My Boss, Distinguished Senator Udoma, Is 70

Akpandem  James

It would be a thing of great surprise for those who have met him physically to imagine that he is already seventy years old. But he is. Distinguished Senator Udoma Udo Udoma was seventy on Monday, February 26, 2024. I had known him for as long as I had known any prominent Nigerian who was not already in the history books read in schools. The only Udoma I knew through the history books was his father, Justice Egbert Udo Udoma who was a Knight of the British Empire (KBE), Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (for 13 years), Chief Justice of Uganda (1963 – 1969), the first Governor General of Uganda and Chairman of Nigeria’s Constituent Assembly (1977-78). In 1944 at Oxford University, his father was one of the first black Africans to earn a PhD in Law.

I met Senator Udoma physically for the first time in Port Harcourt in 1999, when newly elected members of the National Assembly were in Port Harcourt for a retreat. I was excited to see a distinguished Akwa Ibom son on the team and decided to interview him. I was then the Bureau Chief of Punch Newspapers, in Port Harcourt. I again met and interviewed him in Uyo at the Presidential Lodge while waiting to interview the then Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Chief Don Etiebet.

I eventually became Senator Udoma’s Special Adviser on Media and Communications when he was Nigeria’s Minister of Budget and National Planning (2015 – 2019). For the very first time, I worked with someone who carried leadership with the highest level of integrity; a leader who did not only know what to do at all times but was always in the forefront to lead in the execution of tasks.

As monumentally successful as he is, Senator Udoma carries no air, just integrity. He is soft at heart but unbending on principles. Meticulous almost to a fault, he would rather miss a departing train than jump into it with an unbuttoned shirt. If you are to send anything for his attention and endorsement, you have to first pass it through a crucible to be sure of its ready status. The first Permanent Secretary we met in office, Hajia Fatima Nana Mede, once asked “What manner of man is this? How can you even leave the office when your Minister is still working?” There was no overnight tray in his office – what was meant to be done must be done that day. He can call on his aides at any time of the day if it becomes necessary. He knows the meaning of hard work and works late into the night when necessary.

He was always ready to share his experiences and guide the delivery of any assignment. He was never tired of leading a task. He is a mentor because he brought a different dimension to work ethics in public service; a dimension not very common with political appointees of that calibre. 

He is always of the very strong belief that a seemingly impossible task can always be achieved through dedicated, selfless and focused teamwork. That teamwork approach helped in defining the many successes of the Ministry during his tenure as minister. Reorientation of corporate management issues in an environment with ingrained corporate culture takes some leadership influence to adapt to new strategies. He understood that philosophy very well. That was why he always led the charge, directing by example.

It is worthy of note that he started well and ended well. It became very obvious that he was one of the very few Ministers in the first tenure of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency who completed his tenure without any scandal linked to his person or office. He wore many other caps in that administration outside of being the Minister of Budget and National Planning and Vice Chairman of the National Economic Council.

Working with him was a whole new experience, an experience that would last a lifetime. He is a thoroughbred leader and coach. He looks reserved from afar, but very amiable at close range. The issue clearly is, he does not mix business with pleasure. Unfortunately, those who have a different impression of him are those who meet him at work and not at leisure. While in the Ministry, he would not dabble in or take unilateral decisions on money matters concerning any project. Any such transaction should always pass through the Permanent Secretary. He worked directly with only very competent directors who could deliver on strategic tasks. He related with others through the Permanent Secretary.

As Minister, Senator Udoma would only take allowances attached to his office which he considered essential. No extras, just the exact amount. Any extra expenses incurred by him even on official assignments were paid from his pocket. He did that several times during foreign trips when hotel rates and entertainment bills were higher than his officially approved estacode. No refunds from the office. He always absorbed them.

To the consternation of officials of the Ministry, he even rejected Sitting Allowance. He insisted that as Minister, his job largely entails having meetings. He is already being paid as Minister, so why should he collect any allowance for sitting in a meeting which is part of the job? The first day a list was taken to him for approval, he not only rejected but cancelled the entire memo. This did not go down well with the civil servants who were used to the largesse over time. Subsequently, such lists were sent without his name to the Permanent Secretary for approval, since it was usually within the approval limit of the Permanent Secretary.

Coming from the private sector environment into a core public service situation, even as an embedded Adviser, presented a completely brand new experience for me. I came to know first-hand why a lot of things do not, and are not likely to work in Nigeria except a thorough re-orientation or drastic purge is carried out. Public servants are not just ready to make things work for the common good. They have a potent capacity to cripple and frustrate the most enthusiastic leader. But Senator Udoma found a way around it and achieved results in spectacular ways, especially when he conceived and executed the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP 2017- 2019). It was his flagship project and a landmark economic plan that was applauded across the world at global economic gatherings.

However, the bureaucratic nature and laidback orientation of the civil service presented a major risk factor for projects as the pace of execution was often constrained by processes, procedures and petty attitudes that have continued to bedevil the system. It has become very clear generally that project implementation failures are not necessarily due to faulty policies and strategies but the civil service orientation that seems to place processes and procedures over results. Senator Udoma came with his known zeal and commitment to drive the system, particularly the nation’s economic growth, but the endemic nature of the system was a major drag on his pace.

Towards the end of the first tenure of Buhari as President, he called me into his office and informed that he would not return after the elections, even if the President got re-elected. He thought he should give his aides enough notice so they could also make their own exit plans. Apart from the fact that the system did not allow him to run at his desired pace, he pointed out that long before he was approached for the ministerial job, he had made up his mind to go into voluntary retirement at 65. That also included direct involvement in the management of his private businesses.

He was chairman of both the United Africa Company of Nigeria (UAC) and Union Bank Plc., at the time he was appointed Minister. He had to relinquish those positions to serve the country. He also stayed off his law firm, Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie, during the period. He was 65 in February 2019. By May 27, 2019, he had cleared his table at the ministry and was out. All entreaties from the President, colleagues and friends to rescind the decision and return, even if it was to see his pet project the ERGP to an end, would not dissuade him. He left on May 27, 2019, when the first term of the Buhari Presidency ended, and I left at the end of June 2019 when my contract with DFID expired.

Senator Udoma was born on February 26, 1954. He attended King’s College, Lagos from 1966 to 1972. He studied at Oxford University, England, where he obtained a B.A. (Law) degree (1976) and a postgraduate B.C.L. degree in jurisprudence (1977). He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1978. His legal expertise includes Company Law, Banking and Finance, Securities Law and Capital Market transactions. He also has some expertise in both Constitutional and Natural Resources Law. He is a founding, partner in the commercial law firm of Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie.

At different times he was a Director of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), Deputy Chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Review of the Nigerian Constitution, Chairman of the Task Force on the Petroleum Industry Bill, and pioneer Chairman of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). He served for four years as part-time Chairman of the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Waivers, Incentives and Concessions. He was elected twice into the Nigerian Senate (1999 and 2003 (Akwa Ibom South) and served as Chief Whip in his second term.

He remains one of the finest gentlemen that this country has ever produced. He looks good at 70. Happy birthday Sir!

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