This Is Not Nigeria of Our Dream – Gov. Okowa

As a politician, Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, governor of Delta State, has paid his dues to merit his present position. Before his election in 2015 as governor of the oil-rich state, Okowa, a medical doctor-turned-politician, had a four-year stint from May 29, 2011 as senator representing his Delta North senatorial district in the National Assembly. He was however, neither an accidental politician nor an opportunistic one who, out of sheer inordinate ambition, would climb the political ladder from the top at the risk of either failing to achieve his goal, or going into oblivion soon after the office. The Ika-born politician began his political journey from the lowest rung of the political ladder, and at the grassroots level as a councillor and Secretary to the Ika Local Government council. Taking one step at a time, he later served at various times as chairman of Ika North-east local government council, and as commissioner for agriculture and natural resources, water resources development, and health in the administration of the then governor, James Onanefe Ibori. In June 2007, he became secretary to the state government in the administration of his predecessor, Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, after which he proceeded to the National Assembly as senator. Surviving all odds and political intrigues, Okowa emerged the flag-bearer of his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, December 8, 2014, and went ahead to win the April 2015 governorship election. Today, Okowa is into his second term in office and he says all the exposure, influence, and experiences he had garnered in his past positions “helped to build me for much better governance”. In this interview with the TELL team of Dejo Oyawale, chief operating officer, Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, and Tony Manuaka, deputy general editor, Okowa who was the mid-wife of the National Health Act, boasts that as at today, Delta State has over 500,000 enrolees on its NHIS, the highest in the country. Telling his success story in peace building and provision of infrastructure, the soft-spoken governor who turns 60 this July 8, said though oil production had increased in the state from October 2017 till date leading to increased revenue for the state, he believes “we can produce more oil if illegal oil bunkering taking place now is reduced to the barest minimum”. He also spoke about the herdsmen/farmers conflict, local government economy and his development programmes.

You are in your second term in office and we know you came into office with a five-point agenda with the acronym SMART. How far were you able to realize these goals in your first term?

 In the first instance, I want to score us high and the reason is because when we first came in, we met a very difficult situation because beyond what we met on ground, Nigeria was largely in a state where our economy was really, really very bad; and shortly afterward, we went into recession, so you understand that it wasn’t quite easy. You’ll recall at the initial time, up to as many as 34 states of the nation could not even pay salaries of which Delta State was one of them. I’ll give you an instance. When I came in, the first Monday, I was in the office, and I was given the financial situation; I knew that I had a big challenge in my hands because while I have a salary burden of N7.4 billion, I had a balance at the end of the month after they had deducted the monies that are being paid to the bank which was to be on a regular basis, of N5.2 billion. I had only N2.8 billion left, and I had a salary bill of N7.4b. So, projecting into the future, it was a situation that one could say was quite confusing what I ought to do. But by God’s grace, we were able to go through that, managed the situation, working with the public service, working with the labour unions, and we got ourselves through all that, and things started to improve two years after. So, going down the road and looking at what we have been able to achieve, that’s why I thought that we could score ourselves high.

In terms of jobs and wealth creation, which was the first on our agenda, a lot has been done. We’ve been able to build confidence in our youths. There’s still a lot to be done; a lot of youths are still unengaged, unemployed out there. But the fact that you are able to take out a lot of them, several thousands of them from the unemployment market, we’re beginning to see hope; and life is all about hope. Once you are able to see hope, you find that you are able to strive to be a success story going forward. Through our wealth creation programmes, we had to start up what we call a skills training entrepreneurship programme, and the youths agriculture entrepreneurship programme through which we train a few thousands of youths. And we also, through legislation, brought in the technical vocation education board; it was within the first few weeks and months that we brought this in. And through our vocational system, we have trained several thousands of our youths in various vocational centres.

And we have paid special attention to technical education. Yes, we have six technical colleges in the state at the moment; the six of them were in very bad state. Because of our attention to technical education, we have actually revamped the six technical colleges and gotten accreditation from the relevant board for all our courses. In fact, when they came in, I met them in Kwale when they were actually going round the various colleges and they asked what the magic was, and I told them there was no magic. It was just that we felt that technical education was good for our people because when you are able to tool the kids with skills along with their normal studies, it helps to improve their functionality. And we’re hoping too that many of them would move into the polytechnics and continue their entrepreneurial studies with an entrepreneurial mind; and they are likely going to come out a success story in the future. So, we’re doing that very reasonably and we think we’ve had a success story.

We have had a lot of programmes for our farmers, reaching out to them in their various farms, and providing them with support services. We’re also part of the anchor programme of the Federal government, working with them; and that has helped. Then we have paid particular attention to oil-palm development and aquaculture development; and in these two areas, we have had success stories both with the youths and with the more elderly farmers. It’s helped to impact the people because in whatever you do in governance, if there is no inclusiveness of the people, then you’re going wrong. The oil economy generally, is good. Yes, we’re an oil-rich state; but if you are not able to farm out development in such a way that it gets to impact on the lives of the ordinary Deltan, you will not have brought the impact of the oil economy to the people.

Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa Photo
Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa

How has your administration faired in efforts to promote peace across the state, because we see this as critical to development?

Yes, we’ve also talked about our peace-building, which is one of our agenda. We’re doing a lot because we came in at a time that there were a lot of crises culminating in the very unfortunate incidence that we had first in January, 2016; and then, in February, it was a big blow when the Forcados trunk line was breached totally and, for 16 months, we could not export crude oil through that particular major trunk line. And those were very difficult times. On almost a daily basis, one of our oil facilities was vandalized, and problems were created. So, our peace-building process has paid off because since June 2017 till date, it’s been a very peaceful environment. Yes, occasionally, we’ve had disagreements between communities and oil companies, but our structures that we have put in place are able to intervene, and actually able to consolidate on the peace that we have. We have actually paid a lot of attention to that, building up various structures. Very importantly, we have what we call the stakeholders’ committee that is led by His Excellency, the deputy governor, who is also from the riverine area. They go out on advocacy as regularly as possible, to many of these communities, talking to traditional rulers, the youths, and the entire community; that has paid off a lot. We are in the process of reconstituting this current government, but up till My 28, we had a special adviser in charge of peace building and conflict resolution who had a team that he worked with. So, whenever we find that there is anything brewing anywhere from our security council meetings that are held regularly, and from reports from the office of the SDS, or commissioner of police, we send out our team and we found out that they had done so well in terms of resolving conflicts either between oil companies and communities, or between communities and other communities either on land issues or on all other issues. It’s a pro-active team that has worked so hard and we have had success stories in all that.

We have also engaged our traditional rulers; we have a traditional rulers’ council and constantly, they help us to intervene. But beyond that, we have a team of opinion leaders or what we call our peace-building council led by a very important personality, well-respected in this place, Professor Sam Oyovbaire. It’s a 42-man committee that meets once a month, and they are able to analyse the state, and when they think they need to offer advice, they offer advice. And if there is need to set up committees on their own without having to resort to me to reach out to certain communities, they do that. So, we build peace a lot across the state. Yes, it’s a process, and it’s on-going; and we will continue to build the confidence of our people.

We also promised our people reforms in health and education sectors. We’ve done quite a lot of reforms. I’ve talked about the education sector; our drive towards entrepreneurship, our drive towards technical education, and linking up the technical colleges with the polytechnics. We have also done quite a lot in trying to rebuild the order in the university and the polytechnic systems; so, it’s not just about the books and the books only. You need to train up the mind of the child. Both in our university and polytechnics now, they have their entrepreneurial departments, and their entrepreneurial programmes that run and we hope to build on it. Just about two weeks ago, I was at Ogwashi-Uku Polytechnic and I was amazed what I could see the students do by themselves. And I believe it is something that we need to continue to encourage.

