Delta State governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa has said his administration is setting the standards in the country in terms of delivery of affordable healthcare, youth empowerment and other aspects of governance.
Okowa who spoke in this interview with RICHARD MAMMAH and OBINNA EZUGWU, gave an overview of the programmes of his government since 2015, arguing that despite the challenges posed by Covid, insecurity among other issues, he has continued to deliver on his mandate.
The Delta governor, however, regretted the activities of herdsmen in the state, noting that criminals among them have become a major security threat in the state.
You have been involved in governance for a while. What is it that has kept you and is still keeping you?
Well, I can only attribute it first and foremost, to the grace of God upon my life, because no man is able to do anything except it’s the will of God. Secondly, I have tried in the course of the various positions I have held, to relate with the people; to be dedicated and committed to the job. And I believe too, that in the course of politicking, in partnering with the people, if you are able to truly relate with them very closely, and be humble in all your dealings, it tends to attract you to your people. And the more attraction you have to the people, the more the staying power in the political arena.
It is very important because on a daily basis, our people are getting to understand the need for them to be able to relate with those that find themselves in positions of government. But many times, people don’t understand that the people who have that power to be able to vote you in or vote you out, matter a lot.
I’ve always realised that governance is about the people, and the more you relate with them, the more you try to meet their needs; the more you listen to them and let them be part of the governance process and be part of your political life, the better for you. But the greatest of them all is that I’m a man of faith, and I believe the grace of God has been sufficient for me to stay through the various positions. I can only but count myself lucky; it’s God’s will and God’s grace.
The year 2020 has been quite a year. You had the Covid, you had EndSARS and unfortunately, the mounting security challenges. It’s a trying year for people in government. What should be the general attitude towards these issues?
First, everybody has a role to play because what we saw this year is not what anyone expected to see. It has the capacity to discourage government and to discourage the people. But in very difficult times, people must also learn to adjust their lives in several ways, and that includes those in government. You just talked about the Covid-19 which happened suddenly, and it’s a global event. It’s impacting very strongly, both in the health sector and on the economy of nations. And even when the health impact in Nigeria has not been really very pronounced, the negative economic impact has been very pronounced.
Then, we had the EndSARS, and after that, we had the flooding which took a lot of farmlands in 15 of our local governments. And people had to move out of their homes, and because it was a Covid environment, it was not even possible for us to house them in camps as we did in the past. So, that obviously, also posed its own challenges, since many of our people are also farmers, it had quite a lot of impact. Then, there was the lock down and the EndSARS and the destructions that followed from the hijack of the protest, which was very disturbing.
All these have affected very seriously the economy of the individual families; it’s affected the production capacity of various companies and manufacturing concerns and it also impacted very strongly, negatively, on the revenue receipts of all tiers of government. And this in itself is obviously challenging. But the question is, what do you do under such conditions? Do you lose hope? We cannot.
For those of us in the governance process, we have to continue to give hope to the people, and to make them realise that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And in so doing, the people also need to see us walk the talk. It’s not just talking about it, but they need to see us take the actions that would positively impact on their lives; to cushion the effects of the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and all the other things that followed.
Yes, generally, most states of the federation with the support of the private sector, provided palliatives at the point in time that Covid necessitated the lock down. But those things are obvious things that could not last beyond a short period. The poorest of the families did get something, but that couldn’t have had lasting effect. What we need to do going forward, therefore, is to begin to readjust our programmes, which I think many states are doing.
We are doing it here, we adjust our programmes because since there is a negative impact on the receipts of the state and the economy of the state; which is to say, that even with the downsizing of our budget by over N100 billion we now had to ensure that we kept the budget for the empowerment of the people and other entrepreneurship programmes. We kept those budgets in a upward direction while we brought down other budgets because it’s a time to begin to assist businesses; it’s a time to engage the youth, otherwise, with the pains they feel, if you are not able to manage it, you are likely going to send them to the streets.
