He stands spry on the factory floor, his eyes shining underneath his low-cut hair parted on the side. He looks young but his parted hair harks back to a fashion style of the 1970’s. But with his audacious thoughts, his foppish shirt and trousers, his fascination with twenty-first century technology and gadgetry, he straddles the classic and the classy.
He calls his philosophy Ayadeism, with a touch of vanity. But he does not apologise. He defines it as a sweet spot between Adam Smith and Keynes, and he domesticates it in Cross River State. He takes his visitor around the factory floor where he is in one breath congratulating his wizardry and, in an another, showcasing that wizardry by taking over the job of tour guide from the foreigners he employed to establish the rice seeding and seedling plant. The Chinese watch him with admiration as he gesticulates and explains. He explains everything from how the rice is made, what kind of nutrients are in it, how they are retained, and how it is different from whatever we eat across the country. What we eat is mostly chaff. His rice seedling plant is the first of its kind in most of the African continent. Unlike what we eat and import from Asia, this rice will make our bloodstream ruddy, our body strong. He speaks with gusto as he chaperons everyone, including some visitors of the American consulate.
He even reminds one of the word cotyledon, a word I last heard in my biology class in Government College, Ughelli. Inside the factory are tractors, storage facility, conveyor belts, rice sorting and nutrient machines, et al.
The rice factory is part of a vast industrial zone in Calabar that Ben Ayade, Governor of Cross River State, is putting in place to stake himself as perhaps the most imaginative governor in the land in making a mountain out of a molehill.
Half an hour later, he takes us to a garment making factory, where women sit in rows, knitting, designing, sewing. As soon as they see him, an explosion of acclaim. “Digital! Digital!,”they shout with verve.
“What do they mean by that?” asks one of the consular staff. He feigns indifference while acknowledging the cheers. The staff, mostly widows, work in shifts, about three thousand of them. The industrial zone consists also of a vaccine making factory, the first of its kind in the Niger Delta, and the factory will churn out vaccines for common ailments in our parts, including malaria, typhoid, etc. More of such plants are in the offing, and a super highway and a deep-sea port in the 5,000 hectare industrial zone are vertebral bone of the infrastructure to facilitate business.
Across the state, other projects are on the way, including a toothpick factory, a pylon factory, a poultry farm in Obubra, instant noodles, a vitaminised rice factory and yellow maize farm.
Early in his administration, he hit headlines when he employed hundreds of personnel as advisers. He was ribbed as extravagant, turning government into an economy of affection. But how was he going to pay for all these? He gets an allocation of about N2 billion a month, the state lacks oil, its oil well was yanked off by the court and the money is now in the coffers of Akwa Ibom. He also pays debt every month amounting to N1.5 billion. So, how does he manage to carry out such gigantic projects when, as he claims with pride, he owes no banks and his state is not even allowed to borrow.
In deference to the workers, he paid May salary on May 1, after he had paid April salary. He is one of the states that pay salaries on 25th of every month. He has never defaulted. Last year, he was restrained by his own people from paying December salary too early in the month.
I ask him, how does he get the finances for this state when states with fatter pockets stumble even to pay salaries. Some are owing as much as five months, in spite of the Paris Fund bailouts. He calls what he is doing “intellectual engineering,” he says Nigerian leaders get it wrong when they think of money first. We dream first and money comes, he implies. “Naira and kobo never solved any problem.”
Th state is known for another project of ambition, TINAPA. Shying from casting a slur on one of his predecessors, Governor Duke, he would not say it is conceptually deficient, even after I have badgered him with questions over it. Clearly, TINAPA has turned out to be a fantastic nothing, flamboyant in announcement but dead before arrival. Gov. Ayade says it might have succeeded as a concept in Lagos. TINAPA is a good concept in a wrong place. It is driven by an idea of consumption, not production, he implies. It is not Dubai, which is a major transit point in the world, feeding markets all over the world. But even the UAE on its own sustains Dubai. Calabar, mostly rural and peasant, cannot soar to such ambition without crashing.
So, isn’t that the fate of the his industrial park? He says he did this in his first term, so it could work its way into profitability and concession it to private investors. That way, he does not burden posterity or irk the ego of his successor who might turn his industrial park into another TINAPA, which he is planning to transform into a “first-class university.” Hence he says his is a sweet spot between Smith and Keynes, where demand pull meets regulation and control.
Ayade is an experiment in imagination in governance, to turn water into wine and mountain out of molehill. He seems on song now, and he is to be watched as a man who does not need oil to make great things. He is a dreamer and practitioner of his dreams. Just like Mohammed Ali of Egypt who was so enamoured of ideas that a historian said, “if you asked him to build a castle in the sky, he would say, let’s try it.” As Einstein himself noted, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
His is imagination without oil, without borrowing, without fear.
Ismail Isa, Lai Mohammed and Jones Abiri
I attended the International Press institute conference in Abuja that ended last Saturday, and a major motif was whether Jones Abiri, who is in detention, is a journalist at the first meeting with the President At the villa, the matter was raised, and Thisday publisher Nduka Obaigbena said it would be resolved, which was a more sober way of looking at it than what Ismaila Isa and Federal Government’s megaphone Lai Mohammed said at the conference the following day. Isa, who is more popularly known as Isa Funtua, ambled into the hall in his white cap and kaftan with an air of a feudal lord in his immaculate majesty. Later he stood up during a session to proclaim that no journalist in Nigeria is in detention. He spoke as though bullying. There was no room to interrogate him at that moment because of the structure of the proceedings. Lai Mohammed later said Abiri is not a journalist because he is not in the Nigerian Union of Journalists and not in any NUJ chapel.
Yet when Abiri’s case appeared in court, the judge recognised that he belonged to The News Weekly. To say he is not a journalist is not for the NUJ to determine. Let the matter go to court. Again, the fellow was arrested apparently because of what he published. Jonathan Rozen of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has the court papers and is using them to make his case around the world. Our institution, the court, is mocking our disdain for the rule of law. What Abiri wrote is the province of information and journalism. If he is not, the matter is not resolved by keeping him behind bars. Mohammed implies he is held for terrorism. If that is the case, take him to court. This is not the way of democracy but autocracy.
Isa is the chairman of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism. How can such a man who has the mindset of an autocrat chair a school for journalists. To imagine that he owned a newspaper once called The Democrat is a misnomer, an ignominy.