Emeritus Professor Nimi Dimkpa Briggs is a teacher of Medicine, Chairman, Rivers State Economic Advisory Council and former Chairman, Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission (RSIEC).
In this interview with one of our Editors, Amieyeofori Ibim and a Senior Correspondent Tonye Nria-Dappa, the renowned obstetrics and gynaecology consultant, Professor Briggs spoke extensively on the state of the Nigerian nation, its socio-economic, security and political development as the nation celebrates 15th Democracy Day.
The septuagenarian and the fifth substantive Vice Chancellor of the famous University of Port Harcourt, who turned 70 on February 22 this year, also gave his assessment of the level of development of Rivers State, particularly under the leadership of Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi.
Sir, how would you score
the development of Rivers State in this 47 years?
I am a teacher but this is not an issue of examination in which you score marks. National Development or even development of a section of country is a very complex matter. When Rivers State was created, I was a medical student. I was among the persons who were very strong in thinking then that a state must be created for us.
When Yakubu Gowon was reading the 12 states he had created we were all seated around the TV waiting to hear whether a Rivers State would be created because that was the bone of contention whether Rivers State was being created or not created. After he had mentioned 11 states, the last statement was “and Rivers State”. There was tremendous jubilation where we were as medical students.
Those of us who were from the Rivers State on that day, were carried shoulder high. There was so much joy that we had gotten what we wanted.
When Alfred Diete-Spiff was appointed Military Governor and W.E. Daniel-Kalio was made Secretary, they came down to Ikoyi and there was a lot of hope that Rivers State was going to be the land that would give us peace and plenty.
Now 47 years have gone by since then, what had been the experience?
As medical students then, we had hopes and aspirations.
The question now is, have those hopes and aspirations been achieved? The answer is yes and no and that is why I said that it’s not possible to ascribe figure, to ascertain what percentage of success we have achieved in the sense that we have identified that we are a people and that we have to grow together, we have to live together. A number of things have happened since then and we have been able to establish Port Harcourt as a state capital, a capital that has contributed so much to the development of the nation. We have been able to establish a people, Rivers people who have contributed in no small way to the larger issues in their country, Nigeria and indeed in looking after themselves.
If you now come to the detailed developmental issues we had expected we were going to have, it would be right to say that they have happened to the extent that we has expected them.
Nation building is not always a 2+2 = 4, 8+8 = 16, at times you could do a 2+2 and it doesn’t give you 4 because of extenuating circumstances.
So all one would say to answer your question, well, we are glad that we have remained as a state, both as a state and as a nation, we are glad that we’re acquiring experiences and that it is our expectation that we’ll utilize these experiences to foster our fledging democracy, to channel the pathway in which we now carve for ourselves.
All have not been accomplished, no, some have been accomplished, infact, a lot has been accomplished, but we have acquired experiences it is our expectation that there would be subsequent developments.
What specific areas can you say have had challenges?
National development is a very complex thing if you say mention specific areas that we’ve had challenges, we would eventually mention all.
In education we’ve done very well, right from the time Spiff came on board, he instituted both national and international scholarship.
Our manpower production has increased, that is education, but again there are still lots of people in the rural areas that lack education. That is why when the current governor came into power, he saw that education was in such a tremendously bad position and he went ahead to declare war on education, in his words, he “declared a state of emergency on education” and because of that state of emergency, he decided to start from the cradle. When he went around the state, with the information he had, was that a lot of the primary schools were not existence, children were learning under trees, the roof of the institutions were blown off, teachers had not been paid and that was what now made him say that he was declaring a state emergency on education. Since then he has built several of the Model Primary Schools, employed large number of teachers, all gearing towards addressing the issue which I raised earlier.
If you look at it you’ll say that something has been done, but them there is still a lot to be done.
Another area that presents itself to me that we need to look at is that we have not looked at the tremendous potential that exist in the riverine part of our state.
If you look at the water part of Rivers State there is tremendous potential that exist there, which over the years we’ve not been able to exploit.
I grew up as a kid in Abonnema and I know that even at that time in Abonnema, there were so many ships coming to Abonnema. Abonnema then was a seaport.
But right now, we don’t have any seaport in riverine areas that is functioning to a large extent. So we need to look at the riverine parts of the state to know that there is a huge revenue which the state has.
Any part of the world where water and land interface is blessing, it’s a huge place for commercial activities and we must exploit those areas, we must find out what we can do, in offshore, deep water fishing and reopening old ports. People have a master plan that has shown that we as a people ought to take advantage of the fact that we are blessed in two ways, we don’t only have arable land in the Ikwerre and Ogoni parts, we also have riverine parts God has blessed us in such a manner.
