The Rivers State Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources is not particularly new, what is, perhaps, new is the quiet move by the Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi administration to re-focus its activities towards boosting indigenous participation in both the upstream and down stream sectors of the oil industry in Nigeria as well as the huge gas resources.
Without much fuss about it, the administration has been working assiduously towards ensuring that Rivers people join the league of major players in a sector said to be very critical to the eternal survival of the Nigerian nation and its economy.
How the government has gone about setting up institutions and legal frameworks necessary for the attainment of this goal in the past couple of months, was the major subject of discussion in a recent encounter between the young intelligent, energetic and ebullient Commissioner for Energy and Natural Resources, Dr. Dawari George and our line editors, Desmond Osueke and Jemina Amachree.
Here are excerpts of the encounter:
Q: Lets have a peep into your background.
Answer: My name is Dawari George, I’m from Buguma in Asari Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State. I attended post primary school by sandwich. Everything about my academic career has been here in Port Harcourt in Rivers State, I obtained a Master’s degree in History and Diplomatic Studies from University of Port Harcourt. My Master’s and doctorate degrees are in Development Studies also from the Department of Political and Administrative Studies. While at the University of Port Harcourt. I was engaged in development N.G.O. activities, working at some time with the United States Agency for International Development.
I was the country representative for the World Bank Group for Employment and Empowerment Initiative. I have also been involved in youth work until I became the chairman of the National Youth Council of Nigeria and I was also politically active in one time or the other in my Local Government Area. I served as Press Secretary of my local government area, I was Special Assistant to Hon. Commissioner for Works until my present appointment I was also a member of the Rivers State Scholarship Board. I resigned on assumption of duty as Commissioner for Energy and Natural Resources.
Q: Are you married?
Answer: Yes, I’m married, with a son.
Q: Hon. Commissioner Sir, let’s have a highlight of the functions and activities of your ministry.
Answer: Now basically, our function is to first and foremost represent the state government’s interest in the oil and gas sector. More precisely our ministry is involved in trying to on behalf of the state, coordinate all activities relating to oil and gas in the state and to promote the participation of indigenous people both at the upstream and the down stream sectors.
Very recently we have moved on to see how we can position our people to be active participants in the up stream sector and that has led to the inauguration of a board for the Treasure Energy Resources Limited, owned one hundred per cent by the state government’s oil and gas company. That company is being headed by Chief Chamberlain Oyibo. He is the board chairman, taking care of and managing the state equity in the oil and gas industry in the state. As you are aware, the state has five percent equity in Brass LNG and we also get from Bonny LNG but while that is on, the state is involved in the expansion of and rehabilitation of the gas infrastructure and the gas master plan. When you asked about the activities of my ministry, I thought I should come from the artificial and get to the real issue.
We have the gas master plan, they just finished work and submitted their report, the gas master plan basically is to see how we can use gas to run economic, industrial and domestic activities, that will involve moving gas to industrial complexes, moving gas to private homes and offices and all that. We are also trying to see how we can have a gas to diesel conversion. A gas to diesel conversion plant will be put in place so that we can begin to use the product to run vehicles. The truth is that with what is on ground now, we have gas resources that should last for the next 150 years. If there is any resources that the state has in abundance, it is gas. We felt that since we have comparative advantage in gas, we should use it for most of our industries. Most of our economic activities should be powered with gas especially for the fact that gas is cheaper, cleaner and more environmentally friendly. Again, gas has the capacity to generate revenue to sustain our state even far above what federation account can give to the state. So the state focus is to see how we can develop gas to provide jobs, revenue and to oil the wheel of economic activities in our state.
While we are doing that, the state is also into collaboration with foreign investors in the building of refineries, building of petrochemical plant, and building of bitumen plant. If you look at Indorama, that is now former Eleme Petrochemical Plant run by Indorama today, you will find out that it is far better than what it used to be when it was run principally by NNPC. We see the number of jobs it has created and the amount of revenue it generates. So, the state believes very strongly that we have comparative advantage to open more petrochemical planst, in our state and leverage the existence of such plant to provide job and to oil the economic wheel for the progress of the state.
Our major focus now is to provide an energy policy. We believe that if we are able to come out with that document, it will give us opportunity and leverage in terms of legal backing for us to intervene directly in the oil and gas activities. For now, what we are doing is because we expect that all oil and gas business concerns, as part of their corporate social responsibilities should do something for the state. We think that if we back it up with a law, the state can participate actively in it through some of these organisations. So, while we are doing that on the energy policy, which of course will come out in the proposed energy summit, we also intend to send the bill to the State House of Assembly for legislation to back this policy and to back this document. We are coming up so that the future government and administrations and generations of Rivers people that will emerge will have a necessary legislative or legal framework to be able to pursue businesses and activities in the oil and gas sector
Q: Despite Nigeria’s gas reserve estimated at 180 trillion standard cubic feet most of which can be found in the N’Delta region and the presence of LNG plants, domestic gas price remains on an upward swing. How can this be reconciled?
Answer: It still boils down to what I have said earlier, but may be to expatiate with regard to what you have just asked. The energy policy would provide for all that but our short, medium and long term plans border on where we want to take the state to. How do the people of the state key into this? And how can the state also protect and encourage them to be able to leverage on the opportunity that abound for them to get what they should get from the resources in their states.
The second point is that the bill, will make it possible for all those who do oil and gas businesses in the state to also leave some amount of space as local content to get our people involved. We are talking not just on those who have the requisite trade but those who can be absorbed for them to get training on the job. We know that some companies now have things like that where they train people and then they absorb them after the training? We believe that these policies will provide for that and that is why we are in the process of having the bill and the policy. We are trying to engage all those who are involved in oil and gas businesses. We have also involved them in the committee that is fashioning out this policy, so that it is generally acceptable to everybody and everybody is able to work within the ambit of that policy and the bill. Now outside of that, the Treasure Energy Resources set up by the governor is also intended to bridge that gap. Now when you have a hundred percent state owned oil and gas company run by Rivers indigenes, employing Rivers indigenes and giving Rivers indigenes the opportunity to be involved actively in upstream and downstream activities in the oil industry. It opens up the sector for Rivers people to increase their capacities to have the opportunities to also get the requisite technical experience and know-how.
