The governor wept. So did many among his audience. It was the fourth time His Excellency, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State, was lachrymose in public.
Close watchers of Cross River State affairs have observed that in 2016, the squalid living condition of Bakassi returnees reduced their visiting governor to tears.
The suffering of the Bakassi people was so dear to Ayade's heart that he wept again in 2017 when arguing their case with the National Commissioner of the National Commission for Migrants, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons.
Two years ago at the signing of the state's budget into law, the governor cried in sympathy with the raw deal his people have had to endure over the years.
And last week, while inaugurating the anti-tax agency set up to ensure that poor people are exempted from the tax net, Governor Ayade declared between sobs, "This is not Ben Ayade, this is not my nature. I am not wired for this insensitivity to a weaker person. I never knew that five years into office as governor, I will still find someone living in a thatched house in Cross River."
I am not one to make light of gubernatorial tears, knowing as I do that in the Second Republic, one governor -- who, by the way ended up as one of the best of his era -- used that ploy to attract federal sympathy for his 'marginalised' state. Being a weeping governor is therefore not necessarily a minus.
I am, however, more interested in interrogating what informed the tears and the governor's solution to the problem of poverty in his state. Will the exemption of the poor from the tax net bring the desired prosperity and development? I think not. It is probably true that most of the taxes collected from the lower classes end up in private pockets, but isn't it better to use the might of state to destroy the network of tax crooks and use the proceeds for massive rural development (which will transform the lives of the rural poor) than to abolish taxation for that cadre?
Tax abolition is a populist move, no doubt. But let's examine a home grown alternative deployed in the former Western Region. Rather than exempt anyone from the tax net, the government simply reduced the tax payable by the poor but ensured that collection was enforced, monitored and the proceeds used to fund rural development and the universal free primary education in the region. Every farmer, artisan, businessman and petty trader bought into the dream.
To date, those villages which were transformed into urban centres within decades have become a testament to the power of vision. Poor people will not complain if their taxes are transparently being used to bring development to their environment.
Granted that Cross River State may not be as rich as some oil producing states such as Delta, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Rivers, Edo, Ondo, Imo, Abia and lately, Lagos, the state has other natural resources it could tap into for overall development.
Former Governor Donald Duke flaunted tourism. He developed the Obudu Ranch resort and Tinapa. The latter's potential as Nigeria's mini Hollywood is yet unrealised.
Many international visitors have taken a ride on Cross River's cable car reputed to have the longest span between towers. The end-of-year Calabar Carnival, a one-month street party during which Cross Riverians make tons of money from choreography, costume design, catering, float building, music, hospitality, artefacts and cultural products, was created during the Duke years.
What has happened since then?
A leader has to have a vision to turn the tears of his people to joy. It doesn't help much if he joins them in weeping. Ayade belongs to the younger generation and is well educated enough to understand what the educationist and civil rights activist, Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh describes as the essence of leadership: "The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."
Ayade has been in power for five years. It is his responsibility to fashion out how he will achieve a life more abundant for his people. I do not for a moment join the league of cyber-snipers who have fired lethal shots at the governor on social media, but I'm sure even Ayade himself will agree that President Buhari cannot solve Nigeria's problems by shedding tears.
What is required is action, not abdication. Populism is for short distance runners. Anyone with an eye on history will know that hard times call for leadership and hard decisions. For, as John Maxwell says, "The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails." That counsel goes for not only Ayade but all elected officials at all levels of government.
Singapore, at independence, was very much like Calabar -- poor subsistence farmers and a per capita of $516. The country dug in and flaunted what it has -- beautiful scenery, wildlife, arable land, flowers, animal and fish farming. The country is now a tourist destination of note. In 2018, its GDP was the 41st highest in the world at $349.659 billion while its per capita GDP was the 8th highest in the world at $61,766.
Calabar can be our Singapore. Cross River can still fulfil its promise of being Nigeria's preferred tourist destination. Mandela taught us to aim for the stars: "There is no passion to be found playing small -- in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."