March 1, 2024

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After 31 Court Cases, Diri Is Now Ready For Exploits -Aide

18 min read

In this interview with JOHN ODHE, Mr Daniel Alabrah, Chief Press Secretary to the governor of Bayelsa State, a former professional footballer and current chairman of the Bayelsa State Scrabble Association speaks extensively on the various efforts and exploits of Governor Diri as he marked one year in office on February 14, 2021.

Excerpts:

Your governor Douye Diri was one year in office on February 14. How far so far?
It was quite challenging, l must say. But, sometimes, challenges come to test the capacity of a man. And the governor has shown that he has very strong shoulders to withstand the rigours of governance.
Some of the challenges were unforeseen. One that is quite significant that nobody foresaw was the COVID-19 pandemic that came on the eve of the governor’s assumption of office. So, from day one, he had to contend with the challenge of COVID-19 and the decisions on lockdown, curfew, palliatives and others like the fall in price of crude oil that resulted in the dwindling of the state’s monthly revenue and its finances.

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Of course, the drop in revenue was quite significant. So, from the word go, the governor’s work was cut out for him on a very difficult template. For a new government, for a man that was just entering the saddle, he needed time to get used to that office. It therefore took some time for him to hit the ground running. It was only towards the end of last year that he had some respite when the first wave of COVID-19 subsided and things began to take proper shape in terms of projects in the state.
Secondly, the litigations. Bayelsa is a state where a lot of people, particularly politicians, do not accept defeat easily. It is good to test the legal system, especially when you feel you were not fairly treated. There is really nothing wrong in going to court but you also have to look at the effect and the impact of the litigations. In the case of Governor Diri, he had 31 cases within this one year and five of those cases went all the way to the Supreme Court. You can imagine what it means to have the spectre of a negative ruling breathing behind you. It more or less unsettles you. It was like the sword of Damocles dangling over your head. People did a lot of things just to unseat Governor Diri. In fact, there were people that boasted that he would be removed. In one of those cases, caterers were hired and they prematurely celebrated the end of Governor Diri’s government.
The Supreme Court, however, gave the man a new name. The apex court succeeded in proving again and again that there is God that is still interested in the affairs of men. He used the Supreme Court to show that when men had lost hope, He can show up. And He gave Senator Douye Diri a new name, the Miracle Governor. The same God who performed the miracle on February 13 is the same God that saw him through all the 31 cases.

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Now, the state itself has its own challenges – that of infrastructure development for a young state like ours that is in a hurry to develop. So, for you to begin to contend with those forces that want to slow you down deliberately, you know that if you are not a man that is stoic in your response to issues, it is very easy for you to derail. Importantly, this is a man who has a disposition to unite his people. He is a man who has a disposition for peace in the state. His demeanor is one that accommodates people. Today, we have seen that he has that strength of character to bring people together, to ensure that there is cohesiveness in the state and to ensure that there is reconciliation.
From the day he was sworn in, he started talking about love as your weapon against hatred. So, when things began to get better, Bayelsans saw that truly this man had really been distracted in the past. Now, many of the critics don’t know what to say anymore because they have come to see they have a governor who knows what it takes to handle the developmental challenges of the state.

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Bayelsa is gradually becoming a massive construction site as there are a plethora of ongoing projects in virtually every part of the state. These projects include dualisation of the Glory Drive road from Igbogene to Onopa, the Igbogene-Elebele outer ring road, expansion and beautification of the Edepie/Etegwe roundabout, continuation of the Sagbama-Ekeremor road, which could not be completed by the immediate past administration as well as the Yenagoa-Oporoma road.
Other projects are the Igbedi road in Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government Area, continuation of the dualised Isaac Boro expressway, and the multi-storey building housing the three state-owned media houses – Radio Bayelsa, Niger Delta Television and New Waves newspaper.
There is also the Elebele bridge project and the Imiringi bridge, which was completed by this administration and inaugurated on February 12 alongside the completed and commissioned Kaiama referral hospital on same day. The government has now succeeded in giving hope to the people.

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Talking about the governor’s achievements in his first year in office is not complete without mentioning one that touched on the fabric of our state. You know Bayelsa is a largely civil service state. I read the TNN report about a pensioner who reportedly fainted when he saw over two million naira in his account without knowing how the money got there. He later found out that the money was his gratuity. He had seen many of his former colleagues die waiting for their gratuity. The man didn’t believe he would receive his in his lifetime.
But this is the story of how the governor from February 14, 2020 when he came prioritised the welfare of civil servants and retirees in the state. Before 27th or 28th of every month, civil servants get their salaries. Even if it means borrowing money to pay civil servants, he said he must pay them. The civil service is the engine that drives the economy of the state. So, we cannot afford to neglect the civil servants.

