by crossriverwatch admin
Currently holding sway as the Chairman, House Committee on Gas Resources; he represents the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency in the National Assembly, former speaker of the Cross River State House of Assembly, Hon Bassey Eko Ewa in a parley with National Assembly correspondents in Abuja bares his mind on a wide range of issues.
Your rise in politics has been quite meteoric. You were elected the Majority Leader when you got into the Cross Rivers State House of Assembly in 1999; you became the Speaker during your second tenure; and eventually a member of the House of Representatives. How did it all begin for you?
To a significant extent, my initial foray into politics is largely attributable to my upbringing as a child and of course the goodwill of my friends. I am one who believes in friendship. I graduated from the University of Calabar in 1997 and proceeded to the Abuja Law School the following year. During one of our breaks, I went home to source for money to feed; and surprisingly my friends, some who were already graduates, some already practising medicine and some in other professions, came to me and suggested that I take a shot at contesting for a seat in the State House of Assembly. It happened to be election year. I was rather surprised. I was a fresh graduate and they were already working. I felt any one of them should contest, with me supporting whoever decides to contest. But they insisted that I go. They expressed confidence in me; feeling that I was such a popular person, and that they were sure I would provide good representation. As I started giving consideration to their proposal, it wasn’t long before I had ANPP gunning for me to contest on their platform.
But being a PDP member, I eventually accepted to contest on the platform on PDP and thankfully I won. When I was elected, I became the Majority Leader of the House of Assembly. Of course being a relatively fresh graduate, I was still full of student activism orientation.
This led me to disagree on certain issues with the then Governor, who then felt I was not effectively playing the role of Majority Leader. He felt I should have been more proactive in defending the policies of his administration; but I was always on the side of primarily propagating the interests of my constituents over and above government’s interest. This led to my eventual removal as Majority Leader. Of course, that experience helped reshape my attitude. It dawned on me that politics at this level is a different ball game. Nonetheless, I carried on, still very active in the House. And, during my second tenure, I was unanimously selected by my fellow Honourable colleagues to lead them as Speaker of the House.
This was a consensus amongst your colleagues?
Yes indeed it was. They were of the opinion that I could lead them well as Speaker and they graciously elected me.
Despite the fact that you were removed as Majority Leader?
Of course; when I was removed I didn’t just sit back and lick my wounds. I carried on zealously, remaining very active in the House. I was always a rallying point in bringing my colleagues together to pursue the interests of the House; and more importantly, the yearnings and aspirations of our people. So when we came back for our second term, it was unanimously decided that I go for the position of Speaker of the House. It is worthy of note that I was the first Speaker in the history of Old Cross Rivers State till the present; by this of course I mean when Akwa Ibom was still a part of Cross Rivers State; to have spent his complete tenure as Speaker without interruption. After my tenure, God designed it that I represent my people at the Federal level, and that is how I came to the Federal House of Representatives.
Taking you back; doesn’t your journey give effect to my earlier assertion that your rise has been rather meteoric? For instance, you were approached by friends to contest just as you were fresh out of University. While in the House, your colleagues unanimously gave you their mandate to lead them. What can you attribute this repose of confidence in you to?
First and foremost, to God of course; secondly when I look at my birthday which is the 29th of May, which also happens to be Democracy Day in Nigeria. I can’t help but surmise that God has somehow designed it that I serve humanity through the medium of politics. To stand for what is just. I am not perfect, don’t get me wrong. But I try hard to do things right. In my community, my constituency and of course in my State, I am a rallying point. But to answer your question, the honest truth I don’t know. I find myself asking why me on many occasions. But ultimately, I attribute people’s goodwill towards me to God’s doing.
Let’s talk about your Constituency projects as a Hon. Member. Would it be a correct assessment to say your projects are especially geared towards empowering and assisting the youths of your Community; why them in particular?
I happen to come from a very poor home. My father was a carpenter and my mum a peasant farmer. To pass through the four walls of a university I had to engage in manual labour. I did all sorts to make ends meet. I played a bit of soccer, and just generally got involved in whatever I could find to do, to sponsor my education. I have tasted hardship, to the extent that paying fees was often a herculean task. So for God to take me from where I was to where I am today, I feel I owe it to Him to pay back, by helping those who are passing through what I passed through. If I can be where I am today, it stands to reason that someday, many of those youths would get here and even surpass me. This challenges me to assist and support the youths of my constituency as best as I can. I am also heavily involved in the provision of community health care. This was motivated by an experience I had in 1972/73 when I came down with appendicitis. I remember lying down and seeing my late father’s face, looking so sad, as he told me that didn’t have money for the operation that I required. However, for some reason, the doctor in charge had compassion and asked why he shouldn’t treat this young man. He showed magnanimity to my family, and treated me, even though my father had no money to pay him.
