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Bayelsa:Heart of Dickson’s politics

“There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.”—Mohandas Gandhi

GOVERNOR Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State is a leader who defies the familiar categorisations and typologies of Nigerian public service. Since his swearing in on February 14, 2012, he has always been at home with the values and sensibilities of the creeks and Bayelsa’s rural communities. But he is also comfortable in the world of wonky policymaking and urbane governance. The governor is thus as close as it gets to the archetypal 21st century public servant. These attributes, in conjunction with his organic involvement in the Ijaw struggle, have earned him the adulatory name of the Countryman Governor.

It is precisely this facility with the lexicons of both the haves and the have-nots, this intimate familiarity with the problems and anxieties of the diverse demographics of his state that has paradoxically become a minor political irritant for the governor; for the exhibition of such an elevated governing temperament in a political milieu of crass opportunism and party-hopping is bound to be misunderstood by those beholden to old templates of political mobilisation and governance.  It is in the tradition of governance in Bayelsa State and in Nigeria as a whole for political elites to stake their claims on the incumbent leader and proceed to take ownership over him and his agenda, to the exclusion of the already excluded and disenfranchised, and to the detriment of the common good. Governor Dickson’s refusal to conform to this tradition of politics and governance has endeared him to the regular citizens of Bayelsa and incurred for him the seething frustration of those who had sought and failed to own him. This divergence of political temperament and commitment explains why some politicians in Dickson’s party, the PDP, would shamelessly dump the party that gave them relevance and visibility for the APC, which wrested power from their hero and benefactor, former President Goodluck Jonathan. In this political climate of conflicting priorities, it is understandable that the governor has become a magnet for both mass adulation and the isolated animus of a few self-interested politicians.

This has been the supreme paradox at the heart of the Dickson factor in Bayelsa, the glory of all lands. His insistence on a different kind of politics has produced a new paradigm of governance. His desire to chart a new trajectory of probity and accountability in the governance of the state, take Bayelsa to the world and the world to Bayelsa through tourism and good governance, fortify the Ijaw nation, particularly Bayelsans, through free and compulsory education, deliver concrete developmental goods to his people through critical infrastructure, map a post-oil future for the oil-rich state through strategic investment in agriculture, wrest control from those who had stagnated the state and plunged it into insecurity for over four years, as well as his zero tolerance for corruption, crime and criminality have been the defining characters of the Dickson administration. It is in the manner of revolutions and iconoclastic movements to generate reaction and contrapuntal narratives. Governor Dickson has faced his fair share of reactionary outbursts. It comes with the territory of insurgent and populist approaches to exercising power, a political tendency that the governor personifies.

Simply put, Dickson’s insistence on a radical, tenacious developmental strategy has pitted him against a small, convulsive political old guard, who desire a less altruistic, more elitist governing apparatus that is focused on propitiating their whims. Faced with elite reaction on the one hand and enthusiastic reception from the masses on the other, the dilemma of offending a self-absorbed and privileged few while empowering the less privileged masses quickly dissolved. It was an easy choice for Dickson to make.

This, in a nutshell, is the story of how Governor Dickson came to simultaneously embody the developmental aspirations of the people of Bayelsa and the Ijaw nation and the reactionary impulses that such aspirations tend to elicit from people accustomed to deploying power for narrow personal and group interests. If the governor has risked the discontent of a small section of the state’s political elite to pitch his political tent with those in acute need of opportunity, access, and social infrastructure, it is because of the push and pull of his own biography.

This biographical impulse pivots on one word: compassion. It was against this background of compassionate governance that at a time when neighbouring oil-producing states with high revenue receivables and lower wage bills could not pay salaries, the Countryman Governor reasoned beyond the box and sacrificed his security vote and allowances to pay salaries and pensions of workers at every month’s end without taking a loan for salary payment! Bayelsa being a civil service state for now, the governor reckoned that the economy would collapse if workers do not get their salaries and entitlements on time.

Dickson’s touching story of not having money to pay school fees, his chilling storyline of not sighting a vehicle until he was 18, his familiar story of joining the Nigerian police as a constable after his secondary education and his subsequent educational pursuits in the force, which propelled him to successful careers as a lawyer, activist, political mobiliser, and two-time member of the House of Representatives have fired his impatient determination to avail the youths of Bayelsa the opportunities and privileges he never had so that they would fulfill their full potential.

