By Ike Uchechukwu
Chief Utum Eteng, a core supporter of President Muhammadu Buhari, and private legal practitioner was called to the Bar in 1985. He is a chieftain of All Progressives Congress, APC. In this interview, he speaks, among others, on the politics of Cross River State, the performance of Governor Ben Ayade, and how APC can make inroads in Cross River.
On why he did not support call by APC for the boycott of the recent local council elections in Cross River State
Why I did not support the boycott is that before the elections I issued a statement which was widely circulated and carried in the social media and the reason I issued that statement is based on facts and also my personal knowledge as well as the knowledge of some of my colleagues in APC.
The local government election is an aspect of democracy that touches the people at the grassroots level, so we should know how we handle it and how we play it.
First and foremost I still believe and will say it without any fear of contradiction that it was wrong for APC to boycott the elections. There were two positions. One camp said it would participate and the other said it would take part.
The bad thing about it is that this is coming from one party and one would have thought that this party would have been guided by the judgements against the party at the tribunals and the Court of Appeal, which said that presenting two people offends Section 221 of the Constitution and the electoral act does not recognise one party presenting two candidates.
You don’t need to be Senior Advocate of Nigeria to know the answer to that kind of situation. When in an election you present more than one candidate for one position that is contested the same day the single conclusion is that you have not taken part in that election.
And the faction that presented candidates did that under a fractured party meaning that the house divided against itself will not stand, that is exactly what has happened.
I want to say again, emphatically, why I oppose that position both ways is that as a legal fellow and a member of APC, my services were procured by the party even if it was free or pro bono or gratis to sue Governor Ben Ayade and CROSIEC in suit Number HC/7/2017 when there was an attempt to constitute caretaker committees.
The APC said no and I quickly went to court against Ayade and CROSIEC that section 7 of the 1999 Constitution is sacrosanct because it says no local government should be run by a group of persons, who are not democratically elected.
So the court was asked to stop the constitution of that committee and Ayade should release funds to CROSIEC to conduct local government elections, and CROSIEC must conduct the elections when funds are released. The APC got the judgement in its favour in March 2017.
Later on, in the march to the 2020 elections, the government attempted to set up security committees for the 18 local government areas and the APC went to court again in suit No. HC/514/2019 because he wanted to turn the security committee to caretaker committees and the Court ruled through Justice E. E. Ita that no local government should be run with caretaker committee.
In keeping with the judgements, Ayade provided funds for CROSIEC and CROSIEC fixed a date for the elections which was initially fixed for March 20, 2020. So for three years, they have been getting orders from the court and you think the party that went to court for the election to hold should boycott it? With due respect it is an aspect of insanity, as far as I am concerned.
You want me, the same man, who argued that elections should hold to go and argue against it. Doesn’t it look stupid? If other people refer me to that same argument how will it look like?
So for us in APC, we have allowed personal interests to tear us into shreds that we cannot come together. No wonder Ayade alleged that there is no opposition party in Cross River State. So what I am saying now, I have said it over and over for over two years; Ayade is a politician on the other side of the divide and anything that will favour him, he will do it.
He took advantage of the situation because we did not present a united front. Ayade said take money and let the elections go on and elections went on and whether we took part or not elections were held.
Will you opt out of APC because of the crisis?
I cannot opt out of APC. I am not speaking upon the mandate of APC. I am exercising my right fundamentally given to me by the Constitution as well as freedom of expression.
I said it at different fora and published it in the social media, it is not a new position. We are working ourselves into the abyss despite the admonitions. Any man who fails to listen to admonitions will always see death at the end. Julius Caesar died because he refused to listen to the advice of a man he called a cobbler.
Would you say the election was properly conducted considering the short time frame?
People who are complaining about the short time frame for the election have not taken time to research the law creating all that took place, because the issue of timing was done in accordance with the provisions of the law.
Section 280 of the Cross River State Independent Elections law says that when you give a notice for an election it must be concluded within 30 days.
Within those 30 days you must call for names of candidates, conduct primaries and hold elections all within 30 days. Some people are ignorantly saying it was not up to 30 days. No, if you are given a notice for elections it must be done and concluded within 30 days, except there is an intervention or unforeseen circumstance which is an act of God.
It is not that after conclusion of nominations, primaries, screening and all that there must be 30 days before the election is conducted.
So it’s wrong to go to court and challenge the timing of the elections?
I refused when I was approached to ask for a restraining order against the commission. I will not support it because I will be looking very foolish and stupid. The summary of what I am saying is that we should put our house in order because we are grandstanding. Today, Federal High Court, Calabar; tomorrow Federal High Court, Abuja, the next day Court of Appeal, Abuja. What are we getting out of all these suits?
So you feel the party is not prepared for future elections in the state?
I have said it before and will continue to say it. The way APC is today, it cannot win any election in Cross River State. It’s my party; we cannot win any election because as you present candidate A, the same APC will present Candidate B, thereby making the work very easy for PDP. You saw what happened in the last general elections and when you talk, you will be given names.
How would you access the performance of Governor Ayade five years on?
I had criticised Ayade’s government and looking back, I want to say that I criticised Donald Duke’s administration so much so that I was charged to court. During his first term, he was talking about groundnut, cashew and those kind of things that were not really of relevance to the people. But during his second term, all what you know and talk about Donald Duke was during his second term. If you look at those critical infrastructure it was during his second term, because he wanted to leave an impression.
Now, coming back to your question, four years went during Ayade’s first tenure and now he is in his fifth year. I wrote to the office of due process and said, ‘please furnish me with all ongoing or completed or imaginary projects by the governor.’
The Adviser on due process furnished me with a list of projects both completed and ongoing by the Ayade administration. I want to say that if Ayade is given the opportunity to finish all these projects, many people will change their impression of Ayade, because he has done more than his predecessors. If these projects are on ground the way they are, then Cross River State must have been taken to another level.
What are your expectations from the newly-elected council chairmen considering the fact that they are inheriting over N11 billion take-off grant from the governor?
First of all I should sound a caveat to them that the eyes of the NFIU, EFCC, and many security agencies are drawn to them and they should not fall victim. The money given to them is based on trust and they should try as much as possible to create lasting impression with the money. Cross Riverians are enlightened to the point of using the doctrine of tracing to find out.
I have seen many former council chairmen being arraigned by the EFCC, some after they have left office and were more or less penniless. You see them and it looks as if they will die the following day. So they have to be careful and make impact on the people by using the money judiciously.
I was a councillor in 1978 in Old Obubra Local Government, which comprised of Abi, Yakurr and Obubra. Engineer Pius Okpa was there, Elder Bolaji Anani was a councillor, Ernest Irek was a councillor. Yakurr Local Government was created out of that and the highest allocation that we got was N1 million.
And before money is given to local governments, auditors will come and you must account for what was given the previous month. But it is not so today and that is why we are having all these lapses.
You are given N180 million this month, the next month whether you spent the money judiciously or not you are called to collect N200 million and the problem goes on and on. We have a responsibility as a people to guide the chairmen.