By Yemisi Suleiman
With the large number of supporters and well wishers that followed as he made his way to the lounge of Hotel Benizier, Asaba for a date with some political associates, it was evident that Dr. Ifeanayi Okowa is, no doubt, a man of the people. Among many compelling facts was his humane upbringing that gave him a charitable heart and an enviable stance in the heart of his people.
With support from his community and a loving wife, the rise to greatness as revealed by his wife, was destined to be. He is married to Edith Okowa, a teacher, and blessed with three children. In this interview, Dr. Okowa, the Senator-elect representing Delta North, speaks on the trials during and after election, his vision for Delta North and his style. Mrs. Okowa, who turned 50 on June 1, shares the success of her marriage and her firm commitment to God, amongst others.
During the primaries, the election was annulled and followed by a re-run before you finally emerged winner. How did you take it?
Yes. Actually, I did resign as Secretary to the State Government because I want to represent my people. I needed time to campaign and by the special grace of God, we ran a wonderful campaign ahead of the January elections primaries. I ran a good campaign and, at the end of the day, by the time the result came out in the early hours of January 12, I did very well by scoring over 900 votes followed by Dr. Karo Ogibgo while the other candidates had smaller votes.
But somehow, you will expect that as Nigerians, we may not have matured to the level that we are expected to be politically. There were all kinds of complaints but I think, on the whole, with the result that was before us, the Delta North had made their choice and that was for me to stand for them in the Senate. Controversies still arose but that was a clear manifestation of the will of the people and that was the result that stood and with that I was given the form to fill and the forms were returned to INEC.
By the special grace of God and the will of the people, I emerged the Senator-elect from PDP for Delta North at the April general elections.
What, in your opinion, would you say was the dominant factor that gave you the people’s mandate?
I want to give thanks to God because he was with me all through. In terms of the people, I have always been for the people. I started grass-root politics as far back as 1990, 91. I was Secretary to the Local Government Council. I contested and won election to become Chairman of the local government council, 1991—93.
I was the local government chairman through the other years that followed. Yes, I worked at my medical practice but I played politics all along. From 1999 to 2006, I was commissioner in various ministries and the Lord exposed me; He gave me opportunity to reach out to people.
There are persons who will reach good positions (and) all they think about is today, what happens today. I have always been a politician that believes that my thought for tomorrow is what determines my actions today and that if truly you are going to be a good politician, obviously you must be with the people; expose yourself to the people, the people should be your partners and I partner with the people quite a lot. I have been able to assist some and some have been able to assist me. The truth is that I have been their friend and they see me as a son; they see me as a friend, they see me as somebody they can trust and somebody they can reach. I believe that that has drawn me closer to them.
By the special grace of God, before the campaign, I went to each local government area to speak and that gave me the experience and feeling that we are going to do well at the elections. I truly think that the grace of God upon me was so high and till today the Lord is still with me because I have gone through a lot of challenges and I have been able to hold on because of His grace. I have been able to smile on because of his grace. I thank God and I must thank the people for all the support.
You did promise to come back to your people every quarter to give an account of your stewardship. Now that you have been elected Senator, do you still stand on that?
Very well. I stand by every promise that I make – that I will have quarterly meetings with them. Even beyond that, I have told them that I was going to do a servant-link to unite my people. That, I have already started. I have been consulting with some of the leaders and I will continue to do so; even those that may not see me as the best candidate. As their friend, I need to reach out to all of them because our people in Delta State need to unite.
If that unity is going to be, I must clear my conscience and my heart; not holding back. I must ensure that I am going into it with a clean heart; the need to reach out to those who didn’t support me and those who supported me and those who didn’t even play politics. We need to get many people together. The reason for that is that the unity of Delta and the Anioma people is key to the future politics of Anioma people.
For us to be able to count ourselves as equal partners within the state, we should be able to have one of our own from Delta North Central as governor soon. The other two senatorial districts, south and central, have been able to play their role. They have done well. We don’t know who it would be but the important thing is that we must unite and see ourselves as friends when it gets to that time.
The important thing is that we need to prevent comatose and for us to prevent comatose, we must start early to relate with ourselves. We must begin to partner and for us to understand our differences because there is just no way everyone from Delta North will come in and speak with one voice almost immediately. We should be able to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Delta South and Delta Central.
I think there is need to sit down; there is need to talk. I believe when you have a united people who speak with one voice, it will add a lot into things that you are able to do because, in the political circle, there are pressure groups. A united voice can also get much more than a divided house.
You seem to have a good dress sense. How do you put your clothes together?
I like things that look good on me. I try to look good but now that I am getting a little older, I am not looking so deeply into that anymore. But I have someone that designs my clothes for me for now. When it comes to natives, both the simple and the ones that make me look official, I have someone that designs my clothes, apart from those that I get as gift. Some times too, when I am on official duty, I also have people that design my suits.
