In the Spirit of Reconciliation: My Encounter with (Sen.) Godswill Akpabio
(Senator) Godswill Obot Akpabio! From May, 29, 2007 to May 29, 2015, he governed Akwa Ibom State as if it was his personal empire. Chronism and nepotism became the norm. Those who were bold enough to challenge his style of governance, or who were perceived as potential threats, were seriously dealt with.
Opposition was never tolerated. Those bold enough to contest against him felt the wrath of his supporters, either by way of assassinations or kidnappings.
Throughout the entire eight years of Akpabio’s administration, I remained one of his, if not his strongest, critics. With persistence and in no uncertain terms, I condemned the political assassinations, the kidnappings, and other vices of his administration.
In partnership with others, I demonstrated against the ills of his government in Houston, Texas. I filed a petition against him with the Foreign Affairs Committee in the United States Congress. I exploited the social media to campaign against him. I shouted. I screamed and I cursed. Despite several threats to my life, I refused to relent.
Needless to mention, Godswill Akpabio and members of his administration did not take kindly to my criticism; they fought back.
I was “banned” from Akwa Ibom State. When a bomb (or whatever it was) exploded at the AKBC, I was blamed for it. A motion was filed in a court in the State of Georgia, USA, against me, IPU, and Nicholas Edet, and we were named as collaborators to the perpetrators of the election violence of 2011, which occurred in Ikot Ekpene and spilled to Uyo, where several lives were lost and government and private properties were destroyed.
Because of my opposing stance, the administration came after me with vengeance, all calculated to bring my voice into silence. Assam Ekanem Assam, who was then Akpabio’s Attorney General, petitioned the court in Atlanta, Georgia, to subpoena my computer for sources of my information. I refused to cooperate and I did not relent.
I wrote a letter to the law firm that represented Akwa Ibom State Government not to have any contact with me, or else. The firm stopped further contacts. I never heard from them again, till this day.
I have always pondered how Akpabio and I would react if at any time we happened to meet one another. Despite all the lies and rumors speculated by my enemies against me and my family as truths, especially about how I received money from Akpabio as a condition for my personal convictions to support the governorship of Udom Emmanuel, the truth remained that throughout the entire eight years of his administration, Akpabio and I never met.
Finally, not too long ago, Godswill Akpabio and I met unexpectedly in an unusual place. The meeting was interesting.
From May 29, 2007, when Godswill Akpabio was sworn into office as the Executive Governor of Akwa Ibom State, to May 29, 2015, when his term of office ended, I remained one of the fiercest, if not the fiercest, critics of his administration. Throughout the entire eight-year period, in spite of all speculations and lies, Akpabio and I never met, until December 29, 2015 (only four months ago).
“This is Arik Air flight number...... We are happy to have Senator Godswill Akpabio on board. We will be leaving shortly, thank you for your patience...”
Akpabio! What would Akpabio be doing in a commercial flight (I thought to myself)? Wasn’t I told that he has a private jet? Due to the poor quality of the intercom in the plane, I thought the announcer might have said something different. What would Akpabio be doing in this plane? It couldn’t be true!
I tried to go back to sleep. I had been on a short visit to Akwa Ibom State. This particular Arik flight from Uyo to Abuja was one of the many ones I would have to connect on my way back to the United States.
Then the announcement came again: “On behalf of His Excellency, Senator Godswill Akpabio, and the entire crew, welcome to Arik Air number….. We are waiting for the ground crew. As soon as they finish, we will depart.”
True! So I heard it right the first time, I thought. I swiveled my head to my left, then to my right, back, and forward, I could not see anyone who resembled Akpabio. Though I have never seen him in person, but I have seen so many photographs of him on the social media and other places, enough to recognize Akpabio, even in the dark.
There were four or six passengers seated in front of me. To see beyond them, I had to unbuckle my seat belt and raised my body higher. As I looked beyond me, I saw a gentleman with what looked like a notebook tucked under his armpit, bending down in a conversation with another gentleman, who was seated at the front row. He must be talking to Akpabio, I thought. I sat down and waited for him to finish.
