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I Stand With Northern Governors Against Quit Notice to Igbo

Gov Seriake Dickson

His achievements as Governor of Bayelsa State stand tall among his peers, making him a popular leader among his people. Governor Henry Seriake Dickson, is fast building a national reputation based largely on his views and standpoint on some vexed national issues.

He is at times undiplomatic and too blunt to be a politician, the same qualities that endear him to many Nigerians outside his immediate community. In this interview with DAILY ASSET Editors, Governor Dickson speaks on his efforts to transform Bayelsa state, the crisis rocking his party – Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the lingering agitation for Biafra and the quit notice to Igbo by the Arewa youth groups among other critical national issues. Excerpts:

Recently a quit notice was issued to Igbo by some the Northern youths to leave the 19 Northern states, what is your position on this?

I condemn in very strong terms the quit notice on Ndigbo by misguided youth under the so-called Coalition of Arewa Youth. Nigeria has gone past that. The 1999 Constitution guarantees the right of all Nigerians to live in any part of the country and go about their daily bread without molestation. We must remain as one indivisible country because our strength lies in our diversity. We didn’t even need the civil war we fought as a country because it didn’t result in anything. I support what the Northern Governors Forum and their counterparts in the East have done. I read the statements by my governor colleagues and I believe that all governors are united in this: to see how we can promote peaceful co-existence and harmony. At our level as Governors, we set up a committee of which I am a member, to continually preach peace across the country and intervene in areas where need be.

I believe that the APC -led Federal Government could have done more in the area of promoting national unity and building trust amongst the peoples of this country. I have spoken about this severally. The country is too divided. The Federal Government should consciously promote national cohesion and unity. But unfortunately Government has not done enough whether in the management of federal political power, appointments or in evolving a national strategy to deal with the menace of herdsmen. The government must evolve the right strategy to contain all these as quickly as possible.

Your party, the PDP has been embroiled in crisis for a long time, is there any future at all for the PDP?
I think the right question should be what is the future of Nigerian democracy? The tragedy of our democracy today is that we neither have a strong political party in government nor a strong political party in opposition. You all know the efforts we in my committee made to reconcile the various tendencies in PDP so that the party could come back on stream to play its role as a credible opposition platform. As a matter of fact, Nigeria’s democracy is worse for it. Unfortunately our party has not been playing the role of an opposition party because of the needless crisis plaguing us. What is happening in PDP is a great danger to Nigeria democracy, but I still believe that all hope is not lost. But what is happening in PDP is unfortunately also happening in APC.

For our democracy to be secure, we need a strong party in government, strong cohesive united party in government, pursuing their democratic agenda as well as a virile party in opposition. But so far our democracy is weak because of the absence of these. There is crisis in APC, it is brewing and nobody is talking about it. The sooner we in the PDP salvage our platform that is terribly suffering a lot of de-marketing, the better for our democracy. It is unfortunate that a political party has to go to the judiciary to resolve its internal problem that is essentially political. Relying on the court to resolve internal crisis is an indictment of the political class. It is an indictment on the democratic credentials of all players. My belief, my views might be in the minority, but my belief is that the judiciary is being over worked and labored unnecessarily by political actors of all parties. We have abdicated our responsibilities as political players, we have surrendered too much to the judiciary, we have involved the judiciary in too many unnecessary political issues, and thereby exposing them to ridicule. We are not helping the judiciary.

Political leaders who are key players in the democratic system should show the maturity, the political temperament, the credentials to be able to recognize and solve problems within themselves and see politics as essential element of democracy, which is a market place of ideas. We all do not need to belong to one political party, even within our parties there are tendencies. There should be contestation of tendencies but the irony in Nigeria is that politicians in Nigeria are more militant than the military. Honestly, politicians in Nigeria do not know how to argue or disagree amongst themselves. We don’t listen to ourselves, we can’t argue amongst ourselves. If you hold a divergent view, you are marked for destruction or blackmail, or tagged, as being antiparty and this is so because our political actors and leaders neither have the skills nor the democratic temperament to drive the political process.

