Delta State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, discusses his relationship with his predecessors, the task of governing the state and national issues in this interview with Sunday Aborisade and Theophilus Onojeghen
As a politician with a wealth of experience having started your political career as a councillor, to being a local government chairman, commissioner, Secretary to the State Government, senator and now governor, how has it been administering a complex state like Delta in the last two years?
It’s been quite challenging being the governor of Delta State, particularly at this point in time when the economy of the nation is not in the best shape. There is no doubt that Delta State is a complex state. It is made up of so many ethnic nationalities. The first challenge is always how to keep everybody on board and to make everybody be a part of the family. It is not an easy task but it has always been my major goal. My participation at the various aspects of governance, at the local government, state and the National Assembly, obviously did give me the level of exposure I needed to tackle the issues in the state. However, at the time we came in, the complexity of the state and the economic challenges we faced actually made matters a little bit difficult but we have been able to carry on due to the cooperation of our people.
Your government claimed it inherited N700bn debts from the immediate past administration in the state but your predecessor said the amount was not up to that. Can you reconcile this?
It is good we get that properly explained so that people understand it. When we came in, we looked at the documents of government. Probably, we did not have enough time to have a proper transfer of information from one government to the other. The debts are in two forms – the debts that the state owed banks and contractual agreements with several contractors based on ongoing projects. The cash aspect was about a N110bn made up of some money owed on the bond that the state government took; overdrafts that existed with the banks and also money that was taken on loan from various banks for various projects.
What is the debt profile of Delta state as of today?
As of today, I would not be able to sit back and tell the exact situation. When we came in, it was obvious we could not cope with the debt as it were, just as many states ran into problems; so, we had to restructure. Like the first month I came in, there was a deduction from our bank account of about N5.2bn, by the following month; it was N4.8bn. I knew there was a problem. So, I went on to do restructuring which brought it down to about N3.2bn monthly. We contended with that until the Federal Government also looked at the whole situation across the country and felt the need to help us restructure the debt on longer terms and the CBN got involved. As of today, what is deducted from our bank every month is a little less than N2.4bn monthly. That is going to be for a long time. But we hope that by October this year, we will be exiting from the bond. That now means that our restructured debts will drop to about N1.4bn going forward. It will take an explanation from the accountant general to be able to tell you the debt profile at any point in time because it scales down every month as we make payment. A lot of money has been paid since we came in. Imagine now that almost three years down the line, we have been paying over N2bn monthly to settle debt. That obviously is a lot of money.
What is the cause of the cold war between you and your predecessor, former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, and why did you cancel some of the projects initiated during his administration, like the Edumarshal, Ogwashi-Uku Resort Park and the Effurun-Warri BRT among others?
I think the idea of a cold war is the imagination of some people. I don’t think there is any cold war between me and former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan. If I have cause to seek information or advice from him, he does give to me. I relate with him and even the governor before him, James Ibori. As to the projects you talked about, it depends on whether they fit into our programmes. I did not wish to continue with the concept of Edumarshall because there are other ways to ensure that children go to school. We can educate the parents, encourage society to realise that education is important, and improve the standard of education which we have been doing. If the parents are better informed on the need to train their children, they wouldn’t force them to go to school through the Edumarshal corps. Various stakeholders complained about the BRT project, which was ongoing at the Warri-Effurun Road, when I resumed. I also got protest letters from the traditional institutions and the National Union of Road Transport Workers, complaining about the project. I felt it was necessary to look into the issues. Having looked into the issues, I had to set up a committee to go and host a town hall meeting with the people. The majority of the people insisted that the project was not in their best interest. Of course, the BRT project was done in such a way that the whole thing looked clumsy. We do not have a wider road space, the available space was reconstructed and it caused a lot of traffic jam. In governance, you cannot force things down the throat of the people. We stopped the project when the majority of opinion insisted that we should stop it.
The fact is that we believe that we needed to listen to the complaints of the people and that a BRT on that road may not have been fully well thought-out in the design that was presented to us. That was not a political decision. It was a decision based on the reality on the ground and the wishes of the people. Entirely, I don’t think there is any cold war between us. Whatever projects we may have stopped may have been from the challenge resulting from the project and its design or the fact that we may not have funds at the moment to continue with the projects.
Why did your government stop work on the Asaba and Osubi airports?
