‘Surveillance Helicopters: FG, Rivers Joint Project’

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This is the concluding part of The Tide Roundtbale featuring the Rivers State Information and Communications Commissioner, Mrs Ibim Semenitari, first published Monday, August 29, 2011. Excerpts.

Madam, of recent, governors have been kicking against the Sovereign Wealth Law, insisting that funds from the excess crude account be shared among the tiers of government, the question is where were the governors when this issue became law?

The point the governors appear to be making, mind you, I cannot hold brief for them. Unfortunately, I’m neither a governor, nor do I sit where the governors sit, but what I reckoned and what I seem to hear them say, is that not only were they not part of the arrangement they would want fiscal federation and not for Abuja to decide how much of states’ fund must be agreed upon. Secondly they are saying that it is not constitutional.

And they allow the law to be passed before the National Assembly.

For us in Rivers State, if we say we don’t want our money in Abuja, we have a case, because for twenty years, we had nothing. Now we are rebuilding Eleme Interchange by ourselves, we rebuild the road that link us with Imo State. We built our own side of it while the federal government built the Owerri side of it. Are we not part of the same federal government? Meanwhile, the oil flows from this area. Lets look at the recent UNEP report. For about sixty years, oil exploitation has been going on, destroying our environment, in Ogoni, Eleme, Okrika areas, etc, you can’t drink the water there, the Rivers State government now has to intervene, we are sending water tankers to those local government areas so that people can drink water.

We are sending water tankers to Okrika, Eleme, Tai and all of those areas. The federal government is not sending those water tanks, whereas oil exploration is on the exclusive list and the taxes are paid by Shell to the federal government. So if you hear states saying we are not beneficiaries of what ought to be the sovereign wealth and therefore, can you please give us our money and let us be responsible for keeping it, and save our money by ourselves, FG save your own, in Abuja, do your sovereign wealth from your own and lets keep ours, do you think its too much to ask in a Federation?.

Can Eleme Local Government Area say the same thing about the monthly one one billion naira the Rivers State government sets aside for tomorrow?

The Rivers State government does not touch the allocation of local government areas. The one billion that Rivers State government saves is from the allocation that is for the state. It was not saved from the allocation that goes to the LGAs. The LGAs collect all their money at source, so the Rivers State government is not touching local government funds.

Madam, I know that the governor has good intention that is why he is doing the roads, but the time for completion of these roads have been repeatedly shifted, and yet there is no sign at this stage that all the roads particularly Ada-George Road, will be completed.

One of the things that I can talk of as a journalist is the part you have taken however, for me to answer this question, you must tell me what date was set for the completion of which road?

The Agip flyover for instance?

What was the date given to you for completion. I was with the governor on that day of the inspection and I heard what the governor said. What the governor said was not that that road will be completed by the end of August, but he said the bridge will be opened to traffic by the end of August. The bridge not road, they have not finished the road. There is a difference between the bridge and the road. We drove on that bridge to the end. If you can drive on the bridge the bridge is completed. What they are doing is final layout. So unfortunately for you, I was there, if I wasn’t there I would believe you, I was there when the governor spoke.

What of the Ada George Road?

I wouldn’t know when it was, but if for any reason the commissioner asked the contractor to ensure palliative measures and I am sure those were the word he used then that’s it. A palliative measure would mean to try and intervene and see how you use cover the road temporarily for the by motorists. Now, I’m sure you know, that’s why I say lets leave sentiment and be factual. In the peak of the rainy season, no matter, no matter what palliative you put on the road, you really cannot expect that they would be able to expand the road in that period. So, perhaps the best they can do is put some gravel or put some hardcore for road users to pass and I’m sure you know that one week of good rainfall would wash it away. We must be honest to ourselves. Let’s stop pretending about these things. If I can say because these things are there, your sentiment regardless, of your emotion regardless of what are the facts of the matter. The fact of the matter is that, if for any reasons a man says to you, I will make an intervention and put palliative, the best he can do is put hardcore. Mind you, even that hardcore will be washed out. So its just a temporary measure to address our peculiar terrain and kind of rainfall.

I’m just worried, how you sometimes manage Government Information affairs, considering the fact that most often the governor likes speaking extempore in public gathering. Do you often get worried at such times?

