Dickson’s Fresh Momentum in Bayelsa

Dickson’s Fresh Momentum in Bayelsa

Every government always has work to do and no government can fully undertake or finish all the work that is required in the polity. It is therefore unthinkable that any government will be so bereft of tasks that it idles away, until its tenure expires. The fact that new seasons present their unique challenges that combine with issues carried over from a preceding season, coupled with a forward-looking agenda that stretches beyond the present, means that governments will always be gainfully engaged. However, what is often at stake is how the incumbent administration applies itself to the work at hand.

After 18 months in office, it is possible, without much argument, to track the focus, and rate the accomplishments of the administration of Henry Seriake Dickson, Governor of Bayelsa State. The most obvious is the new momentum he has brought to bear on the implementation of the Yenagoa City Master Plan. Adopted in 2007, after years of incubation, the Master Plan aims “to transform Yenagoa City into a globally-recognised city with modern infrastructure and appreciable aesthetic beauty comparable to other model cities in the world.”

Dickson’s enthusiasm and passion is infectious. On one occasion, I sat at a meeting with him and development partners from South Africa on the actualisation of the Yenagoa Master Plan. So fervent was he about making the dream come true that everyone present felt injected with an eagerness to help him deliver the promise. The fresh impetus has seen Yenagoa and elsewhere in the state transformed into huge construction sites, the true value of which can only be appreciated by reference to the enormous cost of land preparation (excavation of the top soil, sand-filling, piling, and so on) for both buildings and roads in a state that is virtually below sea level. The boom in construction also translates into thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

At the time of its creation in 1996, Bayelsa was the backwaters of the old Rivers State—neglected, deprived, and bereft of the trappings of modernity. Indeed, it was the agonising pleas of the forgotten places like Bayelsa that gave rise to the famous Willink’s Commission. When eventually the state was created, the early administrations struggled with the provision of basic infrastructure as start-up facilities to enable the state take off. Now, massive infrastructure is being built for the new Yenagoa City and Central Business District; arterial roads are being carved out of the swampy terrain. The vast site for a new airport has been cleared, and the state is looking forward to building a deep sea port as well.

The ‘dualization’ of a number of roads in the capital and elsewhere is to accommodate increased vehicular traffic now and in the foreseeable future, as the state opens itself up as a favoured tourist destination on the one hand, and a veritable haven for investors, on the other. Only recently, the state government handed the mobilization cheques for two flyovers to be constructed by Julius Berger. Being the locale where crude oil was first drilled and shipped in commercial quantity (Oloibiri), and still a major oil and gas domain, Bayelsa is, nevertheless, pushing to rapidly increase its non-oil revenues, especially through tourism and agriculture.

It is Dickson’s passion for the Ijaw nation and its development, especially the vision on agriculture that has endeared him to me. By taking on the challenge to rewrite the nation’s woeful record at feeding itself, Bayelsa will in the near future assume its rightful place as the centre of fish production in Nigeria and the leading producer of banana in West Africa, a record currently held by Ghana. Based on the Dickson’s agriculture agenda, which is already being implemented, Bayelsa will be second to none in plantain plantation in Africa; its rice and cassava production will be as plentiful as its palm oil. I know because I am involved. This is important if the Ijaw nation must keep faith with its destiny.

Governor Dickson’s momentum is evident not only in the fresh projects and programmes he has initiated, but also in taking on, and forging ahead with those projects (some in the doldrums, others mired in controversy), which his government inherited from previous administrations. Take the 500-bed hospital in Yenagoa as an example. While the government is building standard hospitals in the local government areas, it has proceeded with the construction of the Diagnostic Centre complement to the 500-bed hospital, which is expected to provide top-rate diagnostic services that are crucial to proper treatment and cure.

On the other hand, the government has determined that, for efficiency considerations, it does not feel confident that the state can run the 500-bed hospital when completed and operational. Instead, it is opting for a public private partnership arrangement that will complete and eventually run the hospital as a centre of medical excellence. Considering the array of PPP arrangements available, each with different implications, the choice should be a painstaking one. For, it will be a disservice if the state were to enter into an unfavourable PPP that causes loss and hardship to the state.

One consequence of the decades of wanton neglect of the parts that now make up Bayelsa is a heritage of inadequate manpower. It is remarkable, therefore, that the administration is refocusing on human capital development with a determination that is sure to decrease the illiteracy rate in the not-too-distant future. Governor Dickson began by declaring a state of emergency in the education sector. The implementation of the emergency regime through interventions in basic, secondary and tertiary education bears testimony to his resolve to revive and accelerate the drive towards a better educated state, which for inexplicable reasons, other than perhaps a fuzziness of priorities, was neglected for some five years before Dickson assumed power.

During those years of indifference to the urgency of human capital enhancement, the state withheld its counterpart payment that would have enabled it benefit tremendously from the Universal Basic Education Commission funding. That trend has now been reversed. The evidence on the ground is the commencement and completion of ambitious infrastructure and instructional material provision for basic education in the state. Some 400 schools, together with a complement of 400 teachers’ quarters, have been built across the state. Model secondary schools are also being built with boarding facilities. Textbooks, notebooks, uniforms and other stationery are being supplied free to pupils.

In fact, primary and secondary education is free in the state, with the government equally paying the fees for various certificate examinations. Bright students of Bayelsa origin are being offered scholarships, to attend top secondary schools outside the state, a policy that was started by DrGoodluck Jonathan when he was governor of the state, but was stopped by his immediate successor. In addition, scholarships are being awarded to PhD and Master’s degree students as well as undergraduates. The state government is equally taking advantage of training programmes coordinated by the Amnesty Office.

Sustaining the momentum and bringing to fruition the laudable projects and programmes are perhaps the biggest challenges that lie ahead for Dickson. Those with a cynical bent might be dismissive of the governor’s record of achievement so far, viewing it as the initial flurry of activities intended to create a positive impression, but which could peter out subsequently. The antidote to such pessimistic expectation is for the governor to remain faithful to his agenda, for all seasons, but with reflection at intervals, to note stakeholder observations and proposals. It also calls for prudent financial management, especially at times of shortfalls in expected revenue receipts. Happily, he targets monthly savings, and keeps an eye on boosting the internally-generated revenue (IGR). But, probably, the highly recommended attitude to adopt is for the governor not to allow himself to be distracted.

It also goes without saying that what the government has achieved so far is firmly predicated on peace and security. At the height of the militancy in the Niger Delta, major construction companies withdrew their men and equipment; potential investors were too scared to embark on even exploratory visits. Eternal vigilance is required to sustain the prevailing peace and security, recent incidents against policemen notwithstanding.

All things considered, I am hopeful that Governor Dickson will succeed. He has character and integrity, and only those who do not know him will doubt him. He understands the burden and challenges of leadership. But one of his greatest assets is in seeking out and recruiting to join him persons who can bring value to the table. In this sense, he does not feel squeamish about engaging prominent citizens who will help him realise his mandate. This is what he has done precisely with Prof Turner Isoun (former Minister of Science and Technology, now Chairman of Niger Delta University), TimiAlaibe, Ben Bruce, and MrsDiezani Alison Madueke—as Honorary Members of the Advisory Council of Bayelsa Development and Investment Council.

The Guardian: August 7, 2013