Rivers State Government, currently under the leadership of His Excellency Nyesom Wike, is one administration in Nigeria that has experienced several attacks from the opposition party in the state. Ironically, the more the attacks, the more adorable the governor seems to have been to the people by his infrastructure developmental strides across the nooks and crannies of the State. In this interview, the State’s Commissioner for Information and Communications, Pastor Paulinus Nsirim, speaks extensively about the Wike administration. Excerpts:
Prior to your assumption of office as the Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, you initiated a project called “Our State, Our Responsibility.” What inspired that project and what were the issues you wanted to address with that initiative?
The truth is that Rivers State is blessed with human and material resources. It is also the headquarters of the hydrocarbon industry in Nigeria. We have two sea ports and an international airport. We have a welcoming culture and a rich cultural heritage. We have cuisine that is second to none in this country. But we have found out over the years that a lot of people are de-marketing the state, making investors to flee. So the campaign was designed to correct that perception and let people know that Rivers State was set for business and to make everyone living and doing business here in the state to understand we have a shared prosperity to protect. This means that if Rivers State economy is booming, everyone that lives and does business here will be a partaker of that boom. The campaign was aimed at injecting into the psyche of everyone even those children yet unborn and those who will visit the state in a couple of years to understand that as long as you live in Rivers State, it belongs to you. Every resident must participate in ensuring that the state is positively projected at a level where it becomes the investors destination of choice, just like His Excellency, Nyesom Wike is building the right infrastructure now.
Is there any parameter by which the success of such projects is measured?
There are practical ways. Since that campaign, we found out that a lot of investments are coming in. For example, you have the biggest supermarket in West Africa and other markets in Port Harcourt. You have stock gap company here in Port Harcourt that deals with producing domestic gas. Prior to now, LNG would ship gas to Lagos and truck back to Port Harcourt. But right now in Port Harcourt, you have company that produces domestic gas for the domestic market. Also before the outbreak of COVID-19, Ethiopian and Turkish Airlines had begun flight operations to Port Harcourt. Businesses are booming in many parts of Port Harcourt industrial area. Those in Real Estate are also experiencing a boom because a lot of people are coming in to do business here and of course, the narrative is changing gradually. God helped us with a visionary leader who has put in place a strategic security architecture which has checkmated all forms of insecurity that was holding sway here in the past. Now, things are stable and the narrative has changed for the better. One can always find out with the National Bureau of Statistics that these things they say about the state with the highest Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). After Lagos, the next is Rivers State. You cannot generate the volume of IGR that we have if our state is insecure and the business climate is not thriving.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one thing that has changed the global environment. What lessons would you say that Rivers State government has learnt from this virus?
I like to underscore this point that before His Excellency, Nyesom Wike came on board as governor, he initiated what he called the “New Rivers Vision” blue print which encapsulated everything that has to do with health. A lot has been put in place. We have what we call the Mother and Child Hospital now in Port Harcourt, we have five zonal Hospitals. The General Hospitals in the state have been reactivated and fully functional. The state now has a University Teaching Hospital; the former Braithwaite Memorial Hospital is now Rivers State University Teaching Hospital with the right infrastructure. We have a Medical School now in Rivers State University; all these have been happening before COVID. So what has happened is that, the onset of COVID has helped the state to build more on infrastructure and facilities and also ensuring that the medical personnel have the requisite training and knowledge.
Are you saying that if there is a second wave of Covid-19 pandemic, Rivers State has the right model to sustain its economy? For COVID?
Yes! If you are very current you will find out that this was one state we had a robust palliative committee; we had a food purchasing committee, that was designed in such a way that they bought off all that the farmers and fishermen produced, thus empowering them. You will also know that this State was in the forefront in the fight against COVID-19, which the Director-General of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), affirmed when he visited Port Harcourt. So, Rivers State is fully equipped. We have a functional Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) which is located in the State Ministry of Health, working in conjunction with strategic international partners. We have a technical working group properly equipped and trained. It’s been in place before COVID because prior to this time, we used to have the outbreak of Lasser Fever and other such diseases. So, the EOC of the state has been fully functional. In fact, any day, you visit Port Harcourt, I will take you to the Emergency Operation Centre where you see the kind of coordination from the field at a glance. Like even COVID now, at a glance, you will see at various places where they are collecting samples, what the statistics have been within the last one week and so on.
Still on COVID, most Nigerians were disappointed by states who claimed that they distributed palliatives, but during the EndSARS protest many warehouses stocked with undistributed palliatives were discovered. How did Rivers State handle its palliatives distribution that you did not record any ugly incident?
Rivers State has become a model for good governance. When the issue of palliatives was booming, we did not play to the gallery. His Excellency ensured that the palliative committee that was set up consisted of representatives of all the interest groups you can think of. We had all the Armed Forces, Police, Civil Defence Corps, Civil Society groups, Clergy, Women Groups, Youth Groups and the Media. It is a model that I am so proud of it. I was the Secretary of that Palliative Committee. The Central Committee was overseeing what was happening at the Local Government and Ward levels. At the Ward level, a mini committee was also set up that had Traditional Rulers, the Civil Society reps, Clergy, Women group and Youth leaders. So, when the palliatives moved from the Local Government to the Ward level; for example, in my own Ward, the Chairman of the Ward distribution committee was a Clergyman who is not even an indigene of Rivers State but because he is the Vicar in an Anglican Church there, he coordinated the distributions. These palliatives got to the real beneficiaries and we did it twice. We did the first round, second round and the people were satisfied that this government meant well and what the governor promised was also given. So we did not have any issue of anybody breaking any warehouse looking for any palliatives. Even people who were trying to induce some propaganda and instigate people to say something was hidden, were ignored.