When I became a Member of the House of Assembly, I assembled the medical doctors in my constituency and shared with them how I was always besieged with requests from my constituents for sums ranging between ten thousand to thirty thousand naira to undertake one form of treatment or another.
The ailments most frequently complained of were appendicitis or hernia. As you probably know many of my constituents are farmers and manual labourers; so hernia was fairly common due to the nature of the work they undertake. So I asked the doctors if I could deposit a certain amount of money with them on a monthly basis, so they in turn could offer free medical consultation and treatment. They agreed. My brother, I feel happy that till date that project is ongoing. I have had friends who out of shame hid their medical condition from me. But, when things became unbearable, they would secretly come to me and ask if they could key in to my free medical treatment scheme. Of course I always agree. I am grateful to God and proud to tell you that till date, we have performed at least three thousand appendicitis and hernia-related surgeries under my scheme.
During my first tenure in the House of Reps, I got a flyer in my office with regards to surgeries relating to free eye tests and glaucoma treatment. I invited the people for a meeting and sent them to my constituency where they commenced the scheme. It is working well till date. So really I have not only focused on offering academic scholarships; but I have equally been involved in the provision of health care for my constituents.
You have been running these schemes for about eight years?
For twelve years actually; And, I am incredibly happy that I am into it. Because, my brother if you can save a life, you feel extremely fulfilled as a man and of course a politician who is using his position, resources and goodwill to help his constituents.
Tell me, as a Member of the House of Representatives, what in your opinion would you say is the hallmark of this 7th National Assembly?
So many things really; but I think what stands out most is the fact that in our democratic journey so far in this country, this has been the first time that we in the House of Reps have freely exercised our democratic prerogative in choosing our own Speaker; as opposed to the traditional practice of having one foisted on us. It is quite unique. We went beyond partisanship and all agreed as members of the House on who we wanted to lead us.
In effect, this continues to guide us in our conduct and our determination to serve the Nigerian people well. We understand that if we fail, we cannot lay blame at the fact that our failure is due to bad leadership. What this also means is that we have been or at least strive to be very responsive to the yearnings of our constituents even when such yearnings seem to clash with what our party leaders would prefer us do.
Going back to the point you made about this being the first time members of the House freely elected their own leader; would that explain why there seems to have been relative calm amongst members of the House; as opposed to times past, where talk of impeachment always seemed to be a constant preoccupation with members?
That’s exactly why; our Speaker, Rt. Hon Aminu Waziri Tambuwal has a listening ear. He is constantly minded of how he emerged; therefore his administration of the affairs of the House is always predicated on extensive consultation. At the beginning of every executive session for instance; he submits himself to the frank opinions of members, who are permitted to point out things said or done which he probably shouldn’t have; and he makes amends if and where necessary. He uses our opinions as a yardstick to make policies. He truly understands and works by the principle that he is first among equals. And; we equally respond to his humility, his evident respect for his colleagues and of course, his excellent leadership. Besides, we love ourselves as a House that is united. There is the difference and impact on the composition of this present House resulting from having an Aminu Tambuwal as our leader and our Honourable Speaker; as opposed to an imposed Speaker who ab initio is foisted upon us. We believe in our Speaker and he in turn, believes in us.
Tell us a bit about the PDP to which you belong. The party is clearly facing a lot of challenges presently. What is your take on the whole goings-on within the party which escalated by the walking out of some governors during the recently held Special Convention at Eagle Square?
In every family, there is bound to be disagreement. It is natural. Politics was defined by a famous philosopher as the resolution of conflict and the restoration of order. I really believe in that. We are disagreeing with each other; yet the point remains that the disagreement is amongst us. This means when the time of disagreement runs its natural course, we would come together; resolve our differences and of course, the party would become stronger. Nigeria as a country is very dynamic. What you see playing out in the party is a reflection of aspirations of people from regions where they feel it is time they had a shot at the presidency come 2015.
