Dr. Sam Egwu, a former governor of Ebonyi State and a stalwart of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), represents Ebonyi North Senatorial District in the Senate. In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID in Abuja, the former Minister of Education speaks on the power and education sectors, diversification of the economy, and foreign borrowing by states, amongst others
It has become a tradition in Nigeria for governors to retire to the Senate as a resting place. Your tenure as governor ended in 2007, why did you wait till 2015 before you make your way to the Senate?
Thank you very much; this question is very apt because it is like a tradition now for governors to go to the Senate immediately they finish their tenure as governors. But for me, I look at it from a different perspective. In the first place, elective position is to serve and not for any other purpose.
A lot of people do not look at it that way. The purpose is to serve the public; and as a governor, I have served for eight good years. I said that at the end of my tenure, I should have a rest. If the aim is to work, it is to serve. You cannot work and you continue working if the aim is to really do the work, else, it means that there is something else apart from the service or the work which elective position is supposed to serve.
And that was exactly the way I saw it. Let me rest, even though there was pressure; they were telling me the same thing, look at my neighbouring state, Enugu and other places, other governors are going. I told them don’t worry because these are the same people who will come and say, are there no other persons who will take this position. So, I said no, I want to rest. Rather, it was one of my serving commissioners by name, Senator Anthony Agbo that I asked to go to the Senate from my own senatorial district.
I rested not because I couldn’t have won the election because they met me and said that I should go to the Senate but I felt that there should be a departure from the madness of everybody trying to go to the Senate immediately you have served as governor. I mean, it is not proper. That was why on my own I decided to wait.
Did you lobby to be made minister?
You know, immediately I concluded my tenure as a governor, I stayed back. There was this move by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, where he asked those who have completed their tenure as governors to indicate interest by those who want to be presidential candidates of their party. All of us jumped into the race.
I know Peter Odili, myself, Donald Duke, Achike Udenwa, a lot of us indicated interest. Then a time came when the president called us and said, look gentlemen, it is time for the North to produce the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
So, all of us voluntarily stepped down and supported Umaru Yar’Adua, who also was our colleague. He was a former governor of Katsina State. That was exactly what happened. Then we supported him to emerge. Then in 2007, President Yar’Adua invited me and asked me to be a member of his executive; that was when I was appointed as a Minister of Education.
After that, there was no other appointment and I did not make any intention to contest any election and I did not lobby for any position. It is not my character to lobby for any position, and I never did I that. There was a time again at the party convention, I indicated interest to become the party national chairman.
Anyim Pius Anyim also showed interest from my state. It was like a contest between both of us. We were the major contenders in the field but the governors decided to support a neutral candidate, Vincent Ogbulafor. When we found out that all the governors have made that decision, we came to the convention ground and naturally stepped down for Ogbulafor because it was going to be an exercise in futility if we had persisted to contest because he was the unanimous choice of the governors. So, I didn’t contest that election.
Was there any other time you contested for the Senate and failed before the 2015 election that brought you to the Upper Chamber?
This is my first time. As I told you, I deliberately did not want to contest election to go to the Senate because I felt that it was not proper to immediately leave the governorship and go to the Senate. Any other position like party chairman would have been a different thing.
However, the pressure has been on from my people all along. So, after eight years I decided to give it a trial and by God’s grace I am here as a Senator.
You recently moved a motion on the floor of the Senate on the challenges being faced by electricity consumers in the country. Why a motion instead of a bill?
Well, I think that if you listened to the arguments on the motion on the floor of the Senate, you may find out that, apart from commending and supporting the motion, members felt that the motion should be taken further than just living it at the level of motion.
They even suggested having a committee and public hearing because the motion cuts across all strata of the society and affects everybody, both the rich and the poor including senators. You saw that every senator had something to say about the motion as it concerns him/her.
And if the people at that high level could be so affected, you could imagine the level of frustration and anger being meted on the populace. Imagine a situation where people are struggling to survive; people don’t have means of livelihood and the little effort they are making to survive, another government agency is taking away whatever they have made through excessive billing by the so-called Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs). So, people are frustrated and they don’t know whom to run to again.
