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It is six years since Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, a medical doctor-turned politician and former senator, became governor of Delta State. He spoke with a select group of journalists on the journey so far and the state of the nation. Excerpts:
Your administration is now six years in office. What will you refer to as the outstanding achievements of the administration. There’s so much we have seen. But in your own rating, what will you describe as stand outs?
Actually, it’s not as if it will be one thing only because governance is about holistic process of impacting in the lives of our people. I will say in the area of security, we have achieved a lot. Peace is very key because without peace you definitely cannot even do any other thing.
Without peace you cannot undertake infrastructural development. Without peace we will not be able to have the funding, the resources, especially if the oil companies are not operational. Oil companies constitute a large percentage of our finances through the FAAC allocations.
You recall that we were in a very bad situation in the first two years of this administration because of the things that did happen at that time but we quickly worked with the stakeholders in the state, including the youths, the traditional institutions, religious leaders and our women and partnered with the Federal Government, offering appropriate advice.
So you find out that without peace, we won’t be able to build our resource level because we were really down to the fourth position in oil production rating, but now we are top number. Just that unfortunately, because of COVID-19, the oil volumes are down. Even when the price is functionally okay, but we are not reaping all the gains because the volume is down because of the OPEC cut.
We did a lot in terms of engagements and trying to re-educate our youths and trying to encourage the communities to ensure that we are able to have peace. Its only in peace we can develop and the trust was there. Most communities, especially those in the riverine areas did cooperate with us and they saw that they were some gains from it.
Because if you made a promise and it was not kept, of course they will renege on their trust. But with the development that we have brought into the riverine areas, yes, it may not have gotten to all of them, but many of the communities in those areas are being turned around and they are beginning to see for themselves.
If you pay a visit now to Burutu, it will not be the Burutu that you actually know of six years ago because almost every single road as at the last time I went, was paved. You go to Okerenkoko, you witness the same thing and then you begin to wonder where you are.
People would ask why do we do this? Do they have vehicles? Yes. Do they have roads linked directly to the place? No. But the people are able to use the barges to convey their vehicles to the place. They have beautiful homes with their vehicles parked there.
Those that do not have money to buy motor cars, buy motorcycles. Even those who are trekking with their legs don’t have to go through the very bad water-logged roads any more. They are happy.
When I went to Burutu and Okerenkoko, they are happy. You see the beautiful excitement in their faces. You go from Okerenkoko to Brass, the same thing is happening. In fact, one Chevron staff had to call me one night that he over flew to Okerenkoko and they could not recognise it anymore because of the road network that we have been doing.
Those are part of the things that we are doing. We did something in Ugborodo. I went to the Benin river myself. That’s in Warri North. Through DESOPADEC, we actually rebuilt two new towns, Oboghoro and Utonlila. We went recently, the second time, I was told that I am the first governor to ever come into the Benin river; to see the floating market which has gone very very far seated on a concrete base of about 6,000 square meters.
It’s a huge project, costing us a lot of money. But is it desirable? Yes. Going into the place, I saw about 18 different communities, those I could count along the way. But they are many of them off the port. They will all come to the place and be able to have a common trade.
So we are impacting on the family economy of each of these families that make up these communities and that’s very key to us because if you are impacting on people and taking them out of poverty, then you are actually trying to solve the problem of insecurity, you are putting food on the table, you are improving the family life and such people are likely to think of what to do with their children and say ‘Let’s send them to school’.
So you see, it’s a holistic process that has a lot of gains to it. The peace process is there. The development coming in those riverine areas are there. The Ayakoromo bridge, we are going very far with it.
So it’s a gamut of programmes that are actually impacting on communities to keep them together, to take them fully out of poverty and to make the place more livable for the people.
Delta has been relatively safe. Apart from some pockets of cult activities. In the light of emerging security threats, what can you put in place now to ensure that there’s no spillover of the kind of security situations we have in our neighbouring states, especially, in the South East?
Well, in the first instance, security challenge is a national issue. So there’s no part of the nation that is free from it.
