(Interview)
How Diette Spiff became a Governor at 24

Now 74 and the current Amayanabo (King) of Twon-Brass Bayelsa State, King Alfred Diete Spiff was the 24 year old naval officer who was appointed by, General Yakubu Gowon as the military Governor of the newly created state in 1967. He shared with IFN TV in his Port Harcourt home some of the plans he had for the state before leaving office 8 years later in 1975, remaining till date the youngest person to have ever occupied the office.

You became a Governor at 24. How did this happen?

I had joined the navy to see the world. I did not bargain to be made a political leader but as fate will have it, on the 28 of May, a the day after the creation of the twelve states to replace the four (4) regions in Nigeria, I found myself being appointed as the Military governor of rivers State. I saw it as an opportunity for me to serve my people and also as a challenge to blaze the trail and show that young people at the age of 24 can deliver. When you train as a pilot, you don’t get your captaincy till you are 24, but as a naval officer, I got my captaincy at 22. So I had been captain of a naval ship, and seen a lot of weather route on patrol, on the coastal patrol for before even 24. It got to the stage where I had to get the squadron leader to recommend me for confirmation because I was an acting lieutenant and I was supposed now to report on myself, how efficient I had been, that means normal you know, but we thank God. It doesn’t happen to everybody, it’s by the grace of God.

So I really saw the appointment as a challenge, also to show that the younger generations were capable to take over and were ready. We were trained in the Royal Naval College that month, and we had a lot of opportunities to excel in different fields: Learn how to fly, you learn how to dive, you also do some parachute jumps and you also more exposed to all the sports, pentathlon and So you now learn how to compete in about seven (7) different sports, from fencing to boxing to swimming and you have to excel in all of them. I even took on motor racing, and by the time I was made Governor, I was in fact in Ibadan and I was already president of the Lagos Motor Club and we had an exchange visit, racing the members of the Ibadan Motor Club. So I was president of the Lagos Motor Club and motor racing I enjoyed. I had an MBE sports and as a real zuma but basically, having been in command of people who were older than myself, in fact I didn’t find it difficult to also take charge of my commissioners all over.

Isn’t it time the Niger Delta diversified from oil, looking at various steps being taken around the world to reduce the influence of oil?

Definitely oil is a wasting asset. So, we really need to diversify. For instance, like talking of Mushrooms, it’s a low hanging fruit, you can just get everybody involves, you don’t need too much skill on this, you need a bit of discipline because you must water the mushroom for it to be able to keep producing but, apart from that, we need to invest. Government must be ready to put in some money to get people involved. It’s like palm produce, the seedlings are done, but unless you now get various small time holdings so that the farmers, even the old Eastern Nigeria were trying to encourage small holdings in palm produce. Today, nobody is doing that. Cocoa farming use to be done you know and they use to have big advertisement on how to get a cocoa farm started, today nobody is doing those kind of things. The radios are there, have you heard anybody talking about training people to produce cocoa. None. So we really need to go back to the old marketing boards. You have the producers producing; you have the marketing board snapping up everything. So if you now produce all the mushroom there,  allowing it to waste, somebody goes and picks up all these, same thing with fruits, think of the amount of oranges and mangoes which come seasonally and just get wasted, bananas you know. So if we can now have marketing board who can get these bananas and things, value added and prepared for export, then we are talking. Anything we are doing which is export oriented, even refineries, if the government builds twenty (20) refineries or twenty (20) fertilizer plants, they will be exporting. So these are the things; and once you are exporting and you are earning dollars, who cares if the price of the dollar you know, of course the dollar will come down automatically because we are generating. So these are the sum of things I will recommend that should be expert oriented. So if Nigeria was to build a refinery in every state, which we can do. It’s only a matter of decision: that every state will have its own refinery. And the state governments are not nonentities; they are big enough and then of course the oil producing areas, every Local Government has their own and so on should be encouraged to have at least a modular refinery.

When you look at Port Harcourt today with all the oil money that has passed through it, how do you feel? Do you think there is something the past and current government needs to get right to make the city work?

Well, Port-Harcourt is choking, you know, coming in and out. We should have more ease coming into Port-Harcourt or driving out of Port-Harcourt, creating ring roads and so on and more direct roads to the airport for instance. So these are all things that you could; well I could see this from the air because am a pilot, so I fly my little aircraft, and am up there, so the whole place is like a map right in front of me. So you can see all the exits and entrances and some of these things have been recommended. But it depends on government and the people to decide what they want to do. I’m available to advice.

You have been a key member of the Niger Delta elder’s forum at the forefront of talking to the militants blowing up pipelines as a means of agitation, when are we going to cross this stage of going back and forth for peace to reign in the Niger Delta?

I think we’ve taken care of that. Since June last year, I was involved, I have been involved in this, directly involved and we have been able to at least talk to the youths that they have been cutting their noses to spite their faces by blowing pipes and letting the oil flow freely because it doesn’t you know, they have made their points and that they are being neglected and the Federal Government is now to sit down, get a team, and see how they can now assuage the sovereign of the people in the Niger Delta. But to burst pipes, I think the message has gone down and they accepted the seize fire and they have not done anything on towards for the last six(6) months.

