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Civil war stopped me from becoming a priest –Victor Ndoma-Egba

Civil war stopped me from becoming a priest –Victor Ndoma-Egba

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Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN) is the Chairman of the Governing Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission. He is also a former Senator and accomplished legal practitioner. He tells TOFARATI IGE and JOY MARCUS about his career and other issues

As the Chairman of the Governing Board of  the Niger Delta Development Commission, what are your primary responsibilities?

I chair the Governing Board of the NDDC. Under Section 8 of the NDDC Act, the Board has the power to manage and supervise the affairs of the commission; make rules and regulations for carrying out the functions of the commission; enter and inspect premises, projects and such places as may be necessary for the purpose of carrying out its functions; pay staff of the commission such remuneration and allowances as appropriate; enter into such contracts as may be expedient for the discharge of its functions and ensure the efficient performance of the functions of the commission. Clearly, the Board is the heart and soul of the commission as it drives, in terms of policy and projects, the direction of the commission.

In what ways have you been able to change the status quo at NDDC from what you met on the ground?

There are many issues besetting the commission, ranging from policy through governance issues; issues that affect efficiency, accountability and the public perception of the commission. We are approaching these issues both structurally and strategically; that is why we introduced the four ‘Rs’.

In what specific ways has the NDDC been able to impact on the lives of people of the Niger Delta under your watch?

We carry out water projects, roads, buildings, erosion control, desilting of waterways, shoreline reclamation, among other things. These projects certainly impact on people as do our various programmes, including the scholarship scheme which is enhancing our manpower in strategic areas.

How would you describe your relationship with Niger Delta state governments?

It is cordial. I have officially visited all but one of them and my message to the governors of the member states is simple: we are partners with states, not competitors.

Some people have accused the NDDC of carrying out substandard projects. What’s your reaction to that?

We recognise that a number of our projects are of very poor quality. Recently, our executive management engaged our contractors on the issues of quality assurance and standards with a view to agreeing on minimum standards for our projects. It is my firm belief that there should be an NDDC standard which should denote the highest possible standard.

What are some of your major challenges as the Chairman of NDDC?

Our major challenge is reforming the commission to secure efficiency and accountability and returning its focus to the original intention and mandate of creating an integrated regional economy for the Niger Delta region. Funding has been a major issue but fortunately, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has been most sympathetic and responsive to our situation. For once, there is a reconciliation to determine the shortfalls between us and the Federal Government. We are hopeful that at the end of the day, there will be improvement in our funding and consequently greater delivery on our mandate.

We are also revisiting the issue of the master plan for a coordinated development of the region. The original master plan was abandoned almost as soon as it was launched.

You once said your mind is now at rest after dumping the PDP for the APC. What exactly did you mean by that?

The PDP is in my past. I have since moved on. Wait for my memoirs to get the story. I am now focused on the present and the future.

Considering that the PDP is the dominant party in the South; don’t you feel alienated in the APC?

I am not alienated. I am actually excited at the challenges of getting the APC accepted in the South-South.

What can you recall of your time as the Commissioner for Works and Transport in Cross River State?

It was a long time ago. I was barely 27 years old. We had only 19 states in the country then and Akwa Ibom and Cross River were still one state. There were only seven commissioners in each state, though it was later increased to nine. There were no special advisers or special assistants. As commissioner, you were entitled to only a personal assistant, who was picked from among civil servants and you had only one official car. The public service was still efficient and transparent and we delivered a large number of completed projects. I prepared the first inventory of state roads; I revised the tenders rules and regulations, what is now popularly known as due process, but most importantly, through my performance and carriage which were widely acknowledged, I opened the doors, in all modesty, to public service for youths in the old Cross River State at least. I was the youngest commissioner in the country at the time and Senator Bukar Abba Ibrahim was my contemporary.

What can you recall of your time as the Chairman of the Calabar branch of the Nigerian Bar Association?

That too is a long time ago but I recall that it was during my time as chairman of the Calabar branch of the NBA that we obtained the concession for the NBA to make inputs into the appointment of judges of the State High Courts. The current Chief Judge of Cross River State, Justice Michael Edem, was the first beneficiary of that initiative. He was my vice chairman. I also recall that my colleagues’ wouldn’t let me go as chairman; I had to serve an unprecedented three terms

What were the highlights of your time as the president of the Calabar Chamber of Commerce?

