Prof Seiyefa Birisibe , former Head of CGS, MDG’s, is the best Senatorial Candidate for Bayelsa Central District……Exclusive Encounter with ODOGWU EMEKA ODOGWU

Prof Seiyefa Birisibe is the former Nigerian Head of Conditional Grant Scheme (CGS) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) from 2012 to 2015. He is a medical doctor, a consultant family Physician and an Economic and Development Expert. 
Prof Birisibe has a Masters in Health Economics but a Professor of family medicine and lecturer at the Niger Delta University. He is the Dean of Faculty of Clinical Services. So he was there as the Head of the Conditional Grant scheme Nigeria on secondment.

He did his residency at  the University of Port Harcourt, and worked as a consultant that headed the National Health Insurance Scheme unit of the department of family medicine of the university.In the process of working there, he was given the opportunity to serve first as the President of Nigeria Resident Doctors Association, Port Harcourt branch and also the secretary of Nigeria Resident doctors Association throughout the federation. He worked for over 12 years at University of Port Harcourt before he transferred his services to the Niger Delta University.
In this interview with our Chairman Odogwu Media Group , publishers of www.odogwublog.com ODOGWU EMEKA ODOGWU, Prof Birisibe opens up on how he is positioned to serve his people better in the senate having served the country. Excerpts:
Having worked as the Head of the Conditional Grant scheme in Nigeria, how can you evaluate the operations and achievements of the scheme, looking back?
In life, when you are given an opportunity to work somewhere, you will have time to reflect and I will on my personal note, though, I am a very conservative person when it comes to evaluation of myself because it wasn’t only me that achieved all that. I feel that as people that worked with that scheme within that period, we did our best, we worked to ensure that certain targets were achieved.
Before we got into that position, there were myriads of project failure, project completion within the conditional grant scheme (CGS) to states were as high as 67 percent on the average. Some states have up to 80 percent. We introduced what is called monitoring, supervision, and data collation scheme and with that scheme, we were able to bring project failure, that is not completed projects or better abandoned projects to as low as 15 percent. That, to me is a good thing because we were able to follow due process, ensure that states put their counterpart fund before ours, we were able to also bring in some kind of equity and trust into the system.  We were able to ensure that participation among states improved as well.

States that do well were encouraged, States like Anambra, Rivers, Kebbi, Bayelsa, Abia, Taraba, Gombe and Jigawa states. These are states that have strong institutional frame work. States that were ab initio doing well were also intensified. With all these, we worked closely with DFID and other international development partners and we were able to strengthen the institution instead of straightening individuals and that really helped us and that made me personally feel that we did well.

