Can you introduce yourself, the way you want to be addressed, Sir?
My name is Ambassador Desmond Akawor. I am the Chairman of the Rivers State Covid-19 Palliative Committee; Chairman, Rivers State Chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); Administrator of Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority; former Nigeria's Ambassador to the Republic of South Korea and former Minister, FCT.
As Chairman of the State Palliative Committee on Covid-19, how has the journey been so far?
Let me confess that when we started this journey, we didn't really know where we were heading to but as the journey progressed, some people saw it as something that was going to last for one week while others thought it would last for two or three weeks. But based on what we read in the western media and the things we saw, everyone became frightened. It became clear that the virus has to do with human to human contact. At this point in time, government all over the world began to take their own decisions. Nigeria was no exception. And just like any exploratory programme, our governor took a bold political step to lock down the borders of his state. He was the first governor in the country to do so.
Of course it didn't go down well with a lot of people at that material time but today as people are seeing figures, it has dawned on them that the governor acted wisely. Outside of Lagos, another city that has a seaport and international airport at the same time is Port Harcourt. Our case became worse because we are bordering six states while Lagos is just Ogun State. In addition to the international airport, we have four seaports - FLT, FOT, Port Harcourt Port and Onne Terminal including the Bonny Terminal. Rivers was a vulnerable state as far as the pandemic is concerned. So, the decision taken by the governor can only be seen as the best when you juxtapose the figures between Lagos and Rivers State.
When that decision of the governor was taken, we now discovered that it had its own antecedent problem. Because the markets were shut and people were no longer doing their businesses, the governor thought it is important to think how to support especially the vulnerable ones. That was why he set up the State Palliative Committee which I head. We started on the 7th of April, 2020. The first place we visited was all the social homes. We went to the children's home, home for the destitute, remand home, home for the elderly and Cheshire Home. We visited six of them with food items, and that was where I considered our assignment as a very solemn one. These are some of the homes you visit and ask what offence they have committed that you or your children didn't commit! For us it was touching to do that service at that point in time. When we visited them, we felt regretful that we hadn't come earlier. So, we concluded with those social homes on the 9th April, 2020 and then started with the Local Government Areas. We started with six local government areas – Port Harcourt, Obio/Akpor, Ikwerre, Eleme, Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni and Bonny. In those six local government areas, the quantity of food given to them is what was available at the time. They were mostly donations and the quantity was not sufficient. It was after then that the governor took a decision to vote the sum of two billion Naira to buy items. As at then we had crossed those six LGAs and we continued with other local government areas. We were using the Wards and not LGA. We have 319 wards in Rivers State and we used this ward structure so that it will permeate down to the grassroots.
Please note that our committee didn't do distribution. We delivered the materials to a local organizing committee who distributed them to the people. They were persons nominated by the people - a traditional ruler, clergy, woman leader, youth leader, CDC Chairman and the Councillor of that ward was there to assist them in terms of logistics.
I got a list of government recognized traditional rulers from the State Council of Traditional Rulers to nominate people from their local government areas. In one or two cases, we discovered that the local government areas had sent something but we rejected them and insisted the nomination must be made by the recognized traditional rulers. That was the instructions we had! Even for women leaders, the council of chiefs was equally asked to confirm the persons. We had an experience when a woman showed up and the first thing we asked was 'Madam, we hope you are the PDP woman leader?' Unfortunately for her, she said 'yes' and that was how we immediately disqualified her. The instruction was very clear. We should not have anything to do with politics.
It is important to note that initially, we had a committee of 24 people, made up of three religious leaders with Monsignor Kii representing the Christian faithful, Ven. Opara representing the Anglican Communion, Arch Bishop Ezenwo representing the Pentecostal churches and Alhaji Diepreye representing the Muslims. We had six security agencies – army, airforce, navy, civil defence, DSS and police. We also had 3 local government chairmen representing the three senatorial districts. Hope Ikiriko represented Rivers West; Lahte Looloo represented Rivers South East while Samuel Nwanosike represented Rivers East. That is the kind of structure we had and I do not think that those security agencies and clergymen would allow politics to play out in the distribution of the palliatives. There was a request that the civil society and press should be co-opted and that was how we co-opted five members of the civil society and five members of the press of which Mr. Segun Owolabi and Pastor Jerry Needam are members. We now had a full committee of thirty four members.
