Our guest on Platform is a woman who has made a mark in a field dominated by men. In 1987, she was a councillor in the then Aniocha Local Government. In 1992, she was the only female member of the Delta State Executive Council as Commissioner for Special Duties under Governor Felix Ibru. In Ibori administration, she was the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism. From then till now, she has been serving Delta State and her political Party, PDP, in one capacity or the other. A particularly innovative woman, she leaves behind marks of creativity and excellence wherever she is appointed to serve. Excerpts of an interview with Dame Patience Nkem Okwuofu( Agu Nwanyi) are presented below .
Considering the shortage of manpower in the health sector, what must have informed your decision to venture out and subsequently into the uncertain world of politics?
I did part of my studies abroad as a nurse, including my midwifery, intensive care of the newborn, Family Planning. The midwifery has two sectors-Parts one and part two. After all that, I worked abroad in the best hospitals in England-St Thomas Hospital founded by Florence Nightingale, among others. Those were the best, and they remain the best in England. I came back to Nigeria and it was very interesting but before I came, I had convinced myself that I must come and stay. I had given enough time to the English people.
I wanted to do a tutorial course in England; I was most qualified because I was used to teaching nurses and upcoming doctors. I went for the interview and I did very well as I was told but unfortunately, they did not want to invest in me for fear that, after the training, there were indications that I would be going back to my country.
At the last minute, a student midwife that I was training at the time was given that opportunity and that was how I was dropped. It angered me and without telling anybody, I packed my things and left the following day and two days after, I was in Nigeria. Whatever it was, I said to myself, “I will return to my country.”
Then I started working here in Nigeria, breaking new grounds in private hospitals and helping them to setup places. It was then I went visiting a very close friend at Ogwashi-Uku who was a councillor at the time because I needed something from the council. She said to me, ‘’you did not have to travel from Benin down here; we are neighbors and you could have told me at home’’ and I replied her, ‘’I wanted to give the honour due to you’’ and then she gave me the leap. I was supposed to supply some drugs and hospital equipment.
Just at the time they were to announce those who will get the job, I was dropped. I was told she (my friend) had asked them to drop me because I was too ambitious. She was the only person I relied on. Then I learned never to rely on man because, as you all do know, man can always drop you at any point. I was told about the deliberations and how she said I was so ambitious and that I should not be given the job.
I felt very bad and I thought to myself that if being in that council will make people behave that way, I would want to be there and see if I will behave in the same way. So, I got ready for an election and by the grace of God, I won that election. She, too, went for the same election in her area and she failed and so I was in and she was out.
I needed an opportunity to assist her, waiting for her to ask. As it were, the job she denied me had not been done before I was elected and when I got there, I was left with the question of ‘’Do you cancel this job and award it to yourself or do you allow it go?’’ and I decided to allow it go.
I had to call her and tell her why I decided to go for an election and why I could not rely on man for anything. We remained friends but you can imagine what sort of friends we will be after that incident! I can tell you that somehow, I do not regret it now because God used her to offer me the opportunity and brought out those things in me I never knew I had.
Shortly after Delta State was created in 1991, you were made a commissioner for Special Duties under the administration of Chief Felix Ibru. If your opinion is sought, how will you sum up your experience since you joined politics?
It has been an interesting experience,; some of the experiences you will wish to erase from your memory ,while some others you will deeply cherish as they keep spurring you on to higher accomplishments.
First of all, this should be clearly spelt out. In politics, we do not have women. It is supposed to be like the personification of the law. We are all men and if you class yourself as a woman in politics then you become a weakling. You see everybody as equal, everybody as masculine, and everybody is going and if you do not move fast they take it from you. It is a place where you rush and it is the fastest person that picks it up.
We are talking of power, nobody gives it to you; you struggle for it. I often tell my bishop to, please, keep praying for me because there are many things that I should not have done. Mind you, I will never kill anybody but for me to win an election, many things are done which, in some cases, should not have been done. In any case, they are all very good experiences.
There is no experience, politically, that I want to regret. In my life, I do not accept regrets and so not accepting regrets, we must move in there and make it, get it done. You must be very loyal, dedicated, industrious and such experiences have driven me on.
Even when it seems that I am getting tired, something happens and I prove myself all over again and then I thank God that I did so. I do not remember any bad experience, politically.
What has been your staying-power? Since the Ibru administration over two decades ago, so many have fallen by the way side, politically speaking; rather you have been relevant from one administration to the other.
