“Frankly, because I didn’t ever think I was going to be a politician, it never crossed my mind I was going to be a state governor.”
Very little has changed in his schedule since he left office. Timipre Silva, former Bayelsa State governor, is still a busy man. Visitors throng his home at Maitama, Abuja, waiting to see him. He spots a halo of reverence as he emerges from the house, beaming toothy smiles as he attends to each visitor. He has a flight to catch, but he can’t but allow Saturday Sun to wangle a chat. From his childhood memories to his heady days in government when militants wanted to snuff the life out of him and life after the Creek Haven, he trips memory lane to relive what makes him amiable and a politician he never aspired to be. The ability to endure the bitter pill of fortune lends Silva the distinction of a forward looking man hoping for a better tomorrow.
Childhood memories are some of the most intriguing we have as individuals. How was it like growing up in Brass?
Growing up was quite interesting, because I grew up partly in the village, Opoma-Brass, and partly in Lagos. We were mostly outdoors – in the fields and forests – catching birds, picking wild fruits and going to school. It was quite an interesting time, and I still recall my childhood fondly.
You didn’t mention fishing, one of the hobbies of many people from a riverine state like yours.
(Laughs) Fishing, of course, comes naturally to us for us in Bayelsa, but I didn’t come from a fishing family. We did our fishing, but not much into it. Of course, we caught crabs and little fishes, and we helped the fishermen, and sometimes got some fish gifts from them. But, personally, I didn’t experience major fishing.
What colour was the spoon you grew up with – silver spoon?
Well, I wouldn’t say I was born with a silver spoon. My family was more middle class than upper class, because my dad worked with the Central Bank, Lagos. He was an economist. That way, we didn’t grow up in want as such. We also didn’t grow up in ostentation. We didn’t have excess; we just had enough of what we needed.
At the time you went to the university, it was fashionable for arts students in the country to go for law, but you went for English. Was there any special attraction?
That’s a question I even ask myself, because I thought I was going to be a lawyer. That was the natural thing to happen to me, but I had an idol at a time: Wole Soyinka. I had read his books, and felt I wanted to be like him. That was my ambition growing up. Though I had the opportunity to study law, I went for English, because Soyinka studied English. In fact, why I didn’t go for my masters programme in English was because Soyinka didn’t go for his masters (laughs). I wanted to model my life after Soyinka. It’s just a shame that I didn’t continue in that regard.
So, what happened along the line?
What happened to me was very clear. Yemi Ogunbiyi had visited us at Uniport to give us some pep talk to budding writers, and what I heard from him was very discouraging. He told us that, one year, he got only 11 naira royalty for his book. Then, I said to myself, “You can’t survive as a writer”. It dawned on me that it was a very rough road to travel in the writing world. I told myself I had to adjust my future. Maybe, I could so something first and then return to writing, so, at least, I could put food on my table.
Were you engaged in student politics at that stage? Some politicians started out early.
To an extent I did, but not centrally. I ended up as Hall Secretary in the university, not because I wanted to run for an election, but I was asked to present myself. At that time in the University of Port Harcourt, we had three halls – the permanent campus (Abuja campus), Delta campus and Choba campus. So, each of these campuses was considered to be a hall. There was a secretary for Choba Hall, Delta Hall and Abuja Hall. So, I was the secretary of the Abuja Hall. It wasn’t because it was my ambition. Everybody thought I would do a good job, and asked me to contest; and I think I did a good job.
Are there certain things you learnt from your father as a child that shaped your life?
Of course, as a child, I learnt from my father, but he didn’t live that long. He passed on when I was 13 years old. I wished I learnt so much from my dad. But he was a very diligent and patient person. Those were the qualities I tried to copy from him. Even till today, I like to practice diligence and patience.
Did you ever think you were going to become a state governor?
You know, you had all kinds of fancies when you were in secondary school and the university. You thought you were going to be everything. Frankly, because I didn’t ever think I was going to be a politician, it never crossed my mind I was going to be a state governor. That was not my path at all. I never saw politics as a possibility, because I hated elections. Even when I was offered the opportunity to be a hall secretary, I told them the only way I would accept was not to allow me to contest. At that time, I didn’t like elections at all – I was a quiet person, and I never thought I was going to be a politician. I think politics was an accident. It was only recently that I accepted that I was a politician.
How did the political accident happen?
When I left the university, I was then working with an international NGO, National Minority Business Council, in Port Harcourt. I was actually heading the Port Harcourt office, and I had a friend, Kakuma Ilagha, who visited me one day, and asked me to run for the State House of Assembly. I told him, “But I don’t know anybody.” He told me, if I decided to run, I could win. I asked him, “Really? How do I even start?” He then suggested and wrote down the names of some people we could reach out to.
