By Jackson Ekwugum
Conventional wisdom teaches us that it is better to under promise and over deliver, rather than over promise and under deliver, especially in the world of business and politics. With the former, you earn the reputation of a promise keeper, which leads to higher credibility ratings. On the contrary, to over promise and under deliver is to court disrespect, distrust, and disrepute.
Mounting the saddle as the fourth civilian governor of Delta State on May 29, 2015, in an economic environment of anxiety and uncertainty occasioned by the slump in the global price of oil and a massive debt overhang of over N600b from his predecessor in office, it seemed for a moment that Senator Dr Ifeanyi Okowa may have fallen into the latter category with his prosperity for all Deltans mantra. There were whispers that he needed to quickly walk back on some of his electoral promises and cleverly lower the expectations of the people. It was the politically expedient thing to do, and the average politician sees such double speak as part of the game of politics.
But Dr Okowa is not your average politician. And politics for him is not a game, as treacherous and tempestuous as it may be. For him, politics is the serious business of winning the mandate of the people through an electoral contest with the sole purpose of meeting their needs and expectations. His political philosophy is driven by conviction, not convenience, commitment, not compromise. Unfazed and unbowed by the doomsday predictions, Okowa pressed ahead with his S.M.A.R.T agenda with the patience, dedication, and compassion of a family physician. Not even the economic recession would stop him from keeping faith with the electorate.
That is the essential Okowa. Unassuming, yet unafraid, unpretentious, yet unflinching, and humble, yet tough. His next moves were swift and decisive. To eliminate the deficit and restore the health of our public finances, he embarked on cost cutting measures to cut waste and plug leakages and insisted that expenditure must be within revenue limits. In his inaugural budget speech, he painstakingly outlined the fiscal policy direction of his administration. “The (2016) budget,” he told the House of Assembly, “is admittedly tight but it is consistent with our vision for maintaining strict fiscal discipline. The health of our public finances is crucial to good governance, inspiring hope and confidence, attracting investors and ensuring the sustainable development of our economy as a whole. Therefore, we will continue to observe the basic principles of prudent management of public finances, strict adherence to due process and keep expenditure within revenue limits, because every expenditure will be paid for.”
It was no longer business as usual. And it would have been foolhardy not to expect resentment of this new policy direction, especially from those who were feeding fat from the old order. There were grumblings here and there but, being a man of steely resolve, Okowa stayed the course. His Delta State Medium Term Development Plan (2016-2019) outlined the blueprint for revitalising the economy, ensuring strict fiscal discipline, creating wealth and employment, fostering self-reliance, and building a knowledge-based economy. More significantly, the Plan prioritized programmes, and the funding of on-going projects/programmes based strictly on their socio-economic value.
In seven years, the state has reaped quantum benefits from Governor Okowa’s prudential guidelines. Through the various streams of skills training and entrepreneurship development programmes, a radical departure from the previous practice of one-off cash empowerment, the administration is unlocking – and unleashing – youth entrepreneurship. So far, his administration has trained and resourced almost 150, 000 persons to start their own businesses. The impact of these programmes is already being felt with hundreds of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) dotting the business landscape in the State, leading to wealth creation and improved living standards for our people.
Very importantly, youths in the state are no longer fixated on civil service or oil industry jobs. Instead, they are now looking beyond their academic certificates for employment and livelihoods, as owners and managers of skills-based enterprises. As evidence of the economic impacts of Okowa’s entrepreneurship development programmes, statistics from the economic data of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show that there was accelerated growth of the services sector in Delta State. It jumped from the average annual rate of 8.9% (2013-2015) to annual average rate of 13.2% (2015-2017). In the same vein, the agricultural sector interventions such as the Production and Processing Support Programme (PPSP) resulted in agricultural growth from annual average of 8.6% (2013-2015) to annual average of 13.3% (2015-2017). Judging by the trend, Delta is on its way to becoming the hub for MSMEs in the country.
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Also, Delta was ranked the Best State in Human Capital Development in the 2017 states peer review by the National Competitiveness Council of Nigeria. In 2020, Delta was adjudged to be the Second Least Poor State, coming only after Lagos, Nigeria’s business capital, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS). This achievement is better appreciated when juxtaposed with the fact that Delta State was the 12th poorest state in Nigeria as at 2010 in the NBS ranking.
In the infrastructure space, Governor Okowa has surpassed expectations earning him the nickname, Roadmaster. With over 1800km of roads and 977.84km of drains, our urban centres and rural communities are experiencing growth and renewal. The many road projects in the riverine areas underscores his commitment to road infrastructure of the most vital interest and consequence. What makes these projects unique is the difficult terrain in which they are located. For instance, the 20.28km Obotobo 1- Obotobo 11 – Sokebolou – Yokri Road is located right beside the Atlantic Ocean. Depending on the number and sizes of hydraulic structures, the terrain, the nature of underlying materials, as well as the peculiar challenge of accessibility to men and materials, it could cost seven times more to construct a kilometre of road in riverine areas than it is in the upland areas.
Governor Okowa is blazing the trail in the health sector. Delta is the first state to commence universal health coverage with the establishment of the Delta State Contributory Health Commission in February 2016. There are currently over one million enrollees under the scheme, the highest in the country, while 510 healthcare facilities are accredited to provide service. The administration is advancing technical and vocational education in line with the new policy emphasis on skills acquisition. In furtherance of this goal, the existing six technical colleges in the State were rehabilitated and equipped with state-of-the-art equipment while nine new ones are currently at different stages of completion. The goal is to equip the youth with the knowledge and skills to function as job and wealth creators, in addition to possessing employability skills.
In the tertiary education sector, three existing institutions were upgraded to universities in 2021, to broaden access to university education for our bright students, who, due to limited space, are unable to gain admission into the existing federal and state public universities, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering, law, ICT, and architecture. The new universities are the University of Delta (former College of Education), Agbor, Delta State University of Science and Technology (former Delta State Polytechnic), Ozoro, and Dennis Osadebey University (former Anwai Campus of Delta State University), Anwai, Asaba. The new universities have since commenced academic sessions.
Among the flagship projects of Governor Okowa are the Prof. Chike Edozien Secretariat, Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba Film Village and Leisure Park, Asaba Storm Water Drainage, and Warri Storm Water Drainage. Meanwhile, Asaba has shed off its rustic look and is now looking every inch a capital city; in fact, it is currently one of the fastest growing cities in the country, thanks to the Delta State Capital Territory Development Agency, which Governor Okowa set up within one week of assuming office in 2015.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Governor Okowa remains a sign and a wonder to many. They wonder how he has been able to achieve so much during the most challenging seven years in our recent history. That Okowa continues to cross new frontiers in governance and service delivery despite the massive disruptions caused by two economic recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to his visionary leadership, administrative acumen, and seamless execution. Leadership experts tell us that five elements must be present for an organisation or government to succeed. They are strategy, structure, systems, skills, and culture. If they need empirical evidence of this theory, they need not look any further; Governor Okowa is the perfect case study, the symbol of a Masterclass in leadership and governance.
*Ekwugum, Communication Manager to Governor Okowa, writes from Asaba