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INTERVIEW: Cross River remains PDP stronghold despite Ayade’s defection, says Liyel Imoke

INTERVIEW: Cross River remains PDP stronghold despite Ayade’s defection, says Liyel Imoke
June 08
17:47 2021

Liyel Imoke has held many positions since emerging in the political space. Most notably, he has served as a minister twice and is also a two-time governor of Cross River. In this interview, he speaks on helping to lay the building blocks of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in his state, the recent defection of Governor Ben Ayade to the All Progressives Congress (APC), and his party’s foothold in Cross River.

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TheCable: Good afternoon, your excellency. Let’s talk about developments on the political terrain in Cross River State. You are a founding member of the PDP. You’ve also held various key positions in the country, including being minister of power and steel, and for a while minister of education before going on to become the governor for 8 years. Tell us, what vision and strategies characterised those early days, your roles, and how the foundation was laid for the current republic? 

Imoke: This question takes me down memory lane. It takes me back to the early days. When I say the early days, I mean my early days in politics. As you may recall, as far back as the early 1990s I got involved in politics because of my interest in public service and in contributing to the growth and development of the society that I come from and giving back, as it were to the society. The then governor of Cross River state, Mr. Clement Ebri, was someone that I worked with and admired. He supported me when I ran for senate; under the same political platform, I got elected as a senator in 1991/92. That was the real beginning of my political career. As you may be aware that dispensation ended with the Abacha coup and after the Abacha coup it was basically back to the trenches.

However, I remained in communication with a lot of our political supporters and members of our team and we still had a common vision, a vision for a new Cross River state. That vision was borne out of my experience, campaigning literally door-to-door to get elected into the senate. The campaign provided me an opportunity to see the state of our people and the conditions they lived in, especially in the rural communities and that was really a driving factor for us, in terms of coming together and thinking that Cross River state needed a new order. It was through that process that I started convening meetings in my house in Lagos at the time, which were attended by young Cross Riverians as it were, to build and share a vision, and also chart a new course for Cross River State. Amongst those who attended those meetings were the former governor, Donald Duke, Senator Gershom Bassey, Bassey Eyo Ndem who became a commissioner in the state and MD of Tinapa; Essien Ayi who is now a member of the house of representatives, and several others, all young men.

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We also had among those who attended the meetings people like Victor Okon and a number of young aspiring Cross Riverians and a lot of my colleagues like Dennis Nkiri, who was in the house of representatives when I was in the senate, were also part of that process. They saw the vision and bought into it from day one. We all stood firmly, sharing a common vision and came up with a blueprint for a new Cross River state. It was through that process that we decided to participate actively in the transition that took place under that Abacha administration; but we were of the progressive orientation, as such we did not join any party that we thought Abacha would control and manipulate. We opted to join the NCPN and when the NCPN was eventually decimated by the same Abacha administration, we joined the DPN. In providing leadership to that generation of people we were able to work collectively as a team to go into an election at the time, of course, there were all kinds of idiosyncrasies and all kinds of theories about power and who had it and who could give it and where it could go to. But as young men, we thought that we could chart a different course for the state and it was on that basis that we ultimately joined the People’s Democratic Party and by so doing, we were taking a position against a significant number of our leaders, including my boss, Clement Ebri, who was in the APP; Dr. Joseph Wayas and several others who opted for the APP.

By joining the PDP we had room as it were, to build a new order, and not just build a new order but to bring young people into the politics and that led ultimately to winning the elections with Donald Duke as our candidate, going against the odds at the time where they said no Efik man can be governor of Cross River state. I couldn’t understand why a citizen of the state was not entitled to become an elected representative of the state especially if they’re qualified to occupy that office. So I championed that cause and a lot of people came against me saying I was not Efik and as such why was I championing a cause for the Efiks. At the end of it all, by the Grace of God we succeeded and Donald became the governor of Cross River state and he got elected for a second term. We built a strong political family and this translated to a marginal victory for the party.

