Source: Daily Independent

Mrs. Helen Esuene is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) flag-bearer for Akwa Ibom South Senatorial District in the April general elections. In this interview with Correspondent, ANIEFIOK MACAULEY, she speaks on a wide range of issues including the edge she had over the incumbent senator Eme Ekaette at the primaries, women participation in politics, her priorities if elected in the main election and why the PDP should not impose unpopular candidates on the people. Excerpts…

You recently emerged as the PDP flag-bearer for Akwa Ibom South senatorial district. How did you do it?
How did I make it? Yes, I will say in that order that it was the grace of God, hardwork and the people’s goodwill. After the primaries, we sat back to appraise the entire project, and those three things stood out very clearly. I had a lot of goodwill, and that was evident during the primaries. The elderly people, who you wouldn’t expect to leave their warm bed, defied the harmattan wind at night and came out to cast their votes for me. I enjoyed a lot of goodwill.

Looking at the primaries generally, you were one of the few women who won. Do you think goodwill alone did the magic or other initiatives like the campaign for women in politics played a role?
You know there are so many ingredients that make a successful story, and the peripherals like the Women for Change Initiative (WCI), the pet project of the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan. The WCI also raised a lot of awareness among various states government to help women who were aspiring, and that was a plus for women aspirants. But in my own case, I think what really helped me was that I started my campaign very early. I started my campaign around May 2009. That was when I started consultation because I did not have a political structure and I never contested an election before. So I needed to start early to have a deepened political structure, so that came in very handy and by the time other people came, people had already taken position with me. So, that helped and for the goodwill I talked about, over the years, God has used me to touch the lives of many people in little ways and big ways. So that also helped a lot. We really worked hard; the entire campaign organisation worked very hard. It was not a scattered effort, but a properly structured effort. We toured the 12 local government areas, at least, three times, and there were some that we did four times. So we met the party, the women, and the traditional rulers. When you do all that, it is bound to yield positive result.

In an earlier interview, you said you were not perturbed by the power of incumbency, and it played out well for you in the primaries. What would you say gave you the edge over Senator Ekaette?
When we talk about incumbency, the issues here are finance, contacts and the wherewithal with the people you represent; that is your popularity. In my own situation, the first two were there for the incumbent; that is, the monetary power and the contacts. But the popularity was not there at all, and that was where I was very strong. My popularity rating in the entire state, not only in the senatorial district, is very strong because of the various parts I have played in the past. So that stood by me very readily. In terms of contacts, I also have, but I may not have as much as she has, because for her, it was her effort and that of the husband; so it was combined efforts in terms of contacts. Then monetary power; yes she had a lot of that, but I wasn’t afraid of that because I also knew that money is not everything. Money goes to a certain extent in politics, but cannot do everything. That was why my strategy was to start early to cultivate relationship with the electorate so that they get to know me one-on-one. I interacted with them one-on-one to have confidence in me and that paid off because when the big money came, it was a kind of late, because the people had already taken position with me. I am sure they still took the money, but the votes were for me. So that early start and cultivating relationship with people over a period of time, calling them, chatting with them, and meeting them from various angles paid off. You know, we had meetings with all chapter chairmen, all female delegates, various groups including the fans group and even the church group. So we approached it from different angles, so that if you are not caught in this angle, you will be caught from another angle, and that really paid off for us.

Despite the First Lady’s Women for Change Initiative, it appears women’s support for other women is still at low ebb as played out in the presidential primaries of the PDP where Sarah Jibril, an aspirant, got one vote. Why are women not having sufficient confidence in women when it comes to politics?
You see, politics, like every other human endeavour, has its own modalities and processes, and you cannot bypass those processes. I am not aware that she campaigned at all or consulted. You need to consult and scale through the primaries, which is all about the party. I don’t know what homework she did in that respect, and I am not aware of any. I am not aware that she visited any state or any group that you could say these are female delegates that would vote during the presidential primaries. Again, you need to market yourself because you can’t just get it because you are a woman. I think that message stands out very clearly; that you can’t be given just because you are a woman; you have to earn it and you have to work hard. Any woman aspiring to that exalted position should not go in with the hope that just because you are a woman, you must be given a chance. Nobody will give you the chance; you have to work and earn it.

Sometimes we, women, have to work doubly hard because there are certain things that are easier for men than for women. So, to meet up the standard, you have to put in that extra effort. It is not just a question of gender; a woman just have to work and earn a place in politics.

What would be your priority if you win the senatorial election in April?
My focus is going to be on building bridges. Eket Senatorial district is one of the largest in the country, with 12 local government areas. And apart from the 12 LGAs, we have four distinct ethnic groups within these LGAs. Invariably, there is bound to be some issues, and I believe when there is harmony and unity, and when people can sit, dialogue on issues, then their progress is more assured and more sustainable. That has been lacking and those issues sometimes are being swept under the carpet, only to resurface in the future. So I intend to put in place a mechanism that will foster harmony and unity within the senatorial district. The district also has some distinctive attributes, because it is greatly riverine from Ikot Abasi to Mbo. The entire coast of Akwa Ibom State is within this senatorial district. So they share some common problems, being riverine in nature – things like pollution, erosion, degradation and destruction of aquatic lives because of oil exploration and other activities. So we need to sit down and dialogue on these issues and see how we can help the senatorial district alleviate some of those problems. Again, the issue of unemployment is something that is very close to my heart because it is something you witness everyday. Like when I went to get registered, I saw a number of able-bodied adults just hanging around, not because they are not educated but because there are no jobs. The issue of job creation is very dear to my mind, and I don’t have a magic wand for it; but it is something I have been thinking and praying about; that God should give me the strategy with which to create some jobs. I know I cannot employ everybody, but at least to create some jobs that will have some definite impact because with one person employed, the multiplier effect will cover about 10 different people.

