Governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson, in this interview with journalists in Yenagoa, speaks on his efforts to reform the state’s civil/public service, how his successor will emerge, among other issues. Emmanuel Addeh was there
What is the thrust of the ongoing public service reforms in Bayelsa State?
I have been raising the issue of the unsustainable wage bill in all the categories and cadres of the public service from 2012 and since then we have embarked on several measures and policies to tackle the issue. We have carried out verifications upon verifications and taken so many other steps at different times and in different ways, all aimed at taking out the bad eggs, and also to reposition the public service, as a result of which from 2012 when we took over, the wage bill of N5b plus at the state level and about N1.7 billion in our eight local government areas is now slightly under N4 billion. When you take out the political appointees it is about N3.7 billion.
That should tell you the amount of work that has gone into the process. That of the local government areas is now about N1.1b. That also tells you the hard work that has gone into that area as well.
What has happened now is not a new thing. I have been talking about this public service reforms for a long time now. I have been talking about the need to reduce the running cost of governance, reduce the wage bill and professionalise the public service.
I have been talking about the need to remove the names of those who do not go to work from our payroll, fish out the ghost names and address the problem of those who purchase salary grades and steps, and those who have turned the public service into a market, as well as the general indiscipline in the service. We cannot afford a workforce of the type that I have described.
Now, let us be clear, there are hardworking civil servants in this state. There are committed and conscientious public servants that are doing their best and I know a lot of them.
I have served as governor in this state for six years now, and before that, I worked here as Attorney General. I have been part of this state from its creation so I know what has been going on, but we feel that the time has come to draw up a coherent policy that we will implement so that at the end we will hand over a smart, well-motivated, well trained and disciplined public service.
Our experiences during the recession taught us a lot of lessons. 2015 and 2016 were very terrible years for us governors and I believe also at the federal level, even though at the federal level they have a lot of other opportunities and can do things with the central bank and raise money through bonds and so on, but we in the states are at the receiving end.
For a state like Bayelsa, one of the newest, remotest and most underdeveloped even though we produce most of the resources the country relies on, without a solid IGR base because there are no industries or private sector, we are handicapped. The oil companies operate here but pay taxes to other places. Whereas other states count their IGR in billions and boast about it because the federal government built their airports, seaports and other things that attract investors, here in Bayelsa we do not have that kind of luxury. We are building everything on our own.
When we took over, IGR was N60m; we had to fight tooth and nail to raise it to where it is today. When you have a state like ours that is dependent on what we get from the FAAC for everything, you must be interested in the recurrent cost.
I understand why the wage bill is the way it is and I have severally described it, for want of a better description, as the Nigerian voters register, in which you see all kinds of names – living and the dead, the unborn and ancestors, and spirits.
As it is in the Nigerian voters register, that is the way it is in the Bayelsa payroll, from the local governments to the schools, to the state service, to parastatals. Take for example a parastatal like the Bayelsa Transport Company, they do not have a single vehicle, so they generate no money for themselves or for the state and yet we have 400 plus workers, being promoted and earning salaries, and yet not going to work and not having anything to do.
I believe it is wrong, but I know why things are the way they are. When the state was created, the few available people from Rivers State that came to start the civil service did not have proper accommodation to live in or even office spaces to work, but this state is 20 years now so that negative mind-set that you can have your names on the payroll without coming to work has to change.
We have to draw a red line now and it is my intention and the desire of the government that I lead to do so. In addition to the good schools, medical facilities, roads and bridges we have built, one of the most important things we will also like to leave behind is a reformed, repositioned, well motivated, well-trained and disciplined public service.
That is the central objective of the public service reform. We go by conviction and we cannot be swayed by propaganda or blackmail. Whatever is good for this state, the only homogeneous state of the Ijaw Nation, we are going to get it done, no matter how difficult the decisions may be.
We are aware that the people who may be affected by the reforms, are Bayelsans and so the government has the responsibility to listen to issues that are genuine and one way or the other at the end of this process, we have a duty and I am prepared, something that a lot of governments do not even do, to come up with ways by which we will ameliorate those hardships and create other opportunities for them.
As we speak, almost all the states are looking inwards because of what we went through during the recession. The federal government is also doing the same. The central focus of this reform is not to sack, but to reposition. For example, this state needs teachers because we have built schools, schools and more schools.
We have conducted surveys in every sector and so we know their manpower requirements and all those who may be affected by this reorganisation could still be useful as teachers or sent to these other sectors. A graduate that has majored in a particular course should be able teach that course in secondary school. We will have ways of absorbing them but with conditions. The condition is that they must be existing workers and they must be committed workers as well.
Now there are others who are genuine workers and they go to work but they have falsified their grade levels and steps. I have directed that all those case if identified, should be normalised, that is part of what the public service reforms will accomplish.
We have the option of following the rules and the provisions of the law, but what we told the committee to do is to normalise those irregularities. For so long the state has played with the public service. Political leaders will come and go, but the civil servants will stay for 35 years in service or until they turn 60 years old, or whichever is earlier.
