If the church were an army (which in a spiritual sense it is) deacons would be its general infantry (GIs), foot soldiers. Deacons fix things in the church, but take little or no glory. Or to use a literary metaphor, deacons are the church’s “Men Friday,” while the elders are the “Robinson Crusoes.” Deacons work their butts off to keep things right and make both the clergy and laity happy.
Now, you can guess why men and women do not celebrate being ordained deacons, but they celebrate being ordained elders. The moral of the story is that being a deacon is all about rendering service. The Akwa Ibom word for “deacon” is “Ada idaha ke Ufok Abasi” (literally, “those who stand in the church”). In most churches, deacons stand throughout services to ensure that nothing goes wrong. If in doubt, ask Deacon Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, governor of Akwa Ibom State, a proud and steadfast deacon in his church, Qua Iboe Church, Surulere, Lagos.
As the executive director of Zenith Bank Plc, the self-effacing Emmanuel still functioned in the church, with a charming smile, as a deacon. It was one of the things that endeared him to Senator Godswill Akpabio when he (Akpabio) was a governor.
“He came to our church on one occasion and was thrilled to find someone of his (Emmanuel’s) stature and accomplishments stooping down to serve as a deacon in the church,” says Mbuotidem Affia, a congregant and now one of the governor’s aides. Many who were not at his level, socially, spiritually and morally were already elders. Emmanuel chose to remain where service beckoned.
As governor of Akwa Ibom State, he is still a deacon. Being a deacon did not lend itself to much thought, it was about being himself. Emmanuel loves to serve. He wanted to be where he could render maximum service to God, and not be encumbered with church officialdom. He wanted to be on hand to serve congregants by mingling with them. He wanted to be the one to be sent to serve (like Isaiah said to the Lord “Send me”), not to be the one sending others. Even as a governor, he has taken collection in the church.
Says Affiah: “He was offered eldership countless times, but he chose to remain a deacon because he wanted to continue to worship the Lord through service. He is a very humble man! At every Christmas, he would give everyone in the church, rich or poor, rice and groundnut oil and add money to widows and orphans. He would also add wrappers and cartons of turkey, chicken and cow meat for women. He used to replicate this practice in his village. Note that he started this practice decades before he ventured into politics.”
To Emmanuel, service is his calling and ministry. In secondary school, he was a class captain, the school timekeeper and duty prefect. Being a timekeeper in secondary school honed in him his strict sense of punctuality, a defining attribute of his character. Being a duty prefect instilled in him a deep sense of discipline, a key attribute of his leadership. Being a class prefect prepared him for leadership and impact. These early orientation has led to the blossoming in character of a life driven by leadership values.
As a banker, he was affable and easy-going, say former colleagues. He made friends with ease. However, he would not let anyone or anything interfere with his duties. A former colleague noted that though he had a disarming sense of humour, he would always let you know that service was the first law of God, just like Jesus showed in the story of the Good Samaritan. “He believes that everyone should stoop down to help anyone who is down,” he says.
The bit about service is the part of the jigsaw puzzle of the Emmanuel administration, which some opposition politicians have chosen to ignore. Emmanuel does not talk service. He lives and breathes service. With him, service is not a habit but a character. Says Benita Ukpe, the vice chairman of Abak Local Government Area: “He is rendering service to Akwa Ibom people as unto the Lord, and that is in line with his election campaign theme in 2015 ‘Divine Mandate.’”
That should be clear enough for all to see, but there is a catch. You look at the world through your own eyes! Some professional politicians try to make politics out of everything. They do not want to admit that people who are sold out to service exist in real life. “When they see a flower in government, they begin to look for a graveyard, instead of a garden,” Aniebiet Akpakpan, a councillor noted. “They have the liar’s curse, which is not that no one believes the liar but that the liar believes no one else.”
Emmanuel resists the tag of being called a professional politician because of his deep sense of commitment to service. He rather prefers to be addressed as a professional in politics. As a professional in politics, he says he is bound by the demands and expectations of his profession. He argues that everyone should have a profession before becoming a politician. He wants everyone to have experience and a service record in some profession and then bring the experience to bear in his service as a politician. The sentiment is gaining great acceptance and one of those pushing the narrative is the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Brand Management, Mr. Sam Edoho. Edoho believes that the undoing of the nation is that it has too many professional politicians and not enough professionals in politics.
Udom’s faith, which he wears like a badge of honour, plays a big role in his strong commitment to service. At every occasion, he gives God the glory for the opportunity to serve humanity. Akwa Ibomites agree that he was the perfect fit to sustain the momentum of transformation after the Akpabio era. His strong set of skill in finance saw the state stay afloat while the nation floundered in the waters of recession. What he has achieved in industrialisation is the stuff of legend. The industries he has set up are revolutionary, and they dot the Akwa Ibom landscape.
Commissioning one such factory, the Syringe Factory (Africa’s biggest such factory), Prof. Yemi Osinbanjo, Vice President of Nigeria, described the project as a game changer for the nation, and praised Emmanuel, its innovator, effusively as “one of the cleverest people I have come ever come across.”
Honest people in Akwa Ibom share this sentiment.
He does not mind whether people appreciate his sacrifices or not. “He is not concerned about public opinion,” Ekerete Udoh, his chief press secretary maintains, “but about God, public welfare and the common good.” Nicholas Ekarika, a retired permanent secretary adds, “He is Nehemiah building walls and he would not allow the Sanballats and Tobiah’s to put a spanner in the works.”
•Pastor Ukpe is a public affairs commentator based in Uyo.