Imoke: The Itigidi High Prince and Colossus at 59

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By Paul Obi

‘Experience hunters do not just choose their prey by how easily it is caught; they want the thrill of the chase, a life and dead struggle – the fiercer the better… An air of sadness is also in itself quite seductive.’ – Robert Greene

When Nigeria’s democracy was resurrected and excavated from its military induced grave in 1999, there were well-groomed, resolute and young leaders that many looked up to stir the country’s leadership to greatness. They were fearless, and frontally, they pursued their political goals with rigour and sophistry. There were others who watched and waited for the bad weather to subside, but got scared away. The willed and strong ones pushed on and had the crown. With that glory, political power was at their behest, with which to shape the past, present and the future. Among the pack of such leaders was Sen. Liyel Imoke, former Governor of Cross River State. As one of the founders of Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) in Cross River State, Imoke’s approach could be likened to what Americans called ‘taking the first bullet for the rest of the team,’ such that he remained selflessly on the fringes for so long. And when he ventured out in 2007, he was like the last Masquerade, saving the best for the last – with spectacular alacrity. The Boki people often called such Masquerade, Atogetoge, its main task is to serenade the cheering crowd at the end, calm their nerves and dispel evil from the land.

But even before the rebirth of democracy in 1999, Imoke had triumphantly made history by becoming one of the youngest Senator in Nigeria’s history at the age of 30. Till date, no one has been able to unearth that political mystery on how Imoke emerged Senator under the defunct National Republican Convention(NRC). If that was not enough, it’s still mystic how Imoke and then Governor, Dr Clement Ebri, could win elections in both governorship and senatorial elections coming from the same local government in 1992. That feat is almost near-impossible in today’s political arithmetic. Even in the realm of voodoo politics, the talisman will surely render the totems for such political invocation impotent.

Born on 10 July, 1961 in Ibadan, Oyo State to former Commissioner of Health, South Eastern Region of Nigeria, Dr Samuel Imoke from Itigidi, Abi Local Government Area of Cross River State, Sen. Imoke attended the historical Catholic school, Mary Knoll College, Okuku, Ogoja and Federal Government College, Enugu. In Enugu, Imoke would meet his beautiful wife, Obioma Liyel Imoke, the Oso dì Emè 1 of Cross River State Niinè. He would later proceed to University of Maryland to study International Relations and Economics. Imoke also bagged an LLB from the University of Buckingham, United Kingdom(UK), capping it with an LLM from the American University in Washington D.C. Imoke since his return to Nigeria in 1988, has held sway in several fields, from law, telecommunications, commerce to oil and gas. These experiences, as history has proven would become relevant tracks in his political and public life. As democracy beckoned in 1999, former President Olusegun Obasanjo would tap Imoke as one of the young appointees in the administration as a Special Adviser on Public Utilities. In 2003, he was made the Minister of Power where he spearheaded sustainable reforms including the establishment of Rural Electrification Agency(REA), National Electricity Regulatory Commission(NERC) and was also instrumental to the unbundling of the power sector. In 2007, Imoke would emerged Governor of Cross River State.

As the then Chief Executive, Imoke provided appropriate gubernatorial leadership that anyone could envisage Cross River as a state with the prospect of competing with Lagos and becoming a global tourists’ destination in the mould of St. Tropez, located off the coast of South East France. His footprints; from rural roads, modernisation of schools, health care service delivery were all hallmarks of good governance. In human capital development, Imoke sensing the strategy role of multinationals, specifically, General Electric arrival in Nigeria, quickly established the Institute of Technology and Management (ITM), Ugep to educate young Cross Riverians on skills acquisition. Today, no one is certain what has become of that ITM.

On style, Imoke’s gusto, carriage, tenor and aura, combined with his tall savvy and seductive outlook has constantly been a selling point even to a notorious critic. His collective mien was an amalgam of a ‘sex appeal’ that brought calmness and decorum to governance. He was never given to hypocrisy and crowd renting, that has surreptitiously become one of the booming businesses over there. From inception, Imoke understood clearly that clannishness, opaqueness and larger-than-life politics would limit the mechanics of democracy and somehow dislocate the very essence of governance. With his style, he nullified grandiose display of power and made cultists renowned their evil and blood sucking ways. Today’s mantra of divide and conquer through tribalism was never part of Imoke’s political DNA. It is doubtful if those qualities and approaches are at play presently.