People who are blaming us for the Asaba airport project are either not following happenings in Delta State or they don’t even want to get the right information. The past administration re-awarded the Asaba airport project to ULO, which did the initial project. After completion, the airport had some challenges which made the federal (aviation) agencies to downgrade it even before I came in. It was downgraded in the early part of May 2015 and then the state government quickly re-awarded the contract to take care of the issues. That contract was re-awarded and signed on 21st May, 2015, that is just a week before I was sworn-in. When I came in, I retained the contractor. The contact was awarded with 50 per cent payment. I believe it was because of the urgency. We wanted the contract to be completed as quickly as possible. We arranged a loan of N5bn from Zenith Bank. We immediately mobilised the contractor with 50 per cent that was undertaken in the contract with completion period of three months. But unfortunately, two years down the line, the contractor disappointed us. We are lucky also that he withdrew from the contract on his own. Some of the reasons he gave was that he need an upward review of the contract but we didn’t accept it. To us, it was a fixed-price contract at that point in time. Since he had 50 per cent mobilisation and a completion period of three months, he couldn’t have expected any project review when he discharged himself from the contract. We then opened bidding to several contractors. Today, the contract has been re-awarded to SETRACO. Funnily enough, by the time SETRACO actually bidded, they submitted a bid which was a little lower than the cost price, even two years after, when the naira value had gone down. That meant that the initial contract could definitely not have been undervalued. SETRACO is right on track. It’s been less than two weeks they mobilised to site and a lot of work had been achieved. We are confident that we are going to get it right this time. On the issue of the Osubi airport, I mean the second runway project, the state government meant well but I think that they didn’t follow the due process. The government awarded a contract of N41bn to a firm for the construction of a runway and other auxiliary facilities and mobilised the contractor with close to N11bn without clearance from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and that was a huge challenge. I think that their projection was that the state government will buy the airport from the original owners. But somebody else succeeded in buying off the airport and it meant that our state was either doing the runway for the buyer while we could not do our own runway. Because there was no way NCAA was going to approve a second airport just adjacent another. The state government was denied further approval. What it technically meant was that the contract came to an end even when we had spent close to N11bn. That had nothing to do with me because that refusal had come in before I came in as the governor of the state. You see a whole lot of issues that people raise because they don’t understand the issues in government. It is not for every single project you come out to make a lot of noise; it will look like I had something against the government of Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. I believe that he had the right intentions for the place but apparently, those that pushed out the project did not realise that they needed to get the approval of the NCAA first.
Will you say that your efforts are yielding the desired results?
We will do the best that we can under the current fiscal conditions. The nation and all states have been traumatised by the recession that we went into but God’s willing, we will come out strong. I think that within the limits of the resources available to us, I want to believe that we have done well.
Will you initiate an anti-grazing bill to curtail the activities of herdsmen in the state?
Traditional rulers, farmers, civil society organisations, Miyetti Allah and security agencies attended a stakeholders’ meeting (on Tuesday) and we agreed, essentially from the preponderance of opinion, that we did not need any cattle colony because we do not have land for cattle colony. It is very obvious that a lot of Delta State people live on water, a lot of our land are also impacted by oil exploration and exploitation and to that extent, the available land will be needed by Deltans to grow food. Therefore, we do not have lands for cattle colonies. What we tried to do was to find out what the challenges were and to find out what we can do to tackle those challenges. What we agreed essentially upon in that meeting was that there was the need for every local government area to have a committee that would meet at least once a month to look at the issues of the relationship between the herdsmen and farmers in the state. That committee was made up of local government chairman, a representative of the traditional institution, farmers and at least, two members of the Miyetti Allah who are well known in their local government. They are to look at the areas of cooperation and find out specific local approaches to dealing with the issue in their areas. We have also asked that the Miyetti Allah, since they know their people, to educate them on the fact that they cannot cross into somebody’s farm. We also did agree that they must talk to their people that minors cannot be used. Minors obviously cannot be used to rear cattle because sometimes they are not in the position to be able to distinguish between a farm and ordinary grassland. The other thing was the fact that security agencies must do everything within their reach to disarm every single herdsman or youth that is armed. That is not tolerable because the Nigerian constitution does not allow that. Amy person, who is armed and he is not a member of any security agencies, is obviously a criminal and must be treated as such.
Is it true that the Peoples Democratic Party’s Governors Forum’s meeting, which you hosted last Sunday, endorsed Sule Lamido as their preferred presidential candidate for the 2019 polls?
I heard the information too but it is very funny to me. We are very experienced politicians. As governors, we are very experienced enough to know that it will be wrong of us to support a presidential candidate collectively. To even talk about supporting someone now in February when the election is next year February, sounds somehow. It is only an amateur politician that would do a thing like that and we are not amateurs in politics, obviously not. In fact, the issue of the presidential aspirants as it were, was not discussed at the meeting. The communiqué we issued even warned that any member of the party’s National Working Committee should not be linked to any particular presidential aspirant and we went ahead to state that the space was opened to anybody who wants to come in. The constitution of the party was amended at the last convention to give room to anyone who joined the party, even a month to the primaries, to contest. So, the issue of a consensus presidential candidate was never discussed. You are also aware that two current PDP governors have indicated interest in the presidential race. Imagine us now discussing such issues. It is laughable and I think people are just trying to be mischievous by writing such stories. The meeting was the first time that the Governors Forum will be holding with the NWC since the conclusion of the PDP convention held on the 9th of December, 2017. We mapped out strategies on how to make our party strong and how we can work in unity to move the party forward.