What we do every morning is to meet here and take off to the designated local government areas. Each member is attached to a ward. Before we give the ok ticket to go to the wards, we call those in charge of the ward from the chart given to us. They confirm that they are aware of our visit and are waiting for us. Once it is Okayed, the truck takes off to that ward. So far, it's been well and good. By all intents and purposes, most people have confirmed that it went well and good.
But there were challenges as it were, in the process, but I can tell you that we concluded the 23 local government areas and went back to those six local governments that we didn't visit to make up the shortfalls.
Every Ward in the state received 100 bags of rice or 100 bags of beans; 100 bags of garri; 100 cartons of pasta; 5 drums of oil and 2 bags of onions. That's exactly what we did and I can tell you we carried out our assignment and that is where we are for now.
It is obvious that your integrity has never been in doubt but one wonders why some persons complained that the materials did not get to them. Did you factor all that into consideration in course of your assignment?
That is why we used the Ward structure. As a politician, I am aware that each ward has a population not less than 500 persons. In some cases, you have three villages making up a ward. Yet you have instances where a ward is just one village. If we look at a ward and set 500, even if the indigent people in that place should be 25%, it means there is no way what we have provided will not touch all of them. I had a phone-in programme on radio recently when someone called in from my local government, Oyigbo, ward 9 saying he was given two cups of rice. I said well this is possible because I know what was distributed to ward 9. The distribution of items to LGAs was not only done by governments. There were private people who tried to help their neighbors. There were local government chairmen and even councilors who also helped their people. You know that as long as it is palliative, people believe everything came from government. These are some of the issues.
Somebody also called in that radio programme to say that in their own ward, they were given two containers of groundnut oil. I said in the first place, we never even had groundnut oil to distribute. It could have been from another source. Another problem was that people didn't see that the palliative should be shared to the indigent, to the less privilege, physically challenged, poor and unemployed. They felt it should be shared across the board.
I remembered a traditional ruler who called the governor to complain that the way things were shared in his area was not proper because nothing was given to him. And the governor was surprised that the traditional ruler would also want to be counted among the vulnerable to collect Indomie! The second challenge we faced was in Andoni and Bonny with ferrying about 10 trailer loads of materials across the rivers.
The truth is that nobody had projected that this pandemic would last beyond one or two weeks. I believe that as compassionate as our governor is, what we have distributed cannot last forever. We are hoping and praying for return to normal life in the shortest, possible time. If on the contrary however, a second phase of palliative plan becomes inevitable. For the second phase of distribution, we have recommended to His Excellency that following what we have done with the local government structure we should now look at other groups as well. Security agencies, physically challenged, health workers who are at the frontline, widows and those at the correctional centres. We are looking beyond the local governments. We discovered that materials delivered outside the metropolitan areas do not capture the non-indigenes and this is wrong. We are considering the structures of the non-indigenes who are part of us, working and doing business here. They are contributing positively to the economic wellbeing of the state.
The final solution is what the governor is doing – gradually loosening out so that people can go to the market and get something to eat. If you noticed what is happening in Europe and America, you will find that people are tired and want to return to normal life. This is a pandemic and the only thing we would do under the circumstance is to wear masks and observe physical distance and live our normal lives. That is where the whole world is turning to.
So now that it appeared you have exhausted what you have to feed the poor and indigent, is there a new arrangement, so it would not look like what has been done is like a drop into the ocean, considering that this pandemic could last longer than anticipated?
The governor is always meeting with the Security Council and I believe that these issues are being discussed. I remember discussing with the governor recently, that since the schools are not in session; why not use the school compound with good space for distancing, for distribution of the palliatives? But the governor reasoned that once two or three women cluster to bargain prices over fish, they cannot be controlled. But I know that our governor is seriously working to see that we return back to normal life because we won't be buying food for the people for ever. You saw the reaction that greeted the Governor's announcement on Wednesday to extend the easing. It looked like people who were released from detention!
Sir, you said the governor released the sum of N2billion for the relief package. Putting everything together, what has it cost the state government so far?
Well, looking at what we got as donations, it should be approximately 25%. If we do the calculation, we should be looking at approximately N2.5billion. There are some donations that could not be quantified in monetary terms. For instance, Seven Up Company brought drinks.