If you come down to the downstream sector for instance, you can count the number of Rivers people who are managing filling stations in Rivers State. You can count the number of Rivers people who own the trucks that lift products. You can count the number of Rivers indigenes who are independent marketers. We are saying that all these must change, but government must put in place the necessary framework to get Rivers people to be involved. It is not something you can do in one day, but you must start with the necessary framework and hope that our people will key into what government is doing for their own good.
Q: How soon are we expecting this policy?
Answer: Before the end of this year.
Q: Lets deviate a little, energy ministry where you preside and the power ministry, where can one draw the dividing line?
Answer: All of us are part of one state government. We have a common agenda. There is nothing we do in energy ministry that the man in power does not know. Overall, we know our activities, may be what we are saddled with is the nitty-gritty, the details of each assignment. We deal primarily with oil and gas, while power deals with electricity. But there is a point of convergence in area of what we used in generating power. We need gas to generate power. So, to that extent, there is a synergy, because the state government has an agreement with multinationals on the use of gas resources in Rivers State. The Ministry of Power cannot get the gas it requires without the collaboration of the Ministry of Energy.
Q. Hon. Commissioner, the Turn Around Maintenance for the nations four refineries, has not yielded desired result, what is the way forward?
Privatisation of the refineries, that is our position. That is what Rivers State Government believes. We believe that the refineries and oil and gas activities should not be run by government and that the government should only own equity in them. They should be run by private interests and we believe that these refineries are not doing well because government is still deeply involved in the operation. It’s not as if Rivers State government did not have the resources to build its own refinery, we are concerned about the sustainability when this administration leaves, the next administration comes and they don’t share exactly in the vision, then it dies. But if private individuals bring their money and put it down and invest in the business, they will necessarily protect their investment. So that is why even in the proposed refineries, we have up to five of them, so far at different stages of coming on stream. These are private foreign concerns. The foreign concerns will bring the resources, the technical expertise while we provide the enabling environment. They will operate it over time.
Like the 200,000 barrel refinery we have proposed for Rivers State, in the first two years they will employ nothing less than 4000 persons. You look at the multiplier effect if 4000 people having employment with just one refinery. If that refinery crumbles because government is not able to run it, 4000 persons and possibly 20,000 others will be thrown into the job market.
Q. If we go back a bit, how do you reconcile government emphasis on private sector participation with the TER being set up solely by the Rivers State government and which may be managed and run under civil service arrangement?
Yea, now it is different, Rivers State Government set up the Treasure Energy Resources but in the law, that is before the Assembly setting up Treasure Energy Resources Limited, it is totally a commercial venture. What the state government had only done as its own way of improving and building capacity of Rivers people, is to take the lead by initiating the action. All those on the board are professionals and they have been given the mandate, the only thing the state government owes that board is to give them the takeoff grant, to buy the initial things for them to be able to setup and then be able to invest in the leasing and purchase of marginal oil field which is just the first level of investment. Once they have gone into it, the agreement and the understanding is that, the state government will totally divest itself from their operations. Rivers indigenes will buy equity in that company and it will be run completely as a private concern.
The Rivers State Ministry of Energy and the Rivers State government will have no say, but everything that it owns will be purely owned by the indigenous Rivers people but without government interference.
In other words, what government is doing now by investing in the take-off is that government is doing it on behalf of Rivers people, who later will buy into the company and own it as their personal properties.
Q. Now the Former General Manager of the NNPC Mohammed Bakindo, said, sailing the nation’s refineries would amount to a policy summersault inconsistent with the tenets of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). Do you feel strongly that the refineries should be sold even if means contravening the Act?
You see I don’t want to begrudge him of his opinion. Everybody is entitled to his opinion especially Barkindo is a technocrat in this area. There are some indices or reasons which he must have for him to hold the opinion he holds.
From my own perspective within the short period I have been here in the energy ministry, I will not agree with him, but perhaps he may have his own reasons. I read his comments in the paper. I took time to read his position and is inconsistent with the free market economy that we are trying to run in our country. Now if the refinery or the refining and distribution of petroleum product are still social services then I can understand why they should not be sold. It means that government can still one way or the other regulate the activities for the purpose of protecting the people, but if it is not a social service and is purely business and it should be subjected to the economy of demand and supply as we have in the telecommunication sector there is no reason why government should be involved. But if it is going to be run as a social service, which I think it should not be, because all these issues of deregulation, these issues of subsidy, the ordinary man on the street does not benefit from them. So, if it is a social service, social services all over the world, meet more of the needs of the ordinary people, the down trodden.
Subsidies and all that, do not translate into a better condition of life for the man on the street. It’s at the level of the elites. So if the elites keep talking about protecting the people and all we see even is that lately, the people suffer when you talk about kerosene that is the most essential thing. The poor man uses it, but it is not readily available, yet government is paying so much and spending so much on subsidy. Now if you look at how much the government is spending on subsidy and divide it by the number of Nigerians that we have, you will find out that if they give you your own cash, you will live a better life than what you are living. So something is wrong somewhere,there is a disconnect between the subsidy and the beneficiaries of that so called subsidy and the only way we can resolve this, is to open up and allow for competition and forget everything about regulating the market.
Deregulation for me is the solution, look at private tank farms all over Port Harcourt. Private tank farm are selling sometime a little above what the depot sells, yet they cannot meet the demand, so, what are we regulating it for? Whether you like it or not, the more the product, the more tendency for price fall.
Q. You recently criticised the N’Delta development master plan for lack of input from oil bearing communities. In other words, the planners did not adopt a bottom-to-top approach. Isn’t this another indication of poor political leadership that has been blamed for poor development of the region?
It’s not a Niger Delta problem. It’s a universal problem. Leadership is elitist in nature. Anywhere you go, even in the developed nations, there is a disconnect between the leadership and the followership, between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged. So, it’s not a Niger Delta challenge. We are only trying to domesticate a universal phenomenon by saying how does this universal thing affect us in the Niger Delta.
Now when you gather people and you say you are holding a talk on Niger Delta and all those who are there are the elites, who have never been to Soku, they have not been to Kula, they have not been to Abissa, they have never been there all their lives, but they have been to most of the world capitals, they have been attending all the international conferences, driving all the big cars, living in houses that have water heater, how can such people sit at a place and discuss the problem of somebody in Soku? That is the point I’m making. But again I understand, how do you get the people in Abissa, Soku and Kula to participate and to what extent can they participate given the level of literacy and all that and the challenges of their own environment? How do you get them to be involved? That is the point. I did not have the time, I wanted to say, strategically, development is all about the aspirations of the people.
