By Paul Obi
“In the long history of the world; Only a few generations have been given the role of defending freedom, in its hour of maximum danger, I do not shrink from that responsibility; I welcome it” – J.F. Kennedy
The stakes are really high in Cross River State. Yet, make no mistake about her, Cross River wears a soothing ambiance and tenor of natural beauty, peace, friendliness and calmness. Even in an era where Nigeria is trapped in all sordid tales of leadership, Cross River people can still thank their God that theirs is a lot better, compare to other climes. At least, the vagaries of Iberiberism are not near her shores, and they would perpetually remain afar. Under its stellar Governor, Sen. Prof. Benedict Bengioushuye (No one knows tomorrow) Ayade, Cross River has primarily faced industrialization as her current masterplan. The plan appears to have taken off, with the footprints of industrialization dotting the state on a continous basis. What Cross River actually needs is to unplug her raw material potentials and entrench industrialization. With Ayade, that has been the roadmap so far. With the establishment of the Cocoa Processing Factory in Ikom, Rice Mill in Ogoja and Garment Factory in Calabar, the Ayade’s administration has left an indelible mark in the annals of history in the state. Given his international focus, Ayade should facilitate the setting up of cottage industries across the 18 local government areas. Just as the government has started with the provision of factory machines for Groundnut in Bekwara, more modern and industrialized factories should be established in places like Boki, Etung and Obubra for the milling of Palm Oil.
Despite these lofty achievements, Cross River of recent have been sliding into the conclave of negative news. And that has to do with the arrest of Agba Jalingo, a journalist and publisher of Cross River Watch, an online platform. And also the arrest of Barr Joseph Odok in Abuja. Both arrests are linked to the powers that be in Calabar. The sad news is that with Agba’s arrest, whenever Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other international press freedom advocates and human rights bodies in France, London, New York and Geneva draw those their sharp maps indicating locations where journalists are being persecuted, Cross River State, will regrettably be in such maps.
Of a truth, this writer do not know Agba Jalingo in person and have never met him, only through phone conversation as a fellow journalist and Cross Riverian have we bonded together. Yet, the shame of having our lovely Cross River State as a state where journalists are clamped down and thrown to jail on a flimsy excuse of unlawful assembly and protest is very telling and chilling on the reputation of the the state, popularly known as the Nation’s Paradise. Afterall, Cross River is not a state where dollar is falling or entering deep babariga. In such states, once a journalist writes about Gandollar, he or she is jailed, even if a comedian makes jokes or musician sings about Gandollar, he or she is quickly arrested by the Police and thrown into jail. Even when you use Kakaki or a Saxophone to sing about Gandollar, you will put yourself in trouble. That is not an attribute Cross River should share.
In fact, the plea and request for Ayade to help release Agba and Odok from jail is also not borne out of any insinuation that the Governor is responsible for Agba’s sad ordeal and predicament. Rather, it emanates from the zeal and resolve that Cross River should not be among states where freedom of speech, press freedom, free movement and assembly are inhibited or obstructed by the state or any law.
Having worked with Gov. Ayade then as a senator, I can attest that he has the mien of a good man, and that of listening leader. Ayade’s decision to set aside N10 billion as Intervention Fund to assist indigenes who may have health and other challenges is a pointer to his charitable character. Granted, his desire for perfection might sometimes undo his plans, his intentions and desires are never out of place. Though we have never communed since his entrant into Pellegrino House, I should have the firm conviction that he has not been overdosed by the paraphernalia of office. The late former Minister of Information and Communication, and Environment, Mr John Odey (God bless his soul) had wanted me to meet with Gov. Ayade during Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) convention in Abuja, the tight schedule could not permit it. Still, I believe the governor still remains the same, and with a good heart, capable of forgiving anyone who might have wronged him. The case of Agba should therefore not be an exception in the eyes of Ayade. More so, it is my candid opinion that the clamp down on Agba Jalingo is really a bad omen to the state. It is indicative of the use of brute force, twisting of the law and targeting of a journalist to sort of ‘teach him a lession.’ If that was the case, enough lesson has been learnt already. Let the state government facilitate the release of Agba and let him go home.