Sir, part of your palliative plans for the second phase is targeted at widows and other groups. Considering that some of these groups have already benefitted in the first phase, wouldn't it be better to look beyond those you call less privileged and extend to others since the pandemic has almost pauperized the populace?
Yes, when we started initially, the issue of widows, poor and indigent came in the front burner and wanted to see how to separate them. I remember someone making a joke that if we were assisting the widows; why not also consider the widowers who are equally human beings! When you look at people who are disadvantaged, it's more or less like going flat rate in the distribution. They don't look at it passionately.
What we have done is to consider returning to the community as a second phase. But rather than do that, we are looking at specific people. Someone probably received two tubers of yam as a widow. That phase is gone and what we want to do now is to distribute 5 tubers of yam per person and we will ensure it gets to the appropriate persons. But all these depend on how things churn out because what the governor is working on is to ensure that people return to their normal lives. A group of Nollywood actors came to my office to ask for palliatives. I told them that I know they need palliatives but what happened to the money they have made all these while. They said the monies are gone. I told them the palliatives government is giving are for those who are not working or not making money from any definite source. I told them that under the very circumstance we find ourselves, it is difficult for government to provide palliatives for everybody. At a point even those who had money could not buy food. You knew what happened with bread. It was so bad that while we were going to Bori, we saw those selling long bread along the road. Ordinary, I wouldn't want to buy those bread that stayed for one week and the sellers use oil to clean them to make them look new. But I was forced to buy them because there was no bread anywhere in town. What we need is return to normal life and not palliative. Palliative at best remains palliative and can never satisfy everybody.
With the distribution now done, was there monitoring to ensure that the targeted beneficiaries were reached?
That's what I said earlier that out of 34 members of the committee, each member is assigned to do a sort of follow-up whereby calls are placed to key persons in the wards and they find out how and whether the distributions were successfully carried out. And the responses have been positive. I personally went to Obio/Akpor ward 3 to see how the distributions were carried out and I was impressed with the way things went. In Opobo/Nkoro, the people use what they call War Canoe structure. They said that's the way they do their own to make it work. So we leave them to do it their own way for effect and satisfaction. We allow them to use the best structure that would be convenient for them.
But in all we insist that they must consider the widows, physically challenged and all the vulnerable. However, some listen to us while, unfortunately, some greedy ones do not. You are aware we had a case in Eleme where a Councillor collected and cornered 10 bags of rice out of the 100. In fact, he was calling me even late in the night to confirm that he had returned them. Because I told him the consequence and there are no other ways to it. There was also the incident at the residence of Chief Mike Elechi in Ikwerre LGA. The people agreed to go to the Chief's Farm because of space. But outside the gate, there was commotion and in the process, a woman was trampled to death.
Do you feel fulfilled at this point that you have done a good job?
I call tell you in all honesty that I have done my best. I feel privileged to be part of the team. In all 23 local government areas we visited, I felt happy to be involved in this kind of assignment. There were so much involved in loading the materials for instance. You know what it means to load 1000 bags of garri in trucks in a day.
I am happy to declare that I can account for all that I have done in this Committee. I can boast that we recorded zero corruption in the committee because it takes a corrupt person to run a corrupt system. If the people working here suddenly see me coming to take rice and beans, they would react. In fact, three days ago, I bought three bags of rice and beans from an Alhaji to give to a friend. The one that we have here is an assignment. Another committee buys these items and hands them over to us. There is a data somebody is handing over to me and I will give account of what I received, gave out and what is left in stock. I will give account to our governor who gave us the assignment.
How does the governor appreciate what you are doing?
(smiling), If you know our governor, the day he tells you 'thank you', you then know he is no longer your friend! (Laughing) but we know him. There are expressions coming from a man and the defence he will be putting on your behalf in your absence, to tell you that he is pleased with that man. That is what satisfies me. I was happy the day he spoke glowingly about our committee on live television, that he gave the job to a reputable person and that he is delivering the way he wants.
Looking at the days ahead, what would people expect?
