It is already common knowledge that he has the backing of the sitting governor. The endorsement by the incumbent governor came to him unexpectedly; and so, it was a bit jolting, he admitted. But that anointing was also challenging, he said. With calmness, he fielded all the questions, which ranged from allegations of compelling his staff to pay tithes; why he as a pastor would go into partisan politics; and his development blueprint for Akwa Ibom State. Here is the Umo Eno exclusive interview with the WatchmanPost team of Prof. Des Wilson, our Chairman, Editorial Board; Sam Ita, Editor; Okwong Otioro, Editorial Adviser; and Sunday Antai, Editor-in-Chief.
It is no more news that you are the preferred aspirant by key stakeholders for the governorship position in Akwa Ibom State. Did you see it coming?
No, I didn’t. To be honest, I was just busy doing my work as the Commissioner for lands and water resources, and didn’t pay much attention to politics and didn’t see it coming.
How did you feel about the endorsement, especially at that moment when the former governor, Obong Victor Attah, as a political patriarch in the State, raised your hand as the preferred man to be the next governor?
It was a very humbling experience. It was humbling in the sense that I didn’t see it coming. It was more humbling in the sense that a cross-section of stakeholders in the State, all of them representing the generality of Akwa Ibomites, gathered together to support my endorsement. I also want to believe that the generality of 7.2 million Akwa Ibom people would also like to put their destinies in the hands of God through me because that is what it literally means; and that is very challenging, if not overwhelming.
One of those present at that occasion, a federal legislator from your constituency came out to say he didn’t know that your endorsement was on the agenda of that event.
I wouldn’t know what anybody knew or did not know, because I was equally invited to the meeting just like anyone else. So, I wouldn’t speak for anyone else, but myself. However, the legislator and I had a meeting before that day in this facility (referring to his house), and we were discussing politics generally and the way it was going, and he asked me if I would contest the 2023 election. I told him, I wouldn’t accept I was supported to do so. So, we prayed that it should go to our local government area, and that if it did, all of us would support whoever emerged. I added that I would support whoever His Excellency, the Governor chooses. Don’t forget the fact that everybody was looking up to the governor to give direction, including those who are now in the race today. I remember at several meetings we had with the governor, we kept telling him to show us the direction. We were all praying and waiting for direction. We felt that since there were already four contestants from our Local Government Area, it should come to one of us. I wasn’t really in any race of consulting anybody, so, when the said legislator said that he wasn’t consulted, I won’t speak for him. But I will just explain to you that everyone was waiting and praying for that endorsement by stakeholders – all of us without exception.
That is very interesting because the rumbles that followed must have surprised you. Are you worried that disaffection arising from your endorsement could pitch you against other aspirants in the forthcoming PDP gubernatorial primaries?
I told you clearly that everyone wanted an endorsement by the governor and key stakeholders. It’s natural. In this country, you find out that everyone aspiring for an office will want the endorsement of key or prominent people; so, it is nothing new. Endorsement shows that people have confidence in you. So, I don’t know about divisiveness. I don’t know. But the question is, “what if the governor had endorsed them?”
How are you going to get the other aspirants together should you emerge as the candidate of your party?
The truth is that once an aspirant emerges, everyone rallies around the candidate; and the candidate should be magnanimous in victory to reach out to others and close ranks quickly and work together to win the general elections. I expect that to happen. I don’t have any personal issues with any of my opponents. This is a normal thing. For instance, when Gov. Godswill Akpabio was running, he had 52 fellow aspirants. When the present government was running, he had more than 20 fellow aspirants. Eventually, most of them closed ranks and worked together. In fact, some of those who ran against Governor Udom, like Chief Assam Assam, is the Director-General of my campaign organization right now. So, I don’t have anything personal against anybody. I think that we are all trying to market ourselves to the Akwa Ibom people so that they can make up their minds about who they want to be their governor.
So how prepared are you for the challenging task of governing the State should you become the next governor?
