Nseobong Okon-Ekong confronts Speaker of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Onofiok Luke with probing questions about his tenure and the relationship with some of political principals
Q: Your tenure will end in a few months. Do you feel fulfilled? Or are there more things to do, but little time left?
A: First, let me thank God Almighty for the victory at the primaries to fly the party’s flag as a member of a House of Representatives, representing Etinan Federal Constituency in the National Assembly. Talking about my service, I want to say to the glory of God that I have been able to do the little I can to change the dynamics of representation in my state constituency in the past seven and half years. The assessment and judgment is left for my constituents. Talking about being fulfilled, except you are not a passionate leader or you don’t have the burning desire to serve, there is no way you can be totally fulfilled, especially in a clime like this where you are faced with so many challenges. Because of the structure of the system and the polity, there are things that you have embedded in you that you want to execute, but you may find out that you are restrained, constrained, holed up somewhere that you might not be able to execute them.
As a member of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly in the last seven and half years, I will say I have done well. At that level, by June 2019, I believe that I would have been done. In that capacity, I have brought a few changes. First, what has become institutionalised in Akwa Ibom State as constituency briefing left with massive empowerment programme was started by me in 2012. The records are there. I did it,first time in 2012, the second time in 2014, the third in 2016. And I’m planning another one before I exit the House of Assembly because every day, you see challenges, you see market women, young people, looking for little seed funds to start their businesses, you see a yawning gap in the transportation system. You see people looking for tools to start their businesses, you see students who have dropped out of school and looking for assistance in areas of scholarship or bursary to continue their educational pursuits. I have to step in and fill the gap.
I am not satisfied at that level, as a Member of the House of Representatives, there is still more. Then we now talk about government projects that we have attracted to the community like the market stalls, you will find out that most of our women there are petty traders, you find out that most of the market stalls were ramshackle. I have to ensure that I change the face of the market environment. As I go further, I should be able to give them more markets. Then there is educational development, helping to renovate, to attract government to renovate and bring new structures and good learning environment. In the area of community development, certain communities don’t have community centres. Every community project that is drafted into the community was based on assessment. I ask the community what they want. They will say they need a community centre, like a village hall. We do that to help community development. There are some that say they need portable water and we have been able to assist in those areas. As Speaker of the House of Assembly, when I came in the first term, I knew that by the second term, I have planned and was destined to be the Speaker.
I didn’t want to be a speaker because of the position. I know I have certain things inside of me to exhibit, to execute in that office. One is to be able to speak out and clearly about things that are not right. I may not go to the pages of newspapers to shout that he is not comfortable with some of the government policies, but I have to channel it to the appropriate quarters to see how they can address the issues. I am an activist, I don’t need to go and gain public attention, or dance to the gallery to get the crowd to applaud me because I’m holding the microphone and attacking government policies. As a Number Three Citizen, I have a channel of communication that I can exploit to say these policies will not go down well with the populace; so we need to change the course of action. We thank God, His Excellency, Governor Udom Emmanuel listens to us. The other one is the issue of democratisation of the legislative process, what I will call the Open Legislature- getting the people to partake, to get the legislative process to be all inclusive. I made sure that every single bill that passed through the House of Assembly was subjected to public hearing.
We don’t only do that for the purposes of publicity. In doing that, we have come out with a refined legislature because of the quality of input we have been able to get from the people in the cause of these hearing. Without sounding immodest, I started the process of subjecting the budget of the state to public hearing as a Chairman of Finance and Appropriation committee in 2011 and 2012. There was stiff opposition by the government, government apparatus that I should not do that in 2012, but as the chairman of the committee, I subjected the budget to public hearing and I thank God that that it has been institutionalised. I made sure, as a speaker, that it continued, that whoever was the chairman of the committee must subject the budget to public hearing for people to make their input. There is no way you are going to invite all 6.5 million people in Akwa Ibom to make their input, but you can have critical stakeholders, the traditional rulers, the civil society organisations, the political class, we extend invitation to all political parties in the state to come and make their input. We have been able to do a little bit in that area of democratisation of the legislative process. The other one, I think I should be able to carry out in the next two months is that I needed a strong civil society engagement. I started by opening the House of Assembly to every organisation that will come for a courtesy visit to share their ideas, plans, problems, yearnings and aspirations. I did that but I needed a more structured form which I believed that in the months ahead, God being with us we would be able to do that.
