15 July 2008

Nigeria: Melford Okilo (1933 - 2008)


Lagos — Chief Melford Obiene Okilo, who died recently at the Federal Medical Centre, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, belonged to the first generation of politicians whose brand of politics many now recommend as a better model to present day politicians. He was an astute politician, visionary leader, great patriot, very humble and served the nation to the best of his ability. His brand of politics was that which enabled him access to all and sundry.

He never discriminated against anyone. This perhaps helped him to succeed as governor of the multi-lingual old Rivers State. "In politics, what I enjoy is the extended freedom to give to everybody and talk to everybody, love everybody and serve everybody. People look down on me for that. They do not know that therein lies my strength," he once wrote.

Okilo's political career actually began when he was barely 23 following his election into Parliament in 1956. He served in this capacity until 1959 when he moved on to serve as the Parliamentary Secretary between 1959 and 1964. He won the 1979 governorship election on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and became the first elected civilian governor of the old Rivers State which comprised the present Rivers and Bayelsa states in the Second Republic. He also won re-election on the same party platform in 1983 before General Muhammadu Buhari and his band of coup plotters truncated the tenure in the same year. He was also a Minister of Commerce during the General Sani Abacha regime.

On the rebirth of democracy in 1999, Okilo contested and won the Bayelsa East Senatorial seat to represent the area in the Senate on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from 1999 to 2003 but failed in his re-election bid in the 2003 elections. Other political offices held by the late Okilo included member, Constituent Assembly (1977-78), Chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN), Rivers state branch (1978-1983). He was given the national honour of the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1983 by former President Shehu Shagari.

Chief Okilo was a leader with good foresight. As governor of Rivers State which has a big industrial base, he saw the need to establish an institution that would be able to complement the staff need of the industries. He therefore decided to set up the first University of Science and Technology in Nigeria - Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) - at a time the Federal Government was even afraid of doing such a thing. Today, it stands out as one of the best and most successful science and technology based universities in Nigeria.

Okilo also introduced the famous "Decentralisation Policy" that saw the spread of infrastructure in all parts of the state. Again, at a time when independent power plants were not fashionable, Okilo, given the vast gas resource in the state, decided to set up an Independent Power Plant at Imiringi in Ogbia local government area which turned out to be the only source of electricity supply in Bayelsa at its creation from Rivers State in 1996 by the late Gen Sani Abacha.

An accomplished statesman and author, the late octogenarian was very forthright and yet humble. He was once asked to talk on "God, Man, and Politics." His response was simple: "All I know about this topic is my little experience in touching others as a human being and in being able to identify and solve the problems of humanity; God; I don't know God, but I know things that have happened that I believe are beyond human comparison so that we allude them to God." He did not go into unnecessary definition of the topic which would have ended up confusing his audience.

On another occasion he was asked to comment on the relationship between politics and God and if there was any relationship whatsoever between politics and the Russellian science and philosophy. Again, his response was simple. "People see only the bad side of politics. But the common man can do something to help his fellow human beings, to help the suffering masses, to provide for those who are not provided for, and this can happen through politics," he said.

The late Okilo, a lawyer and politician, was born on November 30, 1933 at Amakalakala, Brass, Rivers State and he was one of the few living to read news of his death while still alive. In 2005, the story came that Chief Okilo had died but he later resurfaced in Yenagoa, where he addressed a press conference on the state of his health, stating that he was in a trance for four days and was mistaken for dead. As a matter of fact, he said he was in a trance and was communicating with his peers and contemporaries and that he never knew he was asleep for four days.

Chief Okilo actually relocated to Port Harcourt, Rivers State from Abuja where he was residing as a result of his failing health. He was recently flown to the United States of America (USA) for treatment but when his condition was not improving, he was brought back by family members on his instruction.

We believe the family he left behind will be consoled by the fact that Okilo fought a good fight and left his marks in the annals of Nigerian history. May his soul rest in peac

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