A former Governor of Bayelsa State and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, Timipre Sylva, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA of Punch Newspaper in Abuja, talks about his relationship with the Peoples Democratic Party, among other issues
What is your relationship with President Goodluck Jonathan and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha like?
I would say it’s neither here nor there. Sometimes, you think you are very good friends or brothers with some people, but it turns out that you are not really brothers or friends. That’s the way it has always been. I sometimes feel like the biblical Joseph that was sold by his brothers. That’s actually the way I feel sometimes, when I think about the way I was treated by my own people — the people I call my brothers.
You sound betrayed.
Yes, I feel betrayed by them; by President Jonathan especially.
You were removed as a governor. What was your offence and how did it feel?
Till today, I am still trying to know what my offence was. At that time, the party chairman, Abubakar Baraje, now a member of the All Progressives Party like me, said I knew the offence I committed and he apparently didn’t know. It seemed it was only I that knew the offence I committed. I don’t know the offence I committed up till today. In truth, there was no offence — somebody just wanted me out of the way because he was afraid of my rising profile and he decided to move against me. That’s all.
But why would the person be afraid of your rising profile? Did he see you as a threat?
This is politics. It’s about space. When you occupy a certain space and people see that they may not have the kind of headroom within that space for them to be active, they want to get you out of the way, especially, if they have the means of keeping you out of the way. Jonathan was President, he wanted me out of his way and he got me out of his way.
Beyond politics, do you think he had personal issues with you?
I wouldn’t really know, but I would think so because what they did was beyond politics. They didn’t just remove me, they committed moral murder. They almost killed me morally by trying to brand me as a very corrupt person and tried to charge me for corruption. They also went ahead to molest my family and me endlessly. At some point, a lot of people were afraid for my life. That cannot be politics. It must be beyond that. President Jonathan even accused me of wanting to kill him and then I was to be charged for treason. What does that mean? If I was convicted for treason, the punishment would have been death; that means President Jonathan wanted me dead. So at that point, I became very afraid for my life. It could not have been just politics, definitely.
What do you have to say about the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission investigation and prosecution?
Clearly, it was a witch-hunt. If you look at the status of the case today, every accused person has been discharged and acquitted. The Accountant-General of the state has been discharged; the Commissioner of Finance, who was also arraigned with me, has been discharged, leaving only me, because I was the one they wanted. No governor has access to the treasury without the Accountant-General and I am not a signatory to the state account. Therefore, if all the signatories to the account have been discharged, then why am I still being prosecuted? Of course, they wanted me and they know that the charges cannot convict me, so they want to keep the case in court to give the impression that I am being tried for corruption. As soon as my name came up for the very temporary job of transition committee, you saw all kinds of articles: ‘Oh, he is being tried for corruption,’ ‘Why did you give him this kind of position?’ They just want to keep the case alive so that I would never get anything in this country, by their own reckoning.
What is your relationship with the First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan like?
I don’t have a relationship with her other than her being my First Lady at the time. There is no relationship. I mean, there is no need for any. On a lighter note, she is a married woman.
Some believe you betrayed the Niger Delta region by working against the region’s foremost son. What’s your reaction to this?
Today, I think a lot of those people think differently. I kept telling them: first, I was forced to do what I was doing. I was forced out of the party. I didn’t have any party to go to, I still have a political career and I needed space to pursue my career. Thus, I moved to the APC. I believed that Gen. (Muhammadu) Buhari was going to do a better job. I actually mentioned it to a lot of my Niger Delta brothers that there is no way we can hinge the future of the whole Niger Delta on the destiny of one person. President Jonathan is from the Niger Delta, but his destiny is not equal to the destiny of the Niger Delta. We still have a life after the Jonathan presidency and we should think about this and caution ourselves. The kind of language that was coming out of the Niger Delta from misguided elements were in bad taste in some cases and I thought we should think about our future within Nigeria beyond the Jonathan presidency and today, that day has come. I think everybody knows that what I did had a lot of merit; some traditional rulers phoned me immediately after the election to thank me for the roles I played. They said but for the roles I played, the Niger Delta and Bayelsa State, especially, would probably have been shut out of this political space completely. A lot of them really think differently now, but it’s unfortunate that many of them were living in the euphoria of having the Presidency. When you even sit down with most of them and ask, ‘what has President Jonathan done for the Niger Delta?’ they can’t tell you anything he has done. It was all sentiment. Of course, I couldn’t be moved by sentiment, apart from what Jonathan did to me personally, if he had developed the Niger Delta, I probably would have been persuaded by his performance. But in a situation where I saw practically nothing in the Niger Delta, I felt there was no need carrying on with that.