We want to segments of the society one after the other, like the legislative media parley to see how can we make the media to establish its place as the watchdog of the society, and like the legislative religious leaders interface, to see how we can have religious tolerance or we can stop preaching hate in churches, mosques and even in our shrines. The other one is to engage the traditional leaders, the legislative traditional rulers engagement trying to get from these organisations what we can do, policies that we can strengthen to help build and ensure security of lives in their domains. You can only talk about development if there is peace in those localities. Legislative student engagement will seek to improve on student financing.
Another area is legislative security engagement, how we can come out with a state security trust fund to strengthen security of lives and properties so that investors can have the confidence to invest in the state and other segments of the society like women and youths, those are the areas that I think we have not done. Even legislative professional engagement like the Nigerian Medical Association, they have been coming on courtesy visit and that’s how we were able to see the yawning gap in the primary healthcare, that was why we are able to have the primary healthcare development agency bill passed into the law which I was the lead sponsor. Because of that same engagement, we saw the need to have a seed funding for health financing so we had the state health financing scheme which equally is a bill that was sponsored by me with the support of my colleagues. We have other pending ones like the state social housing scheme which we believe that we should be able to churn out. There are so many things that we need to do but I believe that in the next seven months, I believe that we would be able to achieve that. I also want to say that there is no way we can finish all and that with what we have done, it is left for the populace to judge and assess our work.
We Christen ourselves the ‘People’s Assembly’ because we have intervened in places where workers could have been victimized. For example, certain students were resuscitated from the College Health of Technology, we intervened and those students were recalled. The issue of certain workers who had issues in the Akwa Ibom State University, we have been able to resolve that. The issue of claims and counterclaims between government and civil servants in unpaid salaries and issues of arrears, of gratuity, we were able to set up an ad-hoc committee and we were able to intervene and we came out with the figure which we passed to the government and said these are the true figures that we have found to be the liability of government to these set of people and I’m glad the governor has started doing that. I’m aware that every month about N1.3 billion is set aside to settle those past claims and entitlements. There is no way we can finish all. Subsequently, the State Assembly will be able to come and build on the foundation that was laid and we have come to put our own building blocks. I believe that there is still more to be done.
Is it a trend that anyone who becomes a speaker of the State House of Assembly moves on to become a member of the House of Representatives?
I wouldn’t say that. For me, it is about passion for service. I feel that my federal constituency needs a stronger person in the National Assembly, and the state too will need a combination of strong voices in the National Assembly. I believe that to the glory of God Almighty, God has given me a grace to speak and be heard- a voice that cannot be compromised, a voice that will say what ought to be said at any time. I don’t know that my state is particular about leadership development. I believe that my state is grooming the leaders of tomorrow so that when we meet at the Nigerian Table and we discuss issues that bother on the Nigerian nation, we will not lack leaders on that table. I appreciate the state leadership, the women, the youths for that capacity building for leadership so that the state at every point in time must have leaders at the Nigerian table when issues are discussed. I believe that it is because of this need to build leaders with capacity, that has caused the delegates to look along that line. We need to build stakeholders leaders from one point, because it is happening in other places. We are not left behind.
I heard the person who is vacating the federal seat you are gunning for was pressurized to step down. What really happened?
At every point in time, I have the package for a particular position. I think in the capacity of state legislature, in 2019, I will not be having challenges again in the state. I just don’t want to be redundant and I need to give another person the opportunity to rise in that state constituency.