How are you sure that the governor is not speaking with notes. It is like saying that US President Barack Obama is not speaking with notes, just because you don’t see him talk from a note. Are you sure that he never had a briefing? Are you sure that he is not looking at notes? Are you sure he didn’t just finish looking at the note before he got up to speak? You don’t know that for a fact, you are only conjecturing.

When the NUJ had its special interview forum for instance, you, as Information commissioner sent a note to the governor, he read it out, so how do you manage such things? We mean, Governor Amaechi’s openness?

I think that it would be wrong if we think that the governor speaks extempore all the time, though there are times that as a well-informed chief executive he would not need your briefing note. If you are going for an event, it is usual that he would have a briefing note to tell him all and what the issues are. What the people are going to say.

Governor Amaechi is a man who understands the issues. Now he is also a very blunt person, he is not trained to manage information. That’s not his job, the job of managing the information is that of his media assistant and his commissioner. So, sometime he just says it as it is and is that always a good thing?

A country where people are very scared of being told as it is, basically the people that are afraid of being told as it is, it is okay for you the columnist, but not if you are a governor. If you are a governor sometimes you have to massage ego, you are going to sometimes ponder to people, sometimes you want to tell somebody to go to hell in such a manner that he actually looks forward to the trip. But you are saying that with a lot of things in mind but you know, you have to be able to say that. Now a man who basically just wants to tell that, something is a pain for him to be told to smile and tell somebody to go to hell, but to my mind he is doing lots more everyday. You also realise that you are dealing with a young man who has been an activist, so when he looks at a challenge he thinks he is still an activist and he wants to bring his activism to bear, when there is a challenge.

When is the government going to complete and deliver the model secondary schools?

Are you surprised that we haven’t finished building the model schools. I mean we are taking it in bit. I think you are being uncharitable, after we built 430 schools. You can’t finish it all in a day. It is not possible. We are taking them in bit and we are doing this one after the other. We are coming from where some people didn’t have roof to where you have built 125, to where by September 200 schools will be functional, all of that done, to where outside 125 we built, we are doing some renovations in some community schools. There are still schools that have 700 pupil in a school, those one they have not condemn but it’s true that government is doing something.

What we have done has moved us from where, everybody was under this kind of poor situation to where a lot has happened. The other day, I recall, the governor went to St. Andrew along Mile One Diobu in Port Harcourt. Initially, they were to build only two school buildings, he told the commissioner that the schools’ population will not work, you need to build more.

You have to knock down the church halls there and put an additional one, to make them four. So, there are four schools, at St. Andrew. Where we are trying to make sure they must meet the population need. We got to Elekahia, there wasn’t meant to be a school there but the Elekahia School could no longer take everybody in that area, because people are now moving all their children out of the private schools to the government-owned schools, so you now have to accommodate far more people than were originally projected.

Originally, there were not to be many people in those public schools. Now people are driving their big big Hummer Jeeps to come and enroll with the school that is meant for everybody.

So you now have to increase number of schools. In PHALGA and Obio/Akpor for instance, we are having to build enough schools, because of those challenges. So in all of these places, they are getting them right, but quite frankly, I think that it would be uncharitable to even write off all of the efforts. This administration has made impressive success in the area of education. In fact, this one is one that even the blind can see. I took some Ambassadors round the schools and they were saying that in their own country they haven’t seen anything like this.

Honourable Commissioner, what is your relationship with NUJ?

I’m a full member of the NUJ till date.

What is making it difficult for this government to help rebuild that secretariat as the governor once promised?

You know, I feel a sense of outrage with things like this, and I’m being very honest. I feel a genuine sense of outrage. Do you know that it might be NBA coming to us and say why government has not built our secretariat. We must give ourselves with a little higher esteem than we receive. We are not beggars.