The story of Dickson’s rise bespeaks the possibilities that can emerge when responsible governance lends a catalytic hand to those without access to the traditional levers of privilege and power. Like the overwhelming majority of the state’s indigenes who identify with Dickson’s governing philosophy, the governor’s appreciation for modest beginnings and the transformative power of opportunity is experiential, not theoretical.

Governor Dickson’s life story is a compelling illustration of how opportunity, when combined with hard work and tenacity, can propel one from obscurity to a place of fulfillment. This inspirational personal story and the leadership training and mentorship he has received have become the fulcrums of his politics, the organizing principle of his governing technique. The problem is that those unable to relate to the nuances of this story because of their own personal histories, circumstances, and choices have struggled to understand what motivates the governor and what informs his philosophy of having the needs and voices of regular citizens drive the process of governance. The question is: should the governor apologize to those with elitist pedigrees for translating the story of his personal ascendance into a coherent ideology of governance.

Since becoming governor over three years ago, Dickson has tried to resolve this paradox, making strides in critical developmental matrices but also actively and respectfully cultivating the state’s political stakeholders for their buy-in. This may be why his administration has awarded many contracts to indigenous firms owned by local elites and political actors, appointed over 500 Bayelsans into government positions, and engaged over four thousand youths as Bayelsa Volunteers to complement the police in securing the littoral state. One particular developmental gesture of the governor that betrays his political magnanimity is the Ogbia- Nembe road, which is to be commissioned in December. Chief Timipre Sylva, his predecessor and detractor, hails from Nembe but had neglected the project. Dickson’s decisive intervention on the project ensures that Sylva will now enjoy a smooth drive to his homestead! Before now, Nembe was only accessible through water.

The governor’s political gestures are powerful symbolic illustrations of how enlightened political outreach can coexist with and be structured around transformational infrastructural intervention. But there is a limit to symbolic political gestures, no matter how enlightened and generous they may be. Ultimately, any governing institution and the leader who superintends it have to reckon with the fact that, in our section of the world, development is meaningful only in its physicality, its tangibility, and its ability to positively impact the lives of the governed.

In this domain of social infrastructure, Dickson’s accomplishments are not just staggering; in many instances they acquire additional gloss by being firsts either in the whole country or in Bayelsa. This principle of “firstness” applies to Yenagoa’s first ever flyover, the Ecumenical Center, the Sports/Football Academy, the Catering/Tourism School, Multi- Door Court, the Traditional Rulers Secretariat, the drug mart, teachers training institute, the commercial cassava starch plant, a diagnostic center built to first world standard, and a host of others.

Staying with the theme of Governor Dickson’s “firstness,” he has created a social welfare/ security scheme for the aged, ensuring that Bayelsa citizens who toiled in their youth to give their best to their offspring and their state will live out their old age in dignity and sufficiency instead of in shame and want. His opponents may fault this social intervention as feel-good populism, but the satisfied beneficiaries are better positioned to evaluate the program.

In addition to these firsts, the governor’s scorecard is packed with the kind of impactful developmental interventions that improve lives in the present and constitute a down payment on the future. The governor’s administration has renovated and in some cases, rebuilt entire complexes of public buildings. It has built 450 kilometers of roads in the last three years in spite of the difficult terrain and credit crunch, the crowning glory of which is the Isaac Adaka Boro Expressway, which was completely rebuilt into a six-lane highway. Furthermore, the Dickson administration has constructed 18 bridges across the state in addition to the conversion of 18 existing roads to dual lane roads. Work on the three senatorial roads, which was abandoned by his successor, has reached advanced stage.

The governor’s investment in the future of Bayelsa follows a two-pronged approach: educational projects as well as measures designed to position the state to survive and even thrive in a post-oil future. In this respect, the governor’s investments in education deserve special mention. His administration has built 400 primary schools across the state, 24 model boarding secondary schools in the state’s 24 constituencies, and rebuilt many secondary and tertiary schools, including the previously moribund Bayelsa State College of Arts and Science.

