02 March 2014, Lagos – Attaining the age of 60 is a milestone and a proper time for stock taking. At 60, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma says he feels he still has the energy of a 40-year-old man. He is also at peace with himself having had the opportunity to give back to the society. He was instrumental to the passage of the Onshore/ofshore bill that has helped to channel more resources to the Niger Delta and in particular, Akwa Ibom State where he hails from. Born on February 26, 1954, into the family of Sir Egbert Udo Udoma – a justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court and Chief Justice of Uganda between 1963 and 1969 – Udoma within this past 60 years has recorded a basket full of achievements in legal practice, politics and business.
He is a former Law Lecturer at the University of Lagos and member of Nigerian Government team to implement the LNG project in joint venture with three international oil companies. He also had the privilege of serving as the first Chairman of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and chairman of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In politics, he was elected into the the National Assembly in 1999 and was Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriation between 2001 and 2003. He also served as Chief Whip of the Senate between 2004 and 2007. In an interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, he speaks on his growing up days, his legislative experience and perception of politics, among other issues
You are marking your 60th birthday, how does it feel to be 60?
When I was much younger in my 20s, I used to think that 60 was ancient and that when you are 60 you are an old man. Now that I am 60, I still feel young. I have the same energy level I used to have, I have the same passion for life and everything. So, somehow, it hasn’t… May be as my son said to me that 60 is the new 20. But I thank God for good health, I feel undiminished, I still play tennis regularly. In fact, I am almost as good as I was when I was in my 40s. Although, I play with someone who knows I shouldn’t be defeated if he wants to get his proper tips.
You are from a renowned family. Being the son of Sir Egbert Udo Udoma, what was growing up like for you?
My father was quite strict, but at the same time liberal. Strict interms of morality but liberal in terms of career. He felt we should do whatever we like, whatever we aspire to be. He encouraged us to be ourselves, not necessarily trying to copy him, he wanted us to do whatever we are happy doing. But interms of morality, he brought us up with very high moral values. And also a commitment to public service. He always felt anything you did in life, you needed to give something back to the society. That was how we were brought up and I have tried to maintain these values.
What aspect of his life shaped your life interms of perception of politics, governance and career choice?
Many aspects. One, my father believed that you don’t go into politics to make money. You go into politics to serve and you spend your own money. He was also in politics in the ‘50s and he spent his money. He was into active legal practice. He felt that a man should have a profession and it is the profession that should feed you, not public service. So, you should be independent and I have always felt that and I have lived according to that. When I went into politics myself, I went in, I kept my practice and I went back to my practice, and I saved enough money to sustain me through the period. And when I ran out of money, I went back to my practice.
When you came into the National Assembly in 1999, you were among the few politicians that the young people looked up to because you were in your 40s and with unblemished record. But since you left National Assembly not much has been heard of you in politics. Was it a deliberate policy or what?
Well, basically, I went into the Senate not as a career. I went as a commitment to public service. So, I had a time frame. Initially, I wanted to do four years but because there was a bill that I had gotten through – the abolition of onshore/offshore dichotomy – which was critical to my state and my people, and I chaired that, coordinated the efforts and got it through the National Assembly. But the President at the time refused to sign the bill. So, it was an unfinished business. I felt that I had to go back and finish the business. So, when I went back into the Senate, I continued to discuss with the then President. We managed to get a compromise to get it through. So, I took the bill again through the National Assembly. It was one of the fastest bills. I took it through in about two weeks. It’s a record – two, three weeks, the bill was through and the President now signed. So that my state became one of the top two or three in terms of revenue allocation. After I finished that, I said my job’s done. And then I did one or two more things. I led the National Assembly campaign for debt relief. We travelled round the world to speak to our creditors. I led that campaign and I worked closely with the then President Olusegun Obasanjo as well as the then Minister of Finance, who is back again as minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. And that also succeeded.
