By Ekpene Israel
There is no debating the fact that among the 36 states in Nigeria, Akwa Ibom under the current governor, Mr Udom Emmanuel, has been a bellwether in transparency and accountability through open and regular interactions between the government and the people. In contrast to what is obtained in most states of the country, the oil-rich Niger Delta state has enjoyed commendable openness as the present government has made it a key policy to hold regular interface with every section of the state. Very notable of the governor’s efforts in this regards include periodic media parleys, Townhall/stakeholders’ meetings, the governor’s speaks series, etc. Evidently, this in turn, has boosted the people’s confidence in the government.
Last Wednesday, Akwa Ibom State scored another high with the first-of-its-kind Inter-Ministerial Briefing tagged “Tracking the Promise”. Not satisfied with the laudable efforts it has put into communicating her policies to the people over the years, the state government through the Ministry of Information and Strategy, held the season one of the inter-ministerial briefing that featured six Ministries – Ministry of Works and Fire Service; Ministry of Agriculture; Ministry of Labour and Manpower Planning; Ministry of Health; Ministry of Economic Development; Ministry of Special Duties and Ibom Deep Seaport. The 2-day event had participants drawn from different sections of the state such as the media, the religious and traditional institutions, civil rights groups, labour and pressure groups, professional bodies, NGOs, etc.
In his opening remarks, the State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Ini Ememobong noted that the briefing was first of all, in furtherance of Governor Udom Emmanuel’s policy on openness, transparency and accountability, and in addition, to provide the government through the heads of Ministries the opportunity to give a comprehensive sectoral assessments of the administration’s performance. “There are governors in the South South states who have never met with journalists even once, let alone allow them to ask questions. His Excellency Udom Emmanuel has been having parley with journalists yearly because he is passionate about interfacing with the people. Commissioners have also been talking but today we came to hear from you”, Mr Ememobong said. “This converge is put together to ensure that the governor, the government and the governed all belong to the same page. It is a platform that will provide a two-way channel of communication between the government and the citizens”.
For a state like Akwa Ibom with a large politically enlightened citizenry, the government has had to consciously and consistently stay on the path of truth and facts to continue enjoying the robust support of the people. The inclusion of known critical voices against the government in the briefing further demonstrated the fact that the event was not intended to be another government PR but a pan-Akwa Ibom forum for an unrestricted and uncensored dialogue. The essence of the inter-ministerial briefing was aptly captured by the Dean, Faculty of Media and Communication Studies, University of Uyo, Prof Peter Esu, in his teaser Governance, Transparency and Responsibility.
Citing some real-life instances in the state, the communication scholar noted that the Udom Emmanuel administration has been responsive in her approach to governance and added that the inter-ministerial briefing was a good opportunity for the citizens to demand more from the government. In his opinion, it was not just enough for the government to perform but also pertinent to effectively communicate its archivements and successes to the people in order to leave little or no room for speculations and misinformation. “One of the governorship candidates in the state sat on national TV to say that there are no good roads in the state. But that is a lie because fact check will show that Akwa Ibom State has one of the best road network is this country”, Prof Esu noted. From his scholarly point of view, a convergence such as the Inter-Ministerial Briefing was an opportunity for for the people to get accurate information from those they mandated to govern them and commended the government for thinking and acting in that direction.
Day one of the briefing featured Ministry of Works and Fire Service, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Labour and Manpower Planning with the Commissioners of the three Ministries taking on questions from participants. Prof Eno Ibanga, the Commissioner for Works, while responding to series of questions, cleared the air on some of the burning issues regarding contracts, completion of ongoing road projects, etc. For instance, the Works Commissioner admitted that there have been challenges with the construction of Nsit Atai – Oron Road which stalled the work since the previous administrations but that the present government has resolved the issues and work has resumed in earnest on the road. “Nsit Atai – Oron road will definitely be completed. We are running on speed and today whatever that had happened on that road, the narrative has changed”, Prof Ibanga assured. “This government is firm on delivering good roads so it has terminated and reawarded contracts because of non-performance. We have terminated up to five major contracts because this government wants to meet deadlines. At the speed we are running, these roads will be completed”.
Reacting to a question on the government’s plan for state fire service, Prof Eno Ibanga revealed that there were ongoing plans for a massive intervention to reposition the fire service. According to him, by the time the intervention is completed, Fire Service will be a separate arm in the Ministry of Works. He further reassured that the state government has consistently followed due deligence in the award of contracts in line with the provisions of the public procurement act.
Dr Offiong Offor, Commissioner for Agriculture, on her part, disclosed that part of the state government’s strategy to boost the agricultural sector was to ensure the increase in production of farm products by assisting farmers with seedlings, access to land and funding. Particularly, she disclosed the GreenWell Fetilizer Blending Plant in Abak was still working but was only producing on demand due to high cost of raw materials and production. Recalled that one of the state government’s landmark success in the agricultural sector was the production of Family Rice. Contrary to the claims that farmers in state are no longer producing rice, Dr Offor confirmed that Family Rice was still in production. “The producers of Family Rice are still producing rice. They buy from rice farmers in Ini but they also source outside Ini because farmers there cannot meet up with production demand”, she said.
The Agriculture Commissioner however disclosed that despite the state government’s efforts and good intentions for the sector, there have been challenges limiting the success of those laudable efforts. For instance, she disclosed that market associations have been consistently sabotaging these efforts by either causing artificial scarcity of farm products in the market or inflating prices. This was firmly corroborated by a market woman who was a participant at the briefing who had asked what the state government was doing to rescue sellers from the shackles of associations in the markets. Dr Offor also revealed that farmers in the state have a mindset of sticking to a particular variety of crop they are used to and it was somewhat difficult introducing them to other varieties.
Mr Aniefiok Nkom, Commissioner for Labour and Manpower Planning, while reeling out the achievements of the state government through the Ministry, disclosed that the government in partnership with Industrial Training Fund (ITF) has trained about 500 youths of the state in ICT development and supported them with start-up packs. Mr Nkom expressed optimism that with the number of people that the government has trained and supported to have economic enterprise, the government was conscious of the fact that as the enterprise owners stand on their own, they will contribute to growing the economy of the state. Perhaps, the biggest take-home message from Mr Nkom’s session would be that the stories of employment racketeering in the state were false. In responses to the issue, the Labour Commissioner and his Information counterpart, Ememobong explained that most job applicants who were later discovered to have various defects with the certificates turnaround to spread the false information to cover-up their shortcomings.
On the whole, all the Commissioners who took part in the opening day of the briefing gave excellent account of government’s efforts in their various Ministries within the last seven years plus. Like the Information Commissioner noted in of his remarks, the essence of the inter-ministerial briefing was to afford the Udom Emmanuel administration the opportunity to set the record of its performance straight as it will be exiting by May 2023. Having fulfilled its own part of doing the job and communicating same, it is now left for the information managers, opinion leaders, community leaders, captains of industries and relevant bodies that took part in the briefing to drive home the message to the hearing of the people without distortion. After all, good governance is a collective responsibility.
*Ekpene writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital.