October 23 and 24, 2020 are two days the people of Cross River State will never forget in a hurry. It was looting galore as over100 government and private property were looted, vandalised and in some cases touched. Unconfirmed sources said over 20 lives were lost in the two days of evil and madness. The house of the former Leader of the 7th Senate, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN) who represented Cross River Central Senatorial, that of Senator Gershom Bassey, his late father’s own and judiciary property were not spared. At Ndoma-Egba’s house, three cars worth over N66 million, were burnt completely while the massive duplex was vandalised and stripped to the floor.
Ndoma-Egba had said, “at about 2 pm the intruders broke into my house and looted it to the ground leaving only the bare floor. All the toilets, baths, pumps and indeed every imaginable fitting were removed as were items of furniture, clothing, a huge collection of mainly rare, out of print books, documents and historic photographs. They also removed all the windows, railings, family pictures and burglary proofs. Even my private chapel was not spared. They set the cars ablaze and parts of the building after more than four hours of interrupted operations in my house. It was methodical. Among the intruders were obviously electricians, plumbers, carpenters, motor mechanics, panel beaters and other tradesmen. Mercifully, no life was lost. I started building the house in 1991 and moved in in January, 2009.
“If the attack is meant to deter me from speaking out on issues of principle or dampen my spirit in way, I have bad news. It will rather spur me further to speak on justice, rectitude and accountability, especially, in the public space. I had committed myself to the service of the public and so shall it be”.
“While not prejudging, and without prejudice to the work of the security agencies”, the Akparabong born lawyer who is a staunch Catholic , noted, “I have forgiven the intruders ,and pray fervently for them to find meaning , inner peace ,and fulfilment in their lives. I only plead that they return my late father’s judges robes which they certainly would not be needing for anything and is surely incriminating”.
Thus when a team of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and other lawyers from Cross River and Akwa Ibom States paid a sympathy visit to their colleague’s house last weekend, leader of the delegation, Barr Paul Erokoro wept freely at the site of the vandalisation orgy as other lawyers who included Tawo Tawo (SAN), Essien Andrew (SAN), Mba Ukweni (SAN) and others dropped their heads in disbelief struggling to hold back tears. “This is a clear case of man’s inhumanity to man”, screamed the former Cross River State Head of Service, Barr Rosemary Obanya. After a sad tour of the wrecked property, Erokoro spoke touching on a variety of issues. Excerpt:
What is your reaction to this kind of destruction?
First of all I will like to say that those that are here, is a small number amongst the Nigerian lawyers that arrives here.
I can tell you that seeing this damage in social media and television has a touch of detachment to it, you don’t really get the impact but coming here and seeing it. This is a horrific sight, I can tell you, we have no doubt that if our colleague would have been in with his family, they probably won’t be alive today. It’s hard to believe that this was a random attack. The methodical way in which the damage was inflicted, room to room, item by item and then the wanton destructions. There is strong suggestion of malice and hatred because its hard not to think that this was a planned attack and they took advantage of the situation in the country and perpetrated it.
We all have houses in Calabar, we all live here. Victor Ndoma lived here in this estate and bought his first plot of land in 1981, Victor started his first house here in 1981, so those who think this is the money that he made from government, NO. We were in our second year in private legal practice when we bought land here and Victor built. This particular one he started it in 1991, years before it could ever occur to him that he will be a senator one day.
What would you say of other individuals and government property destroyed?
When we leave here, we shall inspect other infrastructure that are connected with judgement delivery, our court and then other government offices. Obviously it was not only this houses that was attacked, Senator Gershom Bassey’s house is not far from here, they also ransacked and looted his father’s house, the pride of white house. House that was built long before any of us could have thought of being an adult, that house was our pride, they went there and burnt it. Why would you burn the house which would have been a thing of heritage? I can understand the hunger in the land, we are witnesses and we recognize that they have never seen as so much hardship in this land as it is today. I am sure it was a shock to government when people started #ENDSARS and the thing degenerated to looting of warehouses where food were stored and so on and so fourth, so we understand that there’s hunger and like they say “a hungry man is an angry man”.
