In this interview, the Bayelsa Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Daniel Iworiso-Markson, talks about what he says is the next big thing in Bayelsa, the New Yenagoa City. He also discusses sundry issues with Emmanuel Addeh
So, what is the New Yenagoa City about? What is special about it?
The New Yenagoa City is the number one tourism destination in Bayelsa and that city would be like a smart city. We’re going to have a first Government Reservation Area (GRA). You know in this state we don’t have a Government Reservation Area, so in that city we’ll have a GRA and already the subscription for plots of land there is oversubscribed and that’s to tell you how unique that area of land is. That area of land is so strategic in so many ways, One, it’s eco-friendly that’s the area of land where you have the River Nun and the River Nun is very famous because our foremost poet, he’s 95 now or thereabout, Christopher Okara. He wrote a very beautiful poem about the River Nun and what is even very interesting is that, looking at that area of land, the River Nun provides a very strategic conducive environment for development and so, His Excellency, Governor Seriake Dickson, thought it wise that we should have a new city around that area so that we can have waterfront estates.
You have estates overlooking the River Nun, you can also have all the facilities you have in all estates. As I speak at the moment, you have the golf course ready there, the golf course is developed and it is an 18-hole golf course, it is one golf course that will be a PGA standard golf course meaning that international golf tournaments will hold there.
The whole idea is that we want to attract tourists to Bayelsa and it all aligns with our philosophy in government that we need to diversify the state into tourism and agriculture and so, that whole area is like a tourism island but is now what we call the New Yenagoa City. You’ll have estates, well laid-out infrastructure, roads with electricity, security with all the facility that you can think of. Everything that goes with a modern city, like any one you can find anywhere in the world, in Dubai that’s how the whole area is structured and what is interesting to note is that, like I said, the whole place is oversubscribed and by the time that whole city is fully developed, it will be one of the best cities in the whole of the country and that is the expectation of His Excellency.
This sounds like a huge project. What prompted it and when is it taking off?
This is a deliberate policy by the state government and we want to ensure that we follow the developmental plan through. The layout of that entire area is already prepared, we’re inviting the whole world on April 3, 2018, to witness the commissioning and launching of the city. The launching is a formal one and we are privileged to have no other person but the Vice-President, His Excellency Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who will be coming to do us the honour. The Vice-President has been confirmed to launch that new city, the Vice-President is actually representing the President (Muhammadu Buhari) and that shows how much importance we’re attaching to it, given the kind of state-of-the-art facilities that we want to provide there. We’ll be providing top notch security in that city, like I said, it’ll be a smart city, everywhere will be covered by cameras and that’s because it’s not only Bayelsians that will be living there, you’ll have business people from all over the country who will come there because when you have a golf course as big as any you can find in the world, with golf tournaments taking place year-in and year-out, it is very likely that a number of these top people would like to own properties there so that they can also use the facilities there to do their leisure and resort.
So, we have provided that and as we speak the golf course on that massive land is almost like 80 per cent complete. Thereafter, the golf estate would begin to spring up and what is interesting is that, the buildings there would take a particular pattern to maintain the beauty and the standard.
There would be certain minimum standards that would be provided so that we can ensure uniformity and all that but what is important to note is that the New Yenagoa City would become the number tourism destination because it is so designed as where people can take off from wherever they are and find themselves in that city, right there, there is a golf course, a polo club and access would be so easy.
What other facilities would be available, aside the ones you mentioned?
When you land at our Bayelsa International Airport, you take a helicopter and land in the New Yenagoa City, that’s why we built a helipad named after the military administrator of old Rivers State who is now the Chairman of Traditional Rulers Council, King Alfred Diette-Spiff. People will land at the helipad and there is also a 5-Star hotel there already, its called Castle Hotel, we have a church, we have amphitheatre, those facilities are already there. The natural beauty of that environment is what we think is the magic of the place because people like to go to an environment that is eco-friendly and not one that is abused and filled with all kind of impurities. This is an environment that is carefully planned for the purpose of leisure and for people to have an interesting time with the belief that River Nun there gives it an added beauty so that all kinds of water activities can go on. For instance, the front view estate that will be provided there, people who live in those axis can also enjoy the freshness of that natural beauty coming from the water bodies there. We are looking at a city that will be all encompassing, where everything is there- you will have a massive shopping complex, opportunities for cinemas, for all kinds of facilities so that you don’t need to go out, you’ll be safe and secure.
