In the past one week, dozens of people have sent me a four-minute video clip of Governor Ben Ayade becoming emotional over the plight of the downtrodden in his state during the inauguration of an anti-tax agency. While the clip was prepared and circulated by government officials in Calabar, I am also moved to tears that Ayade is concerned that “five years as governor, there would still be people living in thatched houses in Cross River. I knew how prepared I was but it didn’t end the way I dreamt for the state. I wish God would intervene because I really wish I could help. It’s very painful.”
This is not the first time Ayade would cry before cameras when discussing the living conditions of his people. My concern is that his tears do not match the bravado with which he recounts his numerous accomplishments. Besides, Ayade merely regurgitated what he said in January 2017: “Let me state very clearly that in Cross River State today, we have put an end to any taxi driver, cyclist or okada rider being made to pay any form of tax. This is so because we want them to have disposable income that can keep the economy spinning. That is one fast-track way other than putting a pay cheque on their tables. I don’t want to see a hotel that is struggling to survive with challenges of diesels being chased after by government officials for taxes. I have seen poverty in my personal life and I know what that small N2,000 means to them. I have warned anybody who is still collecting money from these people to desist forthwith.”
Those words, let me not forget to add, were accompanied then by a few teardrops from the governor whose baritone voice and eloquence could earn him a job in any broadcast media house. Only a few weeks later, while visiting the Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Bakassi Peninsula, Ayade again shed tears. As an emotional person myself, I can understand the governor tearing up once in a while but this video has left me a bit confused. I have not been to Cross River in the past decade but I follow what Ayade says about his achievements so I do not expect him to be reading from the Book of Lamentations on the eve of his 5th anniversary in office.
According to figures just released by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Cross River State earned a total of N58,909,943,120.51 (roughly N59 billion) revenue last year. This comprises N36,312,879,237.96 from the Federation Account and N22,063,597,882.55 Internally Generated Revenues (IGR). But those little details were of no consequence to Ayade who “fully implemented” his 1.4 trillion ‘Budget of Qabalistic Densification’ which included ongoing projects like ‘Bakassi Deep Seaport’, ‘CaliVegas’ and ‘Super Highways’. And despite the impact of COVID-19 on oil prices, Ayade is going ahead with his plan to build an international airport, among other projects earmarked for 2020.
Indeed, the governor disclosed recently that additional equipment is being deployed to the proposed site, located near the Obudu Cattle Ranch. “The airport will offer opportunities so that Cross River will be exporting ornamental flowers to Europe. Obudu Ranch will not only provide tourism, it is now going to be an agro-horticultural business hub, producing flowers and taking them to the cargo airport for export to Europe. If Kenya can make 9 billion Euros from exporting flowers from 8,000 ft, then Cross River which has 11,000 ft above sea level, should do better.”
This grand vision underpinning the governor’s administration is captured in the names he bestows on his budgets. He began in 2016 with the N350 billion ‘Budget of Deep Vision’ before moving to the N1.1 trillion 2017 ‘Budget of Infinite Transposition’ and then a year later, to the 1.3 trillion ‘Budget of Kinetic Crystallization’. The modest sum of N1.1 trillion has been projected for this year’s ‘Budget of Olimpotic Meristemasis’. Don’t ask where the money comes from in a state that has earned an average of N60 billion annually in recent years. A very creative mind, Ayade has explained how he does the magic: “The use of intellect to make up for naira and kobo is what is called intellectual money. Intellectual currency is stronger than paper currency and so where there is a deficiency of funds, the intellect takes over.”
Rather than continuing to state that yet another recession is inevitable, the federal government should seek the counsel of Ayade on how to secure ‘Intellectual Money’ to execute multi-billion projects and put Nigerians to work. A month ago, Ayade approved the appointment of 427 additional aides to join more than a thousand special assistants that already work for him. According to his spokesman, Christian Ita, “The governor has said repeatedly that he only needs about five per cent of his appointees. So he deliberately creates these jobs to put food on the table so as to reduce social tension.”
