For Nigeria to survive, restructuring is imperative —Dickson
Bayelsa State governor, Henry Seriake Dickson, in this interview with selected journalists, speaks on Bayelsa’s progress and development under his leadership and other topical national issues. Excerpts:
LOOKING at how Bayelsa State has changed considerably, how have you been able to sustain the tempo of your government against the dwindling resources accruing to the states from the federation account?
Let me use this opportunity to welcome you all home. We say all good people are from Bayelsa. Let me thank you for the visit and the efforts you have been making in the past few days to go round our state and have a real feel of the developments on ground, the silent revolution that has been going on in Bayelsa. Now you are in a position to compare with some of the stories and propaganda and rumour and blackmail that have tended to suffuse the atmosphere everywhere.
You asked about sustainability? There is no doubt that the work my team I and have been doing for the past six years has changed the state. That was what I promised the people on the first day of inauguration because I came into this job with a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I had made up my mind on these issues. I knew the challenges and I had my blue print right from when I was campaigning. I knew that education, health care, infrastructure development, expanding agriculture, promoting industrialisation and investing in peace, law and order and security will all be a priority and I laid all these out in my Inaugural address. There is nothing I have done that is not contained in my Inaugural speech. In any case, I am a politician of conviction so everything I had in mind to do is what I am pursuing.
Concern has been raised about sustainability of all these things and some are asking: what happens when you are no longer there?
I have more than two years left to do more and further consolidate on what we have started. We have also introduced a number of policies and legislations for example in education and health care. After building the schools and the hospitals, I have come up with the compulsory health insurance scheme in this state, created by law and a fund into which deductions from civil servants and others who subscribe to it are paid. The state government also supports it by putting up to five per cent of the states monthly internally generated revenue (IGR). With a board of very competent professionals managing that fund and with the hospitals built and equipped and the law backing it, this is sustainable.
In education, having built the schools in every local government, the 13 model compulsory boarding schools spread across the state plus the 25 constituency secondary schools and equipping them, having selected good students and putting them there and spending almost N120,000,000 every month feeding these students not talking about the fully equipped laboratories and library, the classrooms, the money used in buying books, uniforms provided and after doing all of these, we have created the Educational Development Trust Fund by law and I have also appointed a board with Professor Isoun chairing it. With the law and the funding mechanism that I have put in place, I believe that to a large extent if these institutions are supported and the good thing is that I still have over two years to nurture them, there is no fear about its sustainability. I of course want more support and encouragement. Already, I have formally announced the Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka as the Honorary Educational Ambassador to the state. He has graciously offered to help me and my government and the state in this big, robust, ambitious educational intervention. He has given me the permission to go on with that and we are pleased to have him on board. I will make more of such appeals so as to be able to tell the Bayelsa story beyond the shores of Bayelsa. We have international organisations that can help us, the corporate players that have been drilling oil for 61 years here who do not even pay tax here or have offices here. They need to support this endeavour because they are all beneficiaries of the effect of this intervention because with the 5,000 to 10,000 graduates trained in this specially equipped schools, it means that we have fewer militants or disgruntled elements to deal with and that is why we are making all of these investments and I believe that these programmes are largely sustainable. I always say nothing human is perfect or absolute but largely with the measures we have taken, the policies would be sustained.
What other projects is your administration contemplating for the state?
The Brass LNG, the Brass Fertilizer, and all the big tickets investment that have not really taken off in this state, we are very sad that is the case and you are right because if those projects had taken off, the IGR base of the state would largely have been expanded and today we would have had more money by way of IGR to put into these investments. But having said that, we are working with the partners concerned and in the next couple of weeks I would be handing over formally the C of O of the Brass fertilizer to the company. Our teams are working, I am also in regular touch with the Brass LNG group and we are working to see how we can provide support. I have been making the case that it is unfortunate, in fact one of the greatest misfortunes that befell this state in recent couple of years has been the inability to conclude this key investment initiative. But Brass fertilizer we are almost concluding. The state had to take an equity of 10 per cent to fast track it and to create confidence. We are also talking to the investors in LNG. Unfortunately even though the money was there for a number of years there wasn’t sufficient will and attention so the investors have more or less diverted and gone to Mozambique and some other countries but there is a renewed zeal, especially driven by us in this state. We are creating industrial areas, power hubs, just to enable us to attract industries, manufacturers and corporate players to our state so that the IGR base can go up. I do not know if you found time to visit the airport, it is almost completed. The whole idea is not for luxury, but for cargo, for business men to use it as a hub so that the IGR base can go up. Right now, Bayelsa is cut off from the rest of the world. No sea port, no airport. So even when the revenue is going down, because of the enormity of the challenges, I am here to address challenges. So we are not scared of challenges. When I started all these projects, about 5 years back, everybody was saying “he is doing too much”. They never said I am not doing enough. What is helping us is focus and prudence and that is why with this investment, little by little a lot of projects are being completed.