Are you saying Jonathan disappointed the Niger Deltans?
He did, every Niger Deltan knows and a few people have said it and I don’t want to repeat what others have said. Niger Delta is actually in a worse situation today than we have ever been in our history because we have got nothing from this Presidency. Therefore, Niger Delta people, including myself, feel very betrayed.
You once said Bayelsa State is “the least developed industrially and commercially” of all the 36 states in Nigeria. What’s your view today?
I qualified it, industrially and commercially, not on infrastructure. We are better developed now in terms of infrastructure. But industrially, we are still at the lower rung, although the oil industry has developed in Bayelsa since then. A lot of things have happened, but we are not where we should be, industrially and commercially.
What do you think is required to take the state to where it should be?
It takes a lot of strategy. I think we were thrown back by all the security issues. With security, we would be able to attract all the investment, but while I was the governor, we were grappling with the security challenges and when we were able to get a handle on the security issue, I was forced out and since then, I can’t define the direction of the government that came in. I go there and I don’t see much happening.
As a member of the Buhari transition/inauguration committee; what are the challenges your team is facing with the outgoing administration’s team?
I think we are working quite seamlessly. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, my co-chairman, is a wonderful person and I think we all bend over backwards for each other. We realise that it’s the same government, one government goes and another comes. Really, it’s all about Nigeria and we had that understanding very early in our meetings together. Since then, we never really have any issue.
What are the areas the incoming administration should and will improve on?
It’s been in the public domain; we have identified three areas of focus: corruption in government, security of Nigerians and job creation. Everything else would fall under these three broad areas. If you talk about fuel availability, it is a transparency and wealth creation issue. Boko Haram would fall under security, Niger Delta too. These are the three basic areas and I believe if we are able to achieve these, Nigeria would be right where we want her to be.
Nigerians are expressing doubts about Buhari’s capability to deliver on his promises on account of his daily lamentations on the state of the economy. Are their worries justified?
I agree with you, we are very aware of it. The situation is very bad. The economy outlook is really bad but that doesn’t mean it cannot be repaired. The Buhari I know is a dogged person. Nigerians should know that about him by now; if he was not dogged, he would not have contested consecutively all these years till he won. He is a very dogged person. I believe he is going to tackle it head-on. It’s going to be a very difficult time, a difficult fight and Nigerians must at least bear with us. We are really taking on a major task because the economy is almost at zero level; the security situation is almost at zero level and corruption has never flourished more in this nation than under this administration, I am sure you agree with this. Those are all the issues to tackle. Nigerians must realise we are starting from ground zero.
Before you joined the APC, what did you notice in the PDP that was not right?
The issue of impunity, the lack of internal democracy in PDP; people just got up and did what they liked and it was a very sad thing. These are internal contradictions that worked against the party from within. It resulted in the implosion of the party, and it is a very sad thing that the PDP has such internal contradictions. There were certain people feeding from these internal contradictions who never wanted it otherwise. Unfortunately, it was the result of these internal contradictions combined with those feeding fat on them that led the party to where it is today.
How true is the general perception that the governors and the President are the most powerful people in the PDP?
That is what I was talking about. In the PDP, if you are not the President or a governor, you are nobody; everybody tends to worship the President because they say the President is the leader of the party. Look at my case, the President just said, ‘disqualify him.’ As a serving governor who was still in office, as soon as the President said, ‘disqualify him,’ I became unqualified to contest for the same office I was occupying. I was still there, but I was no longer qualified. You can imagine the kind of party that the PDP is. It was really very sad that I belonged to a party like that, but God did not only save us from that party, we are now where we should be. Look at the APC, look at our primaries. You saw the transparency in the primaries; at least we allowed the person to contest and let the people decide. At some point, that was all I was asking from President Jonathan: just allow me to contest this primary and let me fail. But he was so scared of letting me to even contest because he felt if I got a foot in the door, I would win. Therefore, the only way to get me out of the race was to disqualify me. If a party could deal with me in that way, a serving governor, then what hope does anyone have in that party? I told a lot of my friends, I said, ‘Look, the rain doesn’t fall on only one man’s rooftop; it falls on every house’ and all my friends have realised that the party didn’t do that to me only, it also did it to them. Some of them have just defected and with this, I have been vindicated. That is why everybody is coming to join me in APC now.
