He had a broad smile on and he was looking dapper in a striped neck tie on white shirt.
Duke is often at home when surrounded by young people and he looked well in his elements in the Pulse Nigeria office sprawled on the edge of the Atlantic.
Urbane. Check. Swag lord. Check. Smooth talking. Check. Debonaire. Check. Articulate. Check.
“I am running for President and that’s some serious stuff”, Duke said with barely concealed glee. “Sometimes, I wake up and ask myself, how did (his aide) get me into this mess?”, Duke said to general laughter from his hosts.
Duke was at Pulse to feature as special guest of LooseTalk—arguably Nigeria’s number one podcast anchored by Osagie Alonge, Steve Dede and Ayomide Tayo.
“I am glad to be here, Osagie”, Duke says. “It’s great to be here; to have discovered this place. This is great and I am really proud of what I have seen here. You guys say you come to work at 6am and leave around 10pm. So, you live here. You sleep somewhere else but you live here”, he adds.
The rest of the evening would see Duke take on Nigeria’s democratic, economic, governance, security, sporting and entertainment challenges with the ease of a veteran. This was a cakewalk for him. He was in familiar terrian. He was proffering solutions to Nigeria's numerous problems as though he's been thinking about them his entire life.
He wasn't mumbling or stuttering. He was dishing out policy proposals off the top of his head.
Duke oversaw the affairs of Cross River State from 1999 to 2007 and is credited with turning the South South State into a tourism destination, complete with its colourful December street carnivals, Tinapa business hub, waterfalls and cattle ranch.
Calabar, the Cross River State capital, was often voted Nigeria’s cleanest city with Duke at the helm. The streets were boulevard affairs, the streetlights shone at night, hotels witnessed a boom and residents wore friendly smiles as they welcomed visitors to the 'Canaan City'. It was in the DNA of Cross Riverians to be hospitable.
Duke took us through that period in his State’s recent history, with a characteristic glint in his eyes.
“My tourism drive in Nigeria wasn’t based on expatriates coming in. It was based on Nigerians coming in to spend money. Take Tinapa for instance. They say it won’t work; that it’s a white elephant project. When I hear that, I smile because the only white elephant is the substance between the brains of the person saying it.
“A governor said it would work in Lagos and I said, yes, because you don’t want to think hard. But the truth is, Cross River is at the end of Nigeria. Nobody goes there, except you have business there. So, to get Cross River to work, you’ve got to create cause for people to go there. And that’s why Tinapa is an important thing. We are a consumer economy. And if I can get the things I want in Dubai in Tinapa in my country, within an hour flight in my country without visa or all of that, it’s going to be a huge draw. That’s what Dubai is all about. It is a desert, but you can get stuff there.
“That’s what is. I don’t know if you know the story of Las Vegas”, Duke says, before explaining how a businessman went to the authorities in Nevada to seek permission for a parcel of land on a one mile strip where illicit dealings and the nite life would thrive--without the strictures of government legislation.
“If Tinapa were working, what you experience at the Calabar Carnival will be year long”, Duke says with nostalgia.
During the interval, I asked Duke if he agrees that the Calabar Carnival has lost some of its shine and draw.
“Some of it?” he returned rhetorically. “Let me not just say anything”, he added, his hand on his head as the entire room devolved into laughter.
2019 will be Duke’s second attempt at the Nigerian presidency. In 2007, as his second term as governor wound to an end, Duke had his presidential campaign posters pasted across Nigerian cities until then President Olusegun Obasanjo pulled to Umaru Yar’adua instead.
Duke wasn’t even considered good enough for the running mate slot, in Obasanjo’s book. That position was handed to Goodluck Jonathan from the same South South region as Duke. Jonathan would go on to become Nigeria's president as Yar’adua lost the battle to stay alive in 2010.
Has Duke forgiven Obasanjo for overlooking him in 2007?
“Obasanjo had his own views. He probably had his own views of the folks he wanted to take over from him so he literally picked Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan”, Duke said, a bit crestfallen, before sipping his coffee nicely, as though to stave off the wellspring of disappointment roiling inside of him.
"I was sad, but I moved on. The circumstance was sadder still because Umaru really wanted to work with me. On three occasions, he came to me and said, 'I hope you know we're working together?' I said, 'Sure, but is it your decision to make?' And he said, 'Ah, don't worry, he (Obasanjo) likes you.' I said, 'Okay, go (and) ask."
Duke adds that he has forgiven Obasanjo but warns that he isn’t a stooge of the former president as is being suggested in certain quarters.
Touted as one of Nigeria’s finest visionaries, Duke says the job of a president shouldn’t be forced on anyone. You’ve got to have a vision to run for president, he says with some emphasis.
"One thing about an office as serious as the presidency is, you don't conscript people to run because you must be mentally, physically, spiritually ready for the job.
"Mentally, you must have the vision for the job; spiritually, you must be strong, you must be of good faith, regardless of what your faith is; and physically, you must have the will, the desire to make it happen because you're going to be constantly swimming against a wave.
"The president of Nigeria is so all-powerful; he is a deity. I hate to say this, but I've been where people say, 'Oga, after God, na you o'".
The rest of the evening would see Duke walking up to the table at intervals to make his coffee, cracking the right jokes, posing for pictures with his young audience and even laughing at his own jokes.
Above all, however, he tells Pulse that he wants to see young Nigerians seize their country back from the old order who have run it aground.
“When I got in as governor, I was young. So, there was this suspicion of 'this young Lagos boy'. And then I was talking of sanitation, cleaning the place and people were like 'that’s not our problem. We want food on our table. What’s all this planting grass and all these things?'You talk of tourism. What is tourism mbok?' But gradually, I earned their trust.
“Trust is not an award. You earn it. Even your children. Each one have to earn your trust. The politicians have to earn the trust of the governed”.
Duke charges young people to go get their PVCs even if they have to endure long queues to do so.
“Young people have to take charge. They have to take charge of society. They can’t abdicate that responsibility. Sooner or later, it will fall on their laps. And the sooner they get involved—not necessarily running for elections, but even determining those who govern them—the better for them.
“And they can’t sell themselves short. Give you rice, give you this and all that. That’s nonsense. You need to engage your representatives, whether it’s a councillor or chairman or governor and when he speaks, you know whether he understands what he’s talking about.
“If young people don’t take charge today, they will suffer tomorrow. So, it’s to their benefit that they get involved and take charge. I see it happening, though. It happened to some extent in 2015. What we are advocating for is even more of that. And when you look at voters’ registration, it spiked, particularly in the South.
“And it’s not just getting your PVC, I hope on that day, young people will come out and vote and I hope we will sensitize them enough. And if they find an inspiring candidate, they may want to come out and if they don’t, they may just sit back….” he says.
It was three hours of chatting with Donald, the Duke. The clouds were dark and heavy with rain by the time we were done.
Duke stepped into the rain for his car; after posing for pictures with just about everyone, his presidential campaign and dreams ahead of him.
He had just been engaged in plenty of loose talk to last a lifetime.