Henry Seriake Dickson: ‘Bayelsa needs more control of its resources’
In the second in our series on Nigeria's Bayelsa state, governor Henry Seriake Dickson talks to The Africa Report about the tug-of-war between federal and state government over development of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Governor Henry Seriake Dickson’s political soubriquet – ‘Ofuruma Pepe’, which translates as ‘Great White Shark’ – seems at odds with his public image as a conciliator and dealmaker. Dickson insists the simile refers to his political toughness rather than physical ferocity: he has swum against the tide and taken on the status quo. In fact, he takes a pride in having been written off by so many different players across the political spectrum. Many expected him to lose power in 2016 when he stood for re-election as governor of Bayelsa State on the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ticket. Dickson confounded those predictions and is now looking at his options as his term comes to an end – whether to return to his legal practice in the Niger Delta or to stay in politics and contest power at the national level, for the Senate or perhaps the presidency.
The Africa Report: Politicians have a really poor reputation in Nigeria. How do you assess the quality of the country’s political leadership?
Henry Seriake Dickson: There is a lot of room for improvement in the quality of political leadership in the country. When this phase of our democracy started, people were more concerned about what they wanted the country to look like. They were far more idealistic, nationalistic and [thinking] in terms of getting our country back into civilian rule and democratic governance. These days people talk more about winning elections. So people have not lived long enough under a democracy, learning what I call the essential tools of political service. If we are able to improve on the quality of the electoral process, then over time we’re going to see more people coming into political service for the right reasons. But right now it’s a free-for-all, and it’s quite disturbing.
How well does the federal system work in your state? You’re a member of the PDP, which is in opposition to President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC.
This is the first time my state has been in this situation where we’re in a party that’s different from the party that controls the centre. In the 2016 state elections in Bayelsa, the president and his party deployed all the federal arsenal at their disposal, fairly and unfairly against me. They were not being gracious enough even to acknowledge my victory or congratulate me. There’s not enough acknowledgement by the centre of the need for collaboration on things such as security. I believe that the first duty of those of us in government is to collaborate on law and order, and security. Since 2015, there has been direct federal interference with the security architecture of my state.
You support calls to restructure Nigeria. What does that mean in practical terms?
It is the need for Bayelsa to have more control of our mineral resources and wealth. We don’t have to apologise to anybody that we’re endowed with so much wealth. We want to utilise this for the development of our people. When we had independence in 1960, the arrangement that was fashioned at the time was for regions that had resources to keep them and to pay tax.
There’s not enough acknowledgement by the centre of the need for collaboration”
But, you know, the military came and changed all that. So when we say restructuring in the economic sense, we mean a return to where we were, and that would give us the freedom in a state like Bayelsa to develop these resources. For example, on power: Why should I be running to the federal government for licences to use our gas resources to generate power? The growth of our country is stifled by over-centralisation.
So it’s about how the oil and gas revenues are shared out by the government in Abuja?
It’s about our right to manage and control the pace of our development. We produce all of this, and I have to wait every month for 13% [of total government revenues] to be paid over, which is grossly inadequate. It’s what the cabal in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation [NNPC] decides. The NNPC is the real government of Nigeria, even Buhari has not been able to break the grip of the NNPC.
That would mean radical change in the state oil company, NNPC. Do you want to see it sold off to the private sector?
What I support is an end to the fraud, an end to the cabal and the criminal manipulation of the wealth of this country, and centralised control. In the Niger Delta, our understanding is more than privatisation; we are talking about control. Control of the resources, not federal control. It could be the states, it could be communities. We can discuss the right model. But federal control has impoverished our people […]. I keep telling everybody that what all of you call oil blocks in Abuja and in all major capitals of the world are the ancestral properties of the people of the Niger Delta.
What about the role of Nigerian oil companies? Benedict Peters’ Aiteo bought OML 29 from Shell, and the Bayelsa State government failed in its bid to buy some equity. How has that worked out?
I feel very bad about that. The Bayelsa State government never was given an opportunity to manage that oil block, which is the single biggest oil asset in our country. Benedict Peters doesn’t have anything to do with us; he doesn’t want anything to do with this state. That’s the attitude of all the oil companies, local or foreign. They rely on the federal government that has given them the licences. They rely on federal security to oppress the locals. Since he got that oil block, Benedict Peters has not even come to the state. […] We read in the newspapers about the billions he’s spending supporting different federal causes […] but he’s not concerned about what happens to our state.
Aiteo, Agip […] These guys are going to have a mafia-like hold on this state”
Our not being in control has created an additional problem, which is actually a bigger problem, of security in the state. Aiteo, Agip, all of them, the security and surveillance contracts they give, the criminals they work with and so on… If care is not taken in the next couple of years, these guys are going to have a mafia-like hold on this state because of the resources they have and the mafia-like way they relate to criminal elements.
What is the security position in Bayelsa State now? How did it change after the upsurge of militancy in 2016?
Everyone in this state knows how seriously this government takes security, and we have built systems on the community level – with the youth leaders, community leaders – and then we support the work that the security men and women do in our state. That has made Bayelsa one of the most stable states. We are maintaining robust contacts with all the people and the young militants.
You are devoting a lot of resources to education. How is that working out?
Education is not just about preparing young people to be productive tomorrow, but there is also a social purpose. Where we lose the young people in this country is at that stage that they ought to be in secondary school. We want to reduce the number that will be wielding AK-47 rifles. We’ve got about 10,000 children in free boarding schools. This is the only state that runs free secondary boarding schools.
What about political life after the governorship? Will you go into national politics, running for the senate or the presidency?
I haven’t given any serious thought to the next steps. For now I’m concentrating on my work in this remaining lap.