The road to Bayelsa is paved with anxious expectations. For far too long, a myth of danger, violence and dark happenings has come to define that part of the country in our collective imagination. So, a well- intentioned invitation to ‘come to Bayelsa and see for yourself’ is beset by silent questions. Will kidnappers lie in wait? Will armed robbers follow suit? Will angry youth wearing charmed red bandanas be in control of the high way from Port Harcourt?
Like the adventurer hero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, you ask yourself what lies in stock as you progress. Would the reporter have to meander and navigate through dark creeks and testy dangerous swamps to meet with the governor of this creek state, the presiding custodian of its heritage and promise. Would the governor be a mysterious modern Egbesu priest endlessly holding court with fiery eyed militants? Bayelsa. Questions. The unknown is the repository of fears, doubts, trepidations fed by ignorance and the modern media.
On the drive from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa, the frightful myths linger only for a while as one takes solace in the presence of armed police escorts and dangerous drivers.
Not long afterwards, we are at the border between Rivers and Bayelsa states. Off the East-West road, a huhub of inconsequential commercial activity beckons you towards Yenagoa.
Bayelsa beckons with the faces of an area of ancient newness. You are struck immediately by the vibrancy of a youthful population and the enthusiasm of a people freed from ancient fears and fired by new optimism and expectations of a sweetness yet to come.
The checkpoints are routine. The soldiers and policeman are relaxed and less anxious than in other parts of the country. They wave you on with troubled politeness. Some of the checkpoints are now unmanned, leaving only the sandbags and concrete barriers at intervals. Solid reminders of bad times in the recent past.
We are going to meet the man, Governor Seriake Henry Dickson. In person, he instantly disarms you with his humility and casual ordinariness. A man of generous physical proportions at the helm of a rich state. He should ordinarily approximate an African ‘big man’! But this man does not carry his power and position as a burden. His single passion, he quickly tells the visitor, is the governance of Bayelsa state and an unquenchable desire to uplift its people.
As he prepares to end his eight years in office, his thirst for results and positive change remain intact. His boundless energy is palpable just as his grip on the levers of power is doubtless.
To begin the after dinner conversation , the reporter asks him his original vision for Bayelsa at his inception: ‘ my dream was to transform this place and make it the Jerusalem of the Ijaw nation,… a place of pride and refuge for our people’
Dickson is aware of the dreams and efforts of his predecessors. He does not discountenance the efforts of his predecessors nor disparage them like most politicians. He instead insists that he had set out to restore the dreams of the founding fathers of the state, hence he christened his governance agenda “The Restoration Agenda”. He wanted to lay a new foundation for a state that would be for the dominant Ijaw nation, new thint rising in the creeks of the Niger Delta. He envisaged a modern state with a citizenry imbued with fresh energy to actualize their potentials in a country that had for a long time neglected this oil and gas rich part of Nigeria.
With an eye on the imminent end of his tenure, we ask him to summarize his achievement in the last eight years. He proudly retorts: “In the last eight years, we have advanced the development of my state in all critical sectors…We are over 20 years ahead.” When reminded that his predecessors would make the same claims, he insists that he has made a decisive difference in terms of focus, accountability and visible transformation of the Bayelsa space.
The freshness of Dickson’s approach to governance in the Nigerian context is that he comes at it from a clear vision and a base of ideas and conviction about the relationship between governance and social change. For him, change does not come from just mere infrastructure and landscape decoration. It comes from changing the material living circumstances and overall mindset of the people.
In his view, massive investment in education held the key to unlocking the potential of the people to develop the state. He saw the challenge of the Ijaw nation as that of urgently and massively educating the younger generation to wean them away from a tradition of violence, criminality, and an unearned sense of entitlement. He therefore had to tailor his educational investments to create incentives that would make education an attractive option for the youth of his state: “At the last count, we had spent close to N75 billion building educational infrastructure…We have built schools upon schools, more schools than any other government before us and perhaps across this country.”
The logic of Dickson’s belief in education is that an educated citizenry will create its own employment and further transform their society through an application of the fruits of knowledge. In this thinking, Bayelsa’s most critical asset for the future is its enhanced human resources, its educated citizenry and skilled workforce produced by the schools, colleges and universities of today: “Once you educate, liberate and empower the human mind, it can do anything. The human mind has resilience.. to look for jobs, to create jobs and change its environment…”
This thesis and its attendant logic is the key to the ultimate legacy of Governor Seriake Dickson in the history of Bayelsa state especially in his chosen priority field of education.
Dickson is a big man with an unusually bold approach to governance. His achievement in education carries his defining imprints of courage and boldness. He realized that the pervasive poverty among his people would militate against rapid educational advancement except the government intervened to assist the people. To mitigate this risk, he embarked on massive investment in educational infrastructure.
At the secondary school level, from a situation where there was no boarding school previously, the administration embarked on the establishment of 15 model boarding secondary schools with full facilities. Each school is populated by children chosen through competitive examinations to represent the very best from across the state. They live and study free of charge in these model schools which have become alternative modernizing homes away from the poverty and depressing environment of the creeks.
Easily the showpiece of this policy is the unique Ijaw National Academy, a mega secondary school with ultra modern facilities and a population of 1,500 students chosen purely on merit from across the state to forge a sense of ethno national solidarity.