You know, we do not retire in politics; it is death that retires us and so I am still ready, by the grace of God, to keep on until that day. What has kept me in power? I just told you about a few of the things such as that you have to be loyal, industrious, dedicated and go for the best all the time. Above all, I pray. As soon as I got to know God per se, I apply most of His principles.
Within the Ibru’s government, you discover that I was the only woman and, in most cases, I have always been the only woman among men but when I am seated among them, I do not see myself as a woman.
If you are honest and reliable, you will often be sought for. When you are given a position, it is in trust and so you must not allow your boss to pick an air of distrust about you. I have never left one party for the other in my political career. Once I am with you, I am with you and it is out of conviction. You do not have to give me any money. When I make up my mind on who to support, nothing influences me anymore, not material things or any other thing. It is out of my conviction and because people felt that I am very stable. I teach those who come to see me about these virtues that they must imbibe and once they have them, they will go anywhere.
Recently, you applauded Governor Ifeanyi Okowa for ensuring the 35 per cent Affirmative Action for women in the recently concluded ward congresses of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Are there plans on ground to make this a reality?
We have been singing this over the years. When I was a Councillor in 1987, I met them propagating the Beijing Conference Resolution; yet, I was the only woman among all the councilors. Again, when I came into government, I was the only woman in the State Executive Council (EXCO).
They have been talking about it over the years,; so many years and little did I realize that I will be alive to see it materialize. Now I can tell you categorically that I know that it is here to stay because I have the opportunity of being a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the PDP. I was at the NEC meeting where Chief (Dr.) Mrs. Esther Uduehi spoke strongly about women issues and their representation in their different areas.
Over time ,when a topic like this is raised, the men would say ‘’humm!’’ as they have a way of pushing it away from us because they believe that they have all the capacity, they have everything but when it comes to elections, the women would come out enmasse and they are always more. At the end of the day, the women do not get what is commensurate with their activities.
However, after this NEC meeting, the governors surprisingly supported it more than any other person. They were for real, they gave reasons why it must now be implemented and we who were at that meeting, it was resolved that the 35 per cent affirmative action will be effective in both appointive and elective positions in every state as far as the party was concerned.
We all got back to our different states where we had our extended excos and when the same thing came up; our Governor was the first to stand strongly behind it. Despite the murmurings that came from the sides, he stood for it and made a pronouncement. And so it became a directive which the Governor explained to everybody and he does not want to disobey the NEC of his party.
We have completed the ward congress; they even worked it out for us that there should be at least six women in the 18-man executive to be put in place. It was same at the local governments and then about 13 at the state level; so, we are progressing. We have concluded it and they have all complied.
In the civil service, it is said that you have carried out significant and far -reaching reforms but certain things still worry civil servants. Why should an officer be taken a level backward upon return from studies? Does such rule encourage efficient performance in the service?
When an officer applies for further studies, such application must be approved before he proceeds on the premise that when he returns, he will be more useful in the office than he was before. But do not forget that when you are in school, you are supposed to report your academic performance to the office. If you passed, you ought to be progressed and that we will do, we will not deny it because we sent you to school.
But do not forget that throughout the period you were in school, you were not serving-you were earning. So, you cannot just come back and leap from where you left it. That issue of promoting you and bringing you a level down is just for you to acclimatize and move back to where you ought to be. We will not stop you; this is the rule and it was not just invented. Some people feel that when they return from school, they should leap from level eight to 10. No! It is not done that way.
As Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, does it in anyway give you some form of worry at any point in time that Delta is beginning to be known all over the federation as a state where people get promotions on paper as it were, and there are no arrears, no financial backing, does it in anyway to give you concern?
No, that is not correct at all. When we came in there were backlogs of promotions that were not done, up to five years that is when this Commission came in, and it is on record that we came in and cleared the whole backlog. We normally do what we call monitoring,. It is a constitutional responsibility,; that means that we have to leave our offices, and go round all the MDAs, and interact with the workers, they tell you their problems, challenges and they advise us, as we do not know it all. From what they tell us, we would be able to pick some things we must handle immediately and promotions was one of those.
We cleared that, and promised them promotions as and when due, and since then, we have been doing promotions as and when due. Because of the pile up of the promotions that were not done before Senator Dr. Okowa came in as governor, and before our own commission came into being, there were arrears, of course you would understand that there would be arrears. On 1st May, the second year that he came into office, he promised the workers that he would clear their arrears, and when we went round, we carried that crusade round that the government knows they are owing and they will clear it when the money is there. As soon as the money was there, he is the one that has the purse, he knows how much is there, he ordered that arrears should be paid.
