To the grassroots people of Ndiya Clan in Ikono local government area of Akwa Ibom state, Barr Edo Ukpong is a rescuer. This was confirmed by their Clan Head, His Royal Highness, Obong Godswill Okon Udo-Isang, who stated this penultimate Monday when the Lagos-based lawyer handed over a health centre he reconstructed, to them.

The Village Head of Ikot Akpa Edet, Eteidung Isong Udo Essien, at the ceremony said Ukpong had taken away the reproach of his community, recalling that he had earlier sponsored the installation of solar-powered street lights in the village.

The women while speaking at the handover event said Ukpong’s gesture would provide their pregnant ones succor, as they now had a safe place to go to.

In this interview with the EDITOR-IN-CHIEF of THE PROFILE NEWSPAPER, IME SILAS, the Ikot Akpa Edet-born legal practitioner, who holds the Traditional Tittle of Onongifiok Ikono, while speaking at the sidelines of the event, bares his mind on his source of inspiration. He also gives his views on what he thinks should be the determinant factor in selecting leaders in Akwa Ibom state, amongst other issues. EXCERPTS:

Barr. Edo Ukpong

Sir, we’ve just witnessed the handover of a Health Center you reconstructed to your people and much has been spoken glowingly of you. This gesture is typical of politicians seeking their people’s support. Are you a politician?

Let me answer this way. The short answer is no. I am not a politician and I am not interested in any political office. However, let me state that I am aware that this gestures may be misconstrued. But take my words, this has nothing to do with politics.

So, what’s your inspiration?

Well, just as I said during the handover of the reconstructed Health Centre, my late father was very passionate about his people. And this, I think, has impacted me because as the first son, I was a witness to that love. I mean a kind of love to his people to such extent that we would leave the comfort of where we lived and spend entire vacations in the village.

In those days, my father being a military officer, we lived in Zaria, Ibadan, Lagos and my father would leave the comfort of those cities and come home to stay with his kit and kin and this is when he was at his happiest.

And mind you, at this time, the village was without electricity, pipe-borne water and other amenities.

And, you remember I said during the ceremony that everything that I am doing now is with that inspiration. You would remember I said that if my father had had the kind of means that God has blessed me with, financially, he would have done more for his people. He was a public servant, so you know, he had limited resources.

But you don’t stay here in the village, so how did you come about the thought of reconstructing the health centre?

You see, I come around very often but last December, so many things happened. First, the driver that drives me around here was shot by armed robbers and he was taken for treatment. And when I asked which hospital he was taken to, I found that it was just a traditional place. So I asked, why? Because I have always known that we have a health center here, though I have not been there for about twenty years.

It happened one day, I entered that place and I was shocked at the level of dilapidation: leaking roof, no water system, no electricity. And I was wondering: is this a health centre? Because I knew that if someone comes here, he would be worse off.

So, I just asked myself: what can I do? And my spirit told me that I can renovate the health centre. I went in there and luckily for my community, we have a nurse who is in charge there. She is so passionate and committed. Her commitment to still come to serve at the health centre in spite of the condition further inspired me. So, I inquired from her about what I could do and she told me that I could repair the roof.

But because of her sincere passion and the need for my people to have a befitting health facility, I decided to reconstruct the entire building. And thank God, we have completed it successfully.

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The State Chairman of Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, was here in spite of the lockdown, and he commended your people for observing the rules in view of this global pandemic. We were somehow surprised to see him and not politicians at occasions as this…

(Cuts in) Well, as God would have it, Dr. Nsikak Nyoyoko, the NMA Chairman is someone I just met recently. But as someone who thinks strategically, I felt that he is someone I could get close to. So, I thought to myself that if I persuaded him to come, he would see things for himself and if the health centre needs any help in the future, may be in the area of sending in doctors; he could be of help. 

