Udeme Nana is a media scholar and teacher. He is the founder of Uyo Book Club, a community initiative intended to revive the reading culture among the youths and lovers of knowledge. He was the director of Press Affairs to former Governor Obong Victor Attah, unarguably, the father of modern Akwa Ibom State. Attah, an elder statesman who was at the forefront of the agitation for fiscal federalism and resource control will be 85 years old on Monday, November, 20. In this interview with Aniefiok Udonquak, he recounts the legacy projects embarked upon by the former governor which he said have had a profound impact on the development of the state and insists that the one-time chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum and President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects deserves to be celebrated while still alive. Excerpts:
May we know some of the things Obong Victor Attah did differently during his tenure?
During his tenure, he brought maturity, he brought vision, he brought an open large-hearted disposition to the administration of the state. He did not know where anybody came from in his appointments, in his location of projects. His focus was on the development of Akwa Ibom State. Even in terms of recruitment of people who worked with him. In fact, it was only a few years ago that he knew where I came from and he was surprised. He asked me,’ “So you are from Ini,” I said ‘yes,’ he did not know. And this was a governor who was quite cerebral. He gave Akwa Ibom a voice in the national arena. He was a go-to governor for public lectures all over the country on critical issues affecting the nation, whether it was in the field of Agriculture, in the field of security, in the field of true federalism, fiscal federalism, constitutionalism, Obong Attah was a go-to governor at that time because he was a well-trained fellow. Well trained professional specialising in environmental planning, an architect. His profession influenced him in the way he managed Akwa Ibom.
Do you think many people understood his vision for Akwa Ibom State?
He was deliberate in everything he tried to do, even though at that time, a lot of people misunderstood him. For instance, when he embarked on the policy of urban renewal to make the city centre, that is popularly called Ibom Connection, when he embarked on that programme, a lot of people did not understand it, they thought he was going to construct a flyover but you can now see the beauty of that city centre with a lot of shops. Unfortunately, over time, the vision that made Obong Attah to restructure that place has not been followed through. He did not envisage street trading. He wanted a situation whereby the small holder traders would have shops within the complex. There are shops that could accommodate most of those people who trade on the streets. So that was his vision to mobilise the small holder-traders who did not own shops, get them into those shops and create a shopping mall around there and also make for a free flow of traffic. That was the vision surrounding the renewal of the place and that was one vision that he was misunderstood.
And the airport project also generated controversy when it was initiated.
When he envisioned the airport, a lot of people, even people who were in a position to know better said Akwa Ibom did not need an airport. People argued that there was an airport in Calabar, why would Akwa Ibom need an airport, but today, I am excited and happy and I feel fulfilled because the vision that Obong Attah had for that sector has borne him out. Take for instance, the state of the Calabar-Itu road now, people sleep on that road for two days, if you have an urgent business to go to Calabar, to go to Lagos from Calabar and then you got stuck on the road. It was usually a bad dream to travel on that road for people who are still around now, who move along that road, they know what I am talking about. So, he was so focused, he knew where he was heading to and stamped that airport on the ground. He used to tell me ‘look, even is I cannot build that airport, I want a situation where I cordoned off an area because in 20 to 30 years, Akwa Ibom will need an airport, but it did not take 20 years, in a matter of a few years, In fact, it took just two years after he left office, the first plane landed and since that first plane landed, that airport has become a hub not only in the South-South but in the South-East in this part of the country. It is one of the most viable airports, you can see someone who had a vision. Fortunately, to the credit of the former governor, that airport was named in his honour and in his lifetime. I really want to use this opportunity to appreciate the former governor, Udom Emmanuel for honouring Obong Attah in his lifetime. The culture in Nigeria has been that people receive such honour when they die but in this case, the man who envisioned and stamped the airport project on the ground and made it possible for Akwa Ibom people to enjoy that means of transportation while still alive and that honour was done to him by the state.
One other project that was initiated during his tenure was the Science Park, but it was abandoned?
