By Michael Jegede
Daniel Alabrah is the acting Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to Governor Diri Douye of Bayelsa State. Diri, a member of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was sworn in as the governor of Bayelsa State on February 14, 2020, after he got a favourable judgement at the Supreme Court against the original winner of the last Bayelsa guber poll, David Lyon of All Progressives Congress (APC). Alabrah, in this interview with journalists, said in hundred days, Gov. Diri has demonstrated strong determination to make a difference in the governance of Bayelsa State, despite coming into office at a time COVID-19 had started threatening the world and most countries including Nigeria were locking down. The acting CPS noted that the low number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Bayelsa, has been as a result of the sound and proactive leadership provided by Diri in his effective handling of the dreaded pandemic.
By Sunday, May 24, your boss, Senator Douye Diri, would have spent 100 days as governor of Bayelsa State. What are some of the highpoint of his first 100 days in office?
One hundred days in office is a very short time. It is just three months and ten days. It is not a period you would expect that new projects or serious infrastructure would be initiated and completed. It is generally a foundational period for the new government to begin to showcase some of its policy initiatives and direction.
However, the Governor Douye Diri administration came in at a time that COVID-19 had just started ravaging our country. Nigeria had the index case on February 27 just two weeks after the Senator Diri government was sworn in on February 14. As it was beginning to settle down after inauguration, the issues with COVID-19 came up and we started hearing about lockdown, shut down your state and that people should stay at home.
Regardless of these early COVID-19 warning signs, the government was determined to kick-start its urban renewal programme. So, one of the first things the governor alongside his deputy did was to visit the Edepie/Etegwe axis where you have the popular ‘Tombia’ roundabout. That area had been earmarked by the immediate past administration for another flyover in Yenagoa, the state capital. During that visit, the governor, based on the already prepared construction designs, saw the need for the roundabout to be expanded. He also said that an alternative route would be opened through restarting of the work on the AIT/Elebele road that leads to Igbogene in order to decongest and reduce the traffic bottleneck at the Edepie/Etegwe roundabout.
The governor equally visited the Bayelsa Mall project site at Okaka, which he said he would try to complete even within the first hundred days. Unfortunately, COVID-19 slowed him down. As you are aware, there is hardly any state (maybe one or two) in Nigeria today where serious construction work is going on. It is a huge challenge to mobilise contractors to site.
There are however things that have happened that have made people to begin to see the government in a different light. For instance, before now public power supply was a big problem in our state, particularly in Yenagoa. But now most areas of the state capital enjoy better power supply than before. This was not by happenstance. Immediately the governor assumed office, he held several meetings with the management of the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company just to underscore the importance he attached to provision of electricity to Bayelsans. He has consequently taken measures to ensure that whatever it was that made us have that parlous power situation in the past was corrected.
Previously, in a whole week, the area I live got public power supply for not more than maybe two hours. But now, we have power supply for three or four days consecutively for about 18-20 hours a day. These days whatever you have in the refrigerator all get frozen. This had not happened in the last two or more years. And that is the testimony from across different parts of the state capital. So, the Diri government has been able to address that issue and still addressing it.
There is also the issue of street light in Yenagoa, especially along the major roads. The moment the governor came in, he decided that we needed to light up the whole of Yenagoa city. He started by providing a new generator to power the lights on the Sani Abacha road, which was usually very dark at night. The solar-powered lights on the Mbiama-Yenagoa expressway, which takes you into the state capital, are now on at night. As we speak, the installation of poles on the yet to be completed Isaac Boro expressway is ongoing. At night, some of the lights are on along some portions of this major road.
People are beginning to see a different approach to some of these issues. And it is based on the feedback process that has been put in place. The governor listens to Bayelsans and responds to whatever it is they are asking him to do.
How is the governor handling workers welfare and the issue of payment of pension and gratuity?
The issues of pension and gratuity are areas that the Senator Diri administration deserves thumbs up for, particularly in its handling of the gratuity of retirees. The gratuity backlog dates back to 2008, about 12 years.
While he was campaigning, the governor promised that he would prioritise the welfare of workers in the state. Whether retirees or those currently working, he vowed to properly motivate them and ensure that those still in service are efficient and productive. Without mincing words, he is fulfilling that promise and they are all now smiling. For him, the payment of pensioners and their gratuity is a priority just as the welfare of civil servants is. He does not see it as an achievement because he believes it is a responsibility he owes the workers. But the beneficiaries see it differently and they are actually happy. To them, it is an achievement for a government that is barely three months old.
The last government was actually paying the pension of retirees monthly but there were issues with their gratuity. So, what this new government is doing differently is that it sets aside about N200 million monthly to take care of the backlog of gratuity. Every month, a set of retirees gets their gratuity. For those that have unfortunately passed on, their families are invited to present their documents for payment of even their death benefits. We expect that in a few years from now we would have put behind us the issue of the backlog of gratuity as a state. It is being done equitably. It is not that some influential people are collecting theirs while others are left out. The governor directed that it must go round, local government by local government and year by year. So, it will take a while before it will be cleared. Anyone entitled to gratuity will get it.
