Akwa Ibom and sports tourism

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Often, in life, we see only the result; we don’t see the processes that birthed the result. It is so with Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup in Russia next year. The nation buried her differences in one moment of national unity to overwhelm a rather stubborn and determined Zambia national team to pick the ticket for the Mundial, the first African nation to do so. And we did it with a match to spare which in itself is historical.

Nigeria’s qualifications for continental and global football fiestas have always gone down to the wire, often resulting in the use of calculator to work out the probabilities and possibilities. Not this time. The Super Eagles landed in Russia in grand style, ahead of deadline day.  Miracle? Even if we attribute this to the miraculous, miracles, it must be stressed, do not happen by chance. They happen when the atmosphere is charged with faith and expectation.

Yes, it could have had a nudging of divinity but certain persons and factors prepared the stage for the Eagles’ triumphal flight to Russia. There is the unflinching determination of the players. They showed grit, hunger and a passion to commit all for the good of the nation. They were united in a strongly bonded rousing to national cohesion. Mikel Obi, captain of the team, echoed this force of unity when he said ahead of last weekend’s match that the team would approach the duel with one mind and one spirit: to win and get the ticket such that the last match against Algeria would be a mere formality. Mikel’s sentiments were also echoed by Paul Bassey, an accomplished sports journalist and member of the Akwa Ibom technical and planning team that coordinated activities leading up to the match. Ahead of the match, Bassey told Brila Sports Radio hosts that he saw fire in the eyes of the players during their training. He said the Eagles he watched during their training session were already seeing themselves in Russia. Prophetically, he said it is that hunger in their eyes that would make them fly over Zambia. He was right.

Then, there is the factor of the leadership of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). The decision of the NFF to stick to the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo (symbolically named the Nest of Champions), an architectural masterpiece and one of the best stadia in Africa, is highly commendable. Against the prodding to move the Eagles’ qualifying matches elsewhere, typical of Nigeria’s way of achieving federal character, NFF insisted on Uyo, a city that has become a second home to the players. Good thinking!

But much of the credit should go to Governor Udom Emmanuel who seized the opportunity of the availability of the stadium and the peace in the state to promote sport tourism and national integration. His continued willingness not only to host the Eagles but also to play a fatherly role over them was a major ingredient that got the spirit of the players fired up.

The Nest of Champions was built by his predecessor, Godswill Akpabio, at the twilight of his eventful eight-year tenure. In some states where the leaders play politics with everything including matters of development, such a sports monument could have been abandoned by the incumbent on the flimsy and hysterical ground that it was a waste of public fund. Governor Emmanuel has turned the stadium into a theatre of opportunities and possibilities in a rare display of the spirit of sports tourism. It is a testament to a leader who keeps his word.

At his inaugural ceremony on May 29, 2015, the Governor recalled his campaign promise to the people which include:  “To leverage and build on the uncommon transformation of the Governor Godswill Akpabio administration; to transform the economy of our state via industrialisation and sustained public-private sector initiative, thereby opening up opportunities for growth and improved living standards…

“To promote unity and oneness across the state, with due respect for traditional institutions and the elders of our society; to continuously develop, mobilise and empower our women and the youths via planned and well-articulated welfare and capacity-building programmes; to give all Akwa Ibom persons (both within Nigeria and the Diaspora) a proud sense of belonging – built on good governance, economic advancement and due respect for the Fundamental Human Rights of all”.

The series of sporting events hosted in the state since May 2015 has given fillip to the words of the governor on industrialization and creating opportunities for growth and development. They also showcase the character of the governor as a leader who believes in the common good as the ideal. Governor Emmanuel is not only humble to admit to the “uncommon transformation” of the state by his predecessor, he also has the good heart to state his commitment to continue in that stride.

Every good leadership must address and seek to meet the needs of the people. It is even more so in political leadership especially in Africa where a majority of the people live below the poverty line. The Akwa Ibom model of leadership fits into this mould. It thinks of the people first as the constituents of the state. At the end, it is the common, ordinary people that benefit not a few political elite.

Governor Emmanuel’s commitment to continue to deploy the Nest of Champions to showcasing Nigeria’s sporting talents has directly impacted positively on his people. During last weekend’s match, for instance, all the hotels in Uyo were fully booked. But for a stroke of good fortune, this writer would have been without hotel accommodation. Visitors who massed into the state in their thousands also had a good taste of the legendary Akwa Ibom food: from Edikaikong, Afang, Atama soups to the sumptuous Fisherman soup, visitors had a taste of them all. Yours sincerely had a go at Ekpang-nkukwo (a steamy porridge of cocoyam and water yam). Restaurants were buzzing with culinary activities. Money exchanged hands. Bars and pubs brimmed with activities; car hire and other transport services got even busier not forgetting the increased frequency of flights in and out of the state.

Some persons even stretched their gastronomic bandwidth to dare a bite of the famed 404 pepper soup (dog meat broth) and some, I must admit, got converted. Dog meat pepper soup is not only spicily delicious, we were told it has the capacity to deal with certain ailments including detoxifying the body especially when washed down with natural undiluted palm wine which the state has in good supply.

Yes, Nigeria has qualified for next year’s World Cup but the biggest beneficiaries in the final analysis are the people of Akwa Ibom State. Nigerians living and doing business in Uyo truly got more out of life this last weekend than they usually do. From the corner-shop owner to the big eateries and food vendors, there was a tangible return on investment. At the end, the state government also profits in increased tax returns. This is what happens when good leadership takes the stage. This is lacking in many states across the country.

Governors bicker with their predecessors over projects, completed or uncompleted. Some, driven by ego, even abandon such projects despite billions of public funds sunk into it. At the end, it is the people who suffer. In Akwa Ibom, there is continuity in vision, in development and in the commitment to uplift the people. One other state with this model of continuity in development is Lagos. Little wonder both states have become models in people-centric leadership. Congratulations to all Nigerians on the feat made possible by the hospitality of Akwa Ibom State.

 

  • Umukoro, a blogger, writes from Lagos

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