I’m a frustrated Nigerian – Donald Duke

Donald Duke was a former governor of Cross River State between 1999 and 2007, and the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party in the 2019 election. In this interview with MUDIAGA AFFE and MOBOLA SADIQ, the 58-year-old law graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria talks about his foray into politics and his lifestyle, among other sundry issues

How do you maintain your good looks?

If I look good, it is God’s grace, nothing conscious. But right now I don’t feel good. I am tired and a frustrated Nigerian. Because the truth is, we all know we can do a lot more than we are doing right now if the environment were favourable. I find the Nigerian environment very tiresome. And if I am saying so imagine what people less privileged are going through. You have a lot of young people bustling with energy. They can’t express themselves, so, they are looking for relief, either they are trying to leave the country or they easily take to crime, it’s all part of the frustration they are going through. I was speaking with someone about the drug problem in the northern parts of Nigeria. I put it down to frustration, the young folks out there are frustrated, they want to get out of their reality and thus take to drugs.

You schooled in the North and your parents were in the South, how did they feel comfortable allowing you to go to school in Sokoto at that time?

Well, my father was in the public service. He wanted me to be more pan Nigerian because I grew up essentially all my life in Lagos, and he wanted me to know my country more and to toughen me. Initially, I had admission into Kings’ College, Lagos to do my secondary education but he changed it overnight so that I could go to Sokoto. It was a big blow but I am glad he did. Not only did I have a good time out there, but I think that it gave me a better appreciation of Nigeria. From there, I went to Ilorin. I schooled in the far North, in the Middle Belt and I did my university in Zaria. Our elite parents these days won’t allow that. They find it difficult to allow their children to crisscross the country to school. Even for national service, they won’t allow their children to go out of their immediate vicinity. In other words, they have lost faith in the country- that’s the truth. The fact that you will not allow your child to a school outside your immediate vicinity, or you prefer your child to go to school in a foreign land means that you are not confident of your environment and your society and that is something we seriously have got to deal with. I understand the security considerations and a poor educational environment, but running away won’t solve it. It’s a problem we have created and will have to solve it.

How old were you when you went to school in Sokoto?

I went to Sokoto at about the age of 10 and there were kids about my age in school. They travelled from all over the country to Sokoto. They didn’t necessarily have guardians there, but we were comfortable, we were fine. We mixed easily and got to appreciate our ethnic and religious differences with respect.

So, at what point did we get it wrong?

Well, I must say it crept in. It is difficult to put a timeline to it because when things creep in on you, you don’t know you just find that you’ve lost it. From the 80s, it started accelerating and by the time we got into the 90s we had lost it completely. It will take a herculean effort to reverse it. It cannot be politics as usual; it would take leadership that sees the responsibility of leadership as providential to reverse where we are now because it is appalling.

You became governor of Cross River State at age 37 how did you cope with that huge responsibility?

I was lucky and very fortunate to be so prepared, because at the age of 30 I was Commissioner of Finance, Budget, and Planning. At the age of 33, I was a member of the National Economic Intelligence Committee and concurrently a member of the National Economic Council. So, I had tremendous exposure by the time I became governor. Sadly, we are not affording our young people similar opportunities and it is haunting us already. Whether you like it or not, sooner or later they will assume the leadership of this country. So, we’ve got to prepare them, mentor them, tutor them and expose them. We are not providing the exposure, we are abdicating to ill-prepared people mostly past their prime and they are not connecting with global trends. Past prime is not only a factor of age but a function of exposure. The people running the country largely do not have the exposure that is required for this current generation, for this time, not only for Nigeria but globally. So, there is a major disconnect within and outside the country. We should have an internship system where interested young people are exposed to understudying governance.

As the governor of Cross River State for eight years, you developed the idea of Tinapa, Obudu Cattle Ranch and other major tourist sites in the state, even the Calabar carnival you brought to the international limelight, what gave you that inspiration?