How true is the insinuation that the previous government of Hon. Seriake Dickson, under which you also served, did not leave money in the treasury for the new government?
This is not a straight Yes or No answer. It is common in Nigeria for one administration or for people, often for political reasons, to accuse another administration of leaving an empty treasury. But, realistically, is it possible for a government to have an empty treasury when in actual fact government is a going concern? A new government assumes all the assets and liabilities of the previous one, including the revenue generating agencies that daily receive the income accruing to the state. Therefore, it is actually hollow talk when people say a government left an empty treasury. It is more within the realm of political talk than a reality on ground. The question I ask those who make such bogus, unfounded claim is have they seen the financial books of the state?
The governor had said he would form his cabinet three months after inauguration. One hundred days after, he is yet to appoint Commissioners and Special Advisers. What could be responsible for the delay?
In every state we have only one governor that appoints people into offices. Even me talking to you, I’m an appointee of that one appointor, the governor. So it is his prerogative to pick his appointees, whether commissioners or advisers, when the time is right for him to do so. He has said he would make known his new cabinet at the appropriate time. I can assure you that he will make it public sooner than later.
How is the Bayelsa State government responding to the COVID-19 scourge as one of the states in Nigeria with confirmed cases of the deadly virus?
You will agree with me that Bayelsa is one of the states where active cases are very low. We have been able to take measures to ensure that our people are protected from the scourge. It is not a mere happenstance that the figure of Bayelsa in terms of active cases is low. It is because of conscious, deliberate efforts taken by the governor and the state task force, which he chairs. The COVID-19 team has been working very hard to ensure that our state is seriously defended and protected against the incursion of the virus. Quite a few measures have been taken. And they include locking down of our boundary points with our neighbouring states of Delta and Rivers. All the points through which people could enter into the state, we have been able to identify them, including the illegal routes. And the enforcement has been very, very strong. The governor himself had to personally visit the boundary points when he was getting information that maybe the security officials were being compromised. He had to go to the boundary points with Delta and Rivers states to personally enforce the directive on the ban on interstate movement.
Within the state, we have something like a partial lockdown – more or less a stay-at-home order, which started with civil servants from level 1-12 since March 26. They were asked to stay at home in order to be able to reduce the movement of people. Even schools had remained closed before we had the index case in the state on April 26. We had already taken measures in preparation against any outbreak. We set up an isolation centre at the Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital at Okolobiri. It was properly equipped and we ensured that the personnel were adequately trained and motivated to take care of any eventuality.
To what extent has the state government sensitised the people and created awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic?
Several measures have been taken to ensure that our people get aware. Awareness campaign is very important. In collaboration with civil society groups and other volunteers, the state government has gone round to sensitise our people. In local languages, we send out messages through different channels – radio, social media, flyers and other ways to disseminate information. So, our people were more or less prepared. By the time we had the index case, we were already prepared for it. A few days after we had the first case, four other persons that were linked to the index case were also confirmed to be positive. That brought the figure to five. By last week, we had two more cases that made it seven. But the good thing is that by May 16, five of them had been discharged leaving the state with just two active cases at the moment.
What is the level of compliance in Bayelsa to the measures put in place by the government?
We have an attitude towards enforcing compliance. The governor does not believe that compliance must be done by force. He actually believes in using persuasion. And that is why even when we have cases where some persons had defaulted in terms of compliance, we were not too hard. The governor had not been too hard on them. We have situations where even the task force members were attacked when they went on enforcement. We also have persons that have defied some of the measures. But at the end of the day, we still let the people know that these measures are not punitive. They are not meant to make Bayelsans suffer. Even when the federal government warned that not wearing face mask could attract prosecution, the governor also gave that warning. But what we did was that we had to even produce face masks to distribute to the people. We had to do that because we wanted to first of all give them something before you begin to implement the action you said you want to take. That is the attitude. Our attitude is that of persuasion.
There are indications that some states of the federation are not keying into the COVID-19 national response strategy mapped out by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) put up by the President. Is Bayelsa aligning with the PTF in terms of strategy for the fight against the dreaded Coronavirus?
Bayelsa State has fully complied with all the presidential directives, at least the ones that affect the state. For instance, the federal government has said that wearing of face mask is now mandatory for everyone. We have ensured that the directive gets to our people. And we are also complying as government officials by wearing the face mask in public. We are also observing the curfew, which is a presidential directive, from 8pm to 6am in our state. We have gone ahead to set up our own isolation centre to ensure that infected persons in the state are properly treated. All the measures the federal government wants us to take as a state we have done them.
