After a lull of several weeks, The Tide weekly roundtable designed to bring to public glare, the activities of key government functionaries, captains of industries, opinion leaders and heads of institutions, got kicking once again.
Our guest, this time, is an ebullient management scientist, Mr Noble Pepple, who has been directing affairs at the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) as executive director in the last one year.
Pepple, in this interview, takes our readers down memory lane on the mandate of the agency. He also explains the challenges and the efforts of his administration to place Rivers State on the part of sustainable development. Here is the first part of his exciting revelations. Read on.
Who is Noble Pepple?
My name is Noble Pepple. I resumed as the Executive Director Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA), a little over a year ago. I was sent their on secondment from Shell. I have worked in Shell for about 20 to 21 years doing different jobs in the company. I am a Rivers man. I grew up in Port Harcourt, where I had my primary and secondary education and I attended the Rivers State University of Science and Technology where I studied Business Administration. I had my Post Graduate studies at the London School of Accountancy. During my time in Shell, I have handled a number of managerial works. I am married with children. I feel great coming back to serve my people on my present capacity. I feel honoured that his Excellency the Governor of Rivers State invited me to do so.
You worked in Shell for quite some time and you now work as Executive Director RSSDA, what are the similarities and challenges in the jobs?
There is hardly a role in life that does not go with challenges. When I came into the organisation last year, there were several challenges. Moving over from the private sector where one spent virtually all his adult life to the public sector was like moving from one way of life to another. It was quite challenging but I think a number of things helped me to overcome some of the challenges. The first was the total support of His Excellency. The goals of the Agency were well specified. It made me feel at home that my success or failure was in my hands, because interference from Government will be minimal to allow me deliver on the mandate.
On the other hand, I met a couple of competent people at RSSDA, well trained, well educated and well traveled. Most of them had come from the private sector like me. So it was not too difficult bringing private sector experiences. That was how we tackled the challenges we had. We were determined to put our services above our limitations for the betterment of our people.
On the organisational side the challenges were obvious. We tried to review some issues such as the way the programmes were ran, and the impact they had on the people. There was a particular issue that confronted me on arrival, and that was the situation we had in India where many of our students were already aggrieved. They were not happy with the way they were treated in India, especially the condition they met in schools they were sent to study. There were lots of hitches.
We had internal challenges as well. Issues around how we operate, issues around transparency, issues around commitment and delivery. We decided to do a lot of things, and many of the things we did made us to overcome the challenges we met. Today many of the challenges have disappeared. We have an organisation that is running with very minimal risk. We were given specific goals to achieve and we are putting everything in place to achieve those goals.
Your predecessor came from Shell and you are also from Shell, the marriage seems to be between Shell and the Agency and one is tempted to ask; Why Shell?
Let me take us back. What has become RSSDA, began as a programme, The Rivers State Sustainable Development Programme. That programme actually started as a private sector initiative, especially within the oil and gas companies, spearheaded by Shell. The Gulf of Guinea energy security group that was set up at the federal level brought together a number of private sector actors, especially the oil and gas companies. This was done in collaboration, with UK high commission, American embassy, French embassy, as well as NNPC, the federal Government and the nine governments of the Niger Delta States. The purpose of that group was to explore ways to promote sustainable development in the Niger Delta, and to use it as platform of ensuring security. It was in the course of that discussion that it became clear that an institution will be required at the State levels to enhance economic development.
Rivers State Government was one of the first to key into the idea. The government saw the vision, understood the vision and embraced it, then took a step forward to create this programme in the state. Shell was at the forefront of the thinking.
Also in the industry generally, it is accepted that Shell is the leader in the area of sustainable development. To cut a long story short, the Rivers State government was impressed with the way that process evolved. The state Assembly gave its seal when it was presented for debate. So, it was an agency that was established by law. Shell continued to play a role because they were the first to partner with government to provide the technocrats needed for the development of the agency. That was why the first director was appointed from Shell. The intention was for the directorship to be tenured and at the end of each tenure, it is the prerogative of the governor to decide who to appoint next as director. It could be somebody from inside the organsiation, if it had matured enough to produce the kind of people that the governor believes could run the organisation. The governor can also choose someone else from anywhere. It could be Shell, or the oil and gas industry or anywhere. It is the governor’s prerogative to do so. I feel privileged and grateful that the governor chose me. Why me? I don’t know. But I have heard that there were issues raised over the need for an indigene to be at the head. That was one of the reasons that informed the governor’s decision.