The other vision that he had, which would have transformed Akwa Ibom into a tech hub was the science park. I remember when we visited the US, and we visited Silicon Valley, Obong Attah came back with a resolve to replicate Silicon Valley here in Akwa Ibom.and he took steps to do that but unfortunately, that project was not followed through to a conclusion. You can imagine that if that project had been followed through, Akwa Ibom would have been an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) hub in this country today. It would have been the go-to place, a licence was approved for that area as an export processing zone. And so every service, every project, that could have been done in that place, would have been for export. There were companies who signed up to come and operate from there but unfortunately, that vision was not followed through. Just like the deep sea port, it was Obong Attah who envisioned the deep sea port but we have lost about 16 years, you can imagine if Akwa Ibom had the airport with all the component units, including the Maintain, Overhaul and Repair (MRO) facility, the science and technology park, 15 years ago, you can imagine if Akwa Ibom had the deep sea port, imagine the level of employment of our young people. Imagine the multiplier effect of having those big projects in Akwa Ibom.
So Obong Attah did a lot of things, look at the golf course. The best in the whole of West Africa did not exist, he created it and on Saturday, all you need to do is go to Ibom Icon hotel, you will see people who trooped in from everywhere, just come in there, spend the weekend there and on Monday morning, they fly back to their destinations because of the golf course. So when he imagined the need for a hotel, he saw beyond a hotel providing hospitality services. He wanted to put something that will attract a certain calibre of business people. Attract people to locations where they have extra things to do. So people can decide to go to Uyo for a meeting because they can stop in the evening, play golf in the morning and also relax. Today, the golf course represents a sustainable legacy, the result of an uncommon vision in the development of this state. Is it in the area of interventions in projects like water supply, electricity, renovation of schools or even the roads, we now have in the state. All the ring roads were opened up by Obong Attah. He was the one who designed the capital territory. And he said he did not want Uyo to be another Lagos where you have traffic hold ups everywhere where you can spend five hours in the traffic. And so influenced by his experiences, he wanted Uyo capital city to enjoy that free flow of traffic and that informed the idea of having ring roads criss-crossing the state capital. Let me also commend the governments that have developed the ring roads. Maybe if Obong Attah did not design the ring roads, if he did not secure the right of way by paying compensation, so when other governments came in, it was easier for them to open up those roads, so the idea of having those roads was Obong Attah’s.
The Akwa Ibom State University of Science Technology has been changed into a conventional university, how has this altered the original vision of the former governor?
The University of Science and Technology was to be a flagship university in the country where he was going to make sure that that university did not experience a strike by workers. He had a plan for that university to pay its way and run without government subsidy because the kind of faculties he wanted to develop but the vision to have a university of science and technology was truncated after he left office because that university was turned into yet another conventional university. Quite related to the university and the airport project, was his intervention in capacity building. There was this politics of non-employment of people of Akwa Ibom then, and the excuse given by Mobil was that Akwa Ibom did not have the requisite manpower to be employed. The perception was that Akwa Ibom youths were unemployable because they did not have the skills and the qualifications. So when Obong Attah envisaged the technology-driven projects, he decided to mobilise Akwa Ibom youths and offered them scholarships to go abroad and specialise in various aspects of engineering, fire service, etc. Today, thanks to the vision of Obong Attah, the Akwa Ibom community in Canada has exceeded more than 200 people. In giving visionary leadership to Akwa Ibom people, Obong Attah compares favorably with the late Obafemi Awolowo who ensured that the Yorubas moved up to the number one position in this country.
What is the reason behind the formation of the Uyo book club?
We talk about free education in Akwa Ibom State, it was Obong Attah who did it. He started the policy of paying West African Examination Council fees for final year students in secondary schools. So for me, it is always a delight whenever the month of November comes and I take it upon myself to celebrate him, to acknowledge his strides, to celebrate a father figure, broadminded in his vision, a humble man. Today, Obong Attah at 85 years of age, after leaving office as governor is still practising his profession as an architect. He is a gift to Akwa Ibom and he should be celebrated. That is why the Uyo book club. Which is my private community service initiative set up basically to encourage our people to embrace the culture of reading again, to promote reading, that is why every year, every November 20th, we organise a lecture to celebrate aspects of his contributions to the development of this state.