Honesty, Diligence, Performance’ll Take Any Individual, Entity Far – Isokariari
Today, Chief Okoma Kio Isokariari clocks 87 years on Earth. The czar of civil engineering and construction, and foremost indigenous contractor, though looking frail with age, had worked tirelessly to the zenith of the industry, with particularly iconic buildings dotted across Kalabari Kingdom, Rivers State, and Nigerian’s indelible legacies of his professionalism, competence and commitment to excellence.
Before he retired from active site works and supervision, O. K. Isokariari was a colossus of brick and tar. He could work and move from one project site to the other without resting. He traversed the length and breadth of the country snapping jobs and executing them with zest, finesse and dexterity. His footprints stand out like a diamond in the sky across many communities, and today, represents part of the positive contributions of Rivers State to the realisation of the Nigerian Project.
Ahead of his birthday, today, barely 123 days after celebrating 50 years of the existence of O.K. Isokariari Nigeria Limited(formerly O. K. Isokariari & Sons) as a corporate entity, on July 4, 2022, the legendary indigenous contractor sat down with The Tide Editorial team led by the Acting Chairman, Editorial Board and Supervising Editor, Nelson Chukwudi; Health & Metro Reporter, Kevin Nengia; and Photographer, Ken Nu-ue, to reminisce on the past and charta course for the younger generation who would want to leave a mark, as he has done.
Below are excerpts of the 35-minute chat with the Rivers State icon in the built industry.
Sir, can you tell us who is Chief O. K. Isokariari?
Oh yes, Chief Okoma Kio Isokariari is from Buguma, headquarters of today’s Asari-Toru Local Government Area. I was born in Buguma on the 4th of November, 1935, and was baptised at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Buguma. I attended St Michael’s School and graduated with distinction. After that, I proceeded to Kalabari National College where I was House Prefect. I graduated five years later with an Advanced Level General Certificate of Education (GCE).
Not long after, I went to Zaria in 1957, and got job with the Nigerian Railway Corporation as Station Staff-In-Training. In July, 1957, I was selected among about 30 others and sent to Nigerian Railway Traffic Training School at Ebute-Metta, Lagos, where we were trained for six months. During the training, I was made Class Prefect, flying the flag of the region. I came out of the training with sharpened skills and expertise in traffic and logistics management.
After the training, I went back to Zaria, and was deployed to Kuchi station between Kaduna and Minna as station staff, a serious position in the corporation. I moved to Kano, a major railway hub, in November, 1959. With comfortable earning and savings as a responsible Kalabari son, I began making moves to marry in 1964, and eventually got married to Grace, the daughter of Amanyanabo of Kalabari, King Abiye Suku Amachree in Buguma.
Following the social upheavals in the North as a result of the 1966 coup, I returned to Buguma in June, 1966. I went back to Kano in August, 1966 after normalcy had been restored. But tension soon rose again in September, 1966. This time, the national crisis was more serious and disrupted my career. God saved me during the crisis as a lot of us from the South were killed in Kaduna in the reprisal mayhem. I went into hiding for many weeks in Kano to avoid being killed. However, I escaped by divine grace by flying to Lagos on October 17, 1966. It was a very difficult journey of life and death. In fact, I walked in the valley of death. That escape has been my happiest moment in life and the driving force of my success. It was a turning point. From Lagos, I returned home to the warm embrace of my mother in Buguma by boat on October 19.When the crisis died down, I went back to Zaria and continued with my job.
Not too long after, the civil war started. During the civil war, I shuttled between Buguma and Port Harcourt, striving to eke out a living amid the unspeakable humanitarian tragedy, and ruins of war. I first worked as supervisor at the Rivers State Ministry of Rehabilitation. I served in the state rehabilitation committee. Before then, I had attended St John’s Ambulance Course, similar to the Red Cross training. With my experience in providing emergency services, I was busy serving war victims. After the war, I actively participated in the resettlement, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of displaced people in Port Harcourt.
Not letting go of my business instinct, I registered my first company – ISOYE Enterprises to explore opportunities in stockfish distribution business. But seeing the urgency in addressing the housing and rehabilitation needs of Port Harcourt residents, I ventured into engineering and construction with the setting up of O. K. Isokariari & Sons in 1970, and incorporated it on July 4, 1972.
After the war, I returned to Zaria to continue with my work at the Nigerian Railways. My exceptional performance on the job earned me several awards for my dedication and commitment to duty. But with the lessons of history hovering over me, I voluntarily resigned in 1969 after 12 years of meritorious service to Nigeria, and the management of Nigerian Railways paid me all my entitlements.
So, how did you start your construction business considering the fact that you retired as a civil servant?
After my resignation from the Nigerian Railways, I returned to Port Harcourt to join the concerted efforts at rebuilding the war-ravaged city. Having settled down in my state, I added the little savings I had made to my pay-off, and used it to start my business. But let me say this, the war provided me the opportunity to delve into the construction sector because many opportunities existed then.
After the war, I started business with my experience in the Railways by engaging in house painting, renovations and supply of workshop tools to Rivers State Ministry of Works. Many houses were in ruins and people were starting life afresh. With the conditions of the city, it was not difficult for hardworking Rivers sons and daughters to find good paying jobs to feed themselves and their families. So, with the good foundation I had, with high level of discipline, frugality, honesty and integrity, I started getting clients. Not long after, bigger contracts started coming in, including contracts from the Rivers State Government under its First Military Administrator, Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff, and the Federal Government under General Yakubu Gowon.
My first big contract was the Braithwaite Nursing Home (Memorial Hospital) Building renovation and reconstruction in Old GRA, Port Harcourt in 1970. I was one of those who submitted tender for the project and as God would have it, I was awarded the contract in the sum of £14, 700 at the time. We completed the job in 1971. My company also built the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation in 1972. Of course, that became the launch pad for O. K. Isokariari and Sons.
