Nseobong Okon-Ekong holds a conversation with businessman and All Progressives Congress group leader in Rivers State on challenges within the party and other issues
We heard you recently survived five mini-heart attacks before you were properly diagnosed in a London hospital. What really happened?
It was actually six in total if you count the one that happened in the hospital between when I did my ECG and while I was waiting for my chest X-ray results. The truth is I had been having many episodes of chest tightening and I could not explain it. First in Dubai, then in Nigeria. After one very bad experience, I went to a hospital in Abuja and was given medication for indigestion which surprisingly made me feel better. It was not until I got to London that it reoccurred and my wife insisted I should be taken to the hospital, that we found out what it was. Just the ECG and blood tests revealed there was a problem and so without delay I was rushed into the theater and operated on. If I had not come in, the damage would have spelt the end for me. But God was with me and the prayers of my family and well-wishers were strong motivation. Even the First Lady of the nation called to wish me well. I was extremely humbled. They didn’t have to. Who I’m I?
I learnt a few lessons. First, listen to your wife. Two, doctors without equipment is trial and error. Three, many people die for lack of treatment. Four, when in trouble, you will know your friends. The whole experience was free. Not one Naira was spent. Because two days later was my wedding anniversary. They allowed me to go home the following day to enjoy my second lease of life. The final lesson is, between your symptoms and an equipped doctor, there are things you can do. Mine was breathing exercises. A simple Google search will reveal the different types. I used them to save my life. Now, I’m up and about and feeling even better. It’s God.
With all the stress of politics and your passion for progress, are you not tempted to slow down and take life easy?
I’m glad you used the word passion. That means you know it’s not a thing you turn on and off as you see fit. I have seen the world. I have seen Nigerian politics, I know what is needed and I know who can get it done. Why then would I look the other way and mind my business? Because I’m looking for food? No. Food will find me. I’m not that hungry. With this heart attack, I need less of good. I strongly believe in the potential of Nigeria and I truly believe in the genuineness of men like Buhari, Amaechi, El Rufai and others. I’ve seen the sincerity of some men in the legislature, the business community, the arts and at the grassroots. We have enough men and women to build a better Nigeria for our children. I choose to help them. Especially when they make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.
Rivers state is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. Be it internal APC issues or statements from your Governor. Any comments?
We have a history of being very outspoken, especially on social media. Even secondary school children are posting political opinions on Facebook. In the era of Gov. Peter Odili it was not like that. But they were one family then. Now the family has broken up and they all think that they are equals. Besides there is a benefit for being an equal or a close ally of an equal and that benefit is what politicians from 1999 have lived on. Stopping it now is not easy. That’s one reason. The second reason is outside influences. Rivers state is the donation capital of Nigeria. It’s influential just by virtue of its place in Nigeria. They don’t call it the Treasure Base for nothing. Even if Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom like they should take more allocation, Rivers is still Number 1 in the eyes of everyone. So, being a friend of our Governor is a career path for many citizens both inside and outside the APC. I said it once and I’ll repeat it again, people in APC in Abuja conspired with Wike to prevent Amaechi’s candidate from becoming governor in Rivers state. Why? Because if Amaechi has a governor in Rivers state, he will be too influential in the Abuja equation for 2023. Unless Amaechi makes peace with his colleagues in Abuja, we cannot have peace in Rivers. In the meantime, he is doing his work as Minister of Transportation oblivious to them. I admire his focus, but I will be constantly preaching peace. Like I said in response to Governor Wike’s unfortunate comments, we don’t need to wash our dirty linen in public. While we spend huge cash on media, lawyers and frivolous costs, our people are looking for school fees, food to eat or money to invest in business. Who loses? I thank my father for giving me the wisdom to remain quiet.
Are you interested in contesting for governor come 2023? Word from the grapevine says you are gearing up for it. Can you be open and tell us what you are planning?
I’m not going to be making the same mistake my brother and former Senator friend made by pushing for hundred before I even reach for one. The state of the party in the state is not conducive for any kind of electoral victory, talk less of a governor. A total root and branch overhaul is needed to address the fresh management that we need. Unless you want to change parties as a protest. Not me. I have done that before. Doesn’t work. Becoming governor in Rivers state is not a one man show. It requires a team effort and if you are talking APC Rivers state, Amaechi is the undisputed leader of that team. The grassroots believe in him and so without his support, you can’t win. 2023 is miles away, if we take care of the little things, other things will take care of themselves. I have shown that I’m not desperate to be the one on the chair. All I want is for Rivers state to move forward. It must not be me. But move forward, it must. Amaechi is the leader in the state. If you don’t want his leadership, it’s not a cult, you can operate outside him. But let us avoid bringing each other down publicly for the sake of our followers, for the sake of our state and for the sake of our region. It’s not worth it. We can agree to disagree. Weakening APC strengthens PDP. I cannot support that.
What are your thoughts about the statement by Senate President that anything Buhari wants, he will get from the National Assembly?