I also served an unprecedented three terms as president of the Calabar Chamber of Commerce. It was during my time that the organised private sector started making inputs into the state’s budgetary process and we officially became partners with the state government, sharing thoughts and perspectives on governance. I do not know if that relationship still subsists.

What were the highlights of your time as a Senator?

I was in the Senate for three terms. In my first term, I was the pioneer chairman of the then-newly created Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs. In my second term, I was Deputy Leader of the Senate and Leader of Nigeria’s delegation to the Association of Senates, Shooras and Equivalent Councils in Africa and the Arab World(ASSECAA) then based in Yemen but now based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, because of the crisis in Yemen. In my third term, I became Senate Leader and Leader of Nigeria’s delegation to the Pan African Parliament in Midrand, South Africa. I also had the rare privilege of being appointed by (ex) President Goodluck Jonathan as special Envoy on the election of Rt. Hon Bethel Amadi of Nigeria as President of the Pan African Parliament, the first Nigerian to be so elected. I went round to lobby Heads of State of member states on the President’s behalf. I was also the president of the first-ever Africa Legislative Summit, which held in Abuja in November 2013 and had in attendance 57 Heads of Parliaments in Africa and the Afro-Caribbean Region.

I introduced 38 bills, including the Freedom of Information Bill, which is now an Act of Parliament, while in the Senate. I introduced motions, including the one that brought to the fore the plight of Nigerian sailors held hostage by Somali pirates off the treacherous pirates-infested coast of Somalia.

Significantly, I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2004 while in my first term in the Senate and remarkably, the first-ever to be appointed outside legal practice or academics, and while in the National Assembly. For 12 years, I was alone in my category.

As Senate Leader, what was the toughest part of your job?

The toughest part of my job was always creating the needed equilibrium between the leadership, the senators and the Executive because the Senate Leader is in between all of them.

What changes did you bring to your immediate constituency?

When I was campaigning to go to the Senate, I made only two promises to my constituents. First was that I would give them a voice in the Senate and secondly, that I would serve my constituents from my heart, 24 hours every day. How much of these promises I achieved is for my constituents, history and the public to judge.

Would you have liked to continue in the Senate beyond 2015?

I submit my life always and absolutely to God and pray for His will to rule in my life. Whatever happened and wherever I find myself now is God’s will. I have no regrets.

With the benefit of hindsight, are there things you would have done differently?

No, there is nothing I wish I had done differently.

How would you compare your time as Senator with being Chairman of the NDDC?

They are two different challenges and two different environments. You cannot compare. It’s like comparing oranges with bananas; that is practically impossible.

What was your breakthrough moment as a lawyer?

There wasn’t a single moment I could regard as a breakthrough moment. It was a cumulative, consistent block-by-block period of very hard work and gradually building a reputation and trust and earning the respect of judges and my peers. There was no silver bullet.

Can you recollect how and when you started your career?

Of course, I do. I started in Ogoja, Cross River State, with Kanu Godwin Agabi, who is the third Senior Advocate of Nigeria from Cross River  State, a former senator and two term Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. I was his first junior and later partner briefly and coincidentally, I became the next Senior Advocate of Nigeria from Cross River State after him.

Did your father influence your decision to study law?

My father did not directly influence my choice of law for a career. I had hoped to be a Catholic priest but the Nigerian civil war derailed that. There is this joke that it took God a whole civil war to stop me from being a priest.

What was the first case you handled as a lawyer?

My first case was in Ogoja before the late Justice S. E. J. Ecoma who later became the Chief Judge of Cross River State. It was a manslaughter case resulting from negligent driving involving a well-known trade unionist and politician from Obudu, Francis Akpong. I successfully pleaded the defence of accident and he was discharged and acquitted.

What’s the most notable case you handled as a lawyer?

I handled many, including Emmanuel Chukwuogor vs. Ojong Ndoma-Egba in the Supreme Court, which finally rested the vexed issue of abandoned property which was an unpleasant consequence of the Nigerian Civil War for the Igbo.

