My first encounter with Calabar was in ‘Emeka’, an autobiography of Dim Chukwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a man whose place in Nigeria’s history is well known. In the book written by Frederick Forsythe, the acclaimed British novelist, we are made to know that it was the refusal of Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a multi-millionaire of colonial Nigeria, to allow his son go to Calabar on transfer within the colonial service that made the younger Ojukwu to rebel against his father and join the Army. That singular act changed the course of Nigeria’s history.
Apparently, Sir Louis was aware of the fable about Calabar women and didn’t want his son to be entrapped any woman. A couple of years after reading ‘Emeka’, I went to Calabar for higher education. What impressed me so much about the town was its relative peace and serenity. At a time in the middle to late1980s when every state in Nigeria had an armed robbery and firearms tribunal instituted by the military regime that had overthrown the Second Republic administration of President Shehu Shagari, in my four years in Calabar not one day did I hear that a tribunal sat to try any robbery suspect. The town was and is still an oasis of peace. As students we could walk round the town in the dead of night. To a large extent, Calabar has remained that way in the midst of violence that has enveloped many Nigerian cities.
The return to democratic rule in 1999 was a turning point for Cross River State as it was for the rest of country. One man who galvanized the people on the democratic path is Liyel Imoke, the present governor of the state. At the outset of political party formation in 1998, Cross River State was firmly in the grip of the All People’s Party which later became All Nigeria People’s Party. Almost everyone who mattered in the state belonged to the then APP with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) trailing behind.
But all that changed to the surprise of not a few people. Imoke, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, brought the flag of PDP to the state and moblised the people to embrace it. His political astuteness and ability to galvanise people ensured that PDP won the gubernatorial election in Cross River State in 1999 with Donald Duke being sworn in as governor on May 29, 1999.
Before the return to democratic rule in 1999, some visionary young men from Cross River State had met in Imoke’s house in Lagos to chart a way forward for their state. Eventually Duke one of them became governor. His handing over to Imoke was therefore not by chance but the continuation of a vision, an assignment which the present governor has carried on admirably. As Nigeria grapples with the challenge of continuity at various levels of governance, the Cross River model is one that lends itself for emulation.
To appreciate how seamlessly this model has worked is to look at tourism for which Cross River State has become known both nationally and internationally. The state’s peaceful environment, fine vegetation, rich heritage and aquatic splendor have all combined to make it a tourist’s first choice in Nigeria. In addition Calabar, the capital is unarguably the cleanest state capital in the country with the people being very friendly. One can walk or drive round the city without seeing papers or refuse heaps littering the landscape. The gutters are kept clean with waste disposal bins placed at strategic points in the city. The state’s tourism flagship, the 32-day Carnival Calabar has become a very big annual event that has gone international. It was started during the Duke era but under Imoke, it has been taken to another level.
Other projects like Tinapa and Obudu Cattle Ranch have become entrenched in the consciousness of Cross River people in particular and Nigerians in general such that whenever Cross River State is mentioned, what one remembers is Tinapa or Obudu or carnival Calabar or all three.
However, Imoke has his own focus even with the continuity of vision. He believes so much in rural development and pro-poor programmes. In a recent interview he said: “If you want to serve you must do it across board, evenly. You shouldn’t say let me only serve the people that cry the most about bad roads and leave out the person who cannot afford to take her child to the hospital. You should not only serve people who have access to you or the media; so that when you do they make the loudest noise about being served. Rural people must not be ignored. Because of our extended family system, our people are not well served the way others are in more advanced countries. There, they have social welfare programmes and systems that take care of those who need to be served. In our own society, the extended family takes care of that responsibility but as we develop, the extended family gets smaller and smaller; so you find out that there is an elite class that is emerging, that doesn’t necessarily have to send money to the village to take care of cousins and all that. But those cousins are still there who may not have had the opportunity to leave the village.
“I can award contracts and the big boys get the contracts. I can build the biggest hospitals that are just empty, maybe only with beds, and I’m praised for doing well. Anytime you see us promoting ourselves, opening roads, buildings, commissioning water and so on, whether they are functioning or sustainable or not, people may think we are successful. This thing is very difficult to explain to the majority of our people but that’s the reality. So, in government, you have to choose between trying to be loved by everybody and hailed or decide to bury your head and serve the people well. If you have conscience, you consider what I call the human factor. It is something that can’t be measured or quantified.”
The irony is that Cross River is about the poorest state in the Niger Delta. The loss of oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon only aggravated the pitiable financial position of Cross River State. There is a joke in Calabar that James Ibori, when he was governor of Delta State used to jocularly taunt Duke, telling him that he (Ibori) had paid his civil servants and would ask Duke if he needed money to pay Cross River workers.
Given what governors have done in their respective states across the country, it has become apparent that what matters is not really how wealthy a state or by extension a nation is but how well the little resources available are managed. That is another lesson from the Cross River model and for governance in Nigeria it is no mean a lesson.