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We need national dialogue, restructuring must be discussed ~ Okowa

The Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, in this interview with select journalists, speaks on the state of the nation, among other issues.

There has been clamour for restructuring, state police and a ban on open grazing. Now that southern governors have taken a position on these issues, 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 sails through?

First, let me thank God that we were 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 the Governor of Ondo State, who has been a coordinating figure. I believe the 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 have been a lot of voices on secession 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 are things going on very wrongly and there was a need to address them. We owe no one any apology 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 would somebody even criticise 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 (All Progressives Congress) government. They constituted a restructuring committee headed by (Nasir) 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? That is why we asked for a national dialogue so that we can sit down and look at the issues and agree together as a people of the same nation on what and what will be needed and I think it’s very important. Restructuring has to be discussed. 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 their own police is being touted as a critical instrument for effectively combating crime. Southern governors’ May 11 declaration also strongly advocated this. How do you 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 they stand today, are not saying that they are incompetent, 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 organised 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 effects 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 talking about open grazing?

Thank God 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 are today and tomorrow. Is it possible to actually stop open 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 herders’ 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 land 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 a 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 self 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 we have a programme on which we 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 may not be able to own 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 kidnapping, because a lot of them are hiding under the cloak of being herders. They use some of their cows as a cover, but the majority of them are not kidnappers.

Delta has been relatively safe, apart from some pockets of cult activities. In the light of emerging security threats, what are you putting in place now to ensure that there’s no spillover of the kind of security situation in neighbouring states, especially in the South-East?

Well, in the first instance, the security challenge is a national issue. So, there’s no part of the nation that is free from it. We are only being relative in our own assessment that Delta State appears peaceful. There’s no doubt that we have more challenges in the South-East, and, of course, in 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 very versatile. You have criminality coming in with the farmer-herder clash, you have the normal herdsmen who have issues with the farmers. More recently, we had issues with the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) and their attacks that are causing issues in the South-East. We are doing the best we can. We have placed the security agents 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 South-East.

We have just placed orders for some armoured personnel 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 Nigeria 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 on 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 identities. Every Deltan who withholds information will be doing a disservice to both their community and the state.

Your administration is now six years in office. What will you refer to as the outstanding achievements of the administration?

Actually, it’s not only one thing because governance is a holistic process of impacting the lives of our people. I would 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 would 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 federal 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 will 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 the oil-production rating, but now we are at the top. It’s just that unfortunately, because of COVID-19, oil volumes are down. Even when the price is functionally okay, we are not reaping all the gains because the volume is down because of the OPEC (Oil Producing Exporting Countries) 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. It’s 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 there 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 of 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 anymore. They are happy. When I went to Burutu and Okerenkoko, they were happy. You see the beautiful excitement on their faces. You go from Okerenkoko to Brass, the same thing is happening. In fact, one Chevron staff member had to call me one night that he overflew 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 (Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission), 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 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 these 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. 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 liveable for the people.

Access to quality and affordable health care is a huge challenge nationally. How has your health insurance initiative fared in Delta?

I pride myself even more on 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 workers and a few private organisations. But we have been able to lay a start, enact the enabling law and got the thing running and the government has continued to fund it for the very vulnerable segments, which consists 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 we have done everything 100 per cent. 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, work collectively and relate with each other. It becomes easier for us to provide services, share information and in the long run, it’s best for the state. We operated before now in over 60, 70 or even more number of buildings which were not functional, were scattered all over the place and you could not coordinate government in that manner. That is a major achievement for us.

Your admirers call you the roadmaster. 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 to embrace our programmes, particularly the various entrepreneurship programmes that were started by the state has given us some levels of peace.

Delta in the past, was like a beehive of places where you has 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 addressed youth unemployment?

Long before my coming into office, it was clear employment among the youth had 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 used 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 of our last analysis, initially, it was 62 per cent but now it has grown to 68 per cent to 75 per cent 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 are 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 (Rural Youth Skill Acquisition) programme. We have so many thousands being trained from our various vocational programmes supervised by the Technical and Vocational Education Board.

The women affairs ministry 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 N400bn with an exchange rate of about N200 per dollar. Today, we have a budget size of about N300bn and with exchange rate of about N500 naira per dollar. How did you manage to achieve so much with lesser value for money?

It is born out of greater coordination in administration and superior thinking. Yes, in the past, we had bigger budgets and 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 N300bn 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 ensure 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 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 down the necks of 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 is actually out of superior thinking.

Your administration has two years to go. What more should Deltans look forward to in your ‘Stronger Delta’ drive?

I want to reassure Deltans that, by God’s grace, I will work till the last day. That does not stop me from playing politics. I was elected to provide services and to govern in such a way that I make an impact on the people. All the programmes that we have, we will continue to keep them on course, particularly the entrepreneurship programmes. The infrastructural programmes we will still focus on them. We are beginning to slow down on brand new large ticket projects so that we will be able to see all those that are ongoing toa fruitful end. Except where those large ticket projects become extremely necessary, like projects we will have to undertake in the three new universities we have created, to enable them to have a good take-off and accreditation. We will continue with those projects but for the entrepreneurship programmes, we will run them continuously until the end. For every other programmes, that we have, we will continue to stay the course to ensure that what we promised the people, we are able to achieve it at the end of the day.

Of course, in the various areas in health, agriculture andeducation, we will continue to ensure that we remain focused to provide the needed programmes and trainings to enable us to have the various functionality of the institutions that exist under those ministries.

Politics tends to be distractive, I do know that, but I know that by God’s grace, I have the capacity to manage the two and I would not like the two to suffer because I would have failed. So, I must stay on course but I will also not abandon politics

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