Or, if they distribute medical equipments or drugs to other health centres or hospitals, our health centre would be considered. I am happy that he came. What I didn’t want was any political connotation. That was why when people pressured me to invite the Local government chairman, invite this politician or that, I said no no no. It’s not as if I don’t like them but it’s just that I didn’t want politicians to be involved. As I said earlier, I am not a politician.

Someone mentioned during the unveiling event that the health centre was commissioned by ‘Ukpong-Udo’ and reconstructed by ‘Ukpong-Udo’. Could you please, shed more light on this?

(Laughs…) You know, there was also a former director there who said that when she was newly employed, she heard of my name but has not met me before. She said that when she was newly employed by the government, the chairman of the local government had my same surname. My father was the chairman of the local government in 1995 when that health center was first commissioned as the health centre. The building was originally constructed by the Abak Family of Ikot Akpa Edet.

It is my joy today that the reconstructed health center now has electricity, pipe-borne water and modern amenities.

Let’s talk a little of politics though you have admitted not being a politician. What’s your view on this current debate in Akwa Ibom, of ‘state-based’ and ‘returnee’ politicians, with respect to who governs the state, going forward?

You know, Politicians use everything to demarket their opponents. My take is that anyone who aspires for any capacity should know the state. Now; does knowing the state equate to living 100% in the state? I don’t think so.

You may have people, who live here and know everywhere but they are still aloof because they have not contributed anything to the state or their local communities. So, I will rather say instead of saying: ‘returnee’ or ‘state-based’; I will rather look for someone who loves the state. And, you and I know this…among all of them who have so far indicated interest to govern the state, how many of them live in the state? You must note that having a beautiful house in any city in the state does not mean living in the state.

Again, some of them who are still young and have their children in schools; do their children school here? Or, will you claim to live in a place where your children are not schooling there? So, if a man lives in Lagos or Abuja, for instance, and builds ten houses in Akwa Ibom, his children and wife don’t live in the state, can he claim to live in the state? Can he claim to really love the state?

So these are the issues to be determined in the debate of whether one is a returnee or state-based and to me, it’s merely a distraction. The most important should be whether this person has the love for the state and his people. This, I think, should be the only basis for interrogation. It’s not enough to say ‘this person does not live here’. His not living here could be because of work.

If you love Akwa Ibom so much and the office you are working puts you in Lagos or somewhere; will you still live here in the state?  So, I don’t think that should be an issue. It’s purely diversionary. We should look for somebody who has the love of the state at heart and will not come and squander our resources. Don’t forget that with the Corona virus that has led to oil price crashing, the money available for the next governor of Akwa Ibom state will be lean. So, all that era of squandermania would have to stop.

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We have to use somebody who can manage the lean resources that we may have, very well. If people are thinking of those who will make money from the state, and spread it all about the place; that should even be the disqualifying factor. Anybody spreading money, where did he get the money from?

Talking about “…someone who loves his people…”, could one be safe to cite your gestures; or, should it form the yardstick?

I think it should. But thank God, I am not a politician and I am not vying for any position, therefore, what I am going to say now is not self-serving. Yes, I think it should manifest that if you love the state or your people, you must also have something to show; something that has come by way of sacrifice.

That is, something that you used your own personal hard-earned money, without any help from the state. For instance, if I had been a Senator or House of Assembly member, or so; and I do these things; I don’t think my people would appreciate me the way they do because they would say that after all, it is their money that I am using.

Let us watch out for people who have attracted good things to the state, through their own goodwill, without being traced to the state resources. That is very key because you do not get into government in the state, amass wealth and then use a fraction to do a few things and expect us to clap for you. No. it must be seen as a sacrifice.

Shouldn’t political party affiliation influence the choice?

You know, the good thing is that those who comment in the media, you inclusive, I am sure, have all come to the consensus that there is no difference among the PDP, APC and APGA, and so on. They are just politicians moving about from one party to the other. So, I don’t see how any serious-minded individual, who has the good of the state at heart, would think of political party.

What to think about is the individual. If I see a good individual that commands my respect, and he is in Labour Party, or any party, I will support him and not the party. So the question of political party affiliation is in my view, neither here nor there.