But also, throughout my 21 or 22 years career, I have been involved more or less in sustainable development. I have also held managerial positions such as sustainable development manager in Shell. I have also done some academic training in related fields in my masters programme. I expect that some of those may have informed the governors decision. I was involved in the conceptualisation of the agency so I was a bit priviledged to know what the agency was to be about. I was involved in the conceptualization of the agency and is objectives. When I came, I found that the agency had made some progress in that direction. But I also saw that there was a wide gap that needed to be filled to get us more close to the direction we needed to be. What I needed to do was to go back to the foundation of the agency. The foundation of the agency was built around sustainability.
How do we ensure that we can help our people to have an improved lifestyle and good living condition, particularly those who were supposed to live under $1 per day, the so called poor? Sustainability was the main philosophy behind the agency.
The other issue was partnership. We needed to bring partnership as a vehicle to bring the funding into the state, to create an environment that the international community will be confident to come in with their own funds and expertise to help the people. I think this was the key ingredient missing when I arrived. So, I started by setting out a four-pillar programme anchored on internal transformation, we had to renew ourselves. We had to review critical areas that needed more attention. Second pillar was to take another look at our programme portfolio. We needed to review our programmes and priorities, to identify key areas of concern and relative impact. I needed to ensure that our mandate is fulfilled. The third pillar for me was partnership. We had to consider our potential partners as we conceptualised our progammes, so that we don’t go round doing everything by ourselves. We do not have all the fund to do all the things we would like to do. We cannot have all the expertise as well. So partnership became a critical part of the way we operate.
The fourth pillar was market. Our position was simple. If you look at creating value and attaining sustainability for the people, it ends at the market place. If you don’t get the product to the market, then you don’t create value, and it is only by creating value that you keep people in sustainable live hood. So, if we are going to start a project, we ask ourselves, how does that project get to the market? What is the linkage between the point of production and the point of value creation? It has to be visible and clear before you can sell your product. So, those were the four cardinal things that has been my guiding philosophy since I came into the agency. We cannot be satisfied in everything, but I have to say I am happy with the progress we have made so far. Our initiatives have helped to open opportunities for partnership for us. A lot of organsiations come to us. Not just to be on contract, but to bring back to the people to improve their wellbeing.
What are some of the things you have achieved?
When I came into office, I found that the governor had a vision to recreate Songhai farm model which had been a major world acclaimed agricultural interventionist model. We sent some young men and women for training abroad on the project, but the actual work on ground has gone far. The modern facilities and infrastructure had been put in place and in March (next month), work will kick off on the Rivers State Songhai farm at Tai Local Government Area. In fact we are talking about the commissioning, we decided from day one of the flagships, that we must deliver the Songhai project within the specific time we have given to ourselves. The second thing is the schorlarship programme. When we came in, we had this challenge in India. A hundred and seventy eight (178) of our beneficiaries were sent to India to study ICT and they were all sent to one school in India. We found out that it was not a very wise decision, in the sense that they were too many in one school and they got there a little bit late after the students had finished a session. So accommodation became tough. They were given temporary accommodation which wasn’t very good. When I got here, I was not happy, so I asked my general manager human capital development to go and assess things by himself. The report he came back with was very strong. We encouraged our young students there to stay on and complete the year; but the following year we were going to move them all out to other parts of India and put them in several schools. Some of the best schools in India, and that is exactly what we did. And today they are all settled in their various schools. During the holiday period they try to acclimatize with life and culture in India.
In addition, we tackled, headlong, the issue of administration of the scholarship programme. Before my time, we had implementers, the implementers are the ones who look after the students when they arrive in their various countries of learning. We have students in five countries, UK, Canada, Singapore, India, and the Ireland. We have implementers who represent us in those countries, and they are the people who receive money and pay to the students. The scholarship is full scale. It include, tuition, accommodation upkeep and everything. The implementers were like the middlemen between the agency and the students.
To address cases of improper treatment we asked the student to open accounts. We opened an account with First Bank and we then provided funds through the account for students all over the countries every month. We pay school fees directly to the school, but the fees for upkeep of the students now go to their direct accounts. The students are now able to manage their allowances for themselves. We still have implementers, but the implementers now just look after them, not after their monies. It has tremendously improved the scholarship programme. We also enhance our control measures. We, as a matter of policy, decided that if we want to operate a world class institution, we have to operate from a world class perspective. With the kind of challenges I met, it was obvious that we couldn’t internally change ourselves, so we needed help from outside, and that came, and we restructured the organization and sharpened our vision. We created core values and got everybody behind these values. We set up proper financial control. We re-shuffled the system in the sense that, I can be hear with you and everything is going on smoothly in the agency, with clear checks and balances in place. That has helped us also to meet our due process requirements. Because one of the things I considered when I came in was that we will be an agency that will comply with every aspect of due process requirement.
