NON-BAYELSANS HIRED TO STONE GOV SYLVA – EGBA
Bayelsa State grabbed media attention again recently when youths hurled 'missiles' at the governor, Timipre Sylva, during a civic reception for President Goodluck Jonathan in Yenagoa, the state capital, on October 22. For opponents of the governor trying to elbow him away from the race for a second term in office, the incident meant nothing but his rejection by people of the state months before the next governorship election is due.
The Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Nathan Egba, however disagrees, saying the stone-throwing episode was sponsored and that those who seek to reap political capital from it would be disappointed at the end of the day.
The government's spokesperson, in this exclusive interview, said although Bayelsa was a small state, it is difficult to govern because of the peculiar homogeneity of the people just as he maintained that the Governor Sylva administration had performed well contrary to the tirades against it by opponents. Excerpts…
Since 1999, you have been a part of every administration in Bayelsa State. What is the secret?
There isn't really a secret as such. I know there are a few individuals who have also come through this same system, maybe not in the same way as I am because I am mostly operating from the executive arm. I also know of some individuals that have moved from the executive to the legislature and then come back to the executive.
Well, Bayelsa is a small place but there is enough space to go round everybody, especially if you focus on the service that you want to offer and if given the opportunity, you are able to use it very well, deliver what is expected of you and try to be humble. For instance, it has been up and down for me. I was once a commissioner after which I became a liaison officer. So somebody may begin to wonder, how can somebody agree to be a liaison officer after being a commissioner? But it's all a question of humility and focus on what you want. If it is service and you are given a platform, why not use it to showcase what you have and what you can offer? Whatever position I am given, I put in all my enthusiasm. I don't look at any job as smaller or bigger; I just put all my efforts into it and do my best.
You said Bayelsa is a small state, but there is the perception that it is difficult to govern
From what I have seen and comparing with other experience that one has had, I can say that the place is not too difficult to govern but the people are indeed difficult to govern. As for the environment, it is actually challenging. You can conquer it, and that is what Governor Sylva is trying to do. But to deal with the individuals is a little more difficult than ordinary.
Why do you say so? Are there things that are peculiar to Bayelsa people?
Perhaps because we are more homogenous. In fact, our homogeneity becomes the problem because in other places; look at Rivers State, for instance, it is difficult but you also find different people. So their diversity becomes their strength because you tap from different experience and backgrounds to make a whole. So, no one people can say we own it all. A smart governor in a place like Rivers can tap from the different groups and blend and get something that he can work with. Not that it is perfect; nowhere is perfect but in our own case, you find out that nearly everybody is the same. In a situation like that, the competition even gets stiffer. There are petty jealousies, little envy here and there, and all kinds of things that ordinarily will not come to play now become the main issues. That may just be a fact to the Bayelsa case.
Last Friday, the state was again in the news for the wrong reason. What do you make of the incident where stones were hurled at the governor during the civic reception for President Goodluck Jonathan?
To be honest with you, that incident was very unfortunate. As a people, it has also taken away a lot from us because outsiders begin to wonder what exactly we want. After all the agitations and everything, you have the presidency.
You would recall what our own people did on the eve of Mr President becoming the vice president. They went and bombed his private residence. Then you begin to wonder, why would anybody target his private residence? Recently, there was a campaign whereby people went to homes of very important individuals across the state. They went to the governor's family house, the deputy governor's property, the speaker's house; King Turner's residence. These are very prominent people across the three senatorial zones of the state. So, you begin to ask, what do our people really want?
Now see what they did on a very important day like that when Mr President was visiting with an entourage from all parts of the country and beyond, because the international press was there. I counted about six different organizations from six different countries. Then somebody chooses to embarrass the governor thinking he is the one governor being ridiculed. But at the end of the day, the question is: these people that have done this, who are they? Who are the losers? It is Bayelsans, the Ijaw people that are the real losers because people are now asking whether these people will ever be satisfied.
Specifically, how did the governor feel about the incident?