A programme of free primary and secondary education is complemented by a robust tertiary education scholarship scheme that now funds bachelors, masters and doctoral studies in Nigerian and foreign universities for thousands of Ijaw speaking people. To further support this educational revolution, the state government under Dickson’s leadership pays the NECO, WAEC, and UME fees of all students in the state in addition to supplying them with schoolbags, uniforms, sandals, textbooks, and writing paraphernalia. As of this moment, the free education programme of government has gulped N24 billion while the scholarship scheme has so far gulped N7billion.

The second arc of Governor Dickson’s diversification of the state’s economy beyond the false fiscal security of finite oil resources has involved massive investments in cutting edge agricultural production techniques and in the tourism and entertainment sector. So ambitious is the governor’s investment in the agricultural sector that the state is now dotted by large-scale agricultural plantations that produce rice, cassava, plantain, vegetables, and palm produce in industrial quantities. What’s more, the state has achieved perfect forward integration with the establishment of the Ebedebiri Commercial Cassava Starch Processing Plant, which is about to be commissioned. The plant has a high value chain that can generate over 30 thousand jobs for Bayelsans. Fisheries have also witnessed a renaissance under Governor Dickson, with several aquaculture projects already completed.

The Dickson administration has made Bayelsa the go-to state for a wide variety of cultural, entertainment, and tourism events, including many award shows and flagship beauty pageants. The state’s tourism sector is buzzing with new energy with the on-going construction of an 18-hole international Golf Course, a Polo ground, an ambitious network of resorts and hotels, an amphitheater, a casino, a wellness center, and state-of-the-art conference facilities.

The overarching logic in these investments is the imperative of giving Bayelsa, which the governor calls the Jerusalem of the Ijaw nation, an economic future outside the volatile matrix of oil. Governor Dickson is clearly gambling on the belief that catalytic interventions by government, no matter how capital-intensive in the present, pays off in the future and establishes a durable baseline for value creation and prosperity. The governor may be legitimately criticized for taking a gamble and for being an impatient practitioner of the science and art of development, but the vision that undergirds that gamble is rooted in sound economic logic and in the best standards of public service.

A man who shuns the vainglorious showiness of Nigerian high public office, Dickson is an unfamiliar throwback to a time when governance was a partnership between the leader and the led, hence his stubborn refusal to privilege the desires of the elites over those of common folk. The highlight of this selfless stubbornness, for which he is criticized, is his cultivation of citizen opinion in governance, a consultative and deliberative approach to governance whose capstone is the monthly transparency and accountability town hall meeting, where he renders accounts of his stewardship, lays bare the accruals to the state, and where citizens’ inputs are collected and the governor’s plans tested and debated.

Under the governor’s predecessor, Bayelsa acquired an unfortunate reputation as a graveyard of campaign promises and rampant assassinations. It remains to be seen if Dickson’s relentless developmental focus has completely erased that perception. Nonetheless, one thing appears clear: the people of Bayelsa will, as they should, construct and debate multiple narratives on the leadership of Dickson, but these storylines will be foregrounded by a single premise, which is that it is no longer a question of whether the governor has fulfilled his promises but the degree to which he has surpassed them. Moreover, with the massive investment on security, the Dickson government is superintending one of the safest states in Nigeria, a state where citizens now go about their legitimate business without molestation and where residents now sleep with two eyes closed.

Like all mortals, the Countryman Governor has his human failings. But in this race of governance, he has a head start and is a distant runner. He is, in addition, a politician of integrity who clearly stands far above the maddening crowd of serial governorship aspirants who desperately crave power in order to put the glory of all lands in reverse gear.

This writer does not intent to posit that the Dickson administration has solved all the problems of the state; indeed Bayelsa is still a work in progress. But Dickson has restored much of the lost glory of the Ijaw nation and is poised to continue this mission of reclamation as his legacy unfolds into a second tenure that he has clearly earned.

So, on December 5 this year, Bayelsans are expected to renew their social contract with Dickson when they go to the polls to elect a governor.

Mr. Francis Agbo,  a public affairs analyst, wrote from Yenogoa, Bayelsa State.

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