Apart from that, in any state political meeting, there is need for consultation. We believe in peaceful processes, a smooth transition and consensus building. However, delegates of the Etinan Federal constituency expressed their wishes. We went to the field and you have the result in line with the consensus building.
Did he step down for you or not?
That’s a big question that I may not want to answer. That’s why I said we had a consensus building.
The Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly was one of those that declined the bid to have local government autonomy, why did it tow that line?
The House of Assembly is made up of 26 members and you cannot teach them what to do. What we did was the execution of the heart desire of the members of the House of Assembly. But then you will ask me if it is the heart desire of the people. That is where the cross emerges, to merge the desire of the elected and the desire of the electorates, that has to come into play. I want to state a personal position which is that I am in support of local government autonomy and even if we were to have a tie and my vote would be the one to decide, I would have voted to have local government autonomy. Because of the challenges at that point we deferred actions on the issue of local government which was taken by all of us. I believe that decision will soon avail itself. There is still process of constitutional amendment and the opportunity will afford itself. Some people might say it was selfish of the House of Assembly to vote for its own autonomy and not vote for that of the local government. In life, it’s give and take. In all sincerity, we were under pressure as a legislature. There were certain persons in the executive who didn’t want both legislative autonomy and the local government autonomy. We had a meeting between the speakers of states houses of assembly and the Nigerian Governors Forum, we stated our position, and they also stated their own position. At the end of it all, we had to reach a compromise. The agreement was that we can get the governors to buy in and see if we can get legislative autonomy and on a later date if we can get that of the local government. Members of the executive should understand the need of the autonomy of the local government. As a person and a representative of my state constituency, I expressed this view that I am in support of local government autonomy but because of the dynamics of politics, without mincing words we have to give and take to arrive at what we arrived at, but it was a challenging moment for us.
In many states, it is assumed the executive still controls the legislature, as the governor, largely decides who emerges as a legislator, do you find yourself in that kind of situation?
Every position comes with its own challenges and dynamics. Because of the structure of our constitution, the political structure in our economy, the position of the legislature and the executive are inevitable. There is no way you can shout of the independence of the legislature from the chief executive of the state. I won’t play an ostrich. I will say it as it is. As long as you keep going to the chief of executive of the state with a cap in hand to ask for an approval to do things in the legislature, there are certain times you must pander to their whims, but there are certain situations that bother on the interest of the people, that you cannot compromise on, no matter what the chief executive says on it. If the position that the chief executive wants you to take is going to be at the detriment of the people, you must be able to stand on the path of the people and then face the consequences. I keep telling people that I am not a desperate politician and no position is permanent. I have not found myself in the situation where the governor asked me to do something against the people. He is a pro-people governor. But there are certain situations that we have to disagree. We sometimes want him to see things from our angle and he also argues with us to see things from his own angle. Other times he sees things with us and when he doesn’t, we try to take things from our position and there are times he sees things with us. We have a little disagreement but we come to agree at the end of the day. Thank God we have the financial autonomy but I believe there will soon be some level of independence for the legislature but not to the point that of the legislature constituting itself into a cog in the wheel of development or an opposition to the executive. In AkwaIbom, we propounded one theory, the theory of cooperation of power for the benefit of the people. We need to cooperate with all arms of the government when needful for the benefit of the people. We need to disagree with all arms of the government for the benefit of the people. The most important thing is that the disagreement is not for our own personal benefit.
Q: There have been agitations by civil society organisations that legislators shouldn’t put their names on constituency projects because they are funded by them?
We should not put our name as if it is our project that was done by so and so. We come from a society where people easily forget what you have done. We come from a society that after you left office people start asking what did he really do? In a bid to show that you have done something that is why we said it is not for you to say this is the constituency project of so and so but rather to say ‘this project was facilitated’ by so and so for this community. That is the only one I agree.
You are emerged increasingly being known as one of the very influential politicians out of Akwa Ibom. People see you and Senator Albert Akpan as main pillars holding Governor Udom Emmanuel. Is that assessment correct?