The governor was quite sad, not necessarily that people tried to embarrass him but because he felt that Mr President's first home coming was an opportunity to celebrate him and showcase how happy we are that one of us had gone out there to achieve such a great feat. It was just an occasion for celebration as far as he was concerned and that is why he also felt that everybody ought to have looked at it like that. For anybody to plan to disrupt an occasion like that, with all the people that were there, really pained him. He was very disappointed and unhappy that a day like that could be marred by people who have political ambition and who feel that by doing that, they can maybe unseat him or reduce his chances. So, he thought it was really something that was uncalled for.
I totally reject that notion that it was spontaneous. It was a carefully orchestrated thing to ensure that he does not speak or his point of view does not come across and to make the whole place look insecure so that Mr President could get up and leave. Unfortunately they failed.
Are you saying it was politically motivated?
I have no doubt in my mind about that. Some people wanted to say that it was a spontaneous action. But if it was spontaneous, is it the mere appearance of the governor on that day that triggered the anger or is it something that the governor said? The man had not even said anything when all the noise started before the rest of the other ugly things started.
Prior to that day, on October 1 to be precise, there was a parade and the governor stood in the sun for six good hours, all kinds of people marched past him, people celebrating and dancing and nothing happened. Nobody embarrassed him, nobody did anything negative. After that, on the National Teachers' Day, teachers had their open rally at the Isaac Boro Square and he was there. In fact, it rained that day and he was there with them in the rain. You know teachers are very vocal and if they are not happy with you, they will say it.
At the end of the day, they even gave him an award as the 'Most Teacher-Friendly Governor.' That was about a week or two before Mr President's visit. So within these two weeks, what has so dramatically happened that Bayelsans suddenly hate the governor to the point they could do a thing like that. So, for us, it is very easy to come to a conclusion.
In any case, there were reports that people were actually planning to do something to embarrass the governor. And beyond that, I have also set up the background for you, which is that there are people who feel aggrieved because they perceive that Mr President seems to be sympathetic towards the governor in terms of a second term; it is a perception.
So, they believe if they show the governor at a public forum like that to be unpopular in his own state, make it look as if people don't like him or don't want him, maybe that might sway Mr President's opinion about the governor. But even on that, they failed woefully because Mr President knows all the dynamics of Bayelsa politics more than anybody else because he had been there as deputy governor and then governor. There is no way anybody would do a thing like that at a public forum believing that it will change Mr President's opinion about the governor.
But it was apparently not the first time because some time this year it was reported that workers also booed the governor.
No, that is not true. What happened on that day; it was Workers' Day alright, so it was actually more of a labour activity. But a group, which was actually supporters of the governor, had a march past on that day and was actually stealing the show. So the workers were kind of not happy that the thing was being politicized by that group and that it was using their platform to gain prominence. So the reaction that day was actually against that group and not the governor at all.
A lot of Bayelsans have interpreted that incident to mean that the governor has not performed and does not deserve another term in office
I don't agree not because I am the Commissioner for Information but because I know of a fact that he has performed creditably well under the circumstances in which he found himself. It is very important because we all know that when he first came in 2007, the revenue profile he met was still the same thing that previous administration had operated under. So, he was fairly comfortable and within that time, every Bayelsan will attest to the amount of work he was able to do.
Within the period, he completed the Ekole Bridge, which was commissioned by the late President Yar'Adua. Within that very time, the Tower Hotel was on the ground floor; we have pictures, but Governor Sylva took it to the 17th storey and completed the banquet hall. He also completed the Revenue House, Peace Park, Gloryland Castle, which was started under Alamieyeseigha, the power project at Kolo Creek with a new gas turbine installed and which the late Yar'Adua also commissioned. He also completed the Gloryland Television and did the water reticulation for Yenagoa main town. At that time, he started 46 road projects within Yenagoa town and the roads leading out of town.
All of these things he did because the revenue profile was comfortable, but suddenly our allocation went drastically down. And what was the cause? We all know how the revenue is calculated. Once there is no (oil) production from your area, you cannot get anything and because of the heightened militant activities at that time, all the oil wells within the Bayelsa territory were shut in.
