There have been in recent times divisive statements across the country arising from the quit notice some youths gave the Igbo people in the North.How well would you say the country’s leaders, of which you are part,are working at uniting Nigerians in order to stop such centrifugal sentiments among youths?
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 because it didn’t result in anything. I support what the Northern Governors Forum and their counterparts in the East had done. I read the statements by my governor colleagues and I believe that all governors are united on this to see how we can promote peaceful co-existence and harmony.
But 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 is 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 and 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.
The Peoples Democratic Party has become so fragmented that new offshoots have even been registered by INEC.How do you rate the chances of the PDP in future elections?
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 – members of my committee in the PDP – made to reconcile the various tendencies in the party 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 the role of a strong opposition figure because of the needless crisis plaguing us. What is happening in the PDP is a great danger to Nigeria’s democracy. But I still believe that all hope is not lost. What is happening in the PDP is not just peculiar to PDP, it is also happening in the APC.
For our democracy to be secure, we need a strong, cohesive, united party in government pursuing a 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 the APC; it is brewing and nobody is talking about it. The sooner we in the PDP salvage our platform that is now terribly suffering from 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, and on the democratic credentials of all players.
My views might be in the minority, but my belief is that the judiciary is being over-worked or over-laboured unnecessarily by the political actors of all parties. We have abdicated our responsibilities as political players and have surrendered too much to the judiciary. We have involved the judiciary in too many unnecessary political issues, and, thereby, exposed them to ridicule. We are not just helping the judiciary. Political leaders who are key players in the democratic system should show the maturity and political temperament to be able to recognise and solve problems among themselves, and to see politics as an essential element of democracy, which is a marketplace of ideas. We all do not need to belong to one political party; even within our parties there are tendencies. There should be contestation of tendencies, but the irony in Nigeria is that politicians are more militant than the military. Politicians in Nigeria do not know how to argue and disagree among themselves; they don’t listen to one another. If you hold a divergent view, you are marked for destruction or blackmail, or tagged as doing anti-party. This is so because our political actors, our leaders lack the skills and democratic temperament to drive the political process, and these are partly the reasons why the crises in both the PDP and APC are strong.
But I am confident the PDP will bounce back after the Supreme Court judgment. We have no business going to the court in the first place. If PDP leaders had agreed to implement our template for reconciliation, a national unity convention would have held this month to elect a new leadership. The irony of it is that the judiciary does not reconcile, it only adjudicates. Even after the Supreme Court judgment, the party will still hold a convention and embark on aggressive confidence-building and reconciliation. So why did we go to court?
I was opposed to Senator Modu 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. Unfortunately, those who brought Sheriff for whatever reason fell apart with him. And when the Appeal Court upheld Sheriff as the PDP chairman, I, as a product of the law and 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! After the Supreme Court judgment, the PDP must address many of its problems, top of which is funding.
Why are you building an airport in Bayelsa State when there is proof that an airport project is not viable in many states?
When I came on board, I wanted an airport in Bayelsa State, the heart of Ijawland, to boost our economy and play an active role in the Gulf of Guinea.
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.
We have expanded the scope of the airport from a two-kilometre runway to a 3.5-kilometre one because we intended to make it commercially viable. Right now, it is only in Lagos, Kano and Abuja airports that big cargo planes can land. Even cargo planes servicing the oil companies in the Niger Delta bring in their oil equipment and tools, and their merchandise from there. They can’t land in Port Harcourt or in Enugu. They can’t land in any other airport in the South-South. So we have to structure our new airport for that type of traffic – actually cargo airport – to cover the South-South and South-East to handle big goods that come in from China and other places.
We are building the biggest state-owned airport in Nigeria. The contract was awarded to Dantata and Sawoe and is now almost 90 per cent completed. We already have the runway and the terminal building. Now, I am awarding the contract for the navigational instruments; when they are installed, you have the airport.
This airport will open up the state and enable people to fly in and out of Bayelsa for business and pleasure, and will generally create a hub for businesses. Bayelsa State is a renowned centre of oil and gas,and yet there is no activity there. When you ask the companies why they are not in Bayelsa, some of them say it is because there is no airport; they can’t fly in and out. So we can’t even control elements of the oil trade because there is no airport, and even no seaport there.