On the pensioners, since 2008, gratuity payment had not been regular. But Governor Diri corrected that from day one. Every month, N150 million to N200 million is set aside to clear the backlog of gratuities. In January, N650 million was set aside to pay gratuity. In the last one year, almost N2 billion has been paid out as gratuity to retirees in the state. You can see this is a man that has put smiles on the faces of civil servants and retirees in the state.

I also recall that some civil servants had been due for promotion for some years. But the governor came in and directed the Civil Service Commission to start their promotion exercise. Almost 1,000 have written exams and and are qualified for promotion, which the governor has approved. Today, the productivity rate in the civil service is high because the motivation is also there. He is motivating the civil servants as he knows the civil service is the engine of any administration.

Abraham Lincoln once said that if he had six days to chop down a tree, he would use the first four days sharpening his axe. Could that be the reason the governor didn’t hit the ground running when he assumed office?
Your analogy is apt. It is said that when a hen finds itself in a new place, it first stands on one foot until it is sure of its environment before dropping the other foot. It is the same as when you want to test the depth of a river, you don’t do it with your two legs. You do that with one leg first lest you drown if you don’t know how to swim.
Looking at the governor’s political trajectory, you can see that he came prepared for governance. He had been commissioner. Before then, he was Executive Secretary of the Centre for Youth Development during the administration of the late DSP Alamieyeseigha. He later became member of the governing board of the University of Maiduguri. Under his predecessor, Senator Seriake Dickson, he was Deputy Chief of Staff and later Principal Executive Secretary before he went to the House of Representatives and later became a Senator. You can see he had been properly grounded and prepared for this assignment.
But no matter how well you prepare, there are still challenges that would task you. COVID-19 was one of them. However, it only delayed but couldn’t stop him. The second wave is still with us but the state has moved on.

Like the governor said, the flight of Bayelsa has taken off after a turbulent start. We are now at cruising level. Projects are now everywhere. When you go to the Etegwe-Edepie roundabout, the people are singing a new song. That whole place has taken a new shape completely because of the expansion and beautification work that is going on there with solar-powered lights installed. It is now like daytime at night.
Of course, the government’s urban renewal programme is beginning to take shape. In virtually every part of the state, there is one construction or project going on. There are several road projects going on at the same time. In the state capital, internal road projects have also started. No fewer than 50 internal roads will be done in this first phase. The entire state is becoming a massive construction site courtesy of what the government has started to do.

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The government is said to have taken many loans with nothing to show for it. How would you react to that?
I am of the view that there is nothing wrong in taking a loan. What you use the loan for is what matters. There is no government in this world that is not indebted in one form or the other. The richest countries in the world are even the most indebted. I will give you International and local examples. America is one of the richest countries in the world but it is also one of the most indebted. As of August 31, 2020, its total national debt stood at $26.70 trillion. The United States has the largest external debt in the world.
Another is China, which is one of the very rich countries but also highly indebted. As of May 2020, its debt stood at approximately $5.48 trillion, which is equivalent to about 48.4% of its GDP. A the moment, China’s high debt level is a big economic issue in the country.
Interestingly, while China is heavily indebted, it also grants loans and credit facilities to other countries, including Nigeria. In advanced countries, your ability to take and repay loans determines your credit worthiness.
Coming back home is the example of Lagos State, which is the richest state in Nigeria. Its internally generated revenue in a year is over N300 billion. Ironically, it is the most indebted state in Nigeria.

So, what are the loans that Bayelsa State has taken? The first loan it took was N2.9billion and it was meant to procure vehicles for the three arms of government. The cars have been procured, including the ones for the commissioners that were recently distributed to them. You know the commissioners assumed office towards the end of last year.
The other facility the state government accessed is the N17billion loan. The N2.9billion was a commercial bank loan but the N17billion is not. Ten billion naira of that amount is a Central Bank of Nigeria facility, which the federal government urged states to take, especially states that wanted to reflate their economies because of COVID-19.
We took that opportunity and decided to deploy the funds into developing our agric sector. Bayelsa is a state with huge palm oil potential. You know palm oil sells higher than crude oil in the international market. So, we are going to develop our agric potential in that area.