These are partly the reasons why the crises in both PDP and APC are strong. In the US for example, you see all the tendencies playing out, Clinton on the centre of the Democratic Party, you have Bernie Sanders on the left of the Democratic Party and others. So also in the Republican Party, all marketing their ideas.

But I am confident PDP will still bounce back after the Supreme Court judgment but my view is that we had no business going to court. If PDP leaders had agreed to implement our template for reconciliation, a national unity convention would have held this month to elect a brand new leadership. But some leaders preferred the court. Months down the line, we are still at the mercy of the Judiciary; waiting for a verdict, while the party bleeds; something we should have resolved politically to best save the party. The irony of it is that the Judiciary does not reconcile, it only adjudicates. Even after the Supreme Court judgment, the party will still hold a convention and embark on aggressive confidence building and reconciliation. So what is the real reason for going to court? As for me and my committee, we shall not give up on PDP. Reconciliation is ongoing, court or no court. After the judgment, I will address party faithful. People should stop decamping from PDP or leaving PDP to form new political platforms.

I was opposed to Senator Ali Modi-Sheriff when some of my colleagues and others brought him. I didn’t like that, I thought that our party needed a fresh face to craft a fresh message after losing power at the centre. Losing election is bad but that is not the end of the world for a party or for a politician. Unfortunately those who brought him for whatever reason, fell apart with him. And when the Appeal Court upheld Sheriff as Chairman, I as a product of the law, as a law-abiding citizen adhered to the Court Judgment and recognized him as Chairman by submitting the report of the Reconciliation Committee which I chair and the same people said I was a Sheriff man. As politicians we shouldn’t be law breakers or hold the Judiciary in contempt. We should not personalize judicial pronouncements by selecting the verdicts to respect!

Why should a politician for example want to pocket his party. Why should you be the one to select the National Chairman and Secretary and all the other posts? That they must be in your pocket for you to be a member of that party, does that make sense, is that not madness? If that is the thrust of a politician then you can go and form a political party of your family and be in charge. But once it’s a national party, it is an aggregation of all interests and top of which is the national interest. After the Supreme Court judgment, PDP must address many of its problems top of which is funding.

You appear to place a lot of attention on the Bayelsa airport project, is it the best thing you can do for your state at this time?

The Airport will open up the state, enable people to fly into Bayelsa and fly out both for business, pleasure and generally create a hub for businesses. You know Bayelsa State is the historical centre of oil and gas and yet there is no  meaningful activity in that sector now and when you ask the companies why they are not in Bayelsa, some of them would say because there is no airport; they can’t fly in and fly out. So we don’t even control elements of the oil trade because there is no airport, no seaport.

There are a lot of companies outside that are in touch with my team and I and we will also be meeting with many more. They want to use it as a hub, they are coming in with planes, to run their services, fly from Baylesa, Lagos, Abuja and other cities and also service the Gulf of Guinea. Most of you don’t know that you can stay in Bayelsa and service the Gulf of Guinea because we are at the tip of the country just by the ocean, you fly thirty minutes from Baylesa and you are in Equatorial Guinea. So that is the way it is and that is the market we are targeting. I will be reaching out to a lot of business people, because the airport is not just an airport, we want to make it as I said a trading hub, I want to talk to businessmen, all these importers, to come and build warehouses. So from China they come; it is actually  going to be  a trade zone, a free trade zone, the airport itself. So all the goods coming into South-South, South-East and most other parts of the country will be there, there will be market for it, that is why the airport is very important.

We are doing a road from the airport, so from the East -West, you can easily get to the airport, we will capture all that market, Warri, Ahoada, Ughelli and so on. But we have a strategic plan targeted at opening the airport for business because it is a thing that can accelerate our development, not just Bayelsa.

