Senator John Owan Enoh is the senator for Cross River Central senatorial district and chairman, Senate Committee on Finance. Since the return of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, Enoh has been a lawmaker, making him one of the longest serving legislators in the country. He has also held the chairmanship of both the finance and the appropriation committees of the House of Representatives. Enoh turned 50 on June 4. In this interview with Paul Obi, Enoh speaks on his politics and the current political and economic situation in Nigeria. Excerpts:
At 50, how has life been for you?
I turned 50 on June 4 and it is a golden birthday. I look back at growing up from a little village, Agbokim Waterfalls, made famous by the waterfalls that it has. Going through school – the primary school through secondary to the university to post-graduate and thereafter to having to lecture and then taking a trip into politics and how long I have been around. Through all these I feel I have been blessed beyond measure. Everything that I have done in the course of my several years, I think by God’s grace I have done those things successfully well. I have been a passionate person, very passionately committed to what I do.
I have had cause to mention elsewhere that after seven years of university lecturing, when I resigned to run for office, my students were those that received the first shock because of the kind of passion with which I approached my job. They didn’t think that there was any other job I was going to love better than lecturing. Unknown to them, I had spent so much effort trying to get myself outside the shores of the university. And since thereafter, first in 1998 during my first election during the Abacha transition and fully in 1999 in the Abdulsalami Abubakar transition up to the 2015 election, the grace of God has remained tremendous.
What are the things that have struck you most in life?
In all my areas of engagement, the human being and the advancement of the human interest has remained the centrepiece of my efforts. For me, there is about nothing else to live for than to see how much you can add to the course of other people’s lives. My earlier training in a Junior Seminary, it would seem, continuous to play a very great role in this regard. In addition, I studied sociology and it exposed me like never before to human nature, understanding of human life, human society and I have been pursuing the common good for society and for those that I have had to work for, those that I have had to represent.
In the course of my politics, understanding human beings and human society have remained cardinal in terms of everything I have done. I have always told those who care to listen that I won’t be anything today but for the benevolence of people and the society that produced me and, therefore, having to continue to serve society, having to continue to serve those that I represent have remained a passion for me and have remained the most fulfilling thing that I have come to find.
Politically, you seem to have so much goodwill. What is behind this?
First, I will say it is God’s grace and I don’t take this for granted. It is not because I possess anything extraordinary. I have also kept things simple and ordinary in addition to remaining in close touch with my constituency. Before I ran for Senate, I told a cross-section of people that I was addressing that because of how involved I get with those I represent, whether as a state assembly member with 10 wards or as member of the House of Reps where I represented 21 wards for 12 years, I remain close and very involved with my constituency. So my greatest challenge when I wanted to run for Senate was to ask myself vividly that with the Central senatorial district of Cross River comprising 66 wards, will I be able to be as equally involved in all the 66 wards as senator representing the Central senatorial district or not.
Once I answered this in the affirmative I got going with my aspiration. So for me, remaining in touch with my people remains key. Thus far as a senator I’ve remained true to this. In addition, I have kept some habits constant, I am one person who is noted within the length and breadth of the people that I represent as one who takes his calls not minding who the caller is and whether I have the callers number or not. Added to this is the fact that I reply to all the messages that I get. For majority of those that we represent they just want to know that they are appreciated. The fact that a person who sends a text in one local community gets a reply from the senator or an elected member is very gratifying. You can pick my number on the streets in my constituency.
In what specific ways have you touched the lives of your people since you came into active politics?
I have spent all my years in politics in the legislature and you can try to look at what and how I have affected my constituency in terms of the essential role of a legislator. I identified very early in my political career that I also had to do a little bit more than what a lawmaker should do. If you go to Cross River today, without being immodest, so many people will agree that the politics of empowerment, the politics of intervention in people’s constituencies was actually begun by me. I started very early in making sure that once every year I did some kind of intervention programme for my constituency and I started it right from when I was in the House of Assembly.
I appreciated early that beyond having to be a mouthpiece for my constituency, beyond having to see what projects that I can attract, because sometimes due to how bad budget implementation has been since the onset of democracy, you can put projects in the budget in the course of one year and the budget doesn’t get implemented, your constituency does not have the benefit of what you have put in. You can thus end up having nothing to show through your tenure. For me, therefore, beyond what I can get the government to do for my people, I reasoned there are things I can actually do for my people through my own initiative.
This was the philosophy underlying my empowerment programmes. When I won election to the senate, within my first few months of being in the senate, I pioneered something else – going back to the constituency to go and tell them thank you, to go and appreciate them for electing me into the Senate. I did thank-you tours to all the local government areas in my senatorial district. In the next couple of years, it is going to become a common practice but when it does let’s not forget how it started! Some months back, I organised a forum which I called the second edition of Senator Owan Enoh Meets with Youths of the senatorial district in which I invited a renowned career coach and motivational speaker, Muyiwa Afolabi, to come and interface with youths of my senatorial district.