Going forward in technical education, we believe that six is not enough. So, I have made a promise that in this second tenure, every local government, we have 25 local governments; in those places where we do not have technical colleges, we’re going to establish one technical college per local government, and that means we have 19 to undertake within the course of the four years that we have. And we are already putting up a programme for it, working with the various local governments, where to site it. And that prepares their minds because after the technical college, some of them may decide to go out there; they may not want to continue with school. Those that want to continue in school, which we encourage, we intend to encourage more of them to move into the polytechnics where they can have further training and be able to stand for themselves as they move forward.

In the health sector, beyond trying to do our best in primary health care development and secondary health care development; that is attending to our hospitals, and primary health care centres, we have also started the contributory health scheme. In fact, that was as early as February 2016 when I signed a bill into law establishing Delta State Contributory Health Commission. This is part of what I did, fine, when I was in the Senate. Realizing that from 2004 when the legislation on the national health insurance was brought into place, and up to the time that I left the Senate in 2015, we have had less than 10 percent coverage in terms of health insurance in the country, and this is not good enough for our people. I want us to reason; the Federal government had first to convince its workers to come on board, but thereafter, all the states. It was supposed to have been a health insurance scheme that embraced all. But all the states stepped out; I think two states started initially and stepped out of the programme. So, it was actually not reaching out to the populace; just a few of the organized private sector organizations took up health insurance. So, it was essentially limited to Federal Government staff and that ought not to be.

So, I felt that there was the need to have our own legislation here. We signed it into law in 2016 February, but the commission itself became operational in January 2017 because of trying to put logistics in place for the commission to work. And as at date, we are happy that we have over 500,000 enrolees, the highest in the country thus far. One good thing; we were able to convince our staff in the public service to be part of the programme and they are happy. It took a lot of advocacy. Of course, there is room for us to improve. It’s a contributory health insurance scheme, but the government also pays the premium of those we call the vulnerable group. These are all children under five years of age, all pregnant women, because we want to reduce maternal mortality to the barest minimum. We’ve also started a pilot scheme for widows that don’t have any direct help; we’ve just done 18 or 20; it’s still low. We are hoping to upscale – 20 per ward, and we have 270 wards; that is 5,400 persons that we started with in terms of health insurance policy.

So, it’s working. A lot of people like the okada riders (commercial motorcyclists) and keke riders, have enlisted in the programme. What we get them to do is that there is a contribution they pay; it’s supposed to be a sort of tax that they pay – it’s low – but we plough it back totally for their own health insurance, so we do not make any gain from it. Our interest is not in making gains; we believe that every okada rider, because of risks involved, should actually have their health insurance and they are happy for it. So, that is working for us. We hope that we are able to upscale it. Our intention is to ensure that in the next four years, we are able to cross the 30 percent mark; it’s a tough order, but I believe that it is doable; we are going to engage the traditional institution and the rest. We are doing a launch of the programme very soon; we’ve not launched it before now because I do not just believe in rushing things. We want to see how successful we are, going forward; what the challenges are so that when you are doing the launch, and you’re communicating with the people, you actually know what you’re talking to them about.

The other issue is that of agricultural reforms. We’re doing quite a lot. As I told you, we’ve introduced the youths in agriculture programme, the entrepreneurship programme; otherwise, the average Delta youth is not ready to go into agriculture at all. Everybody just thinks about the oil companies, and the oil companies don’t have much space for people. It’s a highly technical place that just engages a very few persons, so, we are beginning to re-encourage our people. Most of them may not be going into crop agriculture, but they are finding faith in something like aquaculture, poultry, piggery; and we are trying to upscale it the best that we can while trying to direct the minds of the middle age and the elderly more into the oil palm development. And we hope that our youths will begin to embrace it because for the future, oil palm obviously has a place. It was there for us before as a country, but because of crude oil, we killed the industry. Eventually, we are beginning to realise that we need to go back to that which we lost in the past. Malaysia, we know what they’ve done with their oil palm industry; now, we are beginning to import oil when we were actually the main exporters of oil palm products and the finishing products in the past. So, we hope to re-encourage our people to be able to build up that area.