So, in this state now, we have seen a lot of empowerment programmes come up very quickly and in very supervised ways. Through the ministry of youth development, we have a number of programmes, such as Skills Training and Entrepreneurship Programme, which also, when the people are ready and are enlisted in their various training, places under one month they are receiving their starter packs. Also, through the Women’s Empowerment Programme, we have empowered a lot of women. We have as well started a lot of women on acquiring skills and their starter packs are waiting for them at the end of the training.
So, we are tackling it through multiple phases and through our job creation and wealth creation office, we have also engaged a lot of youths; because if you want to stake it within one ministry or department, you find out that you may lose control because of the sheer number of people involved, and people may not be able to have proper supervision. But now we are moving it into various places, and through the technical and vocational board, we are also empowering a lot of people. We have now about 12 functional skills training centre where Deltans are being trained.
Some have graduated and have started off on their own with the starter packs, some we are trying to engage with the micro credit development agency of the state for them to be able to get very soft loans that would enable them to establish themselves. These things are all being done in order to create activities in the economy and empower the people. We have since also directed the internal revenue service of the state to reduce the taxes, especially as it impacts on small scale businesses. So, a lot is going on. These are the things you do that encourage the people and give them hope.
However, the greatest challenge that we do have is that of people who had lost their annual harvest, either due to the flood or due to the Covid. But fortunately for us, during the Covid lock down, we allowed our people to continue to go to their farms because we knew the implications of asking them to stay at home. There was never a day that we stopped farmers from going to their farms. We understood that that’s important.
We also as state, purchased fertilizers from the federal government’s private sector collaboration where they could get fertilizer at N5,000 instead of the market price of a over N8,000. We had to because some of our people, particularly within the Delta North and Delta Central actually require a lot of fertilizers on their farms. And we have continued to engage the extension service in such a manner that we have more extension service agents going out to the farmers to reach out to them.
We have provided a lot of improved planting materials, in terms of cassava production, aquaculture which we are very used to, partnering with the Central Bank. The cassava programme with the Central Bank at the moment is about 2,500 hectares involving another 500 farming families.
So, these are some of the activities we are doing to try to encourage people and keep their economy, particularly the family economy, strong. We continue to stay focused on these, but by and large, it’s been very tough given the circumstances. While it has not impacted on our entrepreneurship and development programmes, it has impacted negatively in terms of speeding up infrastructural development, because of the reduced finances. Contracting has slowed down, some projects have slowed down, but the contractors are still on site.
We intend to continually find funds to pay them from time to time because if we stop them from working, it means that so many people will also be losing their jobs. The construction industry in this state actually employs a lot of people.
When you talk about finding funds, there must have been a number of initiatives that have come in, given the challenges, because you still have projects running and issues to deal with. Is it PPP? Is it private sector? …
Yes, we do a bit of all of it. But the important thing is that in the last five years, we have created a partnership with most of our contractors and they trust us well enough. And because of that trust, you find that some of them are able to go ahead and spend their own funds, knowing that once things improve, we are going to put them in the first phase of payment. That’s one, then we are also intelligently involved in some aspects of contractor financing, but we do that in such a manner that the projections are such that, yes, the contractor starts with some of his funding, but at some point in time, we begin to make payments.
We have such collaboration in a number of places. I will give an example: the bridge leading to Kwale from Benekuku, which is a huge project of over N6billion, is contractor financed. But when the contractor does 40 percent of the project, we will start to make payments gradually until he completes the project. And the project is going on very well.
We have other major projects that we have in partnerships like that too. The Films Village, the Mother and Child Hospital that we are building and the diagnosis centre, are in partnerships with a Chinese company in which the state government is providing 30 percent and they are providing 70 percent of the money. But when it gets to a particular stage, we will start the paying off, that’s quite important. Even our major projects, the main secretariat project, which is a huge project and we are about nearing completion now, it was also premised from day 1 in 2017, on partnership between the state and the contractor, also a Chinese company.