Well, you know the race is not for the swift; neither is the battle for the strong. It is important to note that everything you have done in life prepares you for the future; everything from when you were born prepares you for your destiny. The way destiny prepares me is not the way it prepares you and the experiences you’ve gathered are different from mine depending on what God has destined you to do for Him and the society. There is no school to learn how to be a governor or a president. The things you’ve gone through in life are your preparation. Once God calls, he equips. Let’s look at all of our blueprints. I started consultation with the PDP family and you can see all the things I have talked about. Look at all the things others have said. They are literally adapting from the things I have said. I have been privileged to be in the private sector and have been privileged to be in the public service and with this, one will have a clear understanding of what the issues are and how to tackle them. That’s the truth. So those are the things that prepare you for a higher office.
Okay Sir, let’s know a little more about you. People may say what is a pastor doing in a dirty game like politics? So who is Pastor Umo Eno?
Politics is not a dirty game. Maybe some of the players are dirty. Evil will continue to thrive as long as good people keep quiet. And when you know that after God is government and politics is what decides the well-being of the people, you will come to the conclusion that politics is a serious business and it must be taken seriously by everyone, so that we don’t place the destiny of a people in the hands of people who may jeopardize it. If, for instance, you are going to enter a vehicle or you are going to board a flight to Lagos, and that morning you see someone coming, looking tattered and his appearance is questionable and someone says, well your pilot today is this guy, I’m sure you’ll come down from that aircraft or that vehicle. Or, if it is a doctor going to treat you and the guy comes in and he is looking tattered and they say to you this is your doctor, I’m sure you’ll be wondering who should be seeing who. Politics is like that. So, when we keep saying politics is dirty, I beg to disagree because politics is the opportunity to choose men and women who would determine the fate of millions of people. You can’t joke or play pranks with such a huge responsibility and abandon the fate of millions of people in the hands of casual people.
Governor Udom Emmanuel has been able to show that politics is not a dirty game, and that politics can be played well as a tool for good governance. He has demonstrated that in the last seven years, and we have seen the peace we never used to have in this State. So, everything rises and falls with the leadership at any particular point in time, and that includes the policies, vision, mission, and actions of the governor. What is he pursuing and who is he as a person in the first place?
Martin Luther King Jr was a reverend gentleman who fought for the emancipation of the black people in the United States and he was revered, for standing up for the truth. Getting involved in what will change the destiny of people positively cannot be said to be dirty. It is a serious business, and that is the way I look at it. And that is why I am here today.
There is this talk in town that as a pastor and entrepreneur, you deducted tithes from the pay of your staff right at the source. What is your reaction to that?
(Laughs) Have they mentioned or quoted any of my staff who said so? Well, the problem is that we in Nigeria believe too much in blackmail. You are a journalist and I had expected that as a journalist you would investigate the matter. I will like to see one staff member come out and say this man takes my tithes, don’t vote for him. I have been in Akwa Ibom running my businesses in the last 25 years, let one person come up and say I have taken his or her tithe. Why would I take someone’s tithe? Tithes are a voluntary thing between you and God. I have absolutely nothing to do with people’s tithes. I have Muslims working in my company, the Royalty Group. Will I ask them to give me tithes too? You see, the truth is, as someone said to me, when you get into politics, people will say all manner of things against you, just to get at you. People have even said I don’t have any certificate (laughs). There’s nothing I have not heard, but I am prepared and up to the task.
You have gone round the State consulting. From your consultations with people, what are your chances vis-à-vis your co-aspirants?
Journalists like you should be telling me because you are the ones doing the comparative analysis. But for me, I am doing my best. What it means is tell the people the ideas you have, how you will create jobs, how you will stimulate the economy, how you will connect the dots between the infrastructural development, the industries that Governor Udom Emmanuel has created, and how you are going to bridge any gap that may exist and reap the low hanging fruits immediately. These are the things you tell people. I have never gone into mudsling at anybody because that is not my style. My idea of consultation is to plead with the people to support me.
