By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Festus Ahon, Akpokona Omafuaire and Ochuko Akuopha
DELTA State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa gave his first year performance report, on Monday, in Asaba, and proceeded the next day on commissioning of projects executed by his government in different parts of the state.
Have you been having sleepless nights governing Delta?
I will lie if I tell you that I have been sleeping well. I am sure that the immediate past governors had their own challenges and had their robust times. I have come at a time when Deltans are expectant and I came in with many promises. Unfortunately, the economy of the nation is experiencing a downturn and considering the fact that we are governing a state in which our people are very exposed, they have many expectations; so you expect that I will not be sleeping well. We must appreciate God because they have continued to stay in partnership with us as a government despite the very challenging times.
I believe that whatever that is happening now, there is a lesson in it for all Nigerians and all Deltans, I believe that God is preparing us for a better and greater Delta State and Nigeria. It is just for us to be patient, resilient and to stay committed, both in prayers and hard work and I believe that very soon when things improve, we will realize that we cannot waste our resources anymore, but do the right thing in order to build a greater future for our children.
Why have PDP- controlled states not adopted the Treasury Single Account, TSA, even though this initiative was the brainchild of former President Goodluck Jonathan? The other time, Ekiti State governor came out to speak against it. What is your position on it?
In the first instance, there are so many other states of the All Progressives Congress, APC, that have not also embraced the TSA. This is something we have been studying, it is not just enough to hear about the very positive part of a particular programme and jump into it. You have to understudy it so you do not make mistake. We are aware that there are many gains in the TSA, we are also aware that we need to apply it wisely.
We need to understudy it and the Commissioner for Finance is understudying it and, by the grace of God, the good aspect of it, we will adopt, so we may likely be going into what we call a modified TSA that will not impact negatively on our commercial banks.
There has been complaint about the massive workforce and wage bill in the civil service of the state. What exactly is the staff strength?
As at this morning, I cannot tell you the staff strength of the civil service because the work is on-going. When I came, I met a staff strength of between 66, 000 and 68, 000 and that obviously is very huge comparing ourselves with neighbouring Edo State that had a staff strength of about 21, 000 and reduced it to 19, 000. So if Edo State has a staff strength of 19, 000 and we are having a staff strength of 66, 000, there is cause to worry.
However, we are not going on biometrics because we think we need to retrench workers. What we seek to do is to ensure that only those who are working are paid. Many people are not in this country, but they find themselves in our payroll. So many other persons are working elsewhere and they find themselves in our payroll. Unfortunately, even within the same government system, you find that some people work with the state and federal governments. Very recently, the state Commissioner of Police told me that they found that one of their officers at the point of promotion is also a staff of the Delta State government. Of course, that officer is losing his police job and his work with the Delta State government.
There are so many issues, very disturbing and my appeal has continuously been that it is in our best interest to find those into these sharp practices because the fewer the genuine workers, the more likely we are able to sustain the payment of salaries, particularly at these trying times. So we need the cooperation of all and, until we have a clean payroll, I may not be able to ascertain as at today the number of persons in our workforce.
What is Delta State doing about the menace of herdsmen. Some days ago, there was a report about their killings in Ekiti State. Before then, it was massacre in Enugu state. Recently, there are talks about grazing reserves; some call it cattle ranches. What is the position of Delta State on this?
The herdsmen and the menace, it is unfortunate that what we have today is an upsurge of what used to be in the past. This has always been there but, unfortunately, it is getting worse. This situation is in all the states of the federation. In fact, Delta State and some of the states in the South-South were about the last set of states to experience this, because if you recall, in the Plateau, Benue, Kogi areas, this has been a major problem in the past. The constitution of our country does not allow anyone to stop a Nigerian from one state to the other. Secondly, the dry condition that we have in some northern part makes it difficult, especially in the dry season, for you to keep these herdsmen within the area. What we find is the continuous migration to the south. It is very unfortunate that there are some criminal elements among them and these criminals have created a kind of situation where they take their cattle straight into people’s farms to graze.
It is a very unfortunate thing, we have been talking about it at the national level and, at the state level, a committee has been set up, led by the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, with the police, the SSS, Civil Defense, our communities and some Fulani leaders as members. We have been trying to manage it to ensure that we identify the groups of herdsmen in our various communities and to create an interface between them and our communities so that the communities and the herdsmen can work to identify the criminal elements and ensure that those particular ones face the law.
The Federal Government talked about the grazing reserves but they also know that there has been a lot of opposition to this. The opposition has mainly been from the south. However, I believe that if they are able to create grazing reserves within the north and with enough rapidly multiplying fields and grass grown in addition to irrigation system, we may be able to limit their movement to the southern part of the country. We hope that this should be worked out, I do not have the details of the Grazing Reserve Bill, so I will not be able to speak about it. I am no longer in the Senate. It is our hope that the plan by the Minister of Agriculture will work. We need to give ourselves some time to look at it.
We will soon have a stakeholders meeting with the leadership of the Fulani involved along with leadership of our various communities. With the collaboration that we will have with the Fulani herdsmen, we will be able to identify the criminal elements and tell the security agencies to go after those criminal elements amongst them.
You were the Secretary to Delta State Government. During that tenure, the controversial Independent Power Plant project was awarded. Recently, the Delta State House of Assembly went to the site and wanted to commence a probe, but because of your alleged involvement in the project, you sent an executive fiat to stop the sitting?
Yes, I was SSG when they awarded the project, but I was not directly involved in the award. I was neither the Commissioner for Energy nor was I directly involved in anything that concerns the project. I did not receive one kobo on the project and that is why I can speak authoritatively and with a very clear conscience concerning the IPP project.