How would you ensure that the problems associated with such areas elsewhere are not replicated here?
We will have 24-hour power in that area and we’ll also have security round the clock, it is such a security that is 21st century that’s why it’s a smart city. These are the things that we’re planning and it’s going to be massive, it’s going to be the biggest thing coming out of Bayelsa. Hopefully, by the time this administration ends it’s tenure in 2020, we would have gone to a reasonable extent in developing that city so that the successive administration will just take off from there. So that’s what we’re hoping to achieve and with the kind of interest we have seen from members of the public, not just Bayelsans, we’re very positive that within the next one year, a lot of things will have happened.
This will be an environment that will be the pride of all Bayelsans and it will change this state in a very dramatic way, in terms of alternative sources of revenue which is the whole essence really. If you look at it the world over, the biggest business now is tourism, Dubai is not Dubai without tourism. People forget easily when the governor talked about making Bayelsa another Dubai, they thought it was electioneering but from what we have been doing, in the last six years, people can now see the direction, the roads that we have provided, the bridges, all of the infrastructure we have provided over the last six years are all geared towards creating the next Dubai that we talked about. The New Yenagoa City will be like the icing on the cake to formally bring us into that new Dubai experience and it will be the biggest thing to happen in Nigeria, because that new city will be like a melting pot, a lot of people are tired of the big commercial cities and are looking for a place of escape and the New Yenagoa City is a place of escape for them because it’s a place you’ll go to and feel relaxed and at home. The ambience, the beauty, the natural state of the environment, the eco-friendliness of the environment which is what we’re trying to create and that is why development there will be very systematic and deliberate and we are leaving no stone unturned. His Excellency is particularly passionate about it which underscores why we’re bringing somebody like the Vice-President to come and launch it, so that with him, it will attract the private sector and on that day, a lot will be showcased. I would also like to say that the marketing of that city is also something that we have carefully done, we’re bringing an international consulting firm that has experience marketing cities like this all over the world and a number of investors too are also coming. People think this is going to be from the coffers of Bayelsa State Government but no, we will get a lot of funding from investors who have already expressed interest in this.
On that day, a number of investors would be unveiled and the whole plan would be put out there in a very comprehensive manner. Suffice to say that a lot of work has gone into the programme and I’m so honoured and privileged to be in this capacity to talk about it because for us in the Ministry of Information, it is something that we cherish, its like a baby for us, we’re marketing the state.
There is always the perception, rightly or wrongly about the safety of investments in the Niger Delta region… A lot of the narratives that Bayelsa has been associated with, this project will change all of that, already the narrative is beginning to change. Bayelsa is no longer the state of militants as people once ascribed it to be. Now, because of the massive investment in education and some of the things that this government has done, the clearheaded leadership provided by His Excellency in the area of security for instance which up till today as l speak to you, we’re being adjudged as one of the safest states in the country. There have been several awards from all over the continent saying that we have one of the best security systems in place.
You know this is one state that with the kind of security that we have provided, our response time to issues of crime is almost like the speed of light, five minutes and security personnel are there. I’m not saying we are there yet, but it’s far better than what it used to be in times past. For those who used to know Bayelsa, this is a paradigm shift in the area of security. Now imagine what will happen in the New Yenagoa City, it will be a lot better so people who are coming then would rest assured that their security would be guaranteed because we will spare no effort to ensure that.
Investors and tourists would want to go to a place that is safe and secure because we know that without security, no meaningful development can take place and that’s why from 2012 when His Excellency assumed the mantle of leadership as governor, the first thing he tackled was the issue of security and he tackled it head-on and today we can see the results.
So, the progress that we have made in the last six years would be further crystallised with this New Yenagoa City and taking it further we are hoping that in the next 10 years, there would be less focus on revenue from oil and more on our tourism potential because this state is a marine state, the aquatic splendour here is not man-made, it’s natural.
Given that there are other tourist attractions around the world, how is this particular one different?
It’s natural feel. We are not digging artificial rivers or lakes like you see in Dubai, these are natural rivers, creeks, rivulets. In this state, we have perhaps the longest coastline, this is a state where if you fly up the sky and look at our coastline, its the longest sandy beach, so let us use the New Yenagoa City as a model to attract investors and tourists into the state. Then as they come, they will begin to see the other opportunities and tourism potential that the state has to offer and it has to be done in an environment where there’s security which is something that we’re constantly mindful of.