You were once the Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Rivers State and now you hold the position of Information Commissioner, as a Pastor how do you balance your calling and working in a political environment?
A lot of people ask this question. When you have an understanding that any office you hold, you hold that office in trust for God and for man, then your attitude and style would be different? As a Pastor, what do I do? I have the flock to cater for, teach them the Word of God, and take care of them. As a Commissioner for Information, what is my responsibility? To disseminate information about the policies and programmes of the government to the people and I have that understanding that public interest is paramount in the discharge of this assignment. So, there is really no challenge for me, because having risen from the rank to the position I occupy today, I understand the intricacies of governance and the meaning of leadership. I have the requisite training and experience. To say balance, I do not even have a challenge with balance because I understand that the position I hold is in trust for God and for man.
Do you attend Church regularly and still do your job?
Yes, I still pastor my Church; even though there is no way I can do 100 per cent now but my assistant pastor covers for me when I am not available.
That must be a very challenging one?
Yes, the next question you should ask me now is what are the challenges? But for me, several years ago I understood that the Chinese word for crisis is opportunity. Now, when you have opportunity or if anything presents itself as a challenge, it is an opportunity for you to excel. For me, I do not see challenges when I am doing things, I do not see obstacles when I am doing things. I see them as part of the routine on my daily schedules.
There have been calls from some quarters for government to regulate the social media. What is your opinion on this and how do you think the government both state and federal can harness the opportunities in social media to strike a balance between the negatives and positives?
That is a thorny issue. I think that we need to have adequate stakeholders’ engagement in this direction. The stakeholders’ groups that are involved need to come together, to look at the issues and then see what is the best way forward. No doubt, a lot of people are abusing the use of the social media. We, who are in government, are the worst hit. You know, anybody can write anything, say anything, do photo-shop and put on the Internet. The regulation here is key, but before implementation, the various stakeholders need to be engaged for us to have a kind of balance on what should be done. Also, before implementation adequate preparation and orientation of the citizenry would also be very relevant.
As a journalist trained to balance stories and promote objectivity, with your current position, do you still maintain your standard and not dance to the tune of the government to water down the truth from what it should be?
A few weeks ago I hosted journalists in Rivers State here. In journalism, facts are sacred, comments free. A fact is a fact; there is nothing you can take away from something that is a fact. You see, people have that erroneous impression that if you are a Commissioner for Information, you will be padding things and covering things – No! Facts are facts, and I am lucky to have a principal who is forthright. With His Excellency, Nyesom Wike, you know where he is standing on any issue. He does not play to the gallery and he is also a principal that I would always like to work with because he is not one of those who carry out governance and development on television. There are governors who use 3D images to deceive the public. But for us in Rivers State, the facts are there. If we tell you we are constructing Andoni – Opobo Unity Road, you go there and you will see it. If we say the Rebisi Flyover has been done, you go there and you will see it. If we say, Mother and Child Hospital, Real Madrid Academy; we say Abonnema Ring Road, Zonal Hospitals, you will see them. If we say we are rehabilitating schools, we give you 1, 2, 3, schools, if you go there you will see them with your eyes. So, what’s there to hide?
The Opposition in the state are criticizing His Excellency that his infrastructural developments are basically in Port Harcourt; what happens to other areas of the state?
The truth of the matter is that people will always have something to say. I can tell you, apart from the flyovers that are being built in Port Harcourt, (of course, which you know; I said that His Excellency is building infrastructure for tomorrow), if you go to all the Local Government Areas of the state, a lot is happening. There is a road we call Sakpenwa-Bori Road – it is about 16 kilometers, it is completed and commissioned. His Excellency has even extended it further now to about thirty something kilometers; it is not in Port Harcourt. There is Abonnema Ring Road; that Ring Road is on water. There is Andoni/Opobo Unity Road. We went to Opobo few days ago; everybody including Opobo people drove to Opobo by Road for the first time in the history of that ancient town of 150 years. We went recently to also celebrate with them on their 150 years anniversary; it is not in Port Harcourt. Do you understand? There is a big Cassava processing company at Afam in Oyigbo Local Government Area. There are several zonal hospitals that are scattered in Bori, Degema, Ahoada and Omoku, they are not in Port Harcourt. There is Elele/Omoku Road, it is not in Port Harcourt. Several of such projects are all over the state. But you see, if you go to all the Local Government Areas of the State, you will see several schools that have been rehabilitated. There are sand-fillings that are going on in the local governments. In riverine communities of the state, because those places are Islands. You do sand-filling first to create places they can build on. Those areas are not in Port Harcourt. But armchair critics will always have something to say about Nyesom Wike. The Guild of Editors came here and I took them on a tour, they were shouting. If you go to that Andoni – Opobo Unity Road, what is being sunk in there is not up to what is being used to build anything in Port Harcourt, because it is on water. So, a lot is going on in the local government areas. There is no local government in Rivers State that is not receiving the impact of Governor Wike’s administration.
During and after the EndSARS protest, the governor compensated all the families of the security agencies that lost their lives during the protest; but the Rivers citizens who were killed did not get any compensation. What happened?
I may not comment on that.
Why is the governor described as a lion?
Who is describing him as a lion?
He is described in the media as a lion?
People are entitled to their perception. One thing you cannot take away from His Excellency, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, is that he is fearless, courageous and forthright. These are the qualities of great men. That is why I am so proud to be associated with him. He is not a lily-levered man.
This interview was first published by an online medium, PEOPLE AND POWER.