By Yakubu Dati,
Born on the 5th of May 1963 in a serene countryside of Ajekamai in Shendam local government of Plateau State, Simon Bako Lalong has emerged to provide the kind of leadership that rekindles fond memories of the legendary JD Gomwalk.
Following an era of divisive leadership, the people have been nostalgic about the kind of leadership that will restore plateau to it's lost glory.
Subsequent administrations, notably that of Chief Solomon Lar and J.C Dariye contributed immensely to building a cohesive society, but the most audacious has been the work by the current administration in Plateau State led by Simon Lalong.
Following the support he received across party lines, ethnic divides and religious faulty lines, Lalong rolled up his sleeves and plunged into his assignment with the needed energy and zest.
Although the challenges appeared daunting having inherited a state with unpaid salary arreas of 7 months and a debt profile of N220 billion, Lalong came fully kitted for the task ahead. Coming with a rich experience as an excellent administrator and manager of men and resources, garnered as the longest serving Speaker in the history of Plateau State, he quickly identified patterns, spot opportunities, made the connections between pressing demands and limited resources.
Although he was of a different political leaning with that of his predecessor, he did not allow the partisan sentiment becloud his sense of judgment but took on the projects that were yet to be completed by his predecessors and continued work on them.
Believing that serving the people is more important than being politically correct, Lalong demonstrated honesty and integrity by decisively mobilizing contractors to site with sourced funds for the completion of projects, not bothering who started them as long as they were meant to serve the people of the state.
Before long, critical infrastructures, mainly road projects inherited from the last administration were completed in no time and were commissioned by no less a personality than President Muhammadu Buhari. They include the Mararaba Jama’a expressway and the fly-over at the Secretariat junction in Jos, the state capital.
Lalong also, completed and commissioned the Miango Low cost, Rafiki road networks with spur at Domkat Bali road and initiated projects like the Unguwar Rogo – Alikazaure bridge which is nearing completion.
The Governor’s intervention in the agricultural sector has been revolutionary with the reopening of the Fertilizer blending plant in Bokkos. He initiated and launched 400 tractors for distribution to farmers under the Tractor Ownership Scheme and Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Plateau State Government and the Plateau All Farmers multipurpose cooperative society. Furthermore, no less than 800 trailers loaded with 24,000 metric tones of fertilizer were given to farmers at subsidized rate, while the multi-mullion naira Panyam Fish Farm has been revived and operational.
Angry at the rot and decay in the education sector where the performance of the state at the WAEC examination was very poor, the governor introduced reforms in the sector by employing and training about 700 teachers, constructing 500 new classrooms, and massively injecting funds into the primary education sector.
The Plateau State University, Bokkos earlier shut down by the previous administration was reopened, providing hope and opportunities for the teeming youths. More than 200 lecturers have been given scholarship for further studies within and outside our shores.
But, perhaps a greater work is in the area of social justice. Plateau State was in recent times known as a center of crisis owing to the sectarian crises that had engulfed the state. Lalong ensured social justice in all strata of governance leading to the return of peace.
Lopsidedness in appointments gave way to more inclusive representations and projects were not restricted to a geo-political area but spread evenly across the state for the benefit of all. More than 24 road projects, spread across the 17 Local Government areas in the State are on-going. This has enhanced even development, attracting investors.
Security issues were given priority. Early warning signals were identified and nipped in the bud with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) institutionalised through the Plateau Peace Building Agency. The result is that commercial activities and personal enterprise began to thrive at a pace that had not been seen before. New hotels are springing up to meet up with demands of tourists pouring into the state. Jos is fast becoming the sort after conference destination. In the past 2 weeks, for instance, tourism operators (NATOP), Chairmen of State Electoral Commissions and Town planners hosted their Annual General Meetings and conferences in Jos. The Nigerian Theatre Arts Festival (NUTAF) will bring together 45 Universities along with about ten thousand artistes to perform at the Plateau State University next month in June!.
Abandoned industries like the Highland Bottling Company is back on track while progress is being made to revive the moribund Jos International Breweries (JIB), Jos Main Market and other enterprise. Efforts at reacquiring the multi million naira BARC farms is nearing completion.
In no time the state has been readmitted into the club of those given serious consideration by the Federal Government for siting of programmes and policies, a departure from the immediate past where Federal agencies were being relocated out of the state. Today Plateau State is benefiting from Federal programmes and interventions schemes like the National Food Security Council, the Potato value chain and social safety net interventionist programms.
By far the restoration of peace and regular payments of salaries is ranked amongst the greatest achievements of the Lalong administration thus far. Lalong set a clear direction to motivate the workforce by clearing the backlog of inherited 7 months salary arrears. The regular up-to-date payments of emoluments has not only triggered the local economy, but empowered traders, artisans and entrepreneurs along the value chain.
The youths also benefited from skill acquisition and starter-packs from a partnership with the Industrial Training Fund(ITF). 500 youths are today employers of labour, further depleting the unemployed youths and women.
The establishment of the Peace Building Agency and the historic launch of the Plateau Road-map to Peace document by the President Buhari is the icing on the cake.
Lalong started from a very humble background. He had his elementary and secondary schools education in Shendam Local Government Area. His quest for knowledge took him to the Ahmadu Bello Uinveristy Zaria in 1990 where he bagged a Bachelor's degree in Law. After graduating from the prestigious Law School in Lagos, he was called to Bar. He later obtained a master's degree in Law from the University of Jos in 1996.
He started his professional career as an attorney between 1992 and 1998, Between 1992 and 1994 he was the Deputy Scribe of the Nigerian Bar Association in Plateau State.
He joined politics in 1998 and contested and won election as the Hon. Member of the Plateau State House of Assembly representing Shendam Constituency. In October 2000 he became the Hon Speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly, a position he occupied for a record 7 years. He was two times elected Chairman of the Conference of Speakers of the 36 states of Nigeria by his peers.
He remained his humble self in the period between when he left office as Speaker and when he finally returned as Governor in 2015.
His humility and simplicity has continued to endear him to friends and foes alike, who are amazed that the perks and privileges of office have not changed him. He has remained passionate about improving the lot of the masses and ever willing to lend a helping hand.
As he marks 55 birthday today, the thought of the people and their prayer, is that God should preserve him with good health and sound mind, to accomplish the good things he has set out to achieve for Plateau State.
As he returns from Washington DC where he made the list of the only two Governors chosen to accompany President Mohammadu Buhari to the historic visit to the White House, Lalong keeps walking, crossing boundaries and building bridges for generations yet unborn.The intuitive and visionary leadership Lalong aplies in a unique context, in governance has indeed raised the bar in public service. Little wonder, this diciplined persona is honoured at home and celebrated abroad. Like a little lad born in a manger centuries ago, Lalong has emerged from the ashes of Ajikamai 55 years ago, to hold courts with world leaders at the Rose garden of the White house!
Dati is the Plateau State commissioner for Information and Communication.