Chief Emmanuel Okumagba is a PDP chieftain from Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State. The septuagenarian politician has held several political positions in the state, including being a former chairman of the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB). In this interview, he congratulated His Excellency, Senator Dr. Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa, Executive Governor of Delta State on his 60th Birthday just as he underscored the unparallel achievements of the governor in his first tenure, a feat he attributed to his overwhelming political experience over the years.
Governor Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa at 60, how would you describe him?
Okowa at 60 is celebrating his diamond jubilee on earth. By his achievements, after leaving the University, he went through the political ranks from his local government as chairman through to the state government where he became a commissioner. From being a Commissioner, he became the Secretary to the State government. And from there to become a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. To be sincere with you, anyone who can be Secretary to the State government for a tenure as was his case, be rest assured that he can rule the state because that is the fulcrum on which the governance of the state is oiled. From there, he went to the Nigerian Senate where he met with Nigerians from all walks of life and that was another molding block in his political career. Having done that, he came back to be governor of the state. Of all the governors that had ruled Delta State, he is the only one who amassed an overwhelming political experience before becoming the governor of the state and that has reflected in the governance of the state vis a vis his other colleagues even in the state. Ibori who was our boss including the governor’s boss did not have the kind of experience of governance as it were but he also performed creditably well because there were the resources with which he operated. And one good thing which Ibori did was to put square pegs in square holes and so, he was never too bothered about how well they were doing things by way of having to supervise everybody.
Okowa has all the experience of governance. And that was why with lesser financial resources he has been a very good manager. At 60, age is still on his side. I believe he will return to national politics in, maybe, other capacities that you can never imagine now. This is because governance is all about experience. I told a few persons, those who cared to listen, that Ogboru is not a match to Okowa. Ogboru’s antecedent was that he was an iced fish merchant. And I don’t think he was doing very well. So, Okowa attaining the diamond age of 60 is the beauty of a jubilee to attain. God in His infinite mercy, we congratulate him for attaining this age in good health (because it takes a healthy man to rule Delta State). Delta State is a microcosm of the nation, Nigeria. We are with him in prayer as he continues in the second tenure, he will do even better for a stronger Delta State as he has promised.
I will always fall back on my community. Maybe, I should remind you that Okumagba layout is the best planned layout in the former Bendel State. All the roads in the layout have been earthen roads. But just for his short first four years tenure, you will marvel if you go into Okumagba layout, the number of streets Okowa has tarred, for us with drains. Typical is the Okere-Urhobo area with its headquarters at Oto-Orere. I grew up as a child to see that the place was mainly earthen roads. It was his tenure that the seven axial roads were all tarred and commissioned the same day with three other adjoining roads in Okumagba layout, Akemu, Dederu and Ejinyere, off Ojabugbe road. They were all commissioned the same day – ten streets. That is unparalleled in the annals of the Okere-Urhobo people. I also know that the Agbarha Urhobo area of Warri has been taken care of. Even the Itsekiri area are benefitting. Go to Ubeji, Ugbuwangwe, and other areas. Go around the entire Warri, streets are springing up well tarred. These are the dividends provided for Deltans, especially Warri people. I have also traversed the whole of Delta State when I was the Special Adviser for projects monitoring. I was alone on that job which now several directors monitor. I know how Delta State looked like then and how it is today. That is the capacity of the man, Senator Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa who is celebrating his 60th birthday. He has shown capacity. No wonder they refer to him as Road Master. Apart from road construction, there is so much of youth empowerment going on with his SMART Agenda and what have you. We are lucky to have Chief, Sir Dr. Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, as our governor. We congratulate him with all the jubilation, praying that the good Lord will give him good health that this celebration will linger on as he is going to celebrate many more birthdays ahead.
You have just recounted his sterling performance in the first four years. The governor has however promised to do more in his second tenure. In which specific areas are you expecting him to place emphasis on this second tenure?