The days ahead seem uncertain because nobody could precisely say when the coronavirus pandemic would come to an end. There are too many speculations. Some say that the earliest the vaccines would be ready is September. You saw the Italian Prime Minister saying they are looking up to God! Just the other day I was joking with a friend that this Madagascar thing should come so we can drink it and have our peace. Some religious people believe that God has brought the Covid-19 to bring humanity on their knees. So for me, I can tell you that the future remains unclear until we start getting vaccines or treatment that can cure the disease.
The level of testing in the country is also poor apparently because no one was prepared for it. Until we get to the level of having tested 25% of the population, we will know the level of damage that the disease has caused us. The figures we hear in the US is because they are testing. Thank God that we now have four testing centres in the state. Before now we were all going to Irua in Edo State and after two weeks, if he is alive, you tell him he is positive!
What lasting measure would you then recommend to contain the spread of the pandemic in the State?
I think the best that could be done in the present circumstance considering the long period it might take to find a vaccine that will cure the disease as we are beginning to see being done even in America and Europe is to ease the lockdown so that people would live their normal life. I consider this as a long term solution. Nobody was expecting any form of palliatives from government before now. This suddenly came because of the situation at hand. If I am asked to suggest, I will want it to be made compulsory for every person to wear face masks. Any defaulter should be arrested and sanctioned. Let them go and live their normal lives. If anyone wants to wash hands, so be it, anyone who refuses to wash hands and dies, should be taken to the mortuary. We should also be a little bit strict at the borders of the state.
While coming to your office, just by the parking lot, we saw heaps of tubers of yam many of which are even sprouting. Are they the leftovers?
They are not leftovers. Each heap contains 2000 tubers of yam and that is how they were brought in trucks. That is how we have been distributing and once we get instructions; we know the next line of action.
From our records, what we had was four hundred thousand tubers of yam and what we have left is ninety thousand which about 10% of them has gone bad.
Now to politics. As the State Chairman of the PDP, we know you have been in the system for long. You were the Director of the Nyesom Ezenwo Wike Governorship Campaign Organization and you performed creditably well. Notwithstanding, this is a new office. Your predecessor, Bro. Felix Obuah appears to have left a very big shoe for you. Do you think you can cope? If so, what are some of the measures you intend to put in place to succeed or even surpass his performance?
Well, I can tell you that this is about my eighth job after graduation from the university. I spent 10 years in my first job as National Commercial Manager at First Aluminum Company. I actually took First Aluminum to the Nigerian Stock Exchange. I didn't meet First Aluminum as a newcomer. It was the first rolling mill in the country. I joined them in 1988. I became Commissioner during the military regime. From there I worked with the Rivers Basin Development Authority to Nigerian Port Authority to the FCT as a Minister and to South Korea as an Ambassador.
There is no job that I have done that I have initiated. I have always met someone who just left for me to come in. This job of new State PDP Chairman is even more beneficial because during the two tenures of Obuah, I was the DG of the Campaign Organization. It was a tutelage of sort because the office of party Chairman and that of DG cannot be easily separated.
Honestly, I never knew I was going to be the chairman of the party. Maybe that was why God was preparing me by making me DG of the campaign organization. Up until the day we had the party's stakeholders meeting, nobody gave me a hint of my nomination and subsequent election as Chairman. It is a big challenge for me because my predecessor performed creditably well. If you had a job where your predecessor didn't do well, it is easier to come in and look at the things he didn't do and try to do them.
The greatest performance in a political arena is to win elections. In the case of my predecessor, he won the elections back to back. The day we were handing over, I jokingly told him he has handed over the documents but that there are certain things he is known for in the state that he has not handed over to me. He replied that one cannot be handed over in the office and that I should meet him later!
I acknowledge that it is a serious assignment, but I have always believed that this assignment is like a relay race where by the man who just handed over the baton to me is leading others in the race. I have just received the baton and I have no option than to maintain the lead or surpass it.
So what do I do? First, I must leverage on his experience and also tap on the experience of the officers who worked with him. How did they do it? Two, I must look at the party's manifesto and three, the blueprint of the New Rivers Vision. These would provide me with the right compass because I am not inventing anything new. These three things revolve around the people. One thing we did that was different from others during our campaigns was that rather than concentrate at ward or local government area, we looked at the units. We concentrated at the 4,442 units in the state and that was our foundation for the block. Even now as Chairman, the unit level will be the bedrock of my foundation.