There is also infrastructure and urban renewal. How have you been able to pull this through and what are the challenges you have had to scale?

I guess that’s a place that we have scored very high in terms of road development. People must have access, people must communicate; so, communication is not only by phone. When you have a free movement of both goods and services, it helps to grow commerce; it helps to create the enabling environment for industries to thrive because in today’s Nigeria, it’s very difficult for people to come out to invest in industries. But if you create the enabling atmosphere of having the peace, having the needed infrastructure despite the challenges in terms of power, and the challenges in the financial sector where you are not able to get money to borrow at appropriate lending rate, that can encourage industrialization. So, we believe that continuing to develop our roads is very important. We are building roads not only in the upland areas; you know we have a lot of riverine areas. We are building roads in our riverine areas and that is part of the reason we have peace because when you preach peace to the people, they want to see development; they want to be sure they are not abandoned. If you have the opportunity of going somewhere like Burutu now, somebody who was in Burutu five years ago, going to Burutu today, he will not know it anymore because if there is any unpaved road, certainly they are just very short ones leading to private homes; otherwise, all the roads have been paved with concrete.  By the time I actually went there to commission the roads, the level of excitement I saw in the people, I knew that yes, we’re going in the right direction. We are inviting the vice president; he’s coming on the 12th of July. He’s also going to commission a very long stretch of road; it’s about 20.69 kilometres. Yes, built about 35, 40 years ago by an oil company that abandoned it, it was as good as no road did exist. But today, we have reconstructed that 20.6 kilometres of road; it’s in Ogulagha kingdom, to Otupo One, Otupo 2 through Sekebolor to Yokrih. These are places that produce oil and you have a flow station at the Yokrih end. So, the impact of that is really a lot. When I visited to inspect the project, the traditional ruler said one thing that ‘you are the first governor that has ever come. We see people fly over us, they go to Forcados; they are just interested in the oil. But you came because of the interest of the people, not just in the oil.’ So, when that happens, you find that if the community is dissatisfied with the companies, for them to take any action, by the time you place just a call, it matters a lot because there is a communication between you and the people. So, that road that we have done is so impactful.

It’s not for the amount of money but for what the impact is; so, we felt that the vice president should come because, in the peace-building process, he was also part of it. When we had laid the foundation, we invited him to talk to the people although this time, it was in the Oporoza area, and that made some impact. So, we felt we needed to ask him to come to commission this road. Beyond that road, we are also going to commission the township roads we’ve built in Okerenkoko, a very major part of the Gbaramatu Kingdom. There won’t be enough time for him to commission the road in Oporoza where he actually held a meeting with the people. So, we are taking roads to them in these places. Yes, we may not have been able to build bridges to these places, but people still use the barges to take their vehicles to the villages and they are able to move within their villages. People have homes in the villages and those who are wealthy, leave cars in the villages. Then beyond all that, those who have motorcycles, keke [tricycle] , are able to use these roads freely. Even those who are trekking, they used to go through very muddy waters particularly during the rains, but now with these kinds of roads, they can move freely with their bicycles. Okerenkoko has been turned around; it’s no longer as it was – beautiful buildings – people are now beginning to see reasons to get back home.

In fact, through DESOPADEC, we built two entirely new towns – the Otunola, Oboro area in the Benin Rivers in Warri North. I went there before the election to commission the villages that were as good as non-existent before. It was a beautiful sight to behold and people were excited being the first governor also to be able to visit that area and to go deep into the communities. So, you see, this kind of things, by the time I do this assessment, we’ve done several roads, over 300 of them; as at the last count, we have started over 367 road projects. As at today, we’ve completed well over 180 of them. The roads, some are ongoing, and wherever I go, I see the excitement in the people. So, the success story of our five-point agenda is that we’ve done well; but that creates a greater challenge for us that we have to do better even in our second tenure. However, we are mindful of that challenge, and we are hopeful that we will be able to confront the challenge and be able to overcome it.

