Wednesday, 29th November 2023

‘Best man should win the contest for NASS leadership’

By Godwin Ijediogor
13 May 2023   |   4:01 am
I don’t feel any different. Maybe it is as a result of the fact that I haven’t begun my duties as a legislator. So, I am still the JOT you know.

 Joel-Onowakpo Thomas

Senator-elect for Delta South Senatorial District on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Joel-Onowakpo Thomas (JOT), in this interview with GODWIN IJEDIOGOR, speaks on issues ranging from his humble beginning, sojourn in politics, election as Senator, tussle for the leadership of the 10th NASS and how he intends to represent his people.

How do you feel as senator-elect?
I don’t feel any different. Maybe it is as a result of the fact that I haven’t begun my duties as a legislator. So, I am still the JOT you know. However, I wish to let you know that I feel fulfilled, for it is a dream come true. I will forever remain grateful to God and the good people of Delta South senatorial district, nay Delta State, for finding me worthy of this important assignment. 

Besides, this mandate was given to me by the good people of Delta South basically to serve, and as a servant, all I think of now is how to serve my people properly. For now, I am glad and appreciative to my constituents, supporters and God for according me this opportunity to be senator. I just want to get into the Red Chamber and start my job. 

What is your vision for Delta South Senatorial District?
My vision is to serve the people of my district to the best of my ability. I want to give them the best of representation. I want them to feel the impact of government and I want to leave the office better than I met it. This is why during the campaigns, I anchored my manifesto on the acronym, ‘DUE,’ which stands for Drastic Infrastructure Development, Unique Empowerment Initiatives and Effective Legislation. Being one of the senatorial districts that lay the golden egg in terms of revenue generation to the treasury of this country, Delta South deserves more than crumbs. I believe the time has come to accord Delta South what is ‘DUE’ her.

As an individual, what are your expectations of the 10th NASS and how will you facilitate such expectations?
If truly the National Assembly (NASS) is the second arm of government, I want them to live up to that expectation in a very professional way that is not confrontational with other arms of government, especially the Executive. There should be mutual respect for all arms of government, with the sole aim of serving the people of this country. This country is currently in Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The National Assembly, while supporting the other arms of government, should prevent this country from going into extinction. 

This is not the time to engage in unnecessary controversy or parochial drives, but a time when all stakeholders should sincerely synergise with the interest of moving this country to where we earnestly want it to be. This should show in our services to our people and the nation.

The 10th National Assembly should be known for professionalism, selflessness, progress, national integration and unity. Personally, I will try to ensure that what is due the different geopolitical zones are given to them. Some of the major challenges facing this country are divisiveness, selfish interest and lack of trust. By the time we begin to see ourselves as one indivisible entity, the quest to fight for one region against the interest of another will be a thing of the past. 

What is your take on the current leadership struggle in NASS?
I have been away. However, I am aware that there are a lot of people jostling for the principal positions. To me, what is happening is expected and I have absolutely no reservations. 

As a first-timer, I will watch carefully, and as a loyal party man, the interest of my people and party will come first before another.

Your party and the President-elect have reportedly endorsed Senator Godswill Akpabio for the post of Senate President. What is your take?
I am not aware; I have heard it just the way you said it. To me, like my name, ‘Thomas’, I consider this as mere speculation. 

I want to beg the press not to give the President-elect unnecessary baggage. The issue about the leadership of NASS is a sensitive one. I will expect that whoever emerges should be so from a process. It is the duty of the candidates to earn the respect and trust of their colleagues, and these colleagues should be able to take ownership of the leadership. Doing anything to the contrary will amount to the President-elect taking sides. 

So, if asked, I will say that the President-elect has not endorsed anybody to my knowledge. The field is free for all who are qualified to aspire and the last thing this NASS won’t want to be associated with is that they are rubber stamp. Even if we want to be rubber stamp, I am pretty sure that we will do it with some level of dignity. Therefore, let the best man win.

The NWC of your party has come up with a zoning formula. Don’t you think the issue of who becomes the Senate President and other principal officers of the 10th NASS is a settled matter?
I also saw the letter, and if it is the letter you are referring to, I think you need to read it again and possibly read in between the lines and you will understand that some persons are trying to play a fast one and the NWC of our party was so smart to spot the game and quickly did the right thing by issuing a subtle disclaimer. 

Simply put, the NWC is saying they were presented with a report as stated below, but because they were not convinced, they had asked that further consultation and harmonisation should be done that will safeguard the interest of all concerned. 

From the above, do you see that letter as an endorsement or a settled case?
Persuasion, interaction, compromise and all instruments of bargain have to be deployed to reach a consensus. 

Who is your candidate? 
I currently don’t have any candidate. I just came back and I have spoken to all candidates. Since I came back, however, I have met three of the candidates. I am yet to meet with the remaining three. I am still assessing my options and I will finally align with the person that will support my vision in developing my senatorial district and give the senate the best of leadership. 
I have only one vote. I have no control of other senators’ votes and I intend to use that one vote wisely. 

But as I said earlier, the interest of my people and party will top others. I am aware that my people voted for me because they trust me and that I will do the right thing. I do not intend to take that trust lightly. My focus is, what will benefit my people and move Nigeria forward. I am not in NASS to make friends that will not add value to my people and make Nigeria better. Primarily, I am here to be a voice to the constituents of Delta South, a place with massive production of crude oil and gas, yet in abject poverty. I want that story to change. I don’t know how the government will be able to do it, but I want our cities to benefit from their God-given resources. 

I am here to make friends who see reasons to be sympathetic to our plight and who will join me to change the story. Anything short of that, please count me out. And I want to say this for the benefit of all; my one vote has only one condition – the welfare of my people. My vote will not support arguments for religious or ethnic imbalance. My vote will go for the best man.