That kind of blessing is not open to any and every body. There are many people who are crying that they don’t have, that if God could have given them one small stream even, they’ll manage with that.
These are potentials we have to find ways and means of exploiting.
That combination I’m talking about that you are blessed by God in such a manner that you are in a state that you have both plenty of land and water, you can exploit it even in the tourism sector, so that is an area we need to look at.
Sir, Let us come down to the current administration of Governor Chibuike Amaechi. What would be your assessment?
My assessment is that the youngman meant well and he came into office with tremendous zeal. Before he came into office and got me close to office, I knew nothing about governance. I know governance from the point of view of academic business.
He came persuaded me, talked with me and all that and I got to know what was happening.
So I put it to you that he’s done very well. When he came in he saw a lot of difficulties in the place and he decided to take the bull by the horn. He went in for it, we had problems in education, we had problems in health, the roads were in a state of disrepair, you can mention them one by one and security was a big issue. At that time we were all moving with our hands up it was difficult to travel. And at that time the funds which we knew was coming into the state enabled him reach out, to make a wide plan about how he was going to tackle the issue of security, the issue of education, health, water, electricity and the rest.
If you ask me, he was doing very well in those areas before a number of things started happening. One of things that started happening was when they, the politicians started having problems among themselves.
I’m not politician I don’t know much about that, but all I can say is that its unfortunate that it went that way.
I would have thought it would have been much better if this political logjam didn’t occur, he would have tied better secondly, things happened in which the type of funds he was expecting were no longer coming in, so it meant that that zeal, that impetus, that push, that power with when he took off was slowed down and that is where we are today. Again he is a very strong man and is doing things to make sure that in spite of all the difficulty, that they are able to deliver and to bring some of the things they have planned to fruition.
Now to Democracy Day, do you think there is anything to celebrate?
There are things to celebrate, we are to celebrate the fact that despite all odds we are still in existence, that Nigeria is still in existence.
As a kid I have seen over the years many instances in which we had thought that we won’t pass tomorrow, but Nigeria has continued to pass tomorrow and we continue to pass tomorrow and pass day after tomorrow and I think if you should ask me what is the biggest thing we should celebrate? Again when the big powers in government talk they don’t go that direction.
So the biggest thing we have to celebrate is the fact that we have acquired experience. If you look at the volume of tremendous things that have happened to Nigeria in recent times, I believe that by God’s grace, when we are able to survive 2015, because all these things that are happening they have some link to 2015, when by God’s grace Nigeria survives up to 2015, whoever it is that comes into power will have a tremendous amount of experience to fall back to, he will know that “don’t do this so do certain things”. I believe that whoever is in power will take off with the advantages that these experiences provide so if you ask me is there something to celebrate? There is something to celebrate, we should celebrate the fact that we have remained one despite all the difficulties. Over the years I’ve seen lots of nations that have broken up.
We even fought a civil war, but we have managed and if you look at it, this is what I keep talking about experience and I will go that route. During the civil war, essentially, it was that a section of Nigeria wanted to secede and the other sections of Nigeria were fighting against that section that “you can’t secede”. Now do you notice that that section of the country that wanted to secede is now at the forefront of the section saying Nigeria must stand. This is what we are talking about. This is the experience we’re talking about. Nobody would have told me when I was a kid, when all these wars were being fought, because I saw all these wars, that that section of Nigeria that wanted to secede would be in the forefront saying “it is one Nigeria”.
That is how life and it is my plea that leaders utilize these experiences. All is not lost, yes there is still a tremendous amount of difficulties, I even believe that our own problems should have been way more than this, but we’ll get by.
Look at India, when I was studying in England, in the hospital where we were, when people meet you and ask, “where are you from? India, they despise you. Now look at India, it is the greatest democracy of the world.
India is galloping, they have so built their democracy that even with a population of 1.3 billion, they have been able to change government without so much fuss and this was in the early ‘70s. so nation building is based on experiences.
Do you have the confidence that Nigeria can survive 2015?
O! yes off course I have the confidence that Nigeria would survive 2015, but I have to qualify that. The pains may even be stronger, the “katatata”, the “wahala” may even be stronger, but we would survive.