Sir, in talking about security, you did not address a major security challenge facing the state which is the menace of killer-herdsmen. How serious is it, and what have you been doing to address that problem?

That is a very major problem all over the country as at today, and it is unfortunate because I know that we used to have the Fulani herdsmen in the past, but then, we had them in much lower numbers and they lived with the communities; the communities understood them. But in the last few years, it’s been something very, very different. We are beginning to see them coming in very huge numbers, and this time, they don’t even relate with the communities; most of them are actually in our bushes and forests and you do not even know who they are and where they are coming from. What you begin to find is that they cause a lot of destructions of our farms, and that has become a major problem. And more worrying now is the fact that other criminal elements amongst them have started engaging themselves in abduction of people; that is what is popularly called kidnapping, and it’s become a major, major problem. We are working well with the commissioner of police to see the much that we can do. On our part, we are giving assistance to the commissioner of police. We had one special assistant who is of the northern extraction, Sego Fulani, one Muktar and another one who speaks fluent Hausa but is from here – one Chief Cassidy. That one was a senior special assistant; their work was just mainly to find ways to relate with these people and to relate with the communities and they’ve done a lot in the last three years during the course of their appointments.

I believe that it’s a problem that is still on very strong. Our people are not happy about what they’ve seen because there is a lot of economic loss beyond the fact that the criminal elements are also abducting our people as frequently as possible, most times from the roads. And now, they have moved on to house construction sites where they target people; and they target the man who is building the house. They come in to pick them whenever they come to site to see the work being done; it’s been very frustrating. We are working hard on our own, and I think there is a call all over the country that there is the need for the presidency to find further solutions.

I believe that we need to, as a nation, make stronger statement concerning this to the security agencies so that they are emboldened to be able to carry out their duties. But it’s a tough thing because many of them are living in the bush; deep down in the forests. The truth is that these attacks are getting more and more frequent in our country, and I hope that we are able to take the matter more seriously before it consumes us as a nation. We are not saying people do not have the right of movement, but nobody has the right to come into somebody’s place without the knowledge of the people; without a relationship with the people; you just take over the place and then they don’t even differentiate economic crops from the ordinary grass in the bush. It’s a very unfair situation more so when we are asking people to go back to the farms. But a lot of people are scared to even walk up to their farms because both men and women, some have been killed in this state on their farms over disagreements with some of these herdsmen. But we are working hard; it’s an issue that actually comes regularly. Usually, as the rains come, the impact becomes lower; but once it’s dry season, it’s really a major, major problem. It’s a national question that has to be answered; it’s not something any state can select itself out of.

What really is the way out of this problem?

You can see a lot of people are beginning to call for state police because they believe that the number of policemen that comes in from our federal police network is not enough to be able to police the place. I also think there is a need to begin to look into ways of having some level of control at our borders. I don’t want to believe that all of them that are coming in are Nigerians; obviously not. So, it appears that we have had a lot of people moving into our country from outside Nigeria. Likelihood is that such persons don’t have real stakes in this nation and therefore, whatever atrocities they commit, because they are very mobile, they just move forward. And when they have made all the monies and all the gains that they need to make, they return to their country. So, we need to do a lot in terms of policing our borders, in terms of being able to embolden the police, and other security agencies to do their work.

We’ve seen the massive work you have done in all sectors across the state and one cannot but wonder how you have been able to fund these projects in a situation many states are crying about lack of funds even to pay salaries not to talk of embarking on projects of this magnitude?    

