Gov. Umahi: Garlands for a nationalist

By Joseph Ode

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

-Charles de Gaulle

When de Gaulle, the French General, President and statesman, wrote this nearly a century ago, he couldn’t have known that a Nigerian would be born who would fit perfectly into his definition of patriotism. Engr. David Umahi, Governor of Ebonyi State, is that man. He is a patriot to the core whose love for his people is beyond measure. He is also a nationalist with a difference: one whose first love for his country, Nigeria, does not elicit hatred for any other.

Such has been his towering profile in patriotism and nationalism that caught the attention of a foremost Nigerian publication, The Top10 magazine, which has nominated him for the award of the Political Leader of the Year 2021 in recognition of his patriotic and nationalistic disposition in the Nigerian project as a leading voice in promotion of a united Nigeria.

In a generation of Nigerians which  prioritizes selfish interests, Umahi dispenses passion and compassion to others, his subjects. In a country where leaders pride themselves as local and ethnic champions, the Ebonyi State Governor towers above the rest as a nationalist who eats, breathes and dreams a united, strong and better Nigera.

One needs not go far to find evidence of Umahi’s patriotic and nationalist credentials. It is right there at his doorstep, Nigeria’s South-East. For decades now, a number of groups have emerged from that part of the country, mobilizing and organizing the predominantly Igbo-speaking people of the area into mass movements that seek self-determination and break-up from Nigeria to form an independent state of Biafra. The two most notable among the groups are the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). While many of his peers from the southeast give silent concorrence or submit themselves to the separatist agitations out of fear, Governor Umahi frequently comes out confidently and boldly to denounce the agitations and their modus operandi. He would rather want to see a strong, united and economically flourishing country that would bring prosperity to its citizens, including his fellow enterprising people of the Southeast.

The Governor recently restated his long-standing belief in Nigeria’s unity in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, during the conclusion of an 8-day prayer and fasting session organised by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Ebonyi Chapter,  over the security situation in the state. He used the event to express his belief in a country where oneness, freedom, equity, justice, fairness among other virtues prevails.

“I do not believe in second-class citizenship where a section of the country is being seen to be superior to others. We are all created by God and no one should talk of disintegrating the country,” he said.

He admitted that most of the secessionist groups’ agitations were genuine, noting that they could, however, be addressed. “I want Igbos to submit these agitations and I would lead the governors and leaders of the zone to the centre to address these grievances.

Umahi urged the people to shun bitterness, anger, violence among other vices, to avoid bringing war and destruction unto the land.

“We would tell the authorities in Abuja that our people are aggrieved but such cannot be addressed by insulting the president, governors and leaders from other regions of the country,” he said.

Also, in a recent interview with Channels Television, the Governor declared: “This idea of Biafra, Biafra is madness and we have said, ‘No’, we don’t want Biafra…If we go our separate ways, South-East people will lose a lot because, we’ve invested a lot in every part of this nation. It is not to our advantage to leave our investment and walk away,” he stated.

Another area in which Governor Umahi has manifested his nationalistic outlook is in the raging legal tussle between the Federal and the Rivers and Lagos State governments over rights to the collection of the Value-added Tax (VAT). Since the introduction of the tax in Nigeria, the Federal Government has enjoyed exclusive rights to its collection and thereafter distributing a proportion of it to the states and local government areas based on the existing federal revenue allocation formula. However, over the years, some states have questioned the status quo, arguing that it was illegal and was being used by the Federal Government to deprive them of the revenue that they ought to collect. The Rivers state government went to court to challenge the implementation of the VAT law. Although it won the case at the lower court, it is still pending in the appeal court. In the course of the litigation, and sensing that a new and lucrative revenue-earning outlet was in the offing, many state governors moved to join Rivers State litigation or institute their own. The implication of a successful VAT litigation against the Federal Government is that the centre will be rendered fiscally weaker.

However, the spirit of nationalism in Umahi, would not allow him support the VAT litigation bandwagon, his Ebonyi state’s relatively weak revenue base notwithstanding. He said Ebonyi would continue to stick with the VAT collection by the Federal Inland Revenue (FIRS) and its subsequent distribution among the 36 states of the federation. “Ebonyi state is not in support of any state collecting VAT. We are in support that FIRS should continue to collect tax and share,” he declared in Abakaliki during a state dinner organised in honour of Tukur Buratai, a former chief of army staff and Nigerian ambassador to the Republic of Benin.

The only other state government openly standing with Ebonyi on this issue is Gombe which had also called on Lagos and Rivers governments to reconsider their resolution on collecting VAT in their states.