What do you think the Federal and state governments should do in view of all these colossal damage?
The first thing the government should do is to accept that white elephant projects have never developed the country. What we want from government is actual governance and that is not hard. Actual governance requires simply a sincere approach to taking care of the welfare and the security of the people and its very easy if their salaries are to be paid, fill the potholes in the streets, if water is not running, give them running water, make sure that pensions are paid, there should be no escapism.
Government projects should be focused on reality, that is where we want to congratulate the government of Cross River state for the industries they’ve built. We want to congratulate them for the super highway they are building, the deep seaport whether they have finished or not we appeal to this government, hold on, leave those projects for now, they have gone far enough. We are happy that the government of this state in its budget some days ago has told the whole world that its devoting 69% of the budget to youth empowerment and creation of jobs, we thank His Excellency the Governor for that very bold step but we are interested on how it would be implemented.
We suggest to the Government of the state because I overheard him say expanding government, NO, don’t expand the government because the government is already too large, contract government. All over the world, jobs are created not by employment of workers into public service but by putting in place an enabling environment for the private sector to create jobs, its the private sector that employs, government must always be seen.
We have here a situation in our state where perhaps government policies are ironically putting poverty, some of the policies I take the issue of taxation for instance , Cross River state ranks very high in the nation in internally generated revenue. Everybody knows that we are a poor state, a civil service state, so how are we able to generate so much tax, obviously by probably over tax. Most of the Quarries are scaled down because the taxation is too much and a lots of businesses have closed down because the people are overburdened by too much taxation. We thank the government for waving taxation for the poorest people in the society but you must also cut taxes for businesses so that they can expand and employ people. Government already receives statutory allocation, why do they need to tax the people so much.
Second policy is that the local governments are not functioning. If the local government are allowed to function as a tier of government, they would create employment opportunity, they will create economic activities. Every months they just pay salaries and that is it. I went to a primary school built by a local government in this state, that primary school with the same infrastructure trained the technical college, the college of education, today it houses the campus of University of Cross River State, it was built by Ogoja council. So the local government councils should be encouraged to work, they should build schools, they should do water works, they should do roads. The local government should function as pure government. If you go abroad, you hear of councils flags, much of the houses in those communities are done by the councils, so let our councils work.
Then what is our main resource in the state, the main resource we have in Cross River is land, yes land. Our government must understand that making land easily available for people is economic empowerment. Set aside two Saturdays to sign certificate of occupancy. I should be able to come to Cross River state and say I want land without going to any community and it should be possible to collect my certificate of occupancy in no time. In Cross River, the government should put up a law where certificate of occupancy would be collected in 5 days and the world Bank will immediately put 200 million dollar into that state.
We in the legal profession believe that somehow the government have waged war against our profession. Lawyers in the Ministry of Justice are not paid, so many were sacked recently, more than thirty. There is a magistrate who have not been paid for two years and they are working. The last batch of Judges that were employed, have not been given cars. These are things I am sure that the government can easily address. There is so much that can be done, if you do not deal with the effect of the law enforcement agencies, look at the consequences.
It is said that people came from outside to do the attack, what’s your take on this?
It is a thing of shame that the narrative out in street is that people came in from other states to invade us, how can that happen? There must be a security architecture that is supposed to safeguard and prevent that kind of thing. We have security vote which is meant for collection of intelligence for untold things like this. Those people operated in this house alone for four hours and from one house to another and non of the security agency could come and intervene, clearly there’s something wrong. From what we gathered, the information about this attack was known about 24 hours before it actually happened. So, we are calling on the state government to please do all that it can to find out and tell us how and why all of this destructions happened.
I am happy to hear that commission of enquiry is set up but if the people are not encouraged to come out and speak frankly, then nothing will be uncovered. There is a climate of fear pervading the state. I just confirm from the Obong of calabar today that he has been threatened. If paramount rulers are afraid, then what about the rest of us. Maybe after granting this interview, I will receive threat too, and that should not be. Who ever is frightening our people, the government should step in and protect us, this is the primary responsibility of government and we hope that in the next few weeks the government will have enough material for the governor to address the state and tell us who is behind this, because we need to know otherwise we will be scared of living here.