Now the government has made a promise to the NUJ that it will rebuild the place, then you say why is government finding it so difficult. So the government owns the NUJ? Someone said I will help you do something, you now want to put a gun on his head. Government makes you a promise, the government has said we are committed to rebuilding this thing, and you say why haven’t they done it in three months. The NUJ came with a bill of over five hundred million for the rebuilding of that thing. So, you expect the state government to say okay because it is the NUJ, we must give them five hundred million, and let’s stop building good roads, let’s stop schools, let’s stop building hospitals. I engaged the NUJ chairman, and I said well I have taken your bill. In fact when I saw that, I said this one is much, and I told him that we can’t spend that kind of money but we will build it, is not in the 2010 budget, but they expect government to spend over three hundred million of the budget without going through Due Process? Due Process won’t even talk to us. If we went there then, because it was in the budget I said go ahead and make shortlist for it, the process is on going now. So how can you now ask why hasn’t government built it in three months. Is that how it works? The problem is about structure and procedure. I having spoken with the NUJ officials and they are aware of this position, but haven’t said that as a concerned person and as a journalist, I feel a sense of outrage.

Government has submitted to building it and I know that government is building but let’s not begin to sound as if oh, the government that has promised has failed. Everything the governor has spoken he has said we will build that place, and it’s a commitment that we have, but there is a process.

Madam, is it necessary for government to buy helicopters when there is so much uproar concerning an earlier attempt to acquire a jet?

May be I should start with the good side. The good side is that we have to get the issues straight and at a time we were having to hire these helicopters for security surveillance, in this region and that is a lot of money. If you have to continue to hire helicopter for security, it would be an economic surveillance and a colossal loss in the long run. Luckily, it is a joint venture between the state and the federal government which is so committed to ensuring that half of the money for the purchase of the helicopter is borne by it.

In fact, the federal government was the one calling to say to the governor, look, we want to pay this money into your account please, because its supposed to be surveillance helicopters. Be sure, the federal government is actually paying this half of the money for it.

What is the total cost?

I will like to double check it to be sure that I’m correct. I overheard it, so I don’t want to be wrong. But I think that the total figure should be about thirty million dollars. The federal government is paying half, but I’ll like to confirm. Rivers State government is partnering with the federal government and it is a security matter, and is not helicopter for use by anybody. It is purely for surveillance. We are providing fifty per cent, federal government is providing fifty percent.

But who would use the helicopters. Is it the police?

It is the security agencies because it is for security surveillance. The security agencies will also manage it.

You were not a politician when you came in and now you are the most favoured commissioner, how did you make it. Secondly, how have you been able to use that favour to attract goodwill at least to the extent that our (Ministry of Information and Communications based agencies and parastatals) budgets are released?

How could the governor have one favoured commissioner? Is there any commissioner more important than the other in government?

There is information that some neighbouring states, are flooding the state because of the free education, bringing in their children and wards to come to the primary schools in Rivers State. Are you advising the schools to admit such strangers or reject them, if that is not possible, how will the trend affect the government policy on free education?

You know our plan with the social contributory levy, one of the things you must provide before you can benefit from our free education is evidence of payment but that connotes that you must live in Rivers State. Because the truth is that, neighbouring states will start coming, but we have to find a way. I’m sure that the Ministry of Education will come up with a policy on it. It is really a very genuine question and quite honestly it is a major challenge. How we are going to address it. I don’t I know as I speak, no I don’t, but I am sure the Commissioner of Education will find ways around it because it will be a big deal Government is committed to that. You can imagine government buying uniforms, books, school bags for people who are not even Rivers residents, or Rivers citizens and who are not paying tax. It would be too bad, so I’m sure that they will have to find a way around it.

Honourable commissioner, do you not worry about the recklessness of some of the local tabloids. Does the ministry have any plan whatsoever to regulate their operations in the state?

I’m glad you asked. We don’t regulate like you know. We cannot regulate, registration. Yes we have just been quite silent since we came on board trying to get everyone in, but like I said there is actually a law that has been in the state. Lagos State is currently implementing. Cross River too. On that, the ministry shall have powers to demand as a matter of right that every publication, everything published in the state including music must get clearance from Ministry of Information after the registration and all that. There is a publications law. We will have to engage stakeholders so that they will have signed what they must do. People will have to register for the sake of sanity, but you must remember that journalism is a self regulated profession. It behoves the NUJ, it behoves the editors, Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria and the league of community newspapers to regulate their colleagues.

How do you relax?

Since I got this job I haven’t figured out what it means to relax. Any attempt to shut down is usually not agreed. But that’s what our profession is like. The first thing it does to your, once you choose it as a responsibility, is, it takes your life. But the work must go on.