We duly acknowledge that there is a gentleman’s agreement within us in the party, that once the South has spent eight years in the presidency, the position becomes zoned back to the North. Of course, this is not a constitutional provision and we are aware of that. But for us in the party, it is indeed our agreement. As far as the North is concerned, the South has used its eight years; because of course both South west, South-South and all that is generally classified as the South. The bone of contention now is whether or not the South has indeed used its eight years; because of course as you know the unfortunate passing on of the late President Yar Adua; which saw President Jonathan completing his tenure, before commencing his own; really upset the whole political equation. The North feels the South has completed their eight years; the South disagrees.
Nevertheless, to me this shouldn’t be a bone of contention to the point that it has degenerated to. I feel we should rather come together and negotiate. As long as we are together talking as members of the same political party, I am convinced we would find common ground and resolve this issue. At any rate, our elders are working, they are not sleeping. They are working round the clock. Consultation is going on to put the whole issue to bed, even if only achieved in the nick of time. My joy is the governors who are saying they are not comfortable with what’s going on, are agitating within the party. They have not gone to any other party. Call it old PDP or new PDP; it is still PDP; which means they have left the door open for a resolution of issues eventually.
But really, what is the direct benefit or impact of a united PDP to Nigerians; at the end of the day your everyday man or woman is primarily concerned about getting good governance. In your assessment is President Jonathan really delivering that?
You see I must be very open and frank on this issue; I am a Nigerian, I don’t have any other country to call my own, just as you don’t have any other country. The governance of this country cannot be the sole responsibility of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Governors have a role to play; we legislators have a role to play; Nigerians in general have a role to play.
Taking the governors for instance; you have seven governors openly disagreeing with the president, to the point that he now spends a considerable amount of time, efforts, resources and energy putting out fires; what degree of complication do you think that adds to an already demanding and complex task? Try and imagine if a situation exists where these governors are contending with the president on the basis of him not fulfilling his agenda, and they are pressing it upon him to do so; don’t you think the president himself would feel that governors are his partners in progress? And, of course, this would psychologically boost his morale and drive to deliver. But as it is, he is busy contending with governors, whose agitations are primarily politically motivated. These things whether or not you agree, seriously takes away from anyone’s ability to perform, especially in such a demanding position.
My brother, as I have said, the progress and prosperity of this country do not rest squarely on the shoulders of Mr President; even though on the final analysis, the buck stops at his table. Nevertheless, for him to succeed, he needs to be surrounded by leaders who have the right attitude to their responsibilities and status as leaders. Let me give you an example. I have travelled with many Nigerians who when they are abroad, they do things right.
But, on coming back home, once the plane enters Nigeria’s airspace, it’s like they put on their Nigerian garb, and completely transform. To even obey simple immigration rules like line in an orderly fashion in order to be attended to becomes a problem. It’s as though they feel it is beneath them to do things in an orderly fashion. These are the same Nigerians who are busy attacking Mr President. How can we attack the president when we ourselves do not know how to comport ourselves? Without the right attitude, is it possible to be an effective leader? So you see, we Nigerians need serious attitudinal transformation in many aspects.
So in answering your question; President Jonathan has good intentions, of that there is no doubt. Is he delivering? Yes he is trying very hard. There is a lot more to be done of course; but it will be a lot easier to perform if governors, legislators and Nigerians in general avail themselves to work with him for the good of this nation as a whole.
Not long ago, you proposed an amendment to the EFCC Act. Take our readers through the reasons behind your proposal.
Indeed I proposed an amendment to the EFCC Act. First, it is provided for in S.2 of the EFCC Act that the Chairman heads the Board. The Act also provides that the Chairman would be a police officer from between the rank of Commissioner to Deputy Inspector General. Now one of the main functions of the Police Force as a law enforcement agency is to investigate and prosecute criminality; which of course includes Corrupt Practices. If the police are deemed incapable of fighting corruption, and as such a body such as EFCC is required to plug that gap. Why then should a police officer be asked to head that same corruption-fighting agency? My thinking is that if you have already failed in your duty to fight corruption as a police officer; why you are now been given a glorified name such as Commission to perform the same duties you failed to perform as an Officer; It seems like a paradox doesn’t it? Secondly, who are the members of the EFCC Board? The Inspector General of Police; the Director-General, State Security Services (SSS), the Governor of Central Bank and some others; how can a Commissioner of Police preside over a meeting attended by the Inspector General? How can he do it without fear of favour?
Your influence is already curtailed even if it’s by default. So I took the view that it is time that the law should be amended. Of course I received attack from so many quarters. Even many of my colleagues at the Bar wrote vehemently against my proposal.
