This interview, culled from The Nation Newspaper where the comrade Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole popularly called Obama of Edo State by the masses, shared his one-week experience and assignment in governance of Edo State. Please Read On:
Q: One week on the job, what is your appreciation of the job, so far?
Adams Oshiomhole: One is still trying to adjust to the reality that, after about 19 months of battle, one has indeed succeeded in chasing away those who think that rigging must be a way of life. Of course, one is fully overwhelmed and humbled by the level of support, not only by people of the state, but across the country. When I read the editorials, the columns and commentaries, one is humbled but I also know that,
although my mandate is by the people of Edo to govern the state for the benefit of the people of the state, the entire Nigerian people are watching and they expect that we should be a model… to whom much is given, much is expected…
So, I will be accountable to all Nigerians. One of the things that my opponents did not fully appreciate is the power of good will. They were assessing me as an individual, accessing my possible level of resources but did not realise the diversity of the support I have which cuts across various social classes, and across political parties. Everyday I wake up now, I give thanks to God for what He has done, but I confess that I don’t have all the wisdom I need and I ask for God’s wisdom, I ask for courage and protection. The agenda we have set for ourselves is basically to set our people free. They must be treated as free citizens in a democracy and they alone can determine who becomes what politically in the state. I know that, as they say, to whom much is given, much is expected.
Nigerians have given me so much and I have resolved and promised my God that I will give my all and do everything possible to ensure that the ordinary man who believes that with me as governor things will change should be able to look back with satisfaction and say, “I said so.”
Q: What about the challenges?
Adams Oshiomhole: There are a lot of challenges ahead, but as we have said at the beginning, we did not pretend that we were called by the people, that we were persuaded. No, we asked for this job because we were sure that we can make a difference.
Q: Talking about your tight schedule, how does that give you a sense of what you are here to do?
Adams Oshiomhole: Yes, my schedule is quite crowded as you observed, but this is to be expected. I am prepared for it. As a factory hand early in life, at about 17 years of age, I was used to doing shift work, three shifts – morning, afternoon, night. On some occasions, it was my lot to put in 12 hours from 7am. to 7 p.m. with only 30 minutes break. Yet, one still had to find time thereafter to organise the workers, to listen to their grievances and find time to protect them. So, at a very tender age one had been exposed to this challenge.
And, as a steward at the NLC, one had to sometimes mobilize the whole country without resources. Sometimes, we had less than N100,000 in our bank account and we had to prosecute a national strike; because we did not have the money, we had to work real hard. You will recall that whenever we had to carry out any of those protests, I was always there in front. If we were going to take tear gas, we shared it with the people. I think for quite sometime, one has learnt to cope with this kind of challenges. So, working long hours is not new. I also know that when eventually we are able to put the system in place, with commissioners and advisers, as the key drivers we need in all the various areas, I expect that the work load on me will be less, because there will be competent hands who can drive the various agencies. My responsibility then will be, to provide the political leadership and the will to ensure that what we have agreed is done.
The real challenge is striking a critical balance – you want to be acceptable, you want to be able to listen to the people, you want to have an open door policy whether in the office or at home. The result is that all manner of people queue up in the office and there is a danger of reducing you to a receptionist, an executive receptionist and that will not be helpful to the great majority. So, one has to strike a critical balance. I have decided to do something, because the people remain our greatest assets and each time one person is turned back, he goes to tell the others that he couldn’t see him. It does not matter what he wanted to see you for, it might have nothing to do with the welfare of the people, it could even be a selfish agenda but we cannot determine the nature of the agenda unless we give him a hearing.
My style is that, if I find that there are so many (people who want to see me) and I cannot afford one minute each, I call them all in and ask, “gentlemen, what are your problems.” They will be satisfied that they saw the governor. I know that my greatest assets which we deployed in this battle were the people. I remember that Osunbor used to say each time I came to Benin that I was harassing everybody. I want to sustain the excitement people felt each time they saw me because with that people believe in you and they are able to buy into an agenda.
Once there is popular ownership of government policy, you can be sure that they will defend it.
Q: Another challenge you will face in office is dwindling revenue and rising expectations. How do you intend to meet this?
Adams Oshiomhole: Already, this month, there is bad news. The Federal Allocation dropped by one-third and this is not due to anybody’s fault. It is arising from the decline in the prices in the international oil market. It is a major challenge and the internally generated revenue in Edo State is rather minimal. But, we have sufficient commitment. I think what we lack in resources we have in will power and when there is the will there will be a way. We will knock all doors that need to be knocked and we believe that we will get the support here and there to drive the programme that we have set for ourselves.
In the final analysis, everything is relative, that is, relative to the resources available. You will be judged by the resources available to you. Our commitments in the education, healthcare, infrastructure, roads and so on will be addressed. We have made it clear to everyone who should know that we must have a very competent state executive council.
That means that political affiliation, loyalty, delivery of your wards or local governments will not necessarily be the key determinants in deciding who becomes a commissioner or an adviser. The appointments will be on merit.
If we have competent hands to manage the economy of the state, with the right persons in finance, economic planning, et cetera, we can sit down and generate ideas and there are funds here and there which can be accessed. So, we are not about to lament. I also believe that governance should not just be reduced to going to Abuja to pick up a cheque, come back home, pay salaries, hire a contractor to construct roads. I think it is much more than that. A clerk can handle that. Besides, we had thought through all the issues before now. We did not just assume that oil will continue to sell at $100.
I am in a position to know that oil price could drop and I have argued before that it could drop to $10. As president of the NLC, I have seen this product move up and down. So, there wasn’t illusion on my part with regard to my expectations. One of the responsibilities of a governor as a leader is to prepare the people. I will engage all the stakeholders to appreciate the realities and explain why we have to do things differently. We must manage well every kobo that is available to us. Together with the local government (councils) we will be able to make the difference.
Q: What about the team? You spoke about putting a competent team in place, how soon should we expect that?
Adams Oshiomhole: Well, because we have lost so much time, by next week we should have a team in place.
Q: In a nutshell, can you tell us about your agenda to transform the state?
Adams Oshiomhole: Everything we are going to do, the bottom line is that it must be targeted at arresting poverty in this state. We have talked about making poverty history, because I know that Almighty God is not responsible for the grinding poverty that majority of our people are wallowing in. I believe that it is the cumulative result of their socio-economic history. To deal with poverty, there are key areas that must be addressed. The first is education. For every one mouth God created, with the exception of those who are physically challenged, there are two hands to feed the mouth. But for them to be able to use the two hands to feed the mouth, they must be competent and skilled, and that is only possible through functional education, beginning with free and compulsory primary education. Public schools today are dead in this state. In some schools, you have two classes in one classroom – primaries one and two in one classroom; three and four in another.
There is no way those children, unless something happens, will not end up in the motor park or constitute themselves into gangs on the highways. The possibility of upward mobility of themselves or their children is already compromised. So, to deal with poverty, particularly in a knowledge-driven world, for the two hands to be sufficiently productive to feed the one mouth and those of dependants, education is key at all levels. I believe that Ambrose Alli University should be able to produce graduates who are equipped beyond parading certificates. We are going to engage ASUU, the student communities and the management on how we can manage the resources available and restore integrity to the education system. My idea is that, to achieve this, the education commissioner must be an educationist. My idea of an educationist is not somebody who is just a teacher, he must be knowledgeable about the management and meeting challenges in the education sector.
Once people have acquired skills, they must have employment. The only way to fight poverty is to provide jobs. The government must be seen to lead, given the dominant role of government both at the state and national levels. I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says government should not be the only option. We are inaugurating a committee today, first to tell us, how many people are really unemployed and what is the structure of unemployment in the state? What skills do you have, what age bracket, where are they located and what kind of job can they be used for? For me, it is a tragedy that no government in Nigeria can tell you the number of the unemployed. How then can you plan for people you don’t know? So, the committee will start work in earnest and I believe that before Christmas, we will be able to create a couple of thousands of jobs. We are already looking at how to fund and ensure that the scheme is sustainable because they will render services that add value and we will get a way to get people to pay for that value. If the service is one that touches the lives of people, they will be ready to pay for it.
At this point, I don’t want to continue as if we are still campaigning. The best thing to say is that people should watch out and in a few months see what we are able to do.
People don’t have clean water to drink. This has led to increase in water-borne diseases which constitute pressure on healthcare delivery system. I believe clean water is attainable. In Benin, to sink a good borehole does not require N5 million but I know that sometimes government uses N20 million to sink a borehole that does not require N500,000. We can ensure that is the way to go in the short-run. In the long run, I believe that public policy on water supply should not be based on borehole. We should look at the water works scattered around the state and see how we can revive them.
Finally, the infrastructure, Benin City in particular. Nothing has happened here for a long time and it is a shame that Benin City being the fourth regional capital is still the way it is. I think part of the problem of the past government is that they relied on contractors nominated by party leaders and that is why you can’t find the over-published road that they said Osunbor was doing.
They have all been washed off because party leaders just brought ill-equipped contractors to just pour asphalt here and there. The rains have come to expose the fallacy. I am sure that you know that about a month ago, some families lost their babies to flood right in their bedrooms. My approach is that we are going to bring in only competent and reputable construction firms.
There is also the issue of the rural economy. You will never be able to banish poverty without improving rural productivity. We must find a way to support the farmers to increase their productivity and, therefore, their income. I believe we can easily become the food basket of the country.
Q: Don’t you think that government directly creating jobs could be burden to its finances?
Adams Oshiomhole: No, it won’t be a burden.
As I said, I believe that government has the responsibility of providing and stimulating employment. The challenge of the governor and the government is to prove, with clear thinking, that it can be done. I know that Almighty God is not responsible for the grinding poverty that majority of our people are wallowing in. I believe that it is the cumulative result of their socio-economic history.
We also have to revisit the revenue issue. I reject the idea of putting a burden on the young boy or girl who is hawking pure water. His total daily receipt may be less than N100 or N150 and somebody pounces on him or her to pay a toll of N50, what they call ticketing; or an old woman, probably a widow, who is selling tomato or pepper. You don’t ask someone who needs blood transfusion to donate blood. I think we must redistribute the burden of funding government activities.
We will tax those who are in position to pay. So, my decision to ban ticketing is not because we are averse to putting in place an efficient method of ensuring that we look more inwards but we will ensure that we put the burden on those who can pay while assuring them that we will provide the service that will justify the tax they have to pay.
What has happened in Edo State is that because some tin gods took over the governance of the state and you had governments that were not popular; governments that were put there by godfathers who became tax collectors, they did what they liked with the people and their resources.
Yesterday, we had a meeting with local government chairmen who told us that the past government in the state used party agents and other interests to collect taxes. So, not up to 10 per cent of what they collected got to the state government. They also used a fraction of what they collected to compromise the police so the exploited could not run to the police. They could not run to the governor who empowered the godfathers to perpetuate this extortionism. That was why, when I mentioned ticketing on the day of inauguration, you saw the reaction of the people. A 16-passengers bus is asked to pay N1,500 a day to some godfathers, representing more than 35 per cent of its gross earning. It is paid to someone who is not responsible for the maintenance of the road, nor does he provide any value, but you have to pay him that protection fee to ply the road. There is no way we can live with that. While we are opposed to such extortion, we say if the money must be paid, then the state government that has the burden of rehabilitating and maintaining the road should have the money. That is why we have said stop all collections until we have streamlined the whole process. Any tax paid must be in the government treasury.
Q: What are your plans for harnessing various resources for which this state was known with a view to creating not just low jobs but high paying jobs?
Adams Oshiomhole: A lot of those institutions have declined. Not much is happening, in fact, in many of those institutions the state government today has to provide funds to pay the salaries of their workers. This is because, for too long, the top people in government have been extortionists. We had a flourishing brewery, Bendel Brewery and it had a ready market but it has gone under due to mismanagement by people appointed by the governor and government. I have already asked for the file. We have to reposition it.
If Nigeria Breweries is doing so well – generating jobs, adding values, making profit and paying taxes, there is no reason why Bendel Breweries should be shut.
There has been controversy over who should manage and all that, but, for me, that was not a productive fight. Okpella Cement is shut down, I have to find out why and make sure it works. If