Bayelsa State Governor, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson has served notice that he will take far-reaching and sometimes painful steps to reposition the state, which he says is in a very bad economic shape. By SONI DANIEL.
What is your agenda for Bayelsa State?
On the basis of the preliminary interaction I’ve had with the permanent secretaries and others, I have confirmed my suspicion of the depth of rot in the state. I know that the work is going to be tough, challenging and demanding. That’s why we have painstakingly selected a team that not only has the confidence and dedication but a team that above all, understands the need to take Bayelsa to the next level. I am putting together a crack team that has the right service because politics must be based on service not the other way round. I have just appointed the Secretary to the State Government; a man I’ve neither known nor met before I appointed him. I appointed him based on his track record of performance, dedication and capacity and to apply these fully to the challenges that are ahead of us. I met him only a day before I announced his appointment. I have actually been going for all good characters that I need in the task of reclaiming Bayelsa.
Bayelsa State has no reason to record the least performance in all national exams because we have no reason to be classified as an educationally disadvantaged or backward state.
Educational infrastructure are all dilapidated or non-existent. The SSG is actually coming from an academic background. So he has first hand information and it will be very useful in terms of enabling me to address the problems of the Niger Delta University, which is the only state-owned tertiary institution.
From that educational background, the SSG could assist us in turning around the educational sector of the state for the interest of our people.
You will recall that I declared a state of emergency in the educational sector during my inaugural speech because I think that the greatest challenge a society faces is the challenge of knowledge, which is the most important resource. We are therefore, fully committed to it. A number of people have asked me how I am going to give free education in Bayelsa and I have told them that it is a question of cutting cost; the question of blocking all leakages and wastages and a question of adapting lifestyle. Above all we have made education the top most priority. We will also invest massively in health services because that is very important to majority of our people. Some work has been done in terms of the foundation for tertiary health delivery in terms of the hospitals and others. Our goal is to be sure that Bayelsa becomes the place people go to in Nigeria for medical treatment and we will achieve that in no distant time.
Well, you must be familiar with my statement that my government allows no room for criminality and violence. We are committed to ensuring that we create an enabling peaceful environment for businesses to thrive, for tourism to flourish, for investors to come down and do business. We also have a very revolutionary programme of infrastructural development. There are major roads that have been abandoned, which we want to complete and put to use. I was the attorney-general of that government so I have knowledge of some of the programmes of that government; roads abandoned, contracts awarded, etc.
We also have to focus on the economy. It is now important because we need to create jobs. The government alone cannot create jobs that will keep people employed. So we will partner with the private sector to get it done in the right way. An appropriate framework will be developed for engaging the private sector to engage youth. We have so many other things to do but these are the core priorities for our government - education, health services, infrastructures, peace and agriculture. Soon every Nigerian will see that change has truly come to Bayelsa.
But it is also good that I repeat the warning, which I gave during my inauguration, when I said that difficult and tough decisions are ahead because the economy has been so badly managed that over 80% of the state’s monthly allocation is spent on wage bill. The state has the highest wage bill in this country. Our state is the smallest in terms of workforce, land mass and population but ironically it has the highest wage bill ever. I’m told it is over N6 billion naira every month and you will agree with me that, that is not sustainable. I don’t know why it should be so, whether every citizen of the state is a public servant, collecting salary which is not true.
So we are going to find out what is going on. Those are the decisions that could have been taken before now; I don’t want to leave those decisions for other governors coming behind me. I want to confront these problems as difficult as they are even though I know that I will be misunderstood. They may misunderstand me today but tomorrow they will see the result of what I am doing. They will see me building schools, which I want to start in the next one or two weeks; building the educational infrastructure, primary schools. They will see us awarding contracts for construction of health centres, general hospitals and so on.
They will see us working hard on building model schools across the state in every local government area. We will do that. These are areas I think we will focus but not the system where a small-state with that kind of small population is recording the highest in terms of waste. That amount is something that most states don’t even get in a month by way of allocation. Those are the tough decisions that lie ahead. Complaints may come and they will come from those who are benefitting from the rot in the old order. I want to thank you for the friendship, please tell the Bayelsa story of change. Tell them there is change in Bayelsa now and that, that change is real. Tell them that Bayelsa is open for investment, Bayelsa is open for tourism, Bayelsa is open for all those who want to do business and we have a government that is investor-friendly; that the government is ready to create an atmosphere for business, for security and for any other social activities.
There have been reports that you have fallen out with President Goodluck Jonathan over differences in the constitution of your cabinet?