As a governor then, you were presiding over a very multi ethnic state with both Bayelsa now all jammed into Rivers state, how were you managing government affairs to remain focuses and delivery oriented?

Simple. I just tell them, I say, you know you have a whole and summary of the people, and I say, if all the minds were one mind, what a great mind that will be. Don’t you agree with me? I mean people are human beings and they don’t want to make trouble unless you push them to the wall. So the people of Niger Delta even though they speak different languages, they still all have a common goal. The suffering is so much and you are sitting on wealth and you see the international companies coming in. they live in Shell, you see their compound there, you know, you see all the gardens. Whereas, you drive out of their yard and then you are back to all the hustle and bustle and all the broken down vehicles and the go slow. So you ask yourself, what is it, are these people, do they come from mars? Why should they be able to have good drinking water and this and that and we have nothing. That is the thing that makes blood vessels burst out in peoples head and they go really wild hot; and you know something, they go nuclear and then the fall out and then they say the boys have gone mad again, no. We are all human beings and that Homo-Sapiens in us will not allow things to happen. You push a human being to a certain level, he will go nuclear. They have now been told that don’t go bursting pipelines and I think they themselves have realize that that is a wrong route to go. Dialogue is still better than that type of taking the law into people’s hands.

How did you take off after your appointment looking at the fact that a civil war was going on? What were the challenges?

Port-Harcourt was planned by the colonial masters, so you have the streets going East, West, North, South. So that side is done but the drainage was terrible, with every rain fell, all the streets got flooded. So you could say that it was just another native town. But since then we had to dig some drainages and make sure that with every downpour, and there is some heavy rainfall during the raining season, so all that had to be corrected. The manpower development does the same thing, we didn’t have that many graduates, we had a few first degree holders who were not up to two, three years post graduation. So we had to make them Acting Permanent Secretaries and they really didn’t have a backup staff but they were answering that name and they were getting very cool. So instead of going down there to do the work themselves, they now turn to depend on the other staff and I had to make them realize that they are just acting Permanent Secretaries and luckily after the war some of the experienced staff came out of the war light and we were able to now get to the stage where we were able to give out some personnel to some of the less fortunate states. But that led us to setting up a liberal scholarship scheme. We even created one called Special Scholarships so we could train persons in some special areas. Specialization as surgeons or doctors as well as legal draftsmen and all that because we needed all that to be able to set up a proper judiciary and to be able to get our legal laws right. So all these things were done to make sure that the state actually had all the paraphernalia of government and we had people trained and put there to make things happen as they should and on time.

How did you manage the war, looking at the fact that the state was creation and the war began almost at the same time?

The declaration of the Republic of Biafra came almost a day after the creation of states, so we could not move down here immediately and the 30 months civil war had to be persecuted. But as soon as Port-Harcourt was liberated, and Port-Harcourt could not even be liberated directly from the sea. Bonny was liberated within a month of the alteration of states but the troops had to go all the way back through Calabar to come into Port-Harcourt. But as soon as Port-Harcourt was liberated, we now came in and found all the streets, schools dilapidated, hospitals, nothing to report home about and the farms have been ravaged. So we had to start from scratch; housing was difficult so we made an Edict, acquiring houses for government purpose and that helped us to get where to house some of the ministries as well as use some of these for some of the co-operations. There too we had to bring in the co-operations to attract investments. The tourist co-operation, we now had to start building new hotels as well as refurbishing the once that have been blown, half damaged. So it was an integrated and well orchestrated program and frankly, we are lucky that the people also were very understanding and we also had to train leadership for the future. So we had to give people an opportunity of showing what method they were made of. So we appointed people as chairmen of co-operations and then later on elevated them the next cabinet reshuffle to a ministerial positions. So their dexterity and their insight became clear. So most of my commissioners and so on have been the once who were able to aspire as governors of the state after the lift of the political ban. So here again, the judiciary, we also had to give a lot of scholarship for overseas study because we did not have the facilities here and most of the other universities, there were still just a hand full of universities at the time; and for transportation in a riverine area, it becomes very dangerous and difficult with the winding creeks. So we had to set up a transport co-operation which intervene both on the river, on the water and also we acquired an air charter because there were restrictions about owning an airline, for now I think that Rivers State should take the bull by the horn and have its own airline. In America you have the states owned; South, West airline and this and that, so the state to build its movement and transportation within the state, in and out of Port-Harcourt, should actually take the bold step of having its own airlines, its rich enough to be able to do that.

What is your opinion about the amnesty programme in the Niger Delta? Do you think it has been worth introducing?

