Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State is unarguably one of the country’s more sturdy political office holders having learnt the ropes as a local government secretary, local government chairman, commissioner, state government scribe, senator and now governor.
It is against the background of his wealth of experience that much hope is on him to successfully navigate the governance of Delta State towards impactful service delivery.
Okowa, a product of Edo College, Benin; University of Ibadan Medical School, in this interview responds to a variety of issues affecting the country even as he takes on his local political traducers frontally with his narrative of his strides and successes in governance. Excerpts:
By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
What do you think is the solution to the problem resulting from herdsmen attacks?
I think that the security agencies must stand up to this very wrong approach to the issues of cattle rearing with guns; I don’t think that that was what used to happen in the past. In the past we used to see herdsmen, they come in, they relate to the people in the various villages, (but) that is not the position at the moment.
When you just stroll into people’s farms, stroll into people’s lands and continue to do all manner of things, it is not right. I believe that there has to be a strong statement coming out from the presidency and such strong statements will possibly spur the security agencies to take appropriate actions.
First, every herdsman must be disarmed; no Nigerian is empowered to carry such rifles except security agents. And I think that the Federal Government itself must come up with a strong policy and that policy will be on the issue of trying to encourage cattle ranching in one manner or the other.
I believe there is enough land within the various northern parts of the country and the suggestion by the Minister of Agriculture at the onset of this administration where he intended to import the fast-growing grass that could be used. Yes, that could cost some money, but there is nothing that is done at this moment in terms of spending money to avert all forms of crisis and all manner of unspeakable deaths that will be too expensive for us.
Will Delta State concede land for the colonies?
In the first instance you know that Delta State is possibly half of water, half of land. So, obviously we are in dire need of land. We don’t have land for that purpose, that is the truth. It is a growing state, and because of the very coastal areas and the exploitation of oil, most of our lands are destroyed, and we don’t have enough arable land, and the pressure is now coming because we are encouraging our people to go to the farm.
So, we need quite some lands; we do not even have enough of it because, beyond the waters, most of the creeks and even a lot of land we have within the upland area are also encumbered because of the oil exploitation and oil spillages that have taken place in the last several years. So, we won’t have land at all in Delta State, obviously not for cattle colonies.
The opposition in the state has alleged that the recent local government elections were marred by irregularities?
When you talk about the opposition, I think it is only one party that made that complain because the other parties that participated didn’t speak in the same manner. I believe too that if you try to follow up several weeks to the elections, I was out there on campaign. I went to the entire 25 local government areas campaigning, and after that, after giving our candidates flags, they went to every ward and every unit campaigning; we took it very seriously.
Throughout the time through to the elections, I did not see any other political party truly campaigning. Those that complained we never saw them campaigning anywhere!
So, I do not know how people want to win elections. If you do not campaign, you do not go to the people; you do not go there to ask for their votes, I don’t know how you are going to get their votes. I think that that was exactly what they did and the statement that they did make, I believe that it was like when you fail an exam, you find a reason to give.
I think that was exactly what happened because they did not actually come out to campaign and if some people gave them money for the elections, I don’t think they spent those monies campaigning, I don’t know what exactly they expected.
We were ready for the elections, unfortunately, the APC that complained, they were not ready for the elections. So what they tried to do was on the Election Day they came with violence in some local governments, and you are aware of the Ughelli office that was burnt down. We hope that Police is investigating it because we know those who burnt it down; the particular person that led them to burn that place down is known. He ran for the House of Reps in 2015; he led them to burn down the place.
But on our own, we are convinced that we did the right thing, and I don’t think we owe any apologies because we were ready for the elections but they were not ready for the elections.
The former governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomwhole was reported to have threatened that APC will take Delta State in 2019, what is your reaction?
I didn’t listen to him, but I read him in the papers if he said they would take it by hook or crook, I think that will be irresponsible. If it is by a normal process he believes they can take over Delta State through a democratic process; it will be very, very difficult. I think that will be a very tall assignment that he is giving himself.
Delta State is essentially PDP, and we are doing our best despite the economic difficulties and challenges that we find ourselves. We are doing a lot, and our people are happy with us, and I do believe that the APC in Delta State as at today is not strong, they are not united, they are busy fighting themselves. I think they are just hoping that the Federal Government will just come in and install somebody, so they are busy fighting among themselves and politically we are doing the best that we can.
And I don’t think Oshiomhole has any influence in Delta State. In his Edo State, he just managed to win an election while on his way out, and I think too that he was able to win that election probably because Godwin Obaseki was also a good candidate coming from the background that he came from. I have a warm relationship with Governor Obaseki, and I criticise him not, he is a responsible personality, and I want to give that to him.
What’s your assessment of the Buhari government so far and can you put that in percentage, so we are clear?
Well, the government both the APC and the PDP governments and the APGA government both at the federal and state levels came in at very challenging times. There is no doubt that with the very challenging times with the oil economy there are definitely some setbacks and many of the things that we did promise, we may not be able to fulfill them. But I will rather not want to directly score it because in scoring a government you need to look at a whole lot of things but what I think I will like to see a little more is the development of infrastructure.
But one thing I find they have not been able to do well is the issue of the management of the budget. Because in every process, you must manage the budget in such a manner that you will be able to utilize the dry season which you need for the development of infrastructure. But unfortunately, in the two years going to the third one now, the national budget is usually passed late in the year, and you have already crossed the dry season. So, if funds are not released appropriately because the budgets also have not been passed, you may not be able to achieve a lot.
I think in terms of infrastructure development there is still a lot that needs to be done.
Are you happy with the state of things in your party, the PDP and how prepared are you to take over in 2019?
Yes the PDP is getting stronger. We had challenges, but by God’s grace, we were able to conduct a none elective convention in August 2017 and in December we conducted an elective convention. Because we put the right processes in place, we were able to tackle the issues that came off it. We foretold that and we had the Siriake Dickson’s Reconciliation Committee headed by the governor of Bayelsa State.
We had a good enough convention by our assessment. Yes, there could always be one challenge or the other, it is normal. But I think the reconciliatory process went very fast, the last pockets of reconciliation are being sealed at the moment. The faction that was about breaking away is already talking with the Uche Secondus-led National Working Committee, and everything is being worked out properly. I think we have gone passed any real challenge as a party at the moment; it is for us to consolidate the processes of our party governance and prepare ourselves to take in a large chunk of people who may not feel happy with where they are.
We are preparing ourselves for that. We are also preparing ourselves to begin to reach out to all Nigerians on the need for them to support the PDP because what we have is actually a reformed PDP with a renewed focus and I believe too that by the time we go on to our presidential primaries at the presidential convention, we are going to be very fair to all and with that fair contest that we are going to provide, whoever emerges will actually be an acceptable candidate, and we go out there to campaign to Nigerians. We have strengthened the party, and we believe we are on course to election victory.
So how will you appraise your performance in the last two and half years because the opposition in the state is alleging no work on ground?
You know when people speak from Abuja and Lagos and fail to come to Delta State, they can say all manner of things. Some people have not gotten home. Even recently, one of the governorship hopefuls on the other side, spoke and I read in the papers that Okowa has not done anything meaningful, he does not have any star project.
When he used the language star project; I don’t know want he means by star projects, you have to do things that the people need. It is not an illusion; it is not an ego thing that I must do things just to make some noise. Unfortunately for him, the same governorship aspirant that spoke from their party, in his local government in this very hard time, we are constructing five roads including the road to his village.
And two of them are fully completed, and the remaining three have gone very far. In one local government alone out of 25, we have five roads being constructed. So you see people just have to talk because if you don’t say anything, it will look like the party does not exist. I think that is exactly what they are doing.
But for us, we came in at a very difficult time no doubt about that. If you go into the allocation that comes to here, you will find out that Delta State was actually very exposed. We had to restructure. Thank God because the presidency did cooperate with us, we had to restructure our debts. And even with that restructuring, N2.3 to N2.5 billion is taken from us from Abuja every month.
Then we also have some exposures through the banks that we also pay. So the initial months were very difficult through to February 2016. In February 2016 we went into a very difficult time when the Focados trunkline was blown; for 16 months, 55 percent of the oil exports from Delta State was shut in, that ran till June 2017. You can imagine the pain that it did cost us.
We met seven months of salaries and pensions, and we pay about N7.4 billion monthly. Apart from Lagos State with their huge resources, I doubt if there is any other state that has anything near that at all.
We are doing something already to bring down the amount of money that we pay without sacking workers. We are doing our biometric system, we have decided at the moment not to employ. But if you don’t employ because the government is already saturated, you have to create an avenue for the youths to be able to get themselves gainfully employed. So we started our wealth creation programme, and it is doing quite a lot. It is coming up in different aspects; we have skills and entrepreneurship programme where we are training selected youths and after that establish them fully. We have a mentoring and mentorship unit that continues to follow up.