The region known as Niger delta in Nigeria comprises nine states with about 31 million people of more than 40 ethnic groups, the region has the highest deposit of mineral resources, but has been entangled in conflicts, political violence and undulating leadership over the years.
The enthronement of democracy in 1999 has not yielded much of the anticipated dividends in the region, as socio-economic developmental benefits have come in crumbs and trickle to the governed, compared to the outlandish self-aggrandisement of some entrusted with the privilege of political stewardship.
It’s such a sad narrative, which could still be reversed, given that the people remain hopeful of finding truly capable leaders via the polls, exemplifying an unflinching faith in democracy. Indeed it would have been refreshing to witness the emergence of a rare kind of leader from the most recent electoral opportunity in the region, precisely Bayelsa State, in the person of Late Pastor Keniebi Okoko, who took time to evaluate the needs of his people; groom himself; project innovative solutions and finally decided against all odds to vie for the seat of power, to enable him to bring about a transformation, that only a visionary can engineer.
Keniebi Okoko, a highly successful Harvard-trained business mogul, not only lost out in the primaries to politicians with more established bases, even though he proved to be a worthy opponent. He later bowed out of the biggest stage of all – life, when he took a chance on science to undergo a medical surgery in a Lagos hospital, which went sideways.
Keniebi dazzled his supporters and opponents by his noble display of gallantry in defeat when he collapsed his campaign team into that of his opponent who picked the slot ahead of him in the party primary and eventually emerged governor. A man of peace, Keniebi understood the meaning of leadership for the benefit of the people, by not toeing the usual stance of two elephants fighting as long as only the grass suffers. As a philanthropist, Keniebi donated food items to the old and less privileged people for years and gave relief materials to flood victims in the state.
An astute promoter of wealth creation, he was an advocate of industrialisation and envisioned rapid industrialisation for the state, as he told PDP members of the state’s legislature while highlighting his plans for the state: “Industrialisation has come to stay and not just industrialisation, rapid industrialisation.
“They say your network is your net worth and I bring to bear, apart from the 12 years in the economic sector, I bring to bear my friendship and relationship across the globe, with 154 classmates from Harvard Business Law of which I am the poorest, most of them are owners of industries and have always wanted to come to Africa because Africa is a gold mine, but they have not had a level playing ground and relationship matters in every business you want to do.”
One of his plans was to position the state as a big player in the $116 billion global glass industry, having identified the competitive and comparative advantage of sand deposits in Brass.
“Being a governor, I can assure you that we can bring these industries into Bayelsa state. A quick example, look at Brass, one of the things that are very synonymous with Brass is beautiful sand, it will interest you to know that the best component for making glass is sand and we have billions of dollars lying down at the beachfront of Brass.”
As a successful 41-year-old youth, Keniebi maximised every opportunity to canvass for youth empowerment through purposeful leadership, seeing the best even in people considered as dregs of society.
“I can assure you that if a sea pirate sees a job that is paying him money, no man likes the sound of an AK-47, he will drop it, nobody will reject a half loaf of bread for a full chin-chin.
“Nobody was born an armed robber or a militant, but opportunity has to be created for them to be engaged. And I tell you that the Ijaw man cannot be lazy if I am lazy, how did I get to where I am, is it by magic? Circumstances and opportunities are created for people to do things, we are smart and we will bring that to bear in the form of rapid industrialisation.
Keniebi also had a clear understanding of the challenges of the education sector and was keen on repositioning the sector as part of his human capital development plan, according to him: “When we talk about education, yes we have universities, but you have to look at the substance of what is in the universities because a building is not a university. The payment scheme for lecturers and teachers is not so good and then people are still using textbooks that have since lost relevance in current realities.
“So these are the things that we can work on with the executive and legislative arms. I’m a product of a scholarship, I had never been abroad up until 2003 when former governor, late Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, thought it wise to sign my scholarship of N11 million and I went to Canada and it was like a dream, but for that opportunity given me, how would I have done it? My father could not afford that from his lecturer salary, so we should be able to give those opportunities to our younger ones too.” he once said in an interview.
Keniebi was loved and trusted by his people and could have easily won at the polls, but for sheer political maneuverings of his more experienced opponents.
“When I wanted to contest, some people said I was doing it because I had money, I said it has nothing to do with money but capacity, and that is having a good plan and strategy. Once you have a good strategy, you can overturn things. They didn’t see me coming, they kept undermining me and some will call me a small boy and I’ll say I’m 41 what has that got to do? I was undermined, but I kept pushing, I kept coming and knocking on doors and the doors are wide open now.
“I didn’t lose because of rigging, the election was free and fair, what happened was politics, they were better than I was and I had to accept it, that is what makes a man, when you are tested, to have fortitude. I have learned one or two things from the winner about how he did it and there are no hard feelings at all.” To the question of why he contested to lead, his answer was: “I have always wanted to help people and I have been doing that on a smaller scale, for you to be able to touch lives the way I want to, you’ll need a bigger platform.”
To be plain, if the current leaders of Niger Delta are driven by what drove Keniebi to aspire to lead his people, the region will become transformed and bear tangible fruits of democratic dividends in no time, which is the actual desire of their people who voted them into power.