By Mfon James
How Nsima Ekere and Godswill Akpabio are masterminding the return of Akwa Ibom to the mainstream of Nigerian politics
Even though it is a season of “loyalty” visits to the seat of power, the visit of a high-powered Akwa Ibom delegation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday still caught some observers off guard. It seemed to be a closely guarded operation.
A leading Akwa Ibom politician, who should have been on the delegation, said he was at the Uyo Airport that Tuesday to send a message to Lagos when he saw an APC leader. “He asked me if I was not coming,” he recalled. “I then asked, ‘Where?’ He said, Abuja to meet Mr. President.’ I said, ‘I am not aware.’”
A few notable politicians suffered the same fate but it took nothing away from the unqualified success of the visit.
The visit was significant in many ways. To really understand was going on at Aso Rock that Tuesday morning, look beyond the politics. Never mind that most of the leaders who visited were politicians but look at what they represent in the new scheme of things, not necessarily who they are.
The President’s address was memorable for what he said as much as for what he did not say. Read Buhari’s 525-word speech again – there is absolutely no politics in it. None. It is of course impossible to know if the President was tempted to turn his dais into a soapbox. But the President is human; he might have been so touched by the overwhelming support from an unlikeliest of places, what has since been branded as so called “PDP State,” to the point of wanting to exploit the moment. It is quite possible that he had a slight impulse to play a little politics , as any regular politician would want to, which would have been perfectly in order. But President Buhari is not your workaday politician. So I suspect he resisted any such temptation. Admirably so. Without a word about 2019 or a veiled entreaty for support he stuck to his script; he left the politics for Atuekong Don Etiebet, the state APC Leader and Senator Godswill Akpabio.
It is also possible that the President felt seeking further support from Akwa Ibom would have been overkill. It was no longer necessary. It has already been overwhelmingly given – and accepted. Ask the thousands who showed up at Ikot Ekpene Township Stadium on in July for Buhari or the mammoth crowd that turned out for him in Eket last week. The Buhari Rally being planned for Uyo is said to be building up to be the Big One, the Rally to end all rallies. And maybe, just maybe, the President was keeping his gunpowder dry for his impending campaign visit to Uyo when he hits the road to sell his programmes and solicit for votes.
In his address, Etiebet pledged the unalloyed support of Akwa Ibom for Buhari and his second term bid.
Akpabio waxed lyrical, speaking extempore. He told the President pointedly: “In 2019, no South-south child will have any reason not to vote for President Muhammadu Buhari. There’s not going to be any defection that will affect you. There’s not going to be any gang up will affect you. We must try our best in this country not to politicise religion. We must look at performance and integrity, and we must look for the best for the future of this country.”
But beyond the politics or absence of it, the question on the lips of all observers is this: is Akwa Ibom back on the mainstream of Nigerian politics for good?
The answer would appear to be a resounding yes. The caliber of representation in the delegation tells a great story about the august visit but not all of it. In a way, it was a gathering of Eagles. Since Akpabio joined the APC, the politics of Akwa Ibom has never been the same again. It is significant that he led the team. Etiebiet’s political profile is on the ascent gain. Since his involvement in the turbulent days of Gen Sanni Abacha, his politics and leadership have been yearning for a place at the centre; thanks in no small measure to Buhari, it seems he got his wish on Tuesday. Obong Nsima Ekere was a titanic presence. As was Obong Umana Umana.
In the pecking order of Akwa Ibom politics, Ekere is at the top of the pile, the topmost of the Eagles. The NDDC Boss carries two heavy burdens on his shoulders. He has the responsibility of running what is easily Nigeria’s largest intervention agency. Day by day, kilometer by kilometer, he is changing the face of the entire Nigeria Delta with life-changing programmes, projects and infrastructures. His impact is being felt across all the nooks and crannies of the region.
President Buhari recognizes this. On Tuesday he added one more assignment to his basketful of responsibilities.
“Due to the enormous cost of the road projects [In Akwa Ibom],” Buhari said, “I hereby direct the Niger Delta Development Commission, through the regional projects provisions to specifically provide for counterpart or supplementary funding for these projects to ensure expeditious completion and commissioning.”
Ekere was listening; he understood the import of Buhari’s order. Consider it done, Mr. President, the whole hall could almost hear the NDDC Managing Director whispering. Going by Ekere’s record – his organisational capacity, his radical reform of the Commission, his speed in executing meaningful projects, his experience in managing big infrastructures, his contacts at home and abroad – Buhari’s order is already a done deal.
But there is a second burden, which may top that of the NDDC – the clarion call for Ekere to step forward and contest for the office of the governor of Akwa Ibom State. Ekere has to deal with that. The call has become louder by the day, from the ordinary Akwa Ibomites to the intellectuals to the political leaders. They all want Ekere to take the mantle of leadership come 2019. Ekere can no longer resist it. Leadership of Akwa Ibom was tailor-made for him. And the time seems right.
The Aso Rock visit gave Ekere yet another golden chance to show that he stands firmly with Buhari. It was a unique opportunity to prove that he is the man with the right equipment to deliver Akwa Ibom to Buhari and the party. The man to rescue the state from the misgovernance and incompetence of Gov Udom Emmanuel.
And he seized the moment. At a post visit interview with the NTA, Ekere left no room for any doubts about his conviction and determination. He said: “Virtually every politician of note in Akwa Ibom has moved to the APC. For us, it shows that the entire people of the state are embracing the Change Agenda of Mr. President, and are also determined to return Mr. President to continue with his good works.”
But Ekere was not yet done.
As the meeting drew to a close, he showed again that he has all it takes to lead and to speak for the State. He took to Twitter (@NsimaUEkere) in a flourish:
“I will like to express my profound appreciation to Mr. President for the warm and fruitful reception accorded the Akwa Ibom delegation of the APC today at the State House….
“… I thank Mr. President for the special attention given to our State, especially in Federal appointments, road constructions and infrastructure. I assure Mr. President of the unalloyed and total support of Akwa Ibom during the forthcoming elections and beyond….
“Today’s visit with Mr. President and his fatherly and reassuring words have rekindled the hope of the people of Akwa Ibom on his leadership and our great country, Nigeria.”
The point to be made is that Akwa Ibom politics has not always been given this kind of national consideration. In 2015, Akwa Ibom G22, a top political grouping at the time, went to meet President Goodluck Jonathan, a south southerner, in Abuja. Reportedly, the group waited for 40 days, at which point President Jonathan developed a strange ‘illness’ and could not see them. It was a scandal and a provocation at the time. Time may have healed it but the collective humiliation of a people by President Jonathan has not been forgotten; not by the delegation at Aso Rock on Tuesday, not by Akwa Ibomites, not by South Southerners.
As a member of the delegation recalled shortly after the meeting, “Jonathan bluntly refused to give us audience, yet see how easy it is to meet with Mr. President. Thank you my President for the love you showered on us yesterday.”
Where the State that produces much of the country’s oil and gas wealth was shunned, Buhari has received them with open arms.
For all intents and purposes, it would seem that Akwa Ibom is back. At least, it is on the cruising altitude to the centre. But it didn’t happen by accident. In politics, especially politics of the Nigerian brand, nothing happens by accident.
Hand it over to Ekere and Akpabio. They are the masterminds of Akwa Ibom’s eagerly anticipated, glorious return to mainstream politics. While Akpabio laid a solid foundation for Akwa Ibom and remains one of its leading lights, Ekere represents its future, its vigour, its promise.
This perhaps explains why Ekere remains the only choice of Akwa Ibomites as 2019 approaches.