•Whatever they say, I’m one of Uduaghan’s men
By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South & Festus Ahon
DELTA State Governor, Senator (Dr.) Ifeanyi Okowa, has opened up on some vital political issues practically everybody in the state wants to know his stand. He spoke on his link with a former governor, Chief James Ibori, whose political image still comes out grand in the state and his long-lasting relationship with his predecessor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, which until date has mystified many.
He also explained how he is managing the former Federal Commissioner for Information and one-man political army against his two predecessors, Chief Edwin Clark and the unassailable bond with his political father, ex- Minister of Information, Prof Sam Oyovbaire.
In the past 10 months, he has erased the fear of the Delta Central (Urhobo) Senatorial district that a governor of Delta North origin would marginalize the ethnic group, a development that has made others envious of Urhobo people in his government. How did he do it? Governor Okowa came out forthright on the reasons and other matters. Excerpts.
Tell us how you met ex- governor, James Ibori, whose image still looms large in the politics of the state?
That was quite a long time. There was Grassroots Democratic Movement, GDM, though a small party then during the Abacha time; then UNCP where we had the moneybags and big politicians, but somehow, some of us, the younger ones felt that we needed to create a new politics, that was in 1996 and we found ourselves joining the Grassroots Democratic Movement. Why, because the national chair then was also very young, so he was able to recruit some of us, who were young into the place and nobody actually believed in us. Therefore, it was in the Grassroots Democratic Movement, what we called the GDM that I actually met Chief James Ibori in 1996.
We struggled hard, we were able to win five local governments out of the 25 in Delta state and people put us off, but we played good politics then even when we were quite young. I had been council chair before, so I understood what politics was. He (Ibori) also had made an attempt to run before, people like Senators James Manager, Ighoyota Amori; it was a young crop of persons; all of us below 40 then that actually populated the place.
However, when the new political era was to start after the Abacha time, immediately we realized then that UNCP was going to be a major problem to us, we quickly teamed up with DPN, the Democratic Party of Nigeria and that gave us strength because they also had four local government areas and we had five, which made it nine. So we had improved on our strength, the combination actually gave us a very good strength, we formed what we called the Delta National Congress in Warri and that was the tool with which we went to link up with the G34 and then eventually joined the PDP. The rest is now history because we surprisingly took Delta State at that time.
Ibori had a special attraction for you; can you tell us what you think endeared you to him?
I think he found in me, somebody that is ready to work very hard at every point in time. Everything I want to do, without trying to praise myself, I think I am always very committed to it, right from my youth. I know I was very committed in the campaigns through the GDM. When we came to the PDP, I was very committed. However, one thing too, he also saw in me somebody who will fight injustice at every point in time. The thing was showing at the beginning of PDP when he had already promised that he would make me Deputy Governor then. However, I just found that some people are oppressing others in my constituency, they could not speak their minds and people could not rise up to contest.
They wanted to anoint people and I rose up against that and when the party did its manoeuvring, I turned my back and said no, you cannot do this, and that was what led to the emergence of people like Nduka Irabor. Because they did not give him a chance to come in and I felt he was a strong character and someone that could represent us, in that process of fighting the authorities then, it became an issue.
Therefore, he (Ibori) saw in me someone with a very strong character. So I think that warmed us up because at every point in time, I always offered him the truth and told him what I thought was right and when things went wrong, others may speak politically, but I will speak based on the facts.
Senator Ighoyota Amori talked about a political family in the state, which Ibori is the head, are you part of it?
Of course, Ibori built the political family in Delta State in this current dispensation starting 1999. He was the first governor; he was a rallying point for everybody even some of them that have broken out now and trying to make waves in other party actually grew under him. I do not want to mention names, I am sure that you know them. Whosoever and wherever they are, he built the political family that came up so strong in Delta State. Whatever you say about him, one good thing about him is that he is somebody who is very liberal; he likes to bring people together. Every man will have his own bad past but I think he did many good, no matter what anybody says today.
Was there any understanding in the Ibori political family that you would succeed Governor Uduaghan or the race was open?
I think the race was open. When you say there is understanding, probably there was a formal meeting where we agreed that it must be me, no no. We did not have such a meeting. You know for a long time, he has not been within the state. I think that some people just assumed that having done the 2006 primaries in which I came out a strong second and decided to work in the best interest of the party, that I should be the next successor. However, talking about sitting down in a meeting to decide that this is the way it should be; we never had such a meeting.
During the last PDP primaries, I saw you as you sat and stood intermittently praying as voting was going on, what was going on in your mind at that moment?
I am somebody who believe strongly in my God and in the build-up to the primaries, my trust was just on God because I have seen all things that made me realize that man is not reliable. Too many things, somebody who knows most of all these things, my Secretary to the State Government, Hon. Ovie Agas, we went through a lot in the field and in all that, we put our trust in God. If it were the heart of man, I would probably not have gotten to this place. However, my God kept on telling me that this is what will happen and even as I walked into that field that morning, I knew I was going to have victory no matter what they did. Nevertheless, I was praying while we were there so that God will avert any form of crisis or bloodshed because of the information and intelligence that we gathered.
