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It was a sunny day and the atmosphere was convivial with hundreds of youths dressed in their beautiful colours. The multipurpose hall was filled to the brim; so also the outer part of the hall occupied by another set under arranged canopies.

The Delta State governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, was welcomed with a parade and a salute by the youths who filed out for a ceremonial parade. It was the tradition of the place to welcome an August visitor-the governor with a ceremonial parade. The governor was at the Songhai-Delta, Amukpe in Sapele Local Government Area of the state to flag-off the much-flaunted job and wealth creation programme, christened “Okowaplus”.

On assumption of office on May 29, Okowa’s first action was to launch the job and wealth creation scheme which was later christened “Okowaplus”, a phrase coined to suit his “S.M.A.R.T” agenda and further bring to reality the “prosperity for all Deltans” mantra.

From his vision, Delta State literally has ‘surplus’ to offer and his administration is poised to delivering  this ‘abundant’ democratic resources to Deltans.

The programme which promises to get young people off the streets is tailored at not giving  cash rewards or political empowerment to the youths for voting the governor to power but to give the unemployed youths all-round training and development as entrepreneurs, managers and leaders.

So the governor's official visit was like a big celebration of some sorts. Some of the youngsters, donning a sky blue cap, with inscriptions “STEP”, on a white T-shirt with a pair of trousers, the official uniform of the trainees, had dramatised the process leading to their successful enlistment in the programme at the inauguration ceremony. They said that the vocational scheme which  was announced by Governor Okowa in his inaugural speech is a testimony of the new dawn that Deltans will experience throughout Okowa’s tenure.

Through the Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurs Programme (YAGEP) and Skills Training and Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP) as well as Production and Processing Support Programme (PPSP), Development of Agro-Industries, and Extension of Microcredit which he entrusted in the hands of a professor, Eric Eboh, a man he believes will deliver the job, Okowa appears to be setting the stage to transform the lives of thousands of unemployed youths in the state.

Solving the problem of unemployment is a priority to him and it involves a unique plan to keep the youths off the streets. So after weeks of screening, verification, the panelists finally identified a numbers of youths who were transparently selected across board and would be the first batch of over 6,000 youths for the training programme.

Okowa is sure that the scheme would create 6,000 jobs in every six months-in summation, it means in the next four years of his administration, the job creation scheme, would have created 48,000 direct jobs for unemployment youths in the state.

But in the absence of a precise definition of monetary involvement of the scheme, it is impossible to estimate what it will gulp from the state’s coffer but Eboh said the state has designed plans to ensure that government doesn’t run the programme on a deficit.

Although it is presumed that the cost could be considerably high, the cost of pursuing peace and security, another panacea for engendering growth and development and fighting youth unemployment scourge in the Nigerian society should absolutely not be called into question.

The scheme which focuses on youths living in gang-ridden communities, under-privileged youths, unemployed graduates and others who are willing and passionate to create a living for themselves was conceptualised by Governor Okowa, a medical Doctor by profession, after he created the State Job Creation Office, a special purpose vehicle to drive the initiative.

The programme which is not the typical empowerment programme that is often cash-based, according to the governor, promises to build a knowledge economy, equip participants with the technical know-how, vocational/technical skills, values and resources to become self-employed and employers of labour.

The youths, numbering 1,645 drawn from the streets of the metropolitan city of Warri, Sapele, Ughelli, Agbor, Asaba and other local councils areas of the state, are currently camped in Songhai-Delta, a skill acquisition centre built during former Governor James Ibori’s tenure for the purpose of training unemployed youths in the state. The youths are the first batch of those shortlisted after a screening exercise of over 70,000 applicants who had indicated interest for the free-of-charge programme.

The Songhai-Delta Amukpe, where the youths are being trained, was commissioned by the Ibori administration in March 2003 and registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission as a company limited by guarantee in September 2005. The corporate goal of the company is to enhance food sufficiency and stimulate the interest of youths in sustainable agriculture for self-employment and wealth creation.

Theophilus Okpidi is the Executive Consultant of the Centre. He said at inception, that the centre recorded a major breakthrough in the agricultural sector and became a tourist attraction nationally and internationally. Therefore, while commending Governor Okowa for revamping the process that has brought the centre to its present state, he urged him to further remodel the establishment after the Integrated Rural Development and Entrepreneurship Centre of Songhai-Parakou, Port Novo, Republic of Benin.

From the centre, the youngsters will hone their various skills from three to six months but what is not clear is whether the state government had carried out an impact assessment of previous scheme acquisition programmes of the state in order to improve young people’s chances in the job market and economy of the state.

To Okowa, the scheme has been strategically designed, tactically planned and specifically tailored to tackle unemployment problems and produce lasting and sustainable prosperity across the state in such a way that there shouldn’t be any doubt as to whether its goals would be achieved.

Giving a graphic details of the scheme, Governor Okowa said that while previous programmes sought to prepare people for employment, the Job and Wealth Creation Scheme seeks to produce wealth creators and job creators, adding that critical difference  also exists in the selection and screening process, training approach, management system, and collaboration with the organised private sector.

These, no doubt, are contradictions of the old order where such skills programme were used to reward political jobbers, party faithful, traditional rulers, and their likes;it was just a tool to offer reward to the ‘loyal boys’.