Thirdly, I drew attention to the mode by which petitions are filed with the Commission; specifically the aspect of anonymous petitions. I refuted it. In law an accused person has a right to know his accuser, so he may take appropriate legal action if such petition is later adjudged to be frivolous and without basis. I proposed that anonymous petition should not be investigated. Again, I was severely attacked. The proposed amendment is currently before the House Committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes aptly chaired by Hon Jagaba. They are currently still working on it.
If the truth be told, the president of the country should not really be seen to be directing the Chairman of EFCC if truly it is an independent body. Sometimes when I read on the pages of newspapers that the president has directed the EFCC to go and investigate an individual, I cringe. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support our president; but you see this country is bigger than anyone individual. If a body or individual is directing the EFCC to act; then that body or individual may as well direct INEC to act.
We must separate all these. We must know where we belong, and carry on in line with the provisions of the law. EFCC to me as it is presently constituted has failed. It has failed! This is a body who many believe has allowed itself to be used to witch-hunt on many occasions. In fact many times, it investigates individuals who have run afoul of the government. It shouldn’t be so.
Let me take you to your Home State, which of course is Cross River State. How would you say the State has been faring in light of the significantly huge loss of revenue as a result of having to concede most of its oil wells to neighboring Akwa Ibom State?
The Governor, His Excellency, Dr Liyel Imoke saw it coming and so of course did not include the expected revenue from those wells into his budget. I must say that I personally don’t know how he is going about it; but my Governor is quite exceptional in the administration of funds and of course in the administration of the State. The kind of projects I see him taking on and accomplishing, I wonder where he is getting the funds to see them through. In fact the economy of the State is growing at a much faster rate than it did when the State had those oil wells. He is doing very well. Road constructions are on-going as well as many other viable projects. During my last visit, I visited the on-going construction of the Convention Centre and I must say it’s a magnificent project.
When concluded, I believe it is something which would impact very positively on the State. In a nutshell; the Governor is doing his absolute best to keep the State moving towards greater development even in spite of that loss of revenue.
On a lighter note, in light of your excruciatingly busy schedule; how do you unwind?
Well, when we are on recess from the National Assembly; I go with my family to the village or sometimes out of the country. I particularly enjoy going to the village. When I am out of touch for too long from my friends back home I feel sick. I enjoy sitting around with my childhood friends from back home, drinking palm wine and talking about the good old days. And, I also enjoy fishing a lot. When I do those things, I always feel very refreshed when I come back to the House for another session.
Terrorism is becoming an increasingly frustrating challenge in Africa and of course here in Nigeria. In your opinion, is there anything more the government should be doing to arrest this negative trend?
It’s a huge concern all round. Recently some terrorists were apprehended in my neighbourhood here in Apo. You can imagine how nervous I was, knowing that my family were at home. It was a worrisome time. The truth is we have a lot of unresolved issues in this country which I believe is partly giving rise to these terrorist activities. I am particularly happy that the President has taken very significant steps towards having a National dialogue. Many of these issues are not issues government can solve; and certainly not issues the National Assembly can solve. Nigerians need to come together to talk very frankly. Something positive and proactive needs to be done very urgently. If things continue at this rate, there may not be a country to belong to. It’s time; I repeat, it’s time for Nigerians to come together and talk; to look for a way forward; to air our grievances, and hopefully find lasting solutions. I can’t for example see why one State would have forty or more members in the House and another would have just six or seven.
A lot needs to redressed. Let us see if as a result of such a national dialogue, we can come up with a working paper that would provide the foundation for a newly drafted constitution.
Don’t forget that the grund norm upon which the current constitution rests is a gift from the military; so it is couched in that light. We need to tinker with it and see what we can come up with it. There are far too many issues and imbalances that need to be seriously addressed.
You think a national dialogue may be an answer to terrorism?
Yes I do. I really do. The Fulanis for instance are agitating for something. They want to be better protected. Cross Riverians are aggrieved over the loss of Bakassi. What is going on in the Niger Delta? Should militants be controlling our waterways when we have a Navy? These are all issues that need to be looked into and addressed.
If National Dialogue as you say is the way forward, why isn’t there a stronger push in that direction?