What year was that?
It was probably in late 1980s. I asked him again, “What next?” He said we should buy drinks for them and present myself that I was running for the State House of Assembly in then Rivers State. For me, it was fun. Win or lose, it was not the end of the road. I had other possibilities. I didn’t see it as a big gamble. So, we went round, and offered drinks to people. The amazing thing was that everybody recognised my father. He was a popular man, so people began to support me. I actually went into that election on the back of my father’s reputation, because nobody knew me. I was a complete unknown quantity. I was in my mid 20s then. So, you can imagine, at 25, I was going round, telling people I was running for the House of Assembly. I have just realise that it is important that our fathers do well for us.
To cut a long story short, at 27, they voted me in, and I was inaugurated as a member of the then River State House of Assembly. We were still part of Rivers State then. I won the election on the platform of the NRC. That was how I became a politician. After that, everybody started coming to me. Even when I was running away, people were coming to me. I invariably became one of them, and, from then on, I carried on till now. Now, I cannot deny am not a politician (laughs).
At what point did you decide to go for governorship election in Bayelsa, and what was the motivation?
Frankly, the first thing was that I saw a lot of things that were wrong with the way government was conducted by politicians. I was more of an activist at a time. I always criticised government. In those days at the University of Port Harcourt, we had a Marxist leaning in our orientation. So, I had more of socialist bent. I always saw that government was not getting things right. Then I thought, at some point that, if you criticised government, then it presupposed that you knew better; you had to come and do it yourself. So, I felt that, if I ran for election and presented my own point of view, and the people didn’t vote for me –even if they didn’t vote for me –I would have earned my right to criticise. If you had a superior alternative, why don’t you present it? But, if you are sitting somewhere and you are criticising, then you are not being fair. Playing a game in the field is different from watching from the sidelines. The spectator thinks he is always a better footballer. In the game of draft, too, you always see all the holes from outside. But the guy playing the draft never sees all these holes. So, I thought that it was really unfair for me to sit outside and criticise the government. That was my first motivation really. Above all, I really felt I could do better. So, I went to government with that belief I could do better than those who were there.
Legacies left behind speak volumes of leaders. That’s what people remember them for. In your own case, which are the legacies dearest to you after your spell?
One of the legacies I am happy about is the human capacity development. I have always believed that human resource is the best thing that can be available in a country. Abuja city is Abuja city today, because people live here. Before it was developed, it was a forest, and, if the human beings leave Abuja today, in a few years, it will probably become a forest. So, I deliberately focused on human capacity development. One of my greatest legacies was the Amnesty Programme. When I went into government that was what I promised. The time I became Bayelsa State governor was at the height of militancy. In fact, after my election, we were in Government House, and militants came to the Creek Haven to kill us. They actually, came to Yenagoa and shot in, and there was a gun battle with the police and the army. They were coming to get us. That was even before the election of Goodluck Jonathan as the vice president under Umar Musa Yar’dua. So, they hurriedly evacuated us. There were bodies on the streets of Yenagoa. At that time, peace was my priority –to end militancy. There were some people out there at the national level who preferred a military approach, but I told them a military approach wouldn’t solve the problem. So, I came up with what I called Triple E Approach: to Engage, to Empower and to Enforce law. That was my own policy. Together with the federal government, we set up a committee to look how we were going to end militancy, and we came up with this Amnesty Programme.
On the 8th of August 2008, I wrote my first memo to President Musa Yar’Ardua. It was shot down by some people in Abuja. Even the then Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, didn’t believe in the Amnesty Programme. He thought that it was premature. He thought that we should set up the facilities to take the militants before we could set up the Amnesty Programme. But I felt it was an urgent need, and the need for those facilities would create those facilities. On the 8th of December, 2008, I wrote another memo to the president, yet I didn’t get a response. By March, the former defence minister came to visit me in Bayelsa, and we discussed it, and he applauded the idea, and assured me he was going to discuss it with the president. He actually did, and the president agreed to grant the amnesty. So, the Amnesty Programme was announced in May, 2009, and they gave a window from August 2009 to October 2009 for those who were interested to accept the Amnesty programme.
I was on holidays in August 2009, and the militant had not agreed to accept the offer. They were skeptical, because they felt that, if they came out, they would be arrested, and that was just a way to lure them out of the creeks to be arrested and killed. Of course, I gave them all the reassurances and guarantees. To cut a long story short, that became the most successful programme of the Yar’Adua administration. Of course, all efforts were made to minimise my role, but that was one of the things I achieved, not only for Bayelsa but for Nigeria.