Unfortunately, on its part, the federal government has not supported Bayelsa except for 1,000 bags of rice, which we had to go and pick up from Calabar in Cross River State with our own resources. In terms of COVID-19 support, neither the federal government nor the World Health Organisation has given Bayelsa one kobo. Even the Federal Medical Centre in Yenagoa that is supposed to have equipment for testing, the federal government has not been able to activate that centre. They are more or less waiting for the state government to activate a test centre that is in a federal government health institution. We are not trying to make any noise about it but just stating the fact.
Can we have the details of the donations and what the Bayelsa government has done in terms of palliatives to lessen the plight of citizens in the state due to the COVID-19 plague? How much has been spent so far?
The money spent on palliatives is an ongoing thing and I cannot give you any figure specifically. But I can tell you that every kobo that comes into this state as a donation is put in a special account opened for that purpose. I can give you the figures we have received as a state in terms of donations from corporate organisations. NDDC gave us N100m, Sterling Bank N100m, UBA N28.5m while the Local Content Development and Monitoring Board donated items including two ambulance vehicles, 300 bags of rice, 75 bags of beans, 70 bags of garri and pharmaceutical items.
Other donors include the Nigeria Agip Oil Company and its JV partners that are building an infectious/viral disease hospital in Bayelsa to cover the whole of South South, Ecobank 350 bags of rice and 300 bags of garri, Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company 300 bags of rice as well as 7Up with 2,004 packs of bottled water and 8,400 packs of soft drinks. Even Crunches, an eatery in the state, gave us 50 cartons of noodles.
Also, former President Goodluck Jonathan donated 1,000 bags each of rice and beans while the immediate past governor, Hon. Seriake Dickson, gave N10million. The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, equally made a donation of two motorised modular fumigators while one Mr. Freeborn David donated 150 face masks. First City Monument Bank, Yenagoa branch supported with 114 cartons of instant noodles, 979 10kg bags of rice, 80 packets of face masks, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Port Harcourt zone 100 milligrams of 500 bottles of sanitisers as well as the Yenagoa branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) 50 bottles of 200 milligram sanitisers.
The state government is very appreciative of these donations and at the appropriate time it will give account of how the funds were spent. This is a government that believes in transparency. If we have disclosed the amount received so far and also disclosed how these items were distributed, I do not think that Bayelsans should worry about how the money would be spent. It will be accounted for to the last kobo.
So far, the government has shared out food items as palliatives twice to Bayelsans, non-indigenes resident in the state, the physically challenged and visually impaired as well as corps members serving in the state among others. The process was largely handled by the local government chairmen, who were responsible for distribution of the items. For as long as COVID-19 remains and the need arises, the government would make the necessary interventions to assuage the pains of the people.
On April 21, Gov. Diri presented an appropriation bill of N242.3b for the 2020 fiscal year to the state assembly. It was tagged: “Budget of Consolidation for Prosperity.” Do you think the budget is achievable?
That budget is based on current realities. It is a very modest budget. The government did not want to embark on a flight of fancy by coming up with a budget that will be difficult to execute or implement. The milestones in that budget are achievable. If you look at the allocations made to some of the sectors, like works and transport, you will see that we have identified infrastructure as one of the areas that government will lay emphasis on as we go ahead in this first year. We are starting an urban renewal programme, particularly in the state capital involving roads, flyovers and reconstruction work. A lot of things will be done. We also have about N8 billion allocated to agriculture. If you are a government of prosperity, you should be able to feed your people. Food security is an important ingredient of any government that wants to ensure that the people are properly taken care of. We are really concerned about food security, and so, we are going to be doing much in the area of agriculture.
How would you describe the recent appeal court victory of Gov. Diri in a pre-election case brought against him by Timi Alaibe, the governor’s major opponent in the primaries that produced him as the candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the last Bayelsa governorship poll?
The governor has had four victories already within this period. The first one was at the Supreme Court on February 13. The second one on February 26 again at the Supreme Court, then the high court victory and this one at the appeal court. He has described himself as the “Miracle governor.” And if you look at everything happening, these things are miraculous. There is a divine seal to all of these. For him, his attitude to all these victories is that of no victor, no vanquished. Whether you like it or not, the persons who are going to court, are expressing their legitimate right. But the truth of the matter is that a lot of Bayelsans are already saying that let us move on. Bayelsans do not like this attitude of if it is not me, somebody else must not be there.
But, the attitude of the governor is that whoever is going to court is my brother. He has an open mind and has embraced even those who go to court to try to challenge his emergence. He has told them that they are part of the rebuilding process of our state. He has invited them to join hands with him to build our state. He has extended that olive branch to all of them, including our big brother, Chief Timi Alaibe, severally. This is a man who was in Alaibe’s political camp for about 10 years. So, they are not enemies. He had supported Alaibe very well in the past. So, now people expect that there will be reciprocity.
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