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How we are redefining aviation business in Nigeria with Ibom Air, by Governor Emmanuel

Udom Emmanuel, governor of Akwa Ibom State, is also chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential Campaign Council (PCC). In this exclusive interview, he spoke to TEMITAYO FAGBULE, Editor, and ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, BusinessDay SUNDAY, on the business of governance in his state, touching on the state government’s investment in the aviation industry with the Ibom Air; the planned deep seaport, the road projects, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), education, among others. Excerpts:

Your Excellency, you started out in 2015 with a five-point agenda followed up with an eight-point agenda in your second term. Now, to our surprise, this is the third largest economy in the country, your state, N7.7 trillion. Now, how’s the journey so far?

The journey is extremely successful. And to go God be all the glory. And honestly, I don’t want to share in any of the glory because even at times, I’m surprised at the level of successes that we’ve achieved. In all sub-sectors and sectors of the economy, I think, we have done very well. I don’t know whether you saw the recent survey by the opposition party, even the leader of the opposition in my state, they said they could score the administration 90 percent. If people in opposition can say that they could score your administration 90 percent, you know that can only be God. So that’s why we came up with our rider that “only God.” That’s only what I can say here.

I think I’m one governor, who didn’t just come into office by accident. Number one, God prepared me for the office; number two, I was also prepared for leadership. I came into office with a blueprint, even the most preferred airline today in this country, Ibom Air, it was conceptualised and in fact, before we were sworn in May, by April we were ready with the business plan for Ibom Air which is still what is running till today.

I don’t think many people understand what has gone into Ibom Air and what it has come to be in three years. A few days ago, you acquired a new flight, I also heard you’re getting additional 10 by 2023, and you’re trying to conquer Africa, so it’s from Uyo to the world. Can you just go into details of how you achieved that?

I think it’s just the power of vision. I keep telling people that as at the day we conceived the idea, I wasn’t sure of $1, and mind you, in 2016-2017, the whole country was in terrible recession and that was when the issue of bail-out funds came in.

I am sure a lot of Nigerians ask how come I did not take bailout funds, considering what I inherited as first line charge. But even with that, I didn’t take out bailout funds, because I didn’t want to put myself in that condition. I came up to really say, God, you prepared me for this position, if at this level I don’t put to bear what I’ve acquired over the years, then there’s something wrong. I got to understand the difference between cash and money.

While other people want to run their economy with cash, I want to run my economy with money. You know, cash can only be printed at the center. It’s only the central bank that can print cash and the federal government but a state government can create money, an individual can create money. So that’s the major difference. We decided to create money to actually run what we needed to run. In fact, by the time we made a move for the first two ‘CRJ 900’ I didn’t have $10.

How did you achieve that?

That’s what I said, we created money and I can’t go into detail other than that. There’s what we call trade secrets and you don’t go deep into that. This thing I am telling you, you can cross-check with the house of assembly. We had the first I think five CRJs before we went for capitalisation for Ibom Air. The only thing we needed was the first share capital which was minimal. At least, to let people know that this is 100 percent owned by the state government, not Udom Emmanuel. It was such a surprise to human beings that even people from this state started saying “Oh, Ibom Air belongs to Udom Emmanuel” because they were surprised and wondering how this could just be.

It is one of the wonders that people will need to unravel but I won’t go into much of the trade secrets. That is left between me and probably the person I collaborated with, which is Captain Mfon Udom.

Read also: Our digitised seaport will address delays in goods’ clearing – Governor Udom

We were discussing, we were deep in thoughts, we were deep in creativity, and we were deep in idea; that’s what gave birth to it but not only that, there were other things.

Even today, you see all this noise that people make, ask those people, what’s our budget? What is the so-called derivation that we are being paid?

At times we pardon some people because numbers could frighten people. It is a very simple thing; if you get into our budget, you will see where we put extraordinary income. I mean, a lot of people don’t know what is extraordinary income, what is exceptional income; It is actually there in the budget.