Will there be compensation?
The state and federal governments must compensate those who suffered this damage because the primary responsibility of government is to protect lives and property. If under his watch whether it was the state government fault or not, but if the government does not speak clearly it gives room for this conspiracy theories, so that is why the government must speak. Tell us who did it and tell us quickly and encourage people, fund that commission of enquiry, protect the witnesses that will be going there even if there are going to give evidence without being seen by the public, camera or whatever but let the government be seen to be genuinely interested in finding out the truth and that will encourage people to speak up. Government should pay compensation, Senator Victor Ndoma Egba may not need the compensation not because he has the money to restore his house but if he has received this kind of discouragement from investing in his state then why should he come back. Most people have run away to Abuja, Lagos etc, so those who actually invest their money in their state should not be single out for victimization, they should be encouraged. Its clearly a failure of government, there is no way you can sugar-coat it.
The police have made a number of arrest, a number of people have returned properties, by now the police must have taken statement from so many people. they must know from those statement if any of them was motivated by outside consideration or whether it was spontaneous. From those statements you will be able to have a trace to write up to where this arrangement came from. If there is sincerity in the investigation, the truth will be coming out. So I don’t know what method the government will use, all we are saying is that the government owe the people the duty to tell us how and why this happened, so that we know whether we will live peacefully in this state or whether we should move out. Many people are running to Libya and the rest, maybe we should go there because home is no longer safe for us then why do we call it home.
There is a narrative out there in streets that people from Akwa Ibom came and did this thing. Well, first of all I will like to say that we are all elders at the Bar as you see here, some of us here are from Cross River, some of us are from Akwa Ibom state while some are from other states. We live in other states too, Cross River state has no enemy, we have neighbours. If few people came in from other states to commit any crime, arrest them just like you do to criminals and prosecute them. But this narrative that people came from here and there creates unnecessary tension and danger. Akwa Ibom people are not our enemy. So far as I know, many of these houses you see here are owned by Akwa Ibom people, up to one third of the population of this state is made up of Akwa Ibom people, from here right up to Akamkpa, Biase, Ikom and the rest. So the idea of trying to dehumanized our neighbours, we don’t accept it and that does mean that it is not true that criminals must not have come from Akwa Ibom to do this, all we are saying is this, if they did, arrest them and treat them as criminals and not because Akwa Ibom is our enemy, there is no such thing.
The state for a year now has no substantive Chief Judge, what is your take?
We said earlier that we feel that this government is waging war against our profession, the process of appointing a new chief judge is very simple, to appoint the most senior judge. The governor sent the name of the most senior judge, Honorable Justice Akon Ikpeme to state House of Assembly and the State House of Assembly refused to endorse her appointment and because of that we have been on the position of acting chief judge.
Akon Ikpeme acted for three months, Maurice Eneji acted for six months and now we have another. We cannot allow this to continue because there is too much uncertainty and its creating difficulty in the development of the judiciary. Cases are not being properly assigned and are we expecting that we will run through the list of judges in Cross River state so that everybody will act?
The State House of Assembly has refused to endorse the most senior judge, let it be noted that this will be the only issue as far as I know the State House of Assembly is disagreeing with the Governor. Every state in Nigeria, the State House of Assembly works with the governor, there is no governor that has conducted local government election and lost a councillor seat to another political party, they are able to have their way. So in this particular case the governor did not get his way, some suspect that the governor did not really want the lady to be, we have no evidence of that, some say that the State House of Assembly was concerned about security issue but the point to be made is this, how so ever it comes about, we want a substantive chief judge in the state and all those who are involved including the National Judicial Council (NJC) should understand that this impasse has gone out for too long.
If the NJC cares it should report the State Assembly to the presidency, let political pressure be brought to bare on the State Assembly to do the right thing. If on the other hand, there is actually a genuine reason the NJC should come out and tell us, they shouldn’t just be quite. We want clarity and certainty in this matter, that is what we are asking. NJC is not saying anything, why can’t they ask concrete questions? If the NJC is convinced with the reasons given by the State House of Assembly, they should say so.