Governor Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State is the chairman of Peoples Democratic Party National Reconciliation Committee, a body set up to find a peaceful solution to the leadership crisis plaguing the party. In this media chat, he speaks on the leadership crisis rocking the party, why it has defied political solution, threats and counter threats between northern youths and the Southeast, and on what he is doing to change the face of governance in his state. Excerpts:
There has been a lingering leadership crisis in your party. What is the future of 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, without a strong PDP. Unfortunately our party has not been playing a 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 not just peculiar to PDP, it is also happening in APC. For our democracy to be secured, 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 now 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 on 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 or over 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 and we are not helping the judiciary.
Political leaders who are key players in the democratic system should show the maturity, the political temperament to be able to recognise 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 on 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, 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 doing antiparty and this is so because our political actors, leaders neither have the skills and the democratic temperament to drive the political process and 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 have no business going to a 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?
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 recognising 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 personalise 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? Must they 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 then, but once it’s a national party, it is an aggregation of all interest 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 on Igbo people in Southeast.
I condemn in strong terms the quit notice on Ndigbo. Nigeria has gone past that. 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.
I believe that the APC -led Federal Government could have done more in the area of promoting national unity in the country. I have spoken about this severally, the country was too divided. The Federal Government should consciously promote national cohesion, unity and unite the various ethnic groups in the country. But unfortunately, government has not done enough to promote national cohesion whether in the national 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.
How far is the airport project in Bayelsa now? What is the full story or situation about it?
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 Gulf of Guinea. So I lobbied the Federal Government for partnership on the airport. 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 doesn’t 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 can use it in the 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. Then I went to the Bayelsa State House of Assembly and insured 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, they went to the bank, they knew that their money was there in the bank. They 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 all these big cargo planes can land, even cargo plane servicing the oil industries, bringing in oil tools, big cargo, carrying merchandise, they can’t land in Port Harcourt, they can’t land in Enugu, they can’t land in 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 – actually cargo airport, to cover the South-south, South-east; you know, big goods they bring in from China and other places can land in Bayelsa.
So we are building actually the biggest state-owned airport, 3.5 kilometers, 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.
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 a historical centre of oil and gas and yet there is no activity 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, you know. So we don’t even control elements of the oil trade because there is no airport, no seaport.
Did you start from the scratch?
We started from the 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. I wanted to drive the essential elements of the airport and I am happy that it has paid off. So by the end of this year, I will be inviting all of you for the commissioning of the airport which is one of our biggest infrastructure investments. You guys will be flying to Bayelsa from Lagos for the first time. 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, come and build warehouses. So from China they come, it is going to be actually 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.
I don’t know whether you are 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
Oh, 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. 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 from the airport, about one hour drive, you get to the Agger Deep Sea Port, again we have been laboring to build the road that will take us to Ekeremor, the next local government which is 50 kilometers. These are the big ticket projects we will be doing. We are building the road from Sagbama to Ekeremor which is about 50 kilometers, we have sand filled about forty seven kilometers 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’ve got to get to that local government and see what we can move from Ekeremo to Agger which is about 67 kilometers from Ekeremor. We also did another 70 kilometers to get to Agger 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 Agger 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 inflations and the exchange rate and so on. We are bent on delivering on that road before the end of my tenure, we have already stabilized up to fifteen kilometers, sand filled, stabilized and now vehicles can run on it. Already they are calling me that the economy is improving, there are young people who are now in the business of loading vehicles in some of the Ekeremor communities for the first time, they have some young men in the parks shouting, Ofoni, Yenegoa.
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 facilties – gas flaring going on. What I have started doing as part of our strategic plans 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 hectares 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 much of these you have enumerated can you finish before 2019?
No, as I have said the airport is already being completed- 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 fortified road with the navigation material. So they will be delivered. 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 the 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.
Two days ago the 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 stable state even though it is the epi-centre of the 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 emergency in the education sector, but it was not just a political slogan. I really meant it. We have committed over N55 billion, building schools, on scholarships, building quarters for teachers, building laboratories, boarding houses, libraries, supplying books, supplying uniforms, paying JAMB, NECO, WAEC, all by government.
In the Ijaw National Academy for example, a school we designed and built from scratch, it was a massive forest designed and built from scratch, 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 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 do is only buy buckets, cutlass and then the hostel wear.
We are embarking on massive mobilisation 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 school by school, the best set, 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 set people to go around and 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 said, 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 rest of 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 sent them to the best secondary schools in the country. After building these schools, I brought them back home. So 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 state not taking too much by doing that?
Well, that is the reality of Bayelsa and the reason we are doing that is because 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 the 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, we 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?
Now first of all, I acknowledged that we are starting off from the 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 am keen to host most of you, a number of you, am not talking about investors out of Nigeria, even 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 kilometer, per population, of course you know what happens but it is not reported because the media houses are all here. Lagos State is No 1 on crime yet the investors have not left Lagos. Crime is crime we condemn it. Look at what happened in London within three months, terrorist attack worse than what is happening in Nigeria, except some areas in the North East.
The guys who put up the Travel Advisory exaggerated our situation. The US Ambassador spent three days, returned back safely. Two days ago, the Political Secretary to the British High Commission visited Bayelsa and I received 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 deep in the creeks in Bayelsa drilling oil, it happens on a daily basis, 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, investment in the way politics is being played, to create that stability. That is why you are not hearing us make the type of noise that comes out from some quarters, politics of accommodation, politics of showing understanding in the way things are done, politics without violence and having the skills to mobilise 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’ve got to do that, ordinarily that shouldn’t be a state 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 to Wawee. 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, maximum. 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, vehicle numbers and proceed to so, so, place and it is recorded, the action time they get there is recorded so there is accountability. To back up this investment, we have the Security Trust Fund like the Education Trust Funds. So Bayelsa is generally a safe place, the night life there is very robust, those of you who came during the Guild of Editors can attest to that.
You spoke about turning the airport area to Free Trade Zone, there was a time Customs and Cross River State Government had a problem over Tinapa. Are you carrying along the customs?
I am interfacing, it is the Federal Government that grants that license and like I said 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, 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 the 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 was 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, which were non-existent before I came on board. Now, I say every ward must have a functional health centre and the residential accommodation of 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 N3billion? I immediately directed the release of N3 billion 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. Most of these 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, 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 hectares 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 per local government which we have started. First one in Yenegoa is gone, aqua culture settlement like a kibus aqua culture settlement. In it, we have a hatchery so that we can generate the fingerlings 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 fingerlings produced there, we give them feeds to feed the fish and when the fish is matured, you buy them 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 the birds are there, over time, this will help to train people on how to run some of these ventures on their own, people can now, or the state can now divest and then privatise them. So Bayelsa actually 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.