Actually, we had a very difficult first two years, but then, I was very hopeful that things would change because we prayed about it. Beyond that, we also had set up structures that we have the peace. So, even in those first two years, of course we also needed to maintain our companies to ensure that they did not move out of the state, or probably fold up and throw many more people into the unemployment market. We got some of them working and we were paying them on a gradual basis and, to some extent, they began to have confidence in us. So, when they start a road contract, in many instances I didn’t need to give a mobilization; but we were able to structure out a payment system in which we pay gradually and, within time, the contractors built up this confidence and were now ready to partner with the government. So, that has worked for us. We have had to do, in some cases, a contractor financing in which we begin to pay after about 18 months, some after about two years; and with that, we have found that we are at peace. But we keep on structuring in such a way that we don’t take much more than we can chew at any point in time. And with the development that people started seeing and peace efforts, it gave room for improved resources. From June 2017, we didn’t have any more problems with oil production. So, by October 2017, we had a much more improved resource allocation because of the oil production, which had actually gone up much higher than we were having in the first two years.

So, things have improved in terms of resources, from October 2017 and we’ve made this known to our people. Yes, can it improve the more? The answer is yes, we can produce a lot more if the illegal oil bunkering taking place now is reduced to the barest minimum and we are doing the best we can working with the security agencies. So, we’ve been able to pay some of our debts; we still have some, but it’s not such that it burdens us so much because we are able to do our planning. We have had a wonderful economic team too, and we’ve worked together to be able to do our projections in terms of resource allocation. We’re breathing well; we are not under very difficult situations as at today. Beyond us, we were also able to help the local government councils pay off their own backlog of salaries. So, when they talk about states taking councils’ money, in our state, on a regular basis, we have been bailing out the local government councils. Now that they are talking about financial autonomy for the local government councils, in fact, our own local government councils are now scared because without the assistance of the state, they cannot pay.

In two blocs, there were times I had to release N2.6 billion to assist the councils; that was in 2016. And in 2018, I had to release N5 billion at a time to help pay the backlog. So, to pay backlog of salaries, we had to release a total of N8.26 billion. But beyond that, on a monthly basis, we spend on the average of about N300 million monthly to support those councils that are actually under lots of pressure to be able to pay their salaries. But we’ll continue to do that. If we are not able to get the local government councils working, it also impacts negatively on the state.

You have achieved so much in just four years and that is quite amazing. How would you say your stay in the Senate prepared you for the job you are doing now?

 It added a lot of plus to me because I have been a very lucky person and thanks to God for the grace that He’s given me. Outside my schooling and working in the hospital, when I branched off into politics, I’ve had the opportunity of working at the local government council level. That in itself, gave me some good background. And then coming into the state, I was commissioner several times, and then secretary to the state government before moving into the Senate. It gave me a lot of exposure. I just talked to you about the contributory health scheme. All that I have tried to do as at today in the health sector is more out of what I found out in the Senate, or what I learnt in the Senate. You would also realize too that the National Health Act was actually mid-wifed to success by me. Before me, they tried it twice and it failed. But when I came in, on the background that I had in the state, and also being a medical doctor, I was able to find out why it did not work and to lead the team into success.

And I believe that all that influence, and then the exposure that one had there, meeting with a lot of colleagues, people who had been governors before; all manner of people, playing the national politics, it helped to build me for a much better governance. Beyond that too, it built a greater confidence in me that yes, it is possible to have a success story in the state.

Flooding is a major problem in the state such that some deaths have been recorded. For example, a few weeks ago, two siblings were swept away by flood. What are you doing to address this problem?

