From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Recently, Governor Henry Seriake Dickson hosted the 13th edition of the State Transparency Initiative with stakeholders and media practitioners were in attendance. In the insightful interaction, Dickson shed light on issues his administration had been grappling with since he assumed office. In his characteristic and frank manner, he reiterated the determination of his administration to take tough decisions in the overall interest of Bayelsans. He spoke on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:
How would you describe the failure of the local government chairmen to abide by the provisions of the Transparency Law that requires them to give account of stewardship every month?
The Transparency Law requires chairmen of the various local government councils to give account of their income and expenditure. I hope they are doing that faithfully. Well, the leaders and other stakeholders of the various local government areas should rise to the occasion because they all need to do that. Our people at all levels need to know how we are exercising public power and expending public resources. The way we have restructured our affairs at this level, it is difficult for anybody, from me to the least appointee in government, to be a millionaire or billionaire from your resources. It is not possible at all.
Every time, before we make approvals or anything, the finance team comes to me. The chairman of that finance team is the Commissioner for Finance not the Accountant General and the Director,Treasury. I even have another appointee, Special Adviser on Treasury and Accounts, Mr. Timipre Seipulo, who is not a civil servant. He is a professional accountant. So, they all come and scrutinise it and there is no one instruction that I have given one day other than what is regular and in the course of running your government, we would like stakeholders in the local government areas to rise to the occasion. I am really surprised if the level of compliance is not very good.
Inspite of the reforms embarked upon by your administration in the civil service, there seems to be disenchantment among the Bayelsa workers.
The conduct of our civil servants is a concern that a lot of stakeholders in this state have raised. For example, when my deputy was reading the report, we are spending as much as over N3.9 billion for payment of salaries. Where are these people? Just this morning, I gave instructions for the arrest of some civil servants; I directed that they be arrested and investigations be carried out.
Unknown to them, I have different layers of surveillance set up by which we monitor what goes on. I have told everybody that government is not a place where you come and become a millionaire or billionaire because there is not enough for that. There is not enough for stealing and certainly not enough to do the peoples work. If you want to live a flamboyant lifestyle, take a facility, then go and be a businessman and I will support you to be a billionaire but the management of the resources of our people cannot be left like that and I will like to be understood because this is a revolution.
We have to all change the mentality of our people to work, which happily, is changing. Now with the measures we have taken, civil servants now go to work. I had to call out our leaders, Senator Rufus Inatimi Spiff-led the verification team in his Brass Local Government; Senator John Braimbaifa-led team for Sagbama, my local government. You need to see the reports that they turned in. There are people on the state’s payroll, who have no business being there.
But there are still reported pay roll frauds in the civil service system?
Let me tell you about the local government areas; the whole idea was to move government closer to our people. We are grateful to the Military Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, you know, we always honour his memory for creating this state but he did not create more local government areas and people, who are afar think that Bayelsa is one state with eight local government areas. They do not know that in my local government, for example, when I was campaigning, it would take me three days to go round; it would take me another three days to cover Ekeremor. It would take four or five days to cover Southern Ijaw. If you go to Nembe and Brass, it is the same story and that is the story all over.
Everybody kept putting his or her relation and friends on the payroll from that time till now. The same with the local government areas and civil service to the extent that people, who were even in an acting capacity, will approve hundreds of people to be employed and then the propaganda will be that Hon. Seriake Dickson is sacking people; he is not civil service-friendly.
My dear people, this is not just for me alone; we have to save our state. If this state sinks, the Ijaw nation sinks. This state must stand out, as a beacon of hope.It is when we are able to eliminate these things that we can now have enough resources to build the schools that we are building.
We are building so many you all know. We are building roads. We are thinking of how to get partners to work with us to build roads and bridges in our difficult terrain; a road from Nembe to Brass will cost us almost N90 billion; that of Ekeremor to Agge is estimated at N120 billion but we will not be deterred because we are determined to open up our state.
But there are also dedicated Civil Servants in need of encouragement. What would be your message to those people?
So we must all key into this vision. When I exercise restraint in the recurrent approvals, people misunderstand it because people find it difficult to change. Talking about civil servants, I know that we have hard working, dedicated crop of civil servants. And what I have always said is that, for the majority of you who are dedicated to the cause of development of your only state, please do not allow the antics of the fraudulent ones in your midst to destroy your service. I have always told civil servants that, those of us who are in government are temporary occupants of the house. As political office holders, we have a fixed tenure – four years and if God and the people permit, another four years renewable and no more.