So, what message do you have for Nigerians with regard to the 10th NASS?
Nigerians should expect a robust 10th NASS. We will strive to justify the confidence reposed in us. Let’s join hands together to build one Nigeria that this present generation and generations yet unborn will be proud of.   

Meanwhile, we must all know that Nigeria is our only country. We should not be so eager to destroy it as a people. So, I want to appeal to leaders and followers alike to be patriotic citizens by putting the overall interest of the country ahead. We cannot continue painting this country in bad images. 
The press has a critical role to play in this regard. Leaders should be people-oriented in their approaches and followers should be willing to give the needed cooperation to leaders, so as to avoid distraction that will take this country backward.

What is your assessment of the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, and his vision for the country?
The President-elect is a man I have tremendous respect for. I am grateful to God that I am a senator at a time he is the President. I consider this a unique opportunity and privilege to draw inspiration from him. 

I know he means well for the country and he is more than determined to do well. My prayer is for him not to lose focus. He should just stick to what he wants to achieve. 

It is my advice that he shouldn’t meddle with the leadership of NASS, because he has so many like minds in the NASS that will help drive his vision. We are all tired of doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result. We want that impactful change, and he has the capacity to do so. 

I have often joked with friends when asked this same question and my answer has always been that I don’t expect too much from our President-elect. He should just fix the power problem in Nigeria the same way former President Olusegun Obasanjo fixed the issue of telecommunications. I have experience in different fields of human endeavours, from being an entrepreneur to being a tax practitioner and tax administrator. I am good at finance and financial management. In the midst of his many advisers, I am willing to contribute my knowledge in whatever is necessary to advance his goals in bailing this country out of its current situation.

How do you feel now that your party did not win the governorship election in the state?
Well, I have taken it in the spirit of sportsmanship. However, this matter is still before the tribunal and I am very optimistic that we will win at the tribunal. I encourage all our supporters to remain calm and be prayerful. So, I wouldn’t want to speak more. 

But permit me to say that it would have been better for me if my candidate, Ovie Omo-Agege, emerged the winner of the election, because that would have made my job seamless. It would have been very easy, because his wealth of experience as a distinguished senator of high repute would have been brought to bear in governing the state, while I am in the senate contributing my quota.

In the meantime, I just give glory to God that the party will be having two senators from Delta State in the Red Chambers, while waiting for the verdict at the tribunal. 

What is your relationship with your governorship candidate and the deputy senate president, Omo-Agege?
He is my brother, friend and leader. He was the vessel God used to make me a senator. He was the one who saw what was in me and took time to visit me and pressured me to contest for the position and after I finally agreed to run for the office, Omo-Agege stood firmly for me and with me all through the process. 

I can tell you that he has a kind heart and means well in all he does. I believe he is greatly misunderstood sometimes. The truth is that he has the best interest of his people at heart and always willing to serve to change the ugly narratives. 

What is your reaction to the series of publications by your PDP opponent challenging your election while you were on vacation?
It was brought to my attention; I didn’t bother to read it. Michael Diden is my brother and friend. We grew up in similar circumstances and we were offered similar opportunities in life, which have brought us to where we are today. It wasn’t our power or what we know how to do best that has brought us to this level.   Everything we have today is God-given, and I know he is aware of this. He shouldn’t be misled to think otherwise. 

We went into a contest and I emerged a winner. He has gone to court to challenge that victory, which is alright because it is within his right to do so. Writing on pages of newspapers for a matter you have taken to court shows that he wants to be a judge in his matter. I expected that his advisers would have told him that it is a wrong move. I personally didn’t spend time reading it, because judgment is not going to be given by the many newspapers paid to carry a story.

However, I have excellent relationship with him. He knows we are both made of the same stuff; let him go and find out. It will be in our mutual interest for him not to fight me. We have had enough fight!

How did you venture into politics?
I started my political career in Alliance for Democracy (AD) in Delta State in the 2003 general elections, with Chief Great Ogboru as the governorship candidate against Chief James Ibori of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). 

After the 2003 elections, Ibori initiated a move, coordinated by Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan and Chief Ighoyota Amori that brought us to PDP in 2004. In 2006, my uncle, Chief Joseph Onothome Udevieme Ofo (of blessed memory) and his friend, Chief Sargeant Uredi, projected me for the Delta State House of Assembly election.

In spite of the huge support I got from them, which was coordinated by the then member of the House of Assembly, representing my constituency, Chief Ross Uredi, I was asked to step down a night before the primary election for my opponent, Chief Benjamin Efekodo, who eventually won the main election in 2007, in an intervention meeting attended by Chief Solomon Ogba, Chief Josiah Iroro and Chief Erezi Esievo. 
After the 2007 elections, the then governor, Uduaghan, out of the kindness of his heart appointed me as the transition committee chairman of Isoko South local council. This eventually made me a council chairman. The same governor, at the end of my tenure after few months, appointed me as the first executive chairman of Delta State Board of Internal Revenue (DBIR) in 2009. 

While serving on this Board, God favoured me with inspiration and ideas. My footprints are everywhere in Delta State. We moved Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) from N12 billion to N56 billion annually, built state-of-the-art infrastructure as offices across the state and created massive employment. 

In 2016, after the emergence of Muhammadu Buhari as President, my mentor, former colleague and friend, Tunde Fowler, was appointed as chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), and in his attempt to hunt for the best brains in the profession, I was invited to join the revenue administration as Deputy Director/State Coordinator overseeing Rivers, Edo and Delta states. 

In 2018, I resigned my position, left the PDP and joined the APC to contest the House of Representatives election for the Isoko North/Isoko South Federal Constituency, but lost.