In addition to that, I did a lot in the development of capacity, especially among our youths, because the Bayelsa problem was, first and foremost, a youth problem. That was the way I read the problem. So, I decided to focus on youth development. So, I did a lot on that side. Besides, we had a situation where we were starting from the scratch, and I needed to create some urgent infrastructures, so I built roads in Yenagoa. I am down in history, so far, as the governor who built more roads in Yenagoa than any governor has ever in Bayelsa. Nobody can deny that. I went sector by sector, and I created water reticulation. In fact, for the first time in history, people were fetching water, at least, in most places in Yenagoa.
If you ask every person on the streets of Yenagoa, they will tell you that there was more electricity during my tenure in Bayelsa than any time in the history of Bayelsa State. I wanted to brighten up the place, and I was actually going towards having an uninterrupted power in Yenagoa. I had installed a turbine, which I hear has been stolen –I don’t know a turbine can be stolen. But I had installed a turbine which was to start working in May 2011, but I was removed before accomplishing that. That turbine was supposed to have completed my power programme, especially in Yenagoa. I was planning, after commissioning that, to start a countdown for uninterrupted power supply, for I wanted Bayelsa to be the first state to have uninterrupted power in Nigeria. Unfortunately, I was removed the way I was. I was never allowed to contest for a second term. I was actually disqualified.
How did you feel when your second term bid suffered a setback with many uncompleted projects?
You know how it is when you had all these programmes and you were not allowed to complete them. It was the same feeling a woman would have if she had a stillbirth –when she was expecting a baby and somehow the pregnancy was aborted, and the baby came out and died. That was the same way you would feel if your tenure was truncated, because you had so much vision, and you thought: Okay, let me achieve the baseline, and once I have achieved the baseline, I can now build on the big things for the next tenure. My plan as a governor then was to make life bearable for the people by giving them the basic infrastructure, and then, for the second term, focus on the big things –the legacy projects. When you go into government, and the situation is basically faulty –there were no roads; water was a problem, and there was no peace –you can’t start with big projects. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to get to the next level, which was very sad for me. That’s what keep motivating me to run again, because I feel I have many things to do. Sadly, most of the baseline things I did while in power have been deliberately destroyed, which is one of the funny things that happen only in Nigeria.
That is why I am happy with what President Buhari is doing in Nigeria at the moment. If he didn’t continue with Jonathan’s projects, we wouldn’t have seen the developments we are seeing in Nigeria today. I did that, too, I completed most of Jonathan’s projects in Bayelsa, as well as Alamieyesiegha’s job. Initially, I was even criticised for continuing with the projects of my predecessors, but it would have been unwise of me to have started my own projects without completing those I met in office. Those were the challenges I faced in Bayelsa. What I really like to create things that will create linkages with other sectors that will impact the economy. What I had in mind was to create an economy that would create jobs so that people could survive without the largess from the state government as is the case now. One of the ways to boost the economy then was to bring peace. That was what I focused on, and we almost achieved it before we left office. Kidnapping situation had really come down, because we had ended it.
Life after the Creek Haven, how has it been?
It has been quite interesting for me. I haven’t been idle. Of course, I have more time for my family, and I have had more time to pay attention to my private business. At least, I lead a very normal life, and maybe I am happier now than when I was in government. In government, people criticise you for nothing. If they see you eating food, they say, “It’s our food”. But, now, I can eat my food, and nobody says, “He is chopping our money”. I think I have a peaceful life and I am happy with it.
You are a man of style. What defines your style?
(Laughs) I am a simple man. If you notice, I always dress the same way. A few days ago, a friend of mine came to ask me whether I had only one change of clothes, and I said, “Yes, I wash it every night” (laughs), because I always appear the same way. I just dress to be simple and comfortable.
2019 is around the corner. What’s your New Year wish for Nigeria?
Nigeria should give peace a chance. The problem we have in Nigeria is that everybody wants to maintain a lifestyle that is not sustainable. That’s what is causing all the problems. Our lifestyle as a country is not sustainable. Our productivity does not support our lifestyle. We like the biggest cars, and we don’t produce any of them. We like the best clothes, but we don’t produce them. We like food that we don’t produce. So, in the end, our lifestyle has become a drain on our economy. Of course, if we have to change, people must feel the pain.
When this government (Buhari) came in, rice was being imported, which led to the ban on rice importation. But, overtime, we have seen the benefits, and we have created a lot of jobs and opportunities. This is why I think we should support Buhari for another term. For every government, the first four-year tenure is not enough to do everything. If you must build a proper foundation in four years, then you must be allowed for another four years to finish. If you haven’t seen full governance in eight years, I don’t think you should criticise government.