Some appointees in the cabinet have no tenure but the real stakeholders are the civil servants because they have 60 years or 35 years, whichever comes first. But we know a great majority of you are upright and doing a great job in our state, which is the right thing to do and we are grateful but please be more vigilant. I saw from the report I always get from my sources how people are still trying to beat our system. For instance, if a person’s salary is supposed to be N200,000, they will add over a hundred thousand naira. And what they record for their payment is different; the actual thing they send to the bank to pay is different.
I have directed the Commissioner of Police to beam his searchlight on them, and I am happy he is saying work in that regard has started. I have no apologies to make to any civil servant for doing the right thing for our people. This state is bigger than me, this state is bigger than any civil servant and I am not going to be blackmailed. They will say ah, he is not civil servant friendly, go and bring those crooks that will wreck this state again if you do not want to do what is right but God will not allow it. This state has risen up, and we are not prepared to go back to where we are coming from again. We are addressing the issue of civil servants because the finance team is deploying a technology and my expectation is that with the report it has given, by the end of this year, that system should kick in where we will be able to track everybody.
I also want to call on all the political leaders in all the various ministries to also ‘shine your eyes’. As commissioners, you must take responsibility for what your permanent secretaries and directors are doing particularly in this area. I believe that we can still reduce the wage bill, I do not feel comfortable anytime I see it because I know that there are states in this same country older than Bayelsa with a larger population paying salaries with their entire state allocation that is not even up to N3.9 billion that we are spending on civil servants and everyday, the complaint is, “you are not civil service friendly.”
They want more and more instead of rendering service; it is either this allowance is not paid or that one is not done and payment of tax has been an issue; tax that I did not impose. We did not impose any new tax; it is an existing law of this country and every state is complying with it. When I set up a committee, chaired by one of our best, Chief Francis Doukpola, and said look we have to work hard to increase our tax strength. I said go ahead and make recommendations. He said look, there is a tax law called, Personal Income Tax Act (PITA). It is a federal law and it is only the National Assembly that can repeal it and states are complying with it. Our honest advice to you is to implement that law as others are doing and that is what we have done.
My appointees are even paying more than civil servants because it is based on the principle of ‘the more you earn, the more you pay’. That is why in our financial report, the Deputy Governor read that our Internally Generated Revenue has risen from about N60 million to N833 million every month. So that is the sacrifice all of us must make. The finance team is working with consultants to see how we will even broaden our tax net in this state. Go to states like Lagos and see what they do. You open a shop and you pay your tax. We must do that in this state, particularly when we are using your tax judiciously because you are seeing it.
The children that we are sending on scholarships are our children; the money we are spending to make Bayelsa one of the safest states in this country is for all of us. And when we start our compulsory boarding system, we will be feeding boarders in this state. When the secondary schools we are building all over the state are completed, particularly the constituency secondary schools, those who will be there will become state responsibility.
I have heard that I am communilising governance. In my view, government exists for the people and not the other way round. We have a duty to educate our children, incubate them and train them well. They are our future. We cannot claim we are making progress, if they are not better than us.
Many a time,the question on the amount of liabilities and debts inherited by your administration have remained unanswered. Why are you not answering the question?
I want to say that, it gave me some concern and a lot of pressures when we first came in but we took some decisions in the overall interest of our state. We want to move forward. When we see Bayelsa mentioned in a negative light, we feel bad because we are actually out to re brand Bayelsa everyday and everywhere we go to (even outside this country) in a positive light.
So if there are politicians that are saying a few things and still want to take us back to where one nonentity will sit down and write an open letter abusing somebody, even if the person is abusing the President and they will sign and Bayelsa will now be taken to the dustbin and people will now ask, what kind of human beings are these? We want to move away from that; we want to be known and respected for the decent human beings that we are. We did not want to raise issues with the lenders because we felt the state should move forward. That is what we have done but we have taken your advice and the finance team will consider that while preparing the report because the liabilities are two-fold; you have the bond liabilities, which are taken at source and the bank facilities which were there before we came in.
The opposition seems to have thrown the state into controversy over alleged procurement of 60million Euro from Poland.How would you explain the loan issue to the people?
I have heard that those people propagating the issue are the same people who had issues to answer concerning all that went wrong in this state. I heard some of them are printing placards going to spread propaganda of how the state government is trying to borrow 60 million Euros; people who killed human beings and made this state a no-go-area that we are working hard to rebuild. And because we want a stable environment, we do not want the past to be a basis for judging us, we have even left everybody alone for God to handle it. As I said in my broadcast, most of them know what some of us can do if we want to but that is by the way and I hope we do not get to that level when the other side of us will be seen.
