• Touts his many achievements as governor
• Declares his work in Bayelsa a silent revolution
Governor Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State spoke to journalists on topical issues in recently, not least on the crisis that has been roiling the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The Governor who is the Chairman of PDP National Reconciliation Committee spoke on the leadership crisis in the party but is confident that while matters have been on the boil, a settlement is not far off. This he said is irrespective of how the judgement of the Supreme Court on the legitimacy of rival claims to the party’s leadership turns out.
On the recent quit notices and counter quit notices by a coalition of Arewa Youth and Ndigbo Youth groups, the Governor calls on the Federal Government to consciously and elaborately reconcile all sections of the country and build confidence amongst the various ethnic groups to stem the tide of agitations across the country.
Governor Dickson said he is delivering on his campaign promise to the people by placing the state on the path of peace and development. He listed a world class Diagnostic Centre, critical infrastructure such as roads, flyover, hospitals and the ongoing international airport which he said would be commissioned before end of the year as some of the big ticket projects delivered by his government in the last five years.
The Governor said in spite of the dip in revenue accruals to the state, his Government introduced free and compulsory education at both primary and secondary levels, built modern schools and started a boarding school system to enhance delivery of quality learning and discipline and has spent billions on scholarships for Bayelsa and Ijaw students abroad. The government’s education policy, according to the governor, has started yielding dividends as a Bayelsan recently came tops in an essay competition, and another on scholarship who was a student of Mathematics/ Computer Studies, Pere Perewari,recently emerged as the overall best achieving graduate at Lincoln University in the United States and was in fact the valedictorian in the 2016/2017 session.
Q: How far along is the airport project in Bayelsa now?
A: 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 economy of the Gulf of Guinea. So I lobbied the Federal Government for partnership on such a project. 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 did not 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 could use it in 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 ensured 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 with the bank, they knew that their money was there in the bank and 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 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. It is actually a 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; he 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 the historical centre of oil and gas and yet there is no meaningful activity in that sector now 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. So we don’t even control elements of the oil trade because there is no airport, no seaport.
Did you start from scratch?
We started from 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, to come and build warehouses. So from China they come; it is actually going to be 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.
Are you 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 , about one hour drive from the airport, the Agge Deep Sea Port. Again we have been laboring to build the road that will take us to Ekeremor, the next local government, 50 kilometres long. These are the big ticket projects we will be doing. Visit Bayelsa, I will like you people to have an idea of what we go through to build roads. We are building the road from Sagbama to Ekeremor which is about 50 kilometres, we have sand filled about forty seven kilometres 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 got to get to that local government and see what we can move from Ekeremor to Agge which is about 67 kilometres from Ekeremor. We also did another 70 kilometres to get to Agge 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 Agge 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 inflation 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 kilometres, sand filled, stabilized it 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 and 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 hectres space 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 things you have enumerated can you finish before 2019?
As I said the airport is already being completed- by 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 a fortified road with the navigation equipment.
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 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.
A couple of days ago 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 most stable state even though it is at the epi-centre of 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 a state of emergency in the education sector. It was not just a political slogan. I really meant it. We have committed over N55 billion, building schools, for scholarships, building quarters for teachers, building laboratories, boarding houses, libraries, supplying books, supplying uniforms, paying JAMB, NECO, WAEC fees, all by government.
The Ijaw National Academy for example, a school we designed and built from scratch in the midst of a massive forest 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 a day 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 only do is buy buckets, cutlass and then the hostel wear.
We are embarking on massive mobilization 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 and 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 have people go around to 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 say 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 remaining 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 send them to the best secondary schools in the country. But after building these schools, I brought them back home.
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 government not taking on too much ?
The reason we are doing that is 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 our 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, will 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?
I acknowledged that we were starting off from a 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 I am keen to host a number of you. I know 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 kilometre, per population, you will be scared but it is not reported yet the media houses are all here and yet the investors have not left Lagos. Crime is crime we condemn it. Look at what happened in London with the terrorist attacks worse than what is happening in Nigeria, except some areas in the North East.
The guys who put up the Travel Advisory exaggerate our situation. The European Union Ambassador spent three days, returned back safely. Two days ago, the Political Secretary to the British High Commission visited Bayelsa. I receive 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 from far flung parts of the creeks in Bayelsa drilling oil; 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.
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. Unfortunately our party has not been playing the 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 unfortunately also happening in APC. For our democracy to be secure, 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.
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. We practise the politics of accommodation, politics of showing understanding in the way things are done, politics without violence and deploying the skills to mobilize 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 got to do that. Odinarily that shouldn’t be a state government 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.
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, the action time vehicles get to the spot is recorded and so there is accountability. To back up this investment, we have the Security Trust Fund like the Education Trust Fund. So Bayelsa is generally a safe place. The night life there is very robust and those of you who came during the Guild of Editors confab can attest to that.
You spoke about turning the airport area to a 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 I 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 etc. 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 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 were 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, and which were non-existent before I came on board. Now, I say every ward must have a functional health centre and residential accommodation for the medical personnel. A number of the wards have health centres but no personnel there, everybody wants to stay in Yenegoa or Port Harcourt.