But in the last one year, militancy has been checked and the perception of the Sylva administration has not changed.
Until two or three months ago when our revenue profile began to get better again, we have been operating around N3bilion to N4billion, coming from N8billion to N9billion monthly. The cost of government in Bayelsa averages about N4b a month. Even to pay salaries, you still need to have overdraft. When you take overdraft just to cushion workers' salary, what else can you do? Absolutely nothing.
Now, there is also security to take care of because having got the peace, you have to maintain it and this costs a lot of money. So, in Bayelsa, it is amazing when people talk because first of all, we don't even have the money not to talk of some being left for somebody to steal. It is not possible. It was so bad that all overhead costs were drastically reduced in government and that has been another source of friction within government. So, belts were tightened and not much was left for capital projects. That is why there was a lull in developmental activities for some time.
There is also the allegation that the governor is alienated from the people…
That is not true. For me, having operated in government for some time, I know that…maybe only when Mr President was governor in Bayelsa that you could have access to the governor the way people have access to this governor. But unlike Mr President, who was not used to moving around as much as the man, he even goes to night clubs just to interact with the people. He drives around and there is nobody that has made himself as accessible as this governor. It is amazing when the things he does are what they use to criticize him. Remember that before now, he was conducting a weekly programme on radio and you can ask him any question you want; there is no restriction, and he answered the questions. This was on for many months before it was stopped. So, he tries every way possible to make himself accessible to people.
How would you react to insinuations that the President had to shift his earlier visit because the state government did not have projects to commission?
But when the President came, he couldn't finish commissioning projects.
The belief is that those were projects started by the Alamieyeseigha and Jonathan administrations.
That is not true. For instance, Governor Sylva started the Edekoki Memorial Hospital that Mr President commissioned.
He started all 32 of the road projects commissioned out of the 46. Even the Okpoama tourist resort, which the President was to commission, was started by him, both the Oloibiri and Nembe regional water projects were all started by the Sylva administration. One thing that Bayelsans tend to forget is that if the governor or government starts a project and abandons it midway and a succeeding government comes and totally ignores it, who loses? It is Bayelsa State because the money invested in the project belongs to the state. It does not belong to the governor in power at the time.
If the succeeding government comes and ignores or abandons them and starts his own, all of the money that would have been invested in those projects would have been lost and it is Bayelsa that would have lost money. Where is the sense in ignoring all those projects and starting new ones? People really need to sit down and think about these things. If he starts his own and abandons it, they will say he has abandoned projects. Somebody has abandoned and he finished it and they say he only finished other people's projects.
You seem not to worry whether that incident will affect the governor's chances in the next election
Absolutely not because it was just an action of extreme frustration. Most of those who took part in that incident are not even from Bayelsa. They were people brought in from outside.
Do you have evidence to support such a claim?
The security people know. They were people brought in from outside. For major events like that, people mobilize their supporters and groups and you tend not to be able to screen every single individual.
But if the security people knew…
(Cuts in) Not necessarily before that day but they have now known. After all, when Mr President is visiting other states, we also visit; we mobilize and go. So, there is nothing really wrong or illegal about that; neighbouring states can actually mobilize and come. For instance, Abia mobilized in their number to that visit. In fact, the Abia contingent was massive. But some people went to neighbouring states and brought in people whom they used, thinking they will embarrass the governor. But it was a failure. It was a failure because it even made Mr President to realize how far people are ready to go to antagonize this young man.
How does the governor feel with virtually every finger pointing at him as the originator of the intractable Bayelsa PDP crisis?
Well, not everyone because some of us are on this and our fingers are not pointing at the governor. As far as we are concerned, the process went on as it ought to. But there are some people who are impinging on the credibility of these congresses for certain reasons. And this is that there was an agreement that the former exco was not meant to be dissolved, that it was given an almost open-minded tenure to carry on.
