Daniel Alabrah, a seasoned journalist, is the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Douye Diri. Between June 2017 and February 13, 2020, he was Special Adviser on Public Affairs to the immediate past governor of the state, Seriake Dickson, now Senator representing Bayelsa West in the Senate.
Alabrah was a Deputy Editor at The Sun newspapers when he was appointed to head the Media and Communication Unit at the Presidential Amnesty Office in Abuja in June 2012, a position he held till September 8, 2015 when he resigned.
In this interview with MICHAEL JEGEDE, the 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 marks one year in office on February 14, 2021 (today).
As spokesman of Governor Douye Diri, how would you describe the journey so far for the man now widely known as the ‘Miracle Governor’ due to the way he miraculously emerged?
Quite frankly, it has been a challenging experience. It has not been a very easy ride. And there are reasons I say so, some of which are obvious. For instance, Senator Douye Diri came at a time the whole world was gripped by a pandemic that actually distorted plans of national and sub-national governments. COVID-19 was not expected and it spread in such a way that virtually no one was spared its anger and fury.
So, for a man that just came into office on February 14, 2020 at a time this pandemic was sweeping across the world, there was bound to be some challenges to contend with. With the coming of COVID-19, the world got used to a new normal, which we all had to adjust to. The new words became lockdown, palliatives, COVID-19 protocols. States and countries were locked down and Nigeria was not spared. The new government had to start thinking and planning how it was going to survive the effects of the pandemic. That was a challenge. Be that as it may, as a man with good knowledge of what governance is all about, he was able to manage the situation very well that till date Bayelsa is one of the states with the least number of cases because of the measures that were put in place.
In Bayelsa, unlike in some other states, Governor Diri did not direct a lockdown of the state in a manner that it amounted to punishment on the people. He ensured that most of the decisions at that time had a human face. For him, people would have to learn and understand the effects of COVID-19 by persuasion and not by force. He understood that this was unexpected and that nobody prepared for it. The pain of COVID-19 is such that you do not make the people suffer double jeopardy. So, largely the situation was well managed and we saw that at the end of the first wave of the pandemic, the situation wasn’t too bad in the state. However, with it came a lot of things that the government had to do. It had to distribute palliatives to the people across the state, ensuring that persons whose means of livelihood had been affected needed to be given some support to be able to survive.
The government had to embark on the distribution of foodstuff and other palliatives four times between April and July of last year. It also had to establish a research and diagnostic centre with a standard molecular laboratory for testing infectious diseases just as it embarked on extensive sensitisation campaigns across the state. Now, we are in the second wave, which means the government still has to keep an eye on how to protect the people from the effects of the pandemic.
Knowing that the entire world economy was badly affected by the pandemic, resulting to sharp decrease in the revenue of most countries, Nigeria inclusive, how was Diri able to raise funds to cater for the welfare of the people of Bayelsa in the last one year?
The economic situation too did not help matters. COVID-19 ensured there was a downturn in the Nigerian economy, which greatly affected our revenue and monthly allocation from FAAC as an oil producing state. You know there was a drop in the price of oil. So, national revenue was affected. And that by extension meant that the revenue accruing to states, particularly the oil producing states, was affected and Bayelsa was badly hit. But the governor had to prioritise. One of the things he prioritised was the welfare of civil servants, retirees and pensioners.
Bayelsa largely is a civil service state. So, when revenue dwindled it affected the projections, particularly with the infrastructure and other areas the government needed to tackle headlong. With the lockdown, not much could be done at that time. But Governor Diri decided that regardless of the drop in monthly allocation, our people should not suffer so much. He ensured that salaries of civil servants be paid as and when due. In fact, he directed that by 27th or 28th of every month, civil servants get their salaries.
Are civil servants still getting their salary promptly?
Bayelsa has not owed any civil servant salary from January of 2020 till now. In fact, since 2019, no civil servant in the state has been owed despite our tight financial situation. But let’s look at it from when the Miracle Governor assumed office in February 2020. Since then, the first priority monthly is civil servants and pensioners’ salary, no matter how poor the allocation was.
Are you saying the pay of Bayelsa civil servants was never slashed unlike in some other states?
Salary of civil servants or political appointees was never reduced due to COVID-19. There was no pay cut or slashed allowances. The governor ensured that everybody got paid accordingly. He was able to manage that very well. He also courageously handled the situation with the retired civil servants by way of paying their pension regularly and their gratuity. For instance, between N100 million and N200 million is set aside every month since February 2020 for clearing the backlog of gratuities, which date back to 2008. But in January this year, N650 million was released for gratuities. So, in the last one year, over N2 billion has been disbursed as gratuities of retirees in the state. However, what suffered initially was infrastructure development.