I get lots of this from people as gifts. They know my style so such people just buy and to please them, I wear them – whether I like it or not (laughs). And, when I dress people, tell me I look good. I think it is a gift from God. I am growing old and I am not growing fat. I am not growing out shape, so I must give all the glory to God.
How do you take care of yourself when it comes to health?
God has just made me naturally healthy; occasionally I go to the gym but most times, I don’t even remember to do that. People keep asking me: “If you don’t exercise regularly, how come you look fit?” It is truly, truly the grace of God because I tell you, in the last four years, I worked a lot as the SSG; there were loads of work. I didn’t have any breathing space. I was moving from table to table, and I will return home and back to my files, and to my room reading and treating files.
People say I need to unwind; I need to take time out to the gym. But when I look at the heap of files, I don’t even remember that I need to dothose things because for every file that I leave untreated, somebody is going to suffer the pains and I am somebody that does not want toinflict pains on people.
As Secretary to the State Government, you are supposed to be the chief adviser to the governor; so if you are not careful to choose the things you are going to minute, then you will be causing pain both to the governor and to whatever a file is meant to address. So, I spent a lot of my time truly working.But on weekends, when I am not working, I spend time to walk around, visit people, attend ceremonies but that little walk around kept me going.
What gives you joy?
Whenever I find myself being able to help people, especially the less privileged, that gives me joy. Somehow, I think that apart from the up-bringing that we had at home; because my mum really took us through that. I find that I try to live my life trying to reach out, particularly, to those class of people that are in pains in this country.
Many persons are not able to appreciate it because they have not had that experience; so many people are in real pains and if you spend your time listening to them, just that ordinary advice – you might not even be able to touch them physically or financially; the mere fact that you give them attention changes their lives. It makes them happy. I spend time doing that and I am happy. If I am able to help financially, very little money; some might have little problems and you are able to reach out to their needs and put smiles on their faces. That is true joy, which is the joy that stays with you. And as you do it, it comes back to you because what I read in the Bible is exactly what I am doing. It gives me lots of joy and that is the greatest joy that I have.
For me, God has blessed me to a level and I thank God for it. When I am with my family, I am happy because they give me joy. But I have greater joy when I am able to help one or two of these people: the widow, the orphans. As I grow older, I hope I will be able to reach out to more and more orphans and widows. Secondly, I have not been able to attain the level that I think I should attain. I thank God for what I am able to do and I hope that some more years to come, I will be able to give greater time and greater finance to these people.
So do you see yourself setting up a home for the less privileged sometime in future?
I will work with those already established on how best to handle them because, as I grew up, I saw my mum raising orphans – not in an orphanage. She didn’t believe in raising them in the orphanage. She was raising them at home with us and my immediate older sister, that is about what she is doing now. She actually has about three of them in her home and she is taking care of them and we hope that we can have a large reach out to many more orphanages. Not on political basis. I hope to do so and I hope that I am able to devote time to them, but now that I am playing politics, I don’t have the time to devote to them. But I hope that in the end, I will be able to put a lot of my time (into that). I know that a lot of people do that and I appreciate that and I think it is something that I would love to do.
Are you one for designers?
Most people will always want to go for names but for me, any good thing that fits I go for it. The most important thing is that I love clothes that are light because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable when I am in them
Taking a look at your present position would you say you are fulfilled?
Looking through my life, I must thank God for everything. I have had a good political career. I could not wish it to be better. Although, there are some people that God will just take directly to the top but some of us are designed to go through every stage in our lives. When I look at all I have passed through, there are so many lessons for me to learn as God is taking me through it all.
I am truly fulfilled. He has been so gracious to me; through the various positions, especially when you play politics at the lower level where we are. I have enjoyed my politicking. One thing too that has made me enjoy my politics is the fact that with His grace upon me, I have passed through so many challenges that I sailed through. Since then, I have been on the path of success.
You clocked 50 recently. What would you say has helped you look this beautiful all these years? How do you take care of yourself?
Nothing. It is just God’s grace. There is really nothing I do.
You don’t do the normal things women do, like going to the spa or following a beauty routine?
I don’t really have time for that. That is the truth. I don’t really have time for going to the spa or going to visit all those other places. I just do my daily activities and I believe that whatever I am today, it is God who has done it. It is solely God’s mercy.
So, how does it feel to be 50?
I feel great and I thank God because he God has made it all. When I look at myself, I just say “God I thank you”. It is not he that wills nor he that runs, but of God that shows mercy. The race is not for the swift, the battle is not to the strong but of the Lord that shows mercy. So, whatever I am today or how I look at fifty, it is God that has done it; not because I have done a lot of exercise. But, I am very careful with what I eat. I don’t do meat pie. I eat food; I eat meals. I don’t take snacks. I am very careful about what goes into my mouth; you cannot catch me taking sugar drinks.
If I need any drink, I take water or I will take juice from fresh fruits. I eat fruits a lot. Occasionally, I take a malt drink but I just eat good meals. I don’t engage in eating between meals. I don’t eat junk food.
As a person, what makes you happy? What keeps you going?
The love of God is what makes me happy.