No, the carnival was my wife’s initiative, but I get the credit. You need to understand something about the location of Cross River. When I ventured into tourism it was to draw attention to Calabar and Cross River states in general. Cross River is at the end of Nigeria, not like Benin City or Kaduna where people pass through. Edo and Kaduna in the context of Nigeria are ideally located, if you are going from east to west, north to south or vice versa you will pass through Benin or Kaduna respectively. In the case of Cross River if you have no business there you will not be there. So, we needed to make people go there because when people visit they spend, they pay for accommodation, feeding, transportation, etc. Yes, we would like to industrialise the economy, but that takes time. Industrialisation can take several years to achieve, but the quickest way to jump-start the economic environment is tourism. Look at Dubai. Its development thrust has been over the last 30 or 40 years and you can appreciate what has been achieved. The essence is to increase the traffic into the state. So, Tinapa for instance as a business hub would have attracted large volumes of traffic. Nigerians travel out of the country mainly for commercial reasons. We aimed to redirect a certain fraction of those numbers into Cross River State and that would be huge. When KPMG did a study on Tinapa they said we should expect three million visitors annually into Calabar as a result of this investment and if each one of them spent N100, 000 purchasing goods from Tinapa, hotel accommodation, feeding, and transport, that translates to about N300bn annually and with its attendant multiplier effect that would have been an economic game-changer. The same thing happened when Obudu Cattle Ranch was active. The community there had a boom, everyone wanted to build a house. The biggest challenge we had at the ranch was managing the physical development going on there by the inhabitants of the community. We had to set up a planning unit because the residents were building houses all over the place. People were visiting and spending lots of money and that is what tourism is all about. In December, close to a million people go in and out of Calabar. I’m not talking of people coming from overseas; we were not looking for foreign visitors. We were looking for Nigerians to visit. In Calabar, the tourism and hospitality industry conservatively achieves 60 per cent of its income in December. Last point here, the Calabar airport became the fourth busiest airport in Nigeria. At the time it was Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, and Calabar in that order, we had nine flights in and out of Calabar daily. In fact, over the Christmas period, it increased to about 12 flights in and out daily. Again, December being within the harmattan season, we had to install an Instrument Landing System so that flights were not impaired because there is nothing as frustrating as a disappointed tourist.

Are you disappointed that over the years some of these legacy projects have become abandoned?

I am naturally and it’s not limited to what we did in Cross River State. Personally, it’s very painful when you spend your youthful energy in putting up something that you believe will change the landscape, then your successor comes in and childishly wants to do something that can be personally identified to himself rather than see the bigger picture of what we can collectively do for our people. I tell folks that governors are shift workers. You have a four or eight-year shift, your successor comes in and does his shift. If each time we change shift we go back to the beginning of the construction we would never finish the construction. That’s the problem, and it’s a very unfortunate phenomenon. Look at Ajaokuta Steel Company, it was built over 40 years ago, but what have we done with it? We have abandoned such a pivotal project and there are a plethora of abandoned projects throughout the landscape of our country begging for the same attention. The broad spectrum of our leadership is so short-sighted, so parochial, so selfish that they do not see the commonality, the common good of everyone.

How do we address this issue of continuity in governance in Nigeria?

It is a very difficult thing because you see our system is messed up. Once a man is in charge, his true attributes come forward. You never know a person until he has the authority or money or when he thinks he does not need of you, and then the real beast in him steps forward. It is very difficult to, for instance, pass legislation that will ensure continuity; rather it is for us to continually preach that we cannot afford to abandon established projects. The governor who started a project or an initiative is not using his resources, it is public funds, if you don’t complete and utilise it you are wasting public money. And these so-called leaders are even crazy enough to abandon schools. I know of a state where a governor started a tertiary institution, a very modern tertiary institution at that and the next administration just abandoned it and said he wasn’t going to continue with that. I mean if you don’t continue a school what are you going to continue?

What endeared you into politics?

I am primarily a student of history, a subject I enjoy very much and if you like and identify with history you are not too far from politics. Secondly, I got into politics at university. At Ahmadu Bello University, I was a member of the Students’ Union Government. I was the social secretary on my campus. ABU was a very political university in my time. I was 18 years old when in the Union so politics had always been beckoning on me. Do I like politics? I’m not sure I like politics, I like governance and I like being an agent for change and making things happen. Politics is just a necessary route towards being that agent. You cannot govern a people if you don’t know them and the best way to know people is to be involved in the politics of the people because you get to see their nuances, their character, and traits, the nature of the people and politics affords you this first-hand experience. Otherwise, they will remain strangers to you and you to them and that is the flaw in military rule. You send someone from Sokoto to govern Cross River, no matter how well-intentioned he maybe, if he doesn’t know the people there is a limit to what he can achieve.

What are some of the qualities that got you to where you are today?