Impressed with what we did at BMH, the military administration at the time led by Commander Diete-Spiff selected me among other contractors to build general hospitals across the 21 divisions in the state. I was fortunate to be one of those awarded the contract to build the 30-bed Buguma General Hospital at the cost of £130,000 in 1972. Each of the general hospitals were awarded at Ahoada, Isiokpo, Bori, Abua, Bodo, Sagbama, Nembe, Yenagoa, and Brass, among others, at the same value. Of all the contactors, we were the first to complete and deliver good quality project at Buguma in March, 1975.That project later became a reference point for other hospitals. I earned a recommendation in March, 1975, for our quality job at Buguma during the commissioning.
Afterwards, we handled the PAN African Bank headquarters building at Azikiwe Road, awarded at N9million. We also got the NNPC zonal headquarters building at Moscow Road – a nine-storey building – and later, the NAFCON Village and staff quarters at Onne. We got that at N26million. The NAFCON building was worth $28million because at that time, the Dollar was little lower than the Naira in 1982.We delivered the project in 1985. We also built the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) staff quarters on Okporo Road at Mgbuesilaru in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area; NNPC awarded us contract to build the Japanese Construction Company’s staff quarters for the construction of Port Harcourt Refinery at Eleme. We built the Abonnema Ring Road and bridges; built the University of Port Harcourt’s arts theatre – The Crab – at Choba; DSS senior staff quarters in Port Harcourt; Nigerian Defence Academy senior officers’ quarters in Kaduna; Nigerian Army Command and Staff College school building in Jaji; NNPC’s 40 houses for new Finima Town; the Port Harcourt Cenotaph at Isaac Boro Park; NCDMB’s NOGAPS capacity training centre and Industrial Park’s internal roads in Bayelsa; Port Harcourt New Layout Market; Okochiri internal roads phase 1; among many others. In fact, I have seen the delivery of over 400 housing projects, school and hospital projects, and 150km asphalted roads that have continued to stand the test of time, in addition to many reclamation, sand-filling, canalisation and water projects, awarded by government at all levels, oil and gas companies, and others.
So, after all these iconic projects and achievements, how has life been?
I have retired long ago, and my children have taken over the business. Life has been good, though today, I am getting frail and weak. However, as a man with passion for adding value to society and impacting lives positively, I still make inputs to push the envelope further in the portfolio of my business.
Looking back at how things used to be, what would be your advice for young contractors of today?
I would advise them to be honest, steadfast, diligent and committed to delivering quality jobs to their clients. They need to have the stamina to overcome challenges as they come. Such problems include delay in payment for contract fees; navigating the financial system and economic policies, including the commercial and lending banks; even in the face of economic downturns. They also need to be patient and trying to meet clients’ demands without compromising job specifications, standards and best practices. That, to me, is very essential in sustaining contracts and winning the confidence of key stakeholders.
They should also remember that devotion is very important. I mean devotion, diligence and commitment. In our days, it was much more difficult to get contracts than what obtains today. Our work spoke for us at that time. Our legacies still speak for us today because our values, business principles and character remain the same. Anyone who has seen what we did before and what we are doing now, knows that our watchword is quality.
Like The Tide building on No 4, Ikwerre Road, which still stands strong even after a devastating fire outbreak in 2012?
Yes! And others like it. We built them with unmistakable commitment to quality, and desire to bequeath to our state enduring landmarks for posterity.
And these landmarks are major signature achievements that leave O. K. Isokariari in the history book of the state?
Our work spoke for us! They are known for their strength and unique structure. Anyone who sees our job could easily identify us. To some extent, we were far better than some foreign contractors. That is why I always emphasise on quality. That is what I am known for!
What is your take on the recurrent issue of collapsed buildings, most of them giving way while still under construction?
It is unfortunate. Most of the people involved in many of those cases are quacks and desperate individuals struggling to cut corners in order to enrich themselves at the detriment of the people. Such people should not get any construction contract, whether from government or any other entity.
So, what would be your advice to governments?
For me, prudence is the word. That might mean accountability, but the key thing is for government officials and decision-makers to be conscientious and determined to use only those contractors who can deliver quality jobs, knowing that they hold their offices in trust for the people, and also that the money expended on those projects belong to the people.
Unfortunately, most of the contractors today fall short of the standard. Most of them are portfolio contactors who are looking for government money to siphon. Yet, they are getting jobs! How can you award a contract to a company that has no wheelbarrow? No paid, competent staff? No reputation and track record of performance? So, government must be careful, meticulous and ensure due diligence so that monies are spent on quality, and for the best.
So, on your 87th Birthday, what do you like to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as that Rivers man from Buguma who touched and transformed many lives; whose legacies would remain a source of inspiration and motivation to generations yet unborn. I want my footprints in Buguma, Kalabari Kingdom, Rivers State, Niger Delta, Nigeria and the whole world, to inspire greater desire for service to humanity. I want to be remembered as that good father who gave equal opportunities to his children to be what they dare to be. I want to be a reference point for many young entrepreneurs, especially in the state, who want to add value to the overall development of the state. I want the projects I have executed to continue to speak for O. K. Isokariari Nigeria Limited, my children and grandchildren.
Madam, it has not been easy taking care of your husband and children all these while. What is that unique thing that has sustained your marriage? And to the young girls out there, what advice do you have to help them manage their marriages to be as successful as yours?
Well, the most important thing is contentment and love. You have to be satisfied with what you have, and love your husband and children equally. Patience is key to building a peaceful family. So, I will advice young couples to be contented at any level they are. If they are contented and work hard, God will help them grow to be successful.
I am happy that my son who took over from his father is doing well. He is trying his best. Humility pays! Often times, he seeks and gets advice from the Dad, who is the Founder of the company. And that is very important for the growth of the company.
‘Our One Year In Obio/Akpor Council Has Been Fulfilling’
This is the concluding part of the interview carried last Friday, July 22, 2022.
Mr. Chairman, there was recently an incident in Rumuogba where miscrants accosted workers at a property site claiming to be working for the council whereas their claim was not true. How do you handle the issue of touting in revenue generation in your local government?
Let me tell you the candid truth: my problem is not with the people that go about asking for such money. No! My problem is with those people like the property owner you just talked about. We have gone on air, we have announced severally on radio and TV: anything you want to pay that concerns the council; our offices are open from 8am to 5pm, which is when they close that gate, come to the council here, and make your payments and obtain original receipts from the council. Get your approvals and papers from us here. We do not exist in heaven, we are here at Rumuodomaya. Come and pay your tenement rate fees, operational permits and other taxes here.
