutions that the first calamity befell the Commission in 2015. And it has continued till now, as things are.
Are you satisfied with the quality of leadership in the South-south?
That’s a big question. There’s a problem with leadership across Nigeria, not just in the South-south. The problem of Nigeria has little to do with religion or ethnicity; these are all symptoms of the larger problem of leadership. So, leaders who cannot provide genuine leadership tend to come down low and bring all of us low by using religion and ethnicity.
The truth of the matter, which we must realise in this country as the general elections draw near, is that we need a different kind of leadership and mindset. Most of our leaders are not well exposed; many of them just jumped into politics in 1999 and got into positions of leadership. The way the Constitution is structured, they seized power and then became the strongmen of all the states in the country and nobody in the states can challenge them because they have all the resources.
So, it’s a problem of leadership across the country. To be fair, a few governors in the region have done quite some great things; they have done reasonably well in the areas of development. We must understand that one government cannot solve our problems; it must be successive governments.
What is the way forward?
I wish l know. That is why presently I am engaging the two governors left in the pack- Obaseki and Diri- and I am hoping that as soon as the political situation is clear, we will begin to engage the candidates of the political parties, particularly those we think will win the next elections, enlighten and talk to them about the Commission. This is because they need to understand what needs to be done, particularly that the Commission needs to be financed.
The way forward, I sincerely hope, is that the next team of governors in the South-south, to be led by Obaseki, would sit down and take a far more serious look at the Commission and really move to help rebuild it again. If they fail to do that, if they fail to muster the political will, to meet their financial obligations, to implement the recommendations of the Commission at the state level, all hope will have been lost.
We are happy that one or two states are already developing their oil palms industry; that is good news. If all the six states can grow and develop oil palm across the value chain, that will be great. I recall, for instance, that Bayelsa chose to develop rice, which it has a comparative advantage, but I am not too sure if anybody is developing any rice field in Bayelsa today on an industrial scale.
So, the future of the BRACED Commission will depend on the leadership that is elected in 2023.
That means you’re optimistic the Commission would survive this current differences among the six states?
We need to appeal to incoming governors not to inherit the prejudices of their predecessors, but to be objective and open-minded and to look at the issues from their own perspectives.
Above all, the leaders from the region must learn to listen to other people other than their own voices. No one leader has the solution to all the problems, but when you surround yourself with great teams, a lot can be done in the states and in the South-south. The great leaders of the world surround themselves with smart people, young and old, not just people they can easily intimidate.
So, there is hope?
I am not too sure what will happen, but anything can happen before then to restore hope. Almost over one year ago, we were given the assignment to work out a security arrangement for the region, we have done that, but the governors have not met to look at it.
A meeting of the governors holding in the nearest future before May 29 is certainly possible if the problem in the PDP is resolved and the governors begin to talk to one another again. Then, it might be possible to call a meeting.
But if that does not happen, and if the bitterness of the PDP Convention remains, I do not see a meeting in the offing. Besides, I am confident that if Okowa sees a window to bring all the governors together again, he will certainly do so.
Of course, he is expected to hand over to somebody (Obaseki) and I am sure it is in his mind to hand over properly, so that the Commission will survive.
As we plan for 2023 elections, what kind of leaders do you expect in the South-South states?
To be candid, I sincerely want to see leaders with bold initiatives and new mindsets that would cause some great changes in the region. We can only hope, because the major problem of leadership in this country is the recruitment process. Even where the best people are not chosen, the job itself can change them if they understand what is expected of them.