Bayelsa State Governor Seriake Dickson spoke with reporters in Yenagoa, the state capital, on the challenges confronting his administration and efforts being made to tackle them. Excerpts:
What are the challenges facing Bayelsa State?
The challenges are very obvious. The challenges of funding are clear as we are living in trying times and our country is officially in a recession. That immediately affects our capacity as a government to complete our programmes on schedule and that can sometimes be very frustrating. It also impacts on our ability to carry out some of the social issues we have been dealing with. Investment in health care, development, education, security and other related issues are the major challenges we have been having.
Why are you initiating civil service reforms?
Every state is expected to have a functional, effective and efficient civil service and one of the things I noticed on assumption of office was that our civil service was not just bloated, but was steeped in much that was unprofessional and a lot of indiscipline. But, even in the midst of this, there were many civil servants that were good, that worked hard and professionally. The general issues we have had are of orientation, of politicising the public service, of lack of training, of indiscipline generally. We have people who have their names on the payroll who do not earn their salary, do not go to work and just sit at home. We have health facilities and patients go there, but the workers do not go to work. The services are not provided. but, this is what we call the public service in Bayelsa. And we have so many unions fighting for welfare only and salaries and not addressing the core issues of discipline and professionalism. We have instituted a lot of reforms since this government came on board. The unions have been carried along and they are also working with us in most of these initiatives. What I have always told the unions is for them to be part of this process because in the end they are the beneficiaries. I call the civil servants the real landlords; we the political leaders are tenants. They should have more interest in having a more disciplined and productive service. I have also made it clear to them that it will be in everyone’s interest for us to re-position the public service for greater service delivery and efficiency.
Where there are challenges and where the reform impacts in a way and manner that people complain about legitimately, labour leaders who I see every so often can attest to the fact that I have had more meetings with them than any other governor before me. It is an on-going reform and I expect everybody, political leaders, traditional and opinion leaders and all Bayelsans to key into it. We cannot be a state that will be a laughing stock, where people will say the Bayelsa payroll is over N6b every month. We have managed to reduce it from N6.4b to about N4b. But, the local government are paying almost N1.3b and if you add that to our wage bill it is almost N5.3b and these are core issues impinging on the capacity of people to deliver especially at the local government level. They cannot even pay salaries not to talk of meeting their other obligations.
These are the reforms: we will no longer have a situation where graduates that have a teaching qualification and are in environmental sanitation, for instance, earning salaries and promotions and have been there for ten or fifteen years. Our schools need teachers so I will send them to teach in school. No one will be sacked but if you do not go to work, you will sack yourself and I will have no hesitation in endorsing it. At the end of this, when we have removed all the ghost names and those who do not go work have sacked themselves, there will be a lot of vacancies for our young people.
Your administration recently set up the University of Africa, Toru-Orua. The thinking in certain quarters is that it is aimed at crippling the Niger Delta University. What is your reaction to this?
That is completely baseless and an irresponsible thing to say or insinuate. We have demonstrated commitment to education. We have spent so much at the primary school and secondary school levels. You all know what is going on, especially at the secondary school level. Schools in every LGA with boarding facilities. Even in this recession, we are buying beds, lockers etc. We are equipping libraries, building fences and so on. These schools are like tertiary institutions now. Some local governments have three of such schools. There is the Ijaw National Academy, very soon to be commissioned. Now, most of the challenges we have in this state, the way I have come to conclude are rooted in years and decades of insufficient investment in education and that is why any time any where I see people demonstrate a commitment to education as a government I have an obligation to support and assist. And this should be a collective approach to our development. Anyone can come and build roads but the greatest investment is investment in the human mind.
Let me make it clear again that the University of Africa is a state- owned university, an initiative of the state government because by the time we have worked on all our tertiary institutions and their needs and re-organized all of them including college of health technology, school of health, school of nursing, and BYCAS because they all have the same challenges of over bloated staff, indiscipline and low productivity but with a very high recurrent cost which higher institutions will be there to accomodate the products that want to proceed further with their education? The University of Africa is established by law of the state but we want it to be run on a different model, we want to try an idea which we hope will be successful and probably will be a model for others to copy moving forward. The university is a public one, that is why I will be making the first appointment very soon and I will be acting as visitor. But the model is this we will only support infrastructure as much as we can but the university must take responsibility for its funding and also support its development. It has to raise funds. It is a fees- paying university and because we cannot tell NDU students to pay those very high fees since it did not start on that model we want to have a situation where we will have a publicly funded university like NDU but one everybody knows will charge fees from day one. The university will use the fees to maintain academic as well as non-academic staff so that we no longer have the challenges that we are having with NDU and most other public universities in Nigeria.
What is the motive behind the allocation of land for a ranch to herdsmen?