TheCable: It’s understandable; because the big weights were on the other side? 

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Imoke: The big weights were on the other side and we were on this side, so we were quite satisfied with the marginal victory. After the elections, we engaged the young people who may have been in the other political party to bring them to understand and appreciate that it was better if we worked collectively. So as leader of the team, as the campaign manager for all the elections, that was my responsibility. We brought these young people together and by the 2003 elections, we had a formidable team going into the elections. So even though there was a strong anti-Efik sentiment and a strong anti-Donald Duke sentiment represented in a group of leaders organised under the aegis of Atam Congress, we stood firmly against it. I led that movement to ensure that the state was united and I think 2003 was the one election that united Cross River state and that united our political party, the PDP. Since then, until now, the PDP has remained the overwhelming dominant political force in Cross River State.

TheCable: So one can say that you were actually the pillar behind Donald Duke becoming governor? 

Imoke: Well at the risk of sounding immodest, the answer is yes; but we had a formidable team and we were extremely focused. Our major strength was the ability to strategise to win the hearts of the people. I led a strong team of young men and women who worked selflessly. I think that’s the history of our state and I think through that experience we were able to strengthen our party and it became the dominant party. I contested the elections and the party won all the seats at every level and everybody that has contested election in Cross River state thereafter has won with similar margins. The struggle was for the PDP ticket, once you had the PDP ticket, you are literally elected. Through the years up till the emergence of Governor Ben Ayade, PDP has been firmly the party of choice of the people. I think it’s not just our style and approach that achieved this. We introduced a collegiate leadership model at all levels. This engendered confidence in our supporters as it was a bottom-up approach and afforded them not only the freedom of choice but also an opportunity to take ownership and responsibility. We also had a strong connection to the grassroots and I think that was something that we deliberately embarked upon especially given my own experience in going round campaigning, first for senate and then subsequently for Donald to become governor and then my own eventual emergence. So we endeared ourselves to the electorate and that is where the strength of the PDP lies.

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TheCable: That’s a very interesting history. Things are looking a little bit different now. Your state governor, Senator Ben Ayade, recently defected to the APC. How will that affect the fortunes of the PDP in the coming elections in a state that has a history of being a PDP state? 

Imoke: I’m glad you ended that question with saying that it’s a state that has a history of being a PDP state. I think in the past you would see that states that have that type of strength irrespective of a defection tend at all times to remain strong. There’s a reason for that. What you perceive as power will determine how you lead. If you perceive power to be a political party, then you will be moving from one political party to another but if you understand that power ultimately is the people and that it belongs to the people, you will appreciate that it is not about the party. PDP in Cross River State has always been about the people and I think we still remain about the people; so the party has endeared itself to the people and as such, a movement by the governor does not of its own translate to the people moving into another political party, because they have already identified strongly with the party – the PDP. It is sort of like what you have in the United States and other countries where there are strongholds; a state like California, it is defined as a Democratic stronghold. Cross River State is a PDP stronghold.

TheCable: That’s interesting; that means there is still hope?  

Imoke: Hope? The truth is that they have an uphill task to remove the PDP in Cross River state.

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TheCable: Governor Ayade is known for appointing thousands of youths as special assistants or advisers, in what he describes as a policy to put food on the table for them. Do you think this is a good policy for youth engagement especially given the need for human capital development and provision of infrastructure for overall development of the state?

Imoke: I think it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who basically attributed all power to the king, and that the king had power to do what he chose to do and how he chose to do it and the masses were obliged to follow. That theory has been disproved over the years, over the centuries and that has led to democracy and what we have now. Through the years, various philosophers: Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and several others, have come and not only discredited Hobbes’ theory but have clearly shown that power could belong to the people. So you cannot oppress the people without a reaction; power must go to them. And I think that no matter how subjugated a people are, at some point in time they are going to fight for their rights and for whatever they are entitled to. They are entitled to certain freedoms, they are entitled to earn a living, and they are entitled of course to safety and security; those are critical components of life. So when you are dealing with a generation of young people in a society like ours, you must deliberately make an effort not just to give them the ability to succeed but you must also, as they say, teach them how to fish.

