The Senator Helen Esuene Interview: I Have Akpabio’s Approval To Run For Akwa Ibom’s Governorship Seat was at the interactive session Senator Helen Esuene held with journalists in Abuja over her governorship ambition in 2015. Here are the excerpts:

Distinguished Senator, it is obvious that women are not yet occupying sufficient elective positions in Nigeria. What do you think is responsible?

Yes, we don’t have enough women in elective positions in Nigeria, and that is what the women have been clamouring and agitating for. In the appointive positions, you can say yes a lot of progress has been made. But in the elective area, we are still lagging behind other African countries. And a few issues are responsible whIch are very apparent: one is the culture; and you will say that all other African countries share common culture with us. But in Nigeria it is a bit hard changing those norms. The second issue is the type of government we run. In some of these African countries, their constitution is a little bit relaxed.

They have some parliamentarians who are elected and they also have quotas for appointed parliamentarians in their constitution. They even have special quotas for some groups like the disabled, the youth; even in one country, they have quota for the military. These are some of the disparities that give those nations advantage over us in Nigeria. But be that as it may, more focus should be placed on assisting women to more elective positions. When I say assisting, I don’t mean bend the rule; give us a level playing ground because politics in Nigeria is very rigid, some times very violent, and that discourages many women.

In the last presidential election, women did not even vote for the only woman in the race. Didn’t that portray women as enemies of themselves?

I don’t really think and won’t specifically say so. You see, when it comes to election, if a man is contesting he is not contesting for the men. And the same holds for the women. If a woman is contesting, she is not contesting for the women; she is contesting for everybody. And you have to do the needful; you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. And with all due respect, I think this was a bit lacking in the two times she came out for that position. But we still appreciate her courage in coming out because it will stand for her that she was the first woman to have done that. But standing for election is not a gender issue. Yes I’m a woman, but if I contest, I am not contesting just for the women to vote me in. It is important that I should clarify that.

Having said that election in Nigeria is rigid and some times full of violence, why do you want to contest for the governorship of Akwa-Ibom State in 2015?

Why I want to contest for the governorship of Akwa-Ibom State is because I am quite familiar with the terrain of that place. I know the place very well and I know the people. I know the strengths and I know the weaknesses in that place. I know the ethnic interplay in that place. And I am very confident that I will be able to build bridges that will usher peaceful co-existence, because whatever the developmental stride the government may make, if you cannot assure people’s co-existence then it may not be tenable. And when there is peaceful co-existence and people are happy, that is when they will give you their best in terms of contribution, attitude, cooperation and in everything. So, I feel I am the right person for the job.

Godfatherism is still a major factor in Nigerian politics. Is your state Governor, Godswill Akpabio your godfather, if not, how are you going to contend with other forces in your state and win?

Godfatherism is still there but you know that politics is very dynamic. What you see in the morning is not eventually what you see in the evening; it is very dynamic. However, I have very healthy relationship with my Governor.

Has he given you the go ahead so that you can enjoy his full support?

Yes, he has given me the go ahead. I discussed with him. Even if he is not carrying me along right now, it is not an issue because as said, politics is dynamic. What happens today doesn’t necessarily mean that it will remain so tomorrow.

What is actually your attraction to Akwa-Ibom Government House; why don’t you aspire to return to the Senate and entrench yourself in the business of legislation?

Thank you very much. When I was campaigning for the Senate, in my senatorial district, the unwritten agreement among the people of my district is that each federal constituency that occupies the senatorial seat should go for two terms and then it will move to the next federal constituency. You know when Senator Udo Udoma was here, he was representing Ikot Abasi Federal Constituency and he was here for two terms. Thereafter, Mrs Ekaette came on board. And she represented Eket Federal Constituency.

I am from Eket Federal Constituency as well. So, by next year, Eket Federal Constituency would have done two tenures. And it is supposed to move to the third federal constituency which is Oron. And when I was going to contest, it was a deep pushing during my campaign. And the issue was, since you are going for the first time, are you sure that you will not want to go back? That was the fear they had. And I gave them my word that I would do one term and leave. So, I wouldn’t want to go back on my words.

You know that you are going to contest with men who are rugged in politics. Again, since you come from the Eket axis, how are you going to face the men and also convince the Ibibios to give you their votes in view of the inherent rivalry between the two ethnic groups?

(Laughs)–you seem to be very conversant with the ethnic politics there. Well, the men are rugged and all what not. But it is not about physical ruggedness. I believe in one doing ones home work very well and understanding the terrain and doing the needful. You have to do proper marketing that this is what you are going to do, this is what you intend to do; it is all about showcasing yourself. Democracy has come some distance. People do not want to venture into an area that they do not really know.

What I mean is that people are more confident in the people they know, they have been tested, they have know their track record in various areas. I feel this will speak strongly for me. And for the Ibibio aspect, I am Ibibio by birth. I’m married in Eket. So, that should give the Ibibios comfort because yes you are married somewhere else, but you are also their daughter. So, this gives an advantage too.

Since you came to the Senate, how have you impacted on your constituents?