I love this state, I love our people and I love the Ijaw Nation. This is the only state we have and we have to run its affairs properly. What I am doing is not something that will bring political credit to my team, and me but I am doing it out of the passion and love for our people and that point has to be noted. The main beneficiary of this exercise is the state, the institutions, the schools and the public service that will be strengthened and disciplined.
I do not want the next governor to inherit this kind of rot in the public service because we love our state. Part of my job is to be called names, but we are convinced that whatever we do is in the best interest of our people. If the present generation does not appreciate it, succeeding generations will say a governor came with his team, saw and made a difference.
What is the state government’s projection at the end of the exercise in terms of savings that will be made and the number of workforce that will be left in the service?
That question is premature, because I will like the process to run its full course. Steps are being taken, but only God is perfect. Any idea from a human being or an organisation is subject to adjustment, so let the process go on. We have set up different appeal mechanisms through which genuine complaints can be addressed. For example, we sent out civil servants to all the local governments, permanent secretaries were in charge, so many teams from the civil service, unions and so on have gone round. These names did not drop from the sky, but genuine complaints will be attended to and resolved amicably.
The other thing I want to say in response to your question is that this reform is not only to remove excess luggage but at the end of this process we will also open up a lot of opportunities in the public service.
For instance, I raised the issue of the protocol department that needs to be strengthened. I have given directives to the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to develop the template for my approval so that we can begin recruiting fresh graduates in this state.
So, for young people out there, you have to know that this public service reform has opened up a lot of opportunities for you to be employed instead of keeping 80-year olds in the payroll. Let the old people who are due for retirement retire so their children and grandchildren can come into the service.
I have directed the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to develop a template to employ medical staff. This state needs medical staff. I have directed the employment of 20 pharmacists for the first time in this state. We are running a serious government; I am not here for play.
In the agricultural sector we also need specialists and technocrats, which we do not have at the moment. We do not have architects, town planners, surveyors, engineers and so on. We need to employ young Bayelsa graduates who have certificates in these areas, and not fill up the payroll with fake names that will receive salary and not do any work.
So, people need to know that a lot of vacancies will be created and I have already directed the Civil Service Commission on the basis of the preliminary needs analysis before me, to call for applications as soon as the approval is given.
We have our database of unemployed graduates, so announcements of a lot of opportunities will be made for graduates who are active and have contemporary skills like IT and so on. These are the people we want to bring into the public service instead of being saddled with unsustainable wage bill.
I approved the employment of 30 doctors. I have been doing that from time to time to bring in lecturers and so on. Take for example, you have security guards in our primary and secondary schools, and for a number of you who are contripeople like me, who grew up in the village, you should have an idea of the kind of people that have been employed as security guards.
They are there supposedly to guard and protect schools and facilities, but in most cases they cannot even protect themselves, not by any fault of theirs, but because they are usually old and spent.
We are thankful to God because old age is a good thing, but old people need to rest. They do not need to keep working until they are 100 years old. So, what we have decided is to create the Education Safety Corps, which I have already signed into law. We have been following a very comprehensive programme from 2012 until now.
You were credited to have said that God would determine your successor in 2020. Can you throw more light on it?
I have always said that power belongs to God. Human beings try their best but ultimately, it is the wish of God for anybody and the wish of God for our people that, as a man of faith, I believe will come to pass.
My attitude to such matters is that people should try their best to leave room for God who is the author of all life and all human power and authority. That is why I always advice people not to be too desperate.
People do all kinds of things for power, authority and money. I do not belong to that school of thought. Not many people knew I was going to be governor, I myself did not even know I will be governor as at the time I became governor. But you see when God wants to do something; he creates the circumstances and even raises the people. That is why no human being should take credit. You can support somebody to win but do not take credit. At the very best you were just the agent God used.
Take for instance as governor, you know the number people I have made by the appointments I have given and other things I have done. It has gone into their CVs and they use it a stepping-stone. That is what God wants for them using me. I believe that at the right time the wish of God will prevail.
However, in this state, my approach has been that of a consultative one, so at the right time I intend to start a process of extensive consultation because governorship of any state is a very serious responsibility.
In this state, if you look at our recent past and you compare it with what we now have, you will see what it means to have a governor.
At the right time I will call for prayers as I always do for God to give us ideas, and for His will and His will alone to manifest. I believe at the end of the day it will be well with us. I call for understanding although the time has not yet come, but I must commend the politicians in my party for their discipline so far.
Recently, the Bayelsa State Government threatened to take the federal government to court if it fails to deduct and deploy to oil-producing states, the 13 per cent derivation component from the $1b it is withdrawing from the Excess Crude Account to tackle the security challenges in the country. That was not a threat; it was an opinion. The position contained in that letter was a position I advanced in my several interactions at the Governors Forum and my subsequent interactions with the Vice-President who is the Chairman of the National Economic Council, and I have raised that view publicly also.