Development of any state, or any nation is to create a business friendly environment and then build the infrastructure that can attract and encourage businesses to grow, so we have a strategic plan and that’s why this airport is so critical.  There is a plan for a deep sea port, about one hour drive from the airport,  the Agge Deep Sea Port. Again we have been laboring to build the road that will take us to Ekeremor, the next local government, 50 kilometres long. These are the big-ticket projects we will be doing. Visit Bayelsa, I will like you people to have an idea of what we go through to build roads.  We are building the road from Sagbama to Ekeremor which is about 50 kilometres, we have sand filled about forty seven kilometres already. I moved in a second dredger recently. Even in this recession we are doing that. Even though it is costly, very expensive, they are pumping sand day and night because we got to get to that local government and see what we can move from Ekeremor to Agge, which is about 67 kilometres from Ekeremor. We also did another 70 kilometres to get to Agge that is by the ocean.

As I always say the wealth of Bayelsa lies in the sea. We have the most beautiful beach in the whole of this area, the Agge beach – white sand, long stretch of beach, lot of things can happen- tourism, maritime- related investment and that is the best location for a deep sea port in this country. As we know, we don’t really have a deep sea port in Nigeria, we have lots of trans-shipment going on. The Ekeremor road I talked about will cost over N40 billion! I am even scared there will be other variations, because of inflation and the exchange rate and so on. We are bent on delivering on that road before the end of my tenure.  “

From that deep sea port to remote areas, we are opening up a joint trade corridor in the South- South and South-East because the end of my local government, Sagbama Local Government is very close to Onitsha and there are a lot of oil facilities  and gas flaring going on. What I have started doing as part of our strategic plan is to engage even the oil companies, NNPC and I have visited all of them, gotten their support to provide power, 24-hours.

We have acquired 400 hectres space of land and we shall make it a huge market for industrial estate linking it up with the South Eastern market – Onitsha and so on.

How are you funding the airport project given its expensive nature?

I went to the Bayelsa State House of Assembly and secured approval to obtain a N50 billion facility to deliver on the airport and tied it to the various contracts that would be awarded.

So, immediately the dredging companies verified with the bank, they knew that their money was there in the bank and  worked day and night and within one year, they finished the dredging, and we expanded the scope of the airport from two kilometers runway to 3.5 kilometers because we have to make it commercially viable. Right now it is only in Lagos that big cargo planes can land, even cargo plane servicing the oil industries bringing in oil tools, carrying merchandise can’t land in Port Harcourt, Enugu, or any other airport in the South-South. Cargo planes can only land in Lagos, Kano and Abuja airports. So we have to structure it for that type of traffic. It is actually a cargo airport, to cover the south-south, south-east.

So we are building actually the biggest state-owned airport. The contract was awarded to Dantata and Sawoe and it is now almost 90 percent completed. We now have the runway, we have the terminal building, now I am awarding the contract for the navigational instruments. When they are installed, you have the airport.

Apart from the airport, what else is your administration doing in the strategic plan you spoke about?

We are working with our partners collaborating on the big industrial park, collaborating with IOCs, the NNPCs, on supply of power. They are flaring the gas even as we speak. We are converting gas to power, so that when we have 24-hour supply, it will now be a manufacturing hub for companies that want to manufacture. Part of the challenges in Bayelsa State is we don’t have strong private sector participation. The whole economy revolves around state government expenditure, so that puts a lot of pressure on governance, affects the politics adversely and these are the reasons why we need the participation of the private sector.

A couple of days ago Shell’s country chief was my guest in Bayelsa. A lot of things are changing, they know the narrative about Bayelsa is changing, people can see life -changing projects and government projects are impacting on the people and there is relative stability.  We have invested heavily in security and today, Bayelsa is the safest state and most stable state even though it is at  the epi-centre of  Niger Delta issues, concerns and struggles. Next week, I will be receiving the Agip Country Chief, I have met the NNPC MD, last week and I interacted with the Ag. President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo to market the brass fertilizer project as well. I will also meet the chairman and management of the Brass LNG project, Dr. Jackson Gaius-Obaseki in Lagos before I go back to Yenagoa. You can see that my agenda is of course to a large extent delivered on  two critical ends, the social investment end fully delivered. You have the best public schools, not private funded schools in Bayelsa State.