The truth is that people deliberately fail to do the right things, believing that when those boys come knocking, they will just pay a little token, and they will give them adulterated documents claiming to be issued by us. And by paying them that money, you are encouraging them to do same to another person or come back tomorrow. We are aware of all these. They patronise the touts at the detriment of the council. That is what they do!
For instance, if you want to develop your property, you come to the council to pay the land rate and fencing permit levy. Outside of that, before you start your building, you bring your drawing here for approval. And most of our people do not do that. They don’t! Like I said, my problem is not with the boys who tout around, but the people that are giving them the leverage to continue to exist. Because if you come to the council, and you get the right papers, as a right-thinking Nigerian, you cannot get your papers and somebody will come and tell you to pay again for the same papers. You will not accept it because you know that you made your payment at the right source and place. All you need to do is to come back to the council, and complain, and your grievances will be resolved. If it is not what you are supposed to pay, when you go back, and the people come again, you arrest them with the police. Inform us, and we will come there and tell the police that we did not send these persons. And they will be prosecuted.
But what do we find here, we find people who will stay back, they won’t pay what they are supposed to pay, and then, when the boys come, if they fail to settle as per price, maybe, they will tell you the boys are coming to harass them. But in your conscience, you know you have not paid what you were lawfully meant to pay. That is what we see. And that is the problem we have! The council gates are open to all who have any legitimate business to transact with us. If we said this is the levy you are supposed to pay, first and foremost, if you get the remand notice, and you are too sure, get across to us at the council for clarification. We have designated bank accounts, go and pay what you are due, and come and obtain original receipts and your papers from us. Do they do that? The answer is no! Then, at the end of the day, when they are not able to pay the touts whatever they are asking for, it becomes an issue of complaint: they are coming to harass us. That is the problem we are facing.
Nobody wants to do the right thing, but they sit back and then, they make so much noise only in the guise of wanting to tarnish the image of the local government. That is what they do. Most of them don’t pay. It is only when the boys go to their sites, and seize their material, that is when you see them bring their drawings here for approval. That is when they come here to pay if they are not able to pay those people there. And for the ones that think they are smart, that is when they will give those boys money there, and they go. Then, when we set up our own monitoring teams to go and verify, they now say… they gave this much; meanwhile they did not come to the council to pay and obtain their original receipts and papers. You gave the money to who? When we ask them, they look for one story to tell. So, that is the problem we are having! If the people, out of their own volition know that this is their civic responsibility, and do those things expected of them to do, you can now come back and tell us that we are the richest local government, and we will tell you, yes, we are because we are seeing the money. But we are not!
Don’t you think that is one of the reasons why you are not because a large chunk of what is supposed to be coming to the local government council is not coming?
That is what we are saying. We are saying the same thing. You can’t just assume it to be so. Alright! It is like the misconception about budgeting. You hear that they have budgeted N50trillion. Is the money there? The money is not there! It is a mere projection. Most times, they will not even get up to half of that amount. Most times, they will spend above that amount. It happens because we are all human beings. That is how it is with what you are trying to assess now. So, that is what we are passing through. And the best way to it is to still appeal to those who are doing business in our local government to do the right thing.
Because the only option left for us now is to set up a task force team to go and verify whether you have paid or not, and get our money for us, if you have not paid. And you see those people who patronise the touts are the same people that shout the most. Before you know it, they have gone to social media; they have gone to conventional media, claiming that Obio/Akpor officials are harassing them and breaking into their shops or business premises. But we have given you enough time; we have announced in the media the timeline and deadline for you to pay. Early January to mid-February, we are on air all-through making announcements for people to come to the council and make their payments for the year. What else do you expect us to do? The moment we set up task forces now, they will start shouting to high heavens, they have come again; they are harassing us; they don’t want us to do our business. But you that was supposed to pay your obligations to the council; you have failed to do that, and you are blaming us for taking steps to recover our money. Because if you have come here to pay, we do not have any reason to set up any task forces that sometimes, are confrontational, to recover our money. And then, it becomes the issue of complaint. That is the problem we have! And when you say, let me avoid these complaints, and not set up any task force, they still won’t come on their own to make the payment so that we can have money to work for our people. Or is it my personal money that I am going to use to work for the people? Is it my own money that I am going to use to pay for the Postgraduate grants? Or pay for the skills acquisition training for beneficiaries? Or for the projects we are doing? It is this money from levies, taxes, etc, that we are using to do them! And they make it look like if it comes, you put it in your pockets: it is not for personal aggrandisement! It is for the delivery of democracy dividends to the people. It is only those who do not have initiative that will not utilise the council’s money prudently to deliver quality services to the people. We are focused and resilient, and we know what to do to make our people, who elected us to serve them, happy.
But we are still reaching out to them. We will continue to appeal to business operators to come and do the needful for the good of all in the local government, because without that money, we cannot work. Let them stop patronising touts. They are the ones encouraging them. So, these are part of the major problems we experience in trying to harness our revenue for you to have the foundation to tell us we are the richest or we are the largest. There is no statistics to back that up! That is what it is.
Chairman Sir, you have said a lot concerning your achievements in the past one year. I know it requires a lot of money for you to carry out these development projects in the local government. So, what are you doing to shore up the revenue base of the council by way of diversification of the economy of the local government?
Well, how do we diversify? Unless you are talking of it from the point of view of investments! But like I said, as it stands now, our core investment is in the area of human capacity development. The law allows us to provide support for health; education; build markets; parks; property approval and building permits; and collection of tenement rates and derivable levies. That is all the diversification you can talk about. Except you are talking of venturing into agriculture! We don’t have that capacity.
What we do is to see to what extent we can add value to improve the lives of our people directly. That is what we see as our own diversification or what we can call investment; because we believe that by tomorrow, it will yield positive dividends. The multiplier effects arising therefrom can also count for us.
