It must be one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world… the snaking rivers of the delta as the plane descends into the Victor Attah International Airport. I sat at the very last seat on the Air Ibom flight so I could ask the nearby cabin crew member what the name of the river was.
She said ‘it’s not a river. Shocked at her statement, I then looked again. Truly it was more like a series of connected rivers, with dense forests separating them as they snaked into each other, all bound for the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Some were much wider than others, and on this very day, they are were swollen from the torrents of rain that gave this region its sleepy, rustic feeling.
I could see the rusty roofs of village houses, some located precariously close to the lush, light brown river. Something had to be spectacular about this landscape. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, we aren’t very good at telling our story. This should be a haven for all sorts of people who understand the beauty of the environment, but the story of that delta is told more in the light of violence, poverty, and strife. Something has to change.
Ibom Air, by the way, is one of the best local airlines in Nigeria as at today. Their aircraft are neat, and you get the idea that they are in very good condition. When Akwa Ibom State decided to launch its own airline, some felt it had no business doing something of the sort. Some others felt, well, perhaps the Uyo airport there will just get busier. But in a short while the whole idea started to make sense.
The state is prepared for tourism business. So why not? In time, Nigerians have seen that Akwa Ibomites take themselves very seriously. The airline itself is known to be a stickler for time. I have flown them a few times and not had cause to complain. You could almost set your watch with the Ibom Air schedule. The cabin crew, disciplined… ok, sometimes almost stern to a fault as they ask passengers to comply with the new covid rules. I could sense a proper corporate organizational culture. Even on the ground, Akwa Ibom airport rules are a bit more advanced than elsewhere in Nigeria. The disinfection kit is modern, spewing proper fumes, unlike the ‘Gammalin 20’ cans used everywhere else. The aircraft themselves have good legroom even in economy. I type this very comfortably, seated in one, unlike some of the other guys who squeeze everyone out just to get more seats in and max out profits (British Airways especially; shame on you guys. I shall never forget my last flight).
The best part of flying Ibom Air came for me upon landing. I never stop to trip and smile with a wide grin when the announcement is first made in the Ibibio language. Lovers of diversity and languages will get a high from it. Check how it goes:
Ukang-nyin, Mme ette ye eka-nyin, Etok-etok ye ekamba..
Mbak ududa unan Sine mkpaha isin mfo
Meaning: Our people, our fathers and mothers, our young and old, we welcome you. Fasten your seat belt.
I hear some Nigerians have criticized Ibom Air for making announcements in Ibibio. They said they are ‘personalizing’ the… flight? Aircraft? Venture? I don’t know what exactly they are said to be personalizing. We fly Ethiopia and they must always do their announcements in Amharic. That one starts something like “Kuburatu kubra…” Fly EgyptAir or Qatar and they must offer a Muslim prayer before takeoff and perhaps upon landing. If you don’t like it, float your own airline yes? I look forward to the day we will use this way to celebrate our diversity – even though I know those who will complain if Max Air or Azman did their announcements first in Hausa. Still, Akwa Ibom has fired the first salvo. Let others take note.
Perhaps a bit of envy comes up because this state has done what others have been unable to do. The first time I flew Ibom Air, I met a friend on board who later asked me wistfully when we landed ‘why has Lagos not done something such as this?’ I was taken aback. Lagos is the commercial capital of Nigeria, with all the bragging rights to being connected with whatever is modern and progressive. The smartest guys are there and every Nigerian heads to Lagos. If Akwa Ibom can make a success out of Ibom Air, why not Lagos? Then the question comes up about sustainability.
I wish Akwa Ibom the best because the aviation business is crazy, risky, finance-intensive. But I commend the state for making a point with this Chinese-type state capitalism by which states run efficient businesses by doing so at arm’s length. Emmanuel Udom must be commended because many state governors and politicians will not allow their egos to give way to unbiased efficiency. I also wish Ibom Air godspeed and that they sustain what they have started. Other states should emulate. I see that Cally Air has also berthed – for Cross River State. I expect they will make their own announcements in Efik, and project the glory of Ediye Canaan (Canaan City) including other parts of the state, up to Ikom and beyond. Perhaps, we are onto a new model of governance and business here.