 In Bayelsa we have made a revolutionary intervention in education not only in terms of the scholarships that we are giving out and our students are doing very well but we are building schools, schools. As you know, I did declare a state of  emergency in the education sector. It was not just a political slogan. I really meant it. We have committed over N55 billion, building schools, for scholarships, building quarters for teachers, building laboratories, boarding houses, libraries, supplying books, supplying uniforms, paying JAMB, NECO, WAEC fees, all by government.

The Ijaw National Academy for example, a school we designed and built from scratch in the midst of a massive forest is now like a university but it is a secondary school and you have 1,000 students right there now, all on state government sponsorship. And it is boarding. In other words, you see them they go for feeding, three times a day we feed them, their uniforms provided. We select the best students from all the primary schools, boys and girls, top students, and they do an examination and we select the very best again and tell their parents from now on till they end their secondary education, these students are state government ‘‘property’’.

What you only do is  buy buckets, cutlass and then the hostel wear.

We are embarking on massive mobilization of people, I had to even threaten parents and guardians, I have built the schools, the facilities are there, the children have been tested, exams taken to select them and if you don’t allow your child to go I will order your arrest. I have built the schools and I have equipped them and given uniforms, books , feeding is free and I have taken pains to have people  go around to select the best 10 in every secondary school and those ones were brought together and they took exams and we took the very best. And we say ok this is the list, you parents only buy buckets, cutlass, brooms and house wear of N5,000 and now send that child to the school. Do you know that my press team is still running adverts telling parents to release their children to go to school?

Look at Ijaw National Academy, 900 Bayelsans were offered admission, the remaining 100 are Ijaw drawn from states like Ondo, Edo, Delta, Akwa Ibom and Rivers because a Bayelsa Governor has a responsibility to cater for the Ijaw outside the state. The head girl in the Ijaw National Academy is from Edo State and I selected them four years ago. Initially what I did was to give scholarships and send them to the best secondary schools in the country. But after building these schools, I brought them back home.

In every local government we have well equipped schools and in Kolokuma-Okpokuma Local Government alone, you have Ijaw National Academy and the Sports Academy.

 

Is the governmentcnot taking on too much?

The reason we are doing that is unless you consciously intervene and build a new generation of citizens, leaders, there is no meaningful development that you put on ground that can last and that is why we are investing in human capital development.

We have put in place laws and measures to sustain what we have done even after leaving office. We have sponsored the “Right To Education Bill” which is the right a Bayelsa child under the age of 18 has to educational support. Now these are necessary because I don’t want anybody to deform education after me. The second one is the Educational Development Trust Fund. By this June we will begin to take contributions. I have appointed one of our respected elder statesmen and leaders in this sector, Professor Isoun, former Minister of Science and Technology, former vice Chancellor of University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt to chair the Educational Development Trust Fund Board. We have made a case for the oil industry to key into it and the provision there mandates them to put a certain percentage of their CSR budget every year to support it so that it doesn’t amount to double taxation. Also, all corporate players, every Bayelsan, contributes to that fund; all of us, civil servants, political appointees beginning with me, all, everybody, will generate quite some money and once it is there, that fund will now be used not to build schools because we have already done that but to sustain feeding of the students, supplying computers, feeding, uniforms, routine things, can be done with the funds.

What kind of guarantee do you give to investors on security considering the volatile terrain?

Gov. Dickson: I acknowledged that we were starting off from a position  of disadvantage, where there is a mindset that some places, like Bayelsa, that if you go and put in something there,  something bad will happen to you. That is a mindset, it is a perception, which is why we are having this type of interaction with the press. We are going to have more of it and actually that is why I am keen to host  a number of you. I know a number of you have not visited Bayelsa, you haven’t  visited the creeks and communities out there to even see how the people live. What you hear about Bayelsa  is actually exaggerated. In Lagos for example if you keep a diary of crimes committed per square kilometre, per population, you will be scared but it is not reported yet the media houses are all  here and yet the investors have not left Lagos. Crime is crime we condemn it. Look at what happened in London with the terrorist attacks worse than what is happening in Nigeria, except some areas in the North East.