And I had an understanding and I thought the understanding was for the processes I outlined to be followed because of the consultations. The monies in the excess crude account belong to the states, federal and local governments, so I wanted transparency in the process. I understand the primacy of security in our country, region and state, Bayelsa.
I know what we are doing as a state on security and I raised this concern so that we can streamline the requirement and procurement modalities before the commencement of the exercise so that funds are not used for other purposes as it is been speculated.
And most importantly that the crumbs in the excess crude account are proceeds from oil and gas and therefore are subject to the derivative principles. That principle must be respected; it is not a threat.
I have told them openly and they know me, I am man of conviction. I do not take positions just out of convenience and I believe that is the right thing to be done. So I was just putting them on notice, that the right thing should be done, failing which the state has options. And as we speak we are considering those options seriously.
Why did your government stop the salaries of workers, even those of some workers that might be genuine?
Let me say firstly that I have directed the team to release salaries to the genuine workers. That is why in this government we created the unpaid salaries account. That is if there are issues with salaries, we will put it in an account, nobody touches it pending clarification of the issues.
I have said with regards to the process that since more consultation will be done, they should release the salaries to those genuine certified workers pending the conclusion of the exercise. I have given the directive. In a massive exercise like this, there will be inconveniences to the people, it is inevitable. The important thing is that we are available and open to listen to complaints and as soon as we find them to be genuine, we address them.
You have been appointed five times as chairman of the PDP reconciliation committee by five different chairmen of the party. What do you think is responsible for this?
Well, I thought that was a question you should have asked the people who keep appointing me, but since you have asked me, I will say that it may have something to do with my style of politics. I believe in consensus building. I believe in engagements, even when we disagree. And that is why even in this state we have this relatively stable political atmosphere.
Former President Obasanjo asked me the other day – “what is the magic?” You people know the kind of opposition I faced and I still face, but you do not see me go after anybody, I do not need to. In fact, I tell everybody you are right to disagree with me.
Look at this on-going public service reforms, immediately I came in, my first meeting was with the labour leaders. There is no truth I cannot tell anybody. What I will say behind is still what I will say in front. So when we engage in good faith and if our motives are pure, I believe that you can achieve better results. I believe in politics of engagement, dialogue and consensus building.
I tell politicians that all political views and aspirations are legitimate. I believe we are in politics to solve society’s complex problems. As a politician you must be prepared to deal with three kinds of people; those who are for you, those who are against you and those are not for or against you.
Maybe because of my background and my political antecedents and so on, I believe in consensus building and I am not afraid to engage and to dialogue even with an opponent. It does not mean that I like you or I like your views, but that you disagree with me does not make you my enemy. That mentality has to be crushed. So when I see brigandage, intolerance in political parties, I marvel.
In politics, you need people to achieve results, no matter how good you are. You need teamwork and team spirit; you need to work with people even when you disagree with them. The more they disagree with you, the more you should listen to them.
These are some beliefs that inform my public life and politics. People should be very mindful of how they use power. I prefer to use influence instead of power. There is a difference between power and authority and influence.
Your Excellency, what is your party trying to do and what will it do differently in view of the consistent allegations levelled against the PDP government by the APC?
Quite frankly, this is part of what is wrong with Nigerian politics now, the constant demonisation of the PDP by the APC. For me it is childish, laughable and uncalled for. Because sometimes you have a feeling that the APC even though in power is still behaving like a party in opposition and is still on a campaign mode.
I would have thought that after all the things they said that the PDP did not do well or the PDP government did not do well, well you claim that Nigerians have voted for you, so go ahead and do things rightly.
Here in this state, there was a governor who was here for almost six years and I know what I am seeing in all the files, in all projects and in all programmes. But I did not waste any time looking behind to pursue people.
I simply drew a red line and did things differently. You do not need to say you inherited an empty treasury, are treasuries meant to be full and be handed over? Treasuries are meant to be used to work. The point is that at the end of the day, every incumbent will be judged not by the failure of the preceding government but by what they themselves have done. And I think as the days and months draw closer, the more they will come to that realisation, that they will judged by what they do and what they did not do, and not what PDP did.
I think they (the APC) could have done better than they are doing. Quite frankly the PDP made these mistakes but the PDP also achieved a lot for our democracy and for our country. There is currently too much division in our country so the APC-led government has to unify the country.
There has to be a country first of all before you can claim you are in power. The APC has not been able to unify the country as much. Just look at the wanton killings and destructions of precious lives, not only by Boko Haram, because now there are the herdsmen and we are told we are under a foreign invasion and yet you are not addressing these issues?
You are talking of one list today and tomorrow another list, yet we do not know ourselves in this country. I believe our politics in this country should be mature.
That we are in different political parties does not make us enemies. Even if we are not friends at personal level, we have a number of friends in other political parties and some few good people in the APC are my friends, but at least we are Nigerians, we are human beings and we share a common humanity.