By Chinedum Nwajiuba
I know it because I have been there. Even if at a much smaller level, size, and scope.
In the period I was Vice-Chancellor at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, in Ebonyi state, I had a joke I often shared with staff and, sometimes, with guests. It is that we need to amend the Nigerian Constitution so that, like University staff, Governors can take sabbatical leave. In that case, we could ask Dave Umahi to go serve in Abia, Anambra, Enugu, or Imo state for one year and, in the same period, Ebonyi would have any of the Governors of one of those states. I started telling this joke from about 2017. In the period, Imo state, for instance has seen/had three Governors. Each time I told that joke, a resounding scream of ‘NO!!!’ would erupt from my Ebonyi brothers and sisters. The last time I told the joke was sometime this year, at the NUC, when Dave Umahi paid a visit in relation to the University of Medical Sciences he built; and before then, at the JAMB headquarters when I accompanied him to visit the leadership.
I am not from Ebonyi. I am from Imo state. I travel around a lot, within and outside Nigeria. I have been engaged with observing and writing on governance for a considerable period. I have written on leadership. I wrote newspaper comments on governance, even before 1999. I have served in government positions too, before and since 1999. I have interacted closely but unofficially with a number of those who have served as Governors of states in the southeast; also in the southsouth, southwest and in the North.
I know that leadership is lonely. It is lonely not because you do not have a swarm of people around. That, you always have in excess whether you permit it or not. Yet it is lonely at the top.
An aspect of the loneliness is that you can say or mean one thing and what emerges is another. You can say one thing but your close aides hear something else. It can even be much closer, such that even your family may not even be with you and they see what they choose to see and interpret what they choose to interpret. Your reality is you are alone, even with people around you. And you face the situation of having people yet having no one.
Of all the Governors I have interacted with, Dave Umahi stands out. I guess he will be surprised if he reads this or finds out I have written this, because I never discussed this with him, and I hope no offence is generated.
In 2016 when I arrived Ebonyi to assume work as Vice-Chancellor, I visited and introduced myself. Afterall, the Governor is the Chief Security officer. By the way, I visited, possibly, all key political and economic stakeholders of the state (going by my self-generated protocol list). The situation I met at what was the University in 2016 is a topic for another time. Principally, the purpose of my visits was to introduce myself and ask for support while presenting my goals – three of them – that I had come to work, make friends, and hoping that when I left, it would be said that a child of God was there.
The reception I got from a number of key persons was a source of worry. Except the former Governor, His Excellency Martin Elechi and the incumbent, Governor Dave Umahi, all the others said to me something in the nature of, “I am not interested in helping that University because I do not like the location. I do not think that university should be in Ikwo.” Much Later, I met Hon. Chinedu Ogar who came on his own to welcome me to Ebonyi state, and encouraged us. Then I also met Ambassador Lawrence Nwurukuru, who was very encouraging. One of the non-supportive Ebonyi political leaders asked me outright what I would do for him. Another led me on to believe he would donate and fund a project in the University, only to turn round and tell me he was no longer interested. That was after I had, based on his advice, gotten an architect to produce elaborate drawings of what I thought we agreed on. Every other elite had a wish list. You grant ten things and do not grant one, he becomes an enemy. When Ebonyi players proved unenthusiastic, I shifted attention to members of the Igbo monied class in Anambra, Enugu, Lagos, etc. I pleaded, appealed and begged, from person to person, for these ones who were not indigenes of Ebonyi state to come and institute projects in a federal University in Ebonyi. The response was not zero, but certainly below our efforts.
One of the important political figures, considering his position in the Ebonyi state protocol list, virtually stabbed me in the back after I thought I had gotten in him as my first friend in the state. That event led me, if I recall, to my first meeting in the Governor’s office to explain the accusations against me. I was accompanied by four university staff, including the Deputy Vice-Chancellor who eventually succeeded me, the Director of Health Services, and two others.