That in itself is an undemocratic arrangement where people whose tenure had expired would just be allowed to carry on like that. So, those of them that were actually fighting were fighting on the premise that such understanding was on ground while the governor went ahead to conduct congress and came on board with this exco. So, everybody is talking based on selfish agenda. Those fighting are doing so because they believe the governor had reneged on the general agreement whereby they would have been allowed to carry on.
Is Bayelsa PDP now ready to hold another congress?
Not at all, because as far as we are concerned, the congress that produced the exco on ground was properly done. We in government and those of us in Bayelsa are satisfied. We are ready to follow the matter to wherever and we are not ready at any time to conduct any new congress.
If the state does not as directed by INEC, don't you foresee a situation where the state PDP would be hammered by the commission and this could affect the governor's chances?
Well, I am yet to see anywhere in the electoral law that INEC can pick on the congresses as a basis to interfere in a state's political set-up. So, I am not worried because in the past…even the immediate past exco that people are making noise about, how was it constituted? Was it not just people that were given certain percentages? They will say, you produce 60 per cent of the exco, you bring chairman, the other one bring secretary and they called it harmonization.
Was that not how they constituted that exco? Did any one of that exco that is making noise go for any congress? So, what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander? In cases where we even did congress, they are saying that it is inconclusive or that it did not meet the required standard. But, at least, we did congress because personally I attended that congress. These things were recorded on video and they are still there. So, I know that Bayelsa PDP is willing to fight and stand behind this exco to whatever point.
INEC has also said there would be governorship election in Bayelsa in 2011 instead of 2012. Is the governor ready to comply with that directive?
That is very interesting. The governor is entitled to remain in office till 2012 as per the court ruling, which nullified his election because that court ruling stated that no elections took place in Bayelsa. That was the premise on which his election was nullified. Now, if INEC is turning around to say that the governor must go for election in 2011, then they are even saying that the court judgment is a nullity.
That is another issue that needs serious interpretation and I am sure the Bayelsa government is seeking that interpretation. But in the mean time, the governor does not want to find himself by default to have shot himself in the foot. So, he is preparing himself; if it is to go for election in 2011, he is very willing to do that. He has collected the PDP form, as you know which he has also returned. So, he is preparing for elections in 2011.
I thought Bayelsa went to court to challenge…
Oh yes, we have.
Are you going to withdraw the suit?
No, we won't. You don't because you have gone to court by default end up…that is why I said you don't want to shot yourself in the foot. We are in court all right and the process will go on. The court will make its interpretation. But we don't want to because of that not stand for election and if at the end of the day something else happens, then by default you lose your position. So we are ready to go for election in 2011. But if at the end of the day, the court says it will be in 2012, we move on to 2012 and stand for another election.
Are there guarantees that there would be free and fair election in Bayelsa in 2011 considering that the court said there was no election in 2007?
Well, my brother, it is difficult to say we are known for not having proper elections because in the election that I personally participate in, we go and we vote. The only thing we do is to ensure that everybody is mobilized because even if you are rigging, you have to be popular in your area before you can rig. For instance, in my community where the governor comes from, you don't expect that our people will not come out and vote and when that happens, somebody will say he is rigging.
That is, however, by the way. What we know is that there are no different laws for Bayelsa. Whatever law that is applicable anywhere in Nigeria will also apply in Bayelsa. INEC has the responsibility to conduct election and we call Bayelsans to go out to vote and defend their votes so that when the governor returns as the winner, everyone will be satisfied.
What is the governor doing to reconcile with politicians from the state based in Abuja, who are supposedly fighting him?
I don't know if you listened to Senator (Heineken) Lokpobiri the day the governor went to pick his (governorship nomination) form. He said there is nobody in Abuja who is fighting the governor and if people still believe so, then it means it is the imagination or a creation of the press.
But you can't blame the press because you will recall that when the late President Yar'Adua visited Bayelsa, none of the National Assembly members from the state was there because of the perceived disagreement with the governor.
In any case, all I am trying to demonstrate is that there is very serious rapport between the two groups and they are now fully working as a group. Nearly all of the National Assembly members from the state, except about two or so accompanied the governor to submit his form. That's a very significant action and it shows that that dichotomy no longer exists. There are just a few people outside that circle who just believe that it is either them or nobody who are still orchestrating all what you are seeing now.