I don’t know how they managed to see that. I don’t look at things from that perspective. Whatsoever I do today is a revelation I get from God Almighty. I don’t know how people see my support for the government. I don’t know how they interpret it and that of Senator Albert. For me, I act according to my conviction. Whether I was a speaker or not, my conviction is that I should support an incumbent. We have our leader the man who happens to be my political mentor, I’m referring to Senator Godswill Akpabio. He told us that at every point in time, we must support leadership. Working for him, he said your loyalty is to the governor of the state at that point we were serving him as commissioner and personal assistants, that’s the lesson he taught us. We have imbibed that lesson having followed him for well over 14 years and these lessons have been internalised. From the background that we are coming from- my parental background was that you don’t desecrate authority. You have to respect authority. In this case, that is the governor. People might look at it from political perspective, I am looking at it from Biblical perspective that the Bible has told us clearly that we must respect and support authority. My support for the governor is that he is the governor of the state. From 1999, every governor that had the opportunity to superintend over this state has had eight years and had people rally around him for a second term. I take from these lessons and these antecedents and that is what has given me the conviction to stand with Governor Udom Emmanuel, just like we stood with Senator Godswill Akpabio when he wanted to return for a second term.
This is not about Udom Emmanuel or about Ibibio or Annang?
I don’t play ethnic politics in the state. My best man when I got married who was my best friend in the university is from Oron. My Chief of Staff in the House of Assembly who is my best friend today is from Essien Udim in Ikot Ekpene senatorial district. I am supporting the governor because of what we were taught by the leaders of the state- people that were followed over time. I am supporting him too because of the conviction of his performance. I want to be known for consistency. He is the governor and I will stand with him to see the outcome of whatever happens. I am not a fair weather politician. Some people felt I was supporting him because I want a House of Rep ticket. I made it clear to those who care to listen that whether I got the ticket or not, I will stay with him to the end.
If your conviction is to support leadership all the time, Akpabio was your leader, why didn’t you go with him to APC?
Because that wasn’t the lesson he taught us. He taught us to be consistent and always support the governor. So there is no way you can expect me now to betray a sitting governor because in 2011, when Senator James Udoedeghe came to contest with Senator Akpabio, there was pressure in some certain persons that said ‘let’s connect and do an Ibibio agenda’. We said we cannot betray Governor Godswill Akpabio then. He saw our sincerity for standing by him, we defied everything when people wanted to do an ethnic agenda. We stood with him, even when some people defected. Why didn’t we defect with those people? Like when Senator Udoedeghe defected to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), he wasthe campaign manager for Senator Akpabio, whom we all queued behind, would it have been right to defect with him? How would Senator Akpabio have felt, if we defected with him? For me, it is about conscience. If I didn’t defect with Senator John Udoedeghe who was our leader then at the senatorial district, then who rallied all of us to support Governor Godswill Akpabio, then I don’t see any reason I should leave a sitting governor. We didn’t do so in 2011. What we did in the past, we must do it in the present. Since I didn’t defect with the Senator John then to ACN to support him in governorship, I cannot do same today. For the fact that he is my leader I have to follow everything he says hook, line and sinker.
There are some certain things he would say that fathers and sons do disagree. That does not mean I will heap insults on him. We might disagree. We disagreed in 2014 that led to certain persons in the system trying to stop me from going for a second term. And that thing led to my being stopped from becoming a speaker. That disagreement led to the seizing of the mace when I had 18 members go and select me as the speaker, seizing of the proclamation letter by the governor, seizing of the clerk of the house, because of that disagreement that happened in 2014. But God is not man, ‘who is he that said a thing and it came to pass when God has not commanded him.’ To the glory of God Almighty, God found a way and brought me to be the speaker in the House of Assembly. My issue right now is that we are disagreeing based on political lines but that does not mean that I don’t respect him as my leader and political mentor. He told us for over eight or nine years that there is nothing good about that party and you can’t sit down with me today and just within two or three days and then debrief me of what you have told me. I loved and followed you when you told me that there was nothing good about that party for more than 10 years. You indoctrinated us, so if there is something good now about that party, you needed to come back and say please all the things I have said about that party is false. I have come to realise that it is not so. And it takes time to debrief us. We have not been debriefed.
