This retired politician should be treasured and trusted by the young and the old as a political mentor. Are you ready for his unveiling?
Nothing validates the abysmal failure and failing that leadership has been in Nigeria better than the dearth of former public office holders whose in-office conduct, persona and performance continue to resonate in the minds of the masses. This is engendered by citizens’ short memory as well as the mind-boggling turnover of incumbents that the country suffers year in, year out. We easily forget compatriots after they leave office. In fact, only a tiny minority evade this fate.
One of such privileged few is my subject today. Unlike all the nominees hitherto (Mark, Makarfi, Udom and Tinubu) whom I had never met and so recommended based on research, this five-star Nigerian’s entry is the product of my personal experience and knowledge. I can say I know this man because apart from watching and understudying him from a distance during his political heyday, I also had the honour of meeting him privately, encountering him publicly and twice interviewing him in Bush House Nigeria (radio and television). I know him enough to vouch that although he may long have quit partisan politics over its latter-day puerilities, he belongs in the front row among the icons of power from whose evergreen tenures budding politicians should borrow a leaf or two.
Rewind to the wee months of 1997, when two men took me to see someone they addressed fondly as ‘the next governor of our state.’ Being an undergraduate seeking to be president of the Student Union Government at the time, I had looked forward to this meeting. Two decades and counting, I still can see his picture in my mind’s eye: attired in a white t-shirt over a blue wrapper that morning; real and warm and businesslike. He didn’t contribute to my campaign fund, but the fact that a man his age and fame could receive a 26-year-old, hear him out, ask questions, make suggestions and wish him well so enthralled me that I began to sell him on and off campus.
On November 20, 1998, I learned something that I shall replicate at the opportune time. His friends arranged an event ostensibly to mark his 60th birthday. Of course, I had mobilised some of my campus fans and supporters to Ibom Hall to honour the great man. But, rather than speaker upon speaker wishing the man ‘a happy birthday,’ they went on and on about his exemplary life, family, education, career, achievements and the great impact these would have on the state.
The moment our young political minds understood the game or better still decoded the undertone of the event, we giggled and made the man our political mentor, unbeknownst to him. The build-up to his governorship emergence and the masterstroke of releasing his roadmap book (Come, let’s build together) after taking office not only inseminated tact and class into our political subconscious but it also cemented his indispensability in the Nigerian leadership mentoring architecture. Without a doubt, he made a First Class overall in the eight years he served as governor. I can defend that even with my eyes closed!
Our man was a humble governor, a meticulous governor, a reading governor. I experienced him as a stickler for time and quality and justice. He had a thing for humanity, for courage, for brilliance. He had eyes for professionalism, and for peace, and for liberty.
In the morning of Saturday, January 3, 2004, my phone rang. I was preparing for the radio debut of our independent production that had begun on television the preceding August. I eyed the screen and almost ignored the call since it was a hidden number. ‘Good morning, Mr. BUSH. Please hold on for His Excellency, the governor!’
I wondered aloud which governor, but the handset was already in another hand. ‘Da, ami ke ado …’ (Akwa Ibom for ‘my dear friend, it’s me …’). The trademark gentle voice that I could visualise was wearing a smile left me flabberwhelmed for one long second. As the call progressed, he thanked my team and me for ‘your excellent programmes that I hope our people benefit greatly from,’ and looked forward to a meeting.
Since journalism abhors sentiments, I betrayed no emotions that Saturday and indeed throughout the remainder of his epochal era. The phone call ended with an invitation to Government House the following day and his acceptance to be my live studio guest on television the next weekday. However, after I broke the news on radio at 11am, an aide called to say the governor won’t come since I had announced it without clearance!
That Sunday, I arrived fifteen minutes early. For a moment, I soliloquised if I wasn’t too early for the 6pm private session considering how African(?) leaders preferred for time to be breached, rather than kept. Alas, I was late. From the first gate, I was told ‘Ette had been waiting since 5.30!’
At 5.58, he emerged and after pleasantries asked that we moved to somewhere we could talk without disturbance. He was quite warm, down to earth, free. We critiqued his administration, and I was intrigued how he accepted my criticisms calmly. On the call by his aide, he said some deep things; mentioning three people ‘truly helping me to do well as governor’ but seemed irritated ‘our people have almost turned me into a god just because I am governor.’
That last quotable quote is my eternal definition and mental snapshot of this statesman! He’s at once an enigma, a teacher, a legend. This retired politician should be treasured and trusted by the young and the old as a political mentor. Are you ready for his unveiling? … Next Monday!