Plateau state was once revered as one of the choicest destinations for relaxation, holidays, honeymoon and others in Nigeria because of its serene environment, pleasant weather and its warm hospitality.
Jos the state capital used to be the breeding ground for young talents in football, music, movies and others until crisis impacted negatively on the city and its fortunes dwindled.
Today, Governor Simon Bako Lalong is working assiduosly to change the narrative and bring Jos and the entire Plateau state back to its past glory using culture and tourism to promote peace and unity among the different ethnic groups in the state.
In this interview with Franklin Ihejirika, Governor Simon Bako Lalong speaks on his efforts to reposition the state on the path of sustainable growth and development using culture and tourism as a launch pad to promote peace and unity which will invariably attract tourists, investors and generate revenue for the state.
Wrong impression about Plateau
Let me say that sometimes seeing is believing, because the impression given outside not only on Plateau but sometimes when a visitor is coming to Nigeria, people will tell you at the airport that you have to be very care and also what the international community say about this country is unfortunate.
I like the way, my friend, the director-general of the National Council of Arts and Culture, NCAC, Otunba Segun Runsewe gave it out today at the conference telling us that the western stereotypes were figment of their imagination because they tell a wrong story about Nigeria and it is high time we gave them the right perspective through our rich culture and right narrative. And again the impressions given about Jos outside are different from the reality. See when you come to the state, now you will see a lot of traffic, right from the entrance of the state to the city, you will see a lot of traffic, virtually every week I know. Recently I have a meeting with the business community and they were telling me that hotels are now too small to accommodate visitors in the state, and they are telling me that they are looking for opportunity to build more hotels to accommodate people during the weekends and even lamented about scarcity of accommodation during holidays. So when I hear people saying that there is no peace in Plateau, I wonder which part of Plateau they are referring to.
Atleast most of you have been in Jos the past 48 hours and up to a week you can see that there were no crisis anywhere unlike the sentiments by some media and social media that Plateau State is no go area. But as a Governor of the state I know it is not a no go area, it is a peaceful, accommodating place and very hospitable for people. Yes you have some pocket of crisis in some villages here and there, which is almost what happened in every state and even most countries of the world. There is no state or country that will say they are leaving peacefully without having any crisis, so if there is no crisis in those countries, it means then there is no need for police and the Army, but since it occur in one time or the other, that is why we have Police and Army. But then, the magnitude of exaggeration or escalation of any crisis is what we are pleading to always downplay not to always overemphasise that Plateau State or the capital, Jos is not a no go area. The better part of my tenure, about three and a half year we all enjoyed the serenity of the state, we celebrated home coming of most footballers, musicians and others stars that started their career from Jos and as it is now we are also –planning to enjoy ourselves at the end of the year, because on yearly basis we do invite people to come and take advantage of the weather so I think the impression is not true reflection of what you see in Plateau State.
Thank God you are here to see things for yourselves. Jos is a very attractive place to stay considering the weather and standard of living here. one good thing about Jos is that when you come to the city, you will find it very difficult to leave because of the hospitable nature and serenity. So I still emphasise that Plateau is still home of Peace and hospitality.
Peace and Security in the state
On the new trend we are adopting to make tourism the mainstay for Plateau State, I want to give credit to the first governor of the state, who in his wisdom saw the need to create and put lot of potential on tourism in the state. I think he brought the first Museum, zoo and a lot of things. Because the potential are all there and after that Plateau was nicknamed ‘the home of peace and tourism because of the weather and the people’s hospitality, so we kept on calling it home of peace and tourism until when we started having some crisis in the state. But even after that crisis, we still use the same slogan for the state. Plateau is the only place where people are running to when they have crisis and where people will run to when they look for cool place for their holidays. But for that long period, we wanted to pay attention to tourism, we need to develop some policy frame work to guide the process, that unfortunately we have not done, all we always mention about tourism we have not done. But this time, even with the presentation and conference I was touched and that was why we decided that we would not invoke state of emergency on tourism. By that, it means that we are going to focus more attention on tourism as a source of great revenue for not only Plateau State but also for Nigeria. Because instead of running to Kenya or UK because of the weather, what we just need to do is to develop that in Plateau State and people will find a much more better holiday resort for themselves.
State of emergency on Tourism
When I mentioned state of emergency, I mean full attention will be placed and focused on tourism in Plateau State, because we know many sources of revenue in the state. We have agriculture, which we are developing right way, we have minerals that are already there and we also made tourism as part of our five policy thrust. First of all, we are ready on the number one which is peace and security. You cannot introduce tourism without peace at the same time if you have peace what do you do? You must enjoy it. So tourism and peace go together.
So by the term state of emergency, I mean practical attention on tourism.
Repositioning and sustaining tourism in Plateau
First of all, I already have a memo on my table which I deliberately kept until after this conference and it has come and go. As I mentioned in my speech earlier on at the conference, that the outcome of this deliberation will also assist in the Memo, which is an idea to develop a policy for tourism. Now if you are thinking about a policy for tourism development, it is not a one year thing or a one tenure thing, so in order to develop stability you must have a framework, which is an introduction to the tourism development step. So when they brought the position paper, I said we will approve it and we will also develop a Police which will also be approved by the executive and now when you put it and it is acceptable by the executive it will be like a law in the state and by the time we start that and it is working in the state, subsequent administration will find it difficult to come and say they are doing away with it. We have seen it happen in so many states, we have seen the benefits in so many countries which have strategically positioned tourism to grow their economy. What I am doing is not for my tenure but we are developing it for posterity, and for a long term, so that whoever comes instead of bringing it down, will be expanding it for the benefit of the state and the people of Plateau State.
On reviving golf tourism in the state
Yes, I and Otunba Runsewe played golf together, and I think when I was addressing the people at the conference, I said it there that when I came in as the chief executive of this state, one of the ideas Runsewe gave even before he was appointed the DG NCAC was that you have the potential for tourism and he asked me to develop it. So in the last two years we have produced professional golfers from this state who can compete with any international competition and we have up to 20 professional golfers. When I came, we have no green course to train, now we have two standard green and we are preparing the third.
Rayfield Golf Course is the oldest golf course in the country, constructed in 1913. Miners came and they started playing golf here in Nigeria, so there is no reason why we should not have a golf course. I have worked on one, we have a green and I am working on another one, which is the oldest golf course in Nigeria. So very soon by the time you come back next year, you will hear us developing it. It is over 100years because we celebrated the centenary of the Rayfield golf course few years ago. We are trying to bring out the beauty of the golf course back. So by the time we finish the green, the historical aspect will be a brand that will bring international golfers to the state. Also in the government house there is a green of nine holes and any time I am tired and feel like having a pastime, I just go there and play. It is an executive and classic nine holes course, which we have also order cart for anyone who want to play and this will be attracting international tourists, which is assuring you that golf is tourism. We also have a standard golf academy in the state where we train young golfers from scratch to professional level.