Talking about your husband in politics, what does it feel like being married to him as a politician? How do you cope?
I married my husband as a medical doctor, not as a politician; because he is a very quiet man that hardly talks. As we went on in this marriage, I started noticing his interest in politics. Ordinarily, on my own, because of the kind of person that I am, I would have objected, because being in politics means you are in public glare; you don’t have any privacy of your own anymore. But because the Bible says you, the woman, can make the man or you can cripple the man and because I love my husband, I love whatsoever he does. I keyed into politics. My position as a wife of a politician is not to begin to walk around with him from one campaign place to the other. If you notice, all the places he went to for his campaign, hardly will you see me except it is very important. My position is to be on my knees for him as a politician. I stand in the gap for him in prayers. That is what I do for him.
You are aware of the controversies that came with winning the elections, even the primaries, the withholding of the certificates and all that. How did you take it?
Somehow, because in life, when you walk in God’s perfect will, you don’t have problems; it is only when you walk in his permissive will. Let me tell you what I do. For everything I do, I believe that God is the one leading me. Once I have heard from God, I have talked to him and prayed to him, I don’t have any fear. Because, he has said that whatsoever he starts, He is able to finish. God gave me so much confidence (through) all that. I knew that there will be stillness one day because I am on God’s side and God is on my side. I knew I was going to be victorious. I have read from the book of Genesis to Revelation, I have never seen God fail in any battle; not once did he fail and he will not start with me.
That was the confidence I had; that if God had began this battle, He will finish it. From the primaries to the elections, to the presentation of certificate and all the controversies, my heart was not troubled.
I had peace in me. And the peace in me, whenever I am doing anything, tells me that God is with me. Once I start something and I am having a troubled heart, I know that this thing might not work out. As long as I had peace, I forged ahead. People will be wondering: ‘what is wrong with this woman?’ What ever you are thinking is not what I am thinking. I focus on what God has said concerning it. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. So in all these, I had peace. I knew that victory was sure.
Apart from prayers, what else do you do to support your husband? Is there anything you do, like social works, to support his ambition as a politician and all the offices he has held before? What did you engage in?
Apart from prayers, I am also involved in helping the less privileged in the society. This world is not about how much money you are able to acquire or have in your (bank) account, but how many persons you have been able to touch. In my house, for instance, you will see so many people. There is no one that is my child. My kids are out in school, in line with the word of God, because the Bible says that pure religion is to be able to help the widows and the orphans. We also engage in taking care of orphans and widows.
When it comes to fashion, how would you describe your style?
I am very simple. My style is simple but elegant. I know that I am not loud in my dressing. I am just as simple as I can be. I love everything a woman loves but moderation is the key.
Do you have a designer that makes your clothes?
Yes. I have a designer that makes my clothes. And, because I don’t follow fashion, she makes what suits me.
How do you keep fit?
I have a gym here but I can count the number of times that I have used it. But if I desire to, occasionally I do.
How do you relax, how do you unwind?
I read books. I read a lot and in the course of reading, I sleep. I am not the outing type; I love to relax. I read when I want to relax.
What attracted you to your husband?
When we were growing up, I didn’t have an idea of how the man I want for a husband should look. People will be talking about the kind of husband they want to marry: tall, dark complexioned, handsome and all that, but I didn’t have that at the back of my mind. When I saw him, I knew I like him and that was it.
Every woman knows when the man you are going out with loves you or not. One thing about me, people can confirm, I don’t know how to pretend. I think the day I start pretending, you will know that that is not me. If I am happy with you when you see me, you will see it. If I am not happy with you, I don’t pretend about it because, I don’t know how to pretend.
Most people pretend about issues. If your relationship is not going to work, I don’t manage issues there because I believe that relationship is not supposed to be endured. So, it is either you are my friend or you are not my friend. When I see somebody that I can parley with, I know it and when the relationship is not going to work again, I turn my back straight and forge ahead. When I saw him, I knew that that was the man that I wanted. That is it.
How long have you been married?
By December this year, it will be exactly 25 years.
What would you say has been the secret of the success of your marriage? What kept you together all through these years?
It is really being able to understand one another and accepting the person for who he is. You can’t change somebody. It is God that changes people. Whatsoever I am seeing in my husband that I don’t like, I pray about it before discussing it. And, again, I believe in the word of God from Genesis to Revelation. I know that the Word of God says ‘wife submit in all things to your husband’. So, I can not even imagine my husband talking and I am talking and that is the truth.
I accord him his full respect as the man of the home. Just as Christ is the head of the church, that is how the man is the head of the home. So, if you give every man the right place in his home, I don’t see how the man will begin to bully; you stoop to conquer your man. There is no small man, no matter how small that man might look. A man is a man and the earlier women realise this, the better for them. Respect and honour your husband, submit in all things.
The Bible says that there is a time for every thing. It is good for us to understand that there is timing for everything. If you begin to boss him, sit down here; where are you going to; why should you go out; must you go out; it is your own problem.