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There is also the aquaculture village at Yenegwe that is yet to be fully developed. There is the cassava processing factory at Ebedebiri with the potential to meet the cassava needs of the whole of the South-South region. These are projects started by the immediate past administration with the potential to shore up our revenue and diversify the state’s economy. We cannot continue to rely solely on the monthly crude oil-related allocation that comes from FAAC or Abuja, inclusive of the 13 per cent derivation, which has already dropped anyways as a result of the COVID-19 impact. In fact, in the past three months, we only got about N7billion monthly from about N10 to 12billion previously. Salaries alone take about N6billion. By the time you meet other statutory financial obligations, the state is left with little or nothing. So, if you don’t take a loan, how are you going to develop the state? Taking a loan has therefore become a necessity for us if we are to meet the developmental expectations of Bayelsans.

The other parts of the N17billion loan component include N4billion as our counterpart funding for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) projects. The SDGs is an United Nations initiative, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, to address 17 issues bordering on health and wellbeing, quality education, sanitation and clean water, poverty, hunger, gender equality, clean energy, peace and justice among others by the year 2030. That is just nine years away. So the N4billion is our contribution to attract the SDGs projects through the federal government’s SDGs office. It is not also money coming into the state’s account to spend. The federal government, UN and other donor agencies and partners monitor the fund to ensure it is properly utilised for the outlined SDGs projects. Being a state in a hurry to turn around our developmental narrative, this counterpart funding has become a sine qua non for us.

The third aspect of the loan, which is N3billion, is also not a facility that the state has accessed yet. Rather it is an anticipatory credit to be drawn gradually from a commercial bank during the year whenever we have a shortfall in our monthly revenue. The money is not for us to take at once as it is spread over a period of 12 months during the budget cycle.
So, when people make a fuss over the N17billion, it is because they don’t have the details, which I have spelt out. But, honestly, what is N17billion for a state like Bayelsa? Look at states around us that are even richer than us and are taking bigger loans. Our situation is even better as we didn’t have to start all the projects I reeled out earlier with any loan, particularly the road projects. The N27.5billion refund we got from the federal government has been deployed to the ongoing infrastructure projects across the state. This money came in at a time we needed it most. It is yet another miracle as we were financially hamstrung by the fall in our monthly revenue.

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It is not clear why the state got N27.5billion out of the N38billion that the federal government announced. What happened to the balance?
Let me first give the background. You see, this refund should have come long ago even before this government. But government bureaucracy delays a lot of things. People need to understand that there were consultants and other agencies of government that processed that money. When the states that were due to collect the refund made their request, the federal government through the Debt Management Office said there was no money and that they would have to wait for another five or more years. The only option was for the states to receive a discounted amount because there were consultants and other agencies involved in the process. The states said they cannot wait. All of these were factored in and by the time the deductions were made, what we got came to N27.5billion.

Besides, the money was not paid into anybody’s pocket as being speculated. I am not sure any state even got the full amount. That is what actually happened.

Some have said the administration lacks focus hence it didn’t hit the ground running. What is your take on that?
I don’t know where they got their assumptions from. Those are people who want to play politics just for the sake of playing politics. They want to criticise just for the sake of criticism. Who didn’t know that there was COVID-19? We were struggling to be alive and some people are talking about projects. Is it not people that are alive that will use those projects? Being alive first is more important.
Is it not a government that they say is not focused that built the Bayelsa diagnostic, research and molecular laboratory at the height of the COVID-19 to safeguard the lives of Bayelsans? Was it not money spent in putting such facilities in place? Is it not money being spent to pay salaries of workers, pensions, gratuities and the rest? There is no focus, yet salaries are being paid every month. Do such critics know what has been done for the Bayelsa International Airport to commence commercial flight operations any moment from now?
Governor Diri is not a man of many words. He does not like too much talk; he likes work. He is a man of action. Bayelsans are beginning to see that all the things he had been doing quietly are now manifesting. Most of the critics have become tongue-tied and quiet. They can’t talk anymore because what was giving them strength, the man has taken the wind off their sail.
Anyone who says the governor didn’t hit the ground running does not recognise the peculiarities of this state. The person didn’t understand the kind of challenges that were on ground. The governor needed to study the challenges and address them properly to be able to move the state forward.

What about the litigations and the attendant distractions? I said earlier that people did virtually everything to unseat him but for God that has been on his side. For you to have 31 cases, and he overcame all of them. Is that the man you say is not focused?