Because people have always looked at these things from the perspective that we have a National Assembly, let them debate these issues and come up with solutions. But, the truth is many of these issues cannot be resolved in the Assembly. Recently, the issue of local government autonomy was hotly debated; we have accepted it, but it will not pass. If for example, we demand for equal local government representation in the House, it won’t pass. But, if these issues are debated as part of a national dialogue, and we agree that whatever working paper they come up with shall form the basis of a new constitution; perhaps we may start making serious progress. At a National Conference, we don’t need two third of all the States to make laws. We don’t need presidential assent; because we have agreed as a people that the mandate to address and resolve issues has been fully given to representatives at such a national conference.
You are the Chairman of the House Committee on Gas Resources. Please tell our readers a little bit about what your functions are?
Primarily, we appropriate for gas infrastructure; control the exploration of gas; provide oversight functions over the relevant ministry; that funds released for the ministry are properly utilized and essentially ensure that things are done in tandem with provisions of the law.
And, how is the Committee doing in your estimate?
We are doing well I believe. Since we came on board, we fought to ensure that gas exploration issues are properly addressed. What do I mean? Gas is not like crude. Crude or fuel can easily be stored. But with gas you must have adequate infrastructure in place before embarking on exploration. Before now, what we were doing was to re-inject the gas because there were no adequate facilities in place to store it. And, of course that was an expensive process. Eighty percent of our gas was associated gas; in other words gas that was not expected. This was gas that was accidentally discovered in our exploration for crude. But now we have seen the importance of providing infrastructure and we are working on addressing this. Annually, we make funds available to the ministry to store gas as opposed to re-injecting it. You see the problem with re-injecting gas is when you need to use what you have kept; a significant volume of it would have been lost. We are also working hard to see how we can begin to use more gas to power cars as opposed to fuel. As a matter of fact we already have some filling stations that sell gas to power cars in Nigeria.
Really? Here in Nigeria?
Yes; in Edo State and a few other locations. We are now trying to see how we can take this nationwide. Before now, gas is produced in the South-South and is moved to Lagos before it is now redistributed nationwide. We are now trying to address that. Pipelines have now been laid which will carry gas straight from the South-South to the north. So these are all the areas where our Committee is involved with in working with the Executive in ensuring we are fully utilizing our gas resources in this country. There’s obviously a lot of work going in this area. Indeed there is. Of course it will take another 4-5 years to get to where we need to be; but at least the process has commenced.
Finally, in light of your impressive political profile; your humble beginnings; the fact that you really had to struggle to make ends meet and all that. You have succeeded against all odds. Many youths see you as a beacon of hope and a role model. What is your advice for Nigerian youths?
First off I give God all the glory. I believe any youth with a sense of purpose should believe in God. Try and be a giving person. Endeavour to give more than you take no matter how little or inconsequential; giving wins you friends and gathers goodwill for you. If you are a student remained focused. Try and get God involved in your decision-making process. With all these success is assured. I haven’t seen a giver that lacks. Respect is also important in one’s growth. I tell people close to me to imbibe an attitude of respect towards elders. Be yourself at all times. Don’t pretend to be whom or what you are not. Love your neighbour as best as you can. Treat people who come your way as best as you possibly can. Take whatever you are into very seriously. And finally, let the fear of God rule your life.
Is it likely that Hon Ewa Bassey is in line for a future career in evangelism?
(Laughs). No I don’t think so…not unless God wants me to. I am not born again. Trust me I have my imperfections. But, honestly these are just personal convictions that I feel has greatly helped me personally.
Finally, many are of the opinion that Honourable Ewa Bassey is a likely future candidate for Senate or maybe even perhaps the Cross Rivers State government house? Do you agree?
I believe in today. Whatever will come tomorrow, I take it the way it comes. I have been a parliamentarian right from time. In school, I was the Secretary General of the Cross Rivers State National Association of Nigerian Students. I think that is the closest I have come to any kind of executive duties. For now, I am working with the Governor of Cross Rivers State who I am representing at the National Assembly. I look up to him; he is a gentleman and my role model. He is a nice person with a very large heart. Dr Imoke is my leader and my mentor, so I take my cue from him. So whatever he decides I should do from here on is what I do. I have offered myself to serve, so whatever I am asked to do is fine by me. You see, all these are not my making; if it were, I won’t be where I am today. I don’t see myself as better qualified than many of my mates who have qualified as medical doctors from as far back as 1999. So it is not based on who or what I am that brought me to this level. It’s providence. It’s all God’s hands at work. So whatever God has planned for me, I will take it in good faith.
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