We were able to achieve some targets. In 2015, if you recall, the World Food Organization (WFO) said we were able to meet the target of reducing hunger. As at that time in Nigeria, we lowered hunger to about 15 percent and we also made good progress in meeting one of the targets, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. As at 2013 we were 18 in ranking but as at 2015, it was now on the downward trend. We were also able to see that the infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate were also reduced. In 2012, the infant mortality rate were in the essence of 500 per 10,000 births but in 2015, it drastically came down to 230 per 10,000 live births.
So, with all these, I believe we did well but when you look back you will actually see that we would have done better. There are certain challenges that if we had surmounted, we would have achieved more. One is the issue of funding, there were also issues of states not even having funds to provide their counterpart fund. So, if those things were there, I think we would have done better.  Third is the issue of capacity; because in civil service, capacity of people working in those places were a little bit better. We would have achieved a better result.
How would you rate the performance of Nigeria in that 15 years that the MDG programme lasted?
It was progressive, not too bad but you could also recall that the programme lasted for 15 years but Nigeria did not key into it from the beginning. In fact, Nigeria political system gave political backing to the programme only after seven years of its commencement. The first time SCGS was appointed in states were in 2007 and that time, it was about 13 states that accessed the scheme. In 20011, that was the first time, CGS in local governments was introduced and by that time, it was 112 local government areas before we graduated to 2013 when we got to 148 local government areas. In 2013, we scaled it up to 230 local government and in 2014, we jacked it up to another 220 local government areas because of funding challenges. With these challenges, we did well but we would have done better if we had keyed into the project from the start but overall, I will say that with the MDGs, we had very good progress.
Having visited all the states while in office, how would you rate the states?
We had a good scoring system and the World Bank, the UNDP and DFID also supported us and in collaboration, we supported certain states. Generally, at that point in time, I must say that more than half of the states did well, probably some of the states did not meet up properly and then, the issue of war turn areas where we had challenges  of wars, violence prevented some of this project to get to the hard to reach areas. I feel that states generally did well. We encouraged states that streamlined the MDG into their budgeting system and their development agenda. Some of such states included Anambra, Jigawa, Bayelsa, Gombe and Taraba. They streamlined the MDGs into their development process and I tell you that with that, these states made very good progress because they used the MDG framework in their mid-term and long term development strategies. In fact, for Anambra, Gombe and Jigawa, these states were actually inculcated into their policy document. Their mid-term development frame work.
When you did your peer review, where did you start and why was it aborted?
The peer review was one thing that was very good but unfortunately it was aborted at a particular time. The Peer Review Mechanism included the governors of the states and other stakeholders looking at how the MDG accessed and evaluated the MDG framework and enhanced development and as well provided the basic things in life such as access to health care, reduction of poverty, safe drinking water, and electricity to very hard to reach areas among other targets. We were doing that and along the line, in 2015, they had issues in the governors forum and after that, the Peer review mechanism was as enthusiastic and encouraged the way we had expected it and that is one issue about politics of development or what I may call interference of politics into development. I believe that as a country and a people, we should, be able to know and identify that development is for everybody and we should not politicize development and that was the issues that happened and that was why it stopped but that stoppage  of the peer review mechanism was  that  the high level of the governors and then the  political actors but at the technical level where you include the Head of the conditional grant scheme, the focal persons representing the states, we did our peer review until the last day I left office, although, they don’t do it any longer now and I don’t know why but we did that and we had the support of DFID, UNDP to do that.
So, every quarter of the year, we come together, share notes on what we have done, the projects. We had Focal persons meeting. It used to be monthly but it became quarterly. All the states will come, present what they have done, people will criticize and advise them on the challenges they were facing. So, at that technical level, peer review mechanism was in place until I left office.
You consistently mentioned Anambra as leading in the MDG but did you do the Peer review with Anambra governor?
Yes, the former Anambra state governor, His Excellency Governor Peter Obi had a very strong vision and desire to get development to his people and he was to the best of my knowledge, one of the governors that encouraged the peer review mechanism and it started with him. With our own technical level of evaluation, in Anambra state alone, the MDG using that programme, recorded the highest because he was able to give more funding than others, using that programme. He was able to record the highest number of primary health care centres provided, primary school renovations provided, even the issue of water supply to rural areas were recorded the highest. The world bank, the UNDP and the DFID in collaboration with CGS unit and USAP MDGS was at that point in time looked at the robust performance  review and awarded Anambra and Kebbi state as the best performing state in the MDGs.
You could even recall that when you look at the targets, in states like Anambra, we achieved more of the goals and targets than other states. What I told you before is the average national figure and of course you know that in war turn areas, the infant and maternal mortality will be very high but in places like Anambra, we were able to achieve the world expected  figures of the infant mortality. We met a lot of targets, even the prevalent of HIV were able to be reduced in states like Anambra state. Anambra, Kebbi were states that did well, there were other states like Jigawa, Sokoto, Benue that were also good in some other areas like agriculture, food related MDG goals.

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The MDG is over and now we have SDG’s in place, what is your advice on the best way to run the programme?
I see the CGS as a good development intervention framework, I will advise that the SDG’s revamp the Conditional Grant scheme and give it the required push and technical capacity. Having worked as the Head of the Conditional Grant Scheme, I also feel that vertical interventions from Federal government where they go straight to implement projects will not help because when you allow states to contribute money and federal send the money to the state and all Federal does is to monitor how the money is spent, in that way, you engender ownership, and people will be held accountable because these projects are in their local communities. I want to encourage the SDGs office to see that they go back, look at the successes and challenges and strengthen the conditional Grant Scheme. For now, the Conditional Grant scheme is not functioning very well to the best of my knowledge and data available. The issue of funding, a lot of states have not been able to get grants for the past three years and some states like my state, Bayelsa have even provided their counterpart funding but the grant is not there, probably it’s because of the recession or budgetary issues but I feel the CGS need to be sorted out.
Is it true that during your time, the Conditional Grant Scheme (CGS) used to reach about 30 million people?
Well, I think that we actually accessed more than that. Our estimate from DFID and UNDP is at the range of 45 to 50 million Nigerians and was done on a very sound evaluation framework. For instance, through the conditional grant scheme, we are able to do the conditional cash transfers which were able to get up to 20 million and we are able to intervene in over 661 local governments. Look at the estimates of life, and in those projects we have the village health workers’ scheme, 10 persons per local government, these ten persons, what they do because they are not health experts, and they go to communities, meetings with mothers that are pregnant to encourage them to utilise the primary health care facilities that are built in the communities. If you look at that estimate alone, it’s much. Then, for every ward in this country, in the 661 LGAs that we intervened, we have an MDG project such as solar light, health facilities, equipment, water facility, grants for those that are doing agriculture, we have funding for conditional cash transfer. So, every ward has that intact, but we are not seeing that presently and we need to take up from that. That estimate of 30 is actually very conservative because all data generated showed that it was between 45 to 50 million Nigerians that accessed the MDG projects.
Prof. Gideon Omuta, former Vice Chancellor of Christ Embassy University, former PDP chairman Bamanga Tukur and Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences Unizik, Prof. Stella Okunna, have divergent views on the MDG’s target. While VC Christ embassy attributed the MDG failure to politics, Tukur said it failed because of private sectors were not involved but Okunna said it was a success, How do you harmonise the three opinions?

