Aloysius Etok is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service Matters . He represents the Akwa-Ibom North-West in the Senate; a seat the incumbent Akwa Ibom State governor, Godswill Akpabio is interested in.
Mr. Etok speaks on his committee’s duties and the expected 2015 battle he would have with the state governor.
We learnt you were invited for an interview at Planet FM, a private radio station in Akwa Ibom State, but was barred from featuring in the programme. Can you tell us what happened?
I was about going into the studio when the programme manager came in and told us that there was a technical fault and begged that the programme be discontinued to allow for repairs to be carried out on the faulty equipment. I don’t know whether there was some other issue but that was what the technical manager told me.
But the CEO of the station, Tony Afia, in a post on Ibom Forum, indicated that the time paid for by the producer of the programme had elapsed before you were invited into the studio?
Well, Tony has the right to say whatever he wants to say. If I had arrived late for the programme, why was it announced that I was at the studio? It was announced while I was there that they were going to have an interview with me after a member of the state House of Assembly from Uruan was interviewed. If he went on to say that the time had elapsed then it was his own. Whatever he said or would like to say is left for the judgment of the public. Clearly, one could see the contradiction. When he called me for a discussion, he apologised and said he would explain what happened to me. He never told me I arrived late for the programme because I arrived at the station before the commencement of the programme. I met the member of the state House of Assembly representing Uruan at the station. As a gentleman, I agreed with the producer that (the Member) should go in first because he was there before me.
Did Mr. Afia later offer you an explanation as promised, when he called to apologise to you?
He called to get an appointment for us to meet but I didn’t have time to meet with him. He called for about two days but I didn’t have time to see him. If I had time, I would have listened to his explanation.
Do you think the treatment you received at the station has something to do with your frosty relationship with the state governor?
That would be left for Afia’s judgment. My relationship with the governor should not have anything to do with a private station. Atlantic FM is not a government radio station; therefore, I cannot see any reason why he would play funny. Since he is running a private station, he should be willing to provide an alternative to the government broadcasting stations. One would have understood if it were a government broadcasting station. But for a private station to do what that, it means Afia is not ready to provide the alternative platform for the people. I wish him good luck because when the administration ends next year, I don’t know what he will be doing.
You have been a private business man and a member of the House of Representatives and now a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. How challenging are your duties at the Senate?
My job at the Senate is quite challenging and interesting. It is interesting in the sense that I deal directly with the welfare of the people as well as the future of Nigerians. My committee oversees a critical sector of the Nigerian public service. I chair the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service Matters. We oversee recruitment, promotion and discipline of civil servants. We also deal with pension matters of the civil, public, military and the police services. It is a very sensitive and challenging assignment.
Not quite long ago, it was alleged that you received bribes to cover up the scam in the pension sector. You denied the allegation. Can you tell Nigerians what actually happened?
It was a drama of sorts and I have come to realise that in Nigeria, corruption is almost endemic. Corruption is almost completely embedded in the conduct of public business and if you find yourself fighting it, it will definitely fight back. I have said before and I want to say it again: corruption in the pension sector is bigger and deeper than the one in the oil sector. It is also more cancerous.
In the oil sector, you have a few persons who form a cabal but in the pension sector, it takes a lot of people to perpetrate it. The leader will recruit a lot of people into the system. When you are fighting them it means you are stepping on so many toes at the same time and it will be difficult to know where the fight is coming from. That was why when we fought the pension thieves to a standstill, they decided to fight back. They arranged a ring and empowered them to run a smear campaign against my person. But thanks to God, when somebody is lying, people will know. On my part, I called on security agencies and offered myself to be arrested and investigated to unravel whether my accusers were telling the truth or not. How can somebody be involved in fraud when he rejected money that was given to him? Is it possible to turn around and accept anything from a man one rebuked for offering him bribes? If I wanted to collect a car from somebody, would I collect a car that is seven years old when ministers are collecting brand new bullet-proof cars? Would I be moving forward or backward at this stage of my life? These are some of the issues Nigerians should consider. They talked about giving me equipment to use in my farm but the truth is that I don’t have a farm in any part of the country and it is verifiable. If you collect a bulldozer, will you swallow it so people will not see? If you collect a tanker, people will see it. All these things are verifiable. When my colleagues in the senate investigated the allegation, they found it was a lie and blackmail. By third week of December last year, we cracked the ring. We discovered that there were about six persons who were involved in the racket. The security agencies are already on their trail.
