Sunday, October 28, 2018 5:25 pm
By Chris Onuorah
A small group of Nigerian Igbos were having a conversation in Dallas, TX recently. The encounter naturally turned to events back home in Nigeria and the slow pace of developmen in the South East part of the country.
Everybody complained about the lack of federal presence in the five eastern states and the poor performance of some of the governors. A geriatric couple visiting their children here singled out three of the governors for praise.
“The Ebonyi State governor is the best,” confessed the old man who, spreading his hands for emphasis, added quickly that he is not from the state but wouldn’t mind saying the truth. For the benefit of their younger audience, his wife, nodding her agreement, echoed the Igbo saying that a good product requires no advertising. As frequent visitors who have known Ebonyi for more than three decades, they marvelled at what the current administration has done in less than four years that has completely transformed the state. For this reason, they had concluded plans to move to Abakaliki where their daughter lives as soon as they returned to Nigeria.
Indeed, Governor David Umahi has been drawing increasing admiration within and beyond the state, not just because he is delivering on his campaign promises but is doing so in a way that is unusual in Nigerian politics. He first captured the imagination of many by covering the state with a cobweb of 8 inch concrete roads and highways. This is instructive. Concrete is fast replacing asphalt in modern road construction around the world because it not only lasts much longer than asphalt when done right, but also costs less to maintain.
Lucky Ebonyi people! Their roads have played such a crucial role in their lives. These days, they are proud once again to call themselves the Salt of the Nation. But there was a time in their past when they were derided as the Dust of the Nation? This is because a road trip around Ebonyi State before the coming of Governor Umahi was simply an exercise in how to get one’s self covered head to toe in thick, red dust. Of course the wet season was even worse. Commercial and private car owners simply said, thanks but no thanks when it came to driving to and within Ebonyi State. Such was the situation that General Ibrahim Babangida who, as Head of State, came to visit the Ebonyi part of the then Abia State had the SUVs in his convoy buried in the mud more times than he’d care to remember today. Those were the days of broken axles and damaged shock absorbers. But that is history now. Many Ebonyi drivers across the state now joke that they only take their cars to the mechanic “just for medical check up.”
Umahi’s uncanny approach to governance also stem from the fact that he is not your regular politician. He does not sit in the airconditioned Government House receiving the daily stream of visistors and reeling out invible achievements to the media. Rather, he is a hands-on governor who delegates but at the same time is a micro manager. A brilliant civil engineer and an accomplished contractor before his entry into politics, he is right there at the project site, in the rain and under the blazing sun. Many are amazed at his boundless energy and deep knowledge of quality control and cost management.
Indeed, it’s safe to say that the Ebonyi Miracle owes a lot to the ability of Governor Umahi to use the smallest amount of financial resources to execute the most gigantic projects. He has done this by preferring direct labor to the use of major contractors who collude with corrupt officials to rob the tax payers through ridiculously inflated project costs. He is ever present at every stage of every project. He goes straight to the site even if he is just arriving from a foreign trip or just leaving church on Sunday. He is right there even at night with a torchlight in one hand and a measuring tape in the other. And he moves at such a fast pace that many of his officials have a problem keeping up with him. For his efforts, his admirers like to call him the Roadmeister, Mr Project and the Wonder Working Governor. Aristotle might prescribe that every leader should be a philosopher but Umahi’s admirers insist that every leader should, indeed, be an engineer.
The unusual approach which Governor David Umahi has brought to governance in Ebonyi State means that he is taking development to all the thirteen local government areas of the state with little or no cries of marginalization. This is unprecedented in the history of the state. Even so, he is leaving no sector behind. He is building or remodelling, as well as equiping a general hospital in every local government area. He is doing the same with primary and saecondary schools where classes used to be taught under leaking roofs and under trees. He is also upgrading existing higher institutions while building new ones.
Umahi is also putting Ebonyi State back on the agricultural map. Although the state has been known for it’s rice, yam, cassava etc, the farming methods were crude at best. The lack of a modern approach to farming limited the farmers to the tedious use of their bare hands, hoes and cutlasses which also reduced their financial earnings. Now, with the introduction of fertilizer, loans, grants and machinery, Ebonyi or Abakaliki Rice has been refined and is being produced in large scale even with export potential. In this, Umahi leads by example. The son of a big farmer, he too owns large farms which he is only too happy to display. And with smooth roads all across the state, farmers no longer have problems getting their products to the markets.