In terms of project delivery, we have done well. Part of our core values is passion for the poor. We always remind ourselves that you can’t do the work you are asked to do if you don’t have passion for the poor. So one of the things we did during Christmas as part of our staff party was to invite a hundred widows through the Ministry of Women Affairs and through an NGO that work with us to empower widow. It wasn’t all about party. We provided them with equipment to enable them go home from that party and start a business of their own. It was a special way of touching the lives of the less priviledged.
Coming from the private to the public sector how have you been coping with bureaucratic bottlenecks and pressure from politicians?
When I came from the private sector, I knew I was going to meet challenges. There were some fears, but I must tell you that they were not as pronounced as I expected, especially in the areas of bureaucratic bottlenecks. One thing about the agency is that, yes it is a public sector, but it is also a private sector. It is a highbreed agency most of the people I met, were private sector people. So the private sector thinking is already in the agency. It wasn’t too difficult to get us to align. Once a direction was clear and people knew and articulated where we were going, it was not difficult at all to get good followership. So, I will say bureaucracy had not been a major challenge for the agency. Secondly, about interferences, I have been fortunate. I don’t feel the pressure. Even in private sector, people come making demands. One response could be to capitulate to the pressure, the other is to stand firm in what you are doing. If your operations and system is structured on principle, then you don’t have much difficulty addressing issues.
Let me give you an example about our scholarship scheme. I have presided over one scholarship programme since I came, and that was the one we did last year. We had 13,000 applications, and we were going to award altogether 300 scholarships from the thirteen thousand. RSSDA on its own does not award 300, the quota that we award is 210, which I manage, this includes strictly the merit team. We also have the governor’s list. So the 13,000 applications was going to be brought down to 210 awards. Every single one of those 210 had to come from a very clear transparent process. The process that we audit and it is open to all to assess and challenge. I have appeared before the House Committee on this matter and I have been able to brief them on what we have done.
Now, why do we have the governors list? We have the governor’s list because the founders of the programme recognized that there will be a number of special cases, where people may not be able to go through the merit list and therefore can appeal to His Excellency for consideration. I don’t run the governor’s list. His Excellency runs that list. So any politicians who comes to me for an award without going through the merit list, that person is referred to the Governor. So they go to the Governor and if they are able to convince him that their case has merit then he would decide what to do. If he decides that the case has merit, he writes to me through the SSG, that is my authority to place the person on the award. And as I tell you this, I haven’t known any person who goes there for his own child, and His Excellency has approved. Because it is clear that this scheme was set up to help the children of the less priviledged get the same opportunity the children of the priviledged have access to. His Excellency only listens to cases of intervention for indigent but brilliant children.
For this year the application had been on since three weeks ago and will end on Friday (February 18, 2011). Forms are never sold. If you have one form, you can photocopy it into hundred. Applications are also done online. We send forms to the 23 local government head quarters. If special interest people come to us, we also make the opportunities open to them. We have a criteria we set for people to be considered in a year. We go through a thorough, screening. Last year when we had 13,000 we screened it down to 9000 which were invited to come and write the exams. Of the 9000, 7,000, showed up. So we tested all 7000 candidates and it was from that 7,000, that the 210 of last year were selected. We had to ensure that there is balance and equity across the state. The first 20 performance irrespective of where you come from get automatic award. The next 184 are given on the basis of 8 award per LGA. Consideration is also given to the physically challenged, and they received the remaining 6 positions on the list.
FG, Insensitive To PANDEF’s Agenda – Ogoriba
We thank Mr. President for flagging off the clean-up of Ogoniland as recommended by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The long delay in starting the Ogoni Clean-Up had sapped confidence locally and had caused the broader Niger Delta to doubt the intentions of Government. We, therefore, urge the Federal Government to speed up this exercise, especially by following through the emergency steps outlined in the UNEP Report, which includes the provision of safe drinking water for a populace whose water has been declared unfit for human consumption by UNEP, years ago. We also urge the federal government to commission a Region-wide credible assessment of the impacts of crude oil pollution of the environment in the Niger Delta and undertake to enforce all environment protection laws.
We similarly urge the Federal Government to take decisive steps to enforce the Zero Gas Flare deadline.
The devastating effects of coastal erosion and lack of effective shoreline protection for the coastal communities of the Niger Delta must be tackled as a matter of urgency.
