By Sam Akpe
It was a delicious surprise when I woke up yesterday to discover that Senator Udoma Udo Udoma had turned a princely 70 years. The question came unplanned: how did he get there; so fast; unannounced? Well, not so quickly. He has been around for a short while.
The truth however is that people sculptured in the mold of Udoma hardly grow old in the imaginations of their admirers. They simply exist, make marks for themselves and their environment and refuse to age, physically or reputationally.
As the son of Sir Egbert Udo Udoma, the late former Justice of Nigeria’s Supreme Court, it was pretty difficult for Senator Udoma to emerge from the shadows of his father and create a separate identity for himself. I assume he succeeded reasonably when he won election to the Senate in 1999.
A gentleman by every standard, Senator Udoma sometimes comes across as an Englishman with a dark skin. From the calm way he speaks, to the emphatic but gentle manner he responds to controversial issues, he hardly rocks the boat. However, don’t ever dare him; because such people are dangerous when pushed to the wall.
If you doubt me, ask former President Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1999 after Udoma’s unchallenged victory at the polls, Obasanjo decided to appoint him a minister. Udoma was momentarily confused on what to do.
It all started after Obasanjo emerged as president-elect and decided to appoint someone from the south south geopolitical zone as Secretary to Government of the Federation. As expected, a lot of people started lobbying for the position.
Three people from Akwa Ibom State: Obong Victor Attah who was the governor-elect, the late Major General Edet Akpan and Udoma, visited Obasanjo in his farm in Otta to lobby for the late Obong Ufot Ekaete to be considered as SGF.
During that visit and as the conversation progressed, Obasanjo informed the delegation that he would like Udoma to serve in his cabinet. Surprised, everyone turned to Udoma, who chose to maintain a straight look situated somewhere between a smile and a frown.
He sought election to the Senate with clear-cut objectives. As Obasanjo said those words, Udoma started wondering whether he could achieve those objectives from the office of a minister. The next question that came mind was what portfolio Obasanjo would offer him.
From that point onward, pushed on by a few of his friends, he tried to find out from Obasanjo which ministry he would likely serve. The president, even after taking office, remain slippery in his answer or the lack of it. Somehow, Udoma got to know that he would be made a minister of state in charge of environment.
A high drama later unfolded when Obasanjo inaugurated his cabinet. The Senate was already in session when Senator Udoma walked in, an indication that he had turned down the ministerial offer. Senators rose in applause. Instantly, a strain was placed on his relationship with Obasanjo.
Categorized by friends and associates as highly principled, Udoma, as the Chief Whip of the Senate was the first and only PDP principal officer of the Senate to publicly reject attempt by Obasanjo to change the 1999 Constitution and give himself tenure elongation in 2007.
He noted in a public statement that his reason for opposing the tenure elongation proposal, was because he felt that “at this stage in our political development, incumbents holding executive office have unfair advantages over those challenging them, including exclusive access to state resources.”
He continued that term limits were therefore the only way to ensure that Nigeria did not have leaders for life who would entrench themselves such that they could not be removed through the ballot box.
In his opinion, once so entrenched, the opposition might be forced to resort to extra-constitutional means to remove them from office, thus leading to political instability.
Udoma later disclosed that the 1999 ministerial offer presented him with one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He almost repeated the same act when Muhammadu Buhari appointed him a minister in 2015, by rejecting the offer again.
When he was earlier contacted, he was said to have been promised appointment as a minister with responsibilities covering foreign investment and economic activities.
However, things changed on the day he was sworn-in to office. He realized, after taking the oath that he was going to charge of Budget and National Planning; which was not quite a strange environment to him.
As he contemplated what to do, it occurred to him that the applause he ignited in 1999 after turning down the appointment by Obasanjo had since died.
Buhari was reported to have reminded Udoma that as senator, he was at different times in charge of committees on appropriation and national planning. Reluctantly he obliged.
A proud and well-cherished son of Akwa Ibom State, Senator Udoma was said to have unambiguously informed Buhari that he would not accept a re-appointment as minister; and he was the first among colleagues to clear his table as soon Buhari’s first term strolled to a close.
An alumnus of Kings College, Lagos, Udoma trained as a lawyer at Oxford University, specializing in commercial law. The Oxford tradition seems to run in the family. His father had earlier studied law there. I am aware that at least, one of Udoma’s children beat the father’s record at Oxford.