And a few other things. The issue of third term, I took a position. That position, which I was, at that time, the only member of the National Assembly leadership that came out categorically against third term, which was a bit of a risk. But luckily, in the end, that became the prevalent position and so we succeeded in ensuring that the attempt to amend the constitution to accommodate third term didn’t succeed. So, I did a few things and having done alot of those few things, I felt that I have made my contributions and I should go back to my law practice, which was what happened.
I followed the heated debate that trailed the onshore/offshore bill. There was opposition from the North and even from some states in the South-south which felt they could be short-changed. You said the bill was passed in a record time of about three weeks. What kind of compromise was reached to ensure the passage of that bill?
Basically, as the chairman of the committee, I engaged my colleagues who were very understanding about the suffering of the Niger Delta. Many of them went there themselves and saw the suffering of the Niger Delta. So, this was something which was done by them in sympathy to the suffering that they saw. A place that was producing the resources keeping the economy going and yet it was marginalised. So, we engaged them, discussed with them and it was as a result of that that they were persuaded and I thank all of them. There was overwhlming support from the North, support from the West, support from the East, support from everywhere. Indeed, in my first term, I managed to get senators from each of the six zones to co-sponsor the bill. So, it was an amazing feat and that goes to show you that as a people, Nigerians are very understanding. Once you discuss with them and explain the situation, Nigerians have a lot of support for the unity of this country and I cannot thank them enough for the support that they gave.
Looking at the enormous revenue the onshore/offshore bill has brought to that region, particularly your state, Akwa Ibom, and the level of development, would you say that your intentions have been realised?
You know, progress does not happen overnight but you can see a trend in terms of what those resources have resulted in. If you visit Akwa Ibom today, you will see new roads, new bridges, new infrastructure, these are the products of that fight. But it takes time but over time I can assure you that if those states get this kind of revenue consistently over a period of time you will see those changes, even in a more dramatic way.
Would you agree with the view, particularly in the North, that the volume of resources going into the South-south is so enormous and has become unfair to other zones of the country, especially the Northeast where you have the highest level of poverty, highest rate of illiteracy and highest rate of child and maternal mortality?
Well, my own feeling is this and I tried to push that through even when I was involved in PIB. I believe that we have resources in every part of this country and the thing is to try and look for and develop those resources. In the North, I believe that there are resources. I even believe that there is probably crude oil in the North as well, because if you look at the natural belt that goes to chad and all that there is crude oil there. I believe that we would find (crude oil). What we need to do is put more efforts and time in developing those resources. Not just the natural resources, the people too – education, health. That is the key. I believe that every part of this country has resources and the thing is to find how we can develop those resources to maximal effect.
Your birthday is coming at a time when Nigeria is marking 100 years of amalgamation. Looking at the nation, would you say we have achieved what we should have achieved as a country?
Well, you know that nation-building takes time. The fact that we are talking about 100 years ago, you can’t really count it from hundred years. You cannot count it from 100 years. Within those 100 years, we were not even an independent nation. Even for the bulk of the independent period, we didn’t even have elected government in place. So, people need to see that this thing takes time. I believe that the maximal energy of a people can best be tapped when you have representative government. So, democracy is necessary and that democracy we have in Nigeria is still being improved upon. We are still not there yet there. So, all those institutions that we need to build a nation, we are just building them now. We are testing them and building those institutions. But I am happy that the amalgamation took place. In fact, I would have been happy if the whole of West Africa was one country. I would even have preferred it if the whole of Africa was one country. If the whole of Africa was one country, now we would be next to China. We would be the next place where you expect masive development. Therefore, I am not one of those who regret the size of Nigeria. It is the size of Nigeria that actually has made it such an important country and I wish we were even bigger.
It is 100 years of amalgamation, but we are still talking about how to live together, about how to share resources, the basic things. Is that the stage we should be now and when do you think we will get over this?