Did Akpabio slap you at any point in time?
No. He never
Where did that notion come from, that he slapped you in a public place?
I think he has great respect for me as a person and as a political son. I have respect for him as a political mentor. At any point in time, we can only disagree on political issues. It was only a scuffle that happened in 2014 and as a Christian, I have been able to forgive and move on.
IN THE MIRROR
*Onofiok Akpan Luke is a lawyer. He studied Law at the University of Uyo. He is 40 years old, born March 16, 1978
*He became a Barrister at Law in 2010
*He is the Speaker of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly and represents Nsit Ubium State Constituency
*Served for three years as a Personal Assistant to Governor Godswill Akpabio as Personal Assistant
*Pioneer Speaker of the 109-member Nigerian Youth Parliament, a non-stipendiary institution put together by then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to help generate inputs from elite Nigerian youths into the country’s mainstream governance
*In 2011, Onofiok won at the primaries of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to run in that year’s general election for a seat to represent Nsit Ubium state constituency in the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly. He was elected on December 21, 2015 as the 11th Speaker of the Akwa Ibom state House of Assembly.
*Onofiok is still seen as a rights activist although in recent years, he has played less activist roles as he became more deeply involved in leadership at both national and state levels
*His activism gained national prominence when he served as President of the Student Union Government of the University of Uyo. Onofiok led a mass student protest against the university management which had increased school fees and other sundry charges
*Onofiok Luke was rusticated for two years, but having been of every allegation by the school, Onofiok was recalled later to complete his studies for a degree in Law
*Onofiok’s boldness, erudition, and principles have earned him the respect of many of Nigeria’s youths. He is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Education programme and an Honorary Texan
*Luke, in 2011, became an Associate Fellow of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI), an international non-profit platform for credible, accomplished and uniquely patriotic Nigerians. He is also a member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)
*Onofiok was first elected to the Akwa Ibom state legislature in April 2011. He was overwhelmingly reelected for a second term on April 11, 2015. On December 21, 2015, the 26-member Akwa Ibom state House of Assembly elected him as the 11th Speaker of the parliament.
*As a lawmaker, Luke has sponsored more than 10 private member bills in the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, 7 of which have been passed into law: The Law to provide for the establishment of the Akwa Ibom State HIV/AIDS control agency, functions of the agency, and for connected matters; and The Law to amend the Magistrate Court Laws 2000 and for matters connected therewith. In 2017, his bill for a primary healthcare development agency well as the state health insurance scheme and agency were passed into law. He also championed the provision of affordable housing in the Akwa Ibom state through the law for social housing sponsored by him
*Luke in 2013 was reported to have saved his state well over $6 million when he stood down a request for 1billion Nigerian Naira by the state executive which claimed the money was going to be used to establish the Ibom Airlines
*Luke stopped the approval of the requested 1billion Naira because the state Budget Department could not prove that the money had not been collected under the same subhead by the state’s Special Duties ministry in the previous fiscal year and was accounted for. He was changed from the Finance and Appropriation Committee by the House leadership to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee a few months later
*He is described as a “stubborn lawmaker” for engaging in a career threatening row with state officials on certain obnoxious policies in the state
*Luke is arguably the first and only known public official in Nigeria to run an internship programme on legislative practices for young Nigerians. He founded The Onofiok Luke Legislative Internship Programme (TOLLIP) in 2013. The programme is designed to train and mentor young Nigerians on the rudiments of law-making in line with international best practices. Interns are also coached to become economically self-reliant, social volunteers, peace advocates and conflict managers. He places the interns on monthly stipends