While a lot of people may believe that Udoma’s admission to Oxford and his phenomenal professional growth in legal practice had the influence of his father in terms of open doors, the reverse is actually the case. That is a story for another day.
I am tempted at this point to reveal, probably to Senator Udoma’s discomfort, that 1999 was not the only time he turned down an offer from a sitting president. The first was probably unknown because it happened under the military. Let’s equally leave that for another day.
While serving in the Senate, Udoma almost created an avoidable scene one day when he challenged the late Senator Arthur Nzeribe to mention names of those involved in a bribe scandal which Nzeribe celebrated in the media and during plenary sessions of the Senate.
The senator from Imo State was fun of boasting about giving a three-million-naira bribe to individual senators so that they won’t support the House of Representatives in the bid to impeach Obasanjo in 2003.
During one of the plenary sessions, Udoma raised a Point of Order. When given the floor, he demanded that Nzeribe should stop rubbishing the integrity of every senator seated in the hallowed chamber.
He demanded that names of those he offered the money be mentioned so that people like him would not be counted among those who took the bribe.
At this point, the entire plenary session of the Senate went quiet. Almost reluctantly and against the unexpressed wish of the majority, the Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim, yielded the floor to Nzeribe.
Rising with a mischievous smile, Nzeribe, with all eyes and attention—from the gallery to the floor—feasted on him, cut short the tension by declaring that it would be near madness for any person to attempt to bribe Udoma.
He stated categorically that Udoma was not among those he even considered offering the orchestrated bribe because it would be too risky to do so. Cleared, Udoma smiled and sat back. No one ever raised the issue again, not even Nzeribe.
Called to the bar in 1978, Udoma practiced with senior lawyers for five years before setting up a personal law firm in 1983. That firm is today called Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie. It remains one of the largest commercial law firms in Nigeria. He would have missed all of this if he did not listen to his father.
Beginning in 1991, Udoma spent two years as a part-time consultant with a U.S. law firm called Shearman and Sterling. He served in their Paris office while still running his law practice in Lagos. He did this by alternating months in Paris and Lagos.
At the end, he was offered opportunity to become a partner and move to the firm’s head office in New York. Excited, he went to tell his father.
The old man listened in silence as Udoma described the opportunity as golden, with huge remuneration and a chance to rub shoulders with some of the best legal minds in the world.
Justice Udoma congratulated his son, but advised him to turn down the offer, stay in Nigeria and contribute to building a society that could provide all the facilities that attracted him to the United States; because that society was built by people like him.
He told the young lawyer to build up a law firm that could, in future, rival Shearman and Sterling. It was a vote of confidence that challenged Senator Udoma to build one of the best commercial law firms in Africa.
Udoma ones told me, “We are the ones that can make Nigeria better. So, I would like to say to young people, please get involved. If you have any opportunity to get involved, please get involved. Will it be easy? No.
“Building a better society is not easy work, but you can only make a difference if you are involved; if you participate. The more we have high quality people involved in politics, the better for the country.
“However, getting involved does not mean blending in and accepting all the bad practices. Don’t be afraid to say no, when you are asked to do something wrong. Always be ready to walk away. To be able to do this, you must have an alternative source of livelihood.”
The late Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, once told me a story about how, at the beginning of Udoma’s second term in the Senate, he had opportunity to serve as Chairman of the highly prestigious and most important Standing Committee of any Senate, the Appropriations Committee.
During the first term, he had headed the same Committee for two years, He was aware of the enormous power of that office. However, Udoma opted for the much less desirable position of Chairman of the National Planning and Poverty Alleviation Committee.
His reason was to be focused on ensuring that the Bill to remove the on-shore/off-shore oil dichotomy was again passed into law, and, having studied, in some detail, the responsibilities of each of the Committees, he realised that that was the Committee that would likely handle the issue.
By opting to serve as chairman of that Committee, he was simply elevating the interest of his state above a personal desire. He gave up the possibility of enhancing his influence in the Senate and upgrading his political visibility for the sake of his people. That is who Senator Udoma is.
Distinguished, I simply wanted to say, happy birthday. Instead, I have ended up a long story. Even now, I’m struggling to end this narrative. Don’t forget, the world is expecting that book: your biography. Happy birthday, Sir.

Akpe is a Journalist based in Abuja


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