Does the governor still maintain a cordial relationship with some of his so-called political godfathers?
That is a big problem we find with politics in Nigeria.
People are always keen to play the role of godfather. Even if you supported somebody to a major position like governor, it is your responsibility to give the person some space to operate. If you close the person down too much, you would make him lose credibility because whatever action or decision he takes, people will say it is an agenda of his godfather. So, any self-respecting governor need to at least show that he is in charge; that he is independent-minded and whatever decision he takes is a product of his own judgment and thinking. If he tries to do that, some people might see it as showing signs of ungratefulness to people that had helped you get to a position.
When President Goodluck Jonathan first came in, the story everywhere was that he was being teleguided by (former President) Obasanjo. And if because of that story, he becomes an enemy to Obasanjo, the public may be happy that he is not happy and maybe Obasanjo too will not be happy. But because he knows, after all he is the President and Commander-in-Chief, if he needs advice, he can always seek it from other experienced people like Obasanjo and others. But that is not to say that every decision he takes is being teleguided or remote controlled by somebody else; that is not fair. A governor or a president must show to the people that he is in charge; that he is responsible at the end of the day for whatever action or inaction that he takes.
Some neighbouring states like Rivers have social service scheme and free education policy. People expect that Bayelsa would also have a scheme that would endear the governor to the people. Why is the case of Bayelsa different? Is it because of the low revenue profile?
Yes. First of all, we are not as rich as Rivers State. That is an incontrovertible fact. But we have our own scheme. For instance, the Bayelsa health insurance scheme is there. There is also the arrangement whereby the state government pays the WAEC fees of all our final year secondary school students. There is also the bursary award for our students in higher institutions. So, we also have certain things we do.
What about foreign scholarship?
That is the most robust in the whole country. We have students in Malaysia, Ukraine, Russia, Norway, Sweden, America and Great Britain and all over the world. There are also special programmes. For instance, we have students in Thailand that are learning top class tailoring so that when they come back and you are talking of tailoring, you can go to Bayelsa. We have sent several hundreds of our indigenes to India to be trained in IT and they are back. If we continue with that, after sometime, you will find out that the best school of IT skill is to be found in Bayelsa and people will start outsourcing IT-related jobs to Bayelsa. So, in terms of human capital development, we have a very robust programme.
When militants were disarmed last year, the governor was commended for his role but there was this fear that they might become tools in the hands of politicians in the next election
Have you seen anything like that? If the governor was carrying his so-called militant supporters around the place and then using them to intimidate everybody, would that last Friday incident have happened? He would have filled the whole place with them and nobody would have had the chance to go there and do anything like that. They would have just grabbed them and dealt with them. But that is not his agenda. His agenda is to ensure that these people were encouraged out of the creeks and that there is general amnesty.
Don't forget he is one of the main architects of this amnesty programme because the very day it was inaugurated he announced the Triple 'E' policy: Engagement, Empowerment and Enforcement. That policy was to engage these militants wherever they are, to educate and empower them and to enforce the law on anyone that goes out of line. At the end of the day, they have all come out and they are very grateful to him because they acknowledge his key role and that was why even during the disarmament process, you saw what was returned in Bayelsa was more than what took place anywhere in the Niger Delta. So, in terms of peace building, we must commend the governor. He has done extremely well and even to maintain that disarmament.
That is even the main reason he applied to Mr President for consideration of some of those offshore oil wells that are within our boundary, which Mr President approved and is now causing furore with neighbouring states. Whether we like or not, it is still Bayelsa government that secures all those oil wells and not the federal government. As long as we are securing the ex-militants who have the capacity to go and disrupt operations there, we are also vicariously protecting those well. So, why would we not be able to gain from the proceeds of those wells to be able to maintain the security there? You must give the governor credit for some of these things that he is doing. It is just that there are people bent on not seeing anything positive in whatsoever Governor Sylva does.