The point you raised is what the Deputy Governor wanted to address when he was giving the financial breakdown. I made the Deputy Governor to chair the committee that I set up because of his military background. Of course, you know he is a retired Rear Admiral. I sent him to Poland where he had a useful meeting with the Polish government. Because of the new image our state enjoy now investors within this country and outside are willing to come in; the Polish government offered to work with us to build our Maritime Academy which is like a university. We wanted to start a small academy in Okpoama in Brass Island so that we can have this major facility there. This state has potentials because of our maritime nature. We are all water people and so we want to dominate the maritime industry going forward.
Today, there are countries like the Philippine whose Gross Domestic Product mainly comes from sea-farers. Why can’t Bayelsa aspire to that? We want the best for our people; we dream big dreams for our people and we need your support and cooperation to actualise it. The Polish ambassador came here, I did not go to Poland; he came and said governor, we are seeing what you are doing, we are a big maritime nation, we can work with you to develop your maritime potentials. It was thereafter I sent the Deputy Governor to lead a delegation to Poland and they were given a red carpet reception. And then they came back. The President of Poland visited President Goodluck Jonathan, our dear president and brother. They raised in their bilateral meeting, the discussions they had with us. “Look, your Governor and people of Bayelsa are working hard; we want to support them. And what do they want to do? They wrote to us saying that, we have free funds.”
This is the Government of Poland, a sovereign nation and not a state. So we should consider ourselves privileged that a sovereign nation wants to support us. They said to me, “look, we want to work with you to build your maritime academy, we have funds; we have the expertise; we are actually going to affiliate it with our own maritime academy or university. We will build and run it and train people in that place, get them certified and they would be marketable all over the world. We will allow you in such a way that the operations of that university become commercial in this country and in West Africa. And because the business is international and highly regulated, people who do not have sufficient training cannot get employment. That is why other countries like the Philippines, who position themselves, excel. I confirmed with them that Bayelsa will not pay one naira back and they said no problem. They will bring the fund and then when the institute is set, they would also admit students from all over Africa and other places for training. Then they will now service it and get it right. It is a “Tied Direct Aid (TDA).”
So the financial aid is tied to a project, we are not going to receive their money and spend it. They will supply the manpower and the ships. Then when they finish with the admissions and training, they will now recoup their initial investment in the Maritime Academy. We are not taking that as a bank facility as was done before; get that clearly. It is not a bank facility with interest; no I will not go near that. I have been in office for 16 months, you should know that I would not go for any loan, particularly money matters. In fact, I am calling for investors to come every day. They should come because we do not have the money to turn this place to the Dubai of our dreams. The President of Poland raised it in his bilateral talks with our president, the Deputy Governor led a team to Poland again to represent me and they signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Poland. This is an investment of confidence in what we are doing.
The Executive Council and State House of Assembly must pass a resolution and now the assembly is considering it and when they are through, we are to send it to the federal authorities that will now join it with the requests from all other states and discuss it at the Federal Executive Council level. The Federal Executive Council will now send it to the National Assembly, which must authorize it. The Government of Poland will in turn send it to their parliament. Remember that the money they want to bring to invest here must be budgeted for in their country; so it is a government-to-government arrangement. And the amount is 60 million Euros and not 60 billion Euros and it is not a loan. I will not authorize that kind of thing where money that we do not even have is involved; I will not sign that kind of an obligation and be paying back. It is not possible. If we put our boys and girls there for two or three years, and at the end of it they get a diploma we have given them a meal ticket for life. Bayelsa youths in the school will receive training to enable the state dominate the provision of sea fearers and other maritime specialists in the maritime industry in Nigeria, West Africa and participate actively in the international maritime arena.
The state will pay commercial rates for its students in the school, and we are hopeful that our youths on graduation will find employment in shipping companies and other marine related institutions worldwide and thus generate foreign remittances into Bayelsa State. This is the only way we believe, the school can generate commercial fees to repay the Tied Aid Credit from the Polish Government. Due to the importance of the school, we are very optimistic that the school will be greatly utilized by students from the state, the country and the West African region and beyond. This will generate foreign exchange earnings for the country as well. So that is the way your government thinks. Next year, we will launch the New Yenagoa City Project. It will be from Tombia down to Igbogene and down to Yenaka. We have concluded surveys; it is not just talk. We talk and do. And now you answer me, is it Bayelsa Government money that we will use in developing that place that is going to run into billions of dollars.
We are going to attract investors; we will go on a roadshow to the entire major city capitals, sell our aspirations, that is why the investment we are making in the area of peace is very critical. I want to congratulate all of us for achieving that.
So if we market that place and somebody says, he wants some hectares to build high rise buildings and he wants me to sign land for him and build 200 roads and so on and that he wants to collect his money in 25 years time from the rent of that place, will I not sign? Of course, I will sign. Because development is here with us; that is the way we are thinking and we need to broaden our perspectives. We may take decisions that people may not understand but we mean well for this state and we love this state and we will do everything to protect your interest.