Tuesday, 29 September 2015

INTERVIEW: Media has contributed to Akwa Ibom's development - NUJ Boss, Patrick Albert

Patrick Albert
Mr. Patrick Albert is the Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalist in Akwa Ibom State. In this interview with THE INK crew - EMMANUEL AKPAN, KENNETH JUDE and PRISCILLA CHRISTOPHER, he speaks on Akwa Ibom State at 28. He chronicles the history of the state’s creation, the journey so far, journalism practice in the state and other issues of interest. Excerpts:

In the spirit of Akwa Ibom at 28, what is    your assessment of the state in development index and infrastructure since its creation?
First of all, I want to thank THE INK NEWSPAPERS for holding this interview and for giving prominence to an event such as this. Anytime the anniversary of Akwa Ibom State comes, it brings into memory our past; how the state came to be; how we should be grateful to our forbears who promoted the idea of state creation and those who followed up the vision for the creation of the state until it was actualised in 1987.
Looking back for the past 28 years, one would say, to God be the glory; we can say emphatically that Akwa Ibom State has come to be as a desirable state. At its creation in 1987, it was a political expression coming out of Cross River State; already what became Akwa Ibom State was what was then known as Mainland State or the Mainland Path of the main Cross River. But today, from a political expression, we have come to attain a height comparable to other advanced states within the Nigerian federation.

The leaders we have been privileged to have, beginning from Col. Tunde Ogbeha to Governor Udom Emmanuel have paid great attention to the development of the state  in terms of infrastructure, human power development and  breaking new grounds in order to actualise the essence of the creation of the state. There was a time we were seen as a civil service state; though to an extent we are still a civil service state, but we have made giant strides and to break away from that description.
Akwa Ibom State is gradually becoming a destination; at the time of creation, we did not have International Airport, we didn’t have an International Stadium, we didn’t have a Five Star Hotel but today we all have those features and these has attracted people from far and near. At the time, we didn’t have any flight leaving the state nor across borders but it’s a different story today. So, Akwa Ibom State in the last 28 years has made tremendous improvement in development efforts and we salute the determination of successive administrations and leaders who are always coming up with ideas and ideals that has propelled the state so far.

Do you think the state, to some extent, has been able to key in to the vision of its founding fathers?
It is a process; we have not reached the destination but then, between when the state was created to this point, we are itching close to the dream. Let me say a little about Akwa Ibom State: the Nigerian federation operated on the basis of region. We had the Northern region dominated by the Hausas and Fulanis, though we still had some natives within that political arrangement, and then, we had the Western region dominated largely by Yorubas and we had the Eastern region with the Igbos as a dominant tribe with minorities within the Oil belt of Rivers, Ibibio, Annang and the Ogojas.
Far back before Independence, our forbears, under the auspices of Ibibio State Union thought of the operation of the Nigerian state on the basis of federation not on the basis of region because we didn’t have expression. So, they saw the danger and then they made a suggestion that Nigeria should be operated on the basis of a federation not on the basis of region which would have kept powers in the hands of the dominate tribe. At that time, it was not considered; it was not seen as an idea that  could work but fortunately, when General Yakubu Gown came through a military coup in 1966/1967, he saw the need for a country to begin gradual embrace of federalism and then, created 12 states out of the regions that we had and so we were able to have South Eastern State; but then, it was not in line with the dreams of the Ibibio people at that time; they had wanted a state for themselves and eventually by the grace of God, that came to be in 1987, 60 years after they had propounded the dream for the creation of states to replace the regions. So, the first achievement was that we now had an umbrella we could call our own; an umbrella that we can rally together as one people; and you know as at that time, the Ibibio as an expression covered the Annangs, the Orons and all the minorities as segments within the geo political setting. We didn’t have any tribal connotations or segmentations; we saw ourselves as Ibibios and were contented with that expression.
So the state came to fulfil the desires of our forbears to have our own political expression within the Nigerian state; that was why it started with the appellation “Land of Promise.’’  Our forbears had considered that but we were wondering because at Enugu which was our regional headquarters and at Cross River State, Calabar which was the headquarters of then South Eastern State, so back to Akwa Ibom State with Uyo as the capital, it now became the land that we were promised and it went also with an understanding that every land of promise is a land that will yield fruits, resources and satisfy the needs of the people. Gradually, the appellation was made to include “Land of Promise and Fulfilment.’’ Subsequent regimes tried to say, let it not just be a promise but let it be a land of fulfilment. So, with all honesty, Akwa Ibom State today, is on the path of meeting both the aspirations of our forbears, both our aspirations and the aspirations of the generations yet unborn.