I am going to support small and micro enterprises, I am going to work with our youths to create businesses generally, and revisit the science park that we could use to get our youths off the streets. These are the things I am selling, and it will be left for the people to assess how sincere I am. I have employed more than 2000 people in my companies. I have paid them salaries unfailingly. I know how to create jobs. I know how to get people back to work. I started my company with five rooms. We have grown today very successfully by dint of hard work. I am qualified to run for any office in this country based on God’s grace and business pedigree. I can even contest for the office of the president if I want to, because I am a Nigerian. What you are hearing is a noise from a few individuals who feel that they are entitled to the office of the governor. There is nothing like that. Anybody can decide to run. If you go to the market and everybody is selling garri, and a customer comes, he may decide to buy my own or buy yours. That shouldn’t provoke any quarrel. He may buy my own today and tomorrow decides to buy yours. That’s my idea of this business. But unfortunately, some people feel it is a do-or-die affair. Sir, you can’t serve people by force.
No matter how lofty your ideas may be, you need funds. What are your plans regarding internally generated revenue to implement them?
That’s why we need a creative governor. You need somebody who has ideas. I am one of those that believe we shouldn’t be waiting for Abuja every month before we do anything. You create funds; you create wealth. There are many things you can do. For example, if you have the right policies, you can attract donor agencies to fund your programs. You need someone who has a clear understanding of how the modern business and investment ecosystem works. That is the area people should be talking about. They should be asking some of these aspirants at least one question: have you done it before? Assuming you want to do a project and your budget is not enough, how do you, apart from taking loans and putting the State in debt, can you create funds? Do you even know what it means to create funds? All over the world, money chases ideas. There are investors and private people you can talk to and they can partner with you to stimulate the economy. Once they trust you and they know that you mean well, they will give their support. That’s why we need a very strong private sector.
I have a five-point agenda, and it is summarized in what I call, The ARISE agenda, which stands for Agricultural revolution, Rural development, Infrastructural and ICT development, Social development, and then the ‘E’ stands for Educational and Entrepreneurial development. And they are measurable. You see the advantage of having been in the private sector is that the private person wants the deliverables. From the day I become Governor, or before I become one, my blueprint will tell you what we will do in three months, six months, and one year. They are deliverables with clear time-lines…
For example, we have 10 federal constituencies in Akwa Ibom, and I’ll be holding town hall meetings in all the federal constituencies once a year. Why the town hall meetings? This is because I need to report the progress of governance to them. You can demystify this thing. Every month you could programme one federal constituency after another to brief them about what we are doing. If there is any hitch, we’ll let them know. Get the people involved. That’s the plan. This is my understanding of what democracy should be, because it is the government of the people, for the people. It is not something you sit down like a king and go back to them after four years. You see, this sense of entitlement destroys everything. If you know you are called to serve the people, you report to them. They are the king, you are not. You are their servant because they put you there. You should know that they are your bosses.
Is there anything you have seen in this government you would like to do differently?
You see, every government has a vision and a philosophy and so follow it up. If there’s any area this government has not done well, it is because of those of us running those sectors, because this governor means well. So, one of the things we’ll do before we get anybody on board would be to sit down and have a discussion; if you like, call it a retreat. We have to engage. This is what you are coming to do; these are my deliverables; these are the timelines. There will be a strong monitoring and evaluation team and they will be reporting at intervals: monthly, and quarterly. For example, if I am going to Etinan Federal Constituency for a town hall meeting, you know all the commissioners that have things to do will be with me and you are not going to tell them stories. It’s not just me. It is us. If they ask about roads, the Commissioner of Works will be addressing that.
Are you saying that your government will be performance-driven and you will not hesitate to deal with a non-performer?
It should be performance-driven and if you are not performing, you will know and everybody will know, and if there’s a need to review, we will review the first and the second quarter, and you will know whether you should continue or not.
The present government is criticized for overborrowing!