We ended that meeting with Governor Dave Umahi earning my respect. As we walked into his office, he exhibited a trait I have come to appreciate. Without wasting time, he front-loaded his grievances, bothering on what he had been told of my unfair treatment of Ebonyi state. He would not tolerate any neglect of Ebonyi state. Dave Umahi does not waste time at saying his mind, and if he feels his Ebonyi state is not being well treated he does not hide his anger. In that encounter, he accepted to have the facts. When the facts were presented, we saw the other side to Dave Umahi. He accepted any misunderstanding and misinformation. I believe not many persons have seen how much humility Dave Umahi can exhibit when confronted with facts and good logic. I perceive him as the kind of person that deals with facts and evidence, rather than rhetoric and emotional manipulations. That meeting exonerated me and saved me from the onslaught of even PAs to SAs of the wife of this and that Oga big man in that state, who were calling my mobile phone at odd hours to ask favors with authority. That false accusation from a very highly placed person in the state became a blessing.
HE Martin Elechi’s encouragement is understandable. He hails from Ikwo. At the establishment of the 9/12 new Universities in 2011/2012, the Federal Government decided that the Government of each state should determine the location of each university. Though Governor Elechi is from Ikwo, I believe the site on which the university is located is an excellent choice. Interestingly, many Ebonyi big men were unhappy with him for siting the University at Ikwo and they made no secret of it in our discussions. As Vice-Chancellor of the rather young university, seeking the assistance of indigenes of the state to contribute much-needed infrastructure, I had to remind reluctant elites of Ebonyi state that the site of Ikwo is excellent. Truth is that the site reminds one of Nnamdi Azikiwe locating the University of Nigeria at the Northwest extreme of Igboland, and now we have a university at the Northeast extreme of Igboland. I also had to remind several of them that the university is in their state, in Ebonyi state and not in Cross River or any other state.
It is unsettling that with all the dissatisfaction expressed by many elites from other areas of Ebonyi that the University is located at Ikwo, it turns out that even within Ikwo, many persons tried to adjudge HE Martin Elechi as having done nothing for them when he was the State Governor. Considering the benefits that the university alone had brought to the Ikwo community, it was surprising that anyone in his right mind would view HE Martin Elechi’s contributions lightly. Much later in the life of my administration, in the year 2020, we invited HE Martin Elechi and honored him with the unveiling of a major road named after him in the centre of the university campus. Civilized man, he put no pressure on me, and avoided making requests. As recently as September this year (7 months after I left office), he wrote me a much-valued text: “My revered VC, greetings. Just to say, How are you? Your good works in our state continue to speak well of you. Remain blessed now and always. Warm regards”. I was so touched I could not reply the same day. I could only settle for what to reply the following day: “Your Excellency sir. Good evening. I am humbled by your message. God bless and keep you in good health, in Jesus name. Amen”
Back to the subject of HE Governor Dave Umahi and the eternity of history. One thing I found striking about him in subsequent meetings was that he felt at home telling me his vision for his state. Dave Umahi comes across as a man deeply in love with Ebonyi state. I am convinced that very many persons in Ebonyi state do not see the depth and extent of love Dave Umahi has for that state. He reminds me of Samuel Mbakwe of Imo state. Mbakwe, many persons have forgotten, was accused of trying to do too many things for Imo state at the same time – one industry per Local Government Area; a university with five campuses, with a plan to turn each campus into a separate university in the long-run; a College of Agriculture, Alvan Ikoku College of Education with three campuses; three independent power plants; regional water schemes; urban and rural electricity; etc. It seemed too much. Today, every Governor or aspiring Governor in Imo state will tell you he wants to be like Mbakwe. And, without doubt, none comes close. One thing we learn from this, and I believe I may have come across
this somewhere, is that any leader who truly loves his people will be seen to be in a hurry where it concerns development for his people. In our part of the world, a leader who loves his people will necessarily be anxious, and in a hurry to develop his people, to change their worrisome circumstance.
HE Dave Umahi told me the clear choice he had made on Ebonyi, at a discussion early in 2016. I don’t know why, but he did that. He said to me, “VC, we do not have a city. I will give our people a city.” Today, without dispute, Abakaliki is not just the fastest-growing around, it is very beautiful, clearly transformed, and the most liveable city east of the Niger and, perhaps, in all of Nigeria. The period of “Abakaliki powder” (refers to some reddish dust that settled on people in Abakaliki because of the untarred roads and disturbed earth) is now distant. As I was assuming duty at Ebonyi, I had said to myself that after serving as VC, I would promptly return to Imo state. But truth is any one with a sense of what is good and a sense of how to live with decency, and wants to live in the southeast of Nigeria should be heading to Abakaliki. Hence, I struggled not to stay back upon completion of my tenure.