Bayelsa’s greatest potential is not in our oil reserve, even though many prize us as the leading oil producing state, our real potential is in our people, our environment and our natural habitation that God has given to us. If you look at states like Bayelsa across the world, you talk about places like Cancun in Mexico and see what is happening in places like that, talk about Barbados and all the countries within the coastal area, Brazil, these are number one tourist destinations and it is like that because they have the natural ambience, the ecosystem that attracts tourists to those places. Most tourists go to beaches, we have those natural endowments and we want to exploit it to the fullest. So, 10 years down the line, futuristically speaking, our biggest revenue earner will come from tourism and that’s why we’re not sparing any effort. If you study carefully, you would notice that Dubai and the rest of them are succeeding because they have great minds… That is one thing that His Excellency has done very carefully and systematically over the years which is building a much needed manpower base, because in all of this, by the time you begin to experience the boom in the tourism sector in Bayelsa, you also need the manpower to drive it and the manpower to drive it will not be people from outside. It will be the locals and the locals need to be prepared and that is why we are investing massively in education, we set up the tourism institute which is just right here in Yenagoa for training the needed manpower but over and above that, all our young people who are being trained by the government either through government scholarship or the schools we have built are the same people that will come back to man these strategic investments that we are putting on ground.
A lot of these young people have their orientation completely changed, they are not thinking the way we are thinking, they are thinking of how they can use their God-given talent with the things that they have been exposed to, to also develop these opportunities that we have that is why the kind of education that we are giving to our young people is world class education. And at the end of the day when we look back, Bayelsa has moved gradually from a state of militants to a state of intellectual giants because the young people that we are grooming and training are coming out. Like the ones who graduated from Lincoln University, almost 10 of them graduated with first class degrees and what is interesting to note is that when they came back, they didn’t come looking for jobs in government. They are also developing their own entrepreneurial spirit to create businesses of their own. Like the third overall best graduating student along with his friends who graduated together have set up a software company and they are working with the state government to develop software programmes to support the educational system here in Bayelsa, so that is the kind of thing we are talking about. There are others like that because in this state we spent huge sums of money, as at last time we spent over 70 billion naira in educational development because that’s what the governor believes in that when you build the minds of the people it’s better than brick and mortar. Anybody can build roads and bridges and these roads and bridges after a while without proper maintenance will wear and tear but when you build the mind you have built the future, you have built a stable society, you have built a nation that can begin to engage with the rest of the world at a level at which they too can begin to be at par with their peers all over the world and that’s what we are doing. So, we expect the Bayelsa of the future where the citizens are well educated and will be able to take ownership of all of these things we have provided and one of the things we must credit His Excellency for is that he has provided leadership in such uncommon way and everyone has practically fallen into line and we are all more or less driven along that direction What we are looking forward to is not just building a city of bricks and mortar but we’re building a new city that will at the end of the day become the number one revenue earner for our state in the area of tourism.
With that, we can use it to develop all other things that we have across the state whether in the area of power (electricity) or in the area of putting industries which is something that is very key or in other sectors where we are also hoping to harness the potential in those sectors and we start first by providing the right environment that is safe and secure for all Bayelsans at the end of the day.
Last week, a seaplane landed at the Oxbow Lake, can you tell us about the Oxbow pavilion and is it connected to the effort that is going on with the new tourism drive?
That is all part of the infrastructure that we are building, they are part of the tourism potential that we are trying to unleash on the stage. The seaplane is an agreement between Bayelsa State Government and Bristow Helicopters to provide opportunity for people to be able to have access to the state and also to the Oxbow Lake which has been unveiled. In the Oxbow Lake is another tourism spot, in that Oxbow Lake we are going to have a boat club. That facility would be managed by a private firm, all of these things would be private sector driven that would run it efficiently to ensure that we achieve the purpose for which it was established so that it would be self-sustaining and generate revenue. The overall plan is our drive towards declaring the state away from oil, that is why we are building the airport because how can you talk about attracting investors and tourists to the state if they don’t have access and so in the next couple of months you don’t have to fly to Port Harcourt and then drive down here, you will fly in directly into Bayelsa State. The Bayelsa International Airport is the one that has the longest runway, a 3.5km runway and there is none of its kind in this region and the airport is built for the purpose of attracting tourists and investors into the state. It has the capacity to take the biggest plane. His Excellency has said that for the oil majors who have been giving excuses why they cannot relocate to Bayelsa because the presidency gave a directive that oil companies should move to their area of operation so that oil companies and their executives who are always saying they can’t access the place, can do so now that the airport is there and they can bring in their heavy equipment. The airport is so strategically located in a way that it is close to a number of the neighbouring states like Delta, Anambra, when that airport is fully operational it will be one of the strategic airports in the country at least that would give you access into a part of the Niger Delta. It all aligns with our tourism drive to unleash the tourism potential of the state. When tourists are coming they will need access and the airport is there to provide that. We also have other tourism spots within the state that they can take advantage of and that is why we did the Oxbow Lake and there would be lots of activities going on there even in this Easter period.