Some elected politicians in the state have adopted picking some persons to be trained in various skills in the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron, and in the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI), Effurun, Delta State. Would you also adopt this strategy to remove the youths from the streets?
Having the skill is one thing and getting them employed is another. I have always held the opinion that in this country, we need more of the skills; we need to promote vocations because that is where jobs are created. A place like South Africa has so many academies and colleges in nearly everything like flower arrangements, acoustics, photography to tiling, electrification and all manner of things. It is in those areas that you need jobs, and in every family within a month, you need one of those persons to make your hair, tile your floor or do some other jobs for you. It is not these roadside things we have, but properly-trained personnel. For example, we don’t have academy that teaches plumbing and that is why our homes are always leaking. We need to encourage people to go into those areas. Not everybody is cut out to go the university; there are so many others that could earn decent living and would be responsible citizens in other areas. Those areas should be looked into. I cannot say I am going to start a school, but it is something that I have always thought about. There should be a conscious effort to encourage vocational training because that is what will help people. If you are trained in tiling, for instance, you don’t need any capital to start it. All you need may be to register a company and three or four persons could come together, and print fliers. If you do good jobs, you will have more jobs. The same thing goes for plumbers and all the other areas. That is why sometimes we go to churches and can hardly hear good music; it sounds like noise because we do not have people who are trained to position the microphones and other equipment, so that the music would be properly captured.

Still, under empowerment, cooperatives is very relevant because when you have a cooperative, you are harnessing the efforts of few people; may be 20 or 50, and they come together to agree that they are going to do A,B, or C. When it is like that, you could easily help, because you would either train them more, so that whatever they are doing, they could do it better or you could give them soft loans to do whatever they want to do better. This will create check and balances, as each of them would be watching out for each other, not a one-man business that someone can easily run away with the money. These are some of the ways of empowering people. In my tours and consultations, I spoke about it and mentioned that women should think of forming cooperatives and deciding what they want to do because the individual must decide for himself what he wants. Those are few of the things that are in my mind.

The Niger Delta region is one area that is riddled with ecological problems. If you are elected, what law do you think should be put in place for the Federal Government to actually tackle the environmental problems?
This is a very big question because the environment is very complex. If you take one aspect of environment, you can talk about it for hours. The Niger Delta is a fragile environment because of its nature; most of it is riverine and swampy, and when you have a situation like that, anything that happens to the soil will just spread everywhere. The underground water depth is very high and when you dig a bit, you will come across water. Whatever happens in that environment, that environment stands a high risk of contamination and degradation than the upland areas. The degradation within the delta region is enormous and really pathetic because in some areas, as you see the water, you see oil as well. Some areas are so degraded that you need real concerted political will to reclaim those areas and make them what they should be and take them back to their natural state.

It will take a sustained, deliberate political will over some years to do that; it is not something you will go in hurriedly and come out, because this contamination is something that has been there for many years.

In terms of law, it becomes a bit tricky because when we talk about degradation, we are talking about oil exploitation.

The government is the major operator with 60 per cent. So it makes it very tricky because if the government was not part and parcel of the oil industry and an active participant in the oil exploitation, it would have been a lot easier because then you could set your environmental policies and laws, saying whoever is coming to Nigeria to explore oil, these are the laws and they will comply. But when the government is involved, it is tricky because it is like you are the operator and the regulator. So it cannot be as good as it should be, and this has been the greatest problem in the system.

What were your achievements when you were the Minister of Environment?
I toured all the contaminated areas, specifically in Ogoni area because, there, they had some sites that were contaminated since the civil war. I went and saw some well heads that were still spewing oil, and gas heads that were not well-corked. The natives were very despondent. When I planned the trip, some people said I should not go; but I insisted that I must go. One woman I saw said: madam you did well to have come and you are the first government official that has come. I was really shocked and touched at the same time because she was trying to farm and not too far from there was a well head that was still gushing out oil. When I went on that tour, I took with me the chairman of the House Committee on Environment and the Senate counterpart because I wanted them to come and see whatever I would be seeing, so that it adds seriousness to the visit. After that, other visits were made, and as a result, the president asked that the UN should come and put up a proposal on how to conduct a remediation within the Niger Delta area. That process was started and Reverend Father (Matthew Hassan) Kukah was in charge of the social aspect of it, that is in terms of talking to the people and all that but the UN group were to provide technology to remediate those areas. There were series of meetings; unfortunately, till the end of that administration, I did not hear anything about it again because it came to a point the natives said they did not want the oil companies to conduct any remediation because they were never sincere about it; they needed an independent body to carry out the remediation. But at the end, that exercise was not sustainable.

Having won the primary polls, how have been able to defend your mandate from being stolen?
I know that question is coming from the backdrop of what used to happen in the past years, when somebody would be declared winner at the stadium or wherever but later on somebody else would actually be upheld as the winner. But this doesn’t augur well for Nigerians at all, because nobody wants to be disenfranchised. It does not augur well for the party either, because now that other parties are trying to come up, if PDP fields candidates that are not popular, it stands to lose the seat to other parties. It is better to let the better candidate who won on ground to be declared the winner. If you try to impose a candidate on people, when it comes to elections, the PDP will lose. I believe the entire Nigerians have been singing this credible elections song and this is the time the party should show it. As it is with the primaries, what happens during the main elections has a direct correlation with what happened in the primary, and where primaries were not transparent, it will have a negative effect on the elections.

If people, for any reason, have voted a particular person because they believe the person will represent them well, let that mandate stand and let nothing in Abuja or anywhere try to meddle with that mandate.

But I want to assure all my supporters that my mandate is safe and that they should remain very calm.

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