How would you rate Journalism profession in the State for the past 28 years?
Journalism in Akwa Ibom State, if I may expand, media communication processes in Akwa Ibom State, we have equally come a long way because you cannot take away the media contribution to the state of development that we have found ourselves or the achievements we have made, because development is driven by the amount and quality of information enjoyed by both the government and the governed. Consistently for the past 28 years, the media has always been there.
When the state started, the radio station was established; we already had the AM station at Abak, though it became moribund. When the FM station was established, one interesting feature of it was that, Government named it “the Voice of Promise.’’ Immediately the state also took off, less than one year, the Pioneer Newspaper was also inaugurated and it’s still alive and kicking. Then came the Ministry of Information Directorate which has consistently enjoyed strengthening by Information officers being posted to the respective local governments; presently, we have well above 150 Information Officers. These are also communication process to get sufficient information passed to the grassroots.
Aside the state government media infrastructure, we have the full presence of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and we also have the Federal Radio Corporation (FRCN) of Nigeria having its presence in the state through Atlantic FM. Fortunately also, we have a private radio station, the Planet FM; we also have the Uniuyo Fm, though a community oriented radio, we also have the Heritage in Eket, though community inclined too. Presently in the state, we are fortunate to have five operating electronic media; then, if you add the two community radio stations, Uniuyo FM and Heritage in Eket, we now have seven in number.
We are also complimented by three international television stations which are AIT, Channels and Silverbird. Newspaper-wise, we have the presence of over 40 correspondence newspapers and magazines being represented in Akwa Ibom State and then, the local papers. As at the last count, we are about 100 newspapers circulating. So, these are indices that the media industry has built up very strongly and to an extent, it shows vibrancy also that people are there to read; readership also accounts for the numbers of publications that we have; this shows that the readership level in Akwa Ibom State is commensurate with the number of both the newspapers or the media industry in the state, and it’s expanding.
Just recently, AIT performed a groundbreaking to fully establish a station in Akwa Ibom State and that station will also serve as a training school. The media industry in Akwa Ibom State between September 1987 to September 2015, has surely come a long way.

Would you say that the proliferation of newspapers in the state has added fillip to the progress made so far in the state?
As the Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, I refuse to see the increase in the number of local tabloids as not being complimentary. It’s the quality, the contents and the output that the problem lies because it also forms an outlet for employment. So, it’s not detrimental. But all that we are concerned with is the quality of the contents and their output. The more the citizens are informed, the more they will be carried along the programmes of government and the more they are carried along the programmes of government, the better for the society.
Any society that is not sufficiently mobilised towards government programmes and the activities of that environment does not enjoy the complete phase of democracy. The media plays a critical role in the success of democracy because it’s a two way thing. They say Government of the people, by the people and for the people. So, we don’t have all our citizens in the House of Assembly. We have limited number of persons in the House of Assembly, we have limited number of persons who are appointed as Commissioners, so the media now serves as an extended parliament for the people; and it will be difficult for one or two newspapers to do the job alone. There is nothing bad about the number of newspapers; the problem is on the contents. That’s why we emphasize ethical compliance; once the papers are well managed and they are ethically-compliant, there’s no problem and it’s better for our people and better for the state.

What do you make of insinuations that some papers are set up to attack certain people especially the leaders and in the process fail to comply with ethical standards; and what is NUJ as a body doing to check this menace?
It is seriously a concern to us because we are not happy that what we find on the newsstands fall short of the expectations in newspapering. But we are limited as a professional body in terms of regulating or taking actions against some of the papers because it is within the purview of the Corporate Affairs Commission to register any company including newspapers. Nigeria Union of Journalists and other stakeholders like the Guild of Editors, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Press Organisation and Nigeria press Council do not have direct bearing on the establishment of newspapers. Where we can muster our power is when persons present themselves for registration as journalists; this is where our professional power comes to play.
So, we have newspapers that are published, managed and owned by persons who are not journalists. And that’s why we are having most of the problems; but for those who have presented themselves as our members, we emphasise ethical compliance. And where it becomes necessary, we exert discipline. The Ethics and Disciplinary Committee is there; we always encourage members of the public to either seek remedy over a libellous publication in Court or through us and once we receive such complaint, it is investigated and confirmed then, we allow the law to take its course.
The fact that we do not contribute to the process of a company being registered to publish is the reason we came up with a Media Enhancement Bill. It’s been there in the national assembly and it’s yet to see the light of day.
It was clearly stated that key management positions like the Editor-in-Chief, the news Editor Etc has to be within a certain criteria including pay packages. But unfortunately, that Media Enhancement Bill is yet to sail through because some newspaper proprietors who are very influential saw it as a threat that once the Media Enhancement Bill is passed, they will no longer be paying peanuts or employing just anybody. So, that Bill would have given us the enabling power to protect the industry and determine those who are in the newspaper industry as professionals. The new leadership of the union at the national level has promised to take up the matter once again to see how we can galvanise our way and lobby members of the national assembly both the Senate and the House of Representatives to revisit that Bill because it will help to take a tide against the proliferation as you said.