We started all those things, and we were able to do our calculations well so that we are not biting more than what we can chew. We are able to leverage on the funds from the private sector to support the funding that we have in the state to do all the things we need to do. One of the major projects directly funded by state is the Ughelli to Asaba road, which is over 144 kilometers of dual carriage. The previous administration divided it into four parts; they did one part of it.
But we are now continuing. We are doing quite well on the project, funding it well enough because that road is very critical to us. Our intention is to get the road to link Warri Port to Onitsha so that in less than two hours, you are able to get to Onitsha from Warri. It’s something that will help to boost the Warri Port and also create economies along the entire axis.
So, we do that level of partnership with the private sector. The other thing we also do is to have good forecast of our finances and we are able to arrange when to pay contractors. We tend to take advantage of the dry season, give the contractors the funding we can give them and push them to site. And during the rainy season when the work is less, we begin to make more payments to them because they are not too engaged. So, by the time we are getting into the next dry season, we would have paid them reasonably for work done. It is also a form of contractor financing at that point in time. They are able to work because they trust you to pay them during the wet season. And they are able to work again in the dry season.
So, that’s how we have been able to achieve a lot of milestones in roads development. We have always made good use of our dry season to do what we ought to do. If you are not able to approach it this way, you will face challenges because in the Southern part of the country, the dry season is just five months, starting from part of November through to middle of April. The wet season takes about seven months. So, we try to make good use of the dry season.
We have now, for instance, signed the 2021 appropriation bill, that gives one month to plan ahead of 2021 and ensure that we utilize the first four months of 2021 on construction projects, not only roads, but also buildings and the rest. So, it’s good planning. But if your budget is dragging you down into 2021 itself, before you sit down to begin to plan you are already in the rainy season. There is a reasonable superior planning in governance and I’ve had the cooperation of both the economic team of the state and the House of Assembly. We are able to plan together to achieve all of these.
When you came to power in 2015, you unveiled the S.M.A.R.T. Delta agenda, focusing on the areas of employment, agriculture, primary health. Looking back, what is your assessment?
It is work in progress. We have done quite a lot and I believe that in the past five years, we have delivered on that agenda and people have felt the impact of that. We did realise from the beginning that there was a lot of unemployment and public service was full and there was no way government was just going to continue to take people into it, otherwise you overpopulate the whole place which creates its own problems. It would, for example, blow up your recurrent expenditure, such that you are left with little or nothing for capital expenditure.
And it’s the capital expenditure that is truly going to impact on the people and creates the enabling environment for industries to thrive. In the past, most state governments felt that it’s a stopgap, let us just take the people in. Yes, at that point in time when the 1999 experiment of democracy started, it was necessary, but with time, it became necessary to begin to realize that there was need to slow down because if you are not able to free up funds and you continue to engage more people in government beyond the means of the government to run the process of governance, you crowd out the capital expenditure.
That’s what most states and local governments, including the federal government are suffering today. You notice that so much money is spent on recurrent expenditure. And you ask yourself, over 90 percent of Nigerians are not within that government circle, so what now happens to them? It is the activities that you create through the capital development that impact on the lives of the average Nigerian. So, we must find ways of freeing up funds. We realised this earlier and started to slow down.
We had over 60,000 people in the employ of the state, which was by far in excess of the need. We couldn’t engage more people, so what started was the process of “skilling” up our youths through entrepreneurship programmes to build up several thousands of them. And that’s how we got the job creation office which has now been backed by law and is doing a whole lot of youth training programmes, both in agriculture, skills training, entrepreneurship programmes that engage thousands of our youths.
We have strengthened the ministry of youth development, which was just a directorate. We have built it into a full ministry and we are engaging a whole lot of youths. Through the Girl Child Entrepreneurship Programme, which we started recently when we realised that in the training programmes we have had, the girls between the ages of 18 and 30 were shortchanged. So we needed to create a special programme for them. A lot of people are actually getting engaged, so in terms of creating jobs, being able to create entrepreneurs, we are doing a lot.