At the inauguration ceremony, the governor, who was presented with a certificate of honour by the National Association of Delta State Students (NADESSTU) undergoing their agricultural internship at the centre, said that the state government has launched a database of unemployed youths in the state through its job and wealth creation scheme. This was never the case. From the database introduced by the state Office of the Job Creation, more youths who had undergone screening and evaluation would be shortlisted to join the scheme.

“By the next six months when the next phase begins, we will simply pull out the next set of participants from the database, so, there is opportunity for as many as are qualified to be enlisted in subsequent phases of the scheme,” Okowa said.

The Governor who was flanked by his deputy, Barrister Kingsley Otuaro, said that the  event is the latest part of his efforts to bring prosperity to the state through his five-point agenda which encapsulates strategic wealth creation projects and provision of jobs for all Deltans, meaningful peacebuilding platform aimed at political/social stability, agricultural reforms and accelerated industrialisation, relevant health and education policies as well as transformed environment through massive urban renewal.

“Today's event is an undeniable proof that our administration's S.M.A.R.T agenda is well and truly on course; it goes without saying that job and wealth creation are the bedrock of the S.M.A.R.T agenda, with YAGEP and STEP as the flagship programmes,” Okowa added.

The State Commissioner for Economic Planning, Hon. Kingsley Emu, who has been on the driver seat for the success of the programme, said that the scheme would be a huge success, adding that already, the participants are in high spirit and assured that at the end of the day, they will surpass the governor’s expectations.

Besides, Okpidi, expressing thanks for the governor’s initiative, said that the centre is about to record another milestone with the number of youths it would train.

“I salute your courage and pray that God will make ways for you and direct your steps towards the actualisation of the job and wealth creation scheme for the benefits of Deltans,” he said.

One of the participants, Innocent Evi Ovritiri, said: “Some of us thought it was business as usual when we first heard about it in the news but after applying through the lay down guidelines at the local government level and seeing the transparency in the selection exercise, I began to have hope that it would be a huge success. I didn’t lobby or run to any politician to get my name enlisted.”

Another trainee, Julius Aturene Ojogbo,  said: “I was actually not sure of the process but to my greatest surprise my name was shortlisted. I went for the interview at Warri South Secretarial, tender all the relevant documents they asked for and behold, here I am today. I didn’t ‘press any button’, I don’t even have anyone to press so I just want to thank God and the Governor for giving me this opportunity.”

The presence of the Orodje of Okpe Kingdom, who sent one of his palace chiefs, notable traditional title holders, top government functionaries and other stakeholders from the various councils area to the colourful event, is an evidence of the willingness of Deltans to identify and support Okowa’s five-point agenda.

In the build up to the one-week orientation programme which includes courses in personal effectiveness, leadership and problem-solving to give participants the requisite life-skills and mind-set change essential for them to become successful entrepreneurs, Prof. Eboh said  in a statement issued by the governor’s Communication Manager, Mr. Jackson Ekwugum, that to pre-empt cases of participants dropping out along the way during the programme, a monitoring and mentoring mechanism has been incorporated into the scheme to track performance of participants and provide them counselling when necessary.

“The monitoring process will be aided by ICT-based information transmission, tracking and reporting technologies. Appropriate structures are in place to ensure that participants, trainers and all programme actors fulfill their responsibilities and commitments.

“Our selection process has thrown up an inclusive crop of trainees from among the population of applicants. Today, we are satisfied that the crop of trainees reflect a diverse mix of persons in terms of age, educational background, academic qualification, gender, socio-economic status and skills preferences. In fact, among the trainees, we have nursing mothers and the physically-challenged.

“I can assure you that this scheme is not just “business as usual”. It is designed to avoid the pitfalls of the past and ensure all-round training and development of youths as entrepreneurs, managers and leaders…the strategy and method we deploy in implementing the idea is excellent. The selection of participants is rigorously done to ensure inclusion of only interested, willing, passionate and committed unemployed youths who want to be entrepreneurs.

“Indeed, let me at this juncture, gladly inform you that many months from today, upon successful completion of their training, these youths will be branded and promoted as “STEPrepreneurs” and “YAGEPreneurs”. They will be ambassadors of “Prosperity for All Deltans”.

He however expressed the determination of the trainees to the programme, saying; “I have been personally interacting with them here at Amukpe. Based on my observations, I can confidently and happily announce to you, Sir, that, the trainees here gathered are energetically and thirstily fired-up for this programme. In fact, it does appear that they have been eagerly waiting and praying for this kind of intervention in their lives.

Eboh said the programme curriculum is designed to expose participants to both theoretical instruction and hands-on experience in existing enterprises. “Training is based on standard fit-for-purpose modules for the enterprise or trade,” he added.

He however explained that after the orientation programme participants will further undergo apprenticeship training in selected training centres after which they will proceed for internship in existing businesses in their chosen field, adding that depending on the enterprise, the duration for the training will last from three to six months.

Consequently, Eboh said that the training would be rounded off with an intensive course on entrepreneurship and business management at Songhai-Delta after which graduates will be given starter packs to start their businesses.

Essentially, the youth job scheme is not made to create immediate or short-term jobs, but made to create the missing link between vocational training and jobs and to give the youths long-term professional abilities. However, whether this long term purpose will be achieved or not, or will turn out another scheme to line the pockets of consultants and politicians who work for the successful election of the governor, only time will tell.

Written by Joe Ogbodu.
[email protected]

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