Thursday, January 15, 2009

David-West, Dasuki and the Niger Delta Ministry

TIS past Christmas holiday, some reporters asked Prof. Tam David-West his opinion on the appointment of Obong Ufot Ekaette as minister of the Niger Delta Ministry. Quite characteristically, the professor went overboard and made series of convoluted and largely vitriolic attacks on Ekaette, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states people. The kernel of his diatribe, reported in the Boxing Day edition of The Sun newspaper, is that Ekaette should not have been chosen for the job because he is not from the central part of the Niger Delta region.

He also stated that Ekaette's home state, Akwa Ibom, has been at war with Cross River and so he is not qualified for the job. "He is from Akwa Ibom State, and you know his people are at war with Cross River State. The two states are like the Jews and the Palestinians, always fighting. So he is not qualified for the job," he reasoned. These statements are quite illogical, patently false and bereft of reason. Such meaningless and illogical statements on an important national issue are least expected of a man of great learning. Many educated Nigerians know Tam David-West, even if by reputation. A long-standing professor of virology, he had also served the nation as petroleum minister between 1985 and 1986.

I have no relationship of any type with Ekaette. I have met him only once, and that was at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, soon after he left office as Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF) in 2007. He was waiting with his wife to catch a flight to Calabar, while I was returning to Lagos. As I am wont to do, I walked up to him and said hello. I therefore do not have any inducement to hold brief for him beyond patriotic reasons.

An Ibibio man from Akwa Ibom State, Ekaette has no limitations for the job. Ibibio people constitute the largest ethnic bloc in that region, while the state is the second largest crude oil producer. Akwa Ibom State is not at war with Cross River. There is, indeed, no boundary disagreement between the two neighbours at this moment. There were a few skirmishes in the past, especially soon after the two states were split from the old Cross River State in September 1987. But this has not happened in the last 10 years, to the best of my recollection.

The Efiks and Ibibios are cousins with so much cultural and sanguinary affiliations. Economically, the two peoples have a lot to share. Akwa Ibomites rely on Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar, for their air travels and Calabar ports for their international trade. They also find Calabar a suitable holiday or weekend get-away. Soon after he took office in 2007, Governor Godswill Akpabio went to Calabar with his deputy governor, commissioners and senior officials for a retreat. You don't go for a strategy session at your enemy's backyard, do you? Many Cross Riverians visit Uyo for shopping, while a few others work with Mobil at Eket.

Beyond these primordial sentiments, Ekaette has an enviable track record in public service. A seasoned administrator, he was once the deputy governor of his state. It speaks volumes of the man that he was one of the very few political appointees in the Obasanjo Administration that served out the eight full years. A grand father, Ekaette's children are all grown. Ekaette was named SGF on May 29, 1999, and left with the former president eight years after. His wife is a senator. He is a contented and blessed man that would not fall for graft and the chop I chop policy of Nigerian bureaucrats. Because the old man is not politically ambitious, he will not waste precious time and energy shuttling between Abuja and Uyo, trying to build a base for 2011.

I understand that because of the importance he attaches to the Niger Delta Ministry and the job it is designed to do, the president needed a proven technocrat with a stainless background to provide leadership and get the job done. Ekaette was initially unwilling to take on another national assignment, having just finished a grueling eight years with the former president. It was Obasanjo that helped the president to persuade Ekaette. In advanced societies, public positions are not filled with ethnic sentiments as the overriding factor. It is regrettable that the country is slipping deeper and deeper everyday into this mess.

Many young Nigerians do not realise that creating a special ministry to deal with a peculiar national challenge that is of immense priority to the government is not unprecedented. In late 1959, as the country prepared for Independence, Prime Minister Tafewa Balewa created the Ministry of Lagos Affairs to drive the infrastructure development of the then federal capital. The first minister of the ministry was Muhamadu Ribadu from Yola in what is now Adamawa State.

At the first cabinet meeting after Independence, the PM announced a cabinet shuffle in which Musa Yar'Adua (the incumbent president's father) moved from the Ministry of Pensions to Ministry of Lagos Affairs. Yar'Adua held that position till the coup of 1966, and that was the end of that ministry. How then was it acceptable for two Nigerians of northern extraction to serve as ministers of Lagos Affairs in the 1960s, and yet an Akwa Ibom man cannot serve as Minister of the Niger Delta about half a century later?

In 1979, soon after he was inaugurated as the nation's first elected executive president, President Shehu Shagari created the Ministry of Housing with a target to building 200,000 housing units across the country. It was in line with the government's programme to boost food and shelter. This was another specific ministry created to drive a key government agenda. For the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, the relocation of the Federal Capital to Abuja was one of its core goals, and so it created the Ministry of Federal Capital Territory. To date, it has remained the most funded government agency and has helped immensely in transforming the territory to one of the most beautiful African cities in less than 15 years. If the FCT Ministry could perform this well in remaking Abuja, why do some people, notably, the former Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, think that the Niger Delta Ministry is not necessary?

In a recent interview published in Thisday newspaper, Dasuki questioned the thinking behind the creation of the ministry, asking: "If government has to establish a ministry for everyone who shouts, how many ministries are we going to have in this country?' Did Dasuki ask this type of obnoxious question when Gen. Babangida created the Ministry of FCT? In other parts of the world, special-purpose ministries (or departments as they are called in some countries), are created to deal with national emergencies. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush created the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate all activities and intelligence relating to the security of the United States (U.S.). In the 1940s, the U.S. and Britain had the Department of War to handle the prosecution of the Second World War.

The idea of creating a dedicated ministry for the Delta is not quite original to Yar'Adua. This was Dr. Alex Ekwueme's major campaign pledge during the presidential primaries of 1998 and 2002. It is commendable that President Yar'Adua is looking beyond the typical parochial interests many a Nigerian public officer is noted for. The president hopes to bring the burning issues of that area to the front burner of government's agenda. It is commendable. He realises quite rightly that the nation would not make much progress unless the fires down there are put out. Besides, the president is also guided by a keen sense of history.

He was a teenage schoolboy when his father served as Minister of Lagos Affairs in the First Republic. Lagos has since become a mega sprawling business and commercial hub, and Abuja a modern city. Yet the Niger Delta region which provides much of our national income that pays for the developments of other parts of the country is a vast wasteland. Ekaette and his boss now have a golden opportunity to reverse the injustices of the past centuries. Mischievous comments and sarcastic attacks cannot be helpful.