HE Dave Umahi said to me at another occasion, “I do not want any one looking down on Ebonyi state. That era has gone. No one will say to us we are backward again.” Today, people in the southeast, and by the way, I hear that all over Nigeria, know that Dave Umahi has served his people very well. Ebonyi people have every reason to be proud and confident. No reasonable person today can say that Ebonyi state is backward. I wish this was the period of the first year of the Obasanjo government in 1999/2000 when the Federal Ministry of Information and the National Orientation Agency went round with CSOs/NGOs, and the media and assessed all 36 states. I have no doubt that Ebonyi state would have been ranked number one.
Before the 2019 elections, on one occasion, Governor Dave Umahi said to me, “My people say I do not do welfare. That I don’t share money”. He added: In my second tenure, I will try to create a business class. We need to get Ebonyi people to become entrepreneurs. Dave Umahi has taken the bull by the horn with what he has done with the recently completed International Market in which he gave his Ebonyi people preference in the acquisition of shops. My prayer is that they do not acquire them and then immediately re-sale them to traders from other states. To show his seriousness about the issue of developing indigenous businessmen and professionals, I understand that he created a Ministry of Business Development. I also hear he set up a framework in which Ebonyi people could access the various Federal Government empowerment facilities for youth, women and MSMEs. I am not sure which other state has that kind of razor-sharp focus in the area of developing local business capacity. Now, it is left for his people to take up these opportunities. If they fail to, it won’t be because their state Government didn’t try.
The new University of Medical sciences established by HE Dave Umahi in Uburu further reinforces his plan to purposefully grow the business and professional class in Ebonyi. It has today become the reference University campus amongst top leaders in the Nigerian University system. You now hear, “The Ebonyi medical university is the model.” States and all those who want to start a new university are told, “Go to Ebonyi. That is the model.” The same Ebonyi state.
In spite of the genuine accolades that have come the way of the new campus, there may be some Ebonyi ‘leaders’ who see no value in the university and look forward to its being closed down when this Governor exits and the next Governor of the state assumes power in 2023. One of the reasons advanced by apologists of this thought is that Ebonyi people cannot afford the fees that would sustain such an University, seeing that it is patterned in a manner that it would be financially self-sustaining through fees, grants, endowments, consultancy and other services. In response, I advice and advocate for what the United Kingdom has done; what Ghana has done: Charge your people less and get those from outside to pay for it. Get those from Imo state whose state university has lost her medical programme, but that state produces annually at least 10% of all JAMB applicants, to pay. Get students from Anambra and Abia states, and elsewhere to pay for this world-class university of Medicine in Ebonyi state. There are private universities costing over N5 million annually per student in Nigeria. Are Igbo people not sending their children to private universities in Abuja, Ogun state, Ukraine, Ghana and indeed all over Africa and the rest of the world at higher cost? Grant them the opportunity to pay these higher costs in Ebonyi while those from Ebonyi state pay very low. I wish Ebonyi people will see the cup as half-full and not half-empty. I pray Ebonyi will latch on this momentum to appropriate the position of the Intellectual centre of the Southeast and Southsouth. The state should even consider venturing further to set the Technical University which the Government indicated interest in, some time ago.
The challenge of the time is not quantity, but quality. Let the rest of Nigeria follow the example of Governor Dave Umahi to build more quality universities. The problem with the university system in Nigeria is not whether we have too many or too few universities. The challenge is universities of the 21st century. Governor Dave Umahi, by the University of Medical sciences at Uburu, has issued a national challenge. There is no university in Nigeria like what we have at Uburu. It is something the people of Ebonyi state should be proud of.
A point that may be bothering critics of the new University of medical sciences in Ebonyi state is the politics of teaching hospitals for the three medical colleges that have emerged in the state: Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike (AE-FUNAI) and the new David Nweze Umahi University of Medical Sciences. The Alex Ekwueme Federal Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki which used to be the teaching hospital for EBSU Medical College is now serving AE-FUNAI. So, EBSU may need a teaching hospital. The problem is not insurmountable. The possibility of one teaching hospital serving more than one university, as we find in a number of countries, could be explored. Even at that, it should be possible to get the consent of the MDCN for a period of shared facilities until EBSU can develop one. Another good option would be to take over the new General Hospital along the road to Ikwo from Abakaliki and add facilities and infrastructure. I believe that Hospital is in Ezza territory and, for purposes of geopolitical balance, it is a good location for a teaching hospital.
