Our meeting at Asaba was over but our return flight was 5.10 p.m. Having so much time to spare before our flight after our breakfast at Orchid Hotel where we’d spent four nights eating monotonous chicken and fish cuisine, Mike Awoyinfa and I decided to take a walk around the neighbourhood. We were in Asaba, the capital of Delta State, to participate in the sixth edition of Nigeria Guild of Editors conference.
For decades, Asaba had been a famous town without the urban trappings. Even after the town was—accidently?—named the capital of Delta State, successive administrations that governed the state, from the military to two civilians, were not in a hurry to develop the state capital.
The ethnic sensitivities were too sharp, it seems, to inspire a lot of enthusiasm of past regimes to invest in the state capital rather than other core municipalities of the state like Warri, Sapele, Ughelli, and the new kid on the bloc, Oghara!
In the past, even some of the state governors didn’t even sleep in the state capital. (One in fact, reputedly never spent a night in Asaba!) Despite its oil wealth, what passed for a Government House in Asaba of those days could have been mistaken for a private residence of a retired permanent secretary!
The miserly state of the former State House had now been accentuated by the new, ultra-modern and expansive State House complex built by Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan administration, making the former State House look like service quarters.
Of course, my impressions are admittedly subjective, and perhaps, parachutist rather than holistic. But as one married to a woman from Delta State, I am somewhat a stakeholder. In those days, it was an ordeal to access my in-laws place at Idumuje Ugboko, about five kilometers from Onicha Ugbo junction along the expressway to Asaba/Onitsha. But today, that road had been turned into an expressway linking up with Ishan, so that transporters heading to the North divert through Idumuje Ugboko.
On a visceral level, that road was my first pointer that the Uduaghan administration was not business as usual—which most often translates to no dividends to every segment of the state.
For a visitor coming by air, your first encounter with the new Asaba starts when you land at the ultra-modern Asaba airport which is one of the best in the country. The layout and finishing are as good as what you get of medium range airport in any country of the world. It turned out that Uduaghan is also building exact replica of this airport at Warri, not only to balance the ethnic and political sensitivities, but definitely to cater for people of Warri and adjoining towns.
It is considered political suicide not to build similar airport in the dominant Ijaw area. In effect, while some state governors are unable to manage even one airport, Uduaghan is delivering two in his tenure!
Orchid Hotel which is about five minutes drive to Convention Centre where NGE convention took place, is 15 minutes drive to the airport. From the hotel, the networks of roads around us were smooth and the well-paved sidewalks were too inviting to would-be trekkers.
This is a well planned neighbourhood with classy buildings that speak of the emerging affluence of the elite. A short walk from our hotel, a potential five star hotel is under construction, shooting into the sky with a dark cladding. There are other hotels dotting the same road, making for an exceedingly serene neighbourhood.
We were barely 30 minutes into our walk, admiring the beautiful architectures and well-paved network of roads with underground drainages, street lights and pedestrian walkways, when Delta State’s Chief Press Secretary, Felix Ofou, pulled up beside us to offer us a ride. He had seen us walking, turned back and tracked us down to take us to wherever we weregoing. But we were going nowhere, just taking a walk on our own.
Ride? No thanks, we need the walk on our own and the exercise. The young man persisted. Unless of course he was taking us on a city tour. He was too glad to take us on a tour of Asaba, winning himself a great chance to highlight the state government projects to his senior colleagues.
We weave through beautifully paved roads everywhere, making Asaba wear a new look drawing a lot of property speculators from across the Niger, especially people from the highly congested Onitsha who find Asaba as a new investment haven. Uduaghan administration is said to have constructed about 1,300 kilometers of roads.
If so, this is especially significant because in many parts of Delta State like Asaba which is below sea level, road construction is expensive, requiring excavations of at times six feet of soft soil and replacement with sandy fillers and hard core under layers before laying out the roads.
In addition to that, the state government is undertaking the dualisation of a 149 kilometer federal highway linking Asaba to the Free Trade Zone located at Ugbenu—about the same length as the contentious Lagos-Ibadan expressway which the federal government has been unable to rehabilitate in more than ten years of controversy.
The goal is to create access way to the free trade zones with mostly Onitsha business community that would give life to FTZ. In other words, the government is thinking ahead, thinking in strategic terms of boosting the state’s economy beyond the oil era. Asaba airport is one of the Delta Beyond Oil projects that may turn Asaba into one of the major eastern transport hubs.
It is not just that the famous actor, Richard Mofe Damijo is the Commissioner for Culture in Delta State, that draws Nollywood producers to Asaba to shoot their films, it is more because the modern Asaba under Uduaghan now boasts of a good network roads and of course the hospitality industry which seems to be blossoming.
“May be eighty per cent of Nollywood films are produced in Asaba,” Ofou boasts. Ofou’s 80 per cent assertion may be disputed by Lagos and Enugu but what is not in contention is that Asaba is the preferred destination of the majority of Nollywood filmmakers.
Ofou took us to many model schools, both primary schools and secondary schools. These are dilapidated educational relics which Uduaghan has transformed into ultra-modern institutions offering free education to all.
The financial muscle of the government ensured that these schools were built to a standard where even the best of the private schools would have to compete with the infrastructure of these public schools. While some of the primary schools boast of IT facilities even at that early age, the new edifice built for old but dilapidated Dennis Government College could well easily pass for campus of a tertiary institution.
Perhaps, for effect, some relics of the former state of the school are still left standing in bold contrast, perhaps, to offer people basis for comparison. And the difference is so stark that it can be compared with the difference between sleep and death. “Chief Osoba was so impressed that he told the governor to leave one of the old blocks so that people can see the difference,” Ofou said.
We are told that the state government is offering free education up to secondary schools and a generous bursary allowance for every Delta State indigene in higher institutions. “Any Delta State indigene who makes a first class is given a post-graduate scholarship grant of N5 million,” Ofou said. “The same applies even if it is only one of the parents that is from the state.”
“That means that any of my children that makes a first class, we can come here on account of my wife to claim the N5 million?”
I kept that in mind as we moved to visit some of the four Viewing Centres created by Uduaghan. An ardent Arsenal supporter, Uduaghan created 32 Viewing Centres powered by a supercreen where hundreds of people across the state can congregate during major soccer events. Four of the viewing centres are located at Asaba.
Each viewing centre can take hundreds of soccer lovers sitting on a concrete seats at a time, with perhaps a thousand others standing. At times, Uduaghan is said to join the crowd at one of the Viewing Centres to watch soccer events.
It is not easy to mix with the crowd when you are performing, unlike some governors who go paranoid in fit of insecurity without their security armada everywhere. Nothing, it seems, bonds people in a commonwealth of crazy humanity as sports and Uduagham seems to be creatively tapping into that energy to dissipate social tension.
If it has to do with the cost of ante-natal and post maternal care, married couples in Delta State are free to keep making babies, for they do not have a care in the world. Let the couple do the works behind the scene but once a woman gets pregnant, the government takes over all maternal care and delivery costs, whether normal or by caesarian, and keeps up with the medical care of the child until age 5.
It’s Doctor Uduaghan’s way of reducing infant mortality in Delta State and on this too, he is winning for the state reputedly has the lowest infant mortality rate in the country.
By the way, the theme of NGE convention is, Nigeria Beyond Oil: The Role of The Editor, but that is a story for another day.