With the gentleman gone, I unbuckled my seat belt. I walked slowly to the front. I noticed that the man at the front row was indeed Godswill Akpabio, but I only saw him from behind. To make sure it was him, I pretended to walk past him. Then I stopped and turned towards Akpabio. He was busy browsing a newspaper or a magazine.
To get his attention, I placed my left hand on his right shoulder. He was startled! Then he turned around quickly to see who touched him. I extended my right hand for a handshake. He grabbed it, but did not shake it, instead, held firmly onto it, while starring very intensely at me, as if to recall the face of the man who is now standing in front of him. I knew he did not recognize me, because we have never met, but he kept looking at me, with a smile hanging on his lips.
Quickly, I introduced myself. “Senator,” I said, “I am Thompson Essien.” His eyes rolled back and forth. I knew he could not recall my name---it has been awhile. Suddenly, he pointed his left forefinger at me and blurted: “from America?” I said, yes. Then he quickly let go my right hand, looked down to his left, as he struggled to unbuckle his seat belt. I became frightened. My heart sank! What a mistake! What am I getting into! As Akpabio was busy unbuckling his seat belt, I thought about the many possibilities of his reactions.
It may be of interest to point out here that before I left my seat to approach Akpabio, I had debated within me whether I should, or should not. What if on approaching Akpabio he accuses me of attempting to assassinate him? What if he asks authorities to throw me out of the aircraft? What if he orders my arrest and gets me thrown in detention? What if he orders his bodyguards to beat me up? My head was filled with premonitions of what, what, and what.
All these premonitions ran through my head as I stood next to Akpabio, and watched him struggle with his seat belt. Is he going to take a swing at me? Would that be the reason he is unbuckling his seat belt? What is going to be my reaction? I looked to my right; I noticed that the door to the cockpit of the aircraft was wide open, I could run in there for cover. But a second thought reminded me that I could possibly be accused of attempting to hi-jack the aircraft.
Then I looked to my left, there was a “toilet” sign hanging at the far corner of the isle; I could take cover in there, I thought. Then just two steps to my left was an “exit” door, which I could crash through and escape, if push came to shove between me and Akpabio.
The other consideration was to stand up and fight Akpabio. Since my birth, only one man---my father---has ever slapped and beaten me and got away with it. If Akpabio wants a fight, I would give him a fight. I would tear him into shreds and both of us may stand in that aircraft naked. I was ready for a showdown with Akpabio----if he resorts to it. I was ready to exploit the media and make headlines all over the world. All these wild thoughts were running through my head at the speed of nanoseconds.
In case of actual confrontation in the aircraft with Godswill Akpabio, I wondered who would rescue me in Uyo? The last time I visited Uyo was in 2006. Where would I go? I don’t know my way around the city.
My confidence was restored when I remembered that my friend Senator Akpanudoedehe was in Uyo at the time. I was confident because Obong Victor Attah was in Uyo at the time. I was confident that if I was ever arrested in Uyo, I could count on Dr. Akpan Uko, General Edet Akpan, Senator Effiong Bob (who was in his village at the time for Christmas), and the likes of Dr. Linus Asuquo to come to my rescue.
But as it turned out, all my fears were unfounded. My fears were mere premonitions, conjured up and swiveled around my brains by merethoughts.
As soon as Godswill Akpabio was able to figure out how to get out of his seat belt, he stood up, threw both of his hands around me in embrace. He squeezed my body to his, so tight that I almost gave out a large belch. I wrapped my hands around him too. Then we disentangled. We looked at each other with a smile, but still holding on to each other, just above the elbow.
As we held on to one another, Akpabio laughed so loud that I became nervous. Then he shouted; “Ikpafak!” I shouted back; “Senator.”
“I-k-p-a-f-a-k, the I-k-p-f-f-a-k,” Akpabio shouted.
I responded with “S-e-n-a-t-o-r, the S-e-n-a-t-o-r.”
