By Ray Umukoro
The #EndSARS protests by Nigerian youths may be over but the impact lingers. In Delta State, the impact resonates in the streets, in homes and everywhere. But much more, it rings through the hallway of Government House and Governor Ifeanyi Okowa has taken note. Okowa listens, always.
By the way, Okowa is one of the most youth-friendly governors in Nigeria. His cabinet is a rich mix of the old, the middle-aged and the youth. Before the #EndSARS protests and attendant repercussions some of which are not worthy of recounting here, Okowa has demonstrated abiding faith in the youth. For a man who qualified as a medical doctor at a very tender age of 22 in 1981 from the University of Ibadan, he understands that the burden of leadership is never too heavy on the shoulder of a prepared youth. He understands that the youth, if given the right training and opportunity, can turn the fortunes of the nation around for the better. He has demonstrated implicit confidence in the youth of Delta State, entrusting them with responsibilities far beyond what their colleagues in other parts of the country can ever boast of.
Recently at a Town Hall meeting with representatives of #EndSARS protesters, civil society organisations, students, social groups, community youth leaders and other stakeholders in Delta North Senatorial District, the governor left no one in doubt as to the focus of his government: He is for the youth. It bears restating that Okowa is the first governor to begin direct engagement with the youth after the #EndSARS protests via Town Hall meetings.
He has shown that he is all out for development. He stands and works for a better, stronger Delta. He tells the youth he wants to bring development closer to the people. Okowa fancies a bottom-up kind of development. A situation where every part of the state no matter how remote or rural will feel the impact of his government. That’s Okowa’s approach to governance; making all the people count, all the time. But much more, making those at the bottom of the rung count as much as those on the cliff of life.
This is so because Okowa himself has been a grassroots man. Starting out his public service career from the local government level, he understands, like British politician David Milliband, that winning small battles gives you confidence in the political process to take on bigger battles; meaning to win at the centre, you must first win at the grassroots. You must be a people’s man. Every politics is local. And every good leader is one bound to the people; not a self-conceited snob. Okowa connects with people with unforced magnetic ease. It’s the stuff of great leaders.
Unfortunately, such quality is fast losing essence among Nigerian leaders. They return to the people only when they seek their votes during election but build firewalls around themselves when victory is won at the polls. Not so for Okowa. He is at home with his people, with the youth. When some governors jet from Abuja and Lagos to Europe, the Americas and Asia in needless riotous junketing, Okowa is at home and at peace with Deltans – working!
It’s no surprise that since the fourth Republic in 1999, no Delta State governor has won governorship election with the wide margin Okowa did in the 2019 election even with the ferocious and near atrocious manner the opposition All Progressives Party, APC, fought him in the state. He proved he is the undisputed king of bottom-up politics and development; of allowing power to devolve from the people. This also reflects in the manner he has distributed development across the state rather than concentrate them in the cities.
Now, Okowa has flipped the page. He wants to take development and governance to ward levels. Already, the Delta State Independent Electoral Commission (DESIEC) has begun the process of creating more wards across the state. The governor says this is to correct the imbalance in ward delineation in some local government areas. According to extant law, every local government area in the state should have a maximum of 20 wards. Okowa explains that the ongoing process of creating new wards was to correct some wrongs and create a sense of balance in ward delineation across all the 25 local governments. Whereas some local governments have hit the maximum 20 wards, some others have far less. This disequilibrium is what the latest ward delineation is set to balance.
Ward delineation may be political, to ease electoral process from voter registration to actual voting and collation of election results; but wards remain in the Nigerian context the smallest electoral unit through which distribution of wealth and sundry dividends of democracy can be channeled to the people. Wards also help to open the door of opportunity to the youth at all levels including those in far-flung rural precincts. This is the context in which Okowa’s homily to Delta youths on the heels of the #EndSARS protests counts for much. The ongoing ward delineation is therefore not just a political balancing act, it is a development strategy intended to mainstream more communities into the state’s infrastructure and socio-economic development map.
He wants the youth to get involved in politics. As an avid promoter of youth-centric initiatives including creation of youth-centred jobs, Okowa talks from a position of experience. Delta, just like other states across the nation, has a significant youth population. The average Delta youth is courageous, inventive, and intelligent.
The Governor himself acknowledges this fact and has consistently made room for Delta youths in his cabinet and many positions of responsibility. His wealth creation policy is tailored to specifically create opportunities for the youth to excel, acquire skills, become innovators, entrepreneurs and creators of employment rather than seekers of employment.
Delta is one of the few states in Nigeria with a huge number of youths holding positions of responsibility which in other states are held by geriatrics.
Okowa’s Town Hall meeting with the youth, #EndSARS protesters and other stakeholders must be seen for what it is: A prompt response by a responsive and responsible government to birth hope in the hearts of its youth; to reassure its army of youths that the government would rather give them books than bombs. It’s a meeting of a caring and listening father with his children; of a doting, avuncular leader with his constituents. Questions were freely asked. Opinions were expressed with unhinged liberty. And at the end, fear dissolved to faith; despair took flight for hope. The youth left the Town Hall meeting feeling a sense of deeper commitment and devotion to the cause to build a ‘Stronger Delta.’ That’s how leadership works. Leadership must sincerely engage the people, especially the youth, in deeds and in ennobling words. Okowa is doing that post-#EndSARS. It’s a template worthy of replication even at the federal stratum of government.
· Umukoro writes from Warri
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