They have complained to DISCOs; they have complained to National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), but it is either you pay or you remain in darkness. So, they are helpless. Therefore, as the representatives of the people, the Senate has a duty to protect the masses.
And I think that it is not just going to end up in a motion; we are going to take it further to be a bill but before then, we must look into this matter. We will invite the relevant agencies, the DISCOs and NERC to a public hearing so that they will know the seriousness of the matter.
What actually prompted the motion?
You see, we need to be alive to the happenings around our society. The moment the people’s representative or government lives outside the people, the moment we are disconnected from the people, we will be talking different from the reality on the ground. The moment the people are close to you, you know what they are suffering, you know how they are feeling and you will be able to respond to that.
That is exactly what informed my response because I am living with the people. I left office as a governor on May 29, 2007 and I didn’t go back to Abakaliki; I went to the village. Even as a minister, I didn’t have a house here; I rented a house and stayed as a minister until I finished my appointment.
So, I stay with my people. Since I came here as a senator, every Friday I am rushing home, I stay back in my village. So, I know what is happening; I know the problem of the masses, I stay with them. Incidentally, the issue of power affects everybody both the rich and the poor.
The Goodluck Jonathan administration went into power reforms. Would you say that the exercise yielded the desired results, in view of the present state of the sector?
It was not Jonathan that started the power reform; Obasanjo was the one who started it, only that Jonathan took it to another level. What has happened so far is not actually the fault of government. It is the level of corruption; the level of impunity which Nigeria has found herself in, that has actually made it impossible for anything to work in this country.
No matter the policy you bring, no matter the reform you try to introduce because of the system we are running, it is bound to fail. And that is why we are all happy with the change agenda of the current administration. The change has nothing to do with whether it is PDP or the All Progressives Congress (APC); every Nigerian wants a change from the way things are being done in this country.
People abuse regulations, people ignore guidelines with impunity and nothing happens to them. So, it continues that way. If things were going on the way it supposed to be, at least by now they would have seen a little improvement in the power sector but all through nothing happened.
It is not just in power sector but in all other sectors. Nigerians have come to believe that if you have power, do it the way you like, and nobody will ask question, and nothing comes out of it. That is how it has been all along and no country succeeds living that way.
So, the change agenda which this administration is talking about, we all pray that it works out, no matter the person involved, once you don’t do it the right way, you should be penalised, you should be sanctioned so that others will learn their lessons. Rule of law should be maintained.
As a former Minister of Education, what is the cause of the progressive decadence in the education sector in Nigeria?
Well, with all honesty, I want to tell you that the education sector is a sector that is very important to all Nigerians because it has to do with everybody. Incidentally, the decay in that area which was occasioned by corruption is such that a holistic approach has to be adopted in order to change the system.
Incidentally, due to the Nigerian factor again, the issue of somersault of government policy is one of the factors affecting that sector. The issue of non-continuity of policies is also one of them. Funding is also not enough but even the little that was used; if it had been applied effectively it would have gone a long way but the issue is that everybody is on his own.
You make a policy; it is either that policy is reversed or even if it is a good one, it is not followed. Every change of government comes with a new policy that truncates the previous one whether it is good or bad. Let me give you a typical example, when I came as a minister of education, I looked at the whole thing, I felt that we need to start afresh; to assess where we went wrong, assess where we are and where we ought to be.
This is the first time in the history of Nigeria that states are not able to pay salaries. As a former governor, what makes it impossible for states to generate enough internal revenue to pay salaries and even do capital projects, taking Ebonyi State as an example where you were governor?
Well, as you know, the revenue accruing to states from the Federation Account has come down due to the reduction in not just the output but the price of crude oil globally. So, this has affected the states. But that is no justification for non-payment of workers’ salaries because as the Bible says, “a worker is entitled to his wages.”
