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Inside Akwa Ibom, a visitor’s diary

THE  thought of where to spend a short holiday with my family suddenly became a somewhat arduous task. My husband had given us an open cheque to make the choice but he also gave us terms of reference: Anywhere in the West Coast or within the country. Ghana popped up but the kids did not show much excitement.

They had been there several times and Atta-Mills’ country is beginning to lose its lustre and allure to them. After much debate, we settled for Akwa Ibom on the recommendation of my first son. His classmate and her family had been there and she had regaled him with stories of the legendary Ekpo masquerade and the relics of history which served as enduring memorials of the Aba Women Riot of 1929.

Having stayed briefly in the Eket area of the state in the twilight of 2006, I had looked forward to seeing the same old landmarks, some of which are painful reminders of our under-development and long years of misgovernance. But I was wrong.

In 2006, going to Uyo or any part of the state from Lagos meant you had to fly to Calabar or Port Harcourt before making the final stretch to Akwa Ibom by road. Not this time. The story has changed. Akwa Ibom now has an airport.

As the Dana Air jet made its final descent into the Uyo horizon several thoughts wafted through my mind. I thought of the essence of democracy; I thought of the long wasted years of military rule and I remembered the words of former British Prime Minister and writer, Benjamin Disraeli. He once said “almost everything great had been done by youth”.

The Ibom International Airport conceived, designed and built in record time is a product of the zeal and far-sightedness of youth. The governor of the state, Godswill Akpabio, belongs to an emerging brigade of Nigerians who are not afraid to dare. He was barely 45 when he became governor of the state.

The 40-50 years age bracket is the age of modern leadership. It was at this age that Bill Clinton (aged 46 at inauguration) became the most powerful man on earth when he was elected President of the United States; it was at this mid-term curve in the age of man that Tony Blair and now David Cameron were elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Still in the US, we see a Barack Obama of the same age group presiding over the most powerful union in the world. It was the age of Theodore Roosevelt (42 years at inauguration) and John F. Kennedy (43 at inauguration on January 20, 1961).

All these men made remarkable accomplishments in their time as they combined the vigour of youth with the candour of character and the aptitude of scholarship. Akpabio himself is cast in this mould. The airport, big and beautiful, approximates to a mere dot in his long list of accomplishments yet he has chosen to remain modest about it. In Nigeria, with our peculiar history of white elephant projects, to conceive, build and land aircraft in an airport is a great thing.

It gets even greater when you are told that the cost of building the airport complete with runway and other requisite appurtenances is cheaper than what the Federal Government is spending to build only runway at the Abuja airport.

This is not just about prudence and fiscal frugality, it shows abiding sensitivity to the heartbeat of the people.
All over the country, there had been weird stories of public office holders living extravagantly at the expense of the people.

Not so here. As the taxi nosed out of the airport into town, there was this demonstrable reminder that the state has turned the corner. The once rustic state has inclined itself on the plane of modernity. Good, well asphalted roads and painstakingly manicured lawns combine with imposing masterpieces of architectural splendour to give the entire landscape a Victorian allure. Akwa Ibom is modernising. It is doing so in its schools, hospitals and in human capital development.

To learn that in less than three years, Akpabio has refurbished over 1000 schools, built over 500 modern ones and offered free primary and secondary education to the people in a country where most governors pay little or no attention to education was for me heart-warming.

Even more cheery is the fact that the federal university in the state, the University of Uyo (UniUyo), benefited from the far-sightedness of youth. The vision at foundation was for this university to make it to the club of the nation’s Ivy League.

But poor management and sheer negligence crippled its transmutation to the golden league. In the course of time, it lost its accreditation in 28 courses. That is rather too much for a university that showed so much promise in its early days.

Now, Akpabio has restored the old promise and with it has come a new glory. All the 28 courses have been re-accredited by the National Universities Commission (NUC).

Not only that, he moved into the university and tarred a 3.3 Km stretch of road, built an ultra-modern paediatric centre and donated an assortment of medical equipment. Yet, UniUyo is a federal university not a state university. Besides, today in the state, healthcare is free for children, expectant mothers and the elderly. Again, you want to concur with Disraeli that every great thing had been done by youth.

After three good days in Akwa Ibom State, I came to the inevitable conclusion that true leadership does not consist in prefixes, titles and sobriquets; it consists in service delivery and the ability to prudently manage the resources at your disposal to meet contending needs.

This is what Akpabio is doing in Akwa Ibom. It is a leadership style that has seen him extend development to the most far-flung rural precincts of the state. And it has to be said that Akwa Ibom is fortunate to have a governor who uses the state’s funds for the good of the state unlike the primitive culture of profligacy being exhibited in some states.

Leadership must be people-centric especially in a democracy which emphasises that power belongs to the people. It is doubtful if there are some people who would disagree with the verdict that Akpabio has done very well. If they exist, it’s probably because such people have not been to other states.

The transformation the state has witnessed in the last three years alone is far more than what had been witnessed in some states since 1999. And this is no exaggeration.

But beyond this, the success of Akpabio is a salute to youth, courage and willingness to abide by the pristine tenets of good governance: openness, accountability, inventiveness and derring-do. Fortune indeed favours the brave; yes, I saw it in Akwa Ibom.

Mrs. Ugbechie, a commentator on national issues, writes from Lagos.


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