I want to assure you that there is no misunderstanding with the president. The president is not involved in the appointments being made by me. The president is my leader, my boss, my elder brother and I am one of his loyalists. I don’t have any regrets for that. The president has no time to meddle in the running of the state but don’t forget that the president is a stakeholder and I am his field commander but there is no quarrel between us over appointments into the state cabinet. Maybe people just want to look for trouble where there is none. He doesn’t intervene in all those types of things. Although I run to him from time to time for advice, counsel and guidance, the ultimate responsibility for political decisions of government in Bayelsa lies with me. I take the credit as well the criticism. The circumstance under which I came into government was that there was no well planned and proper handing over. You know the circumstance under which the former governor left as a result of the Supreme Court judgement and then we had an acting governor who was there for about two weeks and we needed to start on a clean slate. You know that the state is terribly indebted. There were so much loans and bonds. How well they were utilized is a story for another day. But as a governor, I needed to stop any further financial transactions because from the moment I was sworn in as the Chief Executive of the state I needed to authorize any disbursement of the state funds and that is why I gave the instruction to freeze the state accounts and I directed that henceforth any disbursement or expenditure must have my approval so that I can be sure that it complies with our standards.
Given the bitterness that trailed the change of leadership of the state, what are you doing to bring everybody along so that political peace can reign in the state?
Well, I am a consensus-builder. You know that at the point I became flag bearer of PDP, we started re-organizing the party, building the party, bringing together aggrieved people, people who have been left out for long, which was how somebody like D. S.P. Alameisiagha became the Chairman of the Elders Committee. We constituted an Elders’ Committee that was not there before. Even in the campaign caucus, Alaibe, who was also a contestant, came in and he went round campaigning for me. So I am a team player of consensus builders. I hope to use those political skills to further the pursuit of reconciliation because I agree with you that we can do better in terms of building political understanding. I intend to be very consultative and I have pledged not to return Bayelsa to violence.
In all my public statements, I have condemned cultism, crime and violence and I have made it clear that there will be no compromise on it. Previously we had a situation where some of these people were actively brought up as political instruments of terror. Nobody in my government will be allowed to have any relationship with these elements that are bent on creating havoc. I am coming into government with the attitude of peace and the message of reconciliation and with the practical political steps we hope to take in terms of getting stakeholders together; I think that Bayelsa will truly be peaceful. It is not surprising that since I became the candidate, the level of violence and kidnapping in Yenagoa has steadily declined. Previously, it was two to three people dying every day but now most of the criminals are running away from Yenagoa on their own because that is one thing I will not compromise. As a matter of fact, while I was campaigning, a lot of friends were advising me not to talk tough on crime the way I was doing, but I am one politician who has gone this far without records to violence.
I fight hard, but I fight using the media, using political and legislative control. If I set p a cult group, it will just go out of control. That’s what happened under the former governor. We knew where it was coming from. When Alaibe campaigned, over seven people died. The night prior to my formal declaration, five people were shot dead. A day prior to the first announcement of my flag handing over ceremony they went and threw dynamite on a bridge. So we in Bayelsa knew where most of these challenges were coming from and that was why even as a candidate I took that hard line position - zero compromise to crime, violence and criminality. Now as governor I have added corruption, zero tolerance for corruption.
Given the huge debt left behind by your predecessor, Chief Timi Sylva, are you considering probing his administration?
I am interested in knowing what has gone wrong to enable me to understand the past and to enable me to develop a baseline from where I am taking off but for you to take off effectively, you must know where you are coming from. Just like the starting of a journey of building a house, you must have a foundation. So it is not a probe. It is not the time to talk about probe but this is now time for me to understand what went wrong; why senatorial roads awarded and some paid for, were not completed. What happened to the abandoned hotel project? You know, these are basic enquiries. For me that is the focus and in the next couple of days we are going to see government actions in these areas but it is all to understand what has happened. It is not with a view to criminalizing anybody.
What we will do with the fact that the end of the day is another matter but my focus and I think the focus of any reasonable person in government in my position will be able to understand what has gone wrong.
In specific figures, can you tell us the amount of debt you inherited?
We inherited huge loans running into billions. I can’t put a figure to it. We are still computing the exact figure. Don’t forget the former governor took N50 billion bond from the capital markets for which the state is paying N2 billion every month. When we were fighting to free Bayelsa, a lot of people did not understand.
What will be the guiding philosophy of your administration as far as fiscal matters are concerned?
New Bayelsa will under my government cut down on recurrent expenditure beginning with my own office. The money for the maintenance of the Government House will be reduced. I will also reduce the expenses on other government agencies. Both I and my deputy are frugal with money and we intend to bring this prudence into the running of our government. The savings would be ploughed into essential areas and sectors.
How do you feel disengaging from the House of Representatives?
Today, I will enter there for the last time as a member. I am going to resign from there today. Well, it is very emotional. The good thing about the parliament is that when you have left your colleagues, they continue to identify with you. I will remain a parliamentarian. I have a word of advice for them. They should realize that it is a training ground for leaders. Today, I am governor. Any of them can be anything tomorrow. I want them to continue to work for the unity of the country. They must continue to be guided by national interests in all their actions.