Article by Ogova Ondego
Published November 25, 2006
The Niger Delta, the bedrock of Nigeria’s economy, has been a battle field pitting the local people against imperialist forces since the 15th century. Now, the Bayelsa State government plans to change all this by turning the state into the home of the arts and culture in order to attract tourists to the world’s third largest wetland. However this is a tall order for a state that has been painted globally as a ‘no-go area’ and a ‘territory in which law and order is on suspension’ due what Bayelsa State Executive Governor, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, describes as “youth restiveness and inter- and intra-communal crisis that have adversely affected the affairs of the state and led to its malignement.” OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Over the years, various groups have sprung up in this oil-rich but poverty-ravaged region that produces 90% of Nigeria’s export earnings, all claiming to fight for the economic and political rights of the locals, the majority of whom are of Ijaw extraction.
More than 50% of the estimated 2.6 million barrels of crude oil may be produced daily in the land of the Ijaw-Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers states, but Governor Jonathan wants Bayelsa to become a tourist attraction and shed the image of having produced anti-establishment figures like Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Isaac Adaka Boro.
Committed to promoting tourism through cultural heritage, the state has set aside some 14 to 28 days every year for cultural activities. It will start by establishing a film village, hosting the Africa Media Academy Awards annually and building a school for talented children who excel in the arts.
“We recognise that culture is a veritable tool for the propagation of policies and programmes of the government,” Governor Jonathan says.
Inviting investors to Bayelsa to build modern hotels and recreational centres, Governor Jonathan calls upon filmmakers to shoot films on Bayels 200 kilometre long coastline that he says has “beautiful sand banks, holiday resorts and great historical artifacts ranging from the oil museum at Oloibiri, the Isaac Boro monument at Kaiama, to the slave trade post at Akassa and the Whiteman’s grave yard at Twon-Brass.”
Below are excerpts from the interview Dr Jonathan granted Ogova Ondego at Government House, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State:
You have hosted Africa Movie Academy Awards, AMAA, in 2005 and 2006. Perhaps you could talk about the secretariat your state has offered to build for AMAA.
I have already asked the special projects director, Dr Reuben Okoye, to get in touch with Peace Fiberesima of AMAA to design the secretariat. By the time the next edition of AMAA is held in 2007 we will operate from that secretariat.
The secretariat will house a few offices, a conference room, and a guest wing of about four or five chalets for teaching, and for dining.
How about the school for talented children that you are setting up?
The school will be for children who excel in music, acting, painting, sports and other areas of the creative arts.
We have put aside 600 million Naira in our budget for this comprehensive school. This year  we are building houses, classrooms, and dining facilities. Next year  we are going to put sporting and studio facilities in place. In next year’s budget we will increase the allocation of funds to this project.
What level of school will this be?
It will be a post-primary school institution. In another two to three years we will have completed a swimming pool, dining room, restroom and everything about sports and theatre. By the time one graduates one will be accomplished. With English and French being compulsory subjects here, major Nigerian languages, including our Ijaw language and its various dialects, will also be taught.
We will also enrich the programme of AMAA. We want to bring in people from all over Nigeria, South America, and the Caribbean. We want to encourage lots of cultural activities with the grand finale being the AMAA. This will be to stimulate tourism in Bayelsa State that is just 10 years old. Bayelsa State was part of the rural part of the old Rivers State that concentrated on its capital, Port Harcourt.
Why do you want Bayelsa to become the hub of the arts and culture and not of industrialisation?
We don’t want to talk about oil because the first commercial oil was discovered in what is now Bayelsa State. The oil industry began in this country in 1908 in a place called Araromi. The drilling was done by a German company called Nigerian Bitumen Corporation which diverted to oil after failing to get any bitumen; it left two or three years later as it could not get any oil. Shell came in around 1935 and started drilling unsuccessfully around Owerri in present Imo State. They moved down into the Niger Delta’s Oloibri in Bayelsa State and the first commercial well was sunk here in 1956. From then till now Bayelsa has been the hub of the oil industry. So if we talk about oil we would be wasting time. We don’t need to ask any one to invest in oil.