Umahi’s unique approach to leadership means that every aspect of development leads to another. All over Abakaliki and the major towns in the state are seeing internal roads built. And with them come street lights. The streetlights are not just there for night vision, they are also playing a major role in reducing crime while enhancing nightlife. In sequence, the Umahi administration has built and improved police stations and provided patrol vehicles to law enforcement. The talk is that police officers are now asking to be transferred to a place where there is a man who is making the Nigeria Police Force look good again. The result is that Ebonyi, though not entirely crime-free, comfortably ranks among the most peaceful states in Nigeria. That in itself, is drawing investors seeking a good place to pitch their tents.
If Governor David Umahi is called a man of peace by his people, it is not without reason. He has applied himself to the difficult task of bringing peace where many had come to accept conflict. The Ebonyi end of the Enugu-Abakaliki highway has, for more than a decade witnessed bloody land disputes between the Ezza and Ezillo people. It defied every peace effort. Lives were lost. Farms and entire villages were razed and innocent travellers and law-enforcement officials were often caught in the endless crossfires. But in the words of an analyst, the warring parties recently embraced peace when Umahi applied the wisdom of David. It was amazing to see people who had sworn to fight to the last man lay down their arms, sign on to peace, embrace and share roasted ham dipped in palm oil and wonder why it took them this long to come to their senses. Such is the man.
Governor David Umahi is also the man who has helped to broker peace between the Ebonyi people who have fought a lifetime of bloody battles with their Cross River and Benue neighbors. Is there a magic wand in his pocket or would these peace treaties be broken with the passage of time? No one knows. But many will say that Umahi’s role as a peace envoy has not gone unnoticed beyond Ebonyi State. At the height of the killing of villagers across many states of Nigeria by armed Fulani cowboys, who did President Muhammadu Buhari turn to among those saddled with finding a pathway to calm? Umahi. It was also his efforts and those of the other eastern governors that helped to end the killing of pro-Biafra activists by the Nigerian armed forces.
It would be hard to tell whether it was the efforts of the committee that included Governor David Umahi that checked the murderous fury of the Fulani herdsmen. But the records are there that relative peace has been witnessed across the country since the committee intervened. This and other feats of the man have left the political air buzzing with the question, will he be running for president soon?
If Governor Umahi is popular in and out of his state because of the many projects he has delivered so far, should that be enough to earn him a shot at the Presidency? Not quite, some would say. Afterall, it would be hard to imagine him running against Buhari with whom he has forged a peer-like bond. Though some might not like it, yet there is more to gain in building, rather than burning bridges. So what about a second spell at the Ebonyi Government House? On face value, he appears to have paved for himself an 8 inch highway back to the Governor’s Mansion. And he has come a long way too. From his time as state PDP chairman to Deputy Governor, it has always seemed that he would make it. Yet in the violent waters of Nigerian politics, anything can happen.
Umahi’s road to the political heights has had it’s share of smooth and rough. For smooth, he has helped to build the state and ruling PDP in his image. There’s hardly any electoral pathway to power in the state for the opposition. And ordinarily, he shouldn’t have much to worry about in next year’s elections. But he does have some formidable opponents among the state’s godfathers. Funny enough, the APC godfathers were once his allies. From all indications, they are sure to back another candidate if only to make it rough in next year’s governorship contest.
Regardless of what his critics say, Umahi, as governor, has earned the bragging rights of the man who has changed the Ebonyi narrative. He has devised an empowerment program that has brought home many Ebonyi youths from the country’s major cities where they were risking their lives engaging in commercial motorcycle driving and street trading. They were such a danger to themseves and a menace to the public that when he was governor, Babatunde Fashola deported them from Lagos to the Onitsha bridge-head where he dumped them. Many of them are now owners of their own farms and businesses in Ebonyi State. Still, he knows that his work is not done. He has acknowledged that Ebonyi requires rapid industrialization in order to earn the required IGR. Today, Ebonyi depends mainly on federal allocations to survive. So he has set the stage for building income-generating indutries. Ebonyi requires an airport. He has promised that. Ebonyi South requires a university of technology. That as well is on his do-do list. And there is the twin indices of potable water and rural electrification.
In the last governorship election, candidate Umahi campaigned with the smart slogan “Divine Mandate.” So is there an unseen hand that has been helping him to navigate the rough waters of Ebonyi politics? Perhaps. Afterall he crashed the party in 2015 by becoming the first deputy governor in Nigeria to defy his principal and ascend the throne. Some have argued that by performing these past three years, he was returning the divine favor that brought him to office. He would do well to continue to improve his political resume. His admirers and the beneficiaries of his large-scale philantropy are getting ready to vote for him again but his detractors would not make it easy for him. He has survived lawsuits. He has survived unjust criticisms. He has even survived death by bombing. But his life continues to run like an epic in which many cannot wait to see the sequel.
-CHRIS ONUORAH is a US-based media consultant. ([email protected]).