I don’t think that the average Cross River youth is lazy, I don’t think that the average Cross River youth is looking for food on the table; I believe that the average Cross River youth is confident and strong, is well educated and wants to earn a decent living. And I think we cannot take away from that fact, It’s even Biblical, if you recall the story of Esau and his birthright. But for the fact that he gave up his birthright, he would be Israel. The people of Cross River will not give up their birthright for a mussel of food. I don’t think that those are Cross Riverians, that’s not the nature of the Cross Riverian. The Cross River youth that I know are energetic and want an opportunity. So for us to build a sustainable economy we need to create wealth for the people, to provide them with opportunities to express themselves, opportunities to grow themselves, to provide them opportunities to provide for family; and, a food on-the-table policy doesn’t seem to provide such necessities for the long term. So, yes there are a number of people who will be engaged on those terms but not the larger society, the generation of Cross Riverians that I know, have energy, they are resourceful and they are committed to not just a better society but having a better livelihood and those are the people that I believe are in the majority in the state.

Imoke

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TheCable: Your predecessor, Donald Duke, in a statement he issued on the heels of the defection of Governor Ayade, accused you of hoisting, in his words “autocratic leadership style” where “communication with party members declined,” and that “emergence in the party was determined not by the party constitution or structures but by the whims of the state’s chief executive;” directly accusing you of bringing Ayade and imposing him on the people. How do you react to these accusations? 

Imoke: I believe that his statement was issued after I was informed of his joining the party and had called him welcoming him back to the party. So let me use this opportunity to again welcome him back into the party and assure him of our commitment to working with him and making sure he is fully reintegrated and understands who we are and what we have always done as a party. I think his decision to re-join the party speaks volumes and it is indeed a very good decision. Our major strength has been, and will always be, carrying everyone along and making sure that each person’s opinion is sought and recognised. As he returns to his foundation, he will definitely have every opportunity to make his own contributions towards the growth and development of the party. As a party, we are proud of the fact that we have since inception, consistently and without fail achieved significant successes in Cross River state. We have done extremely well. Holding the ground and keeping the states under the umbrella has been no mean feat but the PDP has done this successfully over the years. This I think is commendable. Whether we are looking at Ayade, Donald himself, or myself, the party’s style of leadership through the years it has been in control of the state has always been a collegiate style of leadership and an appeal to the grassroots. It is this acceptance by the grassroots that has always ultimately delivered 99% success at the polls. That is the style that we have adopted over the years and it has kept us firmly on the ground as the most popular and accepted party in Cross River State. Donald’s return should add value to what we’ve done and will continue to do. We have not changed and we will continue to blaze the trail. He has returned to our great party and to his foundation at a time when the governor has defected; since I am not God, only God knows the hearts of men, so I am not going to speculate on the reasons behind Governor Ayade’s departure from the party. But as I said, I welcome Donald back to the party and I look forward to working with him.

TheCable: So you won’t agree to what he says about your ‘autocratic style of leadership’?

Imoke: I believe that the key to our success which has been acknowledged, beyond the party and the state and I believe has even been recognised and acknowledged by Donald himself in re-joining the party, is clearly the collegiate rather than autocratic style of leadership. So let’s not dwell on that but welcome him, and assure him of not only his full membership but also of the key leadership role that he is expected to play. We’re all looking forward to working closely with him and improving the fortunes of the party in the state.

TheCable: Now that governor Ayade has defected from your party. Do you regret supporting him to be a governor, do you feel any disappointment and betrayal by the defection?

