By Jackson Ekwugum,
I still vividly recall my first meeting with then-Senator Ifeanyi Okowa in 2014. Of course, prior to that time, he was known to me by reputation as a first-class brain and consummate grassroots politician with an almost fanatical following. It was strange that although we grew up in the same town and I am friends with some of his close associates, we never really got to meet until I was introduced to him in absentia by my big brother and professional mentor, Hon. Nduka Irabor.
The campaign for the PDP gubernatorial primaries was heating up and Okowa, by his pedigree and clout, was obviously the frontrunner. But he had an uphill task against another aspirant who enjoyed the backing of the incumbent governor. As we settled down in the living room of his modest home in Asaba, I shot at him; “Why do you want to be Governor?” It was a question I had pondered in my mind during my flight from Lagos to Asaba. In my work as a journalist and communication consultant, I discovered that many politicians just sought political power for the sake of it, and some because they had money and, therefore, thought the next logical thing for them to get is power – the emilokan syndrome if you like. So, I scanned his mien watching for any hint of displeasure and irritation. But Senator Okowa took the question in his stride and calmly took me on an exploratory journey of his seven-point agenda, which I subsequently conceptualised into the five-point SMART agenda.
I had four takeaways from that meeting. First, was his burning desire and genuine concern for the army of unemployed youths roaming the streets; urgent action was needed, he stressed, to get the youths of the state gainfully employed in order to stem the tide of youth restiveness. Secondly, I was touched by his empathy with the poor, widows, and the vulnerable. He was visibly pained by the plight of many of these people who had to borrow from shylock moneylenders to pay for treatment at hospitals/clinics, further plunging them into penury. This, he maintained, could be corrected with a functional health insurance system. Thirdly, I was impressed by his attention to detail. As he outlined each policy initiative, he was quite specific; he elaborated on their various components, execution guidelines, and expected outcomes. Fourthly, he spoke for about thirty minutes without referring to any written document. That convinced me the vision was original to him; he was speaking from his heart.
I was fascinated by his brilliance, depth of understanding, focus, determination, and personae. Thereafter, I joined his campaign train because I believed he was sincere, had a workable plan, and knew exactly what he wanted to do as governor. Despite the naysayers, Okowa won the PDP primaries on December 8, 2014, and was subsequently elected Governor of the state on April 11, 2015. After eight years of faithful stewardship, there are three key attributes that define this great personality and exceptional leader; they are character, competence, and compassion.
Governor Okowa is a role model. He is remarkable for his courtesy, simplicity, decency, humility, and respect for others irrespective of their social or economic status. It struck me early in our relationship that he would not only reply to my phone messages but would say “Thanks Jackson” in response to an assignment/instruction carried out or work done, and continued this practice as governor. That left a deep impression on me because this is not a gesture you normally expect from your boss, much less a governor, for doing what is expected of you.
His disciplined lifestyle is another of his endearing traits. Under his tenure the sleaze that used to characterize life in the Government House came to a screeching halt, albeit, to the dismay of some, it must be said. Once, a member of the state executive council publicly confessed to the positive influence Okowa has had on members of his cabinet in this regard. Many of them, he said, were no longer excited by the prospects of philandering as his chaste disposition seemed to exert a restraining influence on them. It is the hallmark of leadership when your life impacts so strongly on the morals and actions of your subordinates and political associates.
A lover of God and His people, Governor Okowa has a knack for punctuality. He once arrived at a church at the appointed time and waited at least ten minutes before the service started, to the embarrassment of the congregation and the pastor who came late to his programme. Okowa bristles at any attempt to exalt him. For him, the official protocol does not extend to the sanctuary of worship; he has a Standing Order – and warning – that people must not stand up in his honour in a church because that amounts to irreverence.
True to his promise, one of the first acts of Governor Okowa was the establishment of the Delta State Contributory Health Commission, the first state in the country to do so. There are currently over 1.3m enrollees – the highest in the country – under the health insurance scheme, and the figure is growing daily. Through his multiple entrepreneurship development programmes, 26,067 youths and women have become successful business owners, having been trained and resourced by the state government to start enterprises of their choice. As a result, the economy is now better positioned to engender economic inclusivity and sustainable development.
With the policy emphasis on skills acquisition, the six existing technical colleges were rehabilitated and made functional, while the Okowa administration commenced the construction of ten new ones, with three already completed. Furthermore, three new universities were established to cater for the growing number of qualified youths who, due to limited space, could not be absorbed by the existing federal and state universities.
It is difficult to believe that the state passed through two economic recessions during his tenure, considering the catalogue of achievements in virtually all sectors of the economy. It is the triumph of vision over cynicism, courage over despair, and faith over fear. With about 2,000 kilometres of roads and over 1,400 kilometres of drains across the length and breadth of the state, Okowa demonstrated that no matter the odds, there is no limit to what a governor can achieve with visionary leadership, strategic planning, fiscal probity, prudent spending, and prayerful dependence on God.
In the first couple of years of his administration, the opposition took turns to pour scorn on his administration with uncomplimentary photos of the dilapidated Maryam Babangida Road, Okpanam Road, and DLA Road splashed on social media. Governor Okowa endured the opprobrium; he would not succumb to the temptation to impress – or deceive – people with cosmetic action, insisting that without solving the underlying problems of flooding and erosion in Asaba, anything he did would be a mere palliative. Getting things right first time is always his priority and motivation. With steely resolve, he courageously set out to tackle the root cause of the problem of infrastructural decay in the capital city with the multi-billion-naira Storm Water Drainage project. And once it was completed, he turned his attention to the urgent need of roads rehabilitation, reconstruction, and construction.
Today, Asaba is regarded as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, courtesy of the massive infrastructural renewal that has taken place under his stewardship. On Maryam Babangida Road stands the architectural edifice that is the Prof. Chike Edozien ultra-modern Central Secretariat Complex, which towers high above the cynicism and toxicity of armchair critics and mischief makers. Furthermore, the road is emerging as a business district of the city with hotels and companies springing up there.
Other signature projects of his administration are the Koka Interchange and Flyover, Maryam Babangida Film Village and Leisure Park, Stephen Keshi Stadium, and Ogheye Floating Market in Warri North Local Government Area. The 20.28km Obotobo I – Obotobo II – Sokebolou–Yokri – Road in Burutu local government area underscores Governor Okowa’s commitment to breathe life into the state’s riverine communities with “infrastructure of the most vital interest and consequence.” Meanwhile, with the establishment of Warri/Uvwie/Environs Development Agency, the commercial capital of the state is set to receive a facelift.
At the recent University of Ibadan Alumni lecture in Governor Okowa’s honour, the Guest Lecturer, Dr Kingsley Emu referenced the Governor’s compassionate nature as one of his strongest attributes. The army of beneficiaries of his famed generosity may yet be his biggest political capital. It is the massive grassroots support he enjoys as a result that enabled him to defeat the wife of the incumbent national chairman of his party at the 2011 party primaries to be elected Senator in the same year, and why he could not be stopped by the power of incumbency in 2014.
Ekwugum is Manager, Communications, Government House, Asaba.