Well, he has started the Asaba Capital Development Authority. Before now the drains at Asaba were badly constructed and poorly drained. Today, he has a masterplan which empties water into the River Niger. I can attest to the fact that during his town hall meeting last year at the Federal Government College, Warri, some of us made presentations bordering on the status of the town, Warri, one of the 26 provincial headquarters in Nigeria. Today, it is the only provincial headquarters that is not a state capital. So, we raised the issue as Warri people at the town hall meeting, that His Excellency should make a deliberate effort and provide an annual fund to elevate Warri to somewhere near the status of a state capital that it could not get. We also made it clear that Warri problem borders on lack of drains which make it impossible for the roads constructed to stay. Several other requests were made to him, but I recount this because I was at the vanguard of that request. Behold, at the end of the questions and answers session, while responding, he made a pledge, an effective promise, that what we have requested shall be considered. I also made a graphical presentation of the waterways that have now been blocked by buildings, debris and what have you. I traced them because I’m a native, I know the terrain. I think I must have impressed him by my description of the place. And while responding, he did say, yes, something will be done and that the Asaba situation was one in which so much has been wasted until he decided to provide a consultant to do a proper survey of the place and made recommendations, and that he was going to do a similar thing in Warri given the scenario captured by us to him.
The other promise he made was that, because I know the terrain so well, a small committee will be set up and he will be asking me to be a member of that committee. Barely a few months later, he did set up that committee and we were two persons appointed to represent the Itsekiris and Urhobos interest. And he named it Warri/Effurun and Environs Committee. We went round Warri for several weeks. Twice a week we were in Warri to go round the City, Effurun and part of Udu Local Government Area. That assignment took us about three months. Eventually, we presented our report. And modestly speaking, I think that project will cost about N30 billion. And because he is a very serious-minded person, he was very clear to us at the submission that yes, it is a big project. He said he will not be able to provide for it at a go in a single budget. It is going to be broken down in the order of priority and that each sector of the drains and roads will be prioritized. He actually drummed it into the ears of the consultant who was a part of the body. The body was headed by the Commissioner for Works, Hon. James Augoye. The governor also got in touch with a member of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), Engr. Omatsola Joshua to show how serious the governor was. Omatsola was a member representing Itsekiri interest. Engr. Adjuya was of the NSE, he was also a member and myself. All others were public servants. So, we submitted our report, and in his prioritization, maybe, in every budgetary allocation, some money will be provided to bring succor to the old provincial headquarters called Warri to a status befitting its name. That is something he has also taken upon himself.
If you look at his empowerment programme, it is painful that the buoyancy of the Ibori era is no more there, if not, with the caliber of the person of Senator Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa in the helms of affairs, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Delta State becomes the el Dorado of Nigeria. We pray that the finances improve; we will keep asking our people to pay their taxes and to raise internally-generated revenue (IGR). With that, money can be made available to execute all these laudable projects. And I also want to believe too that now that there is a strong measure of autonomy to the Local Government Councils, because the federal government has released the first allocation to the Councils, it is expected that they too can support their state governments. I hope that they will not just keep the money. They must listen to the state through the ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs. They keep the money and they spend it but they must listen to the state on how to manage it effectively.
You have just alluded to the fact that the resources accruable to the present government, compared to what previous governments got, have been very lean as it were. You also attributed Okowa’s success to his experience and ability to manage the lean resources. Would you by that suggest that the previous governments were not economical enough with the huge resources they got?
I don’t want to say so because in the first place, the people came on board and they applied their experience to the resources available to them. But there exists a whole world of difference between them and Okowa, in the sense that a man who has gone through the mill, he knows all the potholes, the bends and all that because of his experience. Like I said before, whosoever has the opportunity to become the Secretary to the State government, that is a training ground for governance of the state. This, coupled with his role in the Local Government Council, a former Local Government Council chairman. The Local Government administration is a replica of the government of the state and so, when you have a learning process from the local government level, it is bound to reflect in your governance of a bigger concern like a state. So, he has that advantage of having a local government background to the state executive as the Secretary to the State government which is the fulcrum which oils the administration of the state. Finally, he left for the Senate where people of varied experiences usually met and they learn from one another. And it was an advantage for him like nobody had ever had. So, you reap what you sow and Deltans are reaping from the experience of Governor Okowa.
You also harped on the governor’s ability to create jobs by way of empowerment programme but there have been complaints from many quarters that the level of joblessness and especially, youth unemployment in Delta State is very much on the high side compared to other states in the country. Are you very sure the empowerment programme is actually addressing the unemployment problem in the state?