Are these people civil servants?
They are a bunch of criminals who were hired to form a smear ring.
The Senate was strongly behind you when the incident happened. Why was it so?
Because they know Aloysius Etok. I have been with them from the 6th Senate. They know what I can do and what I will not do. When you are a shepherd, you will know your ship and your ship will know you. My colleagues know what I am capable of doing and what I cannot do. There are a lot of things I cannot do for the sake of my name, my family and the God that I worship and those on whose mandate I am serving in the senate. For the sake of our democracy and the need to move the country forward, we must fight every evil tendency that tends to destroy this nation.
Are there things you want Nigerians to know about the scam?
Certainly, I was surprised at the fact that there could be that level of rot within the pension sector. I didn’t believe there could be that level of impunity and arrogance in the way and manner the funds were being stolen and the exhibition of ill-gotten wealth by the pension thieves. I never believed those kind of things could happen in this country. I was equally shocked at the operations of the pension cabal and the extent they went. They took the money with impunity and without regards to the extant regulations regarding financial operations in the public service. They broke every known financial regulation in the management of the pension funds. And we found that more than N100 billion was missing from the system.
What measures are being put in place to ensure that such bare-faced robbery does not continue in the pension fund administration?
We had submitted the report of our investigation to the government but even though the executive hasn’t issued a White Paper on it, we have seen evidence of the report being implemented in piece-meal. For instance, the Pension Transitional Administration Programme, PETAP has been set up to bring together all the pension administrators which operated as independent bodies under one umbrella. PETAP does not cover the military but other pension bodies including the Police, Customs, Immigrations, Civil Defence and the Prisons. All these pension offices have been brought together and a director-general has already been appointed.
I had a meeting with the management of PETAP but because the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wasn’t there, we had to adjourn the meeting. We know that the setting up of PETAP is a move in the right direction. With it, the government will close the loopholes and sanitise the sector. But even with that, the government must initiate a process of creating a biometric record of pensioners in the country with a view to creating a databank. There is no way we can manage the pension sector without a databank of pensioners. It is only when that is done that we could say the loopholes have been closed.
It is quite obvious you want to return to the Senate in 2015. How confident are you about this in view of the fact that the state Governor, Godswill Akpabio, and many others are also eyeing the seat?
Power belongs to God and mandate belongs to the people. It can never be an election until two or more people are involved in a contest. So the governor is welcome on board and it will be proper if he wishes to come to the senate that he contests for it. It is God that will give power to who He will. In doing that, God will not negotiate or consult with anybody. He already knows who he will give the power to. On the other hand, the owners of the mandate know who they want to send to the senate come 2015. They know who will be willing to be their servant. The people are the bosses while the representative is the servant. So the people know who they will send and when we get to the bridge, we will cross it.
You had a misunderstanding with your governor sometime last years. How is your relationship with the governor now?
People call it a misunderstanding but there was nothing like that. I don’t have any problem with the governor. I keep on saying that if we keep to our tracks, there will be no misunderstanding. If we don’t cross each other’s way, there will be no misunderstanding. Akpabio has his duty post. He is the governor of the state and I am the senator representing Akwa Ibom North-West. We have distinct areas of operation.
What is your expectation from INEC in 2015
I know that the 2015 election will be better than that of 2011. INEC has enough time to prepare and deploy new strategies for the election. Besides, Nigerians are getting wiser and more desirous to vote and defend their votes. The people are getting wiser in terms of party affiliation and choice of candidates and the tendency to intimidate or force somebody to do what he wouldn’t want to do is waning.
2011 was a watershed of politically motivated violence in Akwa Ibom State. Do you expect something different in 2015?
I think the security agencies took note of what happened in 2011 and they are exploring alternative ways of dealing with the situation. They are also developing new techniques of handling security situations in each of the senatorial districts and in the entire state. I am sure the security agencies will be at their best and will be able to handle whatever situation may arise. I regretted what happened because in 2007, about 67 candidates contested for the position of the governor and nobody died. However, in 2011, a few people contested and so many people were killed. We pray that such should not happen again. We should not lose people because of an election. It is better for people to be alive to see a person in power or not taking power than taking power at the expense of human lives.
What will you not do to get power?
I will not engage in violence. I will never kill. I cannot spill blood nor do anything contrary to God’s commandment for the purpose of capturing power. I will never, never kill anybody for any reason whatsoever.