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Well, Prof Chinyere Stella Okunna was one of the best brains in the project. She was involved in the process and I think I will support her evaluation of the process. However, the other two person’s opinion are also valid. Like I told you there were issues of politics that creeped into development. Like the government peer review mechanism, was based on the platform of politics. The issue of private partnership, we tried to work on that but that did not come through very well. Someone could say it is because private sector was not involved, truly, they are needed to be involved. That could have been a means to enhance public private partnership. While we were in office, we found out that was proper and what we needed to do was to ensure that the corporate social responsibility of these corporate organisation like Shell, MTN, should be channelled towards these MDG’s.At a time, we approached the House committee on MDGs, to come with legislative framework that will sort of get this corporate organisations key in into having private partnership with MDGs to intervene with MDG’s related issues. So, that we did. Again, when people mention the issue of corruption which is a problem of Nigeria, but as an office, we did a lot of things to fight corruption. First, we developed the monitoring supervision and data collection scheme so well that the pricing and procurement of what is to be built in Anambra, such as water scheme. The costing is different, from what you spend in getting water in somewhere like Niger state, Sokoto or Bayelsa, bearing in mind the difference terrain or iron content of their water or drilling. We also ensured that the procurement systems are Okayed. We ensure that projects do not fail. We monitor them three times in the circle of the projects in a state and with that corruption was not eliminated but it was reduced.And I bet you between 2012 and 2015, you drive round the country to all the nook and crannies of the country, you will always see MDG projects in all local governments. Until today, I am elated, at times I go to hinterland, I see MDGs projects of different years, and I will praise God for given me the opportunity to have worked in the place. There is also more to be done in terms of reducing corruption, in terms of getting the private sector to be involved and seeing that development is not politicised. Those are the areas we need to work on.
Do you mean you are agreeing with Senator Udoma who said that MDGs failed in Africa because of lack of political will, and data management as well as over reliance on foreign aid?
Well, over reliance on foreign aid is supported strongly because most of the states and even us look up to DFID, World Bank. It helped in a way but it also increases the labelling of corruption and non performance because the people were there day to day to monitor compliance. Because they give you aid, they can make statement and then paint African government black in most cases. Political will, in Nigeria for instance, you have this issue of starting the MDG’s seven years after it started, when we started we have the governors not doing peer review mechanism as at then. As one who worked there, you see lack of political will by the state Chief Executives, like not providing the counterpart funds may be for various reasons. Some may feel it is not the priority of their state at that time. But by and large, it was a 15 years project, in the contest of Nigeria, we started very late but in the course of discharging or starting, the push was very strong. I think, generally, we were able to put in our best as a country.
Prof. Okunna always talk about Anambra MDG and Peter Obi as best, what is your take on that?

Like I told you before, Anambra is a state I worked closely with like every other state. I must tell you the truth; Anambra state tied the MDG’s to their development agenda (ANIDS). They used that as the development framework of the state. So, there was good monitoring, wastage was reduced, project completion was 100 per cent as at 2013 and 2014. and then, even the procurement system, instead of using the basic contractor system, it was community enablement and the issue of engaging people to do the work and not contracting, so that also enhanced ownership and completion of work. It was like mobilising the community for public good in terms of project accomplishment. While we were in office, we did facility maintenance committee where we set up the MDG project committees. We noticed some projects like water were abandoned because of lack of fuel to pump water. So, we decided to form facility users committee so that they can contribute little to keep the projects running. Anambra state is one state that intoto implemented that. So, I support the fact, like I told you, my office in partnership with international development actually gave Anambra state as the best overall in the South and then, Kebbi state as the best in the North.
Are you suggesting that people like Peter Obi should be reinstated in the higher political office?
Of course, if we have people like him in the political space in the country, I think this country will go further. I have the privilege to work with him. Even personal issues, there are occasions I sat with him in the process of inspecting a project in the state and we discussed and I must tell you that there are words spoken and actions taken by him which I still cherish today. He made me know that you spend on things that matter and not on frivolities. You just have what you want. That is on a personal note. When it comes to the ability to administer and manage people and development as well as economics which government is all about, Peter Obi has demonstrated that over and over. With MDGs, it was wonderful. I, as a person, would want to associate myself with a person that was responsible to the programme that touches over 40 million lives in this country. We should be able to say that this is the man and the type of person to look unto to come and fix the numerous problems of Nigeria at any point in time. I think we are supposed to beg him to come rule us.

