Saturday, May 10, 2014 2:58 pm
Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, who is also the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, NGF, speaks to some journalists, including OKAFOR OFIEBOR, on how to tackle terrorism, the status of Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital, the education sector in the state, how loans borrowed by the state would be paid and other issues
Q: What are your administration’s plans to sustain the achievements recorded in the education sector and do more before the expiration of your tenure?
You cannot plan education without first and foremost knowing what it will cost you to do so. Take primary education for instance; we had a budget, even the secondary education. We had a budget of N166 billion for the 24 model secondary schools. Then, it was N4.1 billion. Now, it is N4.5 billion.
I have forgotten the cost of the 750 model primary schools we intended to build. We did not envisage the kind of economic hardship we found ourselves in. We did not envisage that we will have large appetite for projects. I realised that people were urging me to stop and stop. We were strategic. We knew that there will be so many problems to address.
Take Diobu [in Port Harcourt] for instance; when you go to D-Line [also in Port Harcourt], you will see the wonderful road projects that we are doing. We are extending that to Oroworukwo, Port Harcourt. The Diobu people are saying we have to come and do something in Diobu. When I saw the bill, it was huge.
We have an economic and business plan, but it was linked to socialist realities and the socialist realities were informed by the security crises that we had. I met children who told me they were arrested, their siblings were withdrawn from school and two days after, they were driven away from the houses they were staying.
I realised that there are social elements that need to be addressed, to enable parents ease the burden of life and one of it is education. So, we said we will bear the burden through free education and free healthcare.
In some states, when they say free education, they just pay teachers’ salaries and that is all, but we decided to approach the schools and pay all the fees, so that the children could go to school. No doubt, the country has been passing through terrible security challenges. A few days after Nyanya terror attack that claimed over 75 lives, over 200 schoolgirls in Chibock, Borno State, ware taken captive.
You prescribed good education and agriculture as panacea to the Boko Haram menace. How will that work?
I recall that during the Presidential campaign of former Governor Peter Odili to Borno and other contiguous states, I observed that those states were good for the farming of water melon. I imaged if large hectares of land were cleared and engaged, thousands of youths would be employed. They would not be willing recruits for the Boko Haram sect.
At one of the National Economic Council meetings, I remember suggesting that each state government across the country should contribute one per cent of monthly allocation that would be managed by a commission made up of incorruptible Nigerians drawn from the North. The fund would be ploughed into massive agriculture and education.
With good education, nobody will misinterpret the Holy Books and brainwash you into killing fellow humans for whatever reward. The suggestion was approved but later dumped. The military action cannot end the Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part of Nigeria. Agriculture and education are the keys to solving the insurgency.
I am convinced that members of the Boko Haram are being sponsored by unknown individuals. For me, I have said over and over that the solution to Boko Haram does not rest in the military. It rests in education and agriculture.
If anybody tells you nobody is funding Boko Haram, how are they getting the money to buy weapons? We will offer free education to secondary school girls abducted by suspected Boko Haram members. The school girls will be made to attend the state-owned ultra-modern secondary schools. As the Rivers State Governor, I am willing to assist to take any of the missing school children or as many as we can negotiate into our schools free of charge.
Each of the secondary schools is N4.5 billion. As Rivers State government, anybody who wants to go to that school goes there free of charge and as a step in gaining admission, you are going to be given a laptop. There is no classroom with blackboard; its visual classroom and it is being managed by Indians not Nigerians.
We are running just one of the schools now and we hope to open the remaining six. The reason we are yet to open the remaining six is that we need N800 million per year to run each school and that is because we give free uniforms, free food for the two children per room and so on.
With full participation in agriculture, idle hands will be fully engaged in meaningful means of livelihood. When came into office in 2007, the level of criminality in the state was sky-high. But as construction of several projects all over the state started, we included 20 per cent of local content in every construction contract, which compelled contractors to engage local suppliers of construction materials. Security reports showed the crime rate reduced because those who were idle before were engaged.
Your political opponents alleged that you are leaving a debt burden to the state at the twilight of your administration. How indebted is Rivers State?
Why have you not seen the name of Rivers State among the states that owe banks in the country? I was talking to one of my friends who works in a bank and I said, Please, I need you people to approve our N100 billion bond, because we have borrowed a total of N280 billion and we have repaid down to N80 billion and will finish the payment by June this year. Then, we will be free from debts, but I still need N100 billion bond to complete our ongoing projects.
Are you not surprised that if you borrow N200 or N300 billion, you should be on the list of indebted states? The reason that we are not is that once the money comes, we say, Take the one we owe you and put the rest on projects. At times, in Government House (Port Harcourt), there would not be food to eat. If we are so indebted, why are banks chasing us around (We want to give you money, despite all the noise the opposition is making)? It is because they see the way we pay.