The Niger Delta question you know is quite straight forward. The people should be more involved. Take a situation where the gas is being flared, that gas could be easily converted at no high cost to LPG for cooking and also have fall out like butane, methane, ethylene , you know, for running cars and running generators. All this things are there and it doesn’t cost the earth to do the conversion. But this information have been passed to those who need to know, but they said government is a machinery where big wheels turn, small wheels rotate, and tiny wheels spin. So the system will turn it up one way and some day and come out as a minced meat somewhere out, I hope that that will not take too long. But a lot of things can be done at not too high a cost. But here again, the people of Niger Delta are anxious to see that the gas flaring is stopped and even if it is not stopped, the money from the flaring and the penalty been given to the IOC’s should be, rightly belong to the people who are impacted. So who gets cataract and asthma and lung diseases from the flaring of the gas? It’s the people who live under the umbrella of the mushroom cloud. I mean, but the young people now also need to be trained and empowered. So give them fishing boats, let them go and be fishing, you can never fish out God’s own fish farm. Give them something to do, build modular refineries. Otherwise from the war time, you know, the Ojukwu’s men were able to produce some form of diesel and PMF for their vehicles during those days of the civil war. So, a lot of young entrepreneurs who are able to now convert the crude oil in a crude manner will pollute the entire this thing, because all the excess and things that they cannot get are just thrown into the river and the whole place is all in rainbow colors, which is bad, I mean the fishes are there and then you eat that type of fish and you end up with cancer. So we should really encourage the youths to make themselves available to be trained and that’s what the amnesty programme is doing?

When you look back at your time as the Governor of Rivers State today, what legacy are you proud of? What are those things you wanted that time denied you?

The Point Block, the tallest of the twenty story building, that one I was part of the secretariat set up. But the rest of it, everything was together, but we were going to build a beautiful House of Assembly which was a replica of the Swedish house of assembly. Unfortunately, the contractor did not do too well, so we had to chop it off, instead of eight stories, I think it ended up as a four story now which is being used by the Ministry of Justice. But that was a typical or rather a replica of the Swedish house of Assembly, with all the conference hall and this and that and. We were going to build the government house. Rivers State should have a government house by a river and it’s supposed to have the governor’s touring, launch or yacht or whatever it is. He should be able to go round the creeks to visit the people, and we based such a boat a fifty feeter yacht, with all the state rooms and we also had the helicopter deck so the vessel can go ahead and the governor can hop on board and have meetings, hop out again, and we also had some amphibians aircraft which had the rage even to go all the way to the north. So all those things were put in place before we left office, then of cause the building of roads, we were even going to build a new golf course on Eagle Island but unfortunately that too was shelved. But the government house projects fell flat on its face. The Eagle Island I think did not fly and also the fishing you know, on the continental, the coastline, it’s got its own fish farm, all you need to do is get the right equipments like the skipjacks and go out there and just harvest from crossroad farm, day and night and land fish. We should be thinking of export oriented farming because of the dollar. Presently, we have to import that much fish, so if we envision that much then we can now become net exporters and we save the foreign change for buying imported fish. We will now be earning foreign exchange and it continues because the whole Atlantic and even the whales in their migration pass our coastal because it’s all full of shrimps, good size shrimps.

You were quite young as a governor and definitely had older people in your cabinet to work with, how did you fuse in? Don’t you think younger people are not being given enough chance in our political environment today?

As captain, you are the daddy on board and so as Governor, even my Commissioners looked up to me, even some of the engineers, I had to give them the directive and tell them exactly what to do. Even a Secretary to the Government who has been a Permanent Secretary for a long time, when we lost the Secretary to the Federal Government, I sent for him and said have you done this, that, and that, and he looked at me and said, you are just supposed to be a Naval Officer, how come I am the one teaching him who has become a Permanent Secretary for over 10years? So until he became a Permanent Secretary, he did not have that exposure. So these are what we call opportunities— give people the opportunity and they will show their mettle. So we still think that the idea of the young generation being encouraged and given enough responsibilities is something we should still encourage. I still will like to say that more younger people should be given a chance but not below the age of 24. At the moment, to be an airline pilot, captain, you have to be 24. You could be flying for year but if you are not 24, you will not be allowed the commercial airline as a captain. The age is very importance, 24 is accepted universal age. Take for instance the responsibilities of the captain, the doctor make a mistake on the operating theater, one person dies, If a pilot makes a mistake, well you may have hundred and more people dying. So the responsibility of a pilot is very, very severe, you know, he has to be right and he has to be at least 24. So I would till recommend that person at the age of 24 should be able to stand for elective post.

Do you by any chance still talk to political leaders across Nigeria? Because you still know so much even at your age.

Well, actually am a consultant and you pay me, otherwise I keep my thrash. But I do tell everybody who cares to listen that these are the things that can be done. There are low hanging fruits and it can be achieved easily. But what can I say? I’m available if anybody wants to learn one or two things. We are setting up a mushroom, mass mushroom production association and mushrooms can earn for this nation, billions of dollars and every household could be involved this exercise. All you got to do is the government getting everybody involved. We have the technology; we can produce the mushrooms in the laboratory now from scratch and make sure that you can harvest mushrooms morning and evening. So if every household is involved like Chinese did, we could get over 25million people involved and producing mushrooms to the tune of 5 to 10 million tons per annum.

 

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