Jonathan and I

THE SUN Newspaper-Emerson Gobert, Jr

Since he was elected governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Timipre Sylva has been on the firing line. Apart from the fact that he comes from the same state with Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, Sylva is one of the governors believed to have fought against vice president’s elevation as acting president. He was also accused of wasting the state resources on frivolous issues.

Currently, three officials of the Bayelsa State government have been arraigned in court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on corruption charges. Many political pundits have, therefore, wondered if this is indirectly targeting at the governor.

Sylva talks on this and other issues.

What experience have you garnered at governance since you became governor of Bayelsa State?
I must say it has been very educating, because I have come to know a lot more than I knew before. I have also experienced a lot more. Governance has to do first with the people. When we came in, we decided to do things that would improve the quality of the lives of the people. We took on health; we built hospitals and health centres in the various communities. In a few weeks from today, I am hoping to commission one of those hospitals considered to be one of the best in the whole country.

In the area of education, in the year I came in, we recorded 13 per cent success in WAEC. We were the worst in the whole country. So, we decided to also tackle education squarely. Last year, Bayelsa came tops in WAEC. This is at least a clear testimony of our efforts. We have climbed up from being last to being number one.

In other sectors, like power, I would say that my predecessor laid a good foundation and I quickly built on that foundation. Today, power is more stable and soon our power situation will stabilise. We will probably be one of the best in the country.

Yenagoa was more of a village when I came in, but today, I am sure even you will agree with me that Yenagoa has taken the face of a modern city. I am not saying we have achieved everything, but it is very clear that we are no longer where we used to be. There have been a lot of challenges though. I was confronted in Bayelsa by a section of the society that was used to feeding from the government without making much contribution. That section of the society happens to be the most vocal. Unfortunately, we felt that that was not sustainable. So, we decided to systematically dismantle the idea of feeding fat from government without contributing much. Of course, as it is to be expected, that section of the society raised a big outcry and started throwing stones at me. They are still throwing stones at me. That is what you see reverberating in the press. That section has really produced a lot of challenges. They have used virtually every tactics in the books and even those not in the books. They generate rumours from time to time and even spread lies, but we are still carrying on.

When I got in, I had a big problem with the civil service. There were a lot of people who were earning salaries as much as in four different establishments. A lot was actually wrong in the civil service; so I had to tackle it. We found that the problem was that there were too many points of employment. Every parastatal claimed that the law creating it also gave it the power to employ. But the law did not give them the power to pay. Therefore, they employed and then dumped the employees on the government to pay. So, I sit on my desk and every month the salary bill was growing. I began to wonder because I thought there was a ban on employment. I was even expecting a reduction. Even if it was as a result of promotions, do the promotions happen monthly? Parastatal heads were employing at will without approval from me or from anyone else. A parastatal head will just tell you, “you are hereby employed” and you are employed. And when you query their actions, they tell you they want to help Bayelsans, implying that I do not have the interest of the state at heart.

There was one particular parastatal – the environmental sanitation – where we had 2,000 contract workers, who were later converted to permanent staff. In that parastatal alone, we had over 500 clerical officers. I am just even reducing the figures. When they were converted and made clerical officers, they were no longer cleaners, but, of course, since the parastatal does not require so many clerical officers, there was no need for them to go to work again.

All they did was to remain at home and collect their salaries monthly. So, 2,000 of them were no longer working. They were redundant. Now, that parastatal went ahead and employed 2,000 other workers on contract to do the cleaning job, while the other 2,000 that were converted before I came in, were no longer working but still earning salary. I was now torn between carrying on with illegality and taking on strong measures. We had to embark on a biometric exercise in cleaning up the place and of course, when that happened, the few people who were feeding fat from the wage bill and from the manipulation of the wage bill joined with others to try to run us down, and to make all kinds of noise. To just cut a long story short, it has been a potpourri.

There have been a lot of interesting times as well. There have been times when I meet people and they are very happy that I am sanitising Bayelsa. There are times people call me or even send me text messages, thanking me for stabilising power and so on. In fact, there was one particular text message that really touched me. The person said that before I came in, that he had a business centre and he spent about N55, 000 monthly on diesel so he was not making any profit. But since I came in, he said the highest he now spends in a month is about N5, 000. It is now that he has begun to make profit from his business. When I see improvement in the way things work, it gives me pleasure; it gladdens my heart. But having said this, I am not saying it is Uhuru yet. Of course, we have started the job. We have put our hands to the plough and there is no going back. We will continue in the direction that the Lord has required us to do.

When you came in, the security situation in Bayelsa was not quite good. There was a lot of kidnapping, killing et cetera. And then the Federal Government initiated the amnesty arrangement. What roles did you play in the amnesty arrangement, because at a time, you were even accused of paying militants and a lot of other accusations?
As you rightly remembered, Bayelsa State was in a dire situation when we took over. Militants actually came into Yenagoa from Port Harcourt and were repelled. When I came in, I started with a policy which I called the triple ‘E’ policy, that is: engage them, empower them and to enforce them. That policy was widely criticised because it was a policy that people thought was too soft for them but I looked at it and I felt that they were clearly genuine issues they were agitating for, which cannot be swept under the carpet. On the first of August 2008, I wrote a memo to President Umar Yar’Adua. That memo was to the effect that the president should grant amnesty to the militants and to carry on with a permanent rehabilitation programme. I spoke with him. He liked the idea and asked me to put it in writing. In December that same year, I reminded him and he said he was still looking at it.