We are only beeing relative in our own assessment that Delta State appears peaceful. There’s no doubt that we have a lot more challenge in the South East and of course in the North East and the other parts of the North.
We did the best that we can but because it’s a national issue, it’s a big problem. The security situation is much versatile. You have the criminality coming in with the farmers-herders clash, you have the normal herdsmen who have issues with the farmers, more recently, we have issues with the IPOB and their attacks that are causing issues in the South East and I guess that’s the one you are talking about the fears of the spill over because the issue of farmers-herders clash is already in Delta.
We are doing the best that we can. We have kept the security on red alert. We have also recently, created some operational forces including Operation Delta Hawk and the Inspector General of Police also sent some mobile policemen to be with us in the state and across the South South and the South East.
We are also trying to equip the security agencies to be able to be combative to the extent to which we are allowed to. We have just placed orders for some armoured personal carriers that we shall receive in the early part of June.
We are trying to make arrangements for more vehicular logistics for them. We are also trying to get the community vigilantes more organised into what we can call a security corps. We have been doing some documentation and profiling. I even have a meeting later today and hope that they will be given birth to fully by the 1st of July.
They will be working very closely with the Nigerian Police, assisting them in their operations, but more importantly, in information gathering. So these things are all being put in place as we also ask our people to be completely at alert.
Our people should be able to share information as quickly as they come. Most times, these crimes happen because people keep information to themselves either out of fear or out of mistrust. So it’s for us to continue to build trust.
Building trust means that if someone is able to pass information to the police, we expect that such a person should be protected and that we don’t get to a situation where the information passed is now creating a challenge for the person. We want to assure Deltans that if they give information, we will be able to protect their identity. Every Deltan who withholds information will be doing a disservice to both your community and the state.
Access to quality and affordable healthcare is a huge challenge nationally. How has your health insurance initiative fared in Delta?
I pride myself even more with the health insurance policy which we did introduce because no state was actually into it. At the federal level, you have the National Health Insurance Act, but it was just limited to federal staff and a few private organisations.
But we have been able to lay a start, enact the enabling law and got the thing running and government has continued to fund it for the very vulnerable segments, which is all pregnant women and all children under five years of age in this state.
We have been able to fund the premiums and it has worked well. Other people are getting engaged and we are hoping that we will continue to encourage private individuals at a very low premium. I believe that the more Deltans are able to come into it, the better for us.
We are working hard on it, but it takes time to convince the people. Civil servants have keyed into it and I am very grateful for that process. It’s helping to keep our people healthier than they used to be and it’s something that must be encouraged.
We have become a role model because other states are learning from us. I am not saying that we have done everything 100%. But we have become a role model to the nation.
The other thing I am actually truly excited about is the secretariat that is coming up. We have not yet opened it but in the next two months by the grace of God, we hope that it becomes functional.
It’s going to have its own embedded power source and it’s been built so that every aspect of governance of the state can come in within one space and people can work in comfort, can work collectively and co-relate with each other. It becomes easier for us to provide services, share information and on the long run, it’s best for the state.
We are operating before now in over 60, 70 or even more number of buildings which were not functional, scattered all over the place and you cannot coordinate government in that manner. That is a major achievement for us.
Your admirers call you the road master. How did you earn it?
The issues about road infrastructure, we don’t count it as anything new. It’s something that any government can do. But we have gone miles ahead many other states when it comes to road construction. For me, I don’t even count it as gain, I just see it as one of those things that we do.
But some of these critical aspects like the health insurance, the impact that we have within the rural areas, the fact that we have been able to stir up the youths and to make them coming to embrace our programmes, particularly, the various entrepreneurship programmes that were started by the state.
It has given us some levels of peace. Delta in the past, was like a beehive of places where you have youth activities that create all manner of things. And Delta was always heard of for the negative reasons. But that is no longer so.
In your first Inaugural Address in 2015, you announced the creation of the Office of the Chief Job Creation Officer under the entrepreneurship scheme. To what extent has this gone in addressing youth unemployment?
Long before my coming into office, it was clear employment among the youth ad become a huge challenge and there are no vacancies in government for them to fill. A new approach was imperative.