I also stayed at the serene Ibom Icon Hotel – used to be Le Meridien. My friend Akan Bassey insisted and I’m thankful that I didn’t go elsewhere. What a beauty! This is not my first time there though (could be my fourth or fifth), but in these two days, I saw the beauty of Ibom Resort in a different light. Now, the Le Meridien brand has left and many people will expect that the standards dovetail as a result. Not in Akwa Ibom State, where their covid protocols are stricter than ever. The smart thing Udom did with the hotel is to bring in a Kenyan team to run the place.
The simple thing that has killed many government-owned businesses in Nigeria is the idea that government can use facilities for free. With this team of professionals a couple of whom I met, this tendency should reduce – of course with the governor’s help. Kenyans are also a lot simpler than Nigerians. They have no airs about them unlike us here. I met Mudi, the Lagos-based award-winning fashion designer and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he got to Ibom Icon Hotel and Resorts.
He swore he was coming back shortly with his entire crew. He also asked one rhetorical question. “what if the president spent a little of his annual vacation in a place like this?” Whereas Nigeria is led by people who for some reason believe someone is always after their lives, this is not the case in reality. That place could be cordoned off by intelligence services for a week while the president and his family convalesce. A lush 19-hole golf course is also attached.
The swimming pool is the cleanest I’ve seen in Nigeria. The serene atmosphere is fantastic for outdoor exercise and the gym – situated on two floors – is the fitness freak’s paradise. The rooms are great and they have the softest pillows I’ve ever used! Enjoyment is good o! I however advised the hotel management to see to always having healthy options on all their menus (Nigerians are getting more health-conscious), and of course to be quick with daily maintenance of little things before they become huge crises – our bane in Nigeria. The Willa Band that plays at the hotel lobby is also amazing and I sang a few songs with them. Lady Willa should get more visibility.
I will be going back! Yes, it’s almost like a resolve. Life is short and one just has to prioritize one’s happiness these days. Akwa Ibom in general is a beautiful state, presently being led apparently by serious-minded people, who are minimizing waste and salvaging government facilities. Yes, the state is lucky, given what it generates from its crude oil. Obasanjo did a big thing for this state with the law on littoral states, and Architect Victor Attah – the former governor – also put in place some solid infrastructure which is paying off today. Akpabio – the uncommon governor – went crazy with infrastructure building and in spite of criticisms, he got many things right. Udom is cruising but also making us ex-bankers and accountants pretty proud. Sometimes, all one needs is an opportunity to prove your style of management.
The icing on the cake on my visit was the play hosted by Duke of Shomolu productions, a Joseph Edgar company, at the Ibom Hall. Joe is one person who inspires me with his proficient, no-holds-barred, don’t-give-a-damn writing, mostly done on the keyboard of his phone. Through this inspiration, I have received a further boost to write more even when I was getting tired of Nigerian affairs and whatnot. I saw one of his plays in 2019 and got hooked. Ibiom – When Doves Fly, the new play, tells the story of Akwa Ibom, their interactions with the Arochukwu and Ogoja people in times past, woven around love, hate, war, and peace. Historical, epic, thoughtful, colorful. Lovers of culture, history, diversity, must see this one. What a blast!
Caution. Nothing is perfect. Akwa Ibom ranks high on the unemployment charts in Nigeria, so this needs to be looked into. Why exactly? Maybe there aren’t many roles for locals to play in the infrastructural development that is the focus of the state (Akwa Ibom has perhaps the best roads in Nigeria). There have to be roles that the youths can play.
Of course, I saw side-streets off Oron Road, Uruan Road, and so on, that young students from Uniuyo should be the ones proudly building rather than waiting for big contractors. The youths must be involved. Maybe if they are, we will not see a situation where some misguided Akwa Ibomites are giving funny elements grounds to test-run their craving for anarchy. We have heard of policemen being killed by secessionists or whomever. That state is too beautiful, too delicate to be allowed to contort into anybody’s nightmarish vision of strife. Akwa Ibomites, Dakkada mbok!