By Emma Amaize, S/South Regional Editor
YOU would not believe he was the grotesque-looking boy from Ekuma-Abavo in Ika South Local Government Area of Delta State whose father died in 1974 when he was just 12 years.Â Years after, he became visible at site of every new structure in town, carrying either blocks or granite or doing the menial jobs to make ends meet or clearing bush or people’s farms of weeds, as the case may be, to enable his family put food on the table and also pay his school fees.Â
But today, the life has changed, the former guard, who fled a Lagos company where he worked when one of his colleagues was shot dead by armed robbers is now the number three citizen of one of the oil-rich states in the country.
Saturday Vanguard met the 48-year-old Speaker of the Delta State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Martin Okonta, he told his story on his election as Speaker and relationship with the Delta state governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan and lots more. Enjoy it.
You growing up
I have always assisted my mother in clearing bush, burn the bush, plant crops, harvest and sell so that we can meet our daily needs, after the death of my father. It was rough, and you know, a woman has limited power and without a man, the constraints are many and it was not easy for her. My father died when I was about 12 years old, I was in primary school then.
I was a also a guard and at another time a cold room attendant
I recall an incident one night as a guard in that security company when one of the Calabar boys was shot dead by an armed robber and I had to give up the job to work elsewhere as a cold room attendant, bringing out fish from the cold room anytime a customer wanted to buy fish at Apapa. At a time, I started developing pneumonia and I stopped. It was after this experience I found myself later at Government College, Ughelli and later, university.
Before you became a lawmaker in Delta State, you had a political appointment in Edo state, which is not your state of origin, how was that possible?
Basically, before I joined politics of Edo state, I was the president of the Studentsâ€™ Union of the University of Benin. While I was the president of the union, the former governor, Chief Lucky Igbinedion was on campaign tour and he approached the university authorities to allow him address the students, the school authorities refused. One of his aides approached me and asked me what could be done; I advised that they should go to the electronic media and announce that they want to give scholarship to indigent students and award to those who won laurels in the NUGA games.
They did that and they were given permission to come in and on that day, the student gathered in large number waiting for him. He came and the students were rushing after him, hugging him and dancing and that was one of clips he used as his unique selling point, imputing that if UNIBEN students would like him that much, then, their parents at home should vote for him since their children in school love him.Â It was in that line that Igbinedion said, such a young man (referring to me), what the authorities would not allow, he was able to use intelligence to pull the rug off their feet and so, when he won the election, he did not forget.
Did he come to look for you on campus?
He came to the campus to look for me and found out that I had just graduated and he sent me to the law school and was paying me salary almost throughout the year. He paid all my fees in the law school and when I graduated, he made me Legal Adviser on Emergency Matters in the Rapid Response Agency, a position some indigenes felt a non-indigene should not occupy. There petitions against me to the Commissioner of Police, bickering and disagreement but eventually, the governor insisted I should continue with my work.
Was it not a fraudulent of you to have given Igbinedion such adviceÂ and is it not the same fraudulent advice that you give as a politician today?
It was not wrong, it was a constructive idea. He did not come for anything fraudulent, he wanted to have access to the students and from birth, every human being is a normal politician and what he was asking for is not an unusual thing, he wanted to reach the students and make his manifesto known to them, so his actions were not fraudulent, we took a constructive approach to the matter and so, it was not fraudulent as you are insinuating.
What is your view of Anenih?
Chief Tony Anenih has been a godfather. You hardly find people do the kind of things he does these days. If you have a problem and you approach Chief Anenih, solution will come. Donâ€™t forget that he was the godfather of my own godfather; he was the mentor of Dr. Cario Ojuigboh from whom I sprang my feet in Ika South local government area. I will never forget Anenih in my political career.
Yes, I am indebted to Chief Lucky Igbinedion because he is my benefactor and mentor; he prepared me for what I am today. Apart from paying my fees in the law school, he gave me an employment and he reached out to other politicians to tell them that I am his boy and that he could vouch for me and all that. I will not forget him.
How are you surviving the banana peel as Speaker, what are the challenges, your daily fears as Speaker?
Honestly speaking, the office is a banana peel but there are certain fundamental things and essential things that will make you stay or not stay. If you are objective in your dealings, two, if you donâ€™t allow the fact of being speaker to go into your head, three, issue of welfare of members is paramount and you have to guard it very well, four, you must be open in all your dealings and five, and there must be collective bargaining.
Decisions as to what operates in the House must be discussed by principal officers and if you feel that the issue is sensitive or thorny, it is no longer a matter of the principal officers alone, you take it to the caucus of the House and if you keep them informed of all your activities, you have no cause for alarm. Itâ€™s only when you are arrogant, when you want to boss them, when you want to tell them you are the speaker and they are under you that you run into problem.
What is the relationship between your godfather, Cairo and Governor Uduaghan at the moment and what is your reaction to the insinuations that you are Uduaghanâ€™s boy?
Sincerely speaking, Cairo ensured that I am where I am today and the governor has a constitutional role to play, which is clearly spelt out. The House as an institution also has its role to play. Why most people say I am Uduaghanâ€™s boy is because weâ€™re not fighting on the pages of newspapers.
There are bound to be disagreements between the legislature and the executive but what is important is the ability to resolve that conflict, I have always believed that whatever issue, no matter how difficult it is, we will call on the executive and have a dialogue and agree on the issues. Itâ€™s not my duty to hang the governor of the state, itâ€™s not my duty to frustrate his intentions, itâ€™s not by fighting the governor that I can show the autonomy of the house.
Even nations fight but they still come to a roundtable to discuss. So, basically, those who want us to quarrel are those see us as his boys while other who see it as a way of enhancing the development of the state say we are mature.
How would you rate Uduaghanâ€™s performance so far?
Honestly speaking, I am very satisfied with the performance of the governor; I must tell you that a lot have been achieved.
You need to visit the Asaba International Airport and see what the man is doing there, you wonâ€™t believe that an Itsekiri man will have that conviction, that interest, that devotion,Â to construct an international standard airport in Asaba, he is carrying out the dualization of Asaba-Ughelli Road. Of course, you are aware of the streetlights and beautification projects in Asaba, Effurun and Warri. Now, criminals no longer find their way in the night in these places, the micro-credit scheme, which is rated the best in the country by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).Â Have you seen theÂ new Government House under construction, the dome, where all those theatre arts would be taking place.
He has done so well and in infrastructure, if you come to Effurun, you would not believe that the place you thought to be a village has turned to a Las Vegas, when you are approaching Asaba now, you are happy with what you see, you get a very good impression of the state, there is light, the environment is clean and you are proud to say you are from Delta state. He has a lot of on-going projects and whenever you meet him, you see his passion, he has no time for frivolities, he dreams infrastructural development, he talks airport, he talks dualization, he talks agriculture, he talks street lights.
What you hear him say every time is what will I do for the people based on available resources because this is my time and so, I am indeed impressed with his performance, you cannot fault it, they are there on the ground.
How I became Speaker
I never had ambition of holding any position in the House, my ambition was to be a member, look at the legal implication of any action on the floor of the House, the statutes, make my points as a lawyer presenting and defending the interest of his people but along the line, I donâ€™t know that people were watching my demeanour, saying this is one man that has not quarrelled with anybody in this House, he is one man that shares whatever he has with others and is forbearing in character.
So when the time came, from a distance, not even from the House yet, some leaders of the party were pointing at me as the next Speaker, I never really bothered, even some of them called me, you have a masterâ€™s degree in law, why are you not interested, I said the resposibility is great, so it came to me as a surprise, it was not as if I worked to become Mr. Speaker. It just came like that.