Then he pulled me back to his body and we held on to one another for few seconds, though at the time, it seemed like hours. Akpabio looked at me with a smile on his face and with an aura which seemed to say: “na you be dis?” We felt like two long-lost brothers, who have unexpectedly found one another again.
None of the passengers in the plane said anything, though all eyes were on us. No doubt, they knew who Akpabio was. I can bet that many of them were wondering about who I was.
As Akpabio and I were holding on to ourselves, I could feel the presence of someone standing behind me. It was the air hostess who was waiting for two of us to finish our business so that she could perform her routine instructions to the passengers. I said to Akpabio: “Well, Senator, I think the beautiful lady behind me is waiting for us. Let me return to my seat.” Akpabio said; “Of course, of course.”
As soon as I could seat down and buckle my seat belt, I fell asleep; I did not even hear the rumblings and the vibrations of the plane upon take-off.
Suddenly, someone tapped my shoulder. I opened my eyes. An air hostess was standing next to me, “Sir,” she said, “the Senator says he wants to talk to you.” I told her to tell the Senator that I would be with him in a minute. I turned to my right and went right into the toilet. I rinsed my mouth and damped my face with cold water, for some kind of alertness on my face.
I left the toilet and walked straight to where Akpabio was seating. As soon as he saw me, he stood up and ushered me to two empty seats at the front row; it was a not full plane. As the plane continued to roar its way to Abuja, we sat down for a short conversation.
When Godswill Akpabio was the Governor of Akwa Ibom State from 2007 to 2015, though I remained his strongest critic, there was never any face-to-face meeting between me and him, until December 29, 2015, in Arik flight from Uyo to Abuja. It was a chance encounter which I will treasure forever and which I will continue to wish there was adequate time for me to listen to Akpabio and probe him further on issues that pertain to Akwa Ibom State.
As we sat down on the sofa at the front row of the aircraft, Akpabio began: “Listen to me, it is good that you come to visit Akwa Ibom. The problem is when you come, you sneak in and sneak out, that is why you cannot see all the strides and all the good things my administration did when I was governor….”
Those who have ever engaged in a conversation with Godswill Akpabio can agree that when he speaks, he does so in rapid fire and rarely leaves a chance for his listener to say anything. To say something, one has to either politely or rudely interject or interrupt Akpabio. I could have remained quiet and let Akpabio do the talking, but for his use of the word “sneak.”
‘No, Senator,” I interrupted Akpabio. ‘You are wrong. I did not sneak into Akwa Ibom. I flew from Lagos to Uyo airport. Akwa Ibom is where my roots are implanted. I was born and reared here in Akwa Ibom before I departed to study in the USA. Both of my parents were born, raised, died here in Akwa Ibom, and are buried here in Akwa Ibom. This is my home and that is why I am here. Therefore, I have no reason, whatsoever, to sneak into my land of birth.”
After my short interjection, Akpabio looked at me, and for once he appeared to have run out of words. “Well,” he continued, “did you have a chance to see the Governor’s House? If you did, you would have seen the good work I did there. The place is magnificent!”
“See, when you used to criticize me from America you did not know that I did so much for the State. I am happy that finally you have seen with your own eyes what I did. No other governor has ever done what I have done. Have you seen the E-Library?”
Akpabio went on and on in self-adulation. I glanced at my wrist-watch and realized that the plane will land in Abuja in less than 20 minutes. Unless I interrupt him, Akpabio would never give me the opportunity to ask him few questions that quickly came into my mind.
On the day Akpabio and I met, the election matter between Umana Okon Umana and Udom Emmanuel was still pending and stuck in the legal system. Straight out, I asked Akpabio: “Senator, I want to hear your opinion on the case of Umana and Udom.”
Akpabio replied: “I don’t know what you want to hear. The case is in court and I think we should let the court make the decision.” As he completed the statement, he looked at me, with an unwritten signal that he was not going to say anything further on the matter. I stopped probing, instead, I asked: “Senator, now that I have had the opportunity to meet face-to face with you, tell me; why did you remove Umana from Office?”
“Well, that is the wrong impression that people like you, who were not in Akwa Ibom at the time, had. I did not remove Umana from Office.”
