For about 20 years, the position of Cross River State chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had rotated between the South and Central senatorial zones of the state. Now that the position is up for grabs, a former National Publicity Secretary of the party, Venatius Ikem tells Joseph Ushigiale in an emailed interview that, with his pedigree in the party and the government, he is the man to beat. Excerpts:
Is it true you are interested in becoming the Cross River State Chairman of the PDP?
I think we have long gone past the stage of interest or not. We have been in the race for quite sometime and fulfilled all conditions precedent to contesting. But for this global pandemic that necessitated the postponement of the state congresses of PDP, the issue would have been long settled.
So, why the state chairman when you attempted running for governor in 2019?
My summary in response is to say they both amount to service, and that’s the issue. You serve in one capacity or the other. You either serve in government or in the party. But for the proclivity for money, I think we should hold aspirations to party offices higher than into government, because the party is the foundation upon which government is formed.
If you get the party administration wrong, winning elections becomes an uphill task. So, if I cannot serve my party in government, I can shift my service to the party and still achieve the same or almost the same objective.
Looking at my career in politics over time, you can see that I have swung between both party administration and government and I think that’s the unique insight I can bring to bear in the management of the party in Cross River State.
What are your chances or are you an anointed candidate?
I carry God’s anointing with me always. I don’t know if that’s the anointing you mean. That anointing is sufficient for me. Having said that, I think my candidature has adequate stakeholder buy in to propel me to victory.
I am adjudged as experienced in party management and administration, having served in the inaugural executive of the party at inception, and later becoming a member of the National Executive Committee and National Working Committee of the party, where I served as the National Publicity Secretary of the Party. I am known as a firm, fair and fearless administrator.
We read in the social media that a group of politicians from your council, Obudu, met in Chief Eugene Akeh’s house to wash their hands off your ambition and choosing rather to support a candidate from another council against you. Will this not undermine your aspiration?
I read something to that effect too, but no, that has no capacity to undermine my aspiration in anyway, because there is nowhere in the guidelines that an aspirant is required to get approval of certain chiefs from his community!
Unfortunately, it was an action of sycophants of the governor, who have no voting power by the party constitution. Such people exist in every state and have gained a national notoriety in every state for representing nothing but the aspiration to the governor’s attention.
They merely serve as Vuvuzelas for the attention of the governor. We have learned to ignore their noise and focus on the fundamentals of the congress. Oftentimes, there are appointees, who serve at the pleasure of the governor so you must sympathise with them.
Being appointees, they have no vote at the party’s congress and consequently have absolutely no locus in determining, who the delegates to the congress will vote as their party officials. Their opinion is inconsequential.
You literally bestrode the state’s political firmament like a colossus long before the trio of Donald Duke, Liyel Imoke and Gershom Bassey came along. You’ve been council chairman, commissioner under both Duke and Imoke and Special Adviser to both governors, including being National Publicity Secretary of the PDP and later Special Adviser to Obasanjo. Has politics served your purpose?
You make me sound like 100 years old! Yes, I have been around a bit, largely because of my early ascendance. And most of all, God has been very faithful. On a more serious note, my answer is both a yes and a no.
Yes, because I think I have, by the grace of God contributed significantly to the encouragement of youth participation in politics in Cross River State.
With all sense of modesty, I can say without any equivocation that my emergence as an elected Council Chairman at the age of 26 in 1991, completely changed the mindset of many young people and propelled a huge influx of a young generation of men and later women into active, mainstream politics, beyond serving at the periphery as Youth leaders!
Many of the current generation of politicians in the state will readily confess that my emergence is what gave them the impetus to try, including the current governor of the state.
I have also witnessed tremendous infrastructure development.
Then, no because, the pace of social change envisaged with the transition to democracy has been so slow that the gains are easily eroded with just one bad turn, say one bad government. This is made worse by the fact that when you overcome a challenge, the succeeding generation cannot relate to what used to be so they begin to ask, what did you achieve?
Thirdly, social values change also with generations. For instance, when I contested and won elections, as Chairman, I had never owned N5,000 of my own before. And indeed when I left Council as Chairman, I had less than N10,000 to my name. Today that’s almost impossible. I have witnessed the devastating impact of monetisation of our politics as the most frightening threat to our democracy.
