In this Interview with journalists in Kano on the sidelines of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s visit to receive Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau back to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Vice presidential candidate of the party and Governor of Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, spoke about national issues, party politics and the chances of the party as well as the economy. MUHAMMAD KABIR reports
How would react to the claim that by your emergence as the Vice Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) you have betrayed the trust of the South?
In the first instance, my emergence is an act of God and I want to give God the glory. Secondly whatever debates, whatever issues, whatever comments people have made, to us it is politics. If you’re a politician you will understand definitely that politics has to be played.
All that went on was just politics. I do not believe that anyone of them would say that I was not qualified to be Vice President, because if you go on that trajectory, I think by God’s grace I have a very rich track record in governance. Having left medical school and worked with the government for some time, I went into private practice.
After that, I found myself in politics in 1991, where I started from a very lowly place not because it could pay my bills but I just wanted to be in politics. In 1991 I was a secretary in the local government council. I contested and was elected as the Local government council chairman.
The first elected local government council chairman in my local government Ika North-East all in 1991. Thereafter, working with the PDP, I got appointed into various offices as Commissioner in three different ministries, spanning nearly eight years. I did make an attempt to run for the governorship position in 2007. I came out second in the primaries. I eventually became the Secretary to the State Government in 2007.
By 2010 I resigned to go and run for the Senate. I won elections landslide to represent my zone from 2011 to 2015. And the famous National Herd Act was actually read and passed by the Committee I actually chaired. Then thereafter I ran for the governorship of Delta State.
They didn’t give me much of a chance because the governor then didn’t support me. By God’s grace I won the elections in the primaries with a landslide. I have been governor for the first and the second term.
We achieved a lot. So nobody has gone through the trajectory that he is not qualified because they know that I’m qualified and wherever I have found myself, God has used me to make a mark, even as we have made mark in Delta State. There is no doubt as to that. If you talk about peace building, Delta State is one of the most peaceful states even as a multi ethnic state.
And because of the peace, when I came in in we were the forth in oil production. But within three years we have risen to number one in oil production. That is mainly because we had a lot of engagements at different levels and we also took development to the creeks, because that was not usual in the past. We took development straight into the creeks and we encouraged the people because they saw hope as they have development in the creeks.
So I’m talking about the creeks is deep down the waters, in places that would ordinarily be slump areas. But we brought life to those communities as these are things other people considered they should not do. Because it takes a lot of money to truly develop the creeks and that has helped us a lot. In the education sector, today we have four universities running.
Even when ASUU is on strike the four universities are in session because we met with all the sands they have requested for. And it is good enough for us. Because we had just one institution in the beginning, the Delta State University and we found that a lot of our children could not get space in the university.
We did a study and we found out that in 2019 about 22,480 Deltans were qualified but only about 4800 got admission. That means there was a lot of gap and we needed to bridge the gap. We have several other institutions. Many people will rush on to build new universities because they want to take them to their villages and we had to grade the existing institutions.
Today we are proud that we have three other universities from the existing one. I know we are doing well in the education sector. In the health sector, we have set the pace beyond the normal services that we offer. We set the pace when it comes to health insurance for the poor and health insurance generally for the people, but particularly to the vulnerable.
Because we want to find ways to truly touch the hearts of the people. We have done all that and the people are happy for it. In terms of infrastructural development I believe we’ve done very well in the state. There is a lot that has been really done. The people of Delta will continue to partner with us as stakeholders. So there is a lot that we have done.
Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) has been taunted by many as the person that will have a clean sweep of Southern votes where the PDP expect that should be your strength, how will you react to this?
This other issue that you have raised, it is unfortunate what we see in Nigeria politics today. Because there are so many conversations out there, people are truly not looking at the reality that we have in this country. Unfortunately many politicians will tend to just speak few things because they want to play politics with the people. I try not to play much of politics. I try to discuss issues and within the context of the realities on ground. You can see what is going on today, the Muslim-Muslim ticket.
A lot of talk is going on about that. But does it really matter? I will try not to discuss it so much. But he question is, in a fractured country, where we have voices of descent, people don’t seem to trust each other anymore, in a country which the average man in the South-East is speaking in a different direction, a man from the north is speaking in a different direction, the person from South-West has a voice of his own.