The Maritime University Issue
The Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, is largely regarded, by persons from the Zone, as symbolic and deserving. Its closure and certain statements around it, have been viewed as insensitive and out rightly provocative. This, of course, is aside from the obvious potential benefits that the Institution offers to the technical and managerial capacity enhancements of, not just persons from the Zone, but all Nigerians. We, therefore, strongly urge the President to direct the take-off of the already approved Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, in Delta State. The prompt take-off of this University will most certainly assure the people of the Niger Delta that President’s Administration is truly a sensitive, listening and inclusive Government. Also, we strongly urge that the announced plans to upgrade the 30-year old Maritime Academy, Oron, Akwa Ibom State, to a university should be implemented.
Key Regional Critical Infrastructure
There is the need for the Federal Government to fast-track interventions on some of the indicative Regional Infrastructure viz:
• We wish to thank President for ensuring that the first phase of the coastal railway project is provided for in the current 2016 budget. We urge the Federal Government to further ensure the full implementation of this project that is designed to run through all the states in the Niger Delta, up to Lagos.
• Complete the existing East-West Road.
• Work should resume on the abandoned Bodo-Bonny Road Project. We note that NLNG had already offered 50% funding for this Project.
• Implement the proposed East-West Coastal Road Project, which stretches 704 km in length along the Atlantic coastline, from Odukpani Junction in Cross River State, connecting over 1000 communities, to Ibeju on the Lekki-Epe Expressway in Lagos State (Design already completed by NDDC).
• Implement the development of inland waterways and riverine infrastructure.
• Remove bottlenecks militating against the full activation and utilization of the existing ports in the Niger Delta, including Port Harcourt, Onne, Calabar, commence dredging of the Escravos bar-mouth which will open up Burutu, Koko, Sapele, Warri and Gelegele Ports to deep sea-going vessels and expedite work on the dredging of the Calabar Port. The Deep Sea Port project in Bayelsa State also requires consideration.
• We urge the commencement of work on the Ibaka Deep Sea Port for which Feasibility has long been completed.
Details of other regional infrastructure projects will be presented in the course of the dialogue.
Security Surveillance and Protection of Oil and Gas Infrastructure
The incessant breaching and vandalization of pipelines, and oil theft, have taken direct tolls on oil production and supplies, with corresponding adverse effects on the economy of our dear Country. Pipeline vandalism also damages the environment, health and economic activity of inhabitants of affected areas, as well as complicates environmental cleanup efforts.
It is therefore our view that an urgent review is done to pipeline surveillance contacts to give the responsibility to Communities rather than individuals in a manner that ties some benefits to their responsibility. Communities would then see their responsibility for the pipelines as protection of what belongs to them.
Relocation of Administrative and Operational Headquarters of IOCs
The Headquarters of most Oil Companies are not located in the Niger Delta Region. As a result, the Region is denied all the developmental and associated benefits that would have accrued to the Region from their presence. It has therefore become imperative for the IOCs to relocate to their areas of operation. This move would create a mutually beneficial relationship with the host communities.
Despite being the core of power generation in the Country, most Communities in the Niger Delta remain unconnected to the National Grid.
We, therefore, advocate a power plan that strongly ties power supply in the Region to gas supplies, thereby giving all sides a stake in improved stability. Because of existing infrastructure, this should be an area where the Government could deliver the swiftest and most noticeable change.
Economic Development and Empowerment
The Federal and State Governments need to signal their interest in sustained economic development in the region by:
i. Implementing the Brass LNG and Fertilizer Plant Project and similarly concluding Train 7 of the NLNG in Bonny
ii. Reviewing, updating and aggressively driving the National Gas Master Plan to integrate the economic interests and industrialization aspirations of the Niger Delta Region
iii. Creating a Niger Delta Energy Industrial Corridor that would process some portions of the Region’s vast hydrocarbon natural resources, where they are produced, to create industrialization and a robust economic base in the Region that would improve the living condition of the Citizens.
iv. Expediting work on the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in the Region, in particular, the Gas City, Ogidigben and Deep Sea Port, Gbaramatu, in Warri South LGA of Delta State.
v. Harnessing the huge rain-fed agricultural potentials of the area through the development of farm estates, fishery development projects and Agro-Allied Industrial Clusters.
vi. Harnessing the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the youths in the Region to keep them gainfully employed in legitimate businesses, and away from restiveness.
vii. We urge the use of ICT as a tool for peace, job-creation and development. Appropriately deployed ICT can be the elixir to create much-needed jobs, promote entrepreneurship and create wealth in the Region.
vii. Resolve the various issues leading to the non-operation of Delta Steel Company, Oku Iboku Paper Mill, Edo Textile Mill and ALSCON.