He asked me to copy the NSA and the DG, SSS. I did. Then on the 10th of March 2009, the former Minister of Defence, who later became Minister of Interior, visited Bayelsa. While we were discussing, I told him that I thought this problem could be solved by granting amnesty. In my interaction with the militants, I discovered that we can convince a lot of these militants to decamp. That was why I suggested this policy. The (former) Minister of Defence promised me that he would discuss the matter with the president and asked me to give him a copy of the memo I sent to the president. I gave it to him. Later on, he told me that he had discussed with the president and that amnesty would be granted. Amnesty was, indeed, announced. When amnesty was announced, I knew that when a policy fails, everybody would be calling for the head of the person who initiated it. That was why I came in fully to personally make sure that I disarm most of the militants. If you ask about amnesty, I have been very central in the conceptualisation and in the implementation and in the success of amnesty.

I did that because of my knowledge of the situation on ground and because, also, I believed it was time to bring peace to the Niger Delta without necessarily fighting a war.
I agreed that things have not moved exactly the way they should, but we are not living in the moon. The president has been ill. Not too long, after the amnesty process was concluded in October, he took ill and since then, the acting president has not really stabilised to take on all the issues as much as should be done. So, people can say things slowed down a little due to the president’s illness. But now that the acting president is fully in the saddle, he is somebody who understands the problem even more than myself. For me, there is a lot of hope for the Niger Delta, as far as amnesty is concerned. Nigerians have always been pessimists. There has been no time Nigerians see success in anything that government is involved in. Of course, the voice of Nigeria, which is the press, said that amnesty was not going to succeed. They said that the disarmament process was not going to succeed. That was the prevalent view in the press. But today, we all have seen that that process has succeeded. We actually need to believe in ourselves as Nigerians. I believe that the reason for all this pessimism is that Nigerians really do not believe in our abilities as a country.

What is the relationship between you and the acting president?
My relationship with the acting president is very good. Of course, that is my assessment of it, because there is no reason for us to have any problems. What I see sometimes in the press makes it very clear to me that it is not in the interest of a certain very small number of people for me to have a good relationship with the acting president. That small number of people tries always to insinuate and to make it look as if the acting president and I do not have a good relationship. That is not the reflection of the real situation. In fact, after this press interview, I am hosting the acting president and there is no doubt that I enjoy the best cordiality.
Recently, I have been reading a lot of news in the papers. In fact, some of my friends have called me and have asked when I became so powerful in this country, because they give me powers that only a superhuman can have. In fact, they said it was I, singlehanded, that stood against the acting president being made acting president. So, what powers do I have? I am just the governor of a small state called Bayelsa. They also said it was me that set the tone for the discussions in the Governors’ Forum and I said “no way” and so it was upheld by the whole Governors’ Forum.

To me, it has its own positive sides, because people are beginning to think that I must be very powerful in the Governors’ Forum, but you know that is definitely not true. I am just one governor out of 36 and not even the chairman of the Governors’ Forum, but they ascribe all kinds of powers to me. In fact, when they see that that is not working well, they have added another streak to it – that I want to be vice president and that is why I am actually fighting with the acting president. These are things they have schemed to make me appear to be against the acting president. I have, however, left everything to God. I know that he alone knows the mind of men. As far as I am concerned, all my accusers will be proved wrong; all my accusers will get the reward of the evil that they are perpetrating. At least, I am rest assured in this consolation. I rest well, I have no qualms, and I do what is right by my conscience.

The Governors’ Forum has come under a lot of criticisms for its roles in the recent political developments in the country. What is the matter?
I don’t know what you mean by the role that we are playing, but you must understand that the Governors’ Forum has been a major stabilising factor in the events of this period. When the forum takes certain decisions, it is usually very informed. If you watch them, it is very clear. When you are out there, there are a lot of things you consider possible, but when you are in there, you discover that the considerations are more than you expected. There is no architect that has designed a house and has gone to site, and has built it exactly the way he designed it. Usually, on site, adjustments will be made. When you are out there, you think you are the best and you can do everything. It is like watching a football match. There is nobody that watches football and will not see the mistakes that the players are making. But if you are put on that same pitch, you will suddenly realise you can’t even play half as much as those people you are condemning. The Governors’ Forum sees a lot and when we take decisions, we take decision cognisant of the stability of the country.

There are a lot of people in the project of Nigeria that we interact with because the stakeholders are not necessarily journalists alone. Journalists are very important stakeholding units, but you have, of course, other stakeholding units that really have to be taken into account when you are taking decisions. That is why some times when the Governors’ Forum comes out with our own point of view, not everybody will see it as popular. But the question we should ask is, has it helped to stabilise the system? This is the most important thing you must agree with me that the governors are major stakeholding unit in the nation’s democracy. Today, we are probably in the first line of those who will be affected if anything goes wrong with our democracy. You, as journalists, will definitely not be even near the point where you will be affected by any mishap that happens to democracy.

