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Umo Eno: Of promises, controversies and reforms

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At the height of the gubernatorial campaign in Akwa Ibom State, Pastor Umo Eno, the then People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, made a strikingly unconventional promise on 15 March 2023. Addressing a massive crowd of supporters, he vowed to introduce a “Happy Hour” if elected governor, offering free drinks and perhaps food to the public. This pledge quickly became one of the most bizarre and audacious campaign promises in the history of elections, not just in the state but across Nigeria.

The public’s reaction was swift and severe. Major television stations and newspapers seized upon the story, analyzing, criticizing, and even ridiculing Eno for proposing a celebratory giveaway amid an economy grappling with uncountable challenges. Analysts and commentators questioned the wisdom of such a promise, especially given the economic reality of the state, which painted a bleak picture of fiscal health.

However, the real issue went beyond the “Happy Hour” promise. As an investigative journalist, I delved deeper into Eno’s background and found a few things which were disturbing. Conversations with his serving and past employees revealed a starkly different picture of the businessman-turned-politician. Descriptions of Eno portrayed him as anti-labour, vindictive, and highly reactionary, with none of his staff willing to speak positively about him.

I reached out to him by telephone and a chat on the micro-blogging platform, WhatsApp. In a response that was terse and straight to the point, he denied the allegations and challenged his accusers to come forward and state their cases. Although I wasn’t convinced, I, however, let go after we published a report detailing everything we found.

Not long after we ran the initial story, I received a call from a close friend and confidant in Uyo. He urged me to cut Mr. Eno some slack, suggesting that, behind closed doors, there were signs the man might prove better than the negative press he had been receiving. Weeks later, this same friend contacted me again with a surprising update.

“Da, I learned that Umo Eno had a closed-door meeting with labor leaders in Uyo. He was visibly disappointed by how workers have been treated and assured them he would address the issues of pensioners and the backlog of promotion arrears as soon as he takes office,” my friend said. “Mbok (please), don’t write another story about him. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt,” he pleaded.

On 19 March 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Mr. Eno the winner of the Akwa Ibom gubernatorial election, naming him governor-elect. Many Akwa Ibomites, including myself, were skeptical that Mr. Eno would not deviate from the usual political script we’ve seen in the state. However, keeping my promise, I refrained from writing anything about the new governor until recently.

It was only a few days ago, I decided it was time to break the silence with an investigative report titled, “How Governor Umo Eno Spent over N18bn on ‘Happy Hour.’” The piece delves into the intricacies of his controversial campaign promise and examines whether his administration has started on a path to genuine reform or if it is simply a continuation of political theatrics. To know what we found, you can search for and read the story online.

But it seems the governor came prepared for the job although many have insisted that he is slow and should put on the raiment of an evangelist who is in a hurry to win souls for the Lord.  Of course, the governor is a pastor and knows that time is of essence and that was why not long after he was sworn into office on 29 May 2023, he approved the first tranche of money to defray the backlog of gratuities, promotion arrears, and leave grants for civil servants in the state. That to me was a fast move and a step in the right direction.

At the same time, a viral video caught my attention. It showed the governor walking down the Government House lawn, where he encountered some children playing on the other side of the fence. He stopped and beckoned the kids to come closer. As they approached, he shook hands with some of them, asked their names, and shared a bit of his personal story.

“I am a police child too…and I grew up in the barracks like you,” Governor Eno told the children in his light baritone voice. “I want you to take your studies very seriously so that one day you will also become a governor, a senator, a president, a doctor, a lawyer. Ok?”

As the children responded excitedly, he continued, “Don’t let anyone deceive you that a police child cannot do well. You are what God says you will be.” In a gesture reminiscent of the Godswill Akpabio era, he handed a white envelope to the children, waved goodbye, and watched as they hurried back to the barracks where they live with their parents. That to me was a masterstroke.

By September 2023, as the government was preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Akwa Ibom’s creation, a source inside the Hilltop Mansion informed me that a budget slightly over N1 billion had been presented to the governor for approval. Given the lavish spending of previous administrations on similar programmes, no one anticipated what Governor Eno would do next.

“O’boy, the governor don run dem street,” my source told me, meaning the governor had disappointed them. “He cut down the money drastically and insisted that he would not allow such an amount to be deployed for the celebration.”