The entrepreneurship programme is one special aspect that we have designed and operationalised in such a manner that it becomes impactful. I don’t call them empowerment programmes like in the past, where they use to sell off their starter packs.
There’s been a monitoring and mentoring aspect of it and it has kept many of them strongly in business. As at our last analysis, initially, it was 62% but now it has grown to 68% to 75% success rate and we are working hard to make it even more successful.
Now the youths are seeing hope, they are seeing some of their colleagues get to become entrepreneurs and they are hopeful and being driven by that hope to embrace entrepreneurship programmes which is raising thousands of entrepreneurs in the state.
Now we have expanded the programme. Beyond the job and wealth creation programmes, is the girl child entrepreneurship programme, we have the RYSA programme (Rural Youth Skill Acquisition). We have so many thousands being trained from our various vocational programmes supervised by the Technical and Vocational Education Board.
The women affairs is doing a whole lot and DESMA is now coming strongly on board. Initially, it was all about supporting market women and farmers but now they are trying to reach out to more people especially during this post COVID-19 era, when a lot of people need support to have their businesses come back to live.
Prior to your administration, the state’s annual budget used to hover around N400 billion with an exchange rate of about N200 per dollar. Today, we have a budget size ofaboutN300billionandwithexchangerate of about N500 per dollar. How did you manage to achieve so much with lesser value for money?
It is borne out of greater coordination in administration and superior thinking. Yes, in the past we had bigger budgets, greater value for money because the Naira was relatively strong at N180 per dollar compared to now we are N492 to a dollar with a budget of N300 billion per annum.
Unfortunately for us too, the recurrent budget in terms of salaries has also increased remarkably, which has also further deepened the negative effect of the recurrent budget which had made our capital portfolio smaller.
The fact that there has been devaluation of the naira made it have less value on projects and having realised this, we needed to plan critically and we needed to be sure that we have good monitoring of projects, good selection of projects, good selection of contractors and planning in such a manner that we are not wasteful.
Secondly, we also monitored the seasons and acted by the seasons and that helped us a lot. We ensured that our budgets are passed on time and implemented on time.
Our budgets are signed by December so that we are able to use the window of January to mid-May in other to do most of the construction jobs.
When you prepare your funding for that level, it helps you because if the budget is such that if you are going to execute projects the next dry season, by the time you get to next dry season there is going to be escalation of prices and there may be a lot of wastes during the rainy season. We have tried to provide an administrative coherence that enables us implement that.
But also we ensured that in all our costing, we had value for money and this is very important. Yes, they are doing some upscaling in pricing because of the devalued Naira but relatively it’s done in such a way that we have improvement which means the gains as expected by the contractor is reduced such that everybody takes the pain.
But most of the contractors have found that their relationship with government is such that they can be sure of receiving some money at some time to continue work, they have not grumbled about it, they have cooperated with us and we have given jobs to those who are capable and they have been able to have our projects done.
And that has worked for us even though we have big contractors and smaller contractors and those who have grown to become bigger contractors and they are doing very well. It has helped us very well but it requires a lot of prudence, a lot of thinking and time to be able to get all these things done. So, I constantly breathe on my Commissioners and Permanent Secretaries and I continue to monitor their activities to ensure that we get value for money. That we are just able to cope up is actually out of superior thinking.
There has been this clamour for restructuring, state police and ban on open grazing. Now that Southern Governors have taken a position on it, and in the face of mounting opposition from some sections of the country, what are the options before the Southern Governors to ensure that the Asaba declaration is not only considered but driven to the end?
First, let me thank God that we are able to meet as a people across party lines because sometimes we must put politics aside and think about the people.
It was a huge success and thanks to all my colleagues particularly to the Governor of Ondo State who has been a coordinating figure.
I believe that that meeting was in the best interest of this nation and not just the southern part of the country because the voices of our people have continued to ring loud and ours was just a further voice to what we first proclaimed as a people and as governors who run the various states in Southern Nigeria that we believe in the Federation and unity of this country because there has been a lot voices on cessations here and there.