What is the government doing to curb insecurity in the state?
This government is tackling insecurity not in the way that people used to know. I give you example of the Etegwe-Edepie roundabout. You know how that place used to be at night. It was a hideout for miscreants who commit all kinds of nefarious acts. But not anymore as the place has been opened up and made unconducive for criminal activities.
There are pockets of criminal activities in the state, especially robbery inside keke (tricycles), armed robbers who masquerade as cultists dispossessing people of their phones and other valuables. The government is tackling all of these but it has to be done in collaboration with the security agencies, particularly the police. The governor is the chief security officer of the state but operationally the commissioner of police can ignore his directive if he gets a counter-directive from Abuja. That is one of the reasons governors are clamouring for state police so they can properly address issues bordering on security and insecurity. It is a constitution amendment issue because under the present situation, there is not much governors can do in terms of security. They are just glorified chief security officers of their states. That power actually resides in the president who is the head of all security agencies.

Regardless of this, without trying to make light the issue of insecurity in the state, it is correct to say that compared to neighbouring states, Bayelsa is still more relatively secure and peaceful. But I will prefer a situation where we do not have these pockets of keke robberies, snatching of phones at gun point, breaking and entering and all of that. Even kidnapping is not as high here compared to other states. But I wish there was no kidnapping at all. l wish there was no keke robbery. I think there is so much of small arms in the hands of non-state actors. But some of these acts can be stopped through intelligence gathering. The people too need to know that security is not for the government alone. It is an issue for everybody. If everybody is conscious and be ready to be part of the security solution, I think we are going to have a safer society than we have at the moment.

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Are you also aware of the issue of herdsmen invading farmlands in the state?
Yes. We had an issue recently where some of our women had to protest because they said herdsmen were encroaching on their farmlands and destroying their crops. In Bayelsa, herdsmen and farmers clash had not been a serious issue. It is because of the way it has been handled even from the previous government. In the wisdom of the former governor, he confined cattle to a section of the Bayelsa Palm area, which is considered a fertile area for them to graze. In the state capital, there are signposts of no-grazing areas.

It is rather unfortunate that the herdsmen get stubborn and leave the grazing areas to other areas. That is what is causing the conflicts. But the governor is aware of the situation and soon he would make a definite statement on this matter. The Arewa community in Bayelsa knows the governor has created a conducive environment for them to do their business, for which they have commended him. The government does not expect that we are going to have any major crisis but it has taken note of what happened and the protest by the women. Such things are normally handled through consultations. The Special Advisers on Security and the entire security team are at work to ensure that this situation does not arise again. It is not something we expect to escalate beyond what we have seen.

We noticed that the first anniversary celebration was low-keyed. Any reason for this?
Yes, it was. We had just the thanksgiving and a state dinner. This is the time to work. We have strapped our boats. Bayelsans expect the government to work and we want to work. We don’t want to go singing and dancing just for one year in office. We still have three years to go. We will celebrate at the end of four years after we have done what we are supposed to do and that Bayelsans expect us to do.

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In what area does the government need the help of Bayelsans?
There is no other area than for Bayelsans to support the government. When you see that the government is doing what it is supposed to do, support it. This is a young government that has only spent one year out of its constitutionally guaranteed four years. It is like a marathon and not a relay race. In fact, this government has the opportunity of going eight years, which is the standard that has been set by the immediate past administration of Senator Seriake Dickson. In this first four years, we want to continue to be focused. We have just hit one year but people are making it look like we had been there. You can also see all the things l mentioned that we have done and the ones we have started to do. If we had the kind of resources that we had in the last two months or so, by now, barring any distractions from the litigations and COVID-19, Bayelsa would have seen more projects in so many areas.

All l pray and crave for is for Bayelsans to continue to support the government. I am not saying they should not criticise the government. But criticism has two sides. There is destructive as well as constructive criticism. It depends on which side you want to belong. Do you want to destroy the state because you’ve made up your mind not to see anything good in what the government does? Do you want to be destructive because the man there is not the one you expected?
l always like to give an analogy of how politics is played in some other states. For instance, in a place like Lagos, after elections, particularly governorship election, how many of the candidates do you see going to court? Lagos had always been ruled by the opposition party until 2015. The PDP was in government until 2015 but the opposition had always won in Lagos. After the elections, you hardly see the candidate of the PDP that lost the election go to court. It is rare. Even candidates from other parties, they hardly go to court. All they now think about is how to develop their state after the elections are over.

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Another example we have to draw from is what obtains in developed countries like America. You can see how difficult, acrimonious and challenging the last American presidential election was because of the kind of person they had as president. But when Donald Trump saw that the tide no longer favoured him, the American interest had to kick in. You can see now that he has gone out quietly to wherever he is to rest. You do not see him trying to make trouble again. He went to court and before swearing in, everything had been settled. But in our own case, they will still be taking you to court after you have been sworn in. How long are we going to continue like that as a people? So, we really need to support our government if we want to develop as a people because some of these are distractions that we do not need.

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