Akan Okon is the Akwa Ibom State commissioner for housing and special duties. In this interview with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK, he gives an insight into the major projects being undertaken by the state government. A former commissioner for finance, he explains why the international worship centre is necessary and the progress of work on the Four-Point hotel. Excerpts:
What is the government doing in the housing sector because there are reports that it has abandoned the housing estate in Uruan Local Government Area?
There is work going on there at Idu Uruan. And we are collaborating with the Federal Government to provide housing units for the people. But you know in the case of Idu Uruan there are lots of houses that were built there but some of them were not completed and we try to sell it to individuals. And the intention was to realise some funds there that could be used for infrastructure like electricity and roads. There is water already there. So water is not an issue. Unfortunately, given the present economic situation that Nigeria is facing and individuals as well, the payments are not coming the way we had expected. That is what has slowed it down. But it is the intention of government to make sure that the infrastructure required there is provided so that people can live there comfortably.
But the housing scheme was supposed to be done in Uyo, Eket and Ikot senatorial districts but unfortunately, nothing started in Eket. Does this government have any intention of building houses in Eket senatorial district?
Yes, just like I have said, if the resources are available, I am very certain this question would not have come up today. Yes, it was done in Ikot Ekpene, it was done in Uyo senatorial districts and I think government cleared the site in Eket. But I want to say that as soon as we are able to sort out this two we have started and we have funds available, the housing estate in Eket will be done. It is the intention of government to provide houses for our people and add to the housing stock in the state. You can see every day that more people are moving from rural communities to the state capital. So there is need for more houses to be provided.
There seem to be no life at the multi-million naira Tropicana entertainment complex. What is this government doing to ensure its completion?
Well, everything boils down to funding like I have said. But recently, decision was taken to partner with the private sector to get the place completed and put to use. And you know when it comes to private sector partnership; there are lots of processes that you must procure. So that is what we are doing now, and a lot of investors have shown interest. I am quite sure when that is completed the place will be finished. We have also signed Memorandum of Understanding with some interested investors. So it is not that there is no life there. I am quite sure by the time everything is completed you will begin to see the difference.
The state government planned to build a Maintenance, Overhaul and Repair (MRO) at its airport; several years after contract was awarded nothing has happened, what has happened?
There is hope. You know the governor is determined to make sure that those activities that will create employment opportunities for our people are encouraged in our state. And mind you, a lot of our people were trained to handle that facility but I think along the line, when there was a downturn in the economy, the MRO you are talking about could not be completed. But I can tell you now that there has been a technical evaluation on what has been done and there is an interested investor. And we are talking because they need to bring in funds to fund the place. So, I am quite sure it will be completed soon.
What about the runway at the airport too?
Work is ongoing at the second runway. Recently, we went for a visit there when members of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly came to see the extent of work that had been done. You know the same funding issue that affected all the other projects affected that particular project. But the governor is very passionate about completing that runway because we don’t want what happened in Abuja airport to happen here, when there was a situation that the runway was shut down for maintenance and flight could not land and all flights were diverted to Kaduna. So what we are doing now is to make sure that when there is the need to carry out maintenance, one will be available. The runway is 3.6 kilometres and it is 60 meters wide. And it has the capacity to carry a 747 cargo aircraft. So work is ongoing. If you go there now, the contractor is on site. And they have completed the laying of a special substance to make sure that it is durable.
Do you have any date for its completion?
And if we were to have all the money now, I can tell you it would be completed maybe in the next four months.
How do you respond to criticisms that greeted decision of the governor to construct an International Worship Centre in Uyo and at what stage is the controversial governor’s lodge in Lagos?