On the political scene, the governor is also ‘putting food on the table’. Since he assumed office, Ayade has refused to conduct local government elections, like most of his colleagues. But on Monday, the Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission (CROSIEC) chairman, Dr Mike Ushie, suddenly announced that the election will hold on Saturday. Aside the ridiculous short notice, there are suits challenging the reconstitution of CROSIEC which had earlier been dissolved with other boards at the end of Ayade’s first term. The chairman had in fact resumed his job at the University of Calabar before he was recalled and members sworn in without their names being sent to the Assembly for confirmation as required by law. The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has threatened to boycott the election. But were they expecting to win council seats in a PDP state? How many of such councils do the opposition win in states controlled by their own party? But if Ayade is as clever as some of his colleagues, I see APC being allocated two or three wards, especially in parts of Bakassi local government controlled by Cameroon. Those councillors can then go and hold sessions with the gendarmes!
For sure, Ayade gets a few things right. He is building a rice mill in Ogoja, a garment factory in Calabar and a cocoa processing plant in Ikom. There is also a cotton farm in Woda, Banana Plantation in Odukpani and a poultry and yellow maize farm in Obubra. The challenge, however, is that while each of these projects is being funded 100 percent with public money, there are no enabling laws to explain the stakes of the state and the ownership structures.
Meanwhile, if there is any area where Ayade has excelled beyond measure, it is in the management of COVID-19. Cross River and Kogi are the only two states in Nigeria from which the virus has been effectively banished. While inaugurating the state’s COVID-19 Response Team for which he approved the release of N500 million on 31st March, Ayade charged them: “You are all aware that there is no unanimity about the history of this global pandemic but as a state governed by two Professors, we must find ways and provide a leading direction at the sub-national level. It is, therefore, our desire to ensure that Cross River continues to maintain ZERO (emphasis mine) incidence as far as this pandemic is concerned.” A week before that mandate that has been scrupulously enforced, Ayade had declared: “All the entry points into Cross River State (land, air and water) are hereby locked down.”
If there is any lesson Nigerians have learnt during the past weeks, it is how powerful governors are. They are not only erecting borders on federal roads, they are also closing air space and waterways that are within the exclusive legislative list. Some are also signing executive orders that grant them extra-constitutional powers with which they trample on the rights and liberties of residents of their states. In Cross River, the governor is more ‘magnanimous’. if you are caught not wearing a face mask, you will be arrested on the spot, ordered to pay a fine of N300,000 and be quarantined for 14 days.
The governor has a reason for insisting on face masks. Social distancing, by his expertise, is useless. “Social distancing presupposes that things are so equal, that you stay in an isolated room. It is completely wrong because in natural circumstances, in our own cultural habit, people are used to interacting, we are not electric poles, we are not trees, we are interacting by nature,” Ayade said in a video released by his media people, where he added: “Social distancing gives a false impression of security because I know that if you and I stand together and I sneeze, that two metres distance, the factors that govern the transmissivity are things that are beyond your own control. Variables like humidity, wind speed, wind direction, how do you control those factors?”
No one should query the authority of the governor on this. “I am a professor of science and I know how this virus moves; I know its etiology, I know its transmissibility, I know its antigenicity. I know that once you put on these masks, you already have been protected. You don’t need social distancing when you are properly protected because your mucal glands that secrets the mucus and the musins already form a network of coats to attack the virus.”
With effect from last Sunday, all places of worship in Cross River state have been declared open by Ayade who has also let out a ‘big secret’ on the COVID-19 pandemic: “Out there in the Western world, a businessman is fanning all of this, making sure they sell reagents. Indeed, my friend out of Switzerland, a Chinese, says he has made so much money importing reagents out of the Philippines and shipping to the world. So it has turned into a full-scale business. I can tell you this testing for Coronavirus has gone Ecopolitical. In the US for example, it is about the November elections and for some businessmen, it is about more reagents, more money. But for me, it is science, it is reality, and because a wrong mentality will give you a wrong reality, I will hold the right mentality.”
So poetic! But the governor has also made a point that is noteworthy: “Globally, hunger and hunger-related diseases like kwashiorkor and tuberculosis kill about 8.4million people every year and so there will be more pandemic when it comes to hunger. There must be a holy matrimony between protection of lives and protection of livelihoods. Some of our brothers and sisters depend on daily work. If you carry blocks for a living, the day you are stopped from going to work, there will be no money to feed the children.”
The foregoing focus on Cross River State is important as we approach the 21st anniversary of our current democratic experiment–the longest in the history of our country–with salient questions about how we have fared as a nation. Instructively, in the weeks preceding the 2015 general election, I did a five-part series titled, ‘A Time to Choose’ devoted solely to gubernatorial elections where I argued that “who the people elect as their governors will matter”. I then borrowed extensively from the June 2014 Babcock University convocation address by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, where the then Coordinating Minister for the Economy asked: “Do the (36) states have the resources to deliver services? And why do some states happen to do more and better than others? How can we hold our states and local governments more to account, just as we hold the federal government to account?”