Inclusive Participation in Oil Industry and Ownership of Oil Blocs
The sense of alienation of Niger Delta indigenes from the resources of their land will continue until there are affirmative actions that guarantee the involvement of these communities in the ownership and participation in the Oil and Gas Industry. We, therefore, urge the Federal Government to enunciate policies and actions that will address the lack of participation as well as imbalance in the ownership of Oil and Gas Assets.
We similarly urge the institution of Host Community Content within the Nigerian Content framework, across the entire enterprise chain of the Petroleum and Maritime sectors.
Restructuring and Funding of the NDDC
There is the urgent need to adequately restructure the NDDC to refocus it as a truly Interventionist Agency, that responds swiftly to the yearnings of the grassroots of the Niger Delta. Communities must be able to have a say in what projects come to them. We also urge the full implementation of the funding provisions of the NDDC Act.
Strengthening the Niger Delta Ministry
Since the creation of the Niger Delta Ministry, even though it was meant to function in the mode of the Federal Capital Territory Ministry, its funding has been abysmal. There is an absolute need, therefore, to adequately fund, and strengthen this Ministry to the purpose for which it was created.
The Bakassi Question
The fall out of the ceding of Bakassi to Cameroon continues to threaten the security of the southernmost part of the Niger Delta Region. The unresolved issues arising from the Green Tree Agreement continues to create tension and plague the region. There is also the lack of a well-coordinated transparent blueprint for the development and resettlement of the displaced populations. The host communities face huge abuses and are unable to reestablish their respective means of livelihood. We, therefore, recommend a comprehensive resettlement plan including development for the host communities and displaced populations to reduce the risk of making them into a Stateless People.
The clamour for fiscal federalism has continued to be re-echoed by different sections of the country. The people of the Niger Delta region support this call and urge that the Federal Government should regard this matter expeditiously.
What message would you want to pass to the Federal Government for being insensitive to these issues five years after?
It is regrettable to say that the 16-point agenda has not been attended to thereby bringing about high rate of insecurity in the region.
For emphasis, after having several interface with these boys, they saw the reasons for dialogue than allowing the region go in flames as a result this brought about ceasefire in the region making everyone to be enjoying the relative peace being enjoyed today.
I want the Federal Government to know that when these boys see that there is blatant refusal in addressing their issues by the Federal Government, they are capable of making the region go into flames, adding that he appealed to the Federal Government, and other critical stakeholders responsible for the implementation of this 16-point agenda to be sincere to themselves and do the needful, adding that what the people in the Niger Delta region want is that all must be fair, just and equitable in what they do, so as to engendered peace and security to the Niger Delta region.
Rivers, Now Investment Destination Of Choice-Nsirim
Rivers State Government, under the leadership of His Excellency Nyesom Wike, is one administration that has experienced several attacks from the opposition party in the state. Ironically, the more the attacks, the more adorable the governor becomes going by his infrastructure developmental strides across the nooks and crannies of the State. In this interview, the State’s Commissioner for Information and Commu-nications, Pastor Paulinus Nsirim, speaks extensively about the Wike administration. Excerpts:
Prior to your assumption of office as the Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, you initiated a project called “Our State, Our Responsibility.” What inspired that project and what were the issues you wanted to address with that initiative?
The truth is that Rivers State is blessed with human and material resources. It is also the headquarters of the hydrocarbon industry in Nigeria. We have two sea ports and an international airport. We have a welcoming culture and a rich cultural heritage. We have cuisine that is second to none in this country. But we have found out over the years that a lot of people are de-marketing the state, making investors to flee. So the campaign is designed to correct that perception and let people know that Rivers State is set for business and to make everyone living and doing business here in the state understand that we have a shared prosperity to protect. This means that if Rivers State economy is booming, everyone that lives and does business here will be a partaker of that boom. The campaign was aimed at injecting into the psyche of everyone even children yet unborn and those who will visit the state in a couple of years to understand that as long as you live in Rivers State, it belongs to you. Every resident must participate in ensuring that the state is positively projected at a level where it becomes the investors destination of choice, just like His Excellency, Nyesom Wike is building the right infrastructure now.
Is there any parameter by which the success of such projects is measured?
There are practical ways. Since that campaign, we found out that a lot of investments are coming in. For example, you have the biggest supermarket in West Africa and other markets in Port Harcourt. You have stock gap company here in Port Harcourt that deals with producing domestic gas. Prior to now, LNG would ship gas to Lagos and truck back to Port Harcourt. But right now in Port Harcourt, you have a company that produces domestic gas for the domestic market. Also, before the outbreak of COVID-19, Ethiopian and Turkish Airlines had begun flight operations to Port Harcourt. Businesses are booming in many parts of Port Harcourt industrial area. Those in Real Estate are also experiencing a boom because a lot of people are coming in to do business here and of course, the narrative is changing gradually.
