Nigerians from across the country and foreign dignitaries would squeeze into the 30,000-capacity stadium in Uyo on Saturday, December 9, to celebrate the 61st birthday of the Senate President, Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio. They will sing, dance, and give thanks to the Almighty for the life and strides of one of the nation’s most charismatic political leaders. Five days later in Abuja, they’d congregate in the Congress Hall of the Hilton Hotel for a national colloquium on Legislative Agenda for National Development to continue festivity. President Bola Tinubu will be there with Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, former Senate President, who will chair the occasion; while Olisa Agbakoba, eminent lawyer, will give the lecture. Two law teachers, Prof. Abiola Sanni, a University of Lagos professor of commercial lawyer with specialty in tax law and Prof. Joash Amupitan, DVC of UniJos, together with Mr. Tunder Fowler, former FIRS Chairman, will discuss the theme and add their own perspectives. With the country facing serious fiscal crisis, it is not surprising that the discussions would be tilting towards taxation, government’s revenue and how to grow the economy.
In between these two events, many other festivities in Akwa Ibom and across the country are being organized by Akpabio’s friends, political allies and colleagues. In a way, it feels like a big national event. The news is trending in the social media and in Abuja, radio talk shows are playing it up, with some repeating the fake information that the celebrations are being funded from the treasury. Akpabio’s media adviser, Mr. Eseme Eyibo, had earlier debunked the story, originated by Jackson Ude, a Nigerian in Diaspora notorious for spawning untruths about politicians. I have had cause in the past, while serving as media consultant to the Office of the Vice President when Prof. Yemi Osinbajo was in the office, to rebut Ude’s fabrications. There’s no prominent family Ude has not assailed. Living abroad gives him some kind of immunity to denigrate others.
Raised by a single mother (his father died even before he was born), Akpabio is from a very modest beginning. He loves to tell his story, lacing it with his civil war childhood, when Nigerian soldiers ransacked his community, killing and maiming, and how difficult it was for him to go to school. Biafra’s second-in-command, Gen. Phillip Efiong, grew up in that community, and so the rebel forces had quickly taken control of the area. In his memoire, Efiong recalls how he had asked Ojukwu for enhanced protection for his community because of the intelligence he had received of the impending counteroffensive by the federal side. The request, Efiong writes, was not granted. As the war progressed and Biafra continued to lose control, Nigerian forces came into Ikot Ekpene and the environs around late 1968 or early 1969 to liberate the area. They spared no person or animal. Women and children poured into the main road leading to Uyo, running and walking the 30-kilometer distance, to escape the fight. As governor, Senator Akpabio was fond of reminiscing on this story and the abject poverty of his early days. A toddler about the same time, I have also had cause to reminisce on my own war experience.
Akpabio, his family and many who know him closely tend to believe that he is a man after God’s heart for beating all odds and growing up to occupy very important leadership positions at every phase of his life. From secondary school (Federal Government College, Port Harcourt), where he was the Social Prefect to University of Calabar where he was Speaker of the Students’ Union Parliament, down to his recent election into the Executive Committee of Inter-Parliamentary Union, his path seems to be well laid out. ‘’Well, he has his foibles and weaknesses like the rest of us, but clearly, if you look at his background and humble beginnings and see where he is today, you can say that he is a man whom God has a special interest in’’, says Pastor David Usenobong, a church leader.
Senator Akpabio’s election into the Executive Committee of IPU at the 147th General Assembly of the global parliamentary body in Luanda, Angola, comes 59 years after Nigeria last occupied the seat. IPU is the global organization of national parliaments founded in 1889 and dedicated to promoting peace through parliamentary diplomacy and dialogue. It has grown into a truly global body with 179-member countries out of 193 countries in the world. You can then see why many are celebrating with Senator Akpabio, with the 17 senators from his own geopolitical zone cheerleading. In a goodwill message to be published in newspapers, they write: ’we salute your accomplished service to the 10th National Assembly and Nigeria at large’. Friends, family and associates are equally effusive with their compliments. Dr. Efiong Akwa, former chief executive of NDDC notes, ‘’when the hand of God is upon a man, what follows naturally is grace. The same man becomes unstoppable, moving from glory to glory…’’. Akpabio’s four children have also composed a special message to daddy: ‘’Today is a celebration, not just of the passing years, but of the incredible life you’ve lived. Six decades of your wisdom, love and laughter have shaped not only your own journey, but have left an incredible mark on ours as well’’.
Gov. Umo Eno has asked the people to toss aside political differences and celebrate with Senator Akpabio. ‘’I will be there at the stadium on Saturday to celebrate with the Senate President, and I invite you to attend in your numbers. I thank God that it is in my time that an Akwa Ibom son has been elected to occupy such an important position in the country’’, he announced at an official event Wednesday. The state has always been politically divided along party lines, but since Eno assumed office six months ago, he’s worked hard to close ranks and bring the people together. This is the first time that a governor of the state has ever had anything to do with opposition politicians or invite them to state functions. It is a refreshing departure from the past.
As I end, let me recall a small incident. In February 2008, Akpabio asked me to see him at the Governor’s Lodge, along Bishop Abayode Cole Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. He was then just eight months into his first term as governor and I was managing a branch of a bank not far from there. His personal physician, Dr. Iniobong Essien, had arranged the appointment. I arrived in the afternoon just as his motorcade swept into the compound, and I was soon ushered in. It was a brief visit. The governor thanked me for teaming up with other friends in Lagos to support his campaign and spoke of his plans to develop the state. I said a few words and soon, I got up to go. He stood up and walked me to the door, and just as I was about to exit, I said, quite impromptu, ‘’Your Excellency, please serve our people well. There is a bigger room for you at the top’’. He smiled, without saying a word. Well, 15 years after, see what we’ve got.
Congratulations, Senator Akpabio!