Governor Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State in this interview speaks on some topical issues including crisis of leadership in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and quality of governance by the All Progressives Congress (APC). He also bares his mind on the barrage of quit orders from some ethnic nationalities. LEADERSHIP Sunday brings the excerpts.
How far along is the airport project in Bayelsa now?
When I came on board I wanted an airport in Bayelsa State – the heart of Ijaw land – to boost our economy and play an active role in the economy of the Gulf of Guinea. So I lobbied the Federal Government for partnership on such a project. But I was told contract for sand filling was already given to someone by NDDC, which they said was about 50 per cent of the cost and I said no problem but I wanted to drive essential elements of this airport by myself so that it did not suffer unnecessary delays.
I told the contractor: ‘your contract with NDDC stays, I am not interfering.’ I cleared another place and gave the contractor that place to come and stockpile that NDDC sand. After all, we could use it in other development projects in the state.
I then took over the dredging of the sand for the airport proper and called in the biggest dredging company in Nigeria, Westminister dredging and Venoll, and gave the contract to them and paid them.
Did you start from scratch?
We started from scratch, there is no federal government or NDDC sand in that runway, that is the point I am making. I wanted the state to be in charge of the essential elements of the airport, sand filling, runway. Once you do that, you have gotten an airport.
Are you also building infrastructure to enhance operations at the airport? I am really talking about the roads, if you can really connect a road between the airport and the East West road, then that can take one straight to Warri, then you will also be thinking of capturing the Warri market?
Yes. It is all part of the calculations. We have done a road now, going to Amasoma, which late Governor DSP Alamiesiegha started but which my government re-awarded to CCC. The company did a great job, they built corners, bridges, from 2012 when I gave them the job, so that road is very solid. But we are doing a road from that road to 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.
How much of these things you have enumerated can you finish before 2019?
As I said the airport is already being completed- by end of this year. As a matter of fact, some months back, an aircraft on a mission landed there and took off, because what we call an airport is a road, essentially a fortified road with the navigation equipment.
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.
Is the government not 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.
What kind of guarantee do you give to investors on security considering the volatile terrain?
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.
You spoke about turning the airport area to a Free Trade Zone. There was a time the Customs and the Cross River State Government had a problem over Tinapa are you carrying the Customs along?
I am interfacing. It is the Federal Government that grants that license and like I said I am not interested in politics of development, I am interested in collaborating and working with anybody I have to work with.I want to just see good things happen, so I have no problem working with anybody, working with FAAN etc. They are always inspecting the buildings and we encourage them to do their work, I just want to see the economy change for good in Bayelsa State.
I wanted to talk about health care investment, 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.
What is the state of the Ogbia-Nembe road?
The Ogbia –Nembe road is a product of a very good partnership between NDDC and Shell. Budgeting and funding stalled the project, I had to intervene like I did on the airport because I was concerned. In 2012, when I became Governor and because of the importance of that road, I called the community leaders, Shell and NDDC for a meeting and I was told they had no money to continue and I asked the contractor, ‘‘how much do you need to take this road to Nembe, and he said N3 billion? I immediately directed the release of 3 billion naira to them and that was how they tarred the road and that was how Nembe became passable and became like an upland local government. We need to start a similar partnership in other critical areas. Having reached Nembe, the challenge now is how to hit Brass. Much of the constructions we call roads in Bayelsa are actually bridges because there is no land for you to build on particularly when you are moving towards the ocean, like the road from Sagbama to Ekeremor which we have been dredging for four years now.
In all of these, what can you say is your central focus?
It can’t be one thing at the expense of the other. it has to be all. For example in 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.
What is the future of your party, 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 judgement 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. The irony of it is that the Judiciary does not reconcile, it only adjudicates. Even after the Supreme Court judgement, 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 judgement, 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 Judgement by duly recognizing him as Chairman 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 judgement, PDP must address many of its problems top of which is funding.
We want to know your views on this quit notice to Ndigbo by some people who claim to represent the youth in the North.
I condemn in very strong terms the quit notice on Ndigbo. 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 has been 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.