But out of that, we have the intention of building one or two new markets, or renovate one or two. We also plan to develop one or two more parks, because even if you do so, we have parks and markets already existing. You see those ones in those communities, even if you build more, they won’t allow you to come and collect the rent. By the time you want to press it, they will say you are confrontational. It is something when you come to experience it that you know better. If not, these are the little openings the law allows us to get involved in, in order to raise revenue for the council. Because we cannot on our own get involved in things the law does not permit us to do. What the law provides for us is: you establish markets; you establish parks; you collect daily tolls; and all of that. The diversification you are talking about now can only be in the area of investment. I think we are doing all we can outside our monthly allocation to boost our revenue and add to accelerate quality service delivery. It is what we have in our place here, that God has blessed us with, but the problem is how to harness it to enhance our revenue base because of the bottlenecks I have explained to you. That is what we are exploring.
We have our agents, and we are doing everything possible to tap all available options to increase our revenue base. I must also acknowledge that they are some companies and business operators in the local government that within the period given to them, the moment they receive our demand notice, they come to pay their due. But we still have some big companies that connive with these touts to evade payment of what is due the council.
Are you planning to digitise revenue collection in the council to check corruption and other sundry sharp practices?
We are working towards that. But one thing you must understand is, even at that, like I know how many filling stations that are operating in Obio/Akpor. I know how many hotels. In fact, we have a record of how many companies that are operating in our area. But no matter how you look at it, it takes a willing mind to pay what he or she is statutorily obligated to pay to the government. Anyone not interested in paying will not want to pay voluntarily. Majority of the people always wants to be forced to do the right thing. We do not have difficulty collecting the money. The issue is: are they willing to pay? Because it is a willing mind that will do what you are saying, whether automated or not. I hope you understand me? Those that are paying will be the same ones that will pay whether you automate the process or not, because it is a voluntary thing. What they hear is that one that officials will come and lock up their shops or business premises or carry their goods or wares. That is the problem: lack of people’s willingness to discharge their obligations voluntarily. Even when you spread the annual payment over a period of time within the year, those not ready and willing to pay, won’t pay.
Interjection! Chairman, let me step in here. Let us leave that issue, enough has already been said about it.
Chairman, I know that this is not your problem, but a lot of motorists have been complaining about the bad gullies and craters near the entrance to your council’s gate on the Port Harcourt-Owerri Road. Why don’t you try to do something to rehabilitate those bad spots to ease free flow of traffic around this axis?
Oh! The one in front of the council secretariat? Somebody told me they talked about it on radio the other day. Well, two weeks after I assumed office, we tried to do something around that. But I have listened to some of the commentaries on radio. Some people actually feign ignorance on who has the responsibility to address that challenge.
You know that we have three tiers of government: The federal, state and local government. That responsibility falls squarely under the purview of the Federal Government, because it is a federal road. It is not even the duty of the state government to intervene, except it secures the go-ahead of the Federal Government.
If you are saying it as a suggestion, fine. We can consider it based on available resources to us. But it is not my responsibility as a council. It is not! We have a lot of competing needs that we are obligated to address as leaders at the local government level. Our people elected us to serve them, and we have to judiciously spend the scarce resources available to deliver for our people. It is not just something you wake up one day and throw yourself into. Do we have the money to do it? The answer is no!
And more so, they have given the contract to LCC, a construction company to handle. They are in the process of providing drainages on the road. It is a gradual process. They are doing the work! It is not as if vehicles are not passing the road. It is just that some people are just idle, and do not know what to say or do with their precious time. Some journalists just want people to listen to their stations, so they look for just anything to say to engage idle minds.
Chairman, every job has its own risks and exposures. This job, for the past one year, has also exposed you to certain risks that you may not have anticipated. A case in point was early this year when your task force team on illegal crude oil refineries was accosted at a point around Rumuolumeni, and there was a near combat situation between some armed personnel of a Federal Government security agency and your team. My instinct tells me that you were physically present while the fight was raging. How did you feel about your safety during that confrontation?
Well, let me start it this way. You know that one of the questions you asked was that my local government is the richest. That is part of the risk. You won’t understand.
Well, that is what leadership is about. You can’t come here and just think it is a bed of roses. There are attendant risks associated with the job. That situation on that fateful day is one of such risks. Even in the job you do as a journalist, there are risks you face on a daily basis. It is what comes with the job, and you should be ready to face it. We are here to solve problems; we are here to face challenges first and foremost. This place is not a party hall; it is not a place for luxury. You that made up your mind to become council chairman must have also made up your mind to frontally tackle whatever challenges may arise during the course of your tenure.
So, it is not the team I sent. I was physically present there, and I was the one they were attacking for leading a team to disrupt and dismantle their illegal business activities in my council area. It was the confrontation I had with men of Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) at Rumuolumeni. I was the one with the guy that had a gun; I was the person in the video that went viral on social media. It is what it is: it is governance! It is leadership! You must confront issues as there arise. Because: what is democracy? It is all about the people! What is governance? It is all about the people! The centrepiece of it is the people.
So, whatever it is that is affecting your people that you have sworn to govern, should be your personal challenge. We knew the effect of the soot pandemic everywhere in the state until the governor intervened and took the proactive step, and ordered the chairmen of the 23 local government councils to ensure that the operators and sponsors of illegal oil bunkering activities in the communities are identified and reported to appropriate authorities for investigation and prosecution while their sites should be closed permanently. He ordered the chairmen to join the fight because there is no way he can do it alone. After all, we relate more closely with the people at the grassroots. It borders on our people. The soot was affecting the health of our people.
So, for you to be a leader, no matter the level, you should be resilient; your mind should be made up to confront most of these challenges head-on. Some people have lost their lives in the course of defending their people. That is leadership! And if you are not ready to sacrifice for your people, then, you do not deserve to be a leader. So, that is the motivating factor that we have to keep pushing because it is in the interest of our people.
Chairman, you talked about what you were doing at Rumuekini: the Fish Farm. I will like to know: what is the state of that farm, today? Is it producing? Are we earning money from the farm already? Secondly, Obio/Akpor has a serious challenge of refuse disposal. We understand the challenges, especially when the issue of refuse disposal was handed over to you by the governor when Rivers State Waste Management Agency (RIWAMA) had problems. What is the situation now? And how are you coping with that to ensure that the local government is free of filth?
