By Julius Oweh
The chief aim of government remains the security and welfare of the citizens and this fact is brought home in a representative government where those in power draw their mandate from the electorate.
Governance is about policy formulation and implementation and one key critical office is the office of the secretary to the government, be it at the federal or state level.
Within the week, in line with the Okowa administration trademark of rendering stewardship to the people, a ministerial press briefing began on Monday, with the secretary to the state government, Honourable Festus Ovie Agas flagging off the event.
Agas is a trained journalist from the prestigious University of Lagos, and a lawyer to boot. He was once a legislator in the State House of Assembly and a polished politician. During the thicket of the governorship primaries of the PDP in the state, he stood behind Senator Ifeanyi Okowa and this uncommon loyalty was rewarded with the post of secretary to the state government.
The ministerial press briefing is packaged by the Ministry of Information under the captainship of Honourable Patrick Ukah, the Information Commissioner. Agas told the press that the fundamental policy thrust of the Delta State government was anchored on the legacy of wealth creation and Prosperity for all Deltans and is captured in the 5 points always known as SMART AGENDA. He said that his office was more of coordinating the administration and implementation of government policies and programmes.
The secretary to the state government explains the philosophical underpin of the office :‘Customarily, the office of the secretary to the state government plays the vital role of assisting, guiding and supervising the activities of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), as well as ensuring that policies and programmes of government are effectively implemented for the overall benefit of Deltans.
In playing the role as the engine room of the state government, my office has ensured that the vision of the administration of His Excellency, Senator Dr Ifeanyi Okowa as well as policies and programmes are not only clearly understood, but are also implemented as intended‘.
Agas rolled out the achievements of the government in peace building and security, wealth and job creation, technical and vocational education, Delta State contributory health scheme, regular and prompt payment of salaries, pensions, biometric verification of staff, widows‘ support scheme, provision of soft loans for market women, CBN anchor borrowers programme, infrastructure development, upgrade of Asaba airport, Town Hall meetings/grassroots and outreach programme.
A reading through the listed achievements of the Okowa administration is like a summary of the activities of all government ministries and departments, bringing to the fore that indeed and in truth, the office of the secretary to the state government is firing the engine of government activities and development.
On peace building and security, Agas said that various efforts were initiated by the government to achieve peace bearing in mind the time honoured saying that without peace, there cannot be any meaningful development. He mentioned the 41-member peace building and advisory council that has been modified to include settlement of disputes among communities. He speaks further on the council: ‘The work of the council has greatly strengthened the peace building activities of government.
Moreover, with respect of the widening conflict between herdsmen and farmers, His Excellency has constituted a security interventionist committee headed by the local government council chairmen, and which also includes traditional rulers, security agencies, presidents-general and other relevant stakeholders to engage the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeder Association and ensure that the attacks were prevented‘.
In the areas of wealth and job creation which is part of the ‘prosperity for all Deltans‘ catchphrase, Agas disclosed that many young Deltans‘ lives have been affected and these people were contributing to the growth and development of the state.
This is how the secretary to the government explains the impact of the programme: ‘ Despite the lean purse of the administration, it has redoubled efforts in engaging Deltans especially the youths in meaningful ventures through various skill acquisition programmes such as Youth Agricultural Entrepreneur Programme and Skills Training and Agricultural Programme. Through these schemes, over two thousand and five hundred hitherto unemployed youths have been transformed into owners of businesses and even, employers of labour.
The state government established a department of monitoring and mentoring under the Governor‘s office to properly monitor the implementation of these programmes and mentor the beneficiaries. The success of the schemes have attracted commendations and support of many national and international institutions, including the World Bank which became a co-sponsor for the third cycle of the programme‘.
According to Agas, his principal is a medical doctor and that informed the floating of the state contributory health scheme for workers. The purpose of this scheme is to improve the availability and access to quality healthcare services for all Deltans. He explains more of the benefit of the scheme: ‘This scheme is central to the administration`s vision of universal health coverage in the state. While most public officers have enrolled into the scheme, the informal and private sectors are being mobilized to enrol.
Annual premium is about seven thousand Naira only which may be paid installmentally. The state government is bearing the premium of pregnant women, children under 5 years and widows. Before the year runs out, physically and mentally challenged persons as well as the elderly above 65 years of age will be enrolled on a free-premium basis. Moreover, the 62 general hospitals, 107 primary health care centres, 10 private hospitals and the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba, have been accredited for the programme with due care taken to ensure fair distribution of the facilities across the state.`
The issue of pensions for senior citizens who spent their salad years in the service of the state was also touched by the secretary to the state government. He said that workers who retired under the old pension scheme are being paid up to date. He concurred that there were challenges in the payment of pensions for those who retired under the contributory pension scheme.
Agas, however, disclosed that the state government has been releasing N300 million monthly towards defraying the commitments to them while the re-computation of the actuarial value of their past services were done in line with the current salary scale. He opened on the challenges of paying pensions regularly :‘I will also like to observe that government has been regular in releasing its 10 per cent counterpart contribution towards the claims of serving workers which amounts to approximately N322 million monthly while also ensuring the release of the workers 7 1/2% contribution into their retirement savings accounts. To my knowledge, Delta and Lagos States are the only two states in the country to have achieved this level of commitment. In all states, the payment of the accrued claims from the old pension scheme into the new scheme has been a challenge because of the huge outlay of funds required……I therefore appeal to the retirees involved with this claim to bear with us as we work towards resolving the actuarial valuation shortly and thereafter, find a way forward towards defraying it. ‘
Another important aspect of the press briefing by Agas was government passion to help the plight of widows in the state. He maintained that this very important programme was dear to the heart of the governor and as part of prosperity for Deltans‘ project. He explained what the government has done to put smiles on the faces of the widows :‘By this programme, the state government has created a pool of twenty (20) per ward, evenly spread out throughout the two hundred and seventy (270) wards in the state bringing the total beneficiaries to five thousand and four hundred (5,400). Each of the beneficiaries receives a payout of five thousand Naira (N5,000) monthly to ameliorate their dire conditions‘.
After listening to the press address of the secretary to the state government, one begins to think aloud what the commissioners would say in their own stewardship. The press briefing aptly captured ‘the activities and achievements of Delta State government‘ was indeed a summary of Okowa administration achievements in three years. Maybe the commissioners would give detail implementation of government programmes and policies.
As it is customary press conference, reporters were given opportunities to take the SSG to task and as a professional journalist and a lawyer; the questions were answered to the satisfaction of journalists.
A reporter asked the SSG about the new secretariat building and that Agas was one of the contractors, and the rumour mill was agog about impending visit of EFCC to him. He defended himself: ‘ I am not a part of the new secretariat building.
I do not have the privilege of such petitions. I do not place premium on gossip. I am yet to get any invitation from EFCC. This government is anchored on openness, transparency and accountability. Ours is an open book and you can read it. Please do not cry for me about any EFCC arrest. We follow due process. ‘
Agas also clarified the position of the government about the closure of the Asaba airport for five weeks beginning from April 9th, 2018, saying that after the work, the Airport shall become Asaba International Airport. That the airport was undergoing a major upgrade especially, the resurfacing of its runway and the provision of some technical facilities such as the Voice Communication System(VCS), the Automatic Weather Observation System(AWOS) and Low Level Windshear Alert System (LLWAS).
On a lighter note, a reporter commended the State Information Commissioner for the new look of the conference hall of the Ministry and hoped that such dividends of democracy shall also impact on reporters. Both the Commissioner and the SGG quaked with laughter. At the end of the briefing, many reporters agreed that the SGG did justice to the matter at hand.