It is not overborrowing, I can still speak for this government because of what I know. People must understand that you are using the instruments that you have to create money, and then people start shouting borrowing, borrowing. But the man didn’t go to any bank. There are commercial papers you turn to cash, for instance, the Federal government is owing you money and a bank accepts to discount that debt and gives you cash so that they can wait for the federal government to pay them. So they now take it over from you. We as Akwa Ibomites and as a people must also learn to praise our leaders while they are in office. When Udom Emmanuel leaves the office, we are going to be singing his praises. If we didn’t have him at this time in this economy, this State would have packed up. I can tell you that as an insider. Look at what is happening in some States. Do you know when the last civil servants were paid salaries in other States? They owe 12 months, some 17 months, and they borrow from the Federal Government to settle their workers. But this State didn’t collect a dime. It’s because of the ingenuity of the man that is managing the state’s economy and yet people who don’t even know anything about the economy start to grandstand about borrowing. Udom is not borrowing.
Do you see your calling as a pastor and church leader conflicting with your aspiration to be a governor?
David was a prophet, a king, and a priest. Now when you look at the Bible, you will understand that God has made us kings and priests and we shall reign on the earth. So the office of the governor is the king and the office of the pastor is the priest.
He has made us kings and priests. So, we can combine. The truth about life lies in a system. Let’s put the right system in place. The church is the people. I am now called to a higher pastoral function as a governor. Instead of pastoring two thousand people in my church All Nations Christian Ministries International, I am now aspiring to pastor 7.2 million people, that are in Akwa Ibom. It hasn’t changed. The Church is not that building. It is the people, so nothing really changes. God is just giving you a higher platform for you to be able to bring the things you have learned to bear. It was David that said, the God who helped him fight with the bears and lions will help him to kill Goliath. You see, it is the experience in a micro-environment that I believe God is calling me to work out in a large place. So, they are the same. The church I founded, All Nations Christian Ministries International, Eket, is still running as we speak. We have a structure that has been there that helps it to run. I have been occupied in the last two years but the church has been running smoothly. They have been paying their bills because we have a structure. Again, that is what we need to bring in. Let us build a structure not the individual so that the structure or institution can run seamlessly. I just left office as Commissioner in the State Executive Council and I hear things like, the Commissioner is not in, the Permanent Secretary is not in, so your file has to wait until he comes back. This ought not to be. The world has moved far beyond human beings locking a file in a room and he is going for a conference. That is why we are digitalizing the Civil Service so that wherever you are, you can be doing your work. It’s about creativity; it’s about ideas. That’s my forte.
There is controversy about your desire to consult the State Council of the Nigeria Labour Congress over your governorship aspiration but was opposed by some officials of labour.
I’m happy you’ve raised that issue. That’s certainly not the true position. This is not the time to consult the NLC. This is the season of the primary election. It is the time that we consult within the party not outside. The time for external consultations is coming. What happened is that the NLC asked for a meeting with me in connection with their land which was taken from them because they were delaying the development of the property. Even before I became the commissioner of lands, that parcel of land was given to another organization to build the same houses NLC planned to build. I met the problem on ground but I tried to mediate several times between them and the office of the head of the service. It turned out I was leaving the cabinet to contest the governorship elections and the leadership of NLC wanted me to brief them on the position of the land and introduce them to my successor, the new commissioner of lands.
Out of respect for them, I accepted to introduce them and the issue to the new commissioner of lands. They came to me here in my private office. I welcomed them. We had the meeting and the incoming commissioner for Lands was present here too and I linked them up to work together to get another land. That’s what happened. So, when I saw the twisted report on consulting the NLC I was surprised. I sent a text message to the NLC chairman to correct the wrong impression. It is not my duty to arrange for political consultations. We have a team that handles that. So at the meeting, there was no member of my campaign organization. It was not a political meeting but a dispute management meeting.
The good news is that the governor has directed that another land be allocated to them. A land is being processed for them. So, tell me, what have I done wrong? My primary concern, for now, is getting the party’s nomination through the delegates. I have no room for distractions. As my governor would say, take away distractions and remain focused. So, I am focused 24/7 on the primaries. By the grace of God, we will scale that hurdle successfully.
Thank you very much Sir for finding time to grant us this interview.
I am the one who should thank you. I am really grateful you came, even with a great man like Prof. Des Wilson. Thank you Sir for coming. Thank you so much, gentlemen.
*Culled from WatchmanPost