Within this period not much could be done until towards the end of last year when the government decided that in spite of COVID-19, we needed to touch the lives of the people better than we were already doing. So, at the moment, Bayelsa is gradually turning into a massive construction site with the number of projects and contracts that have been awarded, particularly for road infrastructure projects. They include the urban renewal project of expanding the Etegwe/Edepie roundabout, which is being done through direct labour by the state Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. This project is almost completed as it was the first to start. Other projects include the Yenagoa-Oporoma road with a bridge across the river at Aguobiri and another major bridge at Angiama. This very important road started by the immediate past administration of Senator Seriake Dickson and being constructed by the Chinese construction giants, CCECC, leads to headquarters of the Southern Ijaw local government area that can only be accessed by river just like the headquarters of the Brass council in Twon-Brass.
The outer ring road project is also ongoing as well as the Igbedi road project in Kolokuma/Opokuma local government area. Construction giants, Julius Berger, has equally been mobilised to return to site for the final phase of the Isaac Boro expressway project as well as contractors returning to the equally important Glory Drive bypass road and the almost 90km Sagbama-Ekeremor road. There is also the bridge projects at Elebele and Imiringi in Ogbia local government area as well as internal road projects in the state capital, Yenagoa, just to mention some of the projects that are either ongoing, nearing completion or about to commence. So, figuratively, we have been able to look at the ghost of COVID-19 and said we are not going to be held back by it as we must move on with our lives.
Although our revenue has not significantly improved, we have been able to prudently deploy funds, particularly the N27.5billion that the state received as refund for executing federal government projects. That money has been deployed largely into infrastructure. The road projects are such that in the next one year or so, people would see a massive transformation in the road network and physical infrastructure outlook of the state.
Were the several court cases (both pre and post-election cases) instituted against Governor Diri not a distraction to him?
Indeed, that was another challenge that Governor Diri had to contend with – the plethora of court cases. It is on record that no governor has faced the kind of legal tussle, legal challenges that this governor has contended with. The pre-election and post-election cases altogether were about 32 and five of them got to the Supreme Court. Instructively, the governor won all of them. Without a scintilla of doubt, these court cases were a distraction. The purpose was for him to lose focus but he kept his calm. He was focused.
Often he had to travel out of the state as those cases required that he kept a close eye on them. The plan of those behind these litigations was to unsettle him. But for a man who miraculously came into office, we were not surprised that the same God that made it possible also ensured that he remained on that seat.
A lot of things were done to unseat him. Some of them we cannot even imagine the length that some persons went just because they wanted to unseat the governor. But as he always say, it is God that gives power. He is the One who is the originator of power and He is the One who ensures that you remain on any seat of power. So, that God has always been present to decide those cases in his favour.
Can it be said that the people of Bayelsa are faring better under the leadership of Governor Diri?
If you know me well, I talk straight. I like to say things the way I see them. I am not one who hypocritically praise-sing anybody. I say the reality the way it is. But, honestly, it might be out of tune for me to begin to score the administration. You can find out yourself what the governor has been able to do, particularly as we shook off the distraction from COVID-19 and the court cases. He has a good knowledge of what it takes to govern this state and to ensure that the people get the full benefits of the government that is in place. I am not saying everybody would be satisfied with the government, but I can confidently tell you that the majority of Bayelsans believe in the government of Senator Douye Diri at the moment based on what they have seen him do.
How has he been able to entrench peace and unity among the people of Bayelsa?
This is a man who is committed and believes strongly in the unity of the state. He believes in the unity of the Ijaw nation. He believes that Bayelsa as the only homogenous Ijaw state, as the home of all Ijaw people, is a place that we should allow peace to reign. It is a place that we must protect our people with everything we have. So, he has ensured that areas where there was hitherto no peace, where there were conflicts and open disagreements, he intervened in such a way that the people believe that there could be reconciliation. I give you an example.
On November 13, three days before the November 16 governorship election in 2019, supporters of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and people who had gone to Nembe to campaign with and for Senator Diri and his then running mate, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, were attacked. Persons were reportedly killed and several persons were injured in that attack. But beyond the attack on these persons that visited Nembe three days before the election to campaign, there was already an existing disagreement within the same Nembe-Basambiri and Ogbolomabiri-Nembe community. They were divided politically and supporters of the PDP became targets of attack.
