By Mohammed Danbatta
AS the dust begins to settle on the Arise TV Presidential town hall meeting, political observers and Nigerians who followed the programme dispassionately have been unanimous in awarding Governor Ifeanyi Okowa the highest mark.
The received opinion is that Okowa who is the vice presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, standing in for Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential candidate, showed superior intelligence, leadership composure and demonstrated a far more pragmatic approach to solving the many problems of insecurity, economic downturn, disunity, and others confronting the nation.
The town hall meeting was organised in concert with the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, and it turned out to be the first major encounter between the major contenders in the 2023 presidential election and the public. The candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was absent and did not have any representation. This did not sit well with many Nigerians, who voiced their concern that Tinubu has made himself too evasive in a manner unbecoming of a man who wants to lead the nation in the 21st century.
Early dissent from the audience, including from one or two presidential candidates present in the hall, to the effect that Okowa representing Atiku was an anomaly, was smartly doused by Okowa himself. He did not fret. He showed composure while making his explanation. He said he read the invitation letter to Atiku who was overseas for another important engagement.
Furthermore, he claimed that there was no mention of a vice presidential candidate standing in for the presidential candidate in the letter. Besides, he took further steps by calling the organisers on the possibility that Atiku may not be back in the country at the time the programme was scheduled to kick off.
On this, he got the approval of the organisers to stand in for his boss. He stated that the presidency is one and that the vice president must and should be as fit and capable as the president because, according to the constitution, the president may need to transmit power to the vice president at some point in time, thus the overriding need for the vice presidential candidate to be such a person who can competently stand in for the presidential candidate. He made the point very clear: Neither Atiku nor himself breached any law or rule as it was not specified in the invitation letter that only the presidential candidate should be present at the meeting. His explanation thawed the tension inside the hall.
But this ought not to even be an issue. Atiku talks, speaks and has been engaging various focus groups, meeting with the media for interviews, both local and foreign. He would have been physically present if it hadn’t been for his earlier scheduled overseas engagement. Back to Okowa’s performance.
The PDP vice presidential candidate showed a better grasp of how to turn around the national economy using the model he created in Delta as governor. He emphasised capacity building and skill acquisition not just for the youth but also for the women. He said training of the youths and women must have two critical components: training of the mind and training of the hands. Furthermore, he showed a link between an untrained, booming population and insecurity.
When the mind is trained and liberated, it will help check population explosion, and this will directly address the challenge of out-of-school children, parents having children they cannot take care of. He argued that a liberated mind and a skilled hand that are well-equipped cannot be easily recruited into gangsterism. He was not merely grandstanding. He was not just being politically flippant to score cheap points or to impress.
He showed that what he was proposing for Nigeria as a whole was something he had accomplished in Delta State. Okowa’s Delta, one of the top three oil-bearing states, was once a theatre of agitations and upheavals that forced oil companies in the creeks to stop production with frequent declarations of force majeure. Militancy was high as the youths in the oil-bearing communities raged against oil companies for the despoliation of their environment and leaving them in poverty and their communities undeveloped. But Okowa quenched the fire of agitation and the sweltering rage of militancy.
The formula, according to him, was simple. He brought development to the people in the creeks, actively engaged the youths with skills and resources, and brought entrepreneurship and infrastructure to them in a manner they never imagined. To his credit, many of the communities where militancy was rife now have roads and bridges linking them for effective movement of goods, services, and personnel.
They have schools, skill acquisition centres, healthcare facilities, and other infrastructure that gives them a sense of belonging. He argued that with the right approach to development, issues of poverty, out-of-school children, food insecurity, and national disunity, among others, would be addressed. He punctured the idea always bandied about by one of the candidates that saving money was one of his achievements while in office as governor.
Okowa’s counterpoint to this was that you do not emphasise saving money over development. Atiku’s brand of leadership, he affirms, is such that he will use the money to build infrastructure, including education, transport, and health infrastructure, that would engender the creation of jobs and wealth, rather than keeping the money in the bank, where it will suffer depreciation.
Why save money in the bank when you don’t have potable water, steady electricity, good roads, growing youth unemployment, growing army of children out of school, efficient healthcare system and functional education sector, he wondered. To further situate why the PDP and Atiku should be trusted to deliver the country from the mess created by the ruling APC, he reminded Nigerians how the PDP inherited from the military a broken nation with a humongous debt profile, decrepit infrastructure, a massively depleted external reserve, and a pariah nation where no foreign investor was willing to invest.
He recalled how the Obasanjo-Atiku Presidency turned things around: Got Nigeria out of debt overhang, rejigged the nation’s infrastructure, revamped healthcare and education, attracted foreign direct investments, and moved Nigeria’s economy to the topmost floor on the continent. He referenced a telecom revolution wrought by the Atiku Abubakar-led National Economic Council, a revolution that did not only create direct and indirect jobs, but also became a major public relations tool for Nigeria in the global arena. Okowa presented a more feasible and pragmatic approach to tackling insecurity.
He listed the challenges as including a shortage of manpower, under-equipment of manpower, and the influx of illegal firearms into the country. For an effective solution, he prescribes the deployment of modern communication technology for both surveillance and intelligence gathering and sharing, the recruitment of more personnel into the various security agencies, the training and adequate resourcing of “men on the boot” (persons on the frontline), the acquisition of modern weapons, effective liaison with the international community, especially contiguous nations to Nigeria, and closer monitoring of our borders.
“Over all, Okowa represented Atiku and his party very well. His superlative performance could easily be measured by his comportment in the face of needless provocation, his clear roadmaps on development, and the clarity of his logical answers to questions on the economy, security, and other issues.Without any doubt, Okowa takes the trophy in the first major interaction with the candidates. He was brutally honest and practical, and did not seek to impress or play to the gallery. A true hallmark of a good leader.
* Danbatta, a social commentator, wrote from Kano