I interjected: “C’mon Senator, I might not have been in Akwa Ibom at the time, but believe me, I know much more about the matter than you think I do. Now, tell me, why did you remove Umana from office?
With his right hand swung on my face as if throwing bait at me, Akpabio leaned back on his seat, crossed his legs and asked me; “Okay, you tell me what you know.”
I began: “This is what I know. Because you wanted Udom Emmanuel to be the Governor, you had to let go Umana Okon Umana because you did not think you would be able to control Umana as you would Udom. Because you had no idea on how to remove Umana from office, you had to send your wife to do the dirty work for you.”
After I finished telling Akpabio my version of the story, he laughed and shook his head. “Listen to me, my brother. Umana Okon Umana and I have gone a long way. Umana was like, and is still like, a real brother to me. When Umana made it known to me that he wanted to contest the election, I had no problem, in fact, I was happy for him. The problem began when I told Umana that he cannot remain in the employ of the government and contest for political office. He did not appreciate my telling him that. In the final analysis, he had to go.”
Again, I looked at my wrist-watch. We had only 10 minutes to land in Abuja and I began to imagine when I would have another similar chance to sit one-on-one with Akpabio. There were billions of questions in my mind that I could have asked Akpabio, but I had very limited time. Again, I glanced at my wrist-watch; it was less than 10 minutes to landing.
Finally, I addressed Akpabio thus: “Senator, I visited the Governor’s Mansion. I have seen the E-Library. Earlier today, I was at Ibom Plaza and I have seen the entire bypass and all the connections. I have seen some of the infra-structures, especially the roads that lead to governor’s residence. All these things look good. Now, Senator, let me ask you this: Why?”
Akpabio looked at me, expecting me to complete the question. But I left it where it was on a purpose. I wanted to make sure he was paying attention to what I was about to say. Then he asked: “Why what?”
I continued, “As you were building all these structures, one might have thought that you were trying to leave a good legacy for yourself.” Akpabio shook his head in affirmation.
“Then why were there so many killings, why all the kidnappings, why all the political assassinations that permeated your administration? What was the purpose of such atrocities?”
Akpabio did not allow me to finish what I was asking him. I had a feeling that he did not want me to venture into a territory that I honestly believe he did not want to delve into. Quickly, he interjected: “Let me tell you something that I don’t think you know. All those kidnappings you heard about were done by non-indigenes of the State. Many people did not know that I was even a target; I was always looking for my own back. They threatened to kidnap my wife; they threatened to kidnap my children. See, many people did not know this.”
“Finally I had to work with the State Commissioner of Police. In cooperation with the police, we had to go to a neighboring State (name withheld) to arrest the kingpin, who was also an indigene of that State. That is when kidnapping began to ease in Akwa Ibom State. The problem we had in arresting the culprits was because most of those kidnappers were indigenes of other States.”
I wish there was enough time to probe on Akpabio by asking more questions. I could have asked him to tell me what he knows about specific cases, such as the death of Paul Inyang. I could have asked him what he knows about the kidnapping and eventual brutal murder of Mrs. Philomena Udonwa. I could have asked him about the kidnapping of Mrs. Comfort Ewang.
There are those who may correctly argue that Akpabio himself might not have used his own hands to commit any of the heinous crimes that permeated his administration. But the truth will always remain; Akpabio was the Governor of the State, the leader of more than five million Akwa Ibom people, in whose hands was entrusted the mantle of security and protection for their lives and properties. Therefore, no matter who actually committed those crimes, the responsibility will forever remain the on the back and in the hands of Godswill Akpabio.
It is my hope that one day, God will approach Akpabio and force him to come out and tell all he knows about the crime that were committed under his watch as the Executive Governor of Akwa Ibom State.
The Great Ikpafak Thompson Essien
The Voice of the Poor Masses
Defender of the Oppressed
A native of Ibibio nation of Ubium Republic extraction, now living in the safe and beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where no AKPF, ADUMA, ADV, and Akwa Ibom State politicians can reach.
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