It has been said that some people are looking forward to the brand new purpose-built teaching hospital constructed for David Nweze University of Medical Sciences, Uburu being assigned to EBSU while the new medical college is shut down. That would be the laziest, most unintelligent and most uninspiring step. By the way, is it not interesting that while in Ebonyi state one can study Medicine at EBSU, AEFUNAI and at Uburu, a state like Imo, has none? That is what the difference between progress versus decay signposts. The frightening thing is that the very Ebonyi indigenes for whom this is an advantage may actually not see the beauty in this. It is the burden of a leader to bear. It is the loneliness of leadership, but it is also the aspiration to the eternity of history.
If one has an opportunity to address the Ebonyi elite, one would ask them of one thing: To look forward and not backward; upwards and not downwards; to look ahead and to the front – by the way, that is why God put our eyes in front and high up immediately after the brain. Vision! Move away from undue concerns with local interests at the expense of general well-being; focus on baking of the cake, rather than agonizing over your share of the baking powder; as the Americans would say, “see at the dough and not the nut.” The new world-class teaching hospital has the potential to attract a part of the Nigeria’s medical tourism away from India, Europe, Egypt and, etc. The elite should help Governor Dave Umahi to attract high quality international staff to start, run and advertise the top grade medical facilities. At this commencement stage, it is time to get the hospital to earn a great reputation, not a time to struggle for the share of “our state” and “our zone.” An organization interested in getting a share of the global market will necessarily seek to attract and use the best talents. That is what serious people all over the world have done and are doing. The time may later come for “which village or which community, or which LGA, or which zone” the cleaners and gate men come from; but for now, let the vision, the dream and the action be to conquer the world. Let the state consider the Igbo Diaspora in the United states who come frequently on Medical missions to Nigeria to be part of that world-class medical facility. There is a group called 100-Igbos based in the United States. These are well accomplished professionals occupying very serious top positions across fields in the United States. Governor Dave Umahi should reach out to them. I can help.
The new airport that HE Dave Umahi is putting up fits into the vision of a modern city and his aim to develop and deepen a local business and professional class. Excellent location. I understand that those who understand the technical requirements of airport locations rate the Ebonyi location very high. From a usefulness perspective, I reckon that the Ebonyi airport will come in handy for flight diversions as Enugu airport often has challenges with visibility in December/January with the weather. The entire Northern and Central Cross River state, the entire Northern Abia state – the wealthiest part of Abia state, parts of Imo and Enugu states, even parts of Benue state (with the new road directly linking Ebonyi and Benue states) are key catchment areas. This is excellent vision.
The new Government House and new Governors offices fits into the big picture, in my understanding: Dress how you want to be addressed. A wave of joy washed over me the first time I walked in there. It is easily the best in the southeast, and only the Lion House of the Government of Enugu, built by the Michael Okpara government, competes. The new Ebonyi Government House and Governor’s Office restored some encouragement to me, because I had written somewhere some years ago that it seemed God ran out of the raw materials He used in molding Zik and Okara. Some states neighbouring Ebonyi shared out the land mapped out for similar projects to individuals to build hotels and shops. Ebonyi elites who have a grouse with Governor Umahi’s big vision should try such Governors. Some states close by, created long before Ebonyi, have Government Houses using rented buildings.
Some Ebonyi people have been heard argue: We are too poor for these kind of projects; we cannot afford them; the Governor is not empowering us; we do not have money in our pockets; we do not know how he is funding these; he must be building these so he will have money in his pocket. Sad. It is truly lonely at the top. What would seem a bewildering experience of the misunderstanding, if not ingratitude, of people whom one literally serves with all of one’s heart is not an uncommon experience in history. The loneliness of serving your people with eyes on history, and driven by the urgency of changing their narratives and circumstances, while all they imagine are vain things is a burden of leadership in less developed countries. Fortunately, the ingrates are in the minority and their negative thoughts are short-term. Unfortunately, however, the bell curve suggests that the ignorant usually have a sizable community. Out of mental laziness, these ignorant ones take rather seriously the illogical, malicious, lie-infested vituperations of few highly vocal ingrates. The eternity of history is the consolation of all who will lead with energy, vision, heart and soul. It is truly lonely and unenviable at the top. Like I often said to the university community in my days as VC, “I do not blame our people when they do not trust leadership. We have been so badly governed that I do not blame you when you think all leaders are, at best, only self-serving.”