We have run several agricultural programmes. We have also built up the former ADP into the Delta Agriculture and Rural Development Agency, now engaged more extension service agents. We are doing a whole lot, supporting the ministry of agriculture to reach out to farmers through farmers’ support programmes in various aspects, particularly in the commodities that we have comparative advantage: Cassava, Oil palm, aquaculture… we also engage in some other things such as growing maize, rice.
And recently, we have been working with an Israeli company for the development of our agro-industrial park in Ogwashi Uku. It’s actually going to change a lot of stories concerning agribusiness and agro-industrialisation in the state.
In the health sector, we have our flagship programme which is contributory health insurance. We’ve taken it to higher level. Yes, we can still improve upon it, but as at today, we are the role model. Other states are understudying what we are doing. This was borne out of the fact that when I was in the Senate, I found out that the National Health Insurance Scheme was just limited to federal government workers and a few organised private sector workers.
And we felt that we can replicate that in Delta. Today, we are far ahead of other states in terms of health insurance. We started the same time in 2004, but we had not been able to deepen the national health insurance scheme for everyone to embrace it. And immediately I came in, within that same first year, we proposed a law which was eventually passed. By January 2017, we had started our own health insurance scheme. Close to one million people are involved. We hope to still do better, but it takes time. But the fact that we have been able to get to this number and to also continuously educate our people such that they are buying in, with the government also spending money to provide the premium for the vulnerable in the society, all children up to age five and all pregnant women and some selected widows, is a good start.
We are also rehabilitating various primary healthcare centres, and because of the effectiveness of the contributory health scheme, many of our primary care centres have been functional. We have improved the number of workers. Although they are supposed to be within the local governments, but there is a collaboration between us and the local governments, which has ensured that today, we have over 264 primary health centers that are fully functional and are also involved in this health insurance programme, with all our 64 hospitals.
And one good thing is that the hospitals are able to make some little monies from it; the primary healthcare centres are able to make some little money from it and that keeps them going because they are able to attend to little repairs and provision of minor equipment. We are also certain, because of our programme of supply of medication, that we have appropriate medications. In the past it used to happen that they just purchase their medications from different places and in many instances, medicines were out of stock.
But we also have very functional drug revolving fund, which is one of the best in the country. So, we are doing very well when it comes to healthcare sector. We have a good number of secondary healthcare facilities; there is also a teaching hospital and several specialist hospitals.
The Asaba specialist hospital has also been given life to. Uduaghan started it, we finished it and it’s now fully functional.
All these we have been doing. And another thing is that we believe in peace building. First is that we needed to pull the various ethnic groups together and to create the confidence. So, there was a confidence building process. The first thing was to ensure that there was equitable distribution of political positions, there was recognition of every ethnic nationality and we drove home the message that we needed to work together as partners because we are stronger together. And that’s exactly what is going on.
In infrastructural development, the various ethnic groups know that there is no one lagging behind. We are reaching out, even developing roads within the riverine areas, which most governments in the past tended not to push because it’s very expensive to develop roads in the deep riverine areas. We have done fairly well in terms of that, we continue because these are the places where there is lot of oil prospecting going on. But they were being neglected in the past. We have changed the story; we will continue to change the story.
About two years ago, the Vice President came in to inaugurate a 19-kilometer road that we built in the riverine area. There are several other roads we have built in several parts of the riverine areas and we will continue to do that because with the reassurances they have, we now cooperate because they partner with us. Governance is made easy because we are working under a much more peaceful atmosphere, beyond the fact that the herdsmen now are becoming a problem to us.
The very criminal elements who hide under the fact that they are herdsmen, but many of them are actually into kidnapping and other criminal activities and it’s becoming a problem for us. But we are tackling it the much we can, so that our farms are not completely abandoned, which will lead to food insufficiency and it is not the best for us.