The Seriake Dickson phenomenon in Bayelsa – Part 1
I was in Yenagoa, February 15-18, to witness the series of events marking the sixth year of Henry Seriake Dickson as governor of Bayelsa State. The celebrations began on February 11 with a church service in Yenagoa. They ended as they began with a church service at Otuoke, the home town of former President Goodluck Jonathan, on February 18, with a huge reception for former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was in the state at Dickson’s invitation to commission some of his major social and development projects, February 16 and 17.
These series of events were not trumpet-blowing events, although they might easily so qualify given that they show-cased the achievements of the governor rather colourfully on bill boards and glossy documents. Dickson, lawyer, is the fourth civilian governor of the state. He was elected into office in February 2012 and was re-elected in 2016. There is every indication, going by the series of events I witnessed, that if he were entitled to a third term, he would quite easily make it too.
There are so many good and important things one can say about Dickson, fondly called Country Man by his people but for fear of saying so little in the face of so much, let me limit myself to a few facts about the really giant strides the state has made under his watch in only six years. I was curious about the man who has made the state with the most difficult terrain in the country, the envy of much older states still struggling with the basics of development. I dug into his political background to help me put his achievements in perspective.
First, two things hit you as you drive into Yenagoa. You immediately notice that the drive from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa is no longer a most unpleasant obstacle race when you had your heart in your mouth, afraid that the bad boys would suddenly emerge from the bush on either side of the road and leave you either poorer or even make you history. Well, the road has been fixed and the one-and-half-hour drive is smooth. When you arrive Yenagoa, the second pleasant surprise hits you. It is not a one-street town any more. It has become a sprawling modern city of fine private homes, towering private hotels and impressive government buildings. Then, of course, the feeling of peace and security in the state capital blows in your face like a cool breeze. When I visited the state sometime in 2013 Dickson spoke to me with his signature passion about what he was doing to make the state secure and peaceful. He has been as good as his word here.
Dickson is a towering figure, physically and mentally. He is a forceful and articulate speaker. And he speaks with passion, sometimes creating the fear in his audience of his being worked up. He is a man driven by a high sense of justice and fairness. This propelled him into politics in 1998 when his young state created by General Sani Abacha in October 1996 was about two years old. He surprised many of his friends when he chose to join AD, a new political party domiciled in the South-West and was rightly regarded as a Yoruba party.
But there is a method to what Dickson did and does. He was attracted to AD by its stand on restructuring and resource control, two burning issues in our public space. The party, in its manifesto, promised to tackle them. Dickson liked that. He is a resource control warrior. It was, therefore, easy for him to join people of like minds in AD when it did not appear to be politically rewarding for him to do so in his state. He was elected the Bayelsa State chairman of the party.
And then Dickson sprang a huge surprise on everyone. In the 1999 general elections Dickson showed his capacity for doing the seemingly impossible. Under his watch, Bayelsa State elected an AD senator, an AD member of the House of Representatives and three AD members of the state house of assembly. Bayelsa was the only state in the federation to make AD politically relevant outside the South-West. The leaders of the other political parties in and outside the state took due notice of the young lone ranger who had shown his hands as a courageous political strategist.
Sadly, the marriage between him and AD was short lived. By the time President Obasanjo assumed office on May 29, 1999, the resource control debate had bloomed into a major national controversy, pitting the oil-producing states against the rest of the country. Those were emotional moments rocked by local champions of all stripes. The federal attorney-general and minister of justice, Chief Bola Ige, decided to resolve the matter by asking the Supreme Court to settle the raging debate on the on-shore and off-shore dichotomy.
Dickson felt betrayed by the party with which he had cast his political lot to champion resource control and restructuring. Ige was an AD chieftain. Dickson quit the party in a justified huff.
Again, he shunned PDP and pitched his tent with APP. In 2003, Dickson made his first attempt at becoming the state governor on the platform of APP. His country man, Pere Ajunwa, who was also a strong champion of resource control, wanted to be the presidential candidate of the party too. They teamed up for the struggle. Neither man made it.
A year after his failed governorship bid, Dickson gave into the intense wooing of the chieftains of the PDP in the state. He joined the party in 2004. A minor political earthquake swept off the first civilian governor of the state, D.S.P. Alameisigha, from office in 2005. He went down on charges of corruption. His former deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded him as the state governor. In 2006, Jonathan appointed Dickson the state attorney-general and commissioner for justice. Dickson had put one foot in the door. When Jonathan moved up as vice-president in 2007, Dickson returned to the trenches and was elected into the House of Representatives.
He made his second bid for the government house, Yenagoa, but lost to Silver. He did not give up. In 2011, he resigned his house seat on the urging of the party moguls who were critical of Silver’s performance in office, Dickson made his third bid for the governorship. This time, he was lucky. He won and in February 2012, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson achieved the kind of political success many only dream of.
I have gone to this length into his background because what I call the Dickson phenomenon is a fascinating story of an unusual politician and master political strategist. He came into office more prepared than his predecessors in office. By the time he assumed office as governor, he had developed his clear-eyed vision and honed the focus of his administration. It was relatively easy for him to work out his development programme sign-posted by a road map at every turn. That, I think, is part of the secret of his tremendous success. He tends to stand out from the crowd; not just physically but intellectually by doing what no one before him had ever done in government. For instance, to demonstrate that he was fully accountable to the people for his stewardship, he instituted a monthly town hall meeting at which he fully laid bare the finances of the state before the people. In his briefing, he gave full details of financial receipts and expenditures, as well details of the projects he is prosecuting.
Country Man set out to achieve many things but it seems to me that three fundamental objectives are right there on the front burner of his policies and programmes. Bayelsa is a civil service town with a depressed rural economy. Industrial and commercial enterprises are the engines of economic growth. Without them, the state would continue to struggle with its inadequate share from the federation account and the poor internally generated revenue. There is no way a man as ambitious as Dickson would allow that to cripple his economic and social development programme. But what is remarkable is that the man thinks more of what his state would be today in order to be greater tomorrow. If it remains depressed after him, he would have failed. He needs no one to tell him that. To ensure that that does not happen, he is opening up the state to local and foreign investors. His first step here was to make the state safe, secure and peaceful. That is beginning to bear fruit. On February 17, Obasanjo performed the ground breaking ceremony of an oil refinery, Azikel Refinery Project, an important private initiative in the state, signalling that the dawn in the state is now visible in the horizon.
To be concluded.
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