I know from experience that any leader that finds a way to cut the cost of public projects can achieve more. If, on the other hand, a leader chooses to make deals with contractors, they will do low quality projects, abandon projects, and delay project delivery, all at very high cost. The sub-standard projects may collapse, forcing the government to rebuild projects after few years. Governor Dave Umahi completes his projects. As a Fellow of the Nigeria Society of Engineers, he came to office with a background in engineering practice, and so can tell the cost of each project and what profit a contractor can make on a project. The political class is uncomfortable with such a person because thoroughness and value-for-money in the management of public works projects denies the political operators of funds for managing the party system and a bloated lifestyle. So, they are wont to push back.
My reading of His Excellency Governor Dave Umahi is that he is a courageous, stubborn, practical, hands-on, highly driven person. He is also a long-distance runner, a big picture person who understands and relies on strategy. He is not one to make important decisions based on emotions. To reach him, therefore, one must approach him first with integrity and vision, then with logic, facts, energy and history. Such a mental disposition is a gift to any state. Such people do not do idle giveaways, they rather do empowerment. They would complete three projects with the same sum of money with which regular governors would get only one project halfway. They are in a hurry to bring development. They don’t mind losing idle friends. When it comes to projects, the only friends people like Dave Umahi can accommodate are those that can help in achieving high-quality projects at least cost and with sufficient integrity. There is no room for anything less. Those who judge him or seek to reach him with the regular Nigerian pally-pally template are only wasting their time.
When we, at the University, got Governor Dave Umahi to support us to build an Engineering workshop, he gladly did that for N40 million. To some of my confidants, taking their cue from the Nigerian public works template, who tried to complain to me that N40 million was too little an amount to build the kind of engineering workshop we envisaged, I warned them that Governor Dave Umahi is not the kind of person that a site engineer would use part of his donation towards a project to buy drinks for himself. My matching order was for every penny to be dedicated solely to the work. No bills for refreshment, servicing of site meetings and similar frills that are common in public works. We knew that this was not a matter for contractors. We got staff of our Faculty of Engineering to use the building in teaching our students how to build a house. At the end of the day, the engineering workshop was achieved with slightly less than N40 million. I had the privilege of declaring publicly to Governor Dave Umahi and HE Vice-President Yemi Osibanjo, (when he came to commission the University’s 2.5MW solar energy power plant that we have completed the workshop and had a balance of slightly more than N1 million to return to him. A pleased Governor Dave Umahi asked that the money be given to the University Women towards the school/creche they too were building with donations and private contributions at the time. That is the Dave Umahi persona. If he is convinced that you are not playing games, he will go with you to the ends of the earth and back.
On the refrain from Ebonyi people about Ebonyi people being poor, and thus unable to access the benefits of the Umahi projects, one wonders, poorer than who? The agricultural sector in Ebonyi state is very strong. There is mining. Construction work is going on. Compared to the neighbouring states, these three sectors – Agriculture, Mining, and Construction – offer regular employment and incomes, better than many of her neighbours. This poverty bandied by many Ebonyian elites in their conversations may actually be more of a psychological or belief thing than real. My take is that no Ebonyian should see himself as disadvantaged, poor or lowly because they, in truth are not. The first black man in history, to obtain a PhD in Computer Science from the Harvard University in 1966 is Offia Nwali. It turns out he is an Ezza man from Ebonyi state. As at 1966 how many persons in Nigeria had been to Harvard? Similarly, Dr. Akanu Ibiam was an Ebonyi man. Dr. Agom Eze, the famous Agom Eze whose fame stems from the mass promotion of all students in the mid-1970s when he served as Commissioner for Education in the old Imo State, still alive and a traditional ruler today, is an Ebonyi man. In recent times, Ebonyi has produced a Secretary to the Federal Government, Senate President, a Governor with a PhD, a Governor that is one of the earliest economists in the southeast, etc. Each served with passion and commitment. How then would the kith and kin of these same men claim they are poor, lowly, unexposed, disadvantaged, derided by neighboring states? It seems the issue has not been one of lack of opportunity, but one of what the people have done with it. Once more, the Ebonyi elite who largely define the conversation and narrative in the state are standing at the crossroads of history regarding what to do with the humongous opportunities that Governor Dave Umahi is serving them through a highly praised university of medical sciences, an airport, a city, roads, bridges and a sense of pride. Cutting the nose to spite the face doesn’t sound like a wise choice for the elite and political class to make under the circumstance.