The House of Assembly, yes, I learnt there was a probe. I did not stop the probe; you can go and ask questions from the Speaker and people who were involved in the committee. I did not stop the probe, if I was interested in stopping it; I am sure largely they would not even have started the probe at all. However, on my own part, I have had session with the Ministry if Energy because we want to be able to tell the truth of why that project has not gotten to where it should be.
I have information that they have done some works there and that the power turbines are already in Oghara. But unfortunately, they are not directly on site, they are on the site that was purchased by the contractor but that there some other money that needed to be paid to the contractor and that is why they have not been moved. However, looking at the project, I have been understudying it and I believe we are still far from where we can use the IPP as a project and we are looking at other options concerning the project. Even if when the contractor completes the contract as it is, the contract was about N23 billion I am told, and the state government has so far paid about N19 billion.
Nevertheless, that will be if you finish the project, it will be a situation where you have been able to complete the project on ground, but the gas supply to the project is not in place and the evacuation from Oghara to the national grid is not in place. The nearest you can do us to create an evacuation line from there to Sapele grid, and that in itself is going to cost several billions of naira.
There is no question about hiding anything on the IPP project. The project is on ground, but just that it has major challenges because we did not have a holistic plan in place in starting the project, they did not plan the gas and evacuation supply. I can beat my chest that I am very clean on it.
The expenditure approval limit for two former governors of the state, Chief James Ibori and Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, was N50 million, but I understand that you have increased yours to N250 million and reduced that of your Commissioners from N2 million to N200, 000, can you justify the rational of this decision given the downturn in the economy?
In the course of my campaign, I promised to be real, I promised to speak the truth to Deltans, I promised not to deceive the people. I thank God for my predecessors who had approval limits of N50 million. If for instance, N50 million was the limit in 1999, I believe, as at then, N50 million was able to construct a one kilometer road or two.
Today, N50 million cannot construct even half a kilometer of road. I do not want to talk about what my predecessors did, but it is good that when you are doing something, you do it right. I also know that as a former SSG and Commissioner; the governor could give approval of N1 billion or more and go for ratification by the State Executive Council. In the real sense of it, a governor does not have a limit, that is the truth, and my commissioners know that, in these trying times, we need to have a realistic approval limit for government. In addition, going forward, we need to work on that limit. I did not raise it; we went to the Executive Council and discussed it.
If as a governor, I cannot approve a one-kilometer road for construction and would have to wait for the executive council, then something is wrong. The approval limit at the ministerial level is close to N1 billion. So if the executive council thinks the approval limit for the governor could be raised to N250 million, at least if there is emergency, I can approve and get things going, there is nothing wrong with that. But for every project above N250 million, you are not going to see me give an approval and ask for exco ratification.
About commissioners having a limit of N2 million in the past, that is not true. They do not have approval limit. This is because we are trying to manage funds, the times are critical. I do not want any surprises, not because I do not trust my commissioners, but I need to restrict approval so that approvals are in line with what we can fund and in line with our plans.
Are you in support of the full deregulation of the downstream sector by the federal government?
What we have is some form of deregulation and not total deregulation; you see that they are still talking about price modulation. The fact is that you find that the refineries in this country have been in a state of comatose. They are refineries built several years ago, they do not appear to work in full cycle, and the private sector has not really come in. Why has the private sector not come in all these years? It is because we are fix prices. As long as you have a price limit and you do not allow market forces to control the price of fuel, it is going to be very difficult to come in to invest. And the people are in pains. So, what do we do? Do we allow Nigerians to continue to suffer by having the price of fuel go up?
The answer is ‘no’. So, the situation in which we find ourselves must have necessitated this. I had the opportunity where the Minister of State for Petroleum and GMD of NNPC. So, briefed governors along with labour unions and other top government top functionaries. The government was very clear; we are importing fuel; our refineries are not working at full capacity. Even if the refineries are working at full capacity, they cannot provide all the fuel needs of this nation. Therefore, obviously, independent marketers and international oil companies, IOCs, would have to provide a part of it.
As at today, the federal government is supposed to be providing 55 per cent, IOCs and independent marketers collectively 45 per cent, but in the last few months, the IOCs and independent marketers have failed to provide any fuel for this country because of inability to get foreign exchange. We got to a level where even the federal government cannot provide foreign exchange to purchase fuel from overseas, in fact, government found itself in a web, what does it do? What resulted were the very long queues that we did have.
On the issue of full deregulation, I think there is the need for us as a nation to discuss and have a stakeholders’ meeting, where government carries labour and others along. Because if we have full-scale deregulation, the likelihood is that many more refineries, private sector driven refineries will come in and then the issue of competition will begin to drive the price down. This is not something that can come up within 12 months because to start a refinery and bring it to a functional state, obviously, it is going to take some time. Even for the modular refineries, we will be talking of 18 months, for the bigger refineries, we will be talking of 36 months for them to come in. I guess this is why the federal government is taking the step they are taking.
I believe that the situation that we have in the telecommunication sector today will apply, we are confident that we have proper communication across the globe. Initially, the prices were high but eventually they came down, I believe too that market forces will drive down fuel prices, but many factors that are involved in that.
Edo State governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, said, recently, that if he was to contest election in Delta State, he would defeat you. What is your take?
Edo State governor, I wish he would have the opportunity to contest with me, but the opportunity will not come because he cannot become a Deltan, neither will I change my state of origin to Edo. So, I will not be in Edo to compete with him, neither can he also compete in Delta. I believe too that he is already doing his second tenure, so constitutionally he will not even have the opportunity to run to Delta to contest. He remains my brother. I do not know what led him to make that comment, but, as far as I know, there was no reason at all for that statement that he made.