What is your take on the ongoing agitations that could lead to a break-up of the country?
Well for me, having a large nation like Nigeria is an advantage. Large population, size and enormous resources that are really embedded in each and every state in this country. Look at the farming belt, everywhere is green. So, between one state and another you can actually have massive mechanised farms. This country has no reason to be poor. It is a blessed country. I am not even talking about what is under the soil, and our rich human resource base and I have always made this case even to my people in spite of the anger, the sense of marginalisation that they justly feel, I have continued to make a case as I tried to do before those young children today that there is an advantage in staying in a large and diverse family. Quite frankly the greatness of Nigeria does not only derive from oil and mineral resources. The greatness of our country is a combination of all of it including its diversity and complexity. But we must create a stable and fair country. Nigeria must be founded on fairness and justice and equity. We must build a nation of compassion and a nation of love and a nation of truth not a nation of oppression or deceit. Right now the foundation of this country is fraudulent and we should not run away from saying it as it is. Really it does not do anybody any good to perpetuate this unworkable structure.
Therefore, those of us who are in support of restructuring are making the case for a sustainable and stable and fair Nigeria that can endure for the next 400 years and going forward. Some few years from now we may be one of the most populous countries in the world and only God knows what is possible if only we can have a stable Nigeria where citizens are not at each other’s throat for the right or wrong reasons. In this state or region, anybody who says that the existence of Nigeria is not negotiable is not telling you the truth. But as I keep saying, the existence of a big and strong diverse nation called Nigeria is desirable, but like anything human, its terms and conditions cannot be absolute and cannot be perfect. Therefore, nation building is a work in progress and so we must continually examine the basis upon which we are going to have this big beautiful nation but with a mindset to making it more perfect.
I want fairness for everybody, my people, myself. I do not see why this state will have eight local government areas when it takes me three days to go round a local government area and you make the number of local governments a basis for distributing the wealth that I produce; you take away the resources by expropriatory legislations using military decrees to which our people never made input.
What is your reaction to the Supreme Court judgement on the PDP crisis?
First of all, it is unfortunate that the dispute lasted for as long as it did. Secondly, it was also unfortunate that it had to take a judicial intervention; that is the decision of the Supreme Court for us to know who our chairman and other officers of our party are. Again I consider that as a failure of politics; not really blaming one side or the other. It’s not just about PDP but the other parties. To that extent, it is very sad. Now the Supreme Court has decided. One of the reasons I did not think the judicial option was the best is that after judicial interventions – judges do not reconcile they adjudicate – you are back to square one, back to the court of reconciliation.
I have read the statement of Senator Ahmed Makarfi. He is a very stable hand and I agree with that approach, that we have to go back to reconciliation. That is where I have always stood. Reconciliation is key not litigation. Now we have to come back to square one to promote internal reconciliation and then to move for a convention which was what I proposed we should have done. So we are still back to holding an acceptable unity convention. So, good luck to our party. I will join hands with other leaders of our party to ensure that this key objective is achieved i.e reconciliation of the party with a view to having an all-inclusive unity, an acceptable convention.
What is the state’s internally generated revenue situation? And in view of the constraints on the government’s finances, are you thinking about the PPP option?
The IGR situation is abysmal. When we came in 2012, the IGR was about N50 to N60 million a month. And the reason is clear. IGR is a function of corporate activities, commercial footprints and these are lacking here. That is why we are making these foundational investments. Investing in tourism, education, golf course, polo club, expanding infrastructure, to attract people to come, to set up business. We are promoting industrial parks,promoting the power hub, using the available gas so that business can come. It is when businesses come and manufacture and do things that even the payee they collect they can remit to government. That is how IGR comes so the situation is very bad. It is actually a Catch-22 situation. If you do not have development, you won’t have social security and stability. And if you do not have social security and stability, investment and development cannot come. That is why you see us tackling it at so many fronts and also taking the issue of security, taking the issue of capacity building very seriously because each of these students in the next 10 to 15 years would come and get jobs, set up businesses and being useful citizens.
Only an educated population can create a vibrant economy that can pay tax. Some of the states are quite fortunate because they started early, and most of the key infrastructure that drives development were invested by the federal Government. That attracted almost everybody in the country and from outside to go there to create that push, that mass effect and we do not have that. It is very challenging but I believe we are on course and this state will not be the same by the time I finish.
For the PPP, that is the public/ private sector partnership model, in view of the dwindling resources now, we cannot run away from the PPP model. We are in touch with a number of people concerning the sea port, industrial park, even on the power hub, and also housing. A lot of PPP initiatives are being pursued. I just want to make the case that Bayelsa is safe and people know the vision and the focus of our government. There is a lot of goodwill and confidence out there so we are deploying all that to get people to come work with us.