Former governor of Cross River State, Mr. Donald Duke was recently conferred with an honorary doctorate degree in law by the University of Calabar. In this report, Joseph Ushigiale reflects on the Duke’s legacies
The title of this piece is not about Nostradamus and his predictions, rather this piece is about Mr. Donald Duke, the visionary former governor of Cross River State.
Last week, the Senate of the University of Calabar, nine years after exiting office, found him fit and proper, to confer him with an honorary doctorate degree in Law (Honoris Causa) at its campus in Calabar. The conferment also coincided with the 29th convocation ceremony of the institution where it graduated 7, 222 graduands from various faculties.
The Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Zana Akpagu in justifying the university’s choice to honour Duke, said it was in recognition of his “transforming Cross River State into a modern Green and Clean Tourism Destination.”
In his acceptance speech, Duke lauded the university’s senate for honouring him with the same award he had turned down 13 years earlier because, according to him, “there was nothing to show that I merited it.”
At the age of 36, Duke made history as the youngest governor in 1999. At a time when gerontocrats pervaded and ruled the political landscape, Duke demonstrated practically that a state can safely be guided by an under 40.
Duke was a visionary who saw far ahead of his time. In 1999, the military had just returned to the barracks and Cross River State was unsung, badly run and in debts. The civil servants had crippled and brought the state to her knees with a debilitating strike of several months on account of unpaid salaries and sundry arrears.
Faced with very few options, Duke took his chances. He envisaged and worked towards the creation of a brand new economy for the state. In his grand vision, he set out to lay a foundation that would wean Cross River State off the monthly federation account handout. He believed that given the state’s rich human and natural resources, it was possible to create an environment for businesses to plug in like Lee Kuang Yu did with Singapore.
First, he commissioned KPMG to carry out a feasibility study of the state as well as fine tune his road-map, a policy document for the state, which he had conceptualized and developed when he decided to run for governor. It was KPMG’s inputs that gave birth to Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort (TBLR).
How did Duke fare in Cross River State after his two-term tenure? The Duke’s legacies are quite evident and would continue to remain a reference point for years to come. Duke mirrored the hospitable nature of his people and settled for tourism as his pivot.
He succeeded in his vision to make the state a tourism state and destination point with such landmark events like the yearly Calabar Carnival, which without a doubt, has emerged as one of the biggest street party, rivalled only by other great festivals in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Notting Hill, London, United Kingdom, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA.
From a paltry 5,000 party revelers at inception in 2005, the Calabar Carnival has metamorphosed into a big brand, commanding over 10,000 party revelers. There is also the platform it has opened up for other brands to ride on, on a yearly basis and the resultant revenues accruing from advertising and sponsorship to the state.
In all, the newly created ecosystem of the Calabar Carnival encompasses transport, accommodation, financial sector, catering and food businesses, entertainment/music etc. In modest term, the carnival commands a yearly street value of over N2bn which it injects into the state’s economy and still growing.
Another Duke’s legacy is the yearly Obudu Mountain Race. While seeking to create and prop the state on the world tourism map, Duke was also mindful and cautious of the sensitivity of positioning projects to give every stratum of the state a sense of belonging. Thus, just as Tinapa bestrode the South like a colossus, he decided to utilize the natural assets of Obudu Cattle Ranch, which were the rolling hills and temperate weather to launch the mountain race in 2006.
At inception, the prize money was $50,000 and it was endorsed and featured on the annual calendar of the World Mountain Race Association. It has lived up to its billing by attracting some of the ‘A’ list athletes to its annual event. Not only that, it has also succeeded in putting the state on the world tourism map.
But Duke’s greatest legacy today is the Tinapa Resort which his traducers describe as a failed or white elephant project. By concept, design and execution, the TBLR is one of the most brilliant ideas to emerge from this side of the globe. He foresaw the explosion of retail business as the future in Nigeria and deliberately positioned Tinapa to be in the vanguard of this new coming.
Here is why? According to studies that influenced the setting up of the TBLR in 2001 or so, over 3m Nigerians traveled abroad, mostly to Dubai for leisure, shopping or commercial purposes. And if on an average, a ticket on either Ethiopia, Egypt or Kenya Airways costs N120,000; assuming the TBLR is established and just 1m Nigerians decide to shop at home rather than Dubai, an estimated N12bn would have remained in Nigeria that year.
Thus, Tinapa was established to attract global brands to Nigeria, create employment opportunities for Nigerian, open up business opportunities for traders who hitherto patronized Dubai and also conserve scarce foreign exchange.
Again, it is worth mentioning that, Duke needs to be celebrated for his foresight and vision way back in 2000 for him to rightly foresee the explosion of retail businesses in Nigeria in the years ahead. His forecast was right and had bureaucracy not killed Tinapa, there would have been no Shoprite today. Many would be surprised to learn that, Shoprite that is steadily maintaining its lead and spreading its footprints across Nigeria today was one of Tinapa’s first tenants.
Of course long before the federal government ever contemplated setting up the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF), Duke had already raised an executive bill causing the state assembly to pass a law establishing the Legacy Fund which mandated a monthly deduction of N50m savings to be set aside for any eventuality.
There are several other legacies that cannot be documented here as we celebrate this visionary who saw ahead of his time. It is therefore no wonder that his followers christen him as the ‘Father of Modern cross River State.’

Culled from Thisday Newspaper