Why Akume, Alia must delete the Benue houseboy stereotype

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AUTOGRAPH BY NSEOBONG OKON-EKONG

I am writing this with an intense degree of deja vu. As an Akwa Ibomite, I have lived with the humiliation of the quintessential ‘Calabar’ person forced to fit into stereotypes to create a comic effect: The honest but always fumbling crass ‘Okon’, the houseboy. He is depicted in popular Nigerian culture as a person who is not capable of independent or critical thinking and one who is happy with his bottom-of-the-ladder place in life, bereft of the capacity to achieve higher attainments. This character was best presented by Giringory Akabogu (real name, James Iroha), who created the New Masquerade, a very popular television drama on Nigeria Television Authority Network in the early ’80s.

There are many theories about the emergence of the ‘Calabar houseboy’, many of them misleading. The first is that he was from Calabar, whereas he was really from Akwa Ibom. These beliefs goes back to the fact that all of what is now Akwa Ibom State was earlier captured as South-eastern State and later, Cross River State, with its capital in Calabar. Some of these stereotypes are still popular. For instance, in order to disparage the ‘Calabar’ woman, she is derogatorily considered to be hypersexual.

None of these generalization considers the fact that Calabar was, arguably, the first capital of Nigeria or that our European colonialists were comfortable to have the Calabar person as his cook or steward because his personal hygiene was excellent, better than those from other Nigerian ethnic groups. It didn’t matter that the first Nigerian commissioned as an officer into the Nigerian Army, Wellington Umoh Bassey, was a ‘Calabar’ man or that his compatriot, Louis Edet, became the first Inspector General of Police in Nigeria.

When talking or writing about the ‘Calabar’ person stereotypes, no one considers the reality of the intelligence of a people led by Justice Udo Udoma to organise themselves into a formidable force called the Ibibio State Union in 1928; long before the Ibo Union (Ohaneze) was formed in 1937 or the establishment of Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1945.

All the fallacies around the ‘Calabar houseboy’ stereotype, arguably, ended when Senator Godswill Akpabio became Governor of Akwa Ibom State from 2007. By becoming more self-assertive, even if in a rude and noisy way, Akpabio stirred the ‘Calabar houseboy’ into a rude awakening! Thereafter, Senator David Umahi also set his sight on liberating young people from his home state, Ebonyi, from the job of pushing carts on the streets of Lagos. He succeeded.

Today, the new market for domestic staff of any description is Benue State. For this pathetic truth, the people of Benue can’t blame God. If anything, God loves Benue so much that He has given them His sons (reverend fathers) twice as governor. Rev. Fr. Moses Adasu was almost finishing his second year in office when the military sacked that season of democratic governance in November 1993. The new governor of Benue, Reverend Fr. Hyacinth Alia, since last May 29 is also a Catholic Priest. He inherited a strife-torn state that has become a killing field for suspected Fulani herdsmen. The head of the average Benue person is possibly bowed from years of trouncing.

“Benue people need to believe in themselves again”

Two sons of Benue indicated interest in flying the All Progressives Congress presidential flag; successful businessman, Moses Ayom and Senator George Akume, who was in the Federal Executive Council, at the time. As God will have it, Benue has a top slot designation in the present government at the centre with Akume as Secretary to the Government of the Federation. All things being equal, the home-front may be safely guarded in the hands of a Man of God.

No matter what views one may hold of Akume, he is resilient. He always bounces back, even when things don’t seem to be working well for him. In his 2006 album, ‘Grass 2 Grace,’ Benue-state born musician, Innocent Idibia, better known as 2Baba lifted Akume, in the track, ‘I Dey Feel Like,’ to the pantheon of all-time greats like Olusegun Obasanjo, Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley, Bola Tinubu and Jay Z. To many, Akume is probably the most lucky son of Benue alive! Many times, God has given him the opportunity to lead his people out of poverty to the Promise Land, but he just scratches the surface, often missing the timing to dig in and do more.

Coming after the disastrous reign of Samuel Ortom, who shamelessly advertised hand-pushed carts as empowerment tools for the youths of Benue, this time, God has again put Benue in the hands of Akume and a reverend gentleman. Can they rise above petty squabbles to face the task of wrenching the people free from the strangle-hold of humiliating poverty? Benue people need to believe in themselves again. This is the time to promote the homogeneity of the state, leaving no room for clanish mentality. This is the land of Joseph Tarka. This is an appeal to the individual and collective heritage of the likes of Bongos Ikwue, Barnabas Gemade, Victor Malu, Abba Moro, Audu Ogbeh, Michael Aondoakaa, Ameh Ebute, David Mark and Iyorchia Ayu. Rise up and end the pitiful condition that has made Benue people hewers of wood and drawers of water.

The state derives its name from the Benue River which is the second largest river in Nigeria after the River Niger. There are a couple cultural attributes unique to Benue that can be deliberately tuned towards kick-starting its creative economy: The Kwagh Hir puppetry drama. The Swange dance which is usually a spellbinder featuring male and female entertainers contorting their bodies in the most unbelievable forms. Of course, there is the A’nger, a hand-woven fabric with black and white thread, forming beautiful Zebra-like patterns. For many years, Tar Ukoh, a bohemian retired broadcaster and one-time GM/CEO of the National Theatre consistently promoted a personal appearance that showcases the entirety of Benue culture.

With its abundance of human and natural potential, the famous ‘food basket’ of the nation with over six million people spread across 23 local government areas should not be reduced to a hub of menial drudges. Governor Alia can join hands with Akume to fire the ambition of their people afresh. The people of Benue need to get their mojo back.