By Ogaga Ifowodo
In just six days, Deltans will vote for a new governor when the postponed gubernatorial and state houses of assembly elections hold nationwide. That every conscientious inhabitant of Delta State is at this point obliged to vote for change and break the strangle-hold of the domination-without-development Peoples Democratic Party has become an article of faith. I have heard this from even die-hard PDP members — and not only those who, fed up to their gills with the shameful legacy of their two-and-a-half decades monopoly of power, are defecting in droves to the All Progressives Congress — but also from non-party members, the overwhelming majority of citizens. Among the contenders for the office of Governor of Delta State, the profile of APC’s Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, the deputy senate president, is the longest and most distinguished. In his career as politician and public servant but, in particular, his two terms as senator, he has displayed all the qualities that make him the most qualified to be Delta’s number one citizen: courage, commitment, vision, responsibility and the keeping of campaign promises. He also has that attribute called ‘the common touch,” the ability to connect with the masses even when power and status have seemingly lifted him high above the vast majority. Son of a judge whose career began in the old Bendel State and ended as Chief Judge of Delta State, he could have relished the life of an ajebota or spoiled buttered-bread child but instead joyed in attending village schools in Orogun and Obinomba. Truth be told, however, Catholic-owned St George’s Grammar School, his alma mater, wasn’t exactly a backwater institution struggling to keep the lights on in the dormitories but Omo-Agege prides himself as a village boy from Orogun. And that, perhaps, is the single most important factor that kept him focussed on effective representation of every community of his Delta Central senatorial district.
Speaking of courage, it seems to be a family trait passed from father to son. I can testify. Justice James Omo-Agege it was who saved me an extra year or even more by annulling my “indefinite suspension” along with my good friend, Senator Bamidele Opeyemi and two others, from the University of Benin when ex-dictator General Ibrahim Babangida waged his unrelenting war against “radicals and extremists” on our campuses. He did so in defiance of the military despot’s suspension of the constitution and prohibition of challenges to “anything done or purported to be done” pursuant to a decree or edict. The father may have also passed on the common touch spirit to the son. A justice of the high court he may have been, but he was also a Pan-Africanist (he named his fourth son Azania in solidarity with South Africa under apartheid) and also an ethno-culturalist, managing to sneak that into his judgement in our fundamental human rights enforcement case as obiter dictum (non-binding reasoning). After giving the legal grounds for voiding the university’s act, he went on to opine about the never-ending conflict between university authorities and student activists. “The fault to my mind,” he said, “is that of a society which had abandoned its culture for alien values in the name of civilization.” I should also like to mention the common touch Omo-Agege the father displayed two years before he joined the ancestors. Travelling from Lagos to Warri with Azania sometime in 2014, I asked after his father whom, understandably, I held in high esteem. “He is well, enjoying his retirement in Orogun,’ he said, then added: “he still remembers you, you know.” I doubted him. How could the learned jurist, thirty-five years after, still remember a student out of the countless litigants that came before his court? Azania promptly called his father and handed the phone over to me. Yes, the old man remembered me and wanted to know what I had been up to since then, in a zestful voice that belied his age!
But back to the son who will be governor. If Senator Omo-Agege had served only one term, as all of his predecessors, he would still have boasted the longest list of achievements. His re-election to a second term, coinciding with his elevation to the post of deputy senate president, effectively made him the highest ever public office holder in all of Urhoboland and, arguably, Delta State. But what speaks most loudly for him as a dogged fighter with unflagging loyalty to his people is the fact that literally every nook and cranny of his constituency has felt the impact of his senatorial service, either through legislation or development projects. Indeed, the impact of some of the projects, such as the Federal Polytechnic, Orogun, under construction, and the near total rehabilitation of his old school, St George’s, to mention only two, go well beyond his immediate constituency. It is a measure of his impact and wide acceptability that when he declared his intention to run for governor on 14 April 2022 at the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, whose present existence owes quite a bit to him, the whole of Effurun and the metropolitan Warri area came to a standstill.
Delta State is in crying need of a go-getter governor, a builder and a binder: one who would build roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, power and waste treatment cum recycling plants as well as bind the wounds to the state’s body-politic inflicted wittingly or unwittingly through serial misgovernance. It is, indeed, an unmistakable irony that Delta’s motto is “The Big Heart.” Painfully, the governance calamity that has befallen the state in the more recent years has been nothing but a heart attack. And this is a metaphor only if speaking politically. In terms of the daily consequences of this failure of governance to the people, it is grievous bodily affliction, as witnessed, for instance, by the many pensioners who have slumped and died while waiting for the post-retirement pittances that would never come while Governor Ifeanyi Okowa squandered the state’s ample resources from federal allocations to thirteen percent oil derivation, then borrowed and borrowed and borrowed to fund his treacherous but mercifully failed vice presidential adventure. Then there’s the painful reminder of the gross physical infrastructure and human development deficit of Delta, the shocking extent of which hit me unbearably hard while criss-crossing the state as a member of the governorship and Delta South senatorial campaign councils; more particularly so in the creeks and riverine communities of Ijaw and Itsekiri. Damning evidence of the half-heartedness that underlines development projects in the state is the 147-kilometer Asaba-Ughelli expressway, far from completion nearly two decades after it was begun. Notably, reputable construction companies, such as Julius Berger and RCC, are always passed over for the dodgy China state construction company, CCCC, and fly-by-night shovel-and-wheelbarrow local firms with no reputation to protect. Because of the huge cost of patronage of these dubious contractors, Omo-Agege has promised to make Julius Berger the contractor of preference for heavy construction projects. Deltans can’t wait for the caterpillars and cranes to arrive!