You are a Life Bencher of the Body of Benchers. What exactly does this entail?

The Body of Benchers is the highest organ of the legal profession. It admits members of the profession, disciplines errant members of the profession and ensures strict adherence to the ethics of the profession.

I am a life member, which means unless I misconduct myself or fall below certain expectations, I am a member of the body till death.

As NDDC Chairman, do you still go to court?

Nothing stops me from going to court as NDDC chairman; though the position carries full-time responsibilities. It is, by law, a part-time appointment.

What are some of the pertinent changes you would like to see in the law profession?

I would like to see a quicker dispensation of justice.

What stirred your interest in politics?

I was born into politics. My mother was the first female County Council (what we now know as Local Government Area) chairman in the defunct Eastern Region; so, I took the political side from my mother and the law side from my father.

Do you have plans to continue in politics?

You don’t retire from politics. Once you are in it, that is it.

What challenges do you face as a politician?

The biggest problem in politics in Nigeria is the demands and the often unbearable expectations from the public. You face a lot of pressure as a politician as people come to you for all sorts of things.

What are your most embarrassing moments as a Senator?

I do not recall any embarrassing moment. I focused on doing my job and serving my constituents.

What were some of the qualities that helped you get to where you are now?

I will attribute it all to the grace of God.

What are some of the important lessons you have learnt in the course of your life?

I have learnt that only the truly great are truly humble. Over the years, I have also realised that it is better to give than to receive.

Who are your role models?

Jesus Christ is the ultimate of course. I also admire Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Is there any particular incident that changed the course of your life?

There was an incident that happened, where I was wrongly accused and punished unfairly when I was 11-year-old. That incident defined my life. I do not form any judgment until I have heard both sides and I hate injustice, especially to a weaker person.

How did you meet your wife?

She used to come to my house with a family friend. I was a young bachelor working as the Commissioner for Works and Transport and she was a student at the University of Calabar.

What were the qualities that attracted you to your wife?

Her concern for people and the passion she invests in whatever she does is what attracted me. She has grown to be the most competent person I know whether as a wife, mother, homemaker or friend.

What were the challenges you grappled with in the early stages of your marriage?

The usual problem of getting to know ourselves better and establishing boundaries were some of the challenges we dealt with in the early years of our marriage.

As a man of many parts, how are you able to ensure balance such that your family doesn’t suffer?

You find time for everything that is important to you. My family is important, my country is important as are humanity and my spiritual life. Fortunately, I am not the party-going type and the only indulgence I have is the game of lawn tennis.

Are any of your children following in your footsteps in law or politics?

My son is a lawyer, the third generation in the family. He played professional soccer in Sweden but he is back in Nigeria working. Maybe with time, he will develop interest in politics because he discusses politics with me.

What can you recall of your childhood?

I have very fond and interesting memories of my childhood. My parents were transitional in the sense that they were among the first from my area to receive western education and religion but at the same time, they remained traditional in their values. I grew up doing what children of my age did – going to school, going to the farm, fetching water from the stream, going to church, listening to folktales from elders, among other things. It was a peaceful childhood except for the Nigeria Civil War.

What were your childhood ambitions?

My childhood ambition was to be a Catholic priest.

What schools did you attend?

For my elementary education, I attended St. Martins Primary School in Ikom, Cross River State. I went to Mary Knoll College, Okuku (then in Ogoja, now in the Yala Local Government of Cross River State) where I obtained my West African School and Higher School Certificates. I was briefly in Government Secondary School in Ikom, because of the civil war. I graduated from the University of Lagos, attended the Nigerian Law School, Lagos, and was called to the Bar in 1978, making me a member of the famous 1978 set that today has the Chief Justice of Nigeria, six Supreme Court Justices, almost 40 Senior Advocates and two Governors. I have since attended the Irish Development Institute in Shannon, Ireland, Stanford and Harvard universities in the United States of America where I obtained various certificates.

What are your hobbies?

I play lawn tennis avidly and do a lot of reading and writing.

How do you like to dress?

I dress modestly for the occasion. I wear suits mostly for work, except on Fridays when I dress down and traditional for social events.

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