We receive about N8 billion from Internally-Generated Revenue, IGR. We pay all to the banks. The reason we receive N8 billion is that we blocked all the holes where people received money and shared among themselves in government.
In fact, if we had met government the way it was before the militancy, we should be making at least N11 billion. The reason why it is ordinary N8 billion is that so many people had left Rivers State. If they had come back, we should be doing N11 to N13 billion. No money for the governor. Do not give money to any big man. Let us use it to work.
Even if we take the N100 billion bond and decide to use our IGR, in one year, we would have paid you the N100 billion, because in one year, N8 billion will give you N96 billion. So, you are left with N4 billion. When they say I will leave the state heavily indebted, it means somebody is not observing what is going on. They should call for our books.
The Supervising Minister of Education, Chief Nyesom Wike, your former Chief of Staff and Director-General of Amaechi Campaign Organisation in 2011, said that you were begging to come back to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. Will you return to the PDP, which you left in 2013 for the main opposition All Progressives Congress, APC?
No, I am not returning to the PDP. That man (Wike), they should check him whether he is okay. I have finished with the PDP; I have told them. I made a promise that if they return the Kalabari oil wells, we will see how it goes, but until that happens…
Beyond the oil wells, I have told them. They have approached me; if they want, I will call the names of those that approached me, but that is not an issue. There are issues that are fundamentally different between me, the PDP and the APC. If I am a progressive, it must be seen in the type of life I live, in what I do, how I relate with people and the type of governance. We introduced popular free education, gave laptops to children to take home. There are so many things we are doing that are contrary to the ideology of the PDP, but they are wonderful men and women.
Are you begging to return to the PDP, as alleged by Wike?
I said people should ignore him [Wike]. Are you sure that if I tell the PDP’s leaders that I am coming back in ten days, they will not send a dance party here? One problem with leadership in Nigeria is that when you are a president, a governor or a minister, what you say must be factual. You cannot be part of gossip.
So, that young man [Wike], who claims to be the Minister of State for Education, who does not know what it means to be a minister, is saying I am begging to come back to the PDP. What is PDP? I beg you, please do not ever ask me question about that young man [Wike], because I will not answer you.
Port Harcourt is the World Book Capital between 23 April 2014 and 22 April 2015. How has it been?
Most times, when they congratulate my friend and sister, Koko Kalango [Project Director of Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014], I say to myself, she is doing well, but they should not forget that the Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014 is a Rivers State government project.
I like the fact that she is also showing prominently, because at the end, when we leave office she will be able to stand on her own and start up with the relationship she has built with the Rivers State government.
I ran into Koko Kalango by accident. She asked me to come and read to the children. She was doing her book-reading programme. She invited the former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, and wanted me to read to the children, which I did. I said to her, I want you to do one assignment for me: to organise an annual literary festival, to be sponsored by the Rivers State government.
I reminded my good friend [Kalango] some weeks ago that she got so frustrated that one time, she came to me and said: I do not want to continue anymore, I want to stop. And I said: No, you cannot just abandon it like that. I told her to do that for me for two or three years, so that we can establish a structure for the literary festival, that will be independent of government.
Within the one year, we made success, an indication that God wanted to bless her; and a lot of things happened. First is that it has moved from the Garden City Literary Festival to Port Harcourt Book Festival. It has also moved on for us to contemplate establishing a book centre, worth N3.5 billion, not owned by the government but by a Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, called the Garden City Literary Association.
The NGO has got land, close to the Golf Course in Port Harcourt, and has commenced the construction of the library. I hope other constructions will also commence. That is the first transformation.
The second transformation is, somewhere along the line she [Kalango] brought the idea of competing for the World Book Capital and I said that would not be a bad idea. So we funded her to compete and we won the nomination. It was wonderful that she did that. When she came to me and said we won, I asked her what the World Book Capital is all about and she explained that it is like the Kane Festival by film makers and that is what it is to book readers. She said we should take charge and begin to prepare for 2014.
Since then, we have gone to several book fairs. I was at the London Book Fair but I was not able to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair. So we are trying to create our own book fair, where our writers will write more and the printers will print more.
What are your administration’s plans for the Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014?
The Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014 will end on 22 April 2015 and we will hand over to South Korea. We budgeted nearly N4 billion for the Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014, which commenced on 23 April 2014.
We are building libraries, but I call them reading rooms, in the city of Port Harcourt. They are about seven and we are having 23 in all the local government areas. We will equip and furnish the libraries. The book centre we are building, privately, it does not belong to the Rivers state government, it belongs to an NGO, because Shell [Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited] and others are funding it.
What benefit will the Rivers State government derive from having Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital 2014?