How have we fared politically?
Politically, we have been able to come from the tale to the centre but not really wielding the type of power we should; but we have come a long way. There was a time that we could hardly hear a mention of persons from this part in the days past. Yes, we had the sheer luck of making many firsts. The first Nigerian Commissioned Officer, Wellington Bassey was from Akwa Ibom, the first Governor of the Central Bank, Clement Isong and many others. It is by sheer luck that we had all these firsts but politically in terms of holding prominent political posts within the federation was very lacking. But after the creation of the state, we started making our mark. We were privileged to produce ministers and the longest serving Secretary to the Government of the Federation.

We also had opportunity to produce a Chairman of the Governors Forum, first among equals in the 36 states under Obong Victor Attah. The immediate past Governor, Chief Godswill Akpabio made sizeable impact within the political landscape of Nigeria in dimension that surpassed some older states. So, politically we have made a mark but we are yet to get to the desired level. But one frightening trend is the lack of political cohesion within the ranks of our politicians. We have allowed political interest to clash with state interest. We are gradually dividing our ranks to the extent that it will affect our corporate interest within the Nigerian federation. I remember when we had the language problem during the time of strong agitation that interpretation in vernacular should not only be the Ibibio but it should also cover other dialects within the state.
That almost created a Tower of Babel scenario and I remember in one of the speeches, the then president, General Babangida when he came, said and I quote, “the business of state is conducted in a very fast pace, that if you allow the problem of dialectical differences to weigh you down, we will not catch up the trend at the centre.’’ Our people have unfortunately allowed the events and circumstances of the last governorship election in the state to take away their sense of pride and unity as a people of one state; that is the dangerous dimension and part of the media problem that we have today is a fall out from these positions. If you run down your state, you equally run down yourself. That is where we are not making sufficient progress.

Despite the progress we have made in journalism, it appears we have been neglected politically; why is it so?
Journalists are not sidelined rather they are the ones sidelining themselves. We didn’t have it this good that for the first time in the history of our state, we now have a deputy Governor who is a journalist. That is indicative that we are making a mark. It didn’t use to happen that journalists could grow in the Civil or Public Service cadre to become Permanent Secretaries but that has happened today. As at the last count, we have had about ten journalists being appointed as Permanent Secretaries.
The business of government requires maturity and a great deal of statesmanship. It is incumbent on us as journalists to show maturity within the political framework like now that we have issues of quackery. We have issues with Local Medias that sometimes their write up and publications clearly undermine the interest of the state and also becloud the performances of other newspapers. It blurs our contributions; it doesn’t allow the larger society to appreciate the fact that we have quality persons within the profession. Journalists have been doing well. I was a journalist and I had the rare privilege to be the Acting Liaison Officer of Akwa Ibom State in charge of Abuja; a very strategic position because government saw that I conducted myself well. It’s place usually reserved for those in the Civil Service or administrative officers.
It has to be with carriage and how we conduct ourselves as journalists. This has been my reason for championing ethical compliance. I have said it and it came to pass, regarding the choice of the deputy governor; a journalist will one day, in no distant future govern Akwa Ibom State. But it will not just come by wishful thinking, we have to sufficiently prepare ourselves but I foresee in no distant time, a journalist will govern Akwa Ibom State.

