How Godswill Akpabio ruined my lunch
Itam is a sleepy, nondescript town that ushers you into Uyo, the capital city of Akwa Ibom State. It holds a rather special place in my heart. Flashback 50 years ago, it was here at the peak of the Nigerian Civil War, after a dreadfully exhausting and hazardous trek from Ikot Ekpene, that my family stopped to rest. It was at dusk and we were about to have our first meal – garri made with tepid water of questionable source and stale egusi soup, our very first meal in nearly two days. I was struggling to knead the eba when suddenly shots rang out. Mum shook the barely formed morsel off my tiny, four-year old hand, scooped me onto her back and, along with many others, resumed the perilous flight into Uyo City. Although my family survived the particular incident – and indeed the War — unscathed, I later learned that many others, sadly, did not.
Whenever I visited Uyo through Itam, I would often close my eyes and the heartbreaking memories would all come flooding back. Lately, there’s so much to see, not least the magnificent 308-bed Ibom Specialist Hospital (ISH). The hospital was in the news recently following the visit of the Health Minister Prof Isaac Adewole. But one headline caught my attention: “FG Vindicates Akpabio Over Uyo Specialist Hospital.” Akpabio needs no “vindication.” The hospital and indeed all that he did as a governor speak volumes; for themselves.
Before the ascent of Akpabio, roads in most parts of the state had become forests while streets had turned to bushes. Bridges collapsed. Schools were in ruins. Many of the notable streets and roads in Ikot Ekpene, my hometown, were in such a miserable state of disrepair that they were overtaken by weed and plantain trees. Even the GRA was not spared. Nightlife was dead and buried, and along with it, the night economy. Akpabio took on infrastructural regeneration with a vengeance. In the case of Uyo, previous administrations had made efforts to fix roads, parks and schools, but Akpabio wasn’t impressed. He practically tore down and rebuilt some of the poorly constructed roads and streets.
A superhighway is nearing completion and could be delivered by December. Ikot Ekpene itself was once notorious for a colonial relic of a prison surrounded by a 15-foot high wall, located right in the heart of the town. No longer. In its place, Akpabio unveiled an oval-shaped, four-star Four Points Hotel, significantly altering the skyline of the city.
Sometime in 2014, we had stopped for lunch at my favourite restaurant in Uyo. To my horror, a matronly lady shuffled along to serve our orders. But because I was starving, I decided to eat first and ask questions later. It was a mistake; the meal did not go down well. So I needed to know what was going on. Turned out, the owner of the restaurant lamented, her two smart, dashing young waitresses had quit to return to school. Thanks in no small measure to Akpabio’s free education programme. Without hesitation, I put the blame squarely on Akpabio for ruining my lunch! But it wasn’t just me who suffered; the story was the same at such establishments across the state.
As a governor, Akpabio had an uncanny ability to connect with the people. Extremely gifted with words, Akpabio would often brush aside prepared speeches and give stirring orations, as he did at the 2012 Ibom Christmas Carol Night. Akpabio loved churches. And the feeling was always mutual. Churches loved him for his occasional sermons, which were comparable to the pastors’, but also because of his generous offerings. He had a knack for constructive spontaneity. He showed up at weddings uninvited. But these were genuine expression of affection for the people.
One of the reasons why Lagos has remained the envy of all other cities in Africa is that it has enjoyed a succession of seamless political transitions. Akwa Ibom will – and indeed should – benefit immensely from the shared vision of Akpabio and Emmanuel. It is absolutely normal for a politician of any creed or shade to be interested in his successor. But Akpabio’s was hardly a classic case of a smooth transition; it wasn’t a stroll in the park. Akpabio fought bruising battles to hand over to Emmanuel. He met stiff opposition from unlikeliest of sources.
And he seemed to have an answer to every challenge.
I believe Akpabio’s undisputable legacy is restoring pride to Akwa Ibom as a political entity and as a people. But a politician’s work is never done. Akpabio still has some unfinished business. At 53, age is on his side. His emergence as the Senate Minority Leader was an extraordinary development for a first time Senator. He has his senatorial constituency to look after. He has a political party that is in turmoil. His plate is still full. Which means it should be no great comfort to Akpabio that he is still the man to watch.