When you put all these together you will see that something is going wrong, we don’t need a soothsayer to tell us that something is going wrong with the nation Nigeria. There are so many voices of anger expressed in several ways. And we are beginning to have a discussion of the foundation and a fracture of the foundation that holds this country together.
So when you see such a thing we should be frightened for Nigeria and if you want to play politics you need to be a little bit more cautious. But unfortunately many politicians want to go along that path. The level of insecurity is so high. Because of the insecurity, many of our farmers can’t even go to farm. People are scared; they can’t even travel by road.
Even the very poor are looking for a way to fly, which eats deep into the economy, eats deep into the little that they have. So there are few challenges that we have. The educational system is what it is today.
So in the midst of these so many challenges that is already overwhelming the APC government, what should be the way out?
We need to think. But unfortunately we are talking about so many sentimental issues and are not looking into the realities on ground. So ideally I wouldn’t want to talk about the Muslim-Muslim ticket but, to some extent. In a country that you have a shaky foundation, where people are getting too sensitive to issues because of the high level of failure of trust, let me put it in that way. If you go for a Muslim-Muslim ticket, that trust deficit becomes widened.
So there is an issue. But if we have good governance and everything is moving smoothly, people wouldn’t think in that direction, they will be looking at who would perform.
Then you begin to look at what is going on now, people will see these factors as if he is trying to go through the Church and to make it look like driving the Christians into politics. I do not believe that the Church should actively go into politics because is not their calling.
But people are just hanging unto anything they want to reach because they want vote even at the detriment of their faith. I don’t believe that is the right path to go. In is a distorted situation as we have in this country, who best fits the position of President? It is somebody who has the capacity the experience.
The level of calmness, the wisdom and the reach out across Nigeria that will be able to put a team on the table, gather a team together, put people on the table talk to each other. And then from day one he is able to start professing solutions and then getting the people to be able to move this nation again. What should be of importance to us is starting to move this nation again, starting to rebuild the foundation.
Many of them who are talking today can’t fill into it. Because you could have some level of experience when you are put into a situation where you have a lot of challenge you get confused if you don’t have the relevant experience. I have to speak once to people who attack me. I didn’t say people don’t have experience, but they don’t have enough experience to deal with the Nigeria of today.
The Nigeria of today requires somebody who has a wide level of experience and who has that capacity and that personal dominion to be able to handle issues in such a way that we can truly say yes we can trust this one to take us on this path. I see only Atiku Abubakar amongst all of them.
In 1999 they came into power, we had issues though the issues appear to be worse now. There was no doubt we had insecurity, we had a very poor economy as at then. Things appeared to be going worse than they are as at then.
But the question we have, and that experience is very relevant and is going to help. The contrast made at that time is relevant and is going to help. But the greatest thing that goes with him is that he is one person that is known and can reach out to people across the 36 states of this nation. I believe he is one man that has that calmness we need it to be able to put people together, to be able to accommodate other people’s views to be inclusive in governance. You’re not going to look for a dictator.
Some of them who may not be dictators, the question is that they will be consumed in that office because of the circumstances of the time. So, when you talk about people like Peter Obi, yes he has some relevant experience but how big is that experience?
I keep on saying, I said it before and I will keep on saying it again. I don’t want to criticise him; he was governor for eight years. Let’s try to under study everything about him within those eight years. I try not to talk about it, so I will leave it at that. So in the South-East, he definitely will be an issue for us because of the sentiments that come in.
But I know that the PDP has a very strong root in the South-East and I know that the contest in the South-East is going to be between the PDP and the Labour Party. Obviously, we wish that he is not on the way, but since he is there is going to be a real contest between the two parties in the southeast, not the APC but the PDP and the Labour Party.
The APC leadership has a sort of power sharing plan that the running mate will handle issues of security while the President will handle the economy. Do you have a similar plan in place?
I believe that the presidency is a team and that teams we will complement each other. The President is the boss and the Vice President assists him to do his job. For two of us is a team in government.