Yes, Agba’s fishing expedition in the realm of criticism and watchdog role might not have been well received within Pelligrino House, Calabar, but his consciousness for accountability and transparency still falls within the purview of democratic rights of the citizenry. If the truth be told, Agba was a formidable member of Ayade’s team in his first term. He was a staunch supporter of the governor in the last four years. If things have gone wrong, it is not too late to make amend. Afterall, there is no waste bin to throw even a bad child. Gov. Ayade should use his right hand to reprimand his brother and draw him closer with the left hand. Moreover, it is also pertinent to reach out to other critical stakeholders in the state such as the Cross River State First Lady, Dr Linda Ayade, Senators Sandy Onor, Gershom Bassey and Rose Oko; Speaker of the Cross River State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Eteng Williams, Hon. John Gaul Lebo, Secetary to the State Government(SSG), Barr Tina Agbor, the Commissioner of Police, CP Austin Agbonlahor among others to liaise with the governor and do all they can to free Agba and Barr Odok from the Police net.
While the plea for the release of Agba Jalungo forms the fulcrum of this write up, there are other salient issues that are also worthy of mentioning to the Governor. As the second term takes effect, Gov. Ayade should be concerned about the legacies he will bequeath to the state. At the moment, there appears to be disenchantment and discontent about the level of governance in the state. Many Cross Riverians are worried that some persons who do not wish the governor and the state well are now capitalizing on the 250 Km Super Highway to steal and destroy Cross River State forest and ecosystem. There have been hues and cry over the destruction of the forest by cronies close to the government. The angst is based on the fact that the forest is what makes Cross River State thick and unique. Take that away, and the state is empty. Some have also argued that a new 250 Km Super Highway is not a perfect project for the state. They opined that if the government is eager to have a super highway, it is better to reconstruct the existing federal highway from Calabar to Cross River North. This will be more strategic and will save the state resources. There are also concerns about the plan to build a new airport in Obudu, many Cross Riverians feel that such airport will be a white elephant project.
Added to that are accusations of clannishness against the government, which the governor might completely not be involved. For instance, the recent sale of cars and utility vehicles by the state government to some citizens have gone the wrong way, as some impostors were said to have gone round Calabar impounding the cars without refunding the money for the cars purchased. In the last four years, the tendency to show that ‘this is our turn’ by poet-sycophants within the corridors of power has quadrupled. Governance in Cross River has never been about tongue or the creed you profess; tribe nor religion. It has always been based on competence and capacity. Former Governors Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke even empowered people outside their local governments than expected. Gov. Ayade should therefore correct that ill-fated trend in the state.
On infrastructure, there is an urgent need for the completion of the Yaheh – Okpoma – Okuku – Abuochiche – Obudu Road. The completion of that road will change the economic fortunes of the state and place Ayade in good books of history in the state. More so, the state government should expedite action in connecting and completing the Eastern Boki and Western Boki Road – from Abo to Boje, and finally linking Kakwagom – Oku – Nduk – Ogoja Junction Road. In ensuring that these strategic roads are completed, the Ayade’s government would have scaled up the state’s rural economy, including improving the livelihoods of Cross Riverians within those axis. Efforts should also be made to tap into the rice potentials of Abi and Yakurr Local Governments in order to achieve optimum results in youth employment. It is also critical that the state government pay adequate attention to Akamkpa. Being one of the economic nerve centres of the state, it is germane to provide efficient infrastructure in the area. Let the focus go beyond extraction of mineral resources to uplifting the masses from poverty.
Instructively, Ayade should pay more attention to his anticipated legacies and the need to be on the side of history. The mood outside and the pulse of the people has been that of lamentation and regrets. Ayade should discard poet-sycophants and keep his eyeballs on the golden crown that awaits him in 2023. He can only attain that feat by providing good governance, developing Cross River, improving healthcare, science and technology, education, farming, infrastructure; training and equipping healthcare workers and teachers and helping Cross Riverians out of poverty. On politics, there is an urgency for the governor to conduct local government elections and ensure that the state government stay away from local governments funds.
More importantly, Prof. Bengioushuye should avoid the lure of power and the vibes of grandiose and flamboyant projects. Governance and policies should not be ensnared by kinetic obscurantism. Victory is his, there should be no room for distraction. Ayade should earnestly align himself with honest, experienced and dedicated technocrats. All the courts of jesters and praise-singers that now litter Calabar should be burnt down completely, while those with sincere and objective criticism should be embraced. As former US President, John F. Kennedy posited in the above quote, every generation has a rare opportunity to change the world for the better, it’s Ayade’s turn to transform Cross River, he should be resolute and magnanimous in delivering the goods. That can begin with the release of Agba Jalingo and Joseph Odok from incarceration and being real with the onerous task of development. There should be no alternative to freedom of speech and pursuit of progress and development. Otherwise, the predictable consequences of stifling free speech and an all-too casual approach to governance will be telling and dangerous to the state. Cross River should therefore work for the interest of all her citizens; including clap-trap supporters and critics as well even when they falter.