At what time did the governors become powerful?
I think it was during President Obasanjo’s second term bid that the governors became powerful. Atiku (Abubakar) garnered the governors behind himself against Obasanjo. At that time, Obasanjo almost left everything to Atiku, so with the governors’ support, Obasanjo suddenly found out he was on his own because in the PDP, the party at the state level revolves around the governors. The governors select the executive and everybody in the party at the state level. Thus, when you have the governors on your side during the national convention, then it means you have the majority of the party with you. Since they control the state executives, you are likely to do better. Obasanjo found out very late and he decided to court the governors. Thus, when he swayed them to his side, he had to offer them some concessions and made them part of his own political structure in various states. That structure endured till the time I became a governor, and then the governors became increasingly powerful until people like Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State came on the scene, and exaggerated the power of the governors to a very high level. After a while, the party could not but implode because the powers of the governors had been expanded to its maximum and that was when the bubble burst and the party imploded. In the APC, we are going to learn from that experience; everybody should be first and foremost a party man so that nobody’s powers are exaggerated unnecessarily. Those are the things we have to learn from the collapse of the PDP.
It is often noted that many of the people in the APC are former PDP members. Therefore, do you think the APC administration will be any better than that of the PDP?
The better elements of the PDP have floated to the APC, leaving the dregs in the PDP. You will see that the best of the PDP joining the best of the APC would give us a better result.
As governor of Bayelsa State, what difference did you make in the state?
I had been asked this question several times and I thought that the impact I made should have been obvious to everybody. First and foremost, I was the governor that tackled the security situation in the Niger Delta, not only in Bayelsa; I brought peace to the Niger Delta, the result of which is unquantifiable. Apart from that, I embarked on a lot of developmental projects in the state — I constructed all the roads. During my time, we improved the education sector and the state topped the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations; we upgraded all the faculties in the Niger Delta University. I heard that the faculties have been de-accredited since I left. We built health centres, hospitals, we built one of the best parks in Nigeria, We built libraries, we built many things. We were able to touch lives and so we did everything to improve the state. There is a lot we achieved and sometimes, when I’m asked this question, it’s very difficult to enumerate everything we did, because we touched the lives of Bayelsa citizens in many ways and today, I am very happy that the people have shown their love for me, and their gratitude. Every time I visit Bayelsa, I am touched by the love I get from the people.
Do you still nurse the ambition of becoming the governor of Bayelsa again?
Well, I have one more term outstanding in Bayelsa, everybody must bear that in mind. I only did one term, so I still have a term pending. I don’t know whether I am going to run or not, but I have a term outstanding; whether I run or not is not the issue. For now, I want to build the party, and it is only the APC that would bring the candidate and, whoever the candidate is, I want to assure you that the APC would carry the day in Bayelsa and win the governorship.
Most likely, President Jonathan will receive a hero’s welcome in Otuoke; do you think he deserves it?
In Otuoke? That is his village, I mean you can’t begrudge him whatever welcome he receives in his village. I don’t want to know, Otuoke is a small, tiny village. He probably would not receive a hero’s welcome in my village or in the larger Bayelsa public, but in his village, whatever welcome he gets, we give it to him. You can’t begrudge him the welcome he would get in his village.
What would the South-South get in the new government?
I really don’t know. I believe that Gen. Buhari is a very fair person; he is going to give us what we deserve.
There are speculations that you are not in good terms with Governor Amaechi and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. What is your grouse with them?
Who said that? They are all very good friends of mine and anybody who thinks that is not telling you the truth. As humans, we probably have differences, politically and so on, maybe, but those differences have not affected our relationship at all.