What is your advice to newspapers publishers in the state moving forward?
In some sectors, my campaign for ethical compliance is misunderstood as saying that we should compromise; am not talking about journalism of compromise. Ethical compliance does not mean journalism of compromise. It simply means being objective. Journalism centres on truth and public health. Every report should be geared towards giving accurate information because the society, the government and everybody depends on newsfeeds. What we hear on the radio, on the television contributes a great deal to what you know and what you believe. Our information content should be accurate and should take the interest of the larger society into focus.
The objectivity is very important. We often say that breaking news should not break the society. I’ve even gone a step further to say let every criticism simply be providing alternative opinion. If government comes with a policy, don’t just say that the policy is foolish, make a comparative analysis as to the policies that have been brought up, cite examples where it failed or make inputs towards the successful management or implementation of such a policy. Few days ago online, when government came up with this new philosophical disposition of “dakkada,’’ I read a comment online that it is a very foolish idea without even getting to know the philosophy behind dakkada. Why don’t you give it the benefit of doubt; make interviews and find out the meaning of dakkada, what is government intention in promoting such a philosophical view? You pick your pen and say it is a foolish endeavour. That is not how to be a good journalist. You are not a good journalist by insulting government and by clamping down on every government position. You are a good journalist when your intellectual disposition is superior to those in government.
So, we will always emphasise objectivity and balance which is the hallmark of the journalism profession. It is a very important profession and as far as am concerned, it is the number one and most important profession. You can imagine how the society will fare from morning till night without the radio, no newspaper and nothing to watch, then, the world has come to an end. So, the newsfeeds that come from the newspaper, from the television and the radio keeps the society going.  The practitioners are as important as the air we breathe. This is why members of the profession must know that they have a sacred duty to play and to be as objective as possible.

For the past two years and counting, you have been the Chairman of NUJ, Akwa Ibom State, what have been your achievements so far?
Lawyers always have a saying that once you find a good case, the case speaks for itself. With a sense of humility, when I was tasked and invited by some of our colleagues to offer myself for the leadership of the union, I came here walked around, made some interviews with some staff that I met on ground and I realised that the land is not limited to this current one storey building that we have; the land stretches far inside. I came here a couple of times with some architects and started planning with the mindset that if by the grace of God I win the election, these are what I would want to do. I remember one of the architects asked me, “do you know how much come to the union by way of monthly or yearly subvention?’’ I said no that we operate on goodwill.  The other thing is dues. He asked about the volume of the dues and when I made enquiries, they said it’s nothing to write home about.  I said there is no problem.
I told them that we should continue with the dream that I have. I started saying that once I win the election, we will clear the land and determine our ownership of the land and then, come up with a fresh secretariat building storey office complex, 1000 capacity auditorium and a guests house, so by the grace of God, all the plans we had, and we still have have been running successfully. We started improving the facilities here, the air conditioners, established the ICT Centre to offer free services to our members, a mini conference room, change the chairs that we used to have and make this place reasonably comfortable. We cleared the land and by the grace of God, Government saw that we were becoming serious with ourselves and then released money to us which we have used so far to commence the two storey office complex and a club house and by the grace of God before December, we would have gone far.
The two storey office complex will be roofed latest ending of October or middle of November because it requires observing the mandatory construction period in decking and certain infrastructure. So, everything being equal, that building will be up to 85 percent ready for use before the end of the year if not 100 and we will immediately start the 28 bedroom guest house. We have done the fencing within two years, the guest house and mini club house. We acquired two giant generators 60KVA and 150KVA against 6KVA we met on ground that was not even enough to power facilities within my office not to talk of the entire building. But we now have lightings around the compound. Before now, there was not an NUJ event that one could stay into the night. It was not possible because if you stay up to that time, some reptiles will come out from the forest s. Then, we used to kill snakes within the one storey office complex but today, we are in a complete new environment.
In terms of welfare, we have empowered our members, about 175 with Laptops, we have had series of workshops and exposure of our members to training within and outside the state and we intend to double it. When I took off, I looked at the attendance records in terms of congresses and I saw very low participation of members and we had to introduce an information designation approach that made all members to be aware of any event here. We introduced the bulk SMS that delivered message automatically to all members in all events; so the lowest number of attendance of our congress has been 116 but we have been having above 200, the highest in the country. The highest attendance in terms of congresses is in Akwa Ibom State and we also have a functional website.
With respect to our national headquarters, we have a functional website including Facebook account, it’s only recently that Lagos state, after they came here and saw that we have a functional Facebook account and a functional website, they went and established their Facebook account. So, that is how we are driving the union; we intend to fully actualise our relevance because the media is being seen as the Fourth Estate of the realm. This simply means that within the structure of government, we have the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the fourth is the media; so my vision is to give the media in the state its deserved place and due relevance because we cannot be wished away. We have to organise ourselves in a manner that the society will respect us and take us more seriously and our contributions will be valued in greater dimension.
This is the path we are toeing and we believe that God will help us to achieve all these. When I came in to NUJ, I did not even meet a branded file. I did not see any branded envelope but all those things are now history. We have come a long way from where we are now.