In that paper, Okonjo-Iweala presented a breakdown of what ten states earned in 2013 and made a comparative analysis with West African countries: “Many Nigerian states receive revenue allocations which are larger than the budgets of neighbouring countries such as: Liberia ($433 million), or Gambia ($210 million) or Benin Republic ($1.47 billion). The top two recipients of state allocations–Akwa Ibom and Rivers–receive $3.1 billion, which is about half of the entire budget of Ghana (about $6.4 billion). On a per capita basis (i.e. revenues/population), the top three recipients of FAAC allocations are: Bayelsa (N84,500 or $545), Akwa Ibom (N55,600 or $360) and Delta States (N42,000 or $270). On this per capita basis, many Nigerian states receive more than neighbouring countries such as: Ghana ($255), Benin Republic ($146), Liberia ($103), and Gambia ($117).”
Before the election that brought Ayade and others to power in 2015, I wrote that Nigerians must demand accountability not only from the federal government but also the states and reiterated same last year. If we are to develop as a nation, our focus can not only be on Abuja. In Cross River, for instance, we need to know how Ayade has used ‘intellectual money’ to build ‘super highways’ and yet five years in office, he is now shedding tears and outsourcing his responsibility to God. We also need to know how the governor’s knowledge of etiology, transmissibility and antigenicity of virus has helped to ensure that not a single person in Cross River state has been infected by COVID-19.
As early in the day as it may seem, Ayade is already my governor of the year 2020. Only Yahaya Bello, another smart governor who has been using ‘contact-tracing apps’ to ward off coronavirus from Kogi State comes a close second. But it all reminds me of the favourite Yoruba adage of my late mother, God bless her soul: You don’t argue with a farmer who plants 100 yam seeds yet claims to have planted a thousand. In the fullness of time, he will harvest not only his 100 tubers of yam but also the remaining 900 tubers of lies!
Banking with Coronavirus
Ever since the five-week lockdown imposed by President Muhammadu Buhari to contain the spread of COVID-19 was partially lifted, bank customers in Abuja have been going through hell. While some banks have devised methods to handle the deluge of customers who huddle together by providing chairs, canopies and a measure or order, GTBANK in particular seems to enjoy drawing large crowds of customers they treat with contempt. Yesterday, I spent almost two hours at the Asokoro branch without being able to enter the banking hall. Before I left in frustration, I interacted with dozens of other disillusioned customers and heard harrowing stories of people spending days (going home and coming back) without being able to access the bank. It is the same in many other branches.
I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to the category of Nigerians without internet banking. I have never subscribed to it as I remain blissfully analogue. And because I go to my bank for every transaction, I have for years been at the receiving end of jokes from some of the officials. I am aware it is not convenient, but I recognise my weakness. If I can access the little money in my account as easily as I can access the one in my pocket, I would be a most miserable man indeed, because I would be left with no savings. If anything, this lockdown period has proved that to me. For instance, if you sent me a message on a Friday night that your family had not eaten for days and were on the verge of death, the only thing I could offer was prayers. If by Monday you still send a reminder, then I would not be wrong to conclude that the God who kept your family alive during the weekend would continue to perform his miracles!
While their services may still be skeletal following the directive from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), I do not know of any country where banks were closed as we did in Nigeria for five weeks. Now that the lockdown has been partially lifted, and the banking halls are deemed to be accessible again, customers are being made to suffer. With many of these banks reducing their operations to as little as 30 percent and also limiting working hours, we have unwittingly created a perfect condition for all manner of unwholesome practices. Yet, people have reasons for going to the banks where they keep their money and that should not be criminalised.
What is happening at the banks is antithetical to the battle we are supposed to be fighting against coronavirus and I wonder why some people cannot see it. Why are we creating needless crowds at a time we are preaching social distancing? What exactly is the meaning of subjecting bank customers to hours of hardship that could in fact become double jeopardy if they catch the virus from people they are forced to mill around with? Has COVID-19 revealed its time of infection during the day which then necessitated the limited working hours? Why do bank customers now have to resort to man-know-man to access their money?
The situation that obtains outside most of the banking halls in Abuja makes no sense. Except the idea is for us to go and be collecting COVID-19 at our banks, the CBN and body of bankers must summon the common sense to address this ugly situation without further delay.