Let me give a more vivid situation. Today, the state government inherited a bloated civil service. You know, the presidential system of government is very expensive. So much goes into the payment of salaries of aides as per the provision of the constitution. You can imagine what the Senate president, Deputy Senate president, the senators, the speaker and other members and their aides receive and their constituency offices, etc. All of these suck our money dry. And so, the allocation that comes to the state is very meagre, except where you already have established industries where you can tap into to increase your IGR like in Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt. When there is serious tax drive, it aids governance. Like I said, we have a very bloated civil service. Walk into any ministry, if you see ten staff, seven are just loafing. Secondly, Delta State is one of the educationally advantageous state and so, we produce graduates massively annually. But there are no commensurate opportunities by way of industries to take up these graduates. However, with the SMART Agenda, the governor has been able to train a lot our young men. Don’t forget that our people are so lazy, they don’t want to do anything. That is why all these youths are still harassing developers. So, the state government looks so handicapped because the decay has been there for so long such that to straighten the bends will take some time.
You just spoke about the bloated civil service which the governor, according to you inherited. But it is evident that in his first tenure, the governor made massive political appointments to the extent that some of them had no offices nor job schedules. Delta State was rated as the state with the highest political appointees in the country. Would you still advice the governor during the second tenure to go on with such heavy burden of political appointments as was in his first tenure?
While I would not completely agree that the governor made bloated political appointments, I also believe that in his second tenure, it will not be business as usual. This is more importantly because, he is already trying to cut his coat according to his cloth. You can see that he started with just eight commissioners, not the omnibus thing that we had in the first tenure even though he may still wish to increase the number. Again, like I have said before, this presidential system of government is superfluous in terms of providing for cronies and those who made it possible for him to win election. They are there, they are jobless. So, there must be a way of finding something for the boys to do. If he does not, he will also face the wrath of those who made you. So, it is not easy.
You were a member of the Warri/Effurun and Environs Committee whose report you have presented to the governor already. I’m aware that before now a masterplan for the development of Warri/Effurun and the environs which included a ring road and bridges around the area has been put in place by previous government. Does this new development plan take into consideration that original masterplan?
The truth remains that so much of fact-gathering took place with the professionals. A proper survey of Warri and Environs has been put on paper with the consultants recommending the kind of drains that will be good for Warri, Effurun and its environs. There is no reason for Warri and its environs to be flooded except the sea overflows its bank. But because all the waterways have been blocked, there is going to be provision to knock down any house on the waterway so that the problem of flooding will not occur tomorrow.
There have been complaints from some quarters since he commenced the appointment of his commissioners to the effect that he is recycling the old cabinet members with little consideration to new blood, especially youths who perhaps contributed to his return. What is your take on that?
You see, any governor worth his salt, especially an experienced one like Governor Okowa, knows that when you have a square hole, you have to find a square peg that will fit in. He worked with several Commissioners, he did not pick all of them. He is picking those he believes in and whose capacities he trusts. If you want to flood the place with neophytes, people who have no experience, then you are also nailing your coffin of poor performance. So, taking key players in his last regime is a deliberate attempt to ensure continuity of his excellent performance. I know that, as a Road Master, his Commissioner for Works and his retinue of staff returning will enhance governance and road construction. I know that the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice has been returned. He is familiar with that terrain. For me, those are areas of special interest. And when you look at the state as it is, you need experienced hands. He is able to do what he is doing because of his own experience. So, he is also looking out for those who worked with him who have also acquired experience, who know the job. That is what matters to Deltans and not just bringing a floodgate of neophytes. I know there will be a mix breed and I still believe he will add a few more but not a bloated one.
You have observed that with all the experience he has acquired, the governor looks good for a national assignment. Considering the fact that he has been a Senator, what area of national assignment are you envisaging for the governor after his second tenure?
You see, we need men of honour, experienced men because at the Senate, it is what they proffer that the President shines with. So, there will be nothing wrong if he goes back to the Senate. Two, he is more than qualified by now for the office of the President and also as a Vice President, too. He has all the ladder of experience to climb. That is how I look at it.
Finally, what is your message to Governor Okowa as he celebrates his 60th Birthday and also, taking cognizance that his father was recently conferred with a highly revered chieftaincy title?
Well, I met his father at close quarters when we were on the same trip to Israel on pilgrimage in 2001. He is a quiet, calm and unassuming old man. Ordinarily, a man who brought up a Council Chairman, a Commissioner, a Secretary to State government, a Senator and a governor as a son, whatever honour you gave to him is well-deserved. That is for the father. For him as governor, I believe he has good prospects ahead. And one way to climb those heights is his continued grip of the governance of Delta State. Even from my own little outlook, there is spread. And that is very cardinal and important. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is very clear on the principle of geographical spread even though it is not justiciable, but it is an aspect which pricks the conscience of those in authority. I believe that so far so good, he will continue to meet the aspirations of Deltans. Once he does that, the sky will be his limit.