That brings me to the insinuations that rich people from Bayelsa live outside the state. Will this have any effect?
We are doing all of these because we want Bayelsans to spend their money within Bayelsa, people take the little money they have out of the state to spend and they say because they don’t have recreational facilities and leisure spots here and so a lot of capital flies out of the state. Now, we are glad to report that a number of people would like to stay in Bayelsa and spend weekends because they can see the activities within the city. We are doing all of these so that we can create activities especially leisure spots within the state and the city to make sure that people spend their money here and others outside can come here to spend their money that’s how you build the local economy of the state, that’s how you create wealth. At the moment, we are doing over a billion naira as our IGR, it wasn’t like this before we came in, our IGR just used to be about 50 million and by the time all of these our tourism investments begin to yield desired fruits, we’re hoping that we will be able to grow our IGR to be about 10 billion monthly as our target.
It’s possible because by the time you have the airport, and the other projects it would further expand the state, more people would want to come and stay in Bayelsa because Bayelsa is very peaceful, safe and secure, there would be housing estates, companies would settle here because we also have a power plant that is coming in that will give the state almost 24-hour power supply and once people find this place conducive they will come and spend their money here.
Many of them would send their children to school here. The overall vision of His Excellency is beginning to come to life, what this government has done for the past six years is basically laying the foundation for future developments to come. So far, we have gotten to this point and it’s going to get better even beyond now by the time all of these investments begin to yield desired results. It takes a government as serious as the Restoration Government led by Governor Seriake Dickson to be able to provide all of this and that’s why more than anything else, if there’s anything anybody wants to say even the opposition, whatever they want to say, the governor even among his harshest critics have given him credit for the developmental strides that he has embarked upon and it is evident that this government has done a lot on a large scale.
For former President Olusegun Obasanjo who hardly praises anyone to lavish the kind of praise he did on Governor Dickson, he said the other day that “if you want to see transformation, come to Governor Dickson’s Bayelsa” and in the area of security he said “Mr. Governor is like some of us would have to come to you for tutelage on how you have transformed this state in the area of security that Bayelsa is now relatively peaceful”. Now we are not saying that it is Eldorado but when you compare by and large and know where we are coming from, you will know that a lot has been achieved in the area of security, education, infrastructure development and virtually all sectors. For us in Bayelsa, this momentum should be sustained, and that’s why beyond 2020 when the governor’s tenure would have ended, it is hoped that the next governor would be someone who will also carry on with the same drive and provide the kind of purposeful leadership that Governor Dickson has been able to provide for this state and that has seen us where we are. That is the expectation and we hope very strongly that for the next governor coming, his job is fully cut out, he should just build on the foundation that has been provided already.
In all of these, the governor seems to have touched other areas like health, what drives him?