Well, we thank God that as it stands now, a task force has been set up by the governor to take over that responsibility. But while it lasted, it was a daunting experience. A big one at that! It was an intervention that we got involved directly. But experience has shownthat refuse collection and disposal is a serious business. Very serious business managed by very serious-minded people!
Of course, refuse is produced in seconds. And you know that it is human beings that produce waste. So, it follows that where you have high concentration of the population, the tendency is that you have more refuse produced by the seconds within that area. Like Obio/Akpor, if you talk about population concentration, it doubles that of Port Harcourt City. That is why we seem to have more waste than any other local government in the state.
It has always been the responsibility of RIWAMA. But through the directive of the governor, we intervened and did what we were able to do to help. The job has reverted to RIWAMA, and the task force is incharge now. We even attended a meeting at the invitation of the task force, yesterday, to ask us on what experience we have garnered and what suggestions we could make to help them do even better. We had very candid conversations around the issues, and we also made suggestions for seamless refuse collection and disposal in the capital city through a strategic synergy that works for the good of all in the communities.
Of course, the local government council must be involved; just as the communities must also be involved, because they are the ones generating the refuse. So, they should also be involved in all-round monitoring and supervision of evacuation at the receptacles and compaction at the dumpsites, because we have the manpower at this level. We know that most of the refuse contractors, if you don’t supervise and monitor them very closely, they won’t do their jobs diligently. So, we need to work with RIWAMA for them to succeed. All the same, we thank God that we were able to do that job, but it was very overwhelming, I must admit.
Now, back to the issue of the Rumuekini fish farm. Yes, as it is today, it is not functioning optimally. We are trying to work out modalities for its efficient and effective operation. But we said, if we finish securing the place first, to be sure, then, we can begin the next process. We want to set up an agro-based business there outside of the fish farm in partnership with interested investors. We are talking with some people already, and we believe that by the time we are done, we would have bequeathed a thriving agro-based business portfolio that will not only employ a lot of our people but also generate income for many families and the council as well.
If we are to continue with the facility, we may have to totally renovate and expand it. Our intention initially was to, because it is in units, just to add extra units, make them modern, and then, in each unit, raise like two or three women, give them money to run it as a business. They will manage it, sell and make returns to the council, no matter how little. We are working that out. Now that we have been able to secure the place, it will now give us that platform to work out something. My supervisor for agriculture is working out the modalities. We are talking with a team from Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and two or three other organisations to see how the place can be optimised for the good of the people of Obio/Akpor.
Going forward, what are we expecting from you in Obio/Akpor?
Yes, we have hit the ground running. Like I said, in the area of human capital development, we will continue with our post-graduate grants. We will also continue with our vocational skills acquisition programme. We will do another two sets. The PG programmes, we will do another two sets of 50 for PhD and 50 for Masters. So, at the end of our three-year tenure, we would have produced 150 PhD and 150 Masters degree holders.
We have other very important projects we want to embark upon. First among them is the Secondary School Block we promised to build for Woji community. We are thinking about one or two important link roads in the two constituencies of Obio and Akpor that make up the local government. If it is not something that can go round all the 17 wards, we do it constituency-by-constituency. If it can go beyond the constituency but not up to the ward level, we do it by clans, like what we did with the Charkin Academy admission. We could not carry the burden at the ward level by choosing 17 persons, as to one from each ward. So, what we did was use the nine clans as a basis for the selection of beneficiaries. In Evo, we have three clans – Oro-Evo, Oro-Esara, and Oro-Opotoma, that is in constituency one; in constituency two, we have three clans – Akpor, Apara, and Rumueme; then, the remaining, we gave to non-indigenes of Obio/Akpor. That was how we distributed the slots for the Charkin admission. So, we had a balance in the selection process.
All we can say is that Obio/Akpor people should expect more from us. And above all of these is the programme we want to start for our women petty traders. You know that we do not have farm lands anymore. Our women used to be very industrious and hardworking farmers, but with the lands gone to urbanisation, the only available space they have now, they display pepper, tomatoes, vegetables, and all those foodstuffs. So, we think we can encourage them by giving seed money to improve their trades; maybe, N10,000 to N20,000 revolving facility, so that we can reach as many women as possible in the communities. That way, we will help them boost their small businesses to support their families, and also help the council grow economically. So, that will be our focus too in no distant time.
The moment we are sure that it is workable, and will impact positively on the people, we will kick-start it, maybe, towards the end of the year, and nosedive into next year. We have already told them that it is not going to be business as usual. They have to be judicious and frugal in the management of whatever they are given, because it is not for free; they have to pay back the money. The structures have to be in place to make the scheme sustainable.
We also have a scheme for the youths. We will identify the ones that are ready to be engaged, and want to eke out a living for themselves, if they get any support. Then, with the scheme, we will support them to be useful to themselves and the society. That way, we would have strengthened the economies of our communities; and built a more resilient and peaceful society.
We are going to do all these because we have the interest of our people at heart. We promised to address their challenges when we come on board, and we have to keep our promise. We will not disappoint them.
‘I Want To Be Remembered For Laying RSUTH Foundation’
The Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH), one of the newest in Nigeria, has come a long way since it came into being four years ago. The change from a comparatively obscure Braithwaithe Memorial Specialist Hospital (BMSH) in the country to its present status as a Teaching Hospital has not yet ceased to baffle close watchers. How did this happen? Who made it happen? What is it that has so turned things around in it that has made it the bride of genuine good health seekers within and outside the State? To respond to these and other nagging questions, The Tide’s Business Editor, Soibi Max-Alalibo, and Deputy News Editor, Sogbeba Dokubo, sought the answers from the Chief Medical Director, RSUTH, Dr. Friday E. Aaron, on whose shoulders the responsibility was placed. The interview turned out to be revealing as it was assuring.
Since 2018, when the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital was birthed from the then Braithwaithe Memorial Specialist Hospital, Rivers people, residents of the State, and those from other neighbouring states have never had it so good in terms of accessing medical care for which they hitherto had to travel very far.
Beyond easily accessing the right medical care, patients can now walk in, get necessary medical attention, and walk out with little or no stress as it was in the days of BMSH.
Staff, from the bottom to top, are more dedicated to their responsibilities due to high motivational standards, better equipment to work with, and incentives, which have given them more reason to put in their best in their jobs.