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Your joy and regret?
My joy is that I feel inspired when I visit a primary health care centre. I recall how I used my pen and paper to tell the world how such communities needed such projects has now provided primary health care facilities and improving access. If I see people that have good water, it gives me joy and happiness. I know I will do more if I have the opportunity.

Then, my regret is in terms of getting 100 per cent implementation of projects before I left office was where I failed. I thought we should have been able to achieve project completion to 100 per cent. Inability of some states to access funds were also my regrets. The difficulty in getting projects completed in violent filled area was also one of my regrets. Then, lastly, I am not seeing that continuity and that momentum then being passed down. I would have been happy that the momentum is sustained.
Is it because of all these experiences you have that makes you want to contest for election?
Well, I am thinking of contesting for Bayelsa Central Senatorial Zone district, and I feel I have had the opportunity to work with people, lifting them out of poverty. I was inspired by the actions of Peter Obi in governance in terms of development. I was also inspired by the Senate of Brazil. In 2010, the Senate of Brazil was able to legislate on wealth creation and poverty reduction and that moved 30 million Brazilian out of poverty. With a sound legislative framework and as a development expert and someone that has experience in development plan, I think what we need is a strong legislative framework in the country that will bring people out of poverty and increase wealth creation. For instance, this issue of private public partnership, corporate institutions must use their corporate social responsibility capital in a very robust way that will enhance development.Those are the some of the things to get people out of poverty, to get help for people, to see that corporate organisation help people with good environment to create wealth without being unnecessarily hindered. That is my inspiration. My aspiration in life is that every person should be able to have access to health care, live out of poverty and have wealth. One should be free to express themselves in a very freeway, conflicts should be resolved peacefully. Those are my three aspirations and drives that encourage and inspire me. Just like Peter Obi of Anambra state, a great man, Lamido of Jigawa state and the present governor of Gombe state that has strong passion for MDGs and the former governor of Benue. I wish if given the opportunity, I will be able to contribute my own quota to see that people get out of poverty and have access to health care. Once you have a good social security, corruption will reduce.

You are lecturer, how will you raise money to do Nigerian politics?
That is a big challenge but going forward, I believe that if I am able to have the ticket from my party platform, I will appeal for masses involvement in the funding of my political ambition. I know that I cannot personally do it, but immediately after now, I am going to call for masses to contribute no matter how little. I know they will support me. When I was in the office, and even as a university teacher and formal Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) chairman, I have worked with people, I have had the opportunity to serve people and I believe that if I put out myself there, people will contribute because it is for our common good. I am very confident people will be able to fund my political aspiration and it is for the good of all of us and the citizens in the Bayelsa Central District. I believe I will deliver and make a very good representation. I am contesting under the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Other issues you may want to talk about?
Well, university is a political theatre itself and I have the gracious opportunity of attending Harvard School, March 11th to June 13th this year, on adoptive leadership, the chaos transformation in 21st Africa. I was happy I have some past governors in that class and that brought to the fore the complexities and challenges of leadership in Africa, Nigeria and even in Bayelsa. We had the privilege of talking and discussing ideas, and that is what I think as a people we should be able to talk more peacefully than fight in Bayelsa. We want where there is freedom of expression and where there is human right and due process as well as freedom of speech and things solved in a peaceful and more cohesive ways. Those are the some of the things that I feel as a country and people in Bayelsa, we should be able to talk more and dialogue instead of fighting. We should be able to give everyone opportunity to speak. That will increase development which governance is all about.
Do you also hope to become Bayelsa state governor someday?
I am not thinking about the governorship, first of all, when I am elected senator in Bayelsa state, I should be able to engage militants in a way that with the little experience I have gotten, we should be able to allow them to speak rather than carrying guns. We listen to them and engage them and see that we to talk more and some of this violent part will be reduced. I am very sure I am capable to do that.