Dave Umahi has strong character. He is firm, and fair. You cannot accuse him of discrimination against any part or group in his state, and sustain such when faced with facts. That is not the case in most of the other states surrounding Ebonyi. The man is a classical example of someone who arouses strong passion, for or against. He has his convictions.He has his principles. He is even possibly opinionated. He certainly is no saint and must have his weak sides. I know some. He loves to make concrete slabs all over the city. On one occasion, I called him on the way to work and said to him, Your Excellency some people are complaining against you. He asked, who are those people and what have I done? I said, Your Excellency the trees along Afikpo road whose roots are being completely sealed up so no water can get in, said I should tell you. He let out a burst of laughter. I added, Your Excellency tell whoever is in charge that I will be coming to site today to offer some guidance, by 5 pm, on my way from the office. He did. Around 5 pm, I was there with staff of our faculty of Agriculture. We met the workers waiting and ready to receive us. Eventually the sealed areas were reopened and made even more beautiful than we imagined.
Another weakness or error that I have been unable to shake off my mind has to do with the market at the Sperandeo roundabout. The environmentalist in me keeps wishing he left that place as an open space, a park, a garden. Every city doesn’t have to be a concrete jungle like poor Lagos. Many cities in the developed world have a place around the city centre where people can relax; not just Pepper soup joints. Nairobi for instance has such and more. Moreover, the commercial area created around Sperandeo risks causing sever traffic congestion despite the Flyover there. I guess that is too late to reverse. As I agonize over this, I have had to ask myself what has become of the gardens in Enugu and Owerri? They have become market places. May be if Dave Umahi has allowed the place for a garden, one Governor one day will come and share it between himself, his wife, and his children.
A downside attributed to Dave Umahi the Governor by many persons in Ebonyi is that of ‘not doing welfare’ in the Nigeria context. In simple terms, it means he doesn’t create avenues for money to pass into the hands of hangers-on. But then, he has a large retinue of appointees, aides in sundry matters, who are put on the payroll of Government. Technical Assistants, Special Assistants, Special Advisers, Personal Assistants, in their tens and hundreds has been the case in Ebonyi. An argument, from the perspective of prudence, would be that the little drops of “monies” can become more useful if deployed as seeds for investments rather than wasted in beer parlours, by these appointees.
In any case, such large appointments have not been known to engender loyalty. It has been witnessed rather often that when political appointees are replaced, they become antagonistic. My personal experience as Vice-Chancellor bears me witness. Appoint a person to a position, the VC is a good man. Replace him/her for some whatever reason, the VC becomes a bad man and the person starts manufacturing and spreading false rumors. Invite him/her privately to your office and confront him/her with the evidence, he/she falls on the floor begging. These are not surprising but contribute to the loneliness of leadership and high office. Not surprising.
It appears that it is in the nature of humans to be ungrateful and unappreciative of good done to them. Even God who created man at a point expressed regret (Genesis 6:6). The Bible said it clearly, that the heart of man is evil (Genesis 6:5). Jesus went about healing the sick and feeding the hungry, yet are the very ones that killed him without economizing on the pain they inflicted in the process. Only one out of ten came back to thank him when he healed ten lepers. We humans should be glad if we get half, that is, one out of twenty coming to appreciate. The loneliness of leadership.
Despite all these, it will be nice to hear the verdict of my brothers and sisters of Ebonyi state after a decade, in 2033. It just might turn out that Dave Umahi has worked himself into the eternity of history.
•Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba was Vice-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, in Ebonyi state, between February 2016 and February 2021.