What have been your challenges along the line?
Well, you know the greatest aspect of leadership is taking people from a point they know to a place they don’t know but when they arrive, they are happy for it. The challenges I have is the past, today and tomorrow in terms of attitudinal behaviour, trying to say this is what we used to do, this is what I believe we should do towards tomorrow and also, the general challenge is finance. We have the challenge of having money to finance our programmes, but that is not our main challenge. I don’t see that as a major drawback but I see attitudinal orientation within members. That is a much more challenge not the finance. Even government is also challenged financially but it is the level of our attitude to the practice and how to move forward that is a challenge.
If I was not sufficiently prepared and guided with a visionary package, the NUJ won’t be what it is today because when I sit in council and I sit with some persons, I realise that most of the things I say seems strange and abstract that it’s not going to be realised but today, they are being realised. But I believe that from the time I was speaking from the abstract to now that they are proofs, more and more people are beginning to appreciate that of a truth, NUJ can be made to be different. That is my thrust and that is what I pray every day for God to help me.

What should members expect from you in your last year as Chairman? 
Every day of my stewardship here is like I am beginning anew because that is how to drive the union. If you have a copy of my manifesto, I go through it as regularly as possible; have I done what I said here? To what extent have I done? Are my understood? But on the average, I know that we have gone very far. So every day of the remaining eleven months as far as my present tenure is concerned will be pursued vigorously in actualising my dream and vision to ensure that NUJ can never be the same again. When you asked about challenges, maybe I have to add this, one of the greatest challenges I had was to remove the ancestral shrine that we had within the premises of the NUJ.
That shrine had existed for over 200 years; it was largely used for Ekpo masquerade for a lot of rituals and so forth. Some persons who died in neither mysterious circumstances nor questionable deaths were usually buried here, so that was the nature of the land that we had our secretariat. But to God be the glory, as someone with deep spiritual insight, I had to set up a choir immediately I came on board because that was an altar so I had to provide an alternative altar because there cannot be two altars. I set up an NUJ choir and a Chaplaincy. We conducted the first solemn assembly and soon, I established a tabernacle and an altar and that gave me the impetus and courage to start fighting the other altar to go away, and we have achieved that. Even now, some members don’t even realise where we are but we are pursuing a paradise for the union.

Akwa Ibom at 28, how does it make you feel personally?
I feel great, I feel fulfilled that within the Nigerian expression, I can walk tall and introduce myself as an Akwa Ibomite. I feel happy to have had forebears who dreamt ahead of other segments of the Nigerian polity. The word state was introduced to the political lexicon of Nigeria by our forebears. It was not all the conferences within and outside was such a word captured, it was our forebears who introduced the word state into the political lexicon.
I feel proud that their dream for Akwa Ibom is maturing, our people are keying in daily. I feel fulfilled, yes we have grey areas but t is a process; development is not a one day thing, it is a process and day by day, we are making this development. That’s my concern that our political class should pursue the policy of all inclusiveness and pursue their politics on pan Akwa Ibom rather than segmenting that am from Oro, Ibibio, Annang etc. that is why am happy that Governor Udom Emanuel has all-inclusiveness in his five point agenda in both political and in empowerment. It is very important. There should be no boundaries between us. If you are an Ibibio man, an Oro man, you are an Annang man, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that we are people of the same stock, people from the same geopolitical expression.

As your parting shot, what is your message to the people of Akwa Ibom State and members of the NUJ?
My message to the state is that we should sustain the dream and make Akwa Ibom State truly the land of promise and fulfilment. It cost our forbears deprivations and sacrifices in terms of foregoing their enjoyments as that time to factor the process of agitation for a state that will give us identity and the management of our resources; we should hold Akwa Ibom State dearly.
For journalists in the state, they should not be bystanders to the development of the state. They have to participate to benefit maximally. We don’t have foreigners managing Akwa Ibom State. people managing the state are also our brothers and sisters, so we should not be throwing stones rather we should count ourselves as participants in the development process that we can also help to develop the state to our own desirable standard. And this can only be done through objective reportage, balanced reportage and journalism based on truth and not journalism of blackmail.

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