Why do you think that you can have a bigger and better stake in the democracy than we governors? Most times, people just talk because it’s very easy to talk. Have you ever gone to a barber? Every barber knows how to be the best president in this country. Barbers, taxi drivers - they are usually the best presidents we never had. But the fact is when you are in there, you suddenly realise that there are a lot of things that you must take into cognisance.

You gave an example of the environmental sanitation parastatal to prove that Bayelsa State seems to have had a lot of ghost workers. What are you doing about it and how much has your government been able to save from this exercise?
Well, the ghost workers have been excised very successfully and there were 11,000 of them. What we are doing now is to keep the savings in an account. We want to use the savings to develop the state. In a few days, I will be announcing my special package. That will be to employ people to fill those vacancies. Since we are already used to paying those ghost workers, now we want to employ real people and pay them that money. Because of that, we are looking at creating 10,000 new jobs in Bayelsa. The biometric exercise has become very successful.

In Bayelsa, there is an international airport named after President Umar Yar’Adua. Why did you decide to name the airport after the president and not anyone from the region or even from Bayelsa?
Well, it is for various reasons. But firstly, I would want to state that I believe I am one governor in Bayelsa that has really immortalised our people. You will agree that we have a lot of heroes in Bayelsa. The park that we built, I named it Isaac Boro Square. Within that park there is the Jonathan Theatre. The first bridge that we have commissioned in Bayelsa is named Goodluck Jonathan Bridge. The major road in Bayelsa I named after Chief Melford Okilo of blessed memory. The biggest hospital was also named after Melford Okilo. The hospital that I said we are going to commission a few weeks from now is named after Joseph, the first medical doctor of Bayelsa origin of blessed memory. So, you can see that we have tried to immortalise our people. But when you are now building an airport, an airport that we do not have all the funds to build, and we are trying to get the Federal Government to also join us in building, then there is the need to also encourage them.

For instance, a few months ago, that was in July last year, when the former president of Botswana, Monghai, visited Bayelsa State, he commissioned a road and we named the road after him. It is not where you come from, it is what you have achieved. In the case of the president, whether you like it or not, amnesty has done us a lot of good, because Bayelsa is one of the major beneficiaries of the amnesty arrangement. For the fact that he agreed to grant amnesty alone, I think he deserves some honour and gratitude. We looked at the combination of so many things before deciding to name the airport after him.

Four of your commissioners were recently in the news to have either resigned or been sacked. What do you have to say on the issue?
I was very surprised because my name was not on that list. In Bayelsa, everybody is accused of corruption, one way or the other. When I saw my Commissioner for Education’s name, I was surprised because I know she has been working hard and even won a few awards for being the best Commissioner for Education in the federation. Of course, there are some commissioners that did not do so well. Like the (former) Minister of Education, she actually took us from being last to first, as I told you earlier. The Commissioner of Health is a very hardworking person; yet people wrote a lot of petitions against him, but most of the time, before they wrote the petitions, I was already aware of the issue.

At a time they said he was diverting sand from the government because he has actually been involved in this sand business for a long time. The fact that he is a commissioner today does not mean his business should die. I am also aware of the efforts he is making to make sure his business grows, sometimes even collecting loans from banks. But when people see you doing well, they always assume that you have been touching public funds. That is not to say that there are no issues at all, like the other commissioners that left since they are no longer my commissioners. In all, it is for the law enforcement agents to say whether the issues raised in the petitions are true or not.

How have you been able to deal with the Abuja-based politicians, who are said to be doing everything possible to bring you down? You have said so in different fora that they are there to bring you down.
Well, I have tried to reach out to them once or twice, at least, so we can forge ahead together, but as far as I am concerned, I always ignore them and carry on my works and keep focused. My job is to the people of Bayelsa, to develop the state, and to make sure that I deliver the dividends of democracy to my people. Anything that tries to deviate from that, I make sure I move away from it. That is what has kept me where I am.

What is the relationship between you and your deputy governor?
Usually, we are not expected to sit in the same place all the time. If I am here, my deputy governor is not expected to be here, so that we can cover much ground. If I am in Abuja, my deputy governor should be in Bayelsa. If I am in Bayelsa, my deputy governor should be going somewhere else, so that we can cover much ground. So, if we do not sit down in the same place and laugh and chat all the time, it doesn’t mean that we are not in good terms or that we are at daggers drawn. Of course, we have our problems and you know that in every human relationship, there are always issues, but we have the capacity to handle them without any problems. We are all mature young men and we are able to manage our relationship well.

Bayelsa United was at the top of the Premier League and suddenly, it is battling relegation. What is responsible for this?
Football is round, which means it can move either ways. When we were winning, the ovation was loud. If we are not winning now, then let us manage it. I believe that Bayelsa United will still bounce back to the top of the league. Let us experience the highs and the lows. That is the essence of the league.


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