You may ask me why do you think we would survive? My answer would be, that at the back of everybody’s mind is the knowledge that, “look if this man I see as my enemy, if he leaves, I may not be able to survive outside this union”. If we say now that we’re breaking off, what will be the line of cleavage. If you take the area of monoinguist, take for instance the Yorubas, are you really sure that even the Yorubas will be 100 per cent in agreement? Take into cognizance the other parts. So when you look at the complexity of our county and now you want to jettison it and say we want to go our individual ways, each of us is sufficiently knowledgeable to know that the route is even worse than this one we are seeing.
So our collective responsibility would be how to make this union work.
Sir, coming back to the Amaechi’s administration, do you see the projects put in place being sustained?
Yes, but we have asked government this question many times. Government believes that they will be sustained. You and I would prefer to believe and also pray that they should be sustained because to do otherwise would mean a colossal loss to all of us. Now partly why I also believe that they’ll be sustained is that if you look at a lot of these things they have been protected by appropriate laws, so if there are appropriate laws to protect them then it is unlikely that if I now became governor tomorrow, I’ll now go and jettison all these things or if you become governor, you’ll jettison all of them?
That’s number one, then number two, they are good things. If you give me a health centre that is working in my village, and if you are no longer governor tomorrow, I would not let anybody to come and be destroying that health centre because you’re not governor any more, these are good things. If you have got to these model primary school, the Nne Kurubo Secondary Schools, these are good things, if you try not to sustain it, people will rise up and come and meet you that no you must sustain it and at the end of the day good always thrives over evil. They are good they need to be improved upon, they need to be built upon.
Do you see the Greater Port Harcourt concept succeeding?
There are people who believe that the time was not opportuned from the financial point of view. Remember I earlier told you that from my knowledge of this government, the amount of money they had envisaged was going to come into their hands routinely from day one to when they finish, failed to fall through so most of the plans they made based on the fact that they had expected that they were going to make X amount of money every month, and that X – amount to money now fall to y-amount of money, that explains that it was not opportuned from the point of finances.
Depending whether the concept was a good one or not, again you have to go back to what informed the concept.
The idea behind that was, if you look at Port Harcourt before the Greater Port Harcourt concept, they needed a new city which would attract a lot of industrialists to come and stay here. The idea was that if these people came in they’d bring the commerce along with them.
I pray that the government that would come in hereafter sees it in that light, see it as an asset and not as a liability. If subsequent governments see it as an asset and continue to nimble at it, it will continue to grow until we get to where we want it. What I find disturbing in politics of today is that people see opposition as enemies. Its not supposed to be so. I advise that they maintain cordial relationship, because we are talking about the good of this country.
Can you say that the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is working?
As I said before, human development is not a black or white type of thing it’s a little bit of black, a little bit of white.
The answer is that they are working if you ask me.
This is the time I have seen so much impetus being given to agriculture, where we have said we cannot continue to depend on petroleum and have pushed so much for agriculture. Whether at the end of the day the product we get would be commensurate to the amount of push, I cannot say.
But to this much people’s minds are being re-orientated that we have to do this or that.
Take the power issue now. If you go round Nigeria, some persons will tell you that it has improved.
Be that as it may, this is the first time we’re coming to say that “look this way we’ve been doing this things, it won’t work, let us do it this way”. This is the first time sufficient courage has been mustered to say that let’s do it this way.
Yes there are tremendous challenges but we will make headway.
Human beings are very averse to change, so some resistance is expected. We have to push it to the best of our ability at the end of day people will sit down and take stock and give it their own score. The issue of transformation is a thought. Government has to anchor its development on something.
Sir, you have been very optimistic about Nigeria. What is your saddest experience concerning this country?
Yes I have my saddest experience. It was June 12, 1993, the day the then military government of General Ibrahim Babangida announced the annulment of the freest and fairest election ever conducted in Nigeria. It was my first time of going to cast my vote in an election in this country. I went with other people, cast my vote peacefully and in an orderly manner only for me to hear from the television that the election had been annulled. What pained me most was that when I tried to find out what annulled meant I discovered it meant that the election never existed. I was indeed sad. In fact I lost hope on this country, but thank God I recovered.
What is your view about the National Confab. Are Nigerians going to get anything out of it?
The conference is still ongoing whether we will get something out of it or not I don’t know yet. I say so because they have not started coming to absolute resolutions. They are still flagging the issues. It is my prayer that we get something concrete out of it.
On Amaechi’s birthday and Rivers Day?
I wish the young man and the state well. He meant well for the state as I earlier said and I wish he would wind down his tenure successfully. He has done very well, I’m proud of his achievements.
On Children’s Day
I also wish them well. It was a celebration all looked forward to at a point in our lives.
Amieyeofori Ibim & Tonye Nria-Dappa