Because he is going to have to appoint several people, ministers, special advisers, special assistants and even reaching out to other people who may not be in government to make their contributions to government especially articularly because of the situation we find ourselves.
The organized private sector is important, the traditional institution is important, if you want to get it right. The religious leaders, both Muslim leaders and Christian leaders are important. There is extensive consulta tion and that’s what we want to do. That’s why I talked about an inclusive governance and I know that where it is headed to. He is somebody who actually wants to listen to people and he is a person who wants to learn even when he has a whole wealth of experience.
That is the path we are going. But being specific the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I don’t want to talk about their policies. If the Vice President will take charge of security, is he now going to preside over the Security Council at the federal level, I don’t understand that.
Because there is a Commander-in-Chief, is there a reversal of position? I find it absurd that he speaks that he will take charge of this. Possibly they have agreed that he is going to be the Commander-in- Chief I do not know, I am not in their party. In wouldn’t wish to talk about that. The issue of the economy is actually a team work.
There is no President and Vice President that takes charge of economy. The President will provide leadership supported by the Vice President. But there is a team, the economic team will be right on ground to deal with issues and even beyond the economic team, we know the importance of the organised private sector in moving this nation forward. We will leverage on that with the President providing leadership.
That is where we stand, that is what is right for this nation and that is what Atiku Abubakar will do.
What plan do you have for the health sector to stop brain drain and provide sufficient health services? What solution do you have to the current industrial action by ASUU?
First about the health sector, there is a gradual loss of confidence considering the health personnel, is not just doctors, unfortunately the nurses are moving in now as a major problem. Is the creation of the multiplicity of factors that is leading to that.
Within the healthcare institutions that we have, job satisfaction is important. People do not usually feel satisfied with what they have with the work. The welfare of the worker is important.
We have had these reviews of salaries, but unfortunately the naira has continued to depreciate. It has slated some levels now that the amount of money that you receive now appears to be much less than what it ought to be because the buying power is grossly reduced. So when people have offers and they know they can earn Dollars or Pounds or Euros and they try to do their calculations and they find a quantum of Naira that they are going to have in their savings from where they are going to, you find out that the tendency is for them to wish to go for the greener pastures.
Secondly, in some instances we are not able to provide the needed equipment to put to work. So the issue of job satisfaction is also there. But I think that the driving force is caused by the devalued Naira has which makes their earning power much less than what it ought to be and are being driven by greener pastures.
So, that’s an issue. It is going to be a question of reworking the economy which is going to take some time. It is not something that is going to be done overnight or within six months. It is in such a manner that we begin to see consultaan improvement in the value of the Naira and then also we begin to find ways partnering with the stage governments realising that we cannot do it alone and then keeping everybody on the table focused on the Nigerian nation so that we are in a process where we are truly able to begin to improve on the health sector as well as the other sectors also.
When we are able to do that, and then the value of the Naira becomes improved, with time we begin to find the reversal of what is going on, but it is going to take some years. Secondly, we can also look at the opportunity that that presents.
So if many of these countries are not able to have enough personnel and they have to source for personnel from Nigeria, probably because many of their own young ones are not studying medicine, they are studying other courses which are found in all places, they are not taking on to nursing courses, they now begin to stretch out their hands to get people from Nigeria and some other African countries. It is possible and it is contained in the Atiku’s document titled, ‘My Covenant with Nigeria’.
We can deliberately as a government have a programme to train persons not only for our country but to also have a programme to train persons that we can have a structural relationship with some of these nations, to also export some of those who we have trained and earned money, and we can have a working arrangement in such a manner that it is even possible. In time Nigeria provided employment for our people that there would be other levels of gain that we can have from the structural relationship between us and such countries.
It is possible to do that and it is something that we plan in our program to so do. Because we have lots of institutions that can train many more doctors and nurses and these are in high demand.
So with a proper planning we can produce enough doctors and nurses for the country and also have those that we can through a bilateral relationship send out to their countries. So, that is something doable and I think it can be done. But as I did say, the first thing will be, improved institutions, provide immediate equipment and take some economic decisions that will improve the value of the Naira so that we don’t have that exodus as a result of the weakened Naira. That’s important.