Despite having many people in prominent national positions, Cross River State still seems to be grappling with many avoidable development gaps, like bad road network and many communities not linked to the national grid. How can these challenges be overcome?
The challenges you have mentioned are more or less true. My attitude is to consider them as work in progress. The sorry state of our roads has remained so not for lack of efforts but for the fact that the efforts have not yielded the positive results or the desired impact. I have been very vocal about the fact that the worst state of roads in our country is in Cross River. During the administration of the former Governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, he did a lot in terms of rural roads. Unfortunately, the major federal roads that these roads were linked to remained in very bad state.
So in Cross River, rural communities enjoy good road network whereas the major roads, which are the federal government roads, remain in a state of disrepair. As chairman of committee on appropriation, I worked with the Ministry of Finance and the Budget Office as well as my colleagues to make budgetary provisions for, particularly, the Calabar-Ugep-Ikom-Ogoja-Katsina Ala road. But because of the non-implementation of budget all that effort mattered little. At some point, I worked with FERMA to see if I could get some intervention done. Although, it was done in a few sections of the road but the quality of the road failed very easily. The 2016 budget captured the Calabar-Odukpani-Itu road and my hope is that working with the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, the Calabar-Ugep-Ikom-Ogoja-Katsina Ala road will receive maximum attention in the 2017 appropriation.
What can the National Assembly do to ensure optimal implementation of budgets by the executive?
It worries me a lot. The only thing is that before getting to see what solutions can be done, you also need to look at what will be the reason why a budget will not be implemented. One reason could be the lack of will on the part of the executive to implement the budget but the other and more profound reason is that every budget remains an intention, a plan. That plan has two components – the revenue side that talks about the expected revenue in the course of the year and then the expenditure side in terms of what the government actually intends to do. Unless government is able to realise its projected revenue, there will always be a problem in terms of budget implementation.
For example the 2016 budget was predicated on the fact that daily oil production is going to be about 2.2 million barrels per day. In the last few weeks, there have been reports related to the fact that the government of the federation is losing about 800, 000 barrels per day. This means that the expected volume of oil production per day is not being met. And this is not even been covered by the market price of crude where you can say for example that crude is now climbing close to $50 whereas we budgeted for $38. You have to consider for how long this has been in the course of 2016.
We have spent most of the year with lower oil prices. Thus, the impetus for the inability of government to achieve a hundred per cent budget implementation in 2016 is already being laid. What I am trying to say is that try as we try, in spite of the will on the part of the executive to implement the budget, if this shortfall continues then there is going to be a challenge in terms of appropriate or proper budget implementation. This will be different from when all the revenues are realised and what you find is just irresponsibility and an insufficient lack of will to want to implement the budget. All these need to be taken together and highlighted in order to be able to find out what possibly can be done.
What do you think is the way forward for PDP considering its last controversial national convention and the crisis in the party?
I think that after the various conventions that were held, whether the Abuja convention or the Port Harcourt convention, the PDP is at a point now that no matter how bad things were in the past, with a setting up of a caretaker committee and the discussions that are going on, only the best can be expected to come out. I believe, for example, that the various contending forces are going to be able to reconcile, are going to de-emphasise personal interest and are going to look at the interest of the party and the interest of the country. Because the PDP for now remains an alternative platform, so everybody is committed, the outcome of the convention in Port Harcourt and the fact that the convention did not go ahead to hold an elective convention is an indication that the party was sensitive to peoples’ concerns about the direction the party was going. So I think that what is going to play out in the next couple of days and weeks is only going to be an attempt to see how to unify the PDP and get everybody who feels reasonably aggrieved to get back to the PDP and resolve all common issues.
What informed your decision to set up a diabetes foundation to mark your 50th birthday?
I could have gone for anything else outside diabetes; I think that the more important thing is the philosophy behind it. The foundation can be on anything. I haven’t celebrated a birthday before but I am looking on to turning 50. I said to myself I am not a guy who would want to celebrate just for the fun of it and that if I have to celebrate my 50th birthday, I must identify an area of human need, human problem, and intervene as part of my commitment to society. Especially because that commitment remained at the top of my politics all this while; and so I thought that turning 50 and looking at the grace of God upon my life, it was important to come up with something that I can bequeath to society; something that can add value. While all this was playing up on my mind I got introduced to the idea of diabetes by a young lawyer.
Gradually this idea sunk in when I appreciated how many diabetic cases I’ve had to deal with in the course of my public office career. I’ve appreciated more and more people that I have watched their health deteriorate, and very fast, due to this ailment. And when I compare who I saw in them before the onset of diabetes, I see the ravages of diabetes in them, it just made it more imperative that this is where to go. A few months back, I had a meeting with my local government staff and I tried to get them to see how they can identify some diabetic cases. You will be amazed at the huge number of cases that they are reporting.