The Grace of The Almighty and I mean this with all sense of sincerity. My life is a testimony to this, I am not better than any other person and I have made countless mistakes that should have thrown me under the bus. It is always His Grace that has held me on. Many people say this as a cliché, but I mean every sense of the word. When I look back, at my circumstance, I cannot but be grateful for His Grace. Let me tell you a story when I was in Zaria, I decided I was going to establish a night club on campus. In that part of Zaria, the Kongo campus of ABU, alcohol is not sold and I said that I would sell alcohol and I dared the Muslim Students Society. They rose up against me and put a Fatwa on me and they moved en masse from the mosque to my room to effect the fatwa edict on me, a Southern Christian daring to say that I was going to go against their norms and sell alcohol and nothing would come out of it. You won’t believe it, I had a friend in my room, I was going to warn him to get out due to the impending problem, but on my way to my room, they were already marching, about 200 of them with machetes’ and all sorts of things. So, I couldn’t go forward and it was dark, about 9 pm, these people walked past me. I was a well-known student and they were students but none of them recognised me. Some of them looked at me but didn’t recognise me. A few weeks later, a chap walks up to me and says, I recognised you, I opened my mouth to say look at him there, but nothing came out of my mouth. How do you explain such circumstances?

Can you recall a particular incident that changed the course of your life?

There are many of them. It’s difficult to pick just one. There are several persons that influenced the course of my life. One of my greatest influences was my father. He was the sort that encouraged you to do whatever you wanted. He guided you but he never discouraged as long as it was legit. I remember once when I was about 13 or 14, I said to him I wanted to be a musician, you know those were the heydays of the Jacksons and all that, lots of young people got carried away and thought it was the best thing to b. He said to me ‘‘that’s a brilliant idea, but first go get your degree then you’ll become a better musician.’’ He didn’t say don’t do it although I know he wasn’t for it, because as a teenager if he tells you “don’t” you probably would rebel. So, as a role model, he was amazing. Another person who was an incredible role model was Dr Pius Okigbo. He was my father’s friend, Nigeria’s first Economic Adviser. He adopted me as his own, loved me as a father would and he was just a reservoir of wisdom and he shared his wisdom through jokes. And another friend of my father, a lawyer, Goziam Onyia, he actually got me to study law, I wanted to do history but he said no, go do law after you’ve done law, you can then do your history and Pius Okigbo said same to me, he studied history before opting for economics and added that if after law I still felt strongly for history then I could go about it.

You are a Jazz enthusiast. Do you have plans to release an album?

If they were, I think I have passed that stage now. There was a time we did recordings. In fact, my wife was our manager, but we never got to release an album. I have a talented group of young men whom I play music with and we did some very interesting recordings but we never got around to releasing it in form of an album.

Where and how did you meet your wife?

Interesting! I was campaigning for Social Secretary in 1980 and she was trying to register in the Faculty of Law. So, while on the campaign trail I saw her, I was with a friend of mine called Col. Sam Amadu, he is retired now from military, he was my campaign manager even though he was also running for Sports Secretary. I looked at him and I said, you see that lady going over there, that’s my next campaign. She was wearing a light yellow pair of trousers and a yellow and pink horizontally striped shirt which she tied around her navel, I remember it like yesterday. At that time she appeared very tall, indeed we used to wear the same trousers for a very long time. After the campaigns, we became friends and the first time I asked her out she looked at me and said are you drunk, we are friends, how can I go out with you? The rest is history as they would say.

As a young handsome governor, how did you manage your female admirers?

I don’t know how to manage anybody, my wife manages me. Let me put it that way. Once my wife was managing me everything fell in place. And frankly, I think this handsome business is exaggerated and only skin deep.

What is the secret behind the successful marriage?

First of all, you must be determined to stay in the marriage. For that determination to work you must be ready to give and to take. You must accept each other’s flaws; you mustn’t hold on to anything, you must perpetually forgive each other because you are going to continually annoy and offend each other. You are two different people rubbing against each other and hoping you can smoothen out your flaws and rough edges. Like I said for that to work you must be determined to stay in the marriage. You mustn’t go in with the attitude that might is right or I am the man of the house. Even if you are right it doesn’t matter, both of you are the same now. Harmony trumps all including rightness. Sometimes when my wife is convinced over the rightness of her course or views, she just lets me have my way, unfortunately, more often from her than me. It is “give and take”. You must accommodate each other; you must tolerate each other, knowing that it is not going to be fun times all the time.

As an influential father, training children could be quite difficult, what morals and discipline did you instil in your children?