I found it surprising that a man who had promised to organise a “Happy Hour” with subsidised booze and culinary pleasures every Friday across the state was now taking a different direction. I knew that people from neighboring states like Abia, Rivers, and Cross River were eagerly awaiting the announcement of the “Happy Hour” so they could flock to Akwa Ibom to enjoy subsidised food and drinks. After all, who doesn’t like better things?

This unexpected shift in Governor Eno’s approach made many wonder about his true intentions and the path his administration would ultimately take. It was later learnt that the funds saved from that budget cut was used in a most “profligate” manner.

As part of the programmes to mark the state’s creation, a Made-In-Akwa Ibom Trade Fair was launched at the Ibom E-Library on 23 September 2023. Hundreds of small-scale manufacturers flocked to the E-Library grounds to showcase their products and services.

The governor’s instructions were clear and direct: “I want people to exhibit what we have done in our state—fashion, shoes, and not much of agricultural products because you can go and buy things from anywhere and say it is from your local governments.”

Providing more context, he added, “We want to see entrepreneurs come out. If you are an entrepreneur in Akwa Ibom and want to be counted, this fair is for you. That’s where we are going to draw a pool of people that are truly small and medium-scale business entrepreneurs, and we will then begin to work with them.”

And he followed through. A register was opened at the venue of the trade fair, where entrepreneurs registered their companies and were assigned stands to display their products. According to some participants, no one was asked which political party they supported during the last election. No one was questioned about their church or religious beliefs. The only criteria was being Akwa Ibom and having locally manufactured products.

Immediately 400 participants were registered, the management of Ibom Leadership and Entrepreneurial Development Center (Ibom-LED) organisers of the trade fair closed the register.

The fair was a genuine celebration of local enterprise, bringing together a diverse array of talent and innovation from across the state, united by a common goal of showcasing Akwa Ibom’s entrepreneurial spirit. But that was not all there was to the programme. The government provided a N250 million grant to Ibom-LED for the training and mobilisation of the registered entrepreneurs.

After the first batch of 400 entrepreneurs completed their three-month training and graduated, the Ibom-LED programme admitted another batch of 400 indigenous entrepreneurs and put them through the same rigorous training for another three months.

The graduation event was a dazzling affair, filled with glitz and glamour. Governor Eno awarded each of the 800 entrepreneurs a grant of N500,000, encouraging them to grow, scale, and create wealth. This initiative, apart from former Governor Victor Attah’s fully-funded scholarships for youths to study abroad in key professional areas, stands out as one of the well-conceived projects in the state’s history. The Ibom-LED capacity-building programme promises not only to transform the landscape of business and entrepreneurship in Akwa Ibom but also to spur manufacturing and improve service delivery.

The excitement and optimism among the graduates were palpable, as they embarked on their entrepreneurial journeys with newfound skills and financial support. The initiative represents a significant step towards fostering a vibrant local economy and empowering the next generation of business leaders in Akwa Ibom.

But Governor Eno did something spectacular during the grant award ceremony. Jones Akpan, an entrepreneur with special ability and chief executive officer of Jones Manufacturing, received more than just a handshake from the governor. Mr. Akpan, a bespoke shoe manufacturer, was invited to present one of his products to Governor Eno.

As Mr. Akpan made his way to the front of the Banquet Hall, where the event took place and prepared to hand over the shoes, Governor Eno did the unthinkable. He went down on his knees to be at eye level with Mr. Akpan, gave him a hearty handshake, and accepted the shoes. Then, standing up, he pulled the shoes from their packaging and excitedly showed them to the crowd. He immediately ordered the relevant commissioner to provide Mr. Akpan with a means of mobility and additional funds for his business.

To me, that gesture was a profound display of humility and respect, something that is very rare among leaders in our clime. It underscored the governor’s commitment to inclusivity and support for entrepreneurs, regardless of their physical challenges.

However, in a very degrading portrayal of the gesture, many writers chose to underscore Mr. Akpan’s physical disability rather than highlighting his ingenuity and resilience. One such story was titled “When Pastor Umo Eno Empowered Crawling Jones.” The writer sensationalised Mr. Akpan’s condition in a manner that was clearly humiliating, very disrespectful, and highly insensitive.