There are people that are professional politicians; they have understood the intrigues of politics. They know things I may not have known. I am open for advice and these are the people that would advise me better. If they fail to advise me, the day I go to discuss with governor, I would discuss with him as a man who was not advised, I would go empty! And his response would affect not just me but all of us. The issue of team work is very important and that is what boosts my confidence because I know that we have the team. To improve on what I will be doing, reconciliation is also important. It is a major issue.
There are bruises that came out of the election. Whether we like it or not, if we are not able to settle the rat in the house, it will tell the one outside where the fish is located. We shall ensure there is serious reconciliation and massaging of ego. Democracy is not part of our culture. Leadership in our culture is not democratic. Whatever the Oba, the Eze, the Obi says is done without question. There is no way everybody will be happy over outcome of elections. That is our culture. It is left for our team to look at certain aggrieved persons and talk to them, massage their ego and talk to our leader and principal to open his arms unto them. One of our strategies is what we call Dinner with the governor. To have dinner with the governor means a lot. You just receive a phone call and you are told to proceed to Government House for a dinner with the governor! You will use the opportunity to tell governor one or two things.
There is also the plan to digitalize our party membership. The SA on ICT will help us compute and obtain the phone numbers of all PDP members at the unit level. Occasionally I will place a phone call to a member say in Degema Ward 3, 'Oh Mr. Dressman, This is Desmond Akawor, your party Chairman. I just called to wish you well and know how you are doing'. You can imagine how excited he will be. I will pick another member in another ward in another LGA. At that grassroots level, I can tell you that people around that person would even doubt that Akawor called him or her. If they discover it is true and that that is what I am doing, many would become interested, expecting their own turn.
The other strategy is women mobilization. Women are undisputedly the greatest mobilizers. During Odili, we had what we called Odili Support Team (OST). There was also the New Rivers Vision Women for Wike. We will ensure that women groups are revitalized. The party offices at the LGAs will come alive once again. Of course, the youths will not be left out. We shall create what we call the PDP Ambassadors. These are high profile people in the society who are not politicians but pro-PDP. We shall make recommendations to the governor to give them investiture as PDP Ambassadors. They could be high profile celebrities. We have also engaged some good media professionals for publicity.
How do you intend to leave your office as State PDP Chairman better than you met it?
Of course, that is the wish of any person who is given an assignment. If not for anything you will leave better furniture in the office and happier staff! One of the greatest things that happened to me during the burial of my parents in 2007 was seeing five of my drivers who had worked with me at various times, sitting and eating together. There was joy because something brought them together. They discussed how I helped them to build their houses. I feel that I embarrass the MD of NDBDA each time I visit and see the staff rushing to greet me. The same thing happens in NPA and the other places I worked. It will interest you to know that Koreans are congratulating me over my new position more than Nigerians. So, it is a good thing to leave office and boldly go there when the need arises. I will be happy to leave the office as a proud Chairman who delivered Rivers State for the PDP, with three Senators and all House of Reps and State Assembly members returned as PDP members.
The APC is in crisis and are fighting hard to come out of it strong to continue challenging the PDP. Will you see them as serious threat?
Of a truth, I don't even know if the APC is in crisis. All I know is that they have court cases which I don't consider as crisis. Of course, you know there are over 60 political parties so I rate the APC as the other parties. I don't see them as a special group.
How are you coping with duties as PDP State Chairman, as Chairman, State Covid-19 Palliative Committee and also Administrator of Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority?
Yesterday, I couldn't have been able to do it but today I am doing it because I am a Chosen one. I'm a member of the Lord's Chosen Charismatic Movement. My yokes are taken off my shoulder by the Almighty. I am only being carried by the wings. Every day I wake up, I commit my journey to Him and I confess that I don't have power of my own. I just find that at the end of the day, all the assignments are accomplished. So, first I think my religious background has helped me a lot. Again, my relationship with people is very cordial.
What is your parting shot to Rivers people?
Rivers people have seen what Governor Wike has done in all sectors. They have seen his commitment in defending Rivers people and their wealth. It's not for him as Nyesom Ezenwo Wike. It is for the interest of Rivers people. He has made a covenant with the people and nothing will shake him out of that covenant. My appeal to Rivers people is to please have faith and pray for him. We will get out of where we find ourselves today. It's like a wind. It has come and one day it will go.