INTERVIEW WITH: Dr. Austin Tam-George, Honourable Commissioner for Information, Rivers State.
How would you describe the state of affairs in Rivers State 14 months into the administration of Governor Nyesom Wike:
Tam-George: Governor Wike has brought Rivers State back on its feet again. There is an impressive momentum of development everywhere you turn. The government is re-vitalising the State through the provision of critical infrastructure. Roads that were abandoned for decades and were impassable in many places have been completely re-constructed. Over 180 km of roads across the State have been completed in one of the most challenging terrains for constructions.
The Governor is implementing a massive urban renewal plan, and the construction of roads and bridges form the centrepiece of this plan. Even street lights and road traffic lights are being restored on all major roads. This has given Port Harcourt a more functional and liveable outlook.
Governor Wike has also launched a water reform scheme which when completed will provide water to about 2.5 million people in its first phase.
In education, the administration has completed the long-abandoned Law Faculty of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. The faculty now has some of the best facilities in the country. There is a massive physical re-construction and revamping of public schools across the State, and the boarding system is being re-introduced in our secondary schools.
General hospitals and primary health care centres are also being re-constructed across the State. For the first time in the history of Rivers State, Governor Wike is providing a system of financial grants to private medical practitioners in a radical bid to boost health care delivery in the State.
Fifty housing units have already been completed in the Iriebe Housing Project in its first phase. Opportunities exist for investors to enter into partnership with the government to build gated housing estates and liveable urban communities that could transform the housing market in the State.
Governor Wike is particularly committed to creating a shared prosperity in Rivers State, such that anyone, especially those in the small and medium scale business space, could not just thrive but actually prosper. To achieve this, the government has disbursed N2 billion loan received from the Central Bank of Nigeria to 35, 000 micro and small scale business owners in Rivers State.
There is an impressive momentum of activities in other sectors such as agriculture, transportation, commerce, and so on.
How have you been coping with the drop in revenue, Federation Account at the centre, your share just like other States have dropped drastically? Some States are in salary arrears up to five months or more?
TAM-GEORGE: To understand the achievements of Governor Wike in public spending and financial management, I think it is important to lay out the context in which his government came into office.
The Wike government inherited the most abandoned projects in the history of Rivers State, since 1967. It also inherited four months of unpaid salaries for civil servants, six months of unpaid pensions; there were eight months of salary arrears for other categories of staff, including teachers, 11 months of unpaid salaries for staff of the state football clubs. Most importantly, Governor Wike inherited an empty treasury and billions of Naira of debt.
To worsen matters, not a scrap of paper was received as handover notes from the previous administration. Even the Governor’s official residence was vandalized, with beds, mattresses and even cooking pots stolen by officials of the previous administration. As a result, in all the 36 States of Nigeria today, Governor Wike is the only Governor forced to go to work every day, from his personal home.
But within three months of his government, Governor Wike cleared all outstanding salary arears and pensions. We have never failed to meet our salary or pension obligations since this administration began.
Through an advanced biometric staff vetting process introduced by the Governor, over 7, 000 ghost workers have been swept off the civil service payroll, saving the State billions of Naira that for years had been lost to payroll fraudsters.
Today, right priority, financial prudence and transparency are the pillars of public spending in Rivers State.
INEC has postponed again, Rivers legislative re-run on grounds of insecurity, alleging that the environment is not yet conducive for the elections. How do you see it?
TAM-GEORGE: We regret INEC’s decision to postpone the elections yet again. In our view, INEC should have proceeded with the elections exactly as planned. The idea that Rivers State is unsafe for elections to hold is a mythology created by the political opposition to avert a likely defeat at the polls.
We have a vibrant socio-economic life that goes on undisturbed here in Rivers State. As you know, the State remains the most important investment hub for oil and gas companies in the country. We have a civil service bureaucracy with staff strength of over 47,000 workers. We have three Universities, two polytechnics, and thousands of other levels of schools. We have the courts, and many other state and federal institutions that work smoothly every single day in Rivers State.
In the past one year, Rivers State has been host to many international events and professional conferences that pass off without a single security breach. We hosted the 2016 Africa Movies Academy Awards, AMAA, in Port Harcourt, without a single security incident. The Nigerian Guild of Editors Conference was held recently in Port Harcourt. In their communique, the Guild acknowledges that Rivers State is safe and peaceful.
The Annual Nigeria Bar Association Conference holds in Port Harcourt, in August, with thousands of participants from all parts of Nigeria and the West African sub-region expected to attend.
The idea that local elections could not hold because of alleged insecurity of the State was an unconvincing excuse. But we will continue to cooperate with INEC towards free, fair and conclusive polls in the State. Wherever security incidents occur, the security agencies will rise to the challenge.