Imoke:  No; I don’t actually. I don’t have any regrets; as I said, the only authority that has the benefit of hindsight is God. So you can’t say I regret or I don’t regret, no; certainly not. At the time when Ayade contested for the governorship, we gave him all our support. He would not have been governor without our building a consensus and without the party taking him to the people and the electorate to solicit for their support. So when he emerged through a rigorous state-wide internal party caucus selection process through the 18 local government areas, we believed that the people had made their choice. We believed he was the right man for the job at that time and I think he came out and appealed to Cross Riverians across the 18 local government areas. It wasn’t a pronouncement; it wasn’t a dictatorial imposition. He went through a very lengthy and hectic process of campaigning, of reaching out to the people and enjoying their support. So, we can’t say we regret that if we are honest. What we’ll say is yes, at that time, he enjoyed the popular support of the party and of course ultimately the people. I remember telling him on the day he was sworn in that his popularity would begin to erode from his first day in office but how fast it would happen depended on him. It’s always the case with elected leaders.

TheCable: Your tenure as Governor of Cross River was synonymous with what many described as grassroots development, including access roads to several rural areas. Do you think such commendable populist projects can return again in Cross River in the coming years, as many have lamented that in the last 6 years, the state has lost its glory?

Imoke: I think like you called them, populist projects; the most important thing for me was being responsive to the needs of the people. Every administration has its own style and every administration has its own approach to governance. In my own case, I tried to be as responsive as I could to the needs of the people. I never took it for granted that because I had become the governor I knew what they wanted better than they did. So in making decisions, I inevitably would make sure that we went back to the people who elected us to understand their needs, and sometimes their needs were as small as a police post, sometimes as small as a road, classroom blocks, quality education, healthcare. So we were responsive to those needs and in so doing, we were able to reach a lot of communities across the state. And by so doing, not only did we respond to their needs, but we also got from them a lot of support. So I think that that was the style at the time, I think that the more responsive an administration is to the needs of the people, the more they will enjoy the support of the people.

Imoke

TheCable: Politics is local. You have played a noble leading role as a national and state leader of the PDP. What message do you have for members of your party in the state who look up to you as their leader given the events of the recent past with the defection of Governor Ayade? Will PDP retain (or win back) Cross River in the next election? 

Imoke: PDP is Cross River, and Cross River is PDP. So, Cross River is a PDP state, we know no other party as it were. And as I said over the years, PDP has performed in governance and has basically reached the people at various levels. So an introduction of a new party would translate into a bit of confusion for the people and it will take a long time for them to even understand either the reasoning behind it and the concept of that new party. The second point is that the young people who are going to be part of this process have grown up with an understanding of the party and I believe that this is a time for us to move power to a new generation of young people, just like we benefitted by the actions that we took and it provided us with the opportunity to serve. There is no greater privilege than the privilege of service; so a new generation of young people, who are committed to the party, who understand the philosophy of the party, who understand how democratic the party is and how resourceful the party can be, will be the new leaders of Cross River State come 2023. Cross River State will remain PDP, it has always been PDP. So I am not in doubt as to the capacity of these people to stand firm and resolute and say listen, come 2023, we are PDP.

Now on our own part as a party, we need to provide leadership that gives them hope, gives them an opportunity. For me as a leader, that is what I have always been about. It’s about engagement, it’s about empowering our people, it’s about meaningfully responding to their needs and their demands, it’s about creating wealth, it’s about growing the various sectors of the economy, whether it’s the tourism sector, or the social sector, or the industrial sector, private sector engagement, public sector engagement, and all of that. It’s only the PDP that has ever provided it. So I don’t see any room for any other party that means well for Cross River state. Moreover, if you look at the way the country is today and you do a comparative analysis between governments under the PDP and governments under the APC, I don’t think Nigerians will by any stretch of the imagination, especially Cross Riverians, say that we are better off today than we were six years ago. I believe that every Nigerian is worse off today than they were six years ago. So this provides us with an opportunity for new leadership, an opportunity for new participation, an opportunity for a new order and I believe that that is what will be achieved in Cross River State come 2023.