It is about perception. We have been able to put structures on the ground and make books available for people to read. Which means, we will spend more money in the area of education. But what will the state benefit from the global level? How we are able to position ourselves and how much we are able to tell people we have changed and we are no longer the city you used to know about criminality and all that but now a state that is focusing on academics, books and technology and all that?
At the local level, we must let people know that we are building seven libraries. I call them reading rooms. Why I call them reading rooms is because I have seen them in the United Kingdom. They are big enough to be libraries, they have the books you are looking for, as it is in the libraries, and they have tables and chairs and other facilities. Those ones we will try to establish before we go.
So, we will not have to go to the library on Bernard Carr Street (in Port Harcourt) to read. You know we actually have a library near D-Line (also in Port Harcourt), which the Federal Government took over and it is abandoned. The Rivers State government tried to take it over one time and we were blackmailed. So we left it again for them. When Shell completes the private library it is building for the NGO, I do not think anyone will complain about the standard of the library and the reading rooms we will have scattered all over the place.
Will it be right to state that your administration’s efforts in education is responsible for nominating Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital 2014?
I suspect it is one of the reasons they awarded us that. They looked at the level of achievements in the area of education. We have done quite a lot in the area of education. Even in the area of power.
We have about four power stations. First of all, that of the Federal Government has gone comatose. We have not been able to carry out maintenance work for some time now and everybody is harassing me to bring money for the maintenance of our generating capacity. Basically, I will go and look for money for them next week. We sold, but people have not yet taken possession. Once we sign the agreement, our hands are off. You generate your own power. Most people forget that there are other areas we have invested so much, and what everybody is assessing us on is education.
We have completed seven of the model secondary schools, but why we have not opened the doors for the public is because we need at least N800 million per school. We need to pay school fees for all the children and buy every other thing. Remember, we said, bring your child naked; we clothe them and feed them for nine months in a year and send them back for three months on vacation.
We want to begin the construction of the university [new Rivers State University of Science and Technology, RSUST] at the Greater Port Harcourt City, because we want to pursue primary, secondary and tertiary education. It is worrisome when you produce wonderful children that use computer in the primary schools and you see them to secondary schools that do not use computer. What do we do?
The seven model secondary schools completed so far cannot take all the children that will graduate from the primary schools. They cannot. So we need to do something. We are trying to renovate the old secondary schools and even when we finish renovating them, we need to equip them with ICT and all that, so that they can transfer that knowledge that they have. If we do not do those things in secondary education, it means that the children will lose all they learnt in the primary education. How many universities in Nigeria are ICT-compliant?
So, if they go to one local university that does not have all these things, then they may also lose the knowledge they have acquired in the primary and secondary education. That is why we are building a new university; to make sure we do not lose what we have learnt in the primary and secondary schools.
We need to establish a standard first and that was why we appointed Prof. Otonti Nduka as the chairman of our Quality Assurance Department. We want to first and foremost establish the standard we are looking for. Then we will get others to comply with our standard.
How do you ensure that high quality and experienced teachers are recruited in your schools to maintain standard, considering the fact that some of the newly-recruited teachers are poorly trained, without studying education?
No, I do not think that you are completely right. We did training for the people who were employed as teachers. I will find out from the Commissioner for Education, because they need to put an instruction that all of them must obtain minimum of NCE.
If you have a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, you will not know how to teach Literature. What we are saying is that you have to have a Bachelor of Arts in Education Literature. We did not get enough. We got a large number of qualified teachers, who had gone to either College of Education or University of Education. Those without such qualifications, the way to go about it is that within their six months of employment, they should get an NCE or a Diploma in Education, just to get the basic rudimentary knowledge of education. Then they can teach.
What are your expectations of the new writers, considering the fact that most of them are detached from their environment or reality?
Most of you look at literature in the manner Shakespeare wrote literature, which he described as dancing with flowers, when your house is burning with hunger. From what you are saying, I do not think Prof. Wole Soyinka belongs to that school. If you look at the way he creates his words, you will think he belongs to the people that believe in the literariness of literature.
Literature has to do with the way you arrange your words, arrange your sentences and the manipulation of words to change the world positively.
I have no expectation from the new writers that are emerging, but to create employment and reduce poverty ravaging the country. We are in a country where you and I will be here one day, trying to eat food, but you see people rushing, not to eat the food but to eat you and me.
If we do not want them to eat us, then we must start now, to utilise the available resources available to the state, to empower people, create opportunities for Nigerians who live here, not only Rivers people.
If you listened to the first argument I had with the elders, I said I had nothing against the Protestants, the born-again churches. I support them. Even though people criticise them for the material tendencies that emanate from their preaching, you must realise that they are also avenues for employment.
Do you know how many pastors that they have recruited that are now employed? There are those who were not called but called themselves to the service of God, but they create employment. You see, as they open one branch to another, they create employment for people, by appointing people to head the branches.