The question is out of what we budgeted, how much did we receive? I just gave a very simple example; 28 kilometers of road, Odukpani to Itu, Federal Government paid N79.6billion. If you give me N79.6 billion, how many kilometers of road do you think I will dualised with highway lights?

So these are some of the things that a lot of people don’t know. Even that 79.6 billion, they want me to come and pay ‘right of way’. Where have we ever seen that? You see, there is excellent management of resources that we deployed here and there; is absolute transparency in financial reporting.

Which BudgIT actually recognised…

If you check our 2021 budget, it is actually noted that we put our exceptional income there. So the question there is, even the people making noise, let them even say how much was spent to this state.

People just talk, people just lie, even saying that Edo collected that 100 billion. From which derivation did Edo get 100 billion from? Just to castigate the governor; I think we should go beyond this.

I can see where the problem is, because when you guys supposed to have come into this, everybody ran away, they say murky waters of politics, who are those to clean the water. So those people also came in and even made the water dirtier, murkier, so that nobody will even come in again but you guys need to be brave and come in and clean the water because the destiny of our children, generations unborn are all here and they will ask us, what did you people do? And whether we like it or not, the policies that these people take affect everybody, including churches and mosques.

Today, the exchange rate is nothing to write home about, we all fold our hands and watch; and meanwhile, the value of your business as of 2014 and today, you’ve lost more than eight times that value. So, who do you have to blame?

It is something that if a lot of people had come in like this and take this mantle of leadership, by now we will have come out of this. I feel so challenged when anywhere you go in Africa, is filled with enormous resources, but the only thing that lacks is leadership. Come on, no man has the monopoly of God; we all have only one head. I think these are some of the things that throw a challenge at people like us. The only problem is, a lot of people going to office, they don’t plan. In elementary management, they say the day you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. We open our laptops, iPad, we have our blueprint of everything we needed to do for 8 years and we’re following it. The only setback we’re having as at today is that we don’t control policies. The federal, the centre cannot align the policies that we projected with probably the outcome. So, that’s one of the issues that we have.

You are very particular about policies and driving policies; you just mentioned that gap in policy; how there might be blueprint, but then there are no policies to make the blueprint work. What are you doing in your own way, basically, to ensure that other states, particularly those states without PDP governors, like orphaned states, trying to push the direction of a policy that is working? How has the effort been?

I don’t think the constitution allows for that. You can only try to collaborate and then to probably form a corporation. Like in the South-South, we formed what we call ‘BRACED Commission’. It was purely an economic platform where we could exchange ideas and then find common grounds and probably have some competitive advantage that we could share amongst each other and then build on that.

But, unfortunately, everything in Nigeria, politics comes in. “Oh, this one is PDP, this one is APC and we don’t actually allow that to work”, because I don’t see any reason why probably as all the South-South states along the Niger Delta region, we could have had a common power substation that could have probably generated and transmitted gas.

Because the gas is here!

The gas is here. But unfortunately also, the gas is here but all these states do not control the policy of gas. What is the gas policy in Nigeria? Who controls it? Rather, they’re flaring the gas when we are looking for gas. You know, when people talk about restructuring, I think people should sit back and look at the in-depth analysis of what this restructuring will all come out with because it’s much deeper than what actually we presume it is; and that’s one of the reasons I keep telling people, I say, I agreed to be the chairman of a presidential campaign council for Atiku, because of his depth. He has a super understanding of Nigeria’s problem, how to go about it, and he has the capacity to do that and he knows how to fix things. What are those critical success factors that a leader could need in a place like Nigeria? I’m not saying he’s all in all, but to a reasonable extent, amongst all. Certainly, you must know where to pitch your tent with.

I think that’s also what happened because I know a lot of things. Take, for example, today, the huge budget of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, where is the land of the Federal Government? Meanwhile, it costs me N800,000, per hectare, to clear bush in Akwa-Ibom and that is the major problem that we have; bush clearing is the most expensive. So, tell me how many state governors, how many of us can afford it? So, by the time you clear, how many hectares, you’re talking about billions; what’s your central allocation? And then you come into education; as of today, we’ve done over 4,860 projects in primary and secondary schools alone.