It’s all tied to tourism and it’s good that you asked this question because medical tourism is at the heart of what this government represents. Sometimes when you say these things it sounds as though it’s praise-singing but that is why we are inviting people to come, it’s not for nothing that we are inviting a number of these dignitaries to come to Bayelsa for the commissioning. That’s why we have to first and foremost let the world know, particularly Bayelsans that the commissioning are not jamborees, we are making a clear statement of commissioning for the projects that we are putting in place and the statement is that the world needs to see and let others know that these are the world-class facilities that are now in Bayelsa. So, in the area of health, this government has built a world class diagnostic centre. Former president Obasanjo said so, he also said that his next check-up would not be done abroad but in Bayelsa because he saw the facilities when he commissioned the diagnostic centre and took a tour round it, he actually said they were not marketing it enough. If you go to that diagnostic centre and check their register, you will find out that the number of people coming to use that facilities are not even Bayelsans, they are coming from the outside, visitors from all over the country and in that place we have every medical equipment that will diagnose any kind of ailment including DNA testing, we even have a forensics centre. We have the Bayelsa Specialist Hospital which is also world class because of the facilities that are there and because the people managing it are professionals from the U.S. who are also world class. So, we believe very strongly that with these world class medical facilities provided, a number of people who go abroad for medical treatment or diagnosis will bring all that money now to Bayelsa and in a way for the people coming here for medical purposes, it’s a form of medical tourism and that is something that aligns with our drive. Our tourism potential is robust in every sense including medical tourism and it’s all geared towards bringing the world to Bayelsa as the governor likes to say.
Education is a cardinal requirement for genuine development. How is the state government tying this to its tourism drive?
We have seen this before. The oil companies are recruiting and our people are not there, they say they’re not good enough, they don’t have the skills, therefore they’re not considered. So, all of that is what we are out to change. Now, with the kind of capacity that we are building not just with the Ijaw National Academy but with the several scholarships, up till date this government has given scholarship of over a thousand at secondary, tertiary, masters and PhD levels and all of that is geared towards building the capacity of our people. To the extent that there is no Bayelsan that will not be qualified for any profession and therefore suitable to serve in any capacity which in itself is what development is all about, so we’re developing the capacity that will take this state beyond this level so that at any given time we will not be found wanting in the area of human capacity development. Because our people are now qualifying whether in the field of medicine, architecture, engineering and whatever, you will find Bayelsans and they are doing so well. All of our scholars are doing so well, even the ones who went abroad are coming out with the best degrees and qualifications, a lot of them have first class degrees, whether they are pilots or doctors, Bayelsans are making us proud all over the world and which goes to say that we have the people. But it took a Governor Dickson, because it only takes a governor who is resolute, who has the kind of mind that he has that he wants to consciously develop the people, which is something that we have been lacking for so many years and that’s why a number of opportunities have passed us by. For instance, you can count the number of Bayelsans in the federal civil service, very few, they shut us out with the quota system but then they had to look at whether we have the required manpower at that time to serve in the federal civil service but I’m glad to report today that, Bayelsans anywhere they are right now can serve in any capacity. Before we came in, Bayelsa was classified as an educationally disadvantaged state but now things have changed, we moved from the bottom from 25 or 26 in the rankings of WAEC and NECO, but today, we’re number 5 and 3 and His Excellency has made bold to say that by the time he is leaving office in 2020 we will be at the number one spot and that is the target.
He has said that “in vain will he build the bridges and the roads and all the wonderful infrastructure including the New Yenagoa City, if he did not build the human mind” which is what he has done and I am so proud of the governor not because l work as a commissioner but as a Bayelsan seeing a Bayelsa governor who has decided to completely alter governance. He has completely changed the dynamics of governance from what many used to know to something that has become so enabling that a number of young people are beginning to look at governance from a new perspective. In those days if you ask a Bayelsan to show you the role model, he most likely will point to a militant because at one time the militants were the ones building the big houses and driving big cars without a reasonable source of livelihood, questionable source of livelihood with blood and lives of innocent humans they’ve shed. Today, the Bayelsa child has a new set of role models, in the mould of Governor Dickson who has made governance look like it’s one that everyone should embrace, de-emphasised politics, money and the entitlement syndrome. Now in this state, people have to work hard to earn their daily bread because of the kind of governance the governor has provided of accountability and prudence.
It is known that we are the only state with a law on accountability and transparency and as harsh as it is, the governor agreed because ‘it’s not about me but for the future so that leaders who are coming after me will know that governance is not a personal estate’.
He has to be accountable to his people and that’s why the media holds us accountable every month to the people. There is no one in Bayelsa who does not know how much comes into the coffers of the state from the federal government because apart from the press, there’s a website where they can monitor it unlike what used to be in the past where it was between the governor and Finance Commissioner or the Accountant General. Governance is open in Bayelsa and we are doing all of these not for public show but to restore confidence of the people and even particularly investors so they will see when they come that this government is transparent enough so they can freely transact business with government without any cover-up or trying to be shady about it. The governor has done all these and a number of us who are students of his kind of leadership are hoping that is how it would be going forward.