Bayelsa State Governor, Henry Seriake Dickson, fielded questions in a media chat on a wide range of issues including the projects embarked upon by his administration. Excerpts:
Despite the economic downturn felt all over the country, your administration has lined up some projects for inauguration. What are these projects, particularly those in the education sector and the reason behind their execution?
Our government is about mega life changing projects. In the area of education, we have only officially commissioned the Ijaw National Academy. There are very many schools we have built that are ready for commissioning. I believe the results should speak for us but given the political terrain in which we operate I think we need to showcase some of them. In the area of education, additional five model secondary schools will be opened. These are areas where there were no boarding schools before I took over in 2012. That is why you should not have been surprised if you had militants, criminality, drug addicts, and so on.
We have the Sagbama model secondary boarding school, also in Ekeremor that has been on for some months now. Brass and NNGS is also set. We have three in Kolga, the secondary school in Kiama, the one in Asuama that will be starting this month, and the Ijaw National Academy. In Yenagoa BDGS will start this month. The facilities in Saint Jude’s are well known. We also have in Oporoma, southern Ijaw which came on stream quite a while ago and very soon even the one in Okugbie will start. We have not even talked about the constituency boarding secondary schools that are ongoing with new facilities comparable to what you see in tertiary institutions.
By all analysis, our state has the best public schools in this country and we are not done yet. So, I am not surprised that examination results are moving steadily up, the performance of pupils is moving quite remarkably. That is an indicator of the investment we are making and I want to appreciate all the teachers, all parents for their understanding. Let me use this opportunity to call on all parents and guardians to take advantage of the enormous opportunity we have opened up for all the young people in our schools. Education, in all these state boarding schools, is free in all sense of it. Uniforms and books are provided by us. We even feed them three times a day. I was told that a number of the children refused to go on vacation and opted to stay back because they are fed three times a day.
We also have the best health care facilities in the state. And even in this recession, we are deepening our investment in that area. Despite recession, we are pursuing our infrastructural development programme. The airport project is going on, mega roads are going on, we have concluded sand filling beyond Aleibiri; you can actually get to Aleibiri with Hilux. This is the Bayelsa we came to change. We came prepared. We cannot say we have solved all problems, or that we will solve all problems at the end of eight years; it cannot be done.
But we have a lot of projects ready. The dualised Igbogene bypass with two or more bridges has been completed. When I said we wanted to turn Bayelsa to the Dubai of Africa we meant exactly this. So, all the interventions are like a signature of the restoration government. Unfortunately, the recession hit us barely one year into the second term. I was going to address most of these things within four years. Most people do not know that I was not keen on a second term. That was why I started so many things and worked feverishly to try and complete them but then the recession came in. But we are committed in the remainder of our tenure to ensure that Bayelsa is a better place by the time we round off.
How can the investment in education and your legacy be sustained in subsequent administrations?
I am quite satisfied already with where we are, although this is not where we want to be. We want Bayelsa to be the number one in education, the center of excellence and we are working hard to lay that infrastructure. When we took over in 2012, Bayelsa was almost at the bottom in its ratings in WAEC and NECO examinations. If we rated any better, it was considered a fluke or an accident not a product of conscious investment. But from that position, we moved to number 6 or 7 last year I think and now this year we are number 5. That is why we directed the compulsory summer camping programme for the SS3 students. Our thinking is this, if we camp them together as we did for between 4-6 weeks and they are not out there playing and we bring in the best teachers in all areas to coach them, the results should show. In the Ijaw National Academy and most of our models schools, the labs we have are very good and so they had exposure to practicals and the like. Our expectation is that with this, by next year when they take the competitive national exams Bayelsa will improve more. Our target is to be number one and we can make it because it is a product of conscious effort and nurturing.
Sustainability is the reason we created the education development trust fund. I think the fund has so far received close to N500m and that is commendable. As long as that fund is there and the managers are there and do their job which we believe they are doing well, the compulsory programmes will go on until such a time that we would have developed that critical mass of enlightened educated people who can compete in what is becoming an increasingly competitive global world. That fund with the law that has established it will sustain this policy beyond this administration. That is why people should be interested in the policies of people who want to lead.
We are building world class health care facilities. The diagnostics center is there; the whole country is coming to our diagnostics center. The specialist hospital by the government is free for the public. A 100-bed hospital, well equipped and run by competent professionals from outside and within the country. Two days ago, they carried out surgery that was done in the South–South for the first time. We have a forensic lab. We are still investing. Every local government area must have a modern healthcare facility. This has so far been completed in about 5 or 6 different council areas and by November you will see that a number of these facilities have begun operating. We had a state where you didn’t have modern health care facilities, where our people who were sick had to be taken to neighbouring states. Bayelsa is on course.