TheCable: Talking about tourism, Cross River was once regarded as the tourism destination in Nigeria, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from home and abroad. What do you think is responsible for the loss of this prime economic position and what, as a leader of the state, will you do or advise to be done to reverse the fortunes of the state? 

Imoke: I think the success of tourism is tied to many things; one of them is security. For instance, it’s difficult to grow tourism in a state of insecurity. And Nigeria is presently challenged with significant security issues, so tourism is not likely to thrive in that environment. Also, the other factors that drive tourism policy-wise, have to be addressed. For me, I inherited a vision which I shared and was a part of; so I could build on it. For me it wasn’t about what I started, I didn’t start it, it was sustainability and that’s the key. My predecessor had started working on the ranch (Obudu Resort), we sustained the effort and kept the ranch running along with the Obudu International Mountain Race; my predecessor had also built Tinapa, and we kept Tinapa as functional as we possibly could in the circumstances, bringing in people like Mo Abudu and her entire production team into the state along with her television station and all the shows we could engage in, in Tinapa, growing the sector. We made use of tracks that were imported by my predecessor to complete the first phase of the monorail project connecting Tinapa to the International Conference Centre. My predecessor did two Calabar carnivals as governor; I did eight; so I grew the base of the carnival and its brand. So you have to share a common vision and you have to expand and grow that vision over a number of years with the right policies that will ensure that you attract visitors to the state and that becomes the challenge of the future. Also, some governors have different priorities, there might be an orientation towards industrialisation and whatever it is, but I think they can all go hand-in-hand, one does not have to happen at the expense of the other. So that remains the challenge for that new generation of leaders that will emerge in 2023.

TheCable: With Governor Ayade’s defection, what is your message to members of the PDP in Cross River, including national assembly members elected under your party and those at the state house assembly and chairmen of local government?

Imoke: It was very interesting that I haven’t seen governor Ayade hold a broom, but I have always imagined in my head that Ben would look at the broom once or twice before he holds it (laughing). Because in all honesty, even that is alien to him. So to the people of Cross River, I say: stand firm, we are PDP, we are committed, we are resolute, we are a grassroots party and we are sufficiently strong. I want to commend the strength and the will of the people who said listen, we are not going, PDP is our party, we will remain here. So you have members of the state executive council, we have members of the state assembly, of course the national assembly members, we have party chairmen, leaders in our state, all of them standing resolute for the party that they know they belong to. So that movement did not have the expected effect. The perception that Cross River state has become an APC state has clearly been debunked by the fact that a good number of people stood firm. And even amongst those who have moved, there’s something that we say “you can move but don’t join”. So even amongst those who have moved, we know that they have moved but they have not joined. And I think that there will be opportunity for everybody to reassess the situation going into 2023 and come back together again, and again do what they have always done. I will never take the credit as leader for the work that they do, I believe that they are standing firm, they are committed, they are resolute and indeed they know that by the Grace of God come 2023, PDP will be Cross River and Cross River will remain PDP.

TheCable: Interesting! One last comment sir, while you were speaking earlier, you welcomed former Governor Donald Duke back to the party heartily. If as you said, Senator Ayade may not be able to know how to hold a broom; if he realises that he is in a strange environment and wishes to come back, what would be your reaction, will you welcome him?

Imoke: I will welcome him; I will definitely welcome him. Ben and I don’t have any differences, personal differences, maybe political differences and that’s why I said that his decisions may be personal to him. So certainly if he gets there, and it doesn’t look as good as he thought, then for us we’ll be glad to welcome him back as one of us, it’s a game of numbers so the more the merrier. I don’t believe that we should create enmity out of politics. Yes, it’s a game of power which should be played fairly and everybody has a right to take whatever decision that they chose and we should not hold it against them in eternity; so certainly for anyone that wants to work to see the growth and development of Cross River state, we are willing to work with them at any time.

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