But when we went round, I told them to prepare their accounting papers, get it done, get it ready, the number of their officers being owed arrears, how much they are being owed, the total of what is being owed in all the MDAs, so that when they want, they call for them, you will not be doing a fire brigade affair, and that was what happened. Some listened, others did not, and when they asked for it, all those who were first to submit had theirs cleared, and when the pocket became depleted, of course, they stopped them there and said hold on. He is not saying the others would not get paid, he is saying let’s put some more things into that pocket, and then resume the payment.
So, you cannot draw that as a conclusion that arrears are not being paid. First of all, you ought to have commended us for now paying as and when due, clearing what was on ground, and then you talk about arrears.
Whichever way you go about it, arrears have been looked into, and it is still being looked into. If he orders today to say, alright, I now have enough to start again, we will start where we stopped; so, tell those who are out there that if theirs have not been paid, they should hold their MDA responsible for not submitting their names on time.
What informed the current revalidation exercise of Certificates and the local government of origin revalidation? What is the extent, how far -reaching is it?
What we are actually doing is verification, because we don’t have the expertise of knowing which certificate is forged and which is authentic,; so, all we are really doing is collecting the certificates photocopies and sending them to the schools that issued such certificates, they have the authority to come back to say to us, these are the ones who brought their certificate from us, these ones we don’t know. You are working with somebody who you know has a certificate that is not genuine, and he is being promoted over and over above you. We introduced the whistle blowing, saying anything you find around you that is not going right, inform us through whistle blowing, write to us, if you like you put your name and phone number, but we must protect you, we will not say how we got the information, we invite you over, but you people are not cooperating enough with us; only petitions come to us and we don’t just want to sit on those petitions and make it look like we are not receiving or hearing it. Secondly, we do promotions as and when due, when we do them; we pick up some certificates that are queried in our minds like those that do not look right. You see two certificates that have different colours but the same year, and we say no, this is not the same, and there you have reason to want to look at it again, after seeing such, we have had reasons to send such certificates to the schools to confirm only to hear that they did not issue it; that is how we get confirmation.
We have done that and we are still doing that. In the last promotion exercise that we carried out, one of the commissioners picked up somebody who had done ten years in the service with a fake WASC certificate,; she picked it up, queried it, and questioned the officer who said the result was hers. Unfortunately, the person came from Obomkpa, and I come from Obomkpa, and unfortunately the wife of a cousin of mine works there, we sent it off and it was confirmed that it was a fake certificate. What do I do? The rules are there, and we quickly dismissed her. We didn’t give option for anything, and there should not be option for anything because she shouldn’t have been employed.
The issue of local government of origin was also informed by the fact that, annoyingly, we discovered that many people are coming from across the Niger. The jobs are meant for Deltans foremost. You don’t pay for them, you don’t canvass for them, and we have many of them qualified and in recruiting we can only recruit a fraction out of the so many, and in that same fraction you see people coming from across the Niger. Oshimili South is most hit, Aniocha North and South, the Ijaws. People come from across and they take our jobs which is not right, and why is it not right? It is not right because our people at the local government give them these certificates, even when they know they are not Deltans. It is unfortunate. People push everything to politicians; what of all these areas? At a point in time, we told councilors to give them certificates so that we will be sure they are from our local government areas or wards, but it did not work. We said ok, let our traditional rulers certify that they are citizens, it did not work, too. So, all we want to do is for them to be verified. The local governments are very happy with what we are doing, because they ,too, are not happy. And if you don’t know, very soon a non-Deltan might just be the next Head of Service, and that is not right.
We are not saying that they cannot work with us; they can work with us. Say where you come from; don’t take the position of Deltans. There is a fraction, too, that you can give to them but they should not dominate the system. That is what we are saying.
We must commend your efforts to sanitize the system. Lately, there is this notion that the Civil Service is a no man’s business and it breeds a situation where you have public officers taking the job for granted doing what is contrary to what is obtained in the private sector which ought not to be, what efforts are being made while you are in the saddle of power to instill discipline in this regard?
We came in and met a very rotten Civil Service. The extent of rot cannot be measured in quote. However, we knew we had a job to do because we have a direction, and so, I am happy to say that there is a lot of improvement in the Civil Service. Even in their dressing, they admit to themselves, because when we do that monitoring, if you are not properly dressed, we bring you out in public, if you are also properly dressed we call you out. Like one boy in the office of the Secretary to the State Government, he is always sparkling, you pick him out anywhere, I always bring him to the fore for people to see. If you are not properly dressed, you are ashamed; you are not going to the market. There is the rule as per what you can wear, to be corporate going to the office, it is only on Fridays we dress in native. The Civil Servants are a difficult set of people to manage like any human being. They come in where there is change, the change is positive but they don’t look at it as positive change, they look at it as harassment, high-handedness, and so they resist it, but gradually they are getting it because when we go again this year, we tell you where we stopped last year. Is it the late coming? They brought clocking in and clocking out; is that a solution? We have so far seen that it is not a solution. You come in and clock in quickly after that you disappear, nobody has a record of where you have been the whole day, and when it is time to clock out, wherever you are, you rush back.