Seven years ago, when Delta State turned twenty-five years old, I published the article “A Silver Jubilee Dream of Delta State” (Vanguard, 9 September 2015) in which I first lamented as I do now. “The Peoples Democratic Party’s power monopoly,” I said, “has been nothing short of a heart attack to the “Big Heart” state, as it has been to the country. The vulgar notion of power for its brute sake and obscene self-enrichment has become the ethos of the state’s politics. I have sometimes wondered if this lamentable outcome is not attributable to the absence of a principled and charismatic political personage, commanding the loyalty and respect of the majority by dint of unwavering commitment to the collective good.” Given that there has been no transformative change since then except further under-development — more of which PDP’s Mr Sheriff Oboreovwori promises with his “Expect More” slogan — I will quote myself more extensively, with only the slightest revision. “[F]or all its oil and gas, its highly trained and sophisticated indigenes,” I cried then, “Delta State has one of the most uninspiring histories of governance. So much so that it can hardly justify the grossly inadequate but still considerable 13 percent derivation funds it receives as an oil producing state. Nothing, I think, demonstrates the abject state of Delta more than the blighted condition of Warri, its commercial capital [now the keke or tricycle transport capital of the world]. Since my school days at Federal Government College, the city has been in rapid decline. Today, it looks more and more like a vast undrained swamp in the peak of the rainy season than a city, or a town recovering from a decade-long war, or an open refuse dump (God, its unsanitary streets!), or all three things at once. Sadly, one can say the same thing of Sapele, Delta’s [twin] commercial capital in the heyday of African Timber and Plywood and rubber plantations, not to mention Asaba whose capital status consists only of tawdry hotels and bank branches established for government funds.”
I made the obligatory concession that some good things had to have been done, though one would have to search for them with eagle-eyes. I cited Governor Uduaghan’s schools rehabilitation and remodelling programme (“Rebuilding Our Schools Brick by Brick” (Vanguard, 12 December 2012) and may also add the free medical services for pregnant women and children and the bold idea of turning the teaching hospital in Oghara into a world class centre of excellence. To no one’s surprise, any dream of excellence has since been abandoned. And yet, in an age driven by cutting-edge knowledge more than ever before due to the information technology revolution, education in the state remains in tatters, as I can testify on the strength of a writing workshop for secondary school students in Warri that I led in February 2014 with support from the International Institute of Education. The state-owned university, I opined, “ought to be one of the best in Africa but couldn’t be ranked with a good community college in the United States,” adding that “I am almost always brought to tears by the desolate condition of its Oleh campus,” so deliberately and maliciously underfunded that the Law and Engineering faculties are perennially battling for accreditation. But for communal efforts and the intervention of the Niger Delta Development Commission, the campus would probably have been shut down years ago. Still, rather than set about upgrading faculty (top level recruitment of academics, equipment, books and journals) and physical infrastructure of the existing higher institutions, Governor Okowa chose to establish three new universities. It was, actually, a ruse to give two universities to his Ika people in Owa-Alero and Agbor while merely renaming the Delta State Polytechnic in Ozoro as the state University of Science and Technology.
We could take a whole day recounting the many wrongs that need to be righted in our hapless state and still not be done. What is clear is that Delta State needs a new vision and direction of governance. And we are lucky to have in Omo-Agege a man whose experience straddles state and federal participation in governance at the highest levels. He began his political career as executive assistant to Governor Ibori then went on to be a commissioner and secretary to the state government. His stint in the United States during which time he further advanced himself in law by obtaining an LL.M from Tulane University adds a flourish to his credentials. And he has put all of that wealth of childhood experience, training and participation in governance as well as foreign exposure to admirable use in his elaborate but sharply defined EDGE to BAND manifesto, a forty-eight-page document that envisions transformation in every aspect of the lives of every Deltan and even non-natives, rich or poor, young or old. EDGE is the four-pronged agenda of Employment and Empowerment; Development; Good Governance; Enduring Peace and Security. And BAND is the stirring acronym from the urgent call to Build A New Delta. So that simply put, Omo-Agege is the cutting edge to build the Delta State of our dreams. What has stood him on a higher pedestal than his opponents is the undeniable track record of laudable achievements in just eight years as a legislator without executive power. What might he not do as the chief executive of the second richest state in Nigeria? On Saturday, true Deltans who have pined night and day for respite from PDP’s death-hold on the state’s jugular, who can no longer wait for a visionary and courageous governor, will BAND together to vote for APC and elect Ovie-Omo-Agege. I am neither a prophet nor a soothsayer but I look forward to the electoral surgery that will stem the bleeding and revive the Big Heart of Nigeria.
Ifowodo, lawyer, poet, scholar and activist is a member of APC’s presidential, Delta State gubernatorial and Delta South senatorial campaign councils. He wrote from Warri.