I don’t think any nation will ever get over this. Dialogue, development are necessary in the human condition. You cannot have stagnation. You have to have constant improvement and inprovement includes sitting down and negotiating. That is how nations improve. Even now, the United Kingdom that we talk about, they are still talking about Wales, about Scotland. So, there is nothing wrong with what we are doing. The important thing is that we are trying to see where things have gone wrong, we improve them, where things are going right, we continue to build on them. There is nothing wrong with talking and it is not an addmission of any failure at all. To move forward, you need to constantly improve your arrangement to improve upon them, to strengthen them, to build and continue to build the nation.
Concerning the centenary celebration, there are views that we don’t really have much to celebrate considering the killings in the North and our level of development. Do we really have cause to celebrate?
You see, it is just like a birthday. It is an important moment for stock-taking. You mark it in order to say, where are you? What have you done wrong? What can you improve upon? It is just a moment of stock taking and reflection, that is how I see the centenary celebration.
Let’s go back to your period at the National Assembly. The first crop of legislators in 1999 faced a major controversy – furniture allowance. People wondered why such amount should be given to their representatives to buy furniture. But now we have millions being given to the current lawmakers as quarterly allowance. Are there moments when you sit back and wonder why such huge funds should be gulped by lawmakers?
I think that, as I said before, there is nothing that is sacrosant. You make mistakes, you correct them, you discuss, you review. I believe that it doesn’t matter what it is, we will constantly review these things. So, you constantly review. If for instance, it is not enough for capital and there is too much for recurrent, you look at the total recurrent. But you don’t look only at the National Assembly, you look at the total recurrent and try and make a policy that is consistent. I believe that a review of our overall recurrent expenditure ought to be done but you shouldn’t single out any particular one. Review the totality of the overall recurrent expenditure and come out with policies that are across the board.
There is still a debate over the role of the National Assembly in the budgetting process and oversight functions. From experience, what do you think is the role of the legislature in these areas?
You see, this tension between the executive and the legislature is good for Nigeria. The minute that tension stops, then you know that either the executive or the legislature is not doing its work properly. So that tension is necessary to keep the system going. There has to be checks and and balances, and how you see the checks working is that there is tension. So, the executive will have their own interpretation, the National Assembly will have their own interpretation. Overtime, things will work themselves out. But that tension between the executive and the legislature is key as in check and balance and the nation benefits from it.
When you were in the National Assembly, one of the defining moments, looking at the committees you headed while in the National Assembly, like the appropriation committee, would you say that the fact that we are not getting things right interm of development has to do with the budgetting process?
You see, budgeting is a challenge. In my time it was a challenge and apparently from what I can see, it is still a challenge. The key to getting the budget right is early engagement. The executive and the National Assembly must have very early engagement, long before the budget cycle starts so that you can identify key projects. So that by the time the budget finally reaches the national Assembly, they are not far apart. Now, part of the things we are working on, when I was there, was trying to get a medium term plan that we will all buy into, and I believe that we are gradually moving in that direction – getting a medium-term plan that we will all buy into. But those budget challenges in a presidential system of government is inevitable. In the US, there was an occassion when they virtually had to lock down government because of the problem between the executive and Congress. But the way to reduce the friction and to get a more rational budgetting system is to have a very early engagement.
But that what is missing now?
I think it is not early enough in my view, but it is improving. So that National Assembly members who are representive their people they can have an input in what the executive brings. When you are out on the field you know many of the problems . You cannot leave it to the civil servant to determine what is in the budget. People who are politically accountable have to have a major role in what is in the budget because they go out and make campaign promises. They have to improve mechanisms of capturing those interests, those preferences, those things that would reflect what Nigerians want and capturing it in the budget.
After your exit from the National Assembly, you became a key player in the private sector as chairman of the governing board of SEC. It was a smooth transition from the parliament to the private sector…
I have always felt I should give something back to the public service and I have had the luck of having been called upon to chair two commissions that have major impact on business. The first was the Corporate Affairs Commission. I was the first chairman of Corporate Affairs Commission. It was a major assignment because it was just starting and so I recruited all the staff, including the registrar-general, got office premise premises etc.
– This Day