Let me acknowledge that the conversation going on is legitimate. I told a number of people the other day that I christened Bayelsa the Jerusalem of Ijaw Nation in my Inaugural speech in 2012, and because it is centred on promoting Ijaw unity and identity and culture and history, I believe that it is legitimate for any Ijaw man or woman to express an interest or even venture an opinion or a suggestion on the development of Bayelsa. I said no body should take an exception especially with respect to the comments credited to my dear sister Mrs. Ann Kio Briggs who is a friend and sister, a colleague in the struggle. Even though I feel that she was unfair because she knows she has access to me and she more than most people should knows my type of person and what I stand for as far as protecting Ijaw fundamental interest is concerned. What I can say is that while I concede to people their right to disagree and even to venture alternative points, they too should concede to me that we know our governor, he must be driving this policy for a good reason. They should also concede that to me, especially on matters that affect the protection of Ijaw people and the defence of Ijaw fundamental interest because none of this people can say they rank higher than me in terms of pedigree. And as governor, you look at all you have done and you will also concede to me that I am running a government that will stand by you and protect Ijaw national interest. I also know and it is a fact that the undertone behind most of these concerns has to do with the barbarity and criminality associated with some elements who are said to be herdsmen.
As your governor, I have made a judgement that the dangers we face on this cattle problem are such that providing this place of confinement is the best solution now. We intend to construct a security post where security men will be. And very soon we intend to enforce the registration of every cattle rearer. It is not in the security interest of our people to allow herdsmen who may be armed to be roaming our communities. I am not one that will take your security lightly. There is no benefit for me in this decision. But this is the right thing to do and it is a model that a lot of states are looking at. There will be no permanent structures there. My judgement in consultation with the state security council says we should confine them. They go round destroying peoples farms and if we do not contain them it will lead to a major clash which we do not want to see. Or what other option do we have? is it to leave the herdsmen that come from far and anywhere to come and wander about and take over Amassoma or other communities? That is not good, I cannot allow that. I would like our young men to even own cattle and rear them as a means of livelihood, because most of the cattle there now are even owned by Bayelsans. Some of the cattle is owned by our people, Igbo traders, Yoruba traders and so on.
Is Bayelsa State thinking of resorting to loans to complete the massive developmentprojects you started in your first term?
Thank you for asking that question as it has given me an opportunity to shed more light on an issue, the one about vehicle loans for legislators which some persons have been using to incite our people against us. We have been making a lot of sacrifice in this state, all arms of government. For the past one year my vehicle cannot even take me to Port Harcourt. My vehicles are all old, overused, for five years now. Same for the deputy governor and all our aides; nobody has functional vehicles anymore. The Assembly is almost two years and, unlike their colleagues, they have been working without vehicles. A number of the new members were going to work on Okada. They have managed for two years and so we had an arrangement with a bank, because we do not have money to pay for it. The Doo-Akpor vehicles are all condemned, which is reducing their effectiveness. We had an arrangement with a bank to purchase the vehicles for Doo-Akpor and also for the Assembly members so that we can pay gradually. It is not as if we took loan of N3b to go and pay for vehicles. It is on lease and we are servicing it gradually.
Governments borrow, but what is most important is what you are borrowing for and how you execute that objective. We took a loan, which we are servicing and that has to do with the critical infrastructure project going on at the airport and every month the cost of servicing it is so high. People mention figures that Bayelsa Government receives as allocation. but, they do not calculate the cost of paying salaries and paying obligations every month. We are currently servicing that facility for the airport and we all know that there is no federal involvement in that airport. Initially we wanted a partnership but the federal government failed completely on this and even the navigational instruments at the terminal that they were to build they have not done and we cannot wait. Our state, as far as we are concerned in the government, is in a hurry for development so we had to take that facility, we are working on it and it is almost completed. I have received financial advice from the finance team that at some point we may need to re-finance that obligation. Because we cannot be sure how our monthly earnings will be and I have made a commitment this year that we will not delay payment of salaries and moving forward I will not want to pay workers’salaries in any manner than paying fully. So with this commitment, whether money comes in or not, or whether the allocation is low or high, we have a binding obligation to authorise expenditures of over N4b and this does not include local government salaries.
Because there is need to complete these life changing projects, at some point there may be need for loan in one form or the other. Every project has a gestation period as part of its design and signing process. We do not have the federal interventions. It will be nice to have the acting President move into the creeks, I have invited him already. Let them come and see how we confront issues of development. The entire state is below sea level. What we call roads are actually bridges. Even now we are still sand filling Sagbama-Ekeremor road and we will soon resume that of Oporoma. So if at some point we have to approach the market, we will raise funding to complete our critical roads.
What is really delaying the completion of the Samson Siasia Stadium?