A lot of companies out there are already in touch with my team. They want to use the airport as a hub, coming in with planes to run their services, to connect directly with Lagos, Abuja and other cities, and to also service the Gulf of Guinea.It will also be a free trade zone, so that all the goods coming into the South-South and South-East and most other parts of the country will be there and there will be a market for them. That is why the airport is very important.
But Bayelsa State is mostly riverine, with few roads and water everywhere. So how do you intend to make the airport productive without a vastly complementing road infrastructure?
Yes, that is all part of the calculations. We have done a road to Amasoma, which the late governor, D.S.P.Alamiesiegha started but which my government re-awarded to the CCC. The company did a solid job, with bridges.
We are also doing a road from there to the airport, so from the East-West, you can easily get to the Bayelsa airport. With the airport, we will capture the markets in Warri, Ahoada, Ughelli and so on. Our strategic plan at opening up the airport for business will accelerate our development. The development of any state or nation is tied to creating a business-friendly environment, and building the infrastructure that can attract and encourage businesses to grow. We have a strategic plan for all these and that’s why this airport is so critical to us.
There is also a plan for a deep seaport from the airport. Within an hour, you can drive from the airport to the Agger Deep Seaport. We are building the road from Sagbama to Ekeremor, which is about 50 kilometres. We have sand filled about 47 kilometres already. It is very expensive to do; they are pumping sand day and night.
What guarantee do you give investors on security considering the volatile terrain of the Niger Delta generally?
I admit we are starting off from a position of disadvantage. There exist a mindset in some quarters that if you invest in some places like Bayelsa State, something bad will happen to you. But that is just a mindset; it is a perception. A number of people have not visited Bayelsa, they haven’t visited the creeks and communities out there to see how the people live. What people hear about Bayelsa is actually exaggerated.
In Lagos, for example, if you keep a diary of crimes committed per square kilometre, per population, of course you know what you will have. Lagos State is number one in crime yet the investors have not left Lagos. Bayelsa is safe for investors. On a daily basis, you see people from far-flung areas of the creeks in Bayelsa drilling oil, safely. There are people evacuating crude on a daily basis, from brass terminal in Bayelsa, from Forcados, from Bonny and everywhere in the Niger Delta, safely. But when there is a little incident there, it is blown out of proportion.
Security is vital to investments. For the investment itself to happen, it takes two – the public and private sectors – to work together. Then the government will create the enabling environment, which is what we are doing.
In Bayelsa today, we have what we call the Security Command and Control Centre, into which we are deploying electronic surveillance. Such things should normally 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. We have instituted the Security Surveillance System and have been running it for four years. 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. That has been their record, and it is electronically monitored and recorded.
To back up this investment, we have the Security Trust Fund, just as we have the Education Trust Fund. Bayelsa is generally a safe place and the night life there is very robust.
The Ogbia-Nembe road has been described as a vital link in Bayelsa but was once enmeshed in controversy. What is the state of the road now?
The Ogbia-Nembe road is a product of a good partnership between the NDDC and Shell. Budgeting and funding stalled the project and I had to intervene, as 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 the NDDC for a meeting. The partners told me they had no money to continue and I asked the contractor how much he needed to take this road to Nembe, and he said N3 billion. I immediately directed the release of N3bn to them and that was how they tarred the road. That was how Nembe became passable and became 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, which 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, we are doing 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 have already been planted. We now have a starch processing factory in Ebidebiri. Our partner, a Danish firm, is installing the machines. We have a lot of aquaculture projects going on. The idea is to train the young ones, and then we allocate ponds to them and we give them the fingerlings produced here. We give them feeds to feed the fish and when the fish is mature, people buy from them. It’s a revolutionary intervention in the field of agriculture.
Bayelsa, unknown to a lot of people, is a state that can do very well in agriculture. That is actually the best place for palm plantation. Aquaculture comes with our terrain; everybody there is a fisherman or fisherwoman. We can even do trawling, which the country is not doing yet.
Because of the state’s complex nature, running Bayelsa is very excruciating, especially doing it in a recession and without federal support. We bleed in Bayelsa to drive and force development.