In politics there are two types of people. The ones who care about the optics of how things look and those who just get on with it. I am increasingly leaning towards the latter. It’s important we put his comments into context. The Senate President is succeeding a predecessor who was a stumbling block to the executive at every turn. Without the benefit of his personal thoughts, I think this Senate President is distinguishing himself and the Senate he leads from that toga. Call him a rubber stamp or an extension of the executive if you like but he will not stand in the way of the much needed progress Mr. President wants to bring to this country. Thankfully, he has given us a key deliverable already. A budget. In December, 2019. That is what my thoughts are processing.
Can a party with this level of crisis and amidst renewed calls for the National Chairman to resign make progress and move the country forward?
Of course. It’s possible to chew gum and walk at the same time. Friction is a function of interaction. What is taking place is normal when you are viable. People fight over you. But our party is not running the government, the President is. Let’s leave internal party affairs to the party. They will resolve them, without the glare of the media.
The recent victory of APC in Bayelsa state fueled allegations of anti-party activities against former President Jonathan. Do you wish to comment?
Not really. Except to say that the former President gave us Wike. I understand why. The enemy of your enemy is your friend. There is very little difference between the parties in Bayelsa. It’s not like they have a peculiar ideology.
When a Christian moves from one denomination to another, he or she still serves God, yet a politician can’t work in another party and still serve his or her people? I used to think our problem was leadership. Now I’m not so sure. What goes around will come around.
Allegations of mismanagement within the NDDC. Are you happy about the probe and what would you like to see going forward?
Oh yes. I am. For two reasons. The first is I know many heads will roll. Secondly, heads rolling signifies consequences. That is the singular most significant reason why we are where we are today. There are no consequences for our actions. Change that and you change everything. Why be good when being bad has no consequence?
You were into movie production. Why did you stop?
God forbid! Me stop? Not possible. I am already working on my next project. My scriptwriter and I are having lunch in London tomorrow just to review our progress. The entertainment industry is not a passing phase for me. It’s what I hold dear. Two of my kids are coming for that lunch meeting. One is in Princeton and he wants to become a Producer. My daughter is already making waves in the UK film industry on major HBO productions and wants to be a writer/director. Her CV is intimidating. She just graduated with a first class. So film production is in the family. It’s just that I believe in taking my time. It shows in the productions.
Finally, give us your assessment of 2019 with regards to the Buhari administration and tell us what your predictions for 2020 will be.
Well he won the election, so the 2019 story itself was that positive assessment. Looking at 2020, I think he wants to leave a legacy. That is good and bad news. The good news is he will take Nigeria to the next level of prosperity. I expect more jobs, increased investment, improved infrastructure, greater transparency and better fiscal management. The bad news is he will take no prisoners along the way and he will take some very tough short term decisions that have a longer term positive impact. He isn’t contesting for an election and he has the future of the masses in his mind. My only advice will be for him to pay attention to healing the nation. Politicians play on our divisions to get power. Now that they have lost it, patriots should play on our unity to keep Nigeria strong.
APC NWC has set up a national reconciliation committee but some are already kicking against the composition. Will there be genuine reconciliation because there are certain people who believe nothing good can come out of Oshiomhole?
I don’t share that view. Anyone who wants to make progress should have no problem embracing peace. I’m an optimist with an umbrella like I said before. Let’s give peace a fair chance. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let them start work.
At the emergence of Ovie Omo Agege as leader of the party in South-south, some people boycotted the meeting that produced him: Godswill Akpabio, Rotimi Amaechi, Godwin Obaseki. Can we say their absence showed a crack within?
You can say it does, but it won’t be true. I believe the Deputy Senate President is now the highest political officer from the South-south, so he is not really contesting political leadership with anybody. The media often like to read meaning into innocent issues. Maybe because controversy sells. Amaechi, Akpabio, Sylva and even Oshiomole have large profiles and could easily provide leadership for the region, but the respect for the office of the DSP and their preference to focus on their jobs means, this isn’t a matter for debate.
Buhari has said he won’t contest in 2023. So many tendencies smarting for the ticket. Which of these will pick the ticket and do you forsee the cabal producing a candidate by proxy, despite Buhari warning that no one should drop his name?
I won’t be tempted to speculate. If as has been established, a week is a long time in politics, how much more three years? There are too many actions the President can take that will affect the outcome. The worst mistake anyone should make is to underestimate the role of the President. Even his silence will speak volumes.
Recently Mr. President alongside others congratulated your father on his 90th birthday and then it was brought to our attention that you and your father share the same birthday. How special was this one?
Very. Unlike no other. 90 years is not easy to attain. Unfortunately, both of us were not been feeling too well, so our celebrations were put on a brief hold. Nevertheless, recognition from the President and others to his Serene Majesty are still very much appreciated. He is no ordinary King. They acknowledged that. From far and wide. Usually one is not truly appreciated in his own home, but I’m glad Amaechi in Rivers and Gov Dickson of Bayelsa too did him the honour as well. Many forget it is my birthday because his birthday puts a shadow on mine. But I make no complaints. It’s an honour to be in his shadow. I pray I can touch as many people as he has by the time I’m also his age.