 The guys who put up the Travel Advisory exaggerate our situation. The European Union Ambassador spent three days, returned back safely.  Two days ago, the Political Secretary to the British High Commission visited Bayelsa. I receive high profile international diplomats, almost on a daily basis because they know what is going on in the Niger Delta and I tell them this narrative about Nigeria, Niger Delta and particularly Bayelsa has got to change, for it is over exaggerated. Bayelsa is safe for investors. On a daily basis, you see people from far flung parts of the creeks in Bayelsa drilling oil; there are people evacuating crude on a daily basis from Brass terminal in Bayelsa, from Forcadoes, from Bonny and everywhere in the Niger Delta but when there is a little incident it is blown out of proportion. Security is an investment and for that investment to happen it takes two, the public and private sector to come together with the government creating the enabling environment, which is what we are doing.

We made a lot of investments, to create that stability. That is why you are not hearing us make the type of noise that comes out from some quarters. We practise the politics of accommodation, politics of showing understanding in the way things are done, politics without violence and deploying the skills to mobilize community leadership, at the local level, at the state level, to support the work of security and not making politics out of security.  In Bayelsa today, we have what we call the Security Command and Control Centre, we are deploying electronic surveillance and we got to do that. Ordinarily that shouldn’t be a state government investment.  These things should flow from a national integrated security plan but because we are serious about this issue of security in Bayelsa State, I awarded this and the safe city contracts. The Security Surveillance System we have instituted will run for a long time, four years and in spite of the recession, Government procured about 45 vehicles fitted with modern communication gadgets all linked to the security and command system. So if there is any incident it doesn’t take them more than three or four minutes to get there. That has been their record, and it is electronically recorded and monitored because when there is an incident the computer records it, the dispatch commander gives an instruction, the action time vehicles get to the spot is recorded and so there is accountability. To back up this investment, we have the Security Trust Fund like the Education Trust Fund. So Bayelsa is generally a safe place. The night life  is very robust.

What are you doing in the area of agriculture?

You are seeing the biggest cassava Starch Processing Plant investment, the first of its kind in Bayelsa. We have over 300 hectres of land in which we are planting cassava, most of it already planted. We now have a starch processing factory in Ebidebiri. As we speak, our partners, a Danish firm is installing the machines. The cassava plant is there, we have a lot of aqua culture projects going on, the most penetrative is the 500 pond  fish farm per local government which we have started. First one in Yenegoa is done.  In it, we have a hatchery so that we can generate the fingerlins and train people who can do that as a business, then you have the processing plant, when you harvest you process them, dry them and so on, then you have the feed mill installed, integrated with the schools already built. The idea is to train these young boys to attend that school for training and then we allocate the ponds to them and they now take each pond and we give them the fingerlins produced there, we give them feeds to feed the fish and when the fish is matured, you buy it from them.

So, it’s a very revolutionary intervention in the field of agriculture. Our poultry has capacity of close to a 100,000. It is actually running now. Over time, this will help to train people on how to run some of these ventures on their own and the state can now divest and then privatise them. So Bayelsa, unknown to a lot of people is a state that can do very well in agriculture because that is the best place for palm plantation; aqua culture comes with our terrain, everybody there is fishermen or fisherwomen, we can even do trawling which the country is not doing yet. That’s why running a state like Bayelsa is very excruciating and doing it in a recession and without federal support. We bleed in Bayelsa to drive and force development.

I wanted to talk about health care investment, because these are the key areas we have done wonders in Bayelsa. We have the best public health care facility now, it is an investment we have been making over time, we now have hospitals in every local government headquarters which were not there before and I am very pleased with that. In Yenagoa, the state capital, you have the Diagnostic Centre which will be commissioned soon.

And under my watch, every local government now has a functional modern hospital, and which were non-existent before I came on board. Now, I say every ward must have a functional health centre and residential accommodation for the medical personnel. A number of the wards have health centres but no personnel there, everybody wants to stay in Yenegoa or Port Harcourt.

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