That brings me to the NBS Report, the multi-dimensional poverty index, where your state was classified as one of the states with highest number of school dropouts in Nigeria, high unemployment rate, and then the access to health. What would you say about that?

You see, the question you will ask is, who are these statisticians? What’s their sample size? With which class of people did they talk to? Let me tell you, I can say conveniently, you can’t send a carpenter to come and be a medical doctor, he will not even know the question to ask, or know how to diagnose a patient. You are sending people who do not have knowledge of anything. I saw one publication, they said we have one of the highest numbers of dropouts in schools, and this is one of the very few states in this country- we run free and compulsory education at the basic level; how can such a state have that number of dropouts? If you go along our roads at school time, you will not see school children on the road, it is not possible. We also pay WAEC fees for all these students when they get to SS3, and we give grants to schools as well. It’s free and compulsory education at the basic level; how can you have that number of dropouts, when they don’t have anything? The only thing the parents do is to provide them with uniforms, they go to school, and probably exercise books. The chalk; what the teacher will use, even the tissue paper they use in school is provided by the state government.

So, people will still go and do statistics and tell you, “Oh, you have a very high number of dropouts.” How is that possible? Even out of common sense, how will that work? I pay WAEC fees; so it’s not that you get to secondary school you couldn’t pay your WAEC fees, the government pays it; I pay for it.

Just have a look at the quality of secondary schools you see here when you drive through. I mean, they’re compared to what you see elsewhere and these people will run that free. So, these are some of the statistics that we don’t even know.

Let’s even check, in a period of the level of situation that we are in, in our country, when you want to stimulate the economy, where do you concentrate? You put a lot of money into infrastructure. Once you put a lot of money into infrastructure, tell me how many people does one construction company hire? And let me tell you, there is no labourer in any construction company that is not earning at least three times the minimum wage. So, what do you call unemployment? Tell me, what do you call unemployment? Then look at the value chain of this creation. Right now, I am about recruiting, and I think, we’ve recruited no less than 5000 teachers since I came in.

NYSC will confirm to you that on the average, Akwa-Ibom absorbs 10,000 youth corps members; and then somebody will tell you about the level of unemployment; I’m not saying there’s no unemployment, but at the scale and the magnitude they’re doing it, ask what is their sample size. Someone who does not even know here will just come and stay at the circles and just talk to about 10 people based on their bias; what’s the bias of the other person? I don’t actually want to worry myself over that because these are not game of numbers. If you’re talking about the foreign direct investment, you know, those are games of numbers, figures don’t lie, but liars figure. That one we can easily show you that out of so much billions of dollars that came into Nigeria, this how much millions came into Akwa-Ibom?

This makes your state the fourth…

Absolutely second; in terms of the foreign direct investment after Lagos, which is number one because capital market is there, money market is there. We don’t have capital markets here; we don’t have money markets here, so it’s pure. These are some of the things that we just look at here and it’s laughable, how the statisticians compiled their figures. What is the element of bias they put in it? How do they take their sample size? Where did they draw this population from? Nobody can actually explain that to us. Let the person come and let’s challenge the person with how he compiled the data, the statistics, and how he arrived at all those statistics.

But let’s talk about the numbers that are not debatable. Clearly, as your state has done very well, in terms of capital expenditures, it’s part of your book from day one. But one detail is that most of that money has been from federally-sourced revenues. What are the plans to push IGR further to 25-40percent of your…?

No, the question here is where are you coming from, where are you going to? Even that was the first question God asked man; he said “where art thou”? Do you think God did not know where man was? He wanted man to realise where he was so that He can take him to where he wants to go?

So that’s the plan?

Absolutely, so when you say a whole lot in CAPEX; CAPEX is meant to create wealth, and bring returns; I don’t like talking about other states. Even the roads we construct here is what we call economic routes.

‘From inception, we have our blueprint of everything we needed to do for 8 years and we’re following it’