We are setting up a new Bayelsa Oil Company which will be operational in 24 months. We will have a mini petrochemicals plant, a refinery, and a fertiliser plant. We will use gas to generate power. The oil industry in the Niger Delta is controlled by the western world and people are being marginalised, leading to clashes between some of our youth and some oil company workers. This occasionally leads to a situation where some oil staff are kidnapped. Because we are in the middle of the Niger Delta, anything that happens anywhere in another part of the delta is attributed to Bayelsa State. Before you came in someone must have cautioned you to be careful as you could be kidnapped. But you can move freely here as we are in control. Bayelsa State is like the fulcrum of the Niger Delta in many aspects of it. So if we are steady and stabilised the crisis in the Niger Delta will come to an end.
Can you describe Bayelsa as stable now?
Yes, we are trying to assist neighbouring states to ensure that peace returns to the Niger Delta that has suffered from western capitalism since the 15th century resulting in local youth agitating for a fair deal in the distribution of resources.
When we encourage AMAA we are encouraging an event that will bring people from outside the country to Bayelsa from time to time so that when the media carry some negative reports they may say, “But I have been going there and what the international media carry is not true. Look at the AMAA that brought in so many people from all over the world and no one was touched. We will gain from this background to reposition the state for development as it will attract external investors. If we don’t do this people will be scared.”
When you invite investors to Bayelsa, in what sectors would you like them to invest?
Oil-related investment: fertiliser, petrochemicals, refinery, and power-generation.
Besides this we have our oil palm estate. We have the longest coastline in Nigeria. We occupy the convex part on the shore of the River Niger so anything that has to do with trawling, fishing and so on can be developed. We have quite a number of crops we produce: plantain, cassava, sugarcane, and rice. So industries that are based on these areas can thrive.
What is the population of Bayelsa?
About 1.5 million people from the 1999 census; we have just done another census for which we are awaiting results.
What incentives would you offer investors to prevent them from going to fairly industrialised places like South Africa?
If you come to Bayelsa State there could be some rebates like, if you are generating power we could give you some reasonable tax rebates. The government will sort out problems for you. We will guarantee the security of your investment in the state.
The rapid growth of Yenagoa, our capital, is a challenge. I invite investors to come to Bayelsa and invest in hotels and recreational centres.
How about the film, or is it an arts village that Bayelsa is planning to set up?
A film village. Last year I was deputy governor. My boss, Governor Diepriye Alamieyeseigha, promised we were going to create a film village. The idea is to set up a place where “it will also act as a tourist site” people who want to produce films come there. I call upon the Nigerian Guild of Actors to liaise with the Bayelsa state government to fashion out a realistic plan for bringing this about within the shortest time possible.
Will this be part of your plan to make Bayelsa the centre of culture and the arts in Nigeria?
Bayelsa is the most riverine state in Nigeria. People who live by the coast from the early days have lots of ideas about culture. There is this belief that a number of mermaids used to come from the river to feast and dance. We encouraging indigenous arts and culture; we are modernizing everything. Cultue can never be static. So linking up the movie and the traditional arts and culture would be one way of driving this process.
Does Bayelsa State have a culture policy?
Any community or clan that seeks support from the government is supported though we haven’t developed a comprehensive policy in that direction. Recognising culture as a veritable tool for the propagation of government’s policies and programmes, we have set aside some 14 to 28 days every year for cultural activities.
The State Government is committed to promoting tourism through cultural heritage that will establish Bayelsa as a holiday resort.
Do you have any specific ministry handling culture-related matters?
We have the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism put together because we want to re-drive tourism through a cultural perspective. We also have ecological sites that people can visit. The fastest way to bring tourists to Bayelsa is through this movie awards and other cultural activities.
Roughly how much did the state spend on AMAA 2006?
I cannot say exactly how much but it was quite a tidy sum; but this was not just on AMAA but on refurbishing hotels that we believe we will get back through patronage; some hotels got 25, 20, 15 million Naira. This has nothing to do with AMAA directly; we also spent money on repairing of roads and cultural centres. It was not just Bayelsa government that sponsored AMAA but many other organuisations as well. Virgin Nigeria, Africa Magic and other partners, for example.
What is your last word on the arts and culture programme in Bayelsa State?
We should encourage it; countries like Brazil make a lot of money from tourism and numerous cultural festivals.