What God told me
Somehow, God revealed to me, apart from what people told me, He revealed to me personally that I was going to win the primaries after I had a three- day retreat with my wife. I actually prayed, asking God to tell me if I should continue or stop and I had a ministration. Therefore, I knew I was going to win; in fact, after that ministration, as far as I was concerned, everything was over because I knew that God spoke to me. When people were scared, I smiled through the entire process and we give God the glory for everything.
People say that Professor Sam Oyovbaire is like your political father…
(Cuts in) Yes, he is
How did both of you strike the kind of bond that we see today?
I think over time he just grew to like my person. If you know him, he is a man with a very strong character and he is not somebody that can easily come out to commit himself to anybody. While in the Senate, I actually came back one day, I think that was towards the end of 2013 and took some of my friends, including my Secretary to the State Government and walked up to him to say daddy, I want to inform you that I want to run for the governorship of Delta State. He asked me some few questions, I answered him, and truly, he did not even hesitate, that very day he confirmed to me that he was going to be out there for me.
It was not something quite easy for a top Urhobo man to do but he committed himself to me that day. We went to his Benin residence and right from that day, he started leading the group. First, they were not out there in the field but we held very close sessions to determine our programmes because he is a much-organized person. We would talk about the programme; develop what we wanted to do before we even started talking about the political strategy. From day one, he never hid himself, he is not that type of leader that will say okay, when the time comes we will do this, he was out there in the field of which I respect him a lot.
How are you managing Chief Edwin Clark; during Ibori, Uduaghan time, it was a lot of problem, but so far, we have not heard a word against you from Pa Clark, what is the magic?
Well, I give God thanks. You know that he is a man with a strong character, he sees me as a son. I may not be satisfying all that he may need, I may not have done all that he expects me to do, but somehow he respects me as a son and I thank God for that. However, I know that in the process of going forward, right from day one he was also one of those that believed that there was need for equity in his own part. When I went to consult him, he believed that for equity sake, there was need, it may not be me directly, but there was the need for every part of Delta to have a feel of governance of Delta.
When we kept on talking, I realized that he had some love for me. I think that I tried to build on that, I would not say I have seen him regularly, I wish I would be able to create time to meet him the more. With the stress of governance, I may not have been able to reach out to him in many things, but because he was part of the process and he understands the character of the person that I am, he offered me a lot of advice. Even we talk occasionally, he calls me and offers me advice on what he thinks I should do and I also listen to him and by God’s grace, I am sure he would continue to be a father and continue to guide us in Delta State.
What is the strategy, you have been able, I must say, to substantially erase the fear of the Delta Central, that is Urhobo that a Delta North Governor would marginalize them, how are you doing this?
You know, when you are sincere in all that you do, you begin to build that confidence in the minds of men. From the beginning, I did promise them, because the fears were there when we did campaign, that they should just give me a chance and they will find that people can hold onto their promises and people can be fair in all that they do. They expressed their reservations, but I think that seeing some characters, some of their sons that were with me then, they did realize that there was the need to give me a chance. I made promises to them and I kept them when I won.
First, I told them that the Secretary to the State Government will come from Urhobo land and I had my reasons. Somehow, if you watch the secretaryship of the government, it has continued to move from one senatorial district to the other and I felt that for equity sake, if I was Secretary to the State Government, and it moved to South, to Macaulay, it was only fair that it should move back to Urhobos. Therefore, I took that decision and immediately I came in, in fact, that was my first appointment, when I announced it, there was a lot of applause. That built confidence.
In all political appointments that we have made, I told all ethnic groups that we will not be partial. Even in the projects that we have started. We did many roads in the Okpe area; we have started the Sapele township road dualization, which I promised during that period; the people are quite happy with it. We started the Afiesere road, that is the Ughelli/Afiesere/Ufuoma road now, even with the very challenging circumstance, we continued with the Sector A of Ughelli/Asaba road dualization and we have also gone to inspect the Oteri road which is nearing completion.
I have watched you from a distance in the past two months, your comments about your predecessor; I must say you have spoken so highly of him but some people still say that secretly you are fighting him and that you are dislodging his men politically, what is the situation?
You know people will always talk; politicians will always talk, if they do not have anything to talk then definitely they will not be playing politics. Generally, people want to cause disaffection between people, but as far as I am concerned, he was my friend when he was commissioner, he was my friend when he was Governor and I was SSG and when I was in Senate and he was Governor, we remained friends. We remain friends despite whatever that may have taken place in the cause of the primaries, we remain friends but that was all politics and until today, we remain friends.
Many people that they will call “his men” are in government, because I do not know whom they call his men because I am one of his men. He was my Governor and I was the SSG, so I do not know how close you can be to somebody. As Secretary, beyond the fact that we are family friends, I was Secretary to the Government of Delta State and when I went to the Senate, he was supportive of my cause in the Senate. We only disagreed going into the primaries and thereafter we agreed, we worked together to move on. We relate very well, we talk to each other but he has not been essentially very much around, so you cannot see him all around me but when you look at the government, you will see his key men.
They may not be directly commissioners but they are also playing special roles as Special Advisers handling one post, because commissioner-ship cannot be about one person continuing to hold the office. If somebody has stayed eight years in his own cabinet, if you begin to recycle that same person all through it becomes a problem. However, I do not really know what they want to see. Today, his younger brother is in my cabinet, I am sure you are aware of that, his younger brother is in my cabinet as a commissioner.