As a governor, I never played with the wages of my workers. I always treated it as the first priority before I do any other thing because the government is for the people and not for any other thing. I agree, developmental projects or infrastructure are important but you need to be alive to enjoy those facilities.
I also agree that the population of the workers compared to the entire people you are governing is very infinitesimal but again, a lot of people depend on that small number for survival. I came from a civil servant background; my father was a civil servant at a very low level.
He was a court bailiff; yet he depended on his salaries to train us and to do a lot of things. So, as a person, I will not like to see a worker being denied his salary because it is not just his immediate family; a lot of people depend on that money for survival.
So, for me, that’s a very big priority. For a state that is very poor like Ebonyi and others, it is important that salaries are paid promptly. Incidentally, Ebonyi never owed salaries; what brought about the present situation is the increment or no increment, whether government will be able to pay, not that they deliberately refused to pay salaries.
I give the government of Ebonyi that credit. Martin Elechi did that and Dave Umahi also followed up. But what I don’t like is those “big states” in terms of fat allocations, those who collect big allocations to talk about owing salaries is unimaginable. And they are talking about billions of projects, talking about building skyscrapers to heaven and the poor man is not paid his salary.
How much is the salary of a worker? Minimum wage is N18,000. And when you get to some of these states you see contractors going with billions of Naira as profit. This money that individuals pocket can feed a lot of families. So, that is my own ideology; I prefer to do something that will benefit the masses than something that will benefit few, no matter how powerful they are.
The idea of diversification of the economy so that Nigeria can have alternative revenue sources has always ended up as a paper work over the years. Why is it impossible for Nigeria to practically diversify her economy in order to avoid dependence on oil?
As far as I am concerned, it is not a difficult task. The moment we diversify from the oil-based economy to agriculture-based economy, agriculture will promote industries because the raw materials with which industries are gotten through agriculture, and then employment will increase.
We have natural resources that will support agriculture just as we have in the mineral sector. You know the mineral sector requires a lot of money. The technology to get this oil is so high; and that is why expatriates are usually brought in to come and do that, and when they come and do that they take monopoly, and when they take monopoly they only give the government that invited them a peanut.
You can’t believe that up till now Nigerians do not know the quantity of oil they produce; and even the ones they produce, a lot of them are siphoned through bunkering, stealing and all what not. So, eventually what is left comes to the government not just as revenue from the crude but revenue from the refined product. It has been bought; refined and sent back to us.
But agriculture is something that will involve everybody. The fertile soil is there that can support all manner of crop. And the moment there is a little injection into that sector by way of mechanisation, by way of training of the farmers, by way of proper orientation through extension workers and inclusiveness and improved seedlings and other raw materials, things will improve and everybody will be able to produce something to get income to help your family. Any country that cannot feed herself is not fit to answer a country and the economy cannot be sustained. If your economy is based on foreign influences, you cannot make it.
Do you think it is healthy for individual states to be taking foreign loans like Edo State just did?
Well, in the first place I do not support the idea of request for foreign loans by state governments. We just came out of a difficult situation where we were owing a lot of billions of dollars, and the government of Obasanjo worked tirelessly to get those loans written off, and now we have started again accumulating loans.
People should be able to cut their coat according to their size unless a government is sure that it can recover and pay that loan within its own tenure. But to get a loan that will outlive your tenure is not right. That is one. The second view is that, for a state that earns so much money through revenue, they have no business going to take loan, they should tailor their needs according to the money they have.
The Edo issue, when it came up in the Senate, we considered the terms and conditions of the loan. So, the Senate will be failing in its duty if it gives the request accelerated approval without scrutinising it. That was why the Senate quickly set up an ad hoc committee on Local and Foreign Loans to critically look at the issue, and based on the report of the committee, the Senate approved the loan.
So, due process was followed because the President wrote to us and the World Bank has already given approval. The committee actually confirmed that the first one was judiciously applied to the need of the people because it is possible to apply a fund but not to the need of the people.
BY CHUKWU DAVID, NEW TELEGRAPH