How are you going to retain the national posture of the PDP with politicians in the regions, like Peter Obi in South-East, Bola Tinubu in South-West and Musa Kwankwaso in the North-West pulling crowds?
Well, first when a party has stayed for 16 years, you find that what happen is that a lot of people want to try something new and then because its politics, a lot of disagreement between them get into the party, and that was where we found ourselves in 2019 because of several issues and then we lost elections, because Nigerians wanted change.
Because if you still look back in the last one year to that 2015 election even last few months, you find that all manner of things pressures, is like people just wanted a change. We don’t look at the depth of issues. It is important that Nigerians begin to look at the depth of issues and now seven years down the line hitting the eighth year, I’m sure that nobody anticipated that Nigeria will be where we are today. That is the real issue.
Then that has not stopped the PDP from being a national party. We have remained a party relevant, very relevant in every state of Nigeria. Yes the APC, people have indicated themselves and now and we know that there are a whole lot of issues going on all over the place.
But I believe that we are bouncing back. We saw it in Osun State. Lots of things are going on in Ogun State. If you go to Ondo State, you can find this too in the PDP. So the issue is that even in the South-West where the APC camp is formed, you can see the PDP springing up with great strength. If you come to the North where we actually lost a lot of grounds you can see a lot of strength is being built in. In Katsina State just, a few days ago we saw massive defections to the PDP.
Just yesterday (Thursday) we received the Kano State former governor Senator Ibrahim Shekarau who even decided to abandon his senatorial ticket. He was very definite and was likely going to win that ticket but he decided to abandon it. But the truth is there are some people who are thinking about Nigeria at the moment and if we are on the path of resting we must identify a vehicle that will take you on that path, and PDP is the only vehicle that can truly take us on that path.
So you will find that we continue to build strength across everywhere in the nation and there is no geopolitical zone where we don’t have strength, and there is no geopolitical zone where we are not going to compete favorably. Some other parties may compete and may just be holding on to clusters or states. But PDP is going to compete in every state and compete reasonably well.
So that national lead is there and people have come to realise that they have made a mistake and would not need to go back on that path. Today we are going on the path of campaign talking about Nigeria, talking about our unity, talking about the need for us to realise that our greater strength is in our oneness and together we can take ourselves out of where we are into a much better place, recreating hope together.
We are the only party going with that mindset. I believe we are doing well in our approach to the issues that are on ground and we are reasonably prepared to start off from day one. But realising that it is a very difficult task, I will call on Nigerians to be patient with us, but slowly and steadily we would get ourselves out of where we are working with every stakeholder in Nigeria to be able to work much faster and doing well and we will stay focused.
What is the relationship between you and Governor Nyesom Wike?
As I said at the beginning, my emergence and the cries about it is all but politics and competition. A lot of people will be qualified and as I did say in my interview with AriseTV and Channels, so many of us are eminently qualified that I happen to be chosen and I think is God’s grace. I’ve spoken about that.
Secondly in the South-South, I’m in touch with all my colleagues as a party and as a family. We are all talking with Governor Wike and the process is being led by our presidential candidate because he is the leader and we believe that it is the best option. I think that sooner than later we will be able to have the issues resolved. Because I don’t think the issues are much.
The issues wouldn’t be about the vice presidential position at the moment because that is already a settled matter. I believe that there are few other questions that need to be answered. It is a normal process and part of politics. There are reassurances that will need to be made, I believe that is on the table is being discussed.
If in a political party everything just goes on smoothly, then that can’t be a proper political party. In a large family, you definitely have issues when you are trying to divide these things because there are so many people who are interested. I’m sure that there are some political parties even some of those that you mentioned now, they are busy setting out or dangling their vice presidential ticket.
They didn’t find any credible person to pick. It took a lot of time for them to make that decision. Then in the PDP, because we have a lot of qualified persons, that’s why it caused a kind of initial discourse that we had concerning the VPship. But I think that we are working hard to tackle it and we are also moving ahead to try to meet as many persons as possible back into our fold. We are beginning to see such gains and many more.