Where have you been the whole day? Are the directors or heads of those units and departments checking to know whether you are in the office because we cannot do it alone from our office without knowing what is happening. We have to get information and act according to the rules, if we don’t get it, we cannot act. We have tried to see how we stop salaries going in like that, let the heads of the departments and units sign every month that this officer was indeed there from first to the end of the month, it is not working for us. We have also said how you encourage the ones that you know that work hard, do you kill that one because we tend to overuse officers who work well, and ignore the ones who don’t work? How do we encourage the ones that work hard, because, for me, only a few are picked up from the ones who work hard. If a Chief executive does not work with you, and you are a hard working person, nobody knows you are hardworking. It is when he works with you and says this officer can be encouraged, that is when the officer will make it by being recognized, what follows the recognition? The civil service does not have enough room for award, double promotion, increase of salary for officers who work hard. These are the areas that the operators of the organised private sector do better than us. As much as we have advanced this, written about it, there are no coverage in the law; it is unfortunate,
We know you are playing a very pivotal role in formation of the SMART Ladies which has to do with galvanising women in support of the present administration especially within the PDP. But people have asked the question which is better for the women. Getting them galvanised to support men that are in power or sensitising them to take the driver’s seat?
In your lifetime, do you wish to see a female governor and for how long will women be contented with tokenism in appointive positions?
The SMART Ladies is not the first time we are organising women to support government. In Ibori’s time, we had a group called the ‘Victorious Women’ that was there to support Ibori’s government and in Uduaghan’s government, Uduaghan Vanguard was there.
It is not a pressure group per se; it is just a sub-group put together to support the main body which is PDP women group and PDP as a whole. Where they cannot get to, we’ll get to and what they cannot say; sometimes we say them and so on. It is just to give support to the party. It is not to pitch them against the men, but just to let them (women) realise we also have a role and so they cannot tie their political career around the men and be clapping hands. If you look at them, we have a lot of Doctors, Lawyers and PhD holders, up to the market women. And if their male counterparts can be used for anything; they are more than qualified to do anything and not just women leaders.
Somebody called me ‘Iron Lady some few days ago and I was mad at that person. What is the meaning of iron lady? Has it a meaning? We are putting them together to make them have a drive that they can use to support their main party. And it also helps them to control their movement so you don’t hear that tomorrow, some of them have moved to another political party for one reason or the other. But luckily, when the women support you, they support you. They don’t drink it off and they are very loyal. You say a programme is starting by 8am, 7:30 they are already there compare this to men who would not come early and would not stay patiently like women.
Women can be relied on, and I just want to say this has been going on and it would continue to be on.
You have had the rare privilege to have worked closely with all the elected governors in the state how can you rank them in terms of responsiveness, democratic disposition and in terms of passion for service delivery?
All the governors you’re talking about, I’ve worked with them all. I had very good personal relationship with them and also, a good working relationship with them. And, as you know,, everybody will work according to his own zeal and God-givien wisdom and so I cannot rank them and I refuse to rank them but I do know that in your heart of heart if you also decided to rank without measures, a few things can happen that you can say this person didn’t do this and that person forgot to do that but I’ll not be the one to tell you. I refuse to be boxed on this, but they have all done very well.
By 2023, Okowa would have completed his second tenure as governor of the state and of course the PDP top shots would have to think about how to possibly zone and get the number one slot among the three senatorial districts. If you are asked at a pan-Deltan conference, what would you say about the zoning? Should it start with Delta central which first picked the ticket first in 1999 or we should take a cue from the “Osusu formula” in which the man that picked last could also pick the first when another round starts?
Talking about zoning, you can see we are friends now and I mean the three senatorial districts. We are friends and we are brothers now and what made us achieve that brotherliness is because of the zoning that we have stated putting in place. When we did it, many people resisted it. We have more people and we don’t do our things alone, we do it with people. But some were asserting it to themselves alone, it is okay, let us zone it. We brought in equity.
Equity will make it clear and more glaring to people that if we zone it, we will achieve friendship. And we did it for the first time and by the grace of God, we achieved it. After that what next? It would still flow. Now, it is going round. Yes, you are asking a question and this question might also be going round in the mind of people. Do we not do it like Osusu (thrift) which the last person pack December and again, packs January? But that is not right.
