B orn on May 5, 1963, in a serene countryside of Ajekamai in Shendam local government of Plateau State, Simon Bako Lalong has emerged to provide the kind of leadership that rekindles fond memories of the legendary J.D. Gomwalk.
Following an era of devisive leadership, the people have been nostalgic about the kind of leadership that will restore Plateau to its lost glory.
Subsequent administrations, notably that of Chief Solomon Lar and J.C. Dariye contributed immensely to building a cohesive society, but the most audacious has been the work by the current administration in Plateau State led by Simon Lalong.
Lalong came into office as governor on May 29, 2015, when he was 52, crashing the template of a predecessor who suffered humiliation following his failed bid to entrench ethnicity as a state policy. Following the support he received across party lines, ethnic divides and religious fault lines, the governor rolled up his sleeves and plunged into his assignment with the needed zest.
Though the challenges appeared daunting having inherited a state with unpaid salary arrears of seven months and a debt profile of N220 billion, Lalong came fully kitted for the task ahead. Coming with a rich experience as an excellent administrator and manager of men and resources, garnered as the longest-serving Speaker in the history of Plateau State, he quickly identified patterns, spot opportunities, made the connections between pressing demands and limited resources.
Though he was of a different political leaning with that of his predecessor, he did not allow the partisan sentiment becloud his sense of judgment by taking on projects that had yet to be completed by the latter.
Believing that serving the people is more important than being politically correct, Lalong demonstrated honesty and integrity by decisively mobilizing contractors to site with sourced funds for the completion of projects, not bothering who started them as long as they are meant to serve the people of the state.
Before long, critical infrastructures, mainly road projects inherited from the last administration were completed in no time and were commissioned by no less a personality than President Muhammadu Buhari. The projects include the Mararaba Jamaâ€™a Expressway and the fly-over at the Secretariat junction in Jos, the state capital.
Lalong also completed and opened the Miango Low-cost, Rafiki Road networks with a spur at Domkat Bali Road and initiated projects like the Unguwar Rogo-Alikazaure Bridge which is nearing completion.
The governorâ€™s intervention in the agriculture sector has been revolutionary with the reopening of the fertilizer blending plant in Bokkos. He initiated and launched 400 tractors for distribution to farmers under the Tractor Ownership Scheme and Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Plateau State Government and the Plateau All Farmers Multipurpose Cooperative Society. Furthermore, no less than 800 trailers loaded with 24,000 metric tons of fertilizer were given to farmers at a subsidized rate, while the multimillion-naira Panyam Fish Farm has been revived and become operational.
Angry at the rot and decay in the education sector where the performance of the state at the WAEC-organised examination was very poor, the governor introduced reforms in the sector by employing and training about 700 teachers, constructing 500 new classrooms, and massively injecting funds into the primary education sector.
The Plateau State University, Bokkos earlier shut down by the previous administration was reopened, providing hope and opportunities for the teeming youths. More than 200 lecturers have been given scholarship for further studies within and outside the country.
But perhaps a greater work is in the area of social justice. Plateau State was in recent time known as a centre of crisis owing to the sectarian conflict that had engulfed the state. Lalong ensured social justice in all strata of governance leading to the return of peace.
Lopsidedness in appointments gave way to more inclusive representations and projects were not restricted to a geo-political area but spread evenly across the state for the benefit of all. More than 24 road projects, spread across the 17 local government areas in the state are ongoing. This has enhanced even development, attracting investors.
Security issues were also taken seriously and anywhere thereâ€™s a threat, the government responded promptly. Early warning signals were identified and nipped in the bud with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) institutionalised through the Peace Building Agency. The result is that commercial activities and personal enterprise began to thrive at a pace that had not been seen before. New hotels are springing up to meet up with demands of tourists pouring into the state. Jos is fast becoming the sought-after conference destination. In the past two weeks, for instance, tourism operators (NATOP), chairmen of State Electoral Commissions and town planners hosted their annual general meetings and conferences in Jos. The Nigerian Theatre Arts Festival (NUTAF) will bring together 45 universities along with about 10,000 artistes to perform at the Plateau State University next month in June.
Abandoned industries like the Highland Bottling Company are back on track while progress is being made to revive the moribund Jos International Breweries (JIB), Jos Main Market and other enterprises. Similarly, efforts at re-acquiring the multimillion-naira BARC farms are nearing completion.
In no time, the state has been readmitted into the club of those given serious consideration by the Federal Government for programmes and policies, a departure from the past where federal agencies were relocated out of the state. Today, Plateau State is benefiting from federal governmentâ€™s programmes and interventions schemes like the National Food Security Council, the Potato value chain, and social safety net intervention programmes.
Thus far the restoration of peace and regular payment of salaries are ranked amongst the greatest achievements of the Lalong administration. Lalong set a clear direction to motivate the workforce by clearing the backlog of inherited seven monthsâ€™ salary arrears. The regular up-to-date payments of emoluments have not only triggered productivity in the local economy but empowered traders, artisans, and entrepreneurs along the value chain.
The youths also benefited from skill acquisition programmes and starter-packs from a partnership with the Industrial Training Fund (ITF). Five hundred youths are today employers of labour, further reducing the number of unemployed youths and women in the state. The establishment of the Peace Building Agency and the historic launch of the Plateau Roadmap to Peace document by the President Buhari is the icing on the cake.
Governor Lalong started from a very humble background. He had his elementary and secondary schools education in Shendam Local Government Area. His quest for knowledge took him to the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1990 where he bagged a Bachelorâ€™s degree in Law. After graduating from the prestigious Law School in Lagos, he was called to the Bar. He later obtained a masterâ€™s degree in Law from the University of Jos in 1996. He started his professional career as an attorney between 1992 and 1998. Between 1992 and 1994 he was the Deputy Scribe of the Nigerian Bar Association in Plateau State.
He threw his hat into the political ring in 1998, contested and won election as a member of the Plateau State House of Assembly, representing Shendam Constituency. In October 2000, he became the Honourable Speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly, a position he occupied for a record seven years. He was two times elected chairman of the Conference of Speakers of the 36 states of Nigeria by his peers.
He maintained his integrity and closeness to the grass roots in the period between when he left office as Speaker and when he finally returned as the governor of Plateau State in 2015.
His humility and simplicity have continued to endear him to friends and foes alike, who are amazed that the perks and privileges of office have not changed him at all. He has remained passionate about improving the lot of the masses and is always willing to lend a helping hand, even at personal costs.
As he marks his 55th birthday today, the thought of the people and their prayer is that God should preserve him with good health and sound mind, to accomplish the good things he has set out to achieve for Plateau State.
As he returns from Washington DC where he made the list of the only two governors chosen to accompany President Muhammadu Buhari to the historic visit to the White House, Lalong keeps walking, crossing boundaries and building bridges for generations yet unborn. The intuitive and visionary leadership Lalong applies in a unique context, in governance has indeed raised the bar in public service.
Little wonder, this disciplined persona is honoured at home and celebrated abroad. Like a little lad born in a manger centuries ago, Lalong has emerged from the ashes of Ajikamai 55 years ago, to hold courts with world leaders at the Rose garden of the White House.
â€“Dati is the Plateau State Commissioner for Information and Communication