Well, I will start with the International Worship Centre. What I would like to say about that is that in life, especially in our state, there is nothing that you do that you won’t expect people to oppose you. The Airport we are using today, we said that our people don’t need to go to Calabar or to Port-Harcourt to fly, it was criticised. People that said we don’t need it and the same people are using it today. You know where you have opposition; they will want to do their work to oppose you. But you at the driver’s seat, you have to continue to do what you know is good because opposition will never stop. So for the worship centre, I think I have to thank God because God is not like humans. You have individuals building mansions for themselves and you are talking about having a place of worship. And mind you like you said, you have seen the account that has been published, you have individuals, you have corporate bodies, and religious organisations contribute to the building of the worship centre. In fact, there had been a situation where a journalist asked me what the economic value is. So I ask this question, economy and God which one should come first? The Bible say, ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God and all other things will be added unto you’. In fact, it is even good that you have asked this question. I want to urge everyone that building for God, there is always a blessing associated with it, that you can sow a seed. I told some of your colleagues not long ago that if you write positive story about that particular project and somebody reads it and is convinced and decides to contribute to it, God will register it for you that you were instrumental to convincing that man. The blessing that person will receive, you will get the same. For me, everything we do in life, everything we have been able to achieve is by the grace of God. So I believe that it is people that do not understand the essence of their creation that will criticise things like that because even the mouth that you are using to criticise it is God that gave you. So that is the situation but like the governor has said, that place will be built. It is not for any other thing, it is only a place of worship and we don’t have such a place in our state and we say it is the only state that is named after God. And mind you, a place that is for worship is not a place that if you want to throw party you go there. You can see that most times we want to hold solemn assembly we go to Ibom Hall and if we want to throw party we go to Ibom Hall. For me, I believe it is even late, but it is better late than never. So that project will be executed and for me as an individual, I feel very highly honoured and privileged to be the one that is superintending over that worship centre because I believe in God and I know what is involved in building for God. And about the governor’s lodge, work is ongoing according to plan. And three weeks ago, I took the House of Assembly committee on Finance and Appropriation to Lagos to see for themselves and they were impressed. And in the testimony they gave during a press interview, they commended the governor for that initiative because we deserve to have a place in Lagos. And they were quite happy at the pace of work and that the funds so far released have been judiciously used.
What is the state of the Four-Point by Sheraton Hotel Ikot Ekpene?
Well, I will like to say that for the Four-Point by Sheraton, the governor has paid the managing company which is Marriott now. Initially, it was Starwood Group. But you know very recently Starwood Group was acquired by Marriott Group. And during merger and acquisition, there is what is called housekeeping; that is the process of trying to integrate the various companies that have been acquired. That is the stage that we are now. I thank God and commend His Excellency the governor for paying what was outstanding to the company. And once they finish all what they are doing and they will bring in all the materials that are required. You know the managing company has a certain standard and then that place will be opened. You know, for a managing company they have a certain standard. And I know you would not have asked this question if you were part of the House of Assembly team that came for inspection you would have seen things for yourself. If you are taken on a tour of the place you will appreciate what is there and you will see that a lot of work has been done in the place. It is just a few things remaining like the small operating equipment. But once those things are completed that place will be ready for use.
With 2019 around the corner, are you worried that the opposition may frustrate the second term bid of Governor Udom Emnanuel?
But you know the opposition that you are talking about are on the pages of newspapers. Let’s be very honest. Unfortunately for the so-called opposition, Nigerians are wiser now because the government that we have at the federal level that came into power through propaganda and that has been responsible for the result that we are all getting. I am very certain I don’t know who you voted for. If you were to have voted for them I am sure that if they were to present themselves today you will not vote for them. So that has opened the eyes of the people. And apart from that the governor within the period that he has been in power, he has done excellently well. He has touched every facet of the state economy. It is on record that our state is one of the very few states that are able to meet up obligations to civil servants as and when due. You can see roads being constructed everywhere, the free medical care, free education is still being sustained and many interventions like payment of WAEC and NECO fees for our students. I think there is enough on the ground to show that the governor deserves a second term and that is why you have seen the level of endorsement of the people that he should go for a second term.
There is speculation that the metering factory in Onna is a jamboree because since its flag off nothing seems to be going on there. What is your take on this?
How? Let’s get this very straight. Every opportunity that I have to say something I like to state clearly that it is not the business of government to establish industries. The government’s responsibility is to provide the enabling environment that attracts industries. There are practices that are going on, the machines have come in. They are testing. So once those things are completed the place will be opened. Some people have been employed and are undergoing training just like the syringe factory. So when once the processes are completed, it will be opened. There is even a flour mill that is ongoing there and construction has commenced. So the governor has done what is expected of every responsible government which is to provide an enabling environment, provide the infrastructure that would attract industries. Prior to 2015, there was no industry producing in the state but the governor has been able to provide the environment and through contact he has been able to attract industries that have come to the state today to build and they are producing and employing people from our state. So I think this is one of the reasons why people are very happy with the performance of the governor.