As I have told you, I am not a registered member of any political party. But as you may be aware, President Buhari is somebody that I love and respect so much. I supported him in the last election, not because he was in APC. If he was in Labour or any party, I would have supported him. I also supported Obong Nsima Ekere because he is somebody that I know very well and I believed he was the best option for the state but that didn’t come to pass; fine. We support whoever is there now, whether he is in PDP or not.

The fact of the matter is that the present governor of the state is of the PDP extraction. If his interest is to move the state forward; we support him to succeed. So, in 2023, someone like me, I am not going to look at APC, PDP, APGA, Labour, and so on. I am going to look at the individuals. Thank God, I am not registered in any political party so that nobody would accuse me of anti-party activities. I will support who I think is best for the state when the time comes.

Let’s talk about Covid-19 global pandemic. What’s your take on its management in Akwa Ibom state?

I came into the state on the 25th of March, and I was quite impressed that at the airport, we were screened using the temperature testing gadgets before we left the airport. That was not the case in many other states that I had been to. So that shows some level of awareness. But I will say this with all fairness to everybody; this Coronavirus thing is taking every government by surprise. And, most governments are making it up as they go along and as information comes to them. Nobody really knows the best way to handle this thing.

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I will advise the government to be nimble, and change with tide. There is no need for government to be defensive. Many governments around the world are making mistakes; saying wrong things. Our governor should not be afraid to come back the next day and say ‘sorry, that thing we said yesterday, we have now found that scientists say that it is not true. So let us do this way’.

I expect government to be more transparent, it is for our own good. May be no government would, with expertise; overcome this to the extent that one would say ‘Akwa Ibom governor did not know what to do. No! Just do your best and be transparent. With the resources that we have, support the health workers like doctors, nurses, lab and medical scientists and so on.

Another important issue is that we need more grassroots sensitization. Yes, the radio campaigns also work. But it would be more helpful if you send health workers to physically demonstrate to the rural dwellers and explain to them that the common act of washing of hands every few times a day can contain this thing.

This is because as we speak, no one has a cure yet, and of course, prevention is better than cure. Like you heard the lady from the local government health section talking to the women on Coronavirus and simple hygiene. We need more of that.

You were recently in the news for donating items, on behalf of CAKPIL, to health workers in the state. Should we expect more?

Concerned Akwa Ibom Professionals in Lagos, CAKPIL, has been in existence for over 20 years now. We intended to operate under the radar but this Covid-19 thing has probably brought out the group. So what the group did was, we sat down and asked: what can we do to intervene in the fight? And you know in fairness, I am sure it’s not only CAKPIL that have done a contribution. Some people have done that in their individual capacities and all that.

So when we did a study, we said okay, let us intervene in the area of protecting the doctors and other health care providers. So we bought quite a lot of the Personal Protective Equipment, PPE, and gave to the NMA that knows where the doctors, the nurses and other health workers are, to distribute to them.

I think to me, it was a worthwhile initiative and I hope CAKPIL and others would do more because that is how we show our concern for the people of the state, if we are to live by the name ‘Concerned Professionals’. We don’t show concern only by issuing press releases, but by this kind of gesture and the doctors, I must confess, were very appreciative.

I think they have shared to about forty two (42) of health centers across the state so far. So I hope CAKPIL and other people or groups would do more. This corona virus pandemic is not a thing that any government on its own can handle. As you have seen, all over the world, Jack Ma and other donors, and indeed, everyone, are interested in fighting the world’s common enemy. So, every hand must be on deck to succeed in the fight against the pandemic.

On a final note, what’s your advice to Akwa Ibom people with regards to this global pandemic?

Follow the instructions of community leaders, governments and health workers. This is not the time for us to embrace. Keep social distancing for now. By the time we conquer it, we shall return to our normal lifestyles. Prevention is better than cure. We must prevent the spread of the virus.

Thank you.

Barr Edo Ukpong