Perhaps, no public administrator in this political dispensation has given the police and the joint security forces as much financial and logistical support as much as Governor Nyesom Wike has done.
The print media were recently awash with pictures of Governor Wike and former Governor Amaechi in handshake while others like Dakuku Peterside, APC governorship candidate in last election who is now DG NIMASA, Acting IGP, and DG of DSS were watching. Does that signify a return of peace in Rivers, sufficient for elections to hold next time INEC fixes a date?
TAM-GEORGE: Peace pacts and handshakes by political leaders are good, because they have powerful symbolic value. But I think that the APC will have to develop the democratic temper to accept defeat. So it goes beyond standing before a camera man in Abuja.
Governor Wike has taken concrete conciliatory steps to work with everyone, even those in the opposition. He has an office and a special adviser on inter-party relations. The Governor’s intention is to keep his ears and doors open for cooperation and collaboration. But the APC’s response has always been to slam the door shut. They seem to be unable to cooperate, even in the interest of the State. It’s an unacceptable behaviour in a democracy.
You know your supporters have seen the pictures and the body language; my question would be are they enough to give Nigerians assurance and Rivers people in particular that the re-run elections will be free and fair next time? Are you going to match your words with deeds?
TAM-GEORGE:As I said, we invite our friends in the APC and their leaders to unclench their fists, and embrace the Wike government. Politics does not have to be a blood sport. In my opinion, the greatest responsibility to deescalate the political environment in Rivers State rests with the APC. The peace pact gives the party an important opportunity to demonstrate goodwill on the ground, by cooperating with the government to put service to the people first.
As the Governor of Rivers State, Wike has always worked to maintain peace and stability in Rivers State. He needs stability in order to deliver service to the people, and attract even more investors to the State. This is why he is working so hard to reach out to everyone. His creed is to put service to the people first.
Regarding the elections, Governor Wike’s simple insistence is for the electoral process to be free, transparent and fair. And that the peoples’ votes must count and be respected. This is a perfectly democratic and reasonable insistence.
In Rivers State, the people have been sensitised to insist on their sovereign right to choose their leaders. We consider election rigging as worse than armed robbery. We make no apologies for defending our peoples’ right to a free and fair electoral process.
What exactly is your quarrel with recent police posting in Rivers State? It is like your Governor is not comfortable with the re-deployment?
TAM-GEORGE:As a principle, Governor Wike supports and works closely and respectfully with all security agencies. All he wants is for the security agencies to be insulated from partisan politics, so that they could focus on their jobs. That is his point. Police and other security personnel posted to serve in Rivers State should fight crime and help maintain the peace. We welcome and will support anyone posted to Rivers State. We only ask that they conduct their work professionally. This is the governor’s point. He will continue his unflinching support to the police and all security institutions in the State.
The Federal Government has cited the increasing militancy in the Niger Delta as one of the reasons for the drop in revenue and also in power generation. How is the government you serve as Commissioner for Information helping to reduce militancy in the region?
TAM-GEORGE: Governor Wike has denounced violence or any form of militancy, be it in the Niger Delta or in the North East where the people continue to live in dread of the merciless terrorism of Boko Haram, or anywhere in Nigeria. He has held series of strategic security meetings with other Governors and even the Presidency, in order to bring the scourge of violence to an end.
On the directive of the Governor, my Ministry is leading an intensive anti-cultism and anti-militancy media campaign in Rivers State.
APC government at the centre has been in power for about 14 months. How do you assess its performance?
TAM-GEORGE: I believe Nigerians are the best assessors of this government. I will leave it to them to judge for themselves if they are better off today, than they were 14 months ago.
Regarding the postponed re-run elections in the state; how do you want Rivers people to conduct themselves between now and the time INEC would fix the elections?
TAM-GEORGE: As I said earlier, in Rivers State today the people have been fully sensitised to understand their electoral rights and to defend their votes. The people will accept only free and fair elections. The responsibility of INEC is to organise elections that are demonstrably free and fair. The government will continue to work with all stakeholders to keep the State secure and peaceful, before, during and after the elections.
Finally, Governor Wike often comes across as a tough and decisive leader. Does he have any soft sides to him that the public is yet to be aware of?
Governor Wike has a compassionate spot for those who are physically vulnerable. He spends a great deal of time listening to their individual stories, when he meets them. But he constantly encourages each of them to never succumb to self-pity or despondency. He sees ability in everyone, and supports those who strive for a better life, no matter their personal circumstances.
I think the governor also has a special fondness for children. I have seen him break from his security team during project inspections, just to hug and shake the hands of children across the road. The look on his face during those moments was always so magical and fatherly.
I suspect that the unspoken expectations in the eyes of those children give him the kinetic energy to work even harder to build a better society for all.