God helped us with a visionary leader who has put in place a strategic security architecture which has checkmated all forms of insecurity that was holding sway in the past. Now, things are stable and the narrative has changed for the better. One can always find out with the National Bureau of Statistics that these things they say about the state with the highest Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). After Lagos, the next is Rivers State. You cannot generate the volume of IGR that we have if our state is insecure and the business climate is not thriving.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one thing that has changed the global environment. What lessons would you say that Rivers State government has learnt from this virus?
I like to underscore this point that before His Excellency, Nyesom Wike, came on board as governor, he initiated what he called the “NEW Rivers Vision” blue print which encapsulated everything that has to do with health. A lot has been put in place. We have what we call the Mother and Child Hospital now in Port Harcourt, we have five zonal Hospitals. The General Hospitals in the state have been reactivated and fully functional. The state now has a University Teaching Hospital; the former Braithwaite Memorial Hospital is now Rivers State University Teaching Hospital with the right infrastructure. We have a Medical School now in Rivers State University; all these have happened before COVID.
So what has occurred is that, the onset of COVID has helped the state to build more on infrastructure and facilities and also ensured that the medical personnel have the requisite training and knowledge.
Are you saying that if there is a second wave of Covid-19 pandemic, Rivers State has the right model to sustain its economy?
If you are very current, you will find out that this was one state that had a robust palliative committee; we had a food purchasing committee, that was designed in such a way that they bought off all that the farmers and fishermen produced, thus empowering them. You will also know that this State was in the forefront in the fight against COVID-19, which the Director-General of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), affirmed when he visited Port Harcourt. So, Rivers State is fully equipped. We have a functional Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) which is located in the State Ministry of Health, working in conjunction with strategic international partners.
We have a technical working group properly equipped and trained. It’s been in place before COVID because prior to this time, we used to have the outbreak of Lasser Fever and other such diseases. So, the EOC of the state has been fully functional. In fact, the Emergency Operation Centre will avail you the opportunity to see the kind of coordination from the field at a glance. Like even COVID now, at a glance, you will see at various places where they are collecting samples, what the statistics have been within the last one week and so on.
Still on COVID, most Nigerians were disappointed by states who claimed that they distributed palliatives, but during the EndSARS protest, many warehouses stocked with undistributed palliatives were discovered. How did Rivers State handle its palliatives distribution that you did not record any ugly incident?
Rivers State has become a model for good governance. When the issue of palliatives was booming, we did not play to the gallery. His Excellency ensured that the palliative committee that was set up consisted of representatives of all the interest groups you can think of. We had all the Armed Forces, Police, Civil Defence Corps, Civil Society groups, Clergy, Women Groups, Youth Groups and the Media. It is a model that I am so proud of. I was the Secretary of that Palliative Committee. The Central Committee was overseeing what was happening at the Local Government and Ward levels. At the Ward level, a mini committee was also set up that had Traditional Rulers, the Civil Society reps, Clergy, Women group and Youth leaders.
So, when the palliatives moved from the Local Government to the Ward level; for example, in my own Ward, the Chairman of the Ward distribution committee was a Clergyman who is not even an indigene of Rivers State but because he is the Vicar in an Anglican Church there, he coordinated the distribution. These palliatives got to the real beneficiaries and we did it twice. We did the first round, second round and the people were satisfied that this government meant well and what the governor promised was also given. So we did not have any issue of anybody breaking any warehouse looking for any palliatives. Even people who were trying to induce some propaganda and instigate people to say something was hidden, were ignored.
You were once the Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Rivers State and now you hold the position of Information Commissioner, as a Pastor, how do you balance your calling and working in a political environment?
A lot of people ask this question. When you have an understanding that any office you hold, you hold that office in trust for God and for man, then, your attitude and style would be different?
As a Pastor, what do I do? I have the flock to cater for, teach them the Word of God, and take care of them. As a Commissioner for Information, what is my responsibility? To disseminate information about the policies and programmes of the government to the people and I have that understanding that public interest is paramount in the discharge of this assignment. So, there is really no challenge for me, because having risen from the rank to the position I occupy today, I understand the intricacies of governance and the meaning of leadership. I have the requisite training and experience.
To say balance, I do not even have a challenge with balance because I understand that the position I hold is in trust for God and for man.
Do you attend Church regularly and still do your job?
Yes, I still pastor my Church; even though there is no way I can do 100 per cent now but my assistant pastor covers for me when I am not available.
That must be a very challenging?