We had an unfortunate development we did not anticipate. The contractor gave a wrong impression and has been given all the facilities that he needed on ground because he said he needed to be remobilised to site to fix everything u and we said ok and he kept working only for me to hear about three weeks ago that the gentle man says he needs more money to import more materials. As a matter of fact, the money he needs now is more than the total initial cost of the whole project so for me, that was difficult to comprehend and there was need to say this was not our understanding. That is the point we are at now. But let me also say this: for a contract that was given 2012/2013, and particularly with the devaluation of the Naira, it is not unreasonable for some adjustments to be made in overall cost of the job. I have given instructions to the finance team and commissioner for sports to meet with the gentle man who incidentally is a Bayelsan . They are working out the details that is why the anticipated date of commissioning became unrealistic. The stadium will be put to use very soon.
Listener:I would like to be employed into the University of Africa Toru-Orua, I am a fresh graduate with a second class upper degree.
Governor’s reaction: This is the first application I have received on radio. But because of the new model we want the university to follow, I or anybody else in Government will not be permitted to send names for employment because these are the things that contributed to the over bloated wage bill we are complaining about. I was delighted at the last report that over 6,000 of our sons and daughters applied for scholarship places of only 4,000. That shows that there is need for more universities. I invite the private sector to participate actively in this area. In this state we do not even have a private university which is a contribution to development and human capacity building.
At the end of this ongoing re-organization, the only thing I can do is send a lot of qualified people who are already in our payroll with teaching qualification to our primary and secondary schools because this state needs a lot of teachers. Because of the boarding schools we are building everywhere, we have set up the Education Safety Corps. We will recruit and I have asked the security people to prepare a training manual for our young boys and girls to enable them acquire the skills to secure our schools. As a matter of fact, there is a lot of employment opportunities coming this year. But first you must be prepared to go to work.
QUESTION: When will you make the appointments for the caretaker committee for the RDA’s so that the people in our villages and communities will also feel your presence?
Ans: The reality in the RDA’s is that, every RDA has a minimum staff strength of 250-300. If you multiply that by 32 you know what that means. That is the ugly reality in Bayelsa. I am happy you raised the issue because that is one area we have the biggest wrath. People do not go to work. Those RDA’s were created with the intention of bringing government closer to the people. Now you have very senior people posted there and they do not go to work. Some of them do not even have secretariats yet we have up to 400 people earning salaries. This is part of the challenge. We appreciate the grass root support because that made it possible for us to win the election so do not worry we will reach out. This government has also made a lot of appointments and we will recognize that.
QUESTION: Why is the state having University of Africa as state -owned private university and having NDU as state- owned public university? How do you think the AU can create access road for the poor Bayelsans to afford its tuition fees if NDU is getting tough on school fees?
Ans: Fees are high but children are being sent even from Bayelsa to Ghana and they pay fees in dollars. Nigerians send their children to UK, Canada and so on. Our calculation with this model is that very soon, the UA will be an international university where people in Nigeria will send their children to. This is part of the big dreams of this government. The UA is an opportunity not just for Bayelsans but for Nigerians to send their children to and receive education instead of sending them outside. The programme is such that in 4 years the children will finish, no ASUU strike and so on. The UA attracts world class lecturers.
I want to use this opportunity to appreciate Bayelsans for their support especially for the election and for the triumph in spite of the challenges. We are now concluding the first year of our second term to the glory of God. The last two years have been very challenging as a result of developments in our national economy. We are trying our best to utilise our public resources in such a way to advance our common good. We have also been working hard to look at all the areas we need to look at, addressing the work culture and delivering on the paradigm shift in governance that we brought this year. Be rest assured that every resource coming to Bayelsa is well spent. Your state is in safe hands and we hope that things turn out well for our country. I want to use this opportunity to call on all Bayelsans, Ijaw people, this is no time for bickering especially over small things. This is a time for unity, closing of ranks, for encouraging and supporting one another because these are very interesting times for our country and you can be rest assured that you have us that have been here as servants of our people that you have all known me to be. I am not saying I am perfect, but you cannot take away the fact that we are committed, passionate and we are following a broad comprehensive vision. We need your support, encouragement on the issues of economy, to broaden the base of our economy, issues of investing and expanding critical infrastructure and on the issues of security. We are open for discussion as to how we can make initiatives better. Let me make it clear that as a governor, I will not sit here and allow herdsmen to invade our communities. Any herdsmen that is found with arms will be dealt with accordingly.
Tomorrow will be the end of my first year. We still have three years to go God willing. And because this is a season of love, I being the only Valentine Governor, I want to wish you all happy Valentine!
And for your information I have directed the establishment of the motor cycle patrol squad and very soon they are going to have their communication facilities co-ordinated from our security command control centre to keep all of you safe.