By framing the story in a way that demeaned Mr. Akpan, the writer completely missed the essence of the governor’s persona, which embodies empathy, respect, and humility. The act of stooping down to eye level to accept the shoes from Mr. Jones was meant to highlight mutual respect and recognition of talent, irrespective of physical challenges. Unfortunately, the reportage not only undermined this message but also violated the core principles of journalistic ethics, which call for fairness and non-discrimination.

The story should have celebrated Mr. Akpan’s accomplishments and the governor’s sincere support, reflecting the positive impact of their encounter. As journalists, we are bound by the ethics of our profession, which forbid us from discriminating against people. The Code of Ethics of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) clearly states, “A journalist should refrain from making derogatory reference to a person’s ethnic group, religion, sex, or to any physical or mental illness or handicap.” This principle is further supported by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Nigeria is a signatory.

While the governor is rightly commended for his act of humility and empathy, the writer of the story should acknowledge their mistake and apologise to Mr. Akpan. However, this commentary is not merely about seeking an apology. It is about highlighting the need for responsible journalism that respects the dignity of individuals and upholds ethical standards. Governor Eno’s gesture was a moment to celebrate inclusivity and respect, and it should have been reported as such.

Away from the dent that was brought to the governor’s sincere action by a sensational reporter, a particularly inspiring initiative stands out: the one project per local government area. This initiative embodies a bottom-up development approach that aligns seamlessly with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What makes this initiative so compelling is the power it gives to the people—the people themselves decide on the project to be undertaken in their area.

By allowing communities to select projects based on their specific needs, the government is fostering sustainable development and ensures active community participation. This method not only meets immediate needs but also strengthens the bond between the government and the people it serves.

In many parts of the state, some of these community-chosen projects have already been inaugurated and are actively benefiting the people. Currently, the government continues to collaborate with local leaders and stakeholders to identify and initiate projects in other council areas, ensuring no community is left behind.

This approach marks a significant departure from the practices of two previous governors, who prioritised the development of their own local government areas before addressing the needs of others—a misapplied concept of “Charity begins at home.” When the resources of an entire state are at stake, charity must encompass the whole state. The one project per local government area initiative is a testament to a more equitable and inclusive approach to governance. It highlights the importance of listening to the people and addressing their needs directly, ensuring that development is not only sustainable but also genuinely beneficial to all.

Curiously, the governor had for a long time been opting for Ibom Air rather than the state-owned private aircraft. This decision puzzled many until the Secretary to the State Government, Enobong Uwa, revealed plans to lease the state-owned jet. The announcement underscored the governor’s commitment to cutting costs and reallocating funds for the state’s development.

During my recent visit to Akwa Ibom State, I had the distinct opportunity to attend a briefing by Governor Umo Eno. It was my first time back at the Government House since 2012, when I was there with a team from Al Jazeera TV English for a documentary. This visit, facilitated by the Daily Trust Foundation, was for a training programme for investigative journalists in the South-South region.

At the briefing, I made a strong and urgent appeal to the governor on behalf of the people of seven villages in Ibesikpo Clan. I urged him to reconsider the planned acquisition of 313 hectares of land from our villages. I explained the critical nature of the issue to our community, and the need for immediate and thoughtful attention.

I want to extend my sincere gratitude to the governor for his prompt and considerate response. It is the hallmark of genuine leadership—listening to the people and thoughtfully considering their perspectives. Additionally, I want to thank the Honorable Commissioner for Lands, Captain Iniobong Ekong (Rtd), for his dedicated efforts to resolve the issue amicably.

Over the past year, Akwa Ibom State has experienced significant transformation, inclusive governance, and improved respect for the rule of law. For these and many other reasons, Pastor Eno deserves high commendation. His leadership is not only shaping the future of our state but also ensuring that the voices of its people are heard and respected. This is the kind of governance that builds trust and fosters sustainable development for all.

For those who have never seen me lavish praise on a politician, let me assure you that this is not a case of blind admiration or “praise and worship.” If tomorrow, the governor falters and fails in his duties to the people, he should be ready to receive a stern “love letter,” not just from me but also from many of his admirers who wish him nothing but the best.

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