We are doing a lot in terms of controlling storm water. But the way the waters come today, so many places are being flooded. I’m sure you can see that for most of you who live in Lagos, it’s even getting worse; and even overseas. But truly, we have taken a bold step in Asaba. Unfortunately, Asaba has been built up; it’s good for us as a state that it’s been built up. But in being built up, it was built up in such a manner that nobody thought about the effect on the place because the floodwater control was not put in the process of planning. Now, we are beginning to see the effect. All the waters as far as Okpanam, everything comes into Asaba; so, Asaba is like a valley. And when we realized the impact, we needed to take the bull by the horn. We did a study; it took us time to do that study. We involved the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Asaba chapter, with a consultant; and after that study, we were told that there were eight drainage channels that we must do within the Asaba and Okpanam metropolis to be able to take out this storm water into rivers.

And we had to take the first three, very huge cost. If you see the drains, at some points, some of the drains were about three metres, that is, about 10 feet by 10 feet; it’s really so huge that a vehicle can even drive through it. Even with the recent rains, you find that actually, we thank God we went to that level because these channels almost got really filled up; but there was a free flow. We took the first three channels going through DBS Road; the reason why we still have some challenges along there is that we have not opened it all. We’re hoping that in the next one week, Setraco Company would have been able to complete the discharge channel. Until you complete the discharge channel, you cannot open it all, otherwise the entire work would be destroyed, and many buildings will go.

The one being done by CCEC, which is Ralp Uwuechwue’s company, has already been opened up into the Anwai River. The one done through the Agric Road has been completed. We are already doing one to reconnect the DLA Road to that point. Because the rains are coming, they had to stop the work, otherwise, some buildings will go. We don’t want to destroy people’s buildings unnecessarily. I have just approved two more now – one in the Okpanam area, and one in the Asaba General Hospital area. We are taking it in phases, and I believe that by the time we would have completed the eight, and that will be done by God’s grace during the course of this tenure, we will be able to address the stormwater control project in Asaba. And we are also going to do a similar thing in Warri; the consultants have done the preliminary studies and we are waiting for the final drawings; and we hope too that between now and September, during the course of the rain, we would have been able to get the final drawings. And in the next dry season, we hope to start the drainage issues in the Warri area.

Where we had this recent incident you talked about in the Agbor area is unfortunate. I need to appeal to parents that when the rains start in the heavy way they start, they should please keep their children at home because the rain cannot be falling heavily and you want to have children walk on the streets. I want to suspect that they may have stepped into the large drainage channels and if you watch the kind of stormwater drainage in the Agbor area, some are already done, and there are some other areas that we have not touched. But once you step into a drainage channel at a time it’s moving, of course the child would end up in the river. It’s a very unfortunate thing. We also lost a 12-year-old child in Asaba here and that one actually stepped straight into the drainage channel. And with the flow of water, there is just nothing you can do. So, parents should be more cautious and ask their children to stay indoors. Even when it’s raining heavily, we expect that vehicular movement should, at least within that period, be restricted because in the Agbor area, if not for the drains that we have done in the past, a lot of vehicles that move along that road, in the course of rains, had been moved into the river because the thing comes with the kind of torrent you don’t expect. So, it’s unfortunate that happened and I sympathise with the parents. In Asaba, yes, when it’s raining heavily, we can see flood. But within 30 minutes, one hour, you actually find the whole thing drained out. 

Twenty years of democracy, how well have we done as a nation?

Well, looking at today, and looking at before 1999, definitely we’ve done a lot better than where we were before 1999 during the military era. Where we are now, there’s a huge difference. But have we really gotten to where we ought to be? The answer is no; we can do much better than we are doing today. But whether there’s been some progress, there’s been a lot of progress because the kind of things you hear us talk about here now in Delta, if it was during the non-democratic era – the military era, you’ll not get all these things done because there is nobody they are accountable to. Now, there is a legislature, there is a house of assembly. Beyond that, the people will hold you accountable; if you don’t do well, at the elections, they’ll wait for you. But even beyond all that, people are able to speak to their own, they talk to their own. You are not doing this right, we can do this. In the military regime, you have nobody to talk to.

