By Anietie John Ukpe
Age may be a number but life is certainly a battle. And if the life is that of the urbane and personable Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio, then life is not only a battle – it is a full blown war. Ever since he adorned himself as a soldier for good, he has had no reprieve from the unrelenting forces of evil. He is caught in the vortex of the eternal battle between good and evil.
Born on December 9, 1962, he shares the same birthday as John Milton, the author of the epic poems, “Paradise Lost,” and “Paradise Regained.” Paradise has been lost in Nigeria for decades. Akpabio is leading the charge for Paradise to be regained in Nigeria. He is finding out the hard way that the forces, which caused Nigeria to lose its “Paradise” are still on the prowl – much like roaring lions seeking whom to devour.
The lesson is not lost on him. As the world marks his birthday today, he would meditate on this lesson. One wishes that he would do that listening to the song, “Courage, brother, do not stumble…” He is not wont to stumble. Talking to lawyers after he was given a Good Governance Award in 2014, he said, “some young lawyers here may ask ‘why is he in politics?’ I will answer with a quotation attributed to Margaret Thatcher: ‘I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that in the end good will triumph.’”
Akpabio’s life does not lend itself to embellishments – it is an inspirational and captivating study of the triumph of mind over matter. Life never cut him any slack. He is what he is not because of the circumstances of his birth, but in spite of the circumstances of his birth. He lost his father when he was a mere six months old. A doting mother who did not want the irreparable loss to define his character raised him up with great heart and a steady hand.
“God took away your father because you are a strong boy,” his mother told him, and inadvertently laid in him a strength of character, which had served him well in every situation. This strength of character gave him the gas to soar to heights of prominence in Nigeria. It did not flag even when he lost one year of schooling because his beloved mother could not afford fees for him and his siblings, and, therefore, asked him to make a personal sacrifice as a strong boy.
“I used to hide and attend lectures in a nearby secondary school without registering,” Akpabio, who accepted his fate without any misgivings, says. “That continued until the day the school guards chased me out of the school and I fell down and injured my leg in the shrubs.” The tell-tale scar from that fall is still there about three inches below his left knee. As a proof that the world makes room for the man who knows his way, he much latter attended Federal Government College, Port Harcourt, on scholarship.
But the good news is that based on this experience, as Governor of Akwa Ibom State, he established free and compulsory education from primary school to senior secondary school in Akwa Ibom State. His administration eliminated all fees in public schools, supplied textbooks and other materials and paid examination fees for all pupils and students. School enrolment tripled.
The same strength of character turned him as a senior student and General Senior Prefect into a cultural icon in the Federal Government College, Port Harcourt. It powered him to becoming the Speaker of the Students Parliament in his days in the University of Calabar. It stood him out in the telecom industry where he rose to the position of the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of EMIS Telecoms Limited, a pioneer fixed wireless telecommunications company in Lagos. In this position, he helped in shaping the future of the burgeoning telecoms industry. He also served as the National Publicity Secretary of the Association of Telecommunication Companies in Nigeria, (ATCOM).
When he responded to the clarion call to come and serve the state as a commissioner in the administration of Obong Victor Attah, he stood out. He served in three key ministries before responding to the call of the masses to become their governor. The cards were stacked against him with the then governor spared no effort in his brazen support for his son-in-law. In a contentious race of over 56 aspirants in the primary election of the Peoples Democratic Party, he battled his way through the packed field and against all odds on the strength of the goodwill of the masses.
He came when Akwa Ibom State needed him most. With his panache, swagger and impeccable use of words to lift the human spirit, he gave hope and assurance to Akwa Ibom people. He was not only a great Akwa Ibom governor – he was a great African leader. As his star rose, honours, garlands and awards became the lengthened shadow of his efforts. Honorary doctoral degrees from over 10 universities (including the Nigeria Defence Academy); national honour from the Nigerian nation (Commander of the Order of the Niger); fellowships from a myriad of Polytechnics, Colleges of Education; special recognition by the American Congress; honours from the Church, media, socio-cultural institutions etc… He came like a breeze of fresh air on hot Harmattan day.
As he grew in stature, his enemies grew in envy. Yet he brushed aside their vitriol and falsehood. Countless frivolous attention-seeking petitions failed to distract him. He responded to them whenever he had to in the call of his duty. He was great communicator, not because he studied law but because he had a great message to communicate and he knew how to use words to uplift and inspire.
Addressing the nation after the NDA’s honorary doctoral degree award, he said, “Our ancestors were not consulted when Nigeria was formed…But the demand of history is that the child of rape should not allow the scar of his past to mar his future.” He urged Nigerians to join hands and build a country, which our posterity will be proud of.
Speaking in London after being honoured by NewsAfrica Magazine in 2014, he said: “I grew up wondering if government can work and come to the succour of the weak and poor in the society. When I became a governor, I decided to experiment with my childhood curiosity. I found out that trying to make government work was like trying to teach an elephant how to dance. Elephants have locked cartilages, which impede movement; just as government has cultures and traditions embedded in bureaucracy, which impede its movement. We weeded out the traditions, especially in budgeting and project management. We consistently budgeted 80 per cent or more for capital expenditure and 20 per cent or less for recurrent.”
There were so many inspiring speeches he made during that time. Then the time came for him to leave office and he understood that success without a successor was failure. He had made every Akwa Ibom person a stakeholder in the Akwa Ibom project. So, he undertook town hall meetings in all the ten Federal Constituencies to determine where the governorship should go to. The pendulum swung in the direction of Eket Senatorial District. In Eket Senatorial District, the man of choice was the present governor, Udom Emmanuel.
Speaking after receiving the Best Leadership Award of Mboho Mkparawa Ibibio, Nigeria’s foremost socio-cultural association, last month, the ever altruistic Senator Akpabio said: “I never wanted to be the best governor in the history of Akwa Ibom State, but I sure want to be remembered as the governor, who produced the best governor in Akwa Ibom State.”
The most enduring asset of Senator Akpabio, as he admitted on that occasion, is not the uncommon transformation of Akwa Ibom State (though he changed the skyline, the mindset and the landscape of the state), but the birth of a government that even Air Marshal Nsikak Eduok, the taciturn former Chief of Air Staff, described at an event last week, as shaping up to be the best in Akwa Ibom history.
Akpabio is always quick to forgive and forget. His legendary generosity and willingness to do good at all times is documented in the hearts of millions. He has a deep sense of conviction. These qualities combined to invest in him the Minority Leadership of the Senate. That is why on this his birthday, he deserves a toast and song, “Happy birthday to you…” Above all, he deserves a prayer from everyone who is on the side of truth in the eternal battle between truth and falsehood.
• Pastor A. John Ukpe is the Director General of Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation.