When I was Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in 2011, we ordered workers’ strikes following disagreements on the implementation of the new Minimum Wage. Ogbeni Rauf Adesoji Aregbesola, Executive Governor of the State of Osun asked me for a discussion in Abuja.
The state was on its knees due to the strike and negotiations with the labour leaders had broken down, how can I assist? I advised him to increase the quantum of the funds his government was offering so that the workers can have a better payment table. In return, I offered to ask the state labour leaders to return to the negotiation table. He protested that the wage bill will be too high and that the workers ought to realise that the all-round development schemes he was implementing would reduce their financial burden.
I told him they realise this, but that the workers first priority is their survival and that of their families; that the primary concern of a bird is to eat, before flying to behold the wonders of the world. He looked disappointed, but I told him that unless he takes my advice he would need to break the workers, or they will break him. I told him I had no doubt who will be broken and that he needs to learn from one of his predecessors, the prudent Chief Bisi Akande who could hardly finish his first term as a result of his wars with workers. Aregbesola felt he had the backing of the populace, and I wished him luck. I could see he was genuinely committed to sustainable development in the state. I could also see an idealist as governor.
I can reveal that in the January 2012 General Strike and street protests over fuel price increase, he was one of two governors I know, who stood by the Nigerian people, and even provided us with much needed information. He also stoutly stood against the Jonathan Government declaring a state of emergency in the country to break the strikes. In contrast, almost all other governors including from the opposition parties, queued behind the government of the day.
This year, when the list of twenty three state governments owing workers salary and pension was published, Osun was listed as owing six months. A state like Enugu owed parastatal workers twelve months, and pensioners, five years. Ogun State had not paid pension for fifty two months while Benue State was a basket case. Despite being one of the least debtors in this roll of dishonour, the focus has been on Aregbesola with a serving judge demanding his impeachment. To some, this could be a way of getting back at Ashiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to whom he is closely identified. But I believe it might have to do with his antecedents as an activist, and peoples’ expectations.
This focus, tends to overshadow the social engineering, this mechanical engineer is carrying out. Unlike most governors whose sense of governance is to build some roads or kitchenettes, advertise them and impose huge taxes on the populace, Aregbesola, to use a trite, thinks outside the box. He makes a linkage between policy and the peoples’ interests. He does not just conceive projects, but also possible derivatives from the particular project, and how it is linked with other projects. He is like a town planner who ensures that the various development programmes are well situated for the convenience of the populace, and to enhance further development.
In tackling the mass unemployment monster, he began, in 2013, an ambitious Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme (O’YES) under which 20,000 unemployed youths were engaged for two years.
Tailored after Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, beneficiaries were orientated to have loyalty to the people and serve them. Then they were taken through skill acquisition. This became a pool of educated, conscientized, skilled and empowered youths from which the state drew thousands of new recruits into its public service. The second group of 20,000 youths in the 2013-2015 batch, are rounding up their programme.
In introducing free education, his goal was not just literacy, but complete education which included membership of the Omoluabi (virtuous) Boys and Girls Club with emphasis on citizenship and physical training. One major innovation is the provision of one balanced meal a day for all children in school. This ensures their wellbeing and encourages parents to send their children to school. As part of the linkage, the food as much as possible, is locally produced thereby ensuring a linkage with the wellbeing of farmers in the locality of the schools. Also, the uniformed cooks and their assistants are taken from the schools’ locality thereby establishing a bond between community and school.
In integrating basic education with modern information technology along the lines of India’s Kerala State, the government provided pupils with Tablets (Opon Imo)
Also in providing school uniforms for pupils in public schools, the Aregbesola administration insisted the textile contractor must establish a factory in the state and train locals to sew the uniforms. The Government also introduced a Rural Enterprise and Agriculture Scheme and put in place an emergency system with ambulances. To check insecurity, it bought armoured personnel carriers and a surveillance helicopter.
In his zeal to frog-leap an essentially agrarian society into a 21st Century industrial one, Aregbesola forgot his Achilles heel; that like other states, Osun is dependent on monthly allocation from the federation account; so when the allocation dropped from N5 Billion in February 2013, to N540 Million this April, he was like a pilot who had overshot the runway.
Aregbesola tends to be programmatic like Obafemi Awolowo, a populist similar to ‘Penkelemesi’ Adelabu Adegoke, an orator in the mold of Samuel Ladoke Akintola, with a Talakawa spirit like Aminu Kano. But in a polity controlled by APC and PDP where all birds congregate; it is difficult to differentiate doves and pigeons from hawks and vultures.
In a sense, he is an idealist, and the problem with this tribe of people which I! belong, is that we do not fully understand our environment. However, while realists perpetuate the status quo, only idealists change society.