Yes, the next question you should ask me now is what are the challenges? But for me, several years ago, I understood that the Chinese word for crisis is opportunity. Now, when you have opportunity or if anything presents itself as a challenge, it is an opportunity for you to excel. For me, I do not see challenges when I am doing things, I do not see obstacles when I am doing things. I see them as part of the routine on my daily schedules.
There have been calls from some quarters for government to regulate the social media. What is your opinion on this and how do you think the government both state and federal can harness the opportunities in social media to strike a balance between the negative and positive?
That is a thorny issue. I think that we need to have adequate stakeholders’ engagement in this direction. The stakeholders’ groups that are involved need to come together, to look at the issues and then work out the best way forward. No doubt, a lot of people are abusing the use of the social media. We, who are in government, are the worst hit. You know, anybody can write anything, say anything, do photo-shop and put on the Internet. The regulation here is key, but before implementation, the various stakeholders need to be engaged for us to have a kind of balance on what should be done. Also, before implementation, adequate preparation and orientation of the citizenry would also be very relevant.
As a journalist trained to balance stories and promote objectivity, with your current position, do you still maintain your standard and not dance to the tune of the government to water down the truth from what it should be?
A few weeks ago, I hosted journalists in Rivers State here. In journalism, facts are sacred, comments free. A fact is a fact; there is nothing you can take away from something that is a fact. You see, people have that erroneous impression that if you are a Commissioner for Information, you will be padding things and covering things – No! Facts are facts, and I am lucky to have a principal who is forthright. With His Excellency, Nyesom Wike, you know where he is standing on any issue. He does not play to the gallery and he is also a principal that I would always like to work with because he is not one of those who carry out governance and development on television.
There are governors who use 3D images to deceive the public. But for us in Rivers State, the facts are there. If we tell you we are constructing Andoni – Opobo Unity Road, you go there and you will see it. If we say the Rebisi Flyover has been done, you go there and you will see it. If we say, Mother and Child Hospital, Real Madrid Academy; we say Abonnema Ring Road, Zonal Hospitals, you will see them. If we say we are rehabilitating schools, we give you 1, 2, 3, schools, if you go there, you will see them with your eyes. So, what’s there to hide?
The Opposition in the state are criticizing His Excellency that his infrastructural developments are basically in Port Harcourt; what happens to other areas of the state?
The truth of the matter is that people will always have something to say. I can tell you, apart from the flyovers that are being built in Port Harcourt, (of course, which you know; I said that His Excellency is building infrastructure for tomorrow), if you go to all the Local Government Areas of the state, a lot is happening. There is a road we call Sakpenwa-Bori Road – it is about 16 kilometers, it is completed and commissioned. His Excellency has even extended it further now to about thirty something kilometers; it is not in Port Harcourt. There is Abonnema Ring Road; that Ring Road is on water. There is Andoni/Opobo Unity Road. We went to Opobo few days ago; everybody including Opobo people drove to Opobo by Road for the first time in the history of that ancient town of 150 years. We went recently to also celebrate with them on their 150 years anniversary; it is not in Port Harcourt. Do you understand?
There is a big Cassava processing company at Afam in Oyigbo Local Government Area. There are several zonal hospitals that are scattered in Bori, Degema, Ahoada and Omoku, they are not in Port Harcourt. There is Elele/Omoku Road, it is not in Port Harcourt. Several of such projects are all over the state. But you see, if you go to all the Local Government Areas of the State, you will see several schools that have been rehabilitated. There are sand-fillings that are going on in the local governments. In riverine communities of the state, because those places are Islands. You do sand-filling first to create places they can build on. Those areas are not in Port Harcourt.
But armchair critics will always have something to say about Nyesom Wike. The Guild of Editors came here and I took them on a tour, they were shouting. If you go to that Andoni – Opobo Unity Road, what is being sunk in there is not up to what is being used to build anything in Port Harcourt, because it is on water. So, a lot is going on in the local government areas. There is no local government in Rivers State that is not receiving the impact of Governor Wike’s administration.
During and after the EndSARS protest, the governor compensated all the families of the security agencies that lost their lives during the protest; but the Rivers citizens who were killed did not get any compensation. What happened?
I may not comment on that.
Why is the governor described as a lion?
Who is describing him as a lion?
He is described in the media as a lion?
People are entitled to their perception. One thing you cannot take away from His Excellency, Nyesom Wike, is that he is fearless, courageous and forthright. These are the qualities of great men. That is why I am so proud to be associated with him. He is not a lily-livered man.
