‘The Greatest Politicians are Those who Listen’

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Keniebi Okoko

Keniebi Okoko fields questions from Emmanuel Addeh on how he will bring about an era of prosperity as the next Governor of Bayelsa State

Why do you want to be the next Bayelsa governor and what do you think sets you apart from the rest?

I want to be governor because I want a massive change in Bayelsa and among our people in terms of education, in healthcare, in terms of the economy and in fact in all spheres of their lives.

I am not trying to evaluate my fellow contestants. I am not too concerned about them. I am more concerned about my own blueprint which will enable our people take a decision soon.

For starters, if you look at my educational background, I started school here in Nigeria at the University of Port Harcourt then proceeded to Carlton University in Canada.

I also attended Wharton Business School for short courses, before proceeding to Havard where I did two short courses and finally a three-year programme at the Harvard business school which makes me an alumnus of the Harvard Business School and several other colleges. Educationally , you can see I am very qualified.

I am not from the regular political class. Everyone else who is interested has held one political post or another. Bayelsans want to know what achievements those who have held these positions made when they held those positions.

I am not bothered by my fellow contestants. The people know what is good for them at this point in time.

People see Bayelsa as performing below expectation, given that it has so much resources and a high level of poverty. What is responsible for this disparity?

I am not aware of people saying our state is underperforming and I cannot confidently say how much money comes in. There are different dynamics. Bayelsa is a growing state.

Let’s not be quick to judge. When you don’t wear the shoe, you don’t know where it pinches. People might be saying that the money coming in is a lot, forgetting that there are several ongoing capital projects. There are lots of bank loans, debts from what I gathered, salaries and capital projects. I am not quick to judge. It’s also possible that the head is good, but the strength around the head may not have the capacity to deliver the vision of the visioner.

The visioner may have a good vision but the workforce is not able to implement the vision. I am not saying that’s the situation, but I don’t think that statement that Bayelsa is underperforming is fair.

Being a coastal area, what would you do to ensure that Bayelsa takes full advantage of its peculiar environment for the good of its people?

Industrialisation is the key. The same environment is pretty much what they have in Singapore. The government should stop being a company, it should not own companies. It should create a decent environment for business to thrive. It should be looking for Foreign Direct Investment. Inviting companies that have been tested and trusted.

Today, Nigeria is branded as a corrupt destination. Most of these companies are afraid. But that is not the case. I will be an ambassador for the state. Going into contractual agreements and sticking to these agreements. Because many foreign investors think we don’t follow through signed agreements.

In Vietnam for example, you talk about rice. In Singapore, you talk about fishing. Not long ago, these countries were tagged underdeveloped. Have agreements with these countries, ensure they come and transfer this knowledge which is very important. Our people have to understand that government cannot provide everything, but provide opportunities.

I have always been a strong advocate of knowledge transfer, educating the mind to greater things that we can achieve. The Ijaw man is not lazy, there is nothing you give an Ijaw man to do that he cannot accomplish, given the right circumstances. We are a determined and dogged people.

The late Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was known for resource control, Governor Dickson is talking about restructuring. What’s your take on restructuring?

It is obvious that this country needs to be restructured. I have always been a strong advocate of this. We need to use every non-violent channel. It has to be more intellectually driven now. I do not subscribe to making inflammatory statements from whichever side of the divide. We need to talk about it because it is inevitable.

Closely linked to restructuring is the call for state police, like what obtains in so many parts of the developed world. Do you think this call is justified, especially given the rising crime wave in the state?

First of all, when you say Bayelsa has serious security challenges, I will tell you that Zamfara has been in the news recently, that the Kaduna, Abuja axis is also a sore point, that there has been a lot of kidnapping recently in Lagos.

Its not a situation that is peculiar to Bayelsa. But the framework is very important. How are they going to be funded? What are the reporting channels, because there has been a lot of abuse of power in this country.

You spoke about developed nations. There are rules about their kind of policing and these rules are strictly obeyed. That framework is important. We must have the enabling environment. We must continue to discuss it , but for now , let’s build on what we have. There has to be a transition period. We should be able to say that in the next four years, we are moving from point A to point B.

Unemployment is a big issue in Nigeria, more so Bayelsa where majority of the youths are not gainfully employed. When you become governor, how do you intend to tackle this?

I will take it from the point of Donald Trump. I have not seen the media bash any other President in recent times, like the American President. But everything that Trump says he will do, he is doing for America. He said he will provide more jobs. He has done it.

He has simply taken away the things that stifle investment, made the big companies invest more in the factories and insisting that if they build companies outside America and try to bring the goods in, they will be heavily taxed. By doing that, he has increased job creation and the salary strength of American workers.

If you come down to Bayelsa and Nigeria at large, Bayelsa is largely dependent on government and probably a few companies. There are no industries and no matter how the government shouts about job creation, without industries, we are going nowhere.

You cannot continue to employ people into the civil service who do not have anything to do. Its not about taking people and giving them empty offices. They are not being allowed to task their brains. Industries in every local government will be encouraged.

The middle class is already gone. We need to look for factories for the low and middle class. Let’s look for the model that works for the low and middle class. You can see the phones that are selling for the upper and lower class. You can have a factory that produces those kind of phones in Nembe local government or Sagbama, Aba, Enugu and Onitsha.

There will be knowledge transfer, then you create a business ecosystem that works. India is not better than Nigeria. We have the same opportunities. My friend has a $3 billion company in India called Micromax. Why can’t we bring him to replicate that here.

Let’s not continue to look at the problems , but for solutions. We need to develop our land. Mind transformation is important. Give Bayelsa four years and you will see transformation.

Give us a brief background of yourself, given that a lot that people know about you seem to be about philanthropy and business and not in politics?

I disagree with you. My father is Professor Kimse Okoko, whom I am very proud of. He tutored and nurtured me.

Maybe I am not as prominent in the political space as much as I am in business and philanthropy. Funny enough, this is not my first time in politics.

When I finished from Carlton in Canada and I came back to Nigeria in 2005, I participated in the House of Assembly election, but the party in its wisdom did a kind of special primaries. I hold no grudge against anyone.

I left and went into business. I am glad that it happened. Because it gave me more determination to succeed in life. Politics is not about how long, but what you are bringing into the game. Donald Trump wasn’t a politician , but he beat everybody. In France and Austria, it is the same.

What I will bring to bear on governance in Bayelsa is my knowledge in business, my integrity, my capacity to turn things around. The greatest politicians are those who listen and take advice. Those around me will tell you that I listen to everyone.

When you take advice and know peoples problems, you are not an emperor. As Bayelsa leader, I will listen to their complaints. I will be close to my people. I will not loot their funds because I am not looking for free money.

I will work to the extent that when a successor is taking over from me, it will be more or less a standard to measure the next administration. I can guarantee that. All the things I have learnt in Harvard, Carlton, Wharton, Uniport, I will bring to bear.

I can assure them that because I am a child of God, I have empathy for my people. When the righteous rule, the people rejoice. My people will see the difference when I take over governance of the state.