The crowning evidence of Dickson’s vision and boldness in education is in his investments in tertiary education. In a record eight years, his administration consolidated and expanded the Niger Delta University, which is the state university. It also embarked on a novel and unique University of Africa, an institution designed and conceived to unite students from across the continent in a common learning environment. The faculty is drawn from an international spread of scholars and researchers with Africa as its focus.
Conscious of the health needs of Bayelsa, Dickson’s investments in clinics and hospitals is crowned by the establishment of the Bayelsa Medical University, a sprawling campus with diverse health specializations with a centerpiece ultra modern Diagnostic Centre which boasts of facilities and technologies that match the best global standards. During an inspection of this facility in 2018, former President Obasanjo said his subsequent medical examinations will be at this facility on account of its high level of equipment and manpower.
While prioritizing education, Dickson never lost sight of the oppressive environment of his state and the need to develop infrastructure to match the modern outlook that he envisioned for the state. An estimated 85% of Bayelsa’s land area is under water. To embark on any meaningful infrastructural projects, the cost of sand filling and piling means higher overall project costs relative to the hinterland states. How has he grappled with this ecological natural challenge?
His answer is the network of new roads and bridges in places where none previously existed. These have linked up communities, towns and villages that were hitherto separated by difficult and dangerous creeks and swampy bush paths.
Governor Dickson insisted that we see his newest infrastructure landmark project. This is the newly completed very modern Bayelsa International Airport. The airport is conceived as an export-import mostly cargo airport with passenger handling facilities located on a vast land area envisaged as a free trade zone which Dickson proudly describes as ‘a market’ place of the future.
Easily the most significant achievement of this ex -police officer as governor of Bayelsa is in the drastic improvement in the security of the state. When last year former President Obasanjo joined other eminent Nigerians at Dickson’s 7th anniversary in office, Obasanjo pointedly asked the governor: “How did you do it?”. I was part of that earlier visit. It was now an opportunity to re-echo that question against the background of my own earlier trepidations based on the past ugly reputation of Bayelsa.
The outgoing governor insists that the improved security of the state is a result of two key factors: his massive investment in human capital development especially in education. Youth that would ordinarily be engaged in criminal activities are now mostly in various educational institutions.
Beyond education is an improved political atmosphere in which fierce polarization and combative partisanship has given way to a more tolerant and accommodating politics. The net effect is a state that is finally at peace with itself. As Dickson proudly says, “Bayelsa is now one of the most peaceful and secure states in the country”.
By this point in our conversation, the living room of his modest lodge is overfilled with party men and women, political foot soldiers and influencers. One could sense his anxiety to meet with all and sundry while retaining control of the politics of a volatile state. There is a desire to finish strong. I remind him of the problems of policy sustainability and continuity in Nigerian governance history, which leads us straight to the political terrain. He had just concluded the primaries of his party after which a candidate of his choosing emerged as his party’s flag bearer. I task his confidence in his successor designate in view of the brewing opposition against him and his nominee from the APC.
With this trend in mind, it is only worthwhile to contemplate the direction of Bayelsa’s development in the post -Dickson years.
Political continuity means everything in these parts. The road ahead for Bayelsa can only be contemplated. The chances of survival for Governor Dickson’s bold legacy is tied to whether he choice of a successor prevails. Even then, there is never a guarantee in Nigerian politics that the anointed will remain faithful to the ‘king maker’.
Yet, the achievements of Governor Dickson contain elements that are difficult to reverse. As he confidently asserted, most of his landmark initiatives are backed by legislation. These include the State Health Insurance Scheme, the Education Trust Fund, and The Tertiary Education Students Loan Board etc. The standard expectation is that any future administration intent on reversing these initiatives will need to go through the legislative process.
As Governor Dickson prepares to leave office after a commendable tenure, there is a larger challenge, which his achievements have thrust upon future generations of Bayelsa leaders. It is the whole question of the sustainability of an oil and gas dependent economy. It is a national question, which borders on the long standing question of diversification of the economy.
The only disturbing aspect of the Bayelsa story in my view is that its present progress is something of a one- sided economic script. The government is at the centre of the life and economy of the state. A government driven oil royqlty dependent economy is too fragile a proposition for such a young state. It is too dependent on the vagaries of political fluctuation to provide the kind of lasting prospect for prosperity and development that Dickson romantically envisions.
The night was far spent. We were parting on a wager on the troublesome matter of Dickson’s political succession. Both the outgoing governor and we the reporters were aware of the vagaries of Nigerian politics. Like all politicians, Dickson was unrelenting in his optimism. As we made to leave him, it was time to ask him what his private plans were when he leaves office. In a country where almost all former governors vie for senate seats, Dickson sounded refreshingly different: “Life is more than holding one elective office or the other…I hope to continue to be of some good, That is why recently, I launched my foundation, The Henry Seriake Dickson Foundation and we are setting up a cancer center. I will like to have more time to study, write and even go and teach.”
As I left Dickson to face the future he has defined for himself, it struck me that Henry Seriake Dickson is a rare combination of backgrounds that should produce a good leader. He is an ex-police officer, a lawyer and a committed politician. The highs and lows of his record as Governor of Bayelsa State are to be located within this matrix of a triple backgrounds.
––Chidi Amuta, a member of Thisday Editorial Board writes from Lagos.