Violence has also multiplied a hundred, a thousand folds as politics became monetised and saw the influx of criminal elements with illicit money who saw in it an “investment” opportunity!
The Nigerian state hasn’t lived up to expectations at all in stemming these tendencies as they reared their heads. Ditto for lawmaking, which has not been proactive enough just like the administration of justice. Yes, Politics has been a strong vehicle for the substantial improvement of lives of rural communities. But no politics has been unable to transform society positively in terms of values.
Given your pedigree in politics, many agree that you have the capacity to lead as the party chairman, but do you have the temperament to tolerate people?
Capacity is critical, even though the word is beginning to suffer abuse like most clichés in Nigeria. Temperament doesn’t inhibit performance. Mostly, leaders who are temperamental are those who are impatient for results.
I have worked with a lot of temperamental leaders, who, in the end we rather adjudged beyond the weakness. Former Governor Donald Duke for instance, doesn’t tolerate any nonsense when it comes to setting timelines. He has no friends when his work is involved.
He tells you that he has no weakness in firing people. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is a legend when it comes to bad temperament. He is reported to have called some of his cabinet members ‘Ole’ (thief) in public or minuted so in their financial requests to him.
I think I have done well enough with mine too over the years and you must agree with me that with age, that vice or weakness begins to manage itself as you realie that you cannot change the world overnight no matter how much in a hurry you are. Some things take time.
And finally, I hope I don’t have to tolerate people. I have learned from experience, how to work with people better over time.
Senator Rose Oko, who represented the northern senatorial zone in the senate recently passed away and the race is on to succeed her. Which council should produce a replacement and why?
May Her Soul Rest in Peace. I have until this week refused to make any comments on the race largely because, in my corner, we preferred to respect the soul of our departed sister and hoped to rest her remains before we return to the trenches. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 issues have delayed that until the Senate formally announced her passing, which signaled that the clock had started ticking towards the 90-day window for her replacement.
To answer the question is to delve into a lengthy analysis. I will spare us that. Suffice it to say, it’s about effective representation and of course, with a mixture of equity and fairness.
The arguments of Yala local government, where she hails from that they should have the exclusive right to replace her have no precedence.
When Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, was elected to the Senate in 1999, and soon thereafter appointed Attorney General and Minister for Justice, he was not replaced by an indigene of Bekwarra local government council, where he comes from; he was, however, replaced by Senator Musa Adede, from Obanlikwu local government council.
In fact, no Bekwarra indigene contested that election. What is new about this that makes it unique? Does the fact that Yala is aspiring to make the 4th Senator not prick their conscience when other councils like Ogoja and Bekwarra haven’t at all? Senator Adede was elected on his merits as a capable son of the northern Senatorial District. For me that remains the measure.
Your running battles with Governor Ben Ayade are becoming legendary now. Yet, your decision to reconcile with him in the days leading to the 2019 election jolted many of your supporters. But the reconciliation was short-lived and you are both back in the trenches, why?
I detest to be known for legendary disagreements but I have the experience to interpret in practice what in politics everyone pays lip service to, but do not know how to practice. “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies”.
The 2019 election was a referendum by my reckoning, on how Cross River State after us will manage her fragile multi ethnic union. It was beyond Ayade. Rightly or wrongly, given the state of our ethnic realities, all component parts of the state, just like Nigeria herself, need to have that sense of belonging that guarantees equal opportunity to all.
PDP was the only Party whose choice of candidate reflected this reality. We owe a duty to our people to support their yearnings and aspirations. That’s why we are politicians.
The two other zones of our state had produced governors, who served two terms each and we were not about to give up that opportunity, because the future reference might be discomforting. If I made a mistake there, I pray that history forgives me. Until then, I don’t owe anyone an apology for the position I took during that election.
Having finished with that, the fundamental differences we have are basically petty suspicions and fueled by those who feel too insecure around the governor if people like me came closer and resurfaced.
For me the blame goes to the governor, who knows this truth, yet finds it convenient to accommodate them, because they serve his purpose. I don’t begrudge them. I enjoy my politics the way I find space to play as God guides me, moving forward.
You supported Ayade over Adede to win the senate and I also hear that you had a hand in his emergence as governor in 2015, has he met your expectations?
Absolutely true! I am one of those who made some contributions. I think the jury is still out on the governor’s performance. Mind you, it’s not about my personal expectations. I will prefer to sit this one out.