There has been commendation for your laudable strides in the education sector, but also a plea has gone out that you should remember teachers’ welfare as some are yet to receive their 18 per cent minimum wage arrears.
For the teacher’s welfare, no one is more concerned about that than me or more than this government. But there are a lot of problems in that area, fraudulent activities in terms of their payroll, people who do not go to work, indiscipline and all of that. We are going to address all of these. And all the issues about teacher’s welfare will be attended to. In fact, from next year, teachers will begin to attend the teachers training institute for training and retraining. For anyone to become a teacher he or she must pass through that institute and it will be affiliated to the University of Africa. We are not just building primary and secondary schools we are preparing the students who will graduate from these schools to go to a world class tertiary institution. We are funding the Niger Delta University (NDU) better now and addressing their challenges of capacity building and infrastructure and helping them to improve on their programmes. They got accreditation as you mentioned for all the courses for the first time and I have charged them not to stop at that. They should go and get more courses. We are putting down more facilities in the university and they will get more students. The University of Africa already has 500 basic students. Those of you who knew them before they got there if you interact with them now, you notice they have changed under a year because of the intensive nature of the programme and the modern and orderly way the place has been planned. Every student has their own room, they use cards to access their library facility and so it is a modern school like any other school abroad. We are hoping that by October or November this year, the degree programmes will start. We are not paying any staff in the African University; we do not dictate who gets employed. The university is autonomous. The management recruit the staff and students pay fees. Because of the economy, it is bad policy to continue to send students out for training. No state can support it. There are some courses we want to encourage Bayelsans to study, like nursing. We want to be like the Philippines that train a lot of nurses and export them all over the world, we can do that. We want to promote agriculture and entrepreneurship not just certificate qualification. We will select young Bayelsans, and give them scholarship. We pay their fees and they go to the university and then give them a little grant. Between now and the end of my tenure, the landscape will have so changed that people who were not here before will be shocked when they come to Bayelsa.
How soon will the state government conduct local government election?
Since we took over, no deduction has been authuorised by me in respect of funds coming to councils. I do not even know how much they get. In the state, we have local government autonomy. We didn’t dissolve the local government system we met in place. We wanted to conduct election showing we respect the autonomy of councils, especially in the area of respecting their finances. We constantly encourage them to be transparent, hold transparency briefings, and inform their people about their income and expenditure, to judiciously utilize their resources and we give them some policy guidelines. Because of the recession, states are finding it difficult to muster the resources to conduct local council elections. The local council election conduct runs into millions. So, it is a very expensive exercise. We are told the country has gone out of recession, or is trying to come out of recession. We haven’t seen or felt it yet but we believe and pray that is so. If our revenue improves, by next year we will love to have local council elections.
What efforts are there to assist the staff of the local government in terms of teachers’ welfare and the backlog of salaries?
It is a very pathetic situation. It is not just in Bayelsa but across the country. It is a fall out of the recession. In my first tenure, you did not hear of such challenges until the country went into deep recession. Every money we get comes from the federation account apart from the IGR which, when I started, was about N60m, but which we managed to raise to N500m on the average. The rest comes from Federal Government which they get from selling crude oil and if people do not buy crude oil as a state we are affected. A state like Lagos is out of it because they are fully developed, people pay tax, run a modern organised economy but Bayelsa is not on that self-sustainable level. Even if we produce the oil, it is not owned or managed by us.
These people you are saying are local government workers and they are actually few in number. Eighty per cent are workers in name only because they had appointment letters and receive salaries and not because they go to work. When the economy was robust their wage bill was about N160m. Now they are receiving about N90m, how do you expect them to meet up? That is why I tell people to take responsibility, to stop payroll fraud in the local government areas. If we take out all those that are working in more than one ministry or in the local government system and the state civil service system, all these fraudulent payrolls in Bayelsa there will not be much challenge. The responsibility lies with the stakeholders. Some of the stakeholders of the local governments are doing well. I want to address most of these reforms before my term runs out. We are trying to get proper records. We have been compiling a number of data; they were not even keeping records. Before 2012 they were not keeping real records in the state. I am very impressed at the few dedicated teachers we have and the ones who are not dedicated I will deal with them. You will see the reforms taking place. We have been quietly collating names. The union leaders should please listen to me. We will not be intimidated; we will do what is right.
How do you react to those who are accusing you of taking on too many projects?
It is a compliment if they say we are doing too much because I came angry at the state of our underdevelopment. Whoever is governor must leave a positive impact. I will continue to work breathlessly till my last day as governor because I want it to be said that I have tried my best as governor. Even if the present generation does not appreciate, the succeeding generations will remember the governor who built this magnificent office. They will remember this 3.5 kilometer airport; the project that even the Federal Government cannot do now, we are steadily completing it. They will remember that our government built health centers in their local government areas and the schools we built.