Rivers Roads’ll Stand Test Of Time -Commissioner
Poorly maintained roads are known to cause most of the fatal auto accidents that occur in Nigeria. Issues such as potholes, clear zone issues, confusing signages, inadequate signage, sudden driver manouvres, and reckless driving have been identified as the major causes of more than 85 per cent of deaths on Nigerian roads yearly. Bad road conditions have also been blamed for many injuries and damages to cars. The Tide’s Correspondent, Susan Serekara-Nwikhana recently interviewed the Rivers State Commissioner for Works, Sir Austin Ben-Chioma, to gain insight into what the present government is doing differently to change this ugly narrative in the state.
Honourable Commissioner, looking at the near collapse of the Iloabuchi-Eagle Island Road constructed five years ago, how do you feel?
A report came alerting me of the near collapse of the bridge. So, I sent my engineers to check the level of damage and they saw it was bad. I went there myself to find out whether what they told me was what it was. It was true and the bridge is an old bridge. the bridge given its age and the condition the bridge is in, we found out that if they continue to use it, this bridge may fall and claim lives, which is one thing that we are guarding against; so we said ok let’s close it.
The governor has approved its repair; we are just waiting. It is a matter of time for the fund to be available to put that bridge to use again. As of now, that portion of the bridge is blocked because we wouldn’t want anybody to manage it and, before you know it, something bad happens. But we are optimistic that in a short while fund will be made available to carry out repairs soonest.
What do you think is responsible for the near collapse of the bridge barely five years after despite the huge sum of money put in for the repairs?
Yes, I wasn’t the commissioner then and the factor that played out there is not under my purview to have known why they took the decision they took, but the truth should be said. The bridge can be rehabilitated just as it was done at that time. Apparently, they thought the rehabilitation they did would last longer, but it did not because the biggest problem there is the embankment, the erosion. As we know, once embankment is exposed to river or water, erosion sets in.
What would be done about the bridge to bring a lasting positive impact to users?
We want to rehabilitate it now. We want to do a thorough work that will last for some time again; we are not building a brand-new bridge, but it is rehabilitation that we still want to do. It will be something better that will last longer.
It is generally observed that roads constructed by founding fathers of the state last longer than those constructed today by present leaders. What do you think is responsible for that?
Two things are responsible for why roads constructed by present leaders do not last long. One, the number of vehicles then and now is not the same as every road is designed with the anticipation that there is duration of length of years or life span for the road. If the road is used always by heavy vehicles carrying loads, then, the usage will determine the life span of that road. Those days, the cars we had in Nigeria and in Port Harcourt, the numbers are not the same compared to what we have today. As you can see, we have cars everywhere now and the same roads that the few cars that plied the road then, now, we have ten times the number of cars plying that same road, so you don’t expect it to last that long.
But the point is, yes, the usage is quite high now, higher than the way it was used in the past, but given what Julius Berger is doing for us now, the roads will last as it’s observed that Julius Berger roads last longer than those of other construction firms.
Based on your conclusion, are you implying that Julius Berger should be used for road construction instead of indigenous contractors?
One, I am not saying that but, I tell you, you can’t compare Julius Berger roads to those built by our indigenous contractors.
Two, Julius Berger has a good reputation in the whole of this country. As such, they are supposed to be given Number One position when it has to do with construction and if that is the case.
Number one is number one and they should know that Julius Berger is more expensive than other contractors because of the durability and quality of job they give you. You will pay for it. It is not free, that is what it is, but everybody that likes good job would want to give such job to Julius Berger if they have the fund because you will like the road and infrastructure to last for a very long time. So, if you have the fund you will want to give Julius Berger.
There are some other good indigenous contractors too, but not at the level of Julius Berger.
Is there any effort being made by your ministry to draw the attention of the Governor to the poor state of the Agip Roundabout by Abacha and NLNG Roads so that these roads could be repaired any time soon?
We have a project, and the project is from Education (Bus Stop). It is a 19.1-kilometer road from Education to the New Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium. LCC are the contractors handling that project. We are re-surfacing from there to Rukpokwu Roundabout. After this roundabout, we are now expanding three meters on both sides making it a total of six meters up to Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium. From that part to Igwuruta has been expanded with drainages before doing the final work.
For the NLNG Bridge, we know that we have small depression, the bridge is intact. There is nothing wrong with the bridge. The whole structure of the bridge is intact, but there is this material depression at the surface. This has led to our blocking that area and everything is being put in process for us to progress and start.
What is your take on the Agip-Mgbuoshimini Road awarded to a contractor almost three years ago by His Excellency, Chief Nyesom Wike; the central market in which marketers were displaced?
We will visit the area as soon as the demolition exercise is over to ascertain the true position of things.
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