Today, within a span of five years, the difference is now clear to the consternation of all and sundry. Yet, Imoke’s excellent performance cannot be lost by the floppy outcomes of the present. Imoke, also has to peep discreetly into the political future of the state. What held the state and the PDP then as a united and single fold is now completely in disarray. Then, the mantra was ‘Governor Say,’ ‘Governor Want.’ Today, PDP can’t even settle on a senatorial candidate in Cross River North. Some say the cause of the disarray could be traced to the management of the politics of 2015. Since then, what now holds sway can be equated to an inferno; a shaky political platform even titling towards self-immolation. Many of those who partnered with Imoke to stir the state to political still waters are now singing different tones. Recently, Senator John Owan Enoh, former Chairman, Senate Committee on Finance who is now in the All Progressives Congress (APC) had in his birthday message highlighted the political catastrophe engulfing the state, stressing that, he “foresee the influx of so many political players in Cross River State from other parties into a united and vibrant APC,” adding that “we must make this vision a reality.” The questions for Imoke and the rest of those still under the umbrella are, are they about to see an implosion of PDP in the state? Would Imoke bring other political juggernauts like Enoh and others that jumped ship to APC back home or tightened his grip over PDP?

Also for the Itigidi High Prince, as the political quagmire grows in bounds and reach, occasioned by the dislocation of today’s belle face politics and MOU governance, will he resort back to the Three Wisemen Political Agenda initiated more than 20 years ago? Where former Governor Donald Duke held power for eight years; Imoke himself also did eight years and with expectations that Sen. Gershom Bassey will also ascend the throne for eight years. If Imoke’s political eyeballs are focused on that aspiration, can we be sure that the current Field Commander(s) are also attuned to that desire?

Further, Imoke, even by all standards of toxic political opposition, has been adjudged to be blessed with that temperament of a good leader and wiseman at home with his God and his magical stars. It’s in those very Ecclesiastic gifts, Imoke now traverses the land like a colossus. Today, Imoke is a generalissimo in leadership recruitment – recruiting talents into politics. Evidentially, his men – from Hon. Legor Idagbo, Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, Alex Egbuna, Chris Agibe are today parading the National Assembly, while others are in the private sector and corporate world and Dr Joe Edet Bassey and others are in the academia. His then Commissioner of Finance, Mr Akin Rickets, is now the Board Chairman of Nigerian Ports Authority(NPA) and many are still serving the Cross River State Government. Were Cross River to be wide and larger like a geopolitical zone, Imoke would and could tower at par with the Lion of Bourdollon and Jagaba of Borgu, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu(BAT).

Conversely, it has not been all roses for Imoke. Twice, he had his governorship mandates squashed by the courts only to rebound. But it is in these sad moments that Imoke’s experience seductively radiates, which is incomparable with the present peepshow going on. Again, in all his political expedition, and just like every homo sapien, Imoke also has his own human foibles – rooted and ferried by what many had tagged an overt calmness even when doggegness should be the creed. Those who share this philosophy are quick to point to what some have called an ‘apocalyptic succession plan’ in 2015. They argued that that succession plan is responsible for the unparalleled leadership paralysis the state is now enmeshed in many facets. Some opined that Imoke could as well be exonerated given that the resort to hand the baton to those tipped for the plump job was no longer part of the strategy. Imoke was already in a political life and dead situation, sort of a thriller in the jungle battle. Where some invisible hands had invaded Wadata Plaza, Abuja to stir up a political tsunami with the intent to sink Imoke politically. Others stressed that it is that fierce response to snatch Imoke’s political grip of the state that has now landed Cross River in a ditch. Ordinarily, should Imoke really be held accountable or the nation’s geopolitics of Turn-by-Turn Nigerian Limited policy of zoning should be blamed for the current state of things in the People’s Paradise?

Yet, even outside power, Imoke’s political reach and influence has remained indefatigable. His posture may be meek, but his political cavalier remains legendary. Beyond pioneering the Bridge Leadership Foundation for training young ones, the stark evidence to Imoke’s prowess is glaring for all to see. One, every 1st January has since become a political ritual where all the mighty in Cross River and beyond still go to consult and gather strength. The Uche Secondus-led PDP leadership still hovers around Imoke for navigation on anything political about Cross River State. Such power can never be a tea party. For those who still have any iota of doubt about Imoke’s leadership credentials, they need not look further. The answer to their doubts only requires turning the page of the current conflictual rein side-by-side with the serene and mundane nature of governance in recent past. All thanks to the unchangeable God who has seen Imoke all through. As he celebrate his 59th birthday today and dance to the Itigidi’s Edele Dancing Rhythm, we can only pray to his creator; the Ebasetam, Osowo Kìtàh, Atabuchi, Abasi Ke’eyong and Chukwù Okike to invoke and pour Imoke with his celestial powers, blessings and protection that he set for him right from the cradle and antiquity. Happy birthday the colossus, and may the stars be with you!

*Obi, a journalist and political communication expert, is based in Abuja