But can we do much better? I think we can; there is a lot of planning that has to be done. But truly, in planning, I have found a major fault in all our planning processes in this nation. As long as we continue to plan without planning our population, we are planning to fail. And I hope that the press and our leaders will try to be truthful enough and bold enough to speak to the people that there is the need to control the population growth in this country. We cannot shy away from the truth because as long as we shy away from the truth, we deceive the people. If your population is growing at a rate and your economy is growing at a much lower rate, over the years, you continue to inflict pains on the people because the economy will not be able to take care of the over-bloated population. Some people are going to think, oh, in 2050, Nigeria will probably be the fourth most populated nation in the world. Being the fourth most populated nation, what kind of persons, human beings, are we going to have at that time? People who do not have access to school; they don’t also have access to employment, they do not have access to good health, then we will actually be a nation in which there would be continued crisis. That ought not to be the Nigeria of our dream.

The Nigeria of our dream is where everyone that is put to birth in this country should be assured of a life that is reasonable, a life in which they will have access to develop properly; a life in which they will have access to education, access to good health and access to be able to strive to excel. These, we can only promote, if we begin at this moment to plan our population. We must talk about it; people don’t want to talk about it. We must talk about it if we must grow. And any planning done without planning the population of this nation is a plan to fail from the beginning.

On Monday July 8, you will be clocking 60. We say congratulations for joining the prestigious Diamond club. And as a politician, you have been able to build an enviable reputation for yourself. How were you able to do this in a society where most politicians are seen as people not to be trusted because of promises made but hardly delivered?

I want to give thanks to God that in another few days, I will turn 60. When I look back, I have all reasons to give glory to God. When I look at the fact that I lost my mother when she was 43 years of age, and today I am 60, I have all reasons to give glory to God. Whatever I have been able to achieve had been the grace of God, and I like to learn, it’s been a lot of learning process and I try to learn from every single individual. You must be able to find a way to manage all sectors of human beings and to show respect to all, and the only way to do this is to have godly principles. When you are driven by godly principles, you find that you are able to love all; you are able to respect all, you are able to stay being a normal person, not being proud. In the course of my life, I’ve had challenges too; it’s not all been rosy, but somehow, I’ve been blessed.

At every point in time, I have always ended up a success story. When I left the university at a very young age, I thank God I did well; I never thought I could be a politician. It was one of the least things that came to my mind. But as soon as I left the university, my mom died in an accident when I was doing my youth service. So, it was a turning point in my life. And I thank God for the life of my elder sister who was able to step into her shoes. I thank God that through that, I was dragged into local politics; I did not wish it. Some group of youths just identified me where I was working then; they said you must come and join us. I resisted, but eventually, I prayed about it and I joined. So, that is how I found myself at the local level, moving up to where I am today.

But looking back in all these, it’s not about me; it’s about God’s grace. It’s about the fact that God has given me a direction and I continue to hear His voice. And every day, I find that the more I relate to Him, the more successes I have. So, everything I have done, I look at it in such a manner is this right in the sight of God, and it has helped me to go on. Since I came into government, except I’m out of the state, we start our morning in the chapel – 30 minutes devotion; it does not take too long. Some people will say why is he converting the time of governance into going to the chapel? Many of my colleagues don’t get to the office until 10 or 12. But because I need to go to the chapel at eight o’clock, I’ll be there. Once I leave there at 8.30, I’m in the office; and I work like a normal civil servant from then till much later in the day. That has helped me to keep focused on what I do.

How are you going to celebrate your birthday?

I told my CPS I don’t want to be loud on this 60. But am I going to celebrate it? Yes. Where am I going to celebrate it? I’m going to the chapel to pray. And after the chapel, I have actually a luncheon, but this time, it’s going to be with the physically challenged and mentally challenged. Yes, we have to invite some other people so that they also can learn that there is a need to be with the lowly at some point in time. That truly is my celebration and thanksgiving to God. There is a lot more to be done but the grace of God is all-sufficient for what you do.

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