Even before my elective position I have impacted on the lives of my people very well for many years. Before I came to politics, I enjoy a lot of goodwill within my constituency. They know me, they can speak for me. They know what I can do. And with the positions I have occupied in the last few years, I have impacted lives. I have been able to do what a representative should do in terms of reaching out to them. I know the issues that are uppermost in their heart. And one of them is unemployment; creating employment for the youth. And immediately I came on board, I created a job network centre. It is like a one talkshop facility to bring employers of labour and applicants together. It is a database facility which is still on.

That facility has enabled many people to get employment. We even go a step further by organizing short interactive   sessions where applicants are taught how to present themselves in an interview. On the issue of constituency projects, I have carried out many constituency projects. I am going to start commissioning them one after the other; I just commissioned one last month. I am working on another one for next month because I have many constituency projects spanning the whole senatorial district. And mind you, mine is one of the largest senatorial districts in the country, with 12 local governments. But I have been able to do that. I also set up a cooperative for the women to empower them to do certain things for themselves. In a nutshell, that has been my focus.

What have you done in the area of assisting your constituents to get jobs?

That is a lot because I have sent people for training; and people have been given employment and people have been assisted to do one thing or another to help them enjoy a better life. But it is not something I stay here and chronicle all that we have done, but my people can attest to the fact that I am representing them well within the limit of my capacity. Also, in terms of education and enlightenment of my constituents, immediately I came on board, I floated a magazine called the Eket. It is a quarterly magazine which seeks to capture the things that I do. And from time to time, I call for town hall meeting. I have met with professionals; met with women and other segments of my senatorial district.

Now coming to your presence in the Red Chamber, how would you rate your impact in the Senate; how many bills and motions have sponsored or co-sponsored since you came on board?

Right now, I have five or six bills; some on gender and some on other important national issues. I have a bill seeking to amend the compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act. I have the amendment of the Child Right Act to incorporate certain care of unaccompanied children or abandoned children during strife. We noted that that aspect was missing in the Child Right Act. And this was seriously emphasized at one of the international conferences. I have a bill on how to preserve and restore the mangrove forest in the country. So far, it is only the upland forest that has been taken care of, but the mangrove is fast depleting.

So, I thought it very necessary to bring in a bill that will regulate what goes on in the mangrove. The mangrove is a huge stock for the country in terms of timber, in terms of medicinal products, in terms of aquatic life and so on. And if there is no proper regulation on the activities that go on there, you will wake up one morning and discover that the mangrove has disappeared. There is another bill to regulate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Right now we have a bill on how to manage nuclear products. But we need a bill on the weapons of mass destruction. It is a proactive bill because we don’t have that yet in the country; but you don’t wait until you have before you take action. And the weapons of mass destruction includes nuclear weapons, both biological and chemical weapons. So, we need a legislation on that, and it is being processed.

What are the stages of the bills in the Senate?

Some of them have gone through first reading. But the last one is yet to go through first reading. We are also working on a bill on women equal opportunities. Some of them would have gone through second reading but there are also bills by other senators, but at the appropriate time they will be scheduled for second reading.

Most of the National Assembly members who spoke on the on-going national confab have said that the exercise is a jamboree. Do you share the same opinion with them?

In 2005, during the national political conference, which I was a delegate, the same sentiment was also expressed at that time, that it was a jamboree. Unfortunately, it was almost that they were right. I feel that it is not a jamboree. But whether something good comes out of it will depend on how we manage the outcome or we manage the recommendations or proposals or resolutions of the conference. I believe that bringing Nigerians together to talk about issues in Nigeria is very important. You know, we cannot claim to be the sole custodians of knowledge about Nigerian affairs. And when I say we, I mean the National Assembly. So, I quite believe that a conference such as the one being held is necessary from time to time, for Nigerians to come and talk freely about what they feel about their country because if that is not done then it is bottled up.

And I believe in dialogue; I believe that people should always be given opportunity to air their views because that is what democracy is all about. When they have finished, I am not speaking for the National Assembly; this is my own view, the President who has done so well to set up this national dialogue, because it will diffuse a lot of tension in the country, I think whatever recommendations they have, the President will catalogue them into bills and send them to National Assembly. I will not advise that it should be one bill because if one aspect in that bill doesn’t sail through, it will affect all. So, I think it should be several bills in their different components, seeking to do one thing or another. Then the National Assembly will take them one by one. Then which ever one that scales through will now go to the state assembly; and which ever one doesn’t scale through will be dropped. But if you package everything in one bill, if one aspect fails, it will affect the whole bill. You can remember the last, because of the third term, everything was thrown out.

What will be your agenda for the people of Akwa-Ibom if and when you are elected to govern the state?

My first agenda will be creating unity amongst the various ethnic segments in the state both laterally and vertically. Laterally, the ethnic group; vertically, the age bracket–the elders and the women. Then, the next is creating job opportunities. I consider it very crucial that people should be encouraged to do something to help themselves. It will bring about a lot of positive reactions, reduction in crime and so on. I will also promote industrialization and encourage agriculture. That will be in the front burner of my government.

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