However, seriously, I think that the continuity of that friendship and brotherliness that we have already cultivated should be allowed to continue so as not to destabilize what we have already built. And that is one of the areas political peace has been achieved and it has permeated round the whole place and it has entered into the heart of the people. We will plead with those who are expecting the Osusu to go back to allow it be so that we can continue to be friends. Everybody has now tasted it and we know how difficult and easy it is, how lucrative and how troublesome it is and everything, we have tasted it all so you cannot tell the story to anybody. We all know now. So let’s leave it the way it is, it is best for us.
You have been in the system for awhile now, what is the future of the PDP come 2023, I mean at the national level. What plans have they to clinch back the Aso Villa?
I think that after this time, APC would be gone. After this era, APC would be gone and forgotten and that is the truth. Was there an APC? There was nothing like APC, they were all members of PDP name one person who was originally an APC and still remain in APC till today. So, what I am trying to say is that, by the grace of God, I am very sure that we are taking back the mantle of leadership of this country come 2023. We are waiting for it eagerly and we are working towards it assiduously and, by the grace of God, we will achieve it.
How is your Commission Funded?.
Also, I want to say a big thank you through this medium to the governor of the state, Senator Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa who has always been there for us in terms of funding. I am a very innovative person, and each time I bring in an innovation, I discuss it with him and I want to do this, I think if we do this it would improve this area and once you convince him, he would say just go on, do a memo and he approves it instantly. When he approves promotions, he would say “Treat this with urgency as required” He does not joke with things like that. He would say, “Pay immediately”. So, he has always supported us with funding even if he has to take from his own budgetary allocations. And that encourages us to do even more. You must have heard that recently, we reviewed the 40 year old, 1978 public service rules and regulations. You people have been using the one of 40 years ago. The last one was 1978. And I went to him and said, “Your Excellency, I think we may have to review these rules and regulations. It is 40 years old. Obsolete. And it cannot be serving in this environment of today”.
He agreed with me. We sent a memo in and he approved it. And we have since concluded that we will put a committee in place, drawn from everywhere in government and we have since completed it and it is at the stage of printing. So, we now have a website in the Civil Service Commission and so everything is now digitized. All the files of the civil servants are now there in digital form. So, in January, we sent to every ministry, those retiring in your ministry. So, we start reminding them that they are retiring and what month they are retiring. So, start reminding them.
Ministries were supposed to generate this information and give to us but we have taken it upon ourselves because you find people who ought to have retired two years ago writing today to tell you they are retiring two years ago and I’ll just underline the date. You are writing in 2020 to tell me that you are retiring in 2018. Fair enough, it is approved but all money earned in excess would be deducted at terminal point; it is not my fault. So, we are getting less of that now but it is still within the system..
If I was in the system, won’t you tell me that I should have retired? Would you still be looking at me? So, these are the things. If you want to see us and talk to us you can talk to us either through our website. Go there and read about us and you will see so many things we are doing.
Madam, you have served in various capacities and leaving behind some innovative footprints. There is no retirement in politics, we have taken that today. But eventually someday, everyone will go the way of mortals though depending on how long more that will be for you but when that bell tolls, how would you want Dame Patience Nkem Okwoufo to be remembered?
Hmm… Yes! Thank God a day will come and we will all go back. We are all looking forward to it. And the place I’m going is closer than the place I have passed and it is with joy that I move. I am not looking for it now, but we are moving towards it. One of my pains so far today is that unfortunately the few ones or those persons who move into places given appointments make marks and set paces there. Like if you should go through my antecedents, you will find by the grace of God that I have risen to say, “Yes! I have done it everywhere I went to”. Diligently, I have left a mark in every office I have been posted. Is it DBS Warri, Post Primaries SUBBEB or wherever? Is it culture and tourism that was nothing that I built from the scratch which was my first office? But when you want to sit down there and you are sentimental towards those offices. And when things are not going on well the way you left it, it hurts. And I suffer that hurt from day to day seeing that, yes you are leaving a place whether you left your shoe size or bigger one, we want people to maintain the standard of what you put there. Unfortunately, 24 to 48 hours you leave there, everything goes back, right down. And you are there watching and seeing it. It is so painful.
What I am saying is that, one would have loved a situation whereby you set a pace somewhere, leave a landmark and put a standard in place and you expect that those who come up would try to beat that standard rather than crushing that standard.
I do wish that one’s legacy should not be killed. Because it kills you morally too. And I do hope that things can be improved upon.