Some chieftains of the party had to flee from Basambiri and became IDPs in their own state. But, as we speak, that situation has been resolved. The governor has been able to ensure that peace returned. Not peace of the graveyard but real peace has returned to Nembe. The IDPs have now returned to their ancestral home. Brothers that were previously at daggers drawn have reconciled. There is a unity bridge linking the two parts of Nembe. Today, the contract for that bridge that was destroyed has been awarded for it to be fixed. This is because the governor is somebody who loves peace, unity and togetherness. His positive disposition resonates well round the whole state that anywhere there is conflict, the government steps in and they are reconciled. So, the governor has been able to reduce tension and friction in the state to a large extent. Now people in hitherto crisis-ridden communities are beginning to enjoy the benefit of peace.
Education is said to be the bedrock of development. In the last one year, what giant strides has the government made in the education sector?
Without trying to make any excuse, you will agree with me that generally a lot of things didn’t take off immediately because of COVID-19. But I want to say that there are challenges we have identified in the education sector that we really have to correct. There has also been some form of infrastructure decay in the sector over the period and this is being addressed. Contracts for the renovation of schools, particularly primary and secondary schools, have been awarded. Physical infrastructure is important in the education sector. But, generally as a state, Bayelsa is one that has done very well in terms of its performance in national examinations. And the previous government of Senator Dickson did very well in changing the educational narrative of the state.
When he (Dickson) took over in 2012, Bayelsa’s position in national examinations was not good. At that time, we were around 29th or 30th position among the 36 states. But by the time he left office in 2020 that had significantly changed. Today, Bayelsa is among the first seven states when you talk about performance in national examinations. This current administration is committed to sustaining that record and even bettering it.
How was that feat achieved?
I want to say that this change in the educational performance of Bayelsa was not a happenstance. It was not by mistake. It was because of deliberate and conscious policies put in place to ensure that the state does well or for Bayelsans to do well in these national examinations. Let me also recall that in terms of infrastructure, the previous government built model schools across the eight local government areas. These model schools are a delight to see. For instance, the Ijaw National Academy in Kaiama is a school that was consciously built and developed in such a way that you cannot but admire what is in place. The Dickson administration did very well in conceptualising and developing the model schools system, which are all boarding schools and tuition-free. There is however need to replicate that across the state. For a state that is young and developing, some of these things cannot be automatic. It will take some time before we would get every school to be on that level.
Even in older states, you still have schools with dilapidated infrastructure. It is not peculiar to Bayelsa, but we believe that it can still be better. We also need teachers because we are lacking in teaching personnel in primary and secondary schools.
What is the government doing to get enough teachers?
We are carrying out a personnel audit in the civil service so that those with education-related qualifications can be deployed to the classrooms. That is a quicker way for us to be able to get ready personnel instead of trying to recruit new teachers. We started this process from the last administration. So, now we are trying to ensure that we get on top of that situation by getting those trained as teachers either in the colleges of education or in the universities.
What is the administration doing to develop the agric sector?
From the outset, the Governor Diri administration prioritised agriculture. That sector has had the second largest share or allocation in the budget of the last two years. It means we want to be able to feed our people and be able to derive the economic benefit from agriculture. So far, the government has been able to support farmers in the state by guaranteeing the CBN facilities for famers. In addition to that, the government has also taken a N10 billion CBN facility, which is a credit window the federal government opened for states in Nigeria to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That facility would be disbursed and supervised by the CBN. That money is not coming directly to the government’s coffers. It is not a loan from any commercial bank. Rather it is a CBN facility at a very low interest rate that is going into agriculture development in the state.
What is the relationship between the executive headed by the governor and the two other arms of government?
I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the relationship between the executive and the other arms of government is very robust and collaborative. Frankly, for instance, the legislature has been very supportive of the policies and bills from the executive. The legislators have ensured speedy passage of bills so that the work of the executive is not hampered in any way. A few days ago, while declaring open a special retreat of the State House of Assembly in Asaba, Delta State, the governor said since he came into office, he has enjoyed a very cordial and collaborative relationship with the legislature. He gave an analogy of the arms of government as being like parts of a machine. That if one part of that machine is defective, it would affect every other part. So, there is the need for the three arms of government to work hand in glove, as the governor always say; to work together symbiotically in such a way that the interest of the state is paramount at all times. That is what has underlined the relationship between the executive, legislature and the judiciary in Bayelsa. The relationship has been cordial and robust. This is not political talk. It is just the situation the way it is on ground.
Is the House of Assembly not a rubber stamp in the hands of the governor as it is in some other states in the country?
The legislature in Bayelsa is independent and does its oversight functions as well as its checks and balances without let. There is no need for the governor to pocket the state legislature. To what end?