Barrister Orji Uchenna Orji, Ebonyi state Commissioner for Information explained that when the issue of VAT came up, the governor’s thinking was to make the states of the federation understand that all the fingers are not equal. “We should have a central sharing point otherwise one state will dominate the entire revenue sharing generation while some other states will be seen not to be viable. We are waiting for the Supreme Court pronouncement, but I want to tell you that there is wisdom in the position of the Governor, otherwise states like Benue State, without federal allocation cannot survive practically.”

Orji has also explained Governor Umahi’s position on other issues bothering on his nationalistic posture. For instance, when the issue of herdsmen/farmers’ clashes reared its head in some parts of the federation, the Governor made Local Government chairmen in his state to see how to make peace between the herdsmen and famers and advised that the approach be replicated across the country. The commissioner revealed that his principal submitted a very wonderful report which, if implemented, would end all of these problems in the country.

Orji describes Umahi as someone who is nationalistic by nature. “By his character, family training, nature and inclination, he is a nationalistic leader and a bridge builder; he believes in one Nigeria. For us in Ebonyi, we refer to him as Azikiwe of Nigeria because all his doings point to the fact that he wants a united Nigeria where there is love, peace, prosperity and tolerance for every culture.”

According to Orji, the governor’s thinking is that the Igbo living abroad, especially those that are fanning the embers of division should think twice.  “Nnamdi Azikwe understood the stake the South-East had in the creation of Nigeria, so we cannot afford to disintegrate or go to another country other than Nigeria. We have said that the collective existence of Nigeria is not negotiable, but the modalities are very negotiable and that is the position of our dear governor. “

Governor Umahi is a fair-minded person. He has demonstrated this trait in his leadership of the state in the equitable sharing of socioeconomic amenities and political representation in Ebonyi State. For instance, he succeeded in collapsing the issues of dichotomy of zones in the state which was initially tending towards the type of scenario that took place in Benue and Kogi States where one zone is in the majority that dominates the others.

Orji explains: “One part that came from Enugu is twice the part that came from Ebonyi, but he has been able to collapse that dichotomy. We are now looking at how to ferry each of the three zones without minding which side is in the majority. So, these are things he will work on if he has such opportunity and that has made him the father of all in Ebonyi state and we are beginning to realize that where we have differences in tongues, and languages, that the meeting point will be fairness, love and oneness.”

That is the kind of scenario Governor Umahi would love to see at the national level,  whereby the presidency should be allowed to go round especially in the major blocs that came together to form Nigeria at Independence. His idea, according to Orji, is that there is no zone where you cannot get the best hand. “So, when you are talking about merit, you can get merit in the South-East, South-West and North-Central. But let us gradually go round so that there will be a sense of belonging. “

Orji, however, refutes the insinuation that his principal was using his apparent nationalism, especially the aspect that makes him want to associate with any serving President, to programme himself for ascension to Nigeria’s presidency. The commissioner said nationalism is part of his principal’s character and credentials as an individual. “It is not for any ambition, he didn’t start today, the idea of ensuring leaders and elders are respected started when he was a child.”

Now 67, David Nweze Umahi, known popularly as Dave Umahi, was borne to the family of Elder Joseph Umahi Nwaze and Margaret Umahi of Umunaga, Uburu, in Ohaozara Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. He was educated at Ishiagu High School, the Government Secondary School Afikpo and the Enugu State University of Science and Technology. He graduated in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering.

In 1990, he co-founded Norman Engineering and Construction Nigeria Limited and served as its general manager until 1993 when he left to set up  Brass Engineering & Construction Nigeria Ltd.

Umahi entered public service in 2007 as the acting chairman of the Ebonyi State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party,  rising progressively to become state chairman of the party and chairman of the governing board of the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba.

In 2011, Umahi became Deputy governor of Ebonyi State on PDP ticket with Governor Martin Elechi. However, in 2014, during the build up to the 2015 general elections, Governor Elechi supported Onyebuchi Chukwu, then Minister of Health, as his successor, which Umahi stated violated an understanding that he would take that role at Ekechi’s exit. Umahi went ahead to defeat Chukwu in the primaries and was elected Governor on 12 April 2015. He is currently serving his second and final term as Governor following his reelection in 2019.

As The Top10 magazine prepares for the official presentation of the award to Governor Umahi as the Political Leader of the Year 2021, one cannot agree less with his choice by the award organisers. It is hoped that the award will precipitate the emergence of more patriots and nationalists like him.

Ode, a media consultant and public affairs analyst, contributed this piece from Abuja.