So, I actually thought that the voices who tend to criticise the meeting failed to have an understanding. People should learn to approach things after a very deep thought rather than just looking at the surface picking one thing and speaking about it.
So we actually came in as state governors to reaffirm our belief in the Nigerian state and secondly we do also realise that there things going on very wrongly and there was a need to address them.
We owe no apologies because we spoke the truth and we thought that the truth we spoke was in the best interest of this nation.
Where have we gone wrong? Is it about restructuring? The voices for restructuring have been very strong out there. Why will somebody even criticise on restructuring? The only thing you need to know is that restructuring is of various facets, you bring forth your arguments.
There is nobody that hasn’t talked about restructuring, even the APC government. They constituted a restructuring committee headed by El-Rufai and they agreed that restructuring was inevitable. It has to be done and everybody believes in that. So, what aspect of the restructuring do we need to discuss and that is why we asked for the National Dialogue so that we can sit down and look at the issues and agree together as a nation as peoples of same nation on what and what will be needed and I think it’s very important.
Restructuring has to be discussed whether we need to have a national dialogue. A lot more voices are talking about the need for a national dialogue.
It’s important and it will help to enhance the peace and recreate hope amongst our people that truly we are in a federation that is united in the best interest of the federating units. I don’t see why people will need to criticise that.
Giving states the power to create own Police is being touted as a critical instrument for effectively combating crime. Southern governors’ May 11 declaration also strongly advocated this. How do we proceed?
We thank God that the constitutional amendment is coming and our voice is strong and our people from the South know that it is necessary. Even our colleagues from the North are also calling for the same thing because the Federal police as it stands today, we are not saying that they are incompetent, no, but the way they are is such that they won’t be able to police this nation, it’s impossible.
Because when the police hierarchy is already calling for vigilantes, we are already calling for the state police. So, the state police can be organized in such a manner that it helps to assist the federal police because the insecurity level in this country now is too high and we need to do something about it.
Yes, it may not have effect today, but if we start the processes now I believe that it will be an added advantage in terms of ensuring that we are able to secure this nation.
You and your colleagues are also very firm on banning open grazing.
Can we truly at this moment be shouting about open grazing? Thank God that the President was misrepresented because I have seen news headlines that the President is not opposed to the ban on open grazing.
We need to begin to look into what is best for us. Where we were 50 years ago should not be where we should be today and tomorrow. Is it possible to actually stop opening grazing in one day? It may not be, but the process has to start and there must be a programme that must become evident. A programme in which we will begin to see actions being taken. You create hope in the people and then the people will begin to realise that the dialogue they are having as it is today is working but in the next five years this is where we are expected to be.
Ranching obviously is the only way out as is happening in other climes and it’s not impossible in this place. In some parts of Taraba State, ranching has been on for so many years and we can actually create those ranches where the cattle will have more meat, more milk and then the children can actually afford to go to school.
We may not go into the big ranches but we can start in some form by acquiring some lands for that purpose and it may not be owned by individuals but government can own the ranches where individuals can come and populate and pay some form of token.
These are things that have to be discussed and I know that a proposal was made by the former Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh. Let them try to follow up with that. If they try up to four pilot projects for these ranches, as Governors we are not against it being funded from funds that come from the Federal government because anything that helps to slow down the insecurity level is best for us.
Today, a lot of money is being spent by the Central Bank of Nigeria to encourage farmers to ensure that we are food sufficient but a lot of these efforts are lost because of insecurity. Farmers can’t go to farm, their crops are destroyed, they are maimed and raped and some are even killed. We cannot continue like this because if you have a programme you are spending billions, we must secure it and we must ensure the food security of this country.
We have urged the Federal Government to look into ranching, we know that it’s a business but we have realised that many of them many not be able to own their ranches so the Federal Government should spend money and design programmes that will encourage ranching because it will help to secure our farms and help to ensure food security in the nation. And it will slow down a lot of the crises that we have today even the kidnapping because a lot of them are hiding under the cloak of being herders because they are finding it more lucrative, so they just use a few of their cattle as a cover but majority of them are not kidnappers but a few criminal elements are among them. (Adapted from Daily Independent)