The result is that from being an institution that rendered only health care services, it now renders the same services at a more higher level, trains health care practitioners, and also carries out researches.
Photo Caption: 64 slice CT Scan, used for Radio-diagnostic imaging.
The person at the centre of this phenomenal change is the State Governor, His Excellency, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, who, as part of his NEW Vision, extended his midas touch to the hospital by appointing a technocrat in the fold of Dr Friday Aaron as the pioneer Chief Medical Director (CMD), who has turned out to be the engine room or the development of one of the foremost Teaching Hospitals in Nigeria.
As the CMD puts it: “I have not just been in charge, I’m the pioneer CMD of the hospital. So, that places on me a huge assignment of laying the foundation, and then building on it”.
This eventually became his driving force, which is “to be remembered as one that came, laid a foundation that people should build on, sustainably”.
In order to attain this quest, Dr. Aaron acknowledged what he called the “incontestable magnanimity” of the State Governor in according him the privilege of not just appointing him as the pioneer CMD, but also providing the wherewithal in terms of provision of manpower, equipment, and key Infrastructures required to turn the tide of the hospital around to what it is today, preparatory to what it will be years to come.
“One thing that’s outstanding is the overall change in the hospital, the overall repositioning of the hospital that was just mainly rendering health care services, to a Teaching Hospital with capacity to manage very complex cases.
“And that change is obvious for us to see in terms of infrastructure, change in mindset of staff, quality of services, in terms of overall patient experience “, he said.
On assumption of duty in 2018, the first thing he did to set things in motion was to develop a Mission, Vision, and Core Values for the hospital, and also ensure that staff adhere strictly to achieving them as spelt out in their various responsibilities.
“In all our meetings we remind ourselves of these core values and take one of them and remind ourselves of how to go about it”, he explained.
To encourage staff in being at their best in their jobs, various awards have been instituted for outstanding staff in various departments, “and this has changed their mindset for better and quality service delivery”.
The result is that four years down the lane, RSUTH has not only recorded tremendous achievements in areas that fall within its mandate, but has also kept on improving in all key three areas that comprise the mandate: rendering medical services; training of medical personnel; and carrying out researches. These three are what the CMD called the “Trypod Mandate” of a Teaching Hospital.
In service delivery, RSUTH now renders services beyond Rivers State up to the South-South and South East States.
“After we became a Teaching Hospital, we now render services up to the South-South and South East because of the level of equipment we have “, he stated.
Dr Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon, said the result of the upgrade to a Teaching Hospital, among others, is that the environment has turned into a beehive of activities: from the gate through all the various departments, every staff is usually on their toes, and does so with a mindset of responsibility to serve, and in all happiness to do so.
“When you talk about services, you see that anytime you walk into the hospital, you see how busy it is, because of the level of services we render”, he said.
Beyond attending efficiently to all who come to the hospital to seek treatment or service, by ensuring that they get to the right place to get the required attention, the hospital has also improved in clinical care services, where diagnostics stands out tops.
As the CMD captures it, “we have the best radio diagnostic equipment East of the Niger “.
Such diagnostic equipment include: Magnetic Resonance Imagine (MRI) 1.5 Tesla Machine, for general body imaging; Computer Tomography (CT); Mammography Machine, used for breast imaging; Fluoroscopy Machine, for dynamic imaging studies; and Plain Radiography Machine, which is used for static imaging.
These and other essential machines for a Teaching Hospital that are not commonly available in most tertiary health care institutions in the country has turned RSUTH into a Mecca of sort, attracting people from outside the State, most especially from the South-South and South East.
Such States include Enugu, Umuahia, Owerri, and Bayelsa. People Troup into the hospital for one form of diagnostic investigation or the other on a daily basis.
Following the upgrade also, there have been non-stop and all round power supply from 2018 up to March 2022, when it had to be rationed to departments that necessarily require it all through the day, such as the radiology department where equipment has to be on 24/7.
RSUTH also has Dialysis Machine, which has the capacity for Renal Transplant, popularly known as kidney transplant.
Currently, personnels have been trained, and more are still undergoing trainings on how to operate and use the machine.
What this means is that in no time, kidney transplant and other related diseases, for which patients are flown abroad, can be done and treated in RSUTH. Ultimately, this will attract more patronage from far and near.
In training, RSUTH, by its status as a Teaching Hospital, is a training ground for both the Rivers State University, and private owned Pamo Universiy of Medical Sciences.
“It is because we have a functioning Teaching Hospital that the regulatory body approved RSUTH as a training ground.
“The Collage of Medical Sciences accredited RSUTH to train doctors. They come from time-to-time, for every level to check what is on ground. For training, we have supported at the undergraduate level, student nurses from RSU are also being trained here”, he stated.
RSUTH, Dr Aaron continued, “serves Rivers people primarily, and also Pamo Universiy of Medical Sciences who are one year ahead in terms of students. They come for their orientation, medical experience, and have also received accreditation because of their relationship with us.
The implication of this is that RSUTH has not only been carrying out clinical trainings, but also provide manpower for both the public and private sectors, and most of these students are of Rivers origin.
The hospital trains doctors, nurses, cardiographers, medical laboratory scientists, etc. from the public and private sectors.
In order to fulfill its mandate on research, RSUTH is registered with relevant national bodies and is licensed on health ethics and bio-ethics.
“This has helped us because more of our lecturers and staff write to the ethics committee, receive approval and do researches”.
This, the CMD said, has given RSUTH global visibility.
“Now, you can just Google researches and publications done here. You’ll see quite a lot of our publications. We have data, unexplored data, because we have been working for sometime.
“That’s why we started by upgrading our records because it was an issue in the past. Now that we have electronic records, it is easy to get data”.
Though these and many other successes have been recorded in the first four years of RSUTH, Dr. Aaron said the feat was achieved amidst challenges.
He, therefore, called for partnership with well-meaning individuals and organisations to partner the hospital in order to serve the public more, saying hat Government alone “cannot do it all”.
So far, the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) seem to have taken the lead in this wise by building the Infectious & Disease Unit of the hospital, which is under construction.
“The Governor has done a lot. The story of this hospital has changed for good. Patients should utilize the hospital and also be friendly, show loyalty, commitment in the hospital, by using the facility in such a way that they see it as belonging to them, which is taking ownership, in order to sustain it”, he said.
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