Do you think that the PDP still stand a chance of wresting power from the ruling APC with former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Third Force joining the political race?
To us in the PDP, we did examine the whole thing and we are convinced that the third force will not, in any way, impact negatively on the PDP. Our own is to strengthen our party and ensure that it is strong enough to accommodate those who will join us from other parties. We will also create room to relate with every Nigerian and encourage all citizens to join us so that we could win the 2019 presidential election. That is our goal and I believe that the Third Force, if it is able to take its hold, will only impact negatively on the APC and not the PDP.
Is that why your party is wooing some APC governors, senators and House of Representatives members with automatic tickets?
I do not know what you mean by automatic tickets because this is a democratic dispensation and we believe in conducting primaries. We need to be more inclusive and we want more people to join us. It is when people join us that there would be reasonable level of negotiation. When we find strength in those coming in, they will expose themselves to the primaries and if they are really strong in the party they are dumping for ours, they will obviously win and become candidates of the party. We are reaching out to senators, members of the House of Representatives and all well meaning politicians across the divide, and all Nigerians. You will see a couple of activities on the part of the PDP in a couple of weeks.
Two prominent indigenes of Delta State – James Ibori and Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo – were said to have played great roles in your emergence as governor. What is the relationship between you and your perceived benefactors now?
In the first instance, I want to thank God who made it possible for me to be governor. He used a lot of people to make my dream a reality. To Him be the Glory. My emergence came from all fronts. Over the years, God has helped me to establish a proper relationship with a lot of Deltans across the state. Don’t also forget that I contested the governorship primaries in 2006 and I did very well even without any body’s support. I came second in the election. Since then, I have been Secretary to the State Government, and a member of the National Assembly who was overwhelmingly voted for. Obviously, I have made a lot of friends all over the place. However, my strength is God. A lot of people assisted me including the people you talked about. A lot of people, including Prof. Sam Oyobvare, who believe in me, ensured my victory. That was why my emergence was a mass movement and nobody could stop it. You cannot directly say that my emergence was as a result of any particular person. Even those in the National Assembly today including Senator James Manager and Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, were strongly with me and many members of the House of Representatives were also strongly with me. So, it was more than an ordinary personal thing but a mass movement. It is actually God; it is not about any particular individual. Even some people from outside the state were in support of me because they believed that I had done well in all positions that I held in the past. As governor now, we are doing very well, having won convincingly in the 2015 governorship election. Going to the next election, we believe that it will be a democratic process and we believe that we will always win election in any democratic process. I maintain a very good relationship with a lot of people who also share my opinion that we have done well within the limit of the available resources and within the challenges that we met on the ground. I relate freely with my people and I am very accessible. We are confident that in 2019, God’s willing, we will win massively just as we won in 2015.
Is it true that Chief James Ibori is withdrawing his support from you?
I believe that is one of the antics of political opponents who are trying to create a gap between two people. James Ibori and myself are still very good friends and we still maintain close rapport. At any opportunity he had had to speak, his support for me had never been in doubt.
How many months’ salaries do you owe your workers and pensioners?
As of today (Wednesday), we do not owe any state worker and we are one of the states that have paid workers’ salaries up-to-date. We, however, owe our pensioners but not deliberately. Delta is one of the states that embraced the contributory pension scheme very early when it was introduced in 2007. Many states had yet to key in because of the challenges and the enormity of the funding that goes into it. There are three sources of funding involved. First is the contribution from the worker, the contributions from the state government, which is about 8.5 per cent of the total salary and emolument and the payment of past services. The third type of funding is paid on behalf of workers who had been in service before the commencement of the contributory pension scheme. This means that the state directly owe all the money the workers would have contributed since they joined service up to 2007 when the scheme started in the state. The last administration paid the normal monthly contributions and we are also doing the same thing. We took up the responsibility of paying the past services’ contributions which is enormous, running into several billions of naira. It is really a huge burden on the state because as of today, we spend one billion monthly on pension alone whereas the total salary and emoluments of some states is about N1.7bn monthly.
But the local government workers are being owed salaries.
Yes, some local government councils that are not buoyant owe salaries while those who are buoyant do not owe their workers. Being a third tier of government, they also get their funding through the JAAC allocation from the federation account and 10 per cent from the entire revenue of the state. Since the period of recession, the amount available has not been enough to pay primary schoolteachers and the local government workers in many councils in the state. However, we have started giving them support since May last year. That is why you will find that since June last year, we have been able to pay council workers’ salaries steadily.
There are lingering violent protests between some communities in the Warri South-West and Udu Local Government Areas. What is your government doing about these?
Security issues require a great deal of care and caution. I have had discussions with leaders of the warring communities up to six to seven times. We set up a committee which has submitted its report. We already have the White Paper which will soon be considered in our exco meeting. Two new council chairmen have just resumed in the affected councils. We need the council chairmen to settle down for at least a month to have a clear understanding of the issues.
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