You know on that score I’m going to give it all to my wife. When I look at my children and I think we have done pretty well with them, I give 80 per cent if not 90 to my wife, maybe 10 per cent to me for hanging around the house. But certainly most of it would go to my wife. She has been an incredible mother. She stood in the gap even when I was in public service. She would be with me in the morning in Calabar, but by the time I come back from work at 7 or 8 pm she has gone to Lagos to see the kids and is back to Calabar. And it didn’t happen once or twice, it happened frequently within a week, she would say “I saw the kids this afternoon”. They were in a school in Lagos that demanded the presence of their parents so she was frequently there. She was also in charge of the girls’ scout at the school. She was always there, at the same time she lived in Calabar, how she did it, I don’t know. She is an absolute phenomenon and my daughters and I truly appreciate her.

You recently became a grandfather how do you feel about that?

I am still trying to come to terms with that part of my life. My 90-year-old mother was so emotional about it because not many of her peers can say they are great grandparents, it’s a rarity in these parts. And I, a grandfather, I’m still tripping. I remember so vividly when my girls were born, I remember changing their nappies, you know things like that and now I watch them changing their babies’ nappies, so it’s like a baby caring for a baby.

What’s the best thing you have achieved at age 58?

Being alive is a good thing to start with because once you still have a life you have hope at working at being a better person. But I think one charge my father gave me, he said, “Donald I’m bequeathing my name to you without stain I hope you would do the same to your children.” In other words, I hope your name would not be an embarrassment to your children, those words are deep, particularly in the environment we are. So I think reasonably, I can hold my head up proudly.

How do you relax?

I love music, very much. When I was in Calabar my band and I would play every Sunday and that was therapeutic for me. if I didn’t play on Sunday I would feel cranky and irritable all week. I don’t play as often as I would like to and I don’t relax as often as I would like to. Lagos is a very difficult place to relax. I relax more when I go to Calabar but I don’t go there often enough. I’m hoping that next year when I can get one or two things that I am doing behind me, I would get my life back and start recalibrating myself, being able to sleep for six to eight hours. Now I get about three to four hours and that’s not good enough. I want to do my eight hours; I want to go to the gym. I want not only look healthy but to feel and be healthy.

What is your dressing like?

It depends on what you are dressing for; you need to dress for the occasion. I’m conservative, I like wearing suits in dapper colours, my ties are conservative too and I usually wear white shirts. Until lately, I wasn’t wearing traditional clothes.

Your recent presidential outing was riddled with legal tussle, emphatic disappointment, how did you feel at the end of it all?

You know, let me say something about public office. You seek it to make yourself available, give it your best shot and if it comes your way take it and make the best of the opportunity. If you don’t make yourself available, you will never get it. People sometimes say it is impossible you can’t get it. Nothing is impossible, but make yourself available and be realistic. I joined a party that did not have a national structure, but I just wanted to make myself available, you won’t believe but without spending a dime we won the primaries then we got embroiled in some nonsensical legal issues up to the Supreme Court. There was no way we could have raised the funding required in that environment. So, we had a lacklustre outing. Am I disappointed? Yes, I am, but I’m proud that at least I got the ticket and I was on the ballot.

With your last two experiences will you still attempt it again?

Circumstances would determine that. Let’s see what happens and how things go. I ran not because I need to have the prefix, president, before my name, I’m a very frustrated Nigerian. I’m a Nigerian that believes that we can do better than we are doing and if we, the so-called elites don’t stand up to correct the flaws of this country then all hope is lost. I hope that circumstances would compel someone who believes in a loftier aspiration for the country, seeks and achieves that office. Too many people that seek the presidency or governorship, local government chairmanships are content with the mundane. You have people celebrating payment of salary, upgrading road, etc, those are mundane, and those are the norm. In another thirty years, our population would be about 400 million, we would have doubled, we are 200 million now, and we were 45 million when we attained Independence. Let me tell you something, between 1979 and ‘83, President Shagari budgeted $25bn averagely annually for four years. Our population was barely 80 million, 40 years after we are budgeting about $24bn for a population of almost 200 million. We are a society in deep regression and if that doesn’t call for some sober reflection, I wonder what would. What fundamental things have we achieved in our almost 60 years of independence? Next year we would be 60 and we are going to roll out the drums, the soldiers are going to march, school kids are going to march under the sun, governors and the president would take the salute. We should ask ourselves, over what are we celebrating? When will we celebrate the quality of our lives?

Published on Punch Newspapers