It will be seen in the course of a few months that the presidential candidate we are aware has met with Governor Wike in Abuja, and recently they met overseas, not only with him but with three other of our colleagues. So I believe we are working on that and things resettled. What will Atiku/Okowa government do to stem oil theft in the country?
The issue of the oil theft is something that we need to all worry about because we have gotten to a situation where we are not even able to meet with our quota. At some point in time we were producing more than what was allocated to us, but now we are not able to meet that quota.
So there is cause to worry. It is like what is going on of kidnapping, people beginning to see that that level of criminality be used as a means of empowering themselves, they begin to see it as a job. It ought not to be so and is really very bad. What started in small ways has continued to grow in terms of the illegal refining that we have in the Niger Delta and is beginning to upscale. We are aware too that it is not only the locals, a lot of people are now beginning to put their hands into it.
I believe that we need to ensure that the communities work closely with the NNPC ltd and their subsidiaries and the other companies that are there working very closely with the security agencies. But the communities must have a lot of stake and a lot of involvement for us to be able to move forward.
Because most of the people who do it are from the communities and even those coming in from outside with funds to get engaged in this will still have to use some people within the communities. There has to be sincerity on the part of the security agencies who work in those areas, particularly within the creeks.
We need to get these communities involved in surveillance processes and I think that is hardly being done at the moment. I hope that we will get it fully right. This is because the Chief of Defense Staff and the GMD of the NNPC Ltd recently had a tour and they met with the governors. I think that we can start this process to get it right.
But I also believe that there is shortage of product and that has continued to encourage what is going on, particularly when you talk about diesel and the rest. So they are issues that have to be addressed. If in this country today they are refining enough products and the pricing is good and the products are everywhere and there is no scarcity, you will find that the level of illegal refining will reduce.
But when there is scarcity it creates the problem by itself and if you give more room, the potent to develop themselves they become more sophisticated and it becomes really dangerous.
Just as we have it even in whatever is going on with kidnapping, the more money they make they buy more guns, they become more dangerous more sophisticated and the issues are there. So as a government we are going to take the communities as stakeholders, appeal to their conscience appease them to realise the danger of what they are doing to their environment and to their unborn children.
Then we must take them up and ensure that they are actively involved in the surveillance issues. But very importantly is to ensure that the Petroleum Industry Act is fully implemented such that the community development funds begin to get to the communities.
Because in that fund that is supposed to reach out to the communities which is three per cent we feel that the minimum should have been five per cent. There are reasons for that. It is structured in such a manner that if there is any pipeline that is destroyed or tapped in within your locality, the repairs of such pipelines, whatever is lost will be deducted from the money deal.
So the communities will now realise that they have a stake and it will be for them to try to protect the pipelines. This is something we would have started long ago but unfortunately the PIB now PIA just kept on dragging on because people don’t want to consider Nigeria first.
Unfortunately most times when issues are on ground we do not want to consider the nation first before ourselves. But we thank God that it has passed but for us to implement it and to implement it in full. If I know that any loss is going to affect what comes to my community both in terms of cash and in terms of development, I’ll pay special attention to stop that and I believe that most communities will do that.
So that’s getting the community buy in into implementing the Act in full but also giving marching orders to the security agencies, and when we find that there are people, no matter how highly placed they are, involved in oil theft and illegal bunkering they must be brought to book. There must be sincerity in this approach.
When you have the combination of all these it will help. Then we must also take development to the people because sometimes some of them have this believe ‘oh with all this thing in our backyard, our villages, our communities are not in good shape’ so they don’t feel committed to the nation Nigeria any more, but the more we develop the communities and they begin to see something. Their children will be enabled and will get better education, and job placements or find themselves in situations where they will be able to help themselves because they are educated.
The more you begin to embrace the communities the more likely people are going to embrace you. But all these people should not be left to feel like they are given orders they should be made to feel that you care about them. Is just that unfortunately in the last few years too many things have gone so bad, to revers them now is going to take a lot of work.
But definitely we have to go on the process of reversing the whole thing. Is all part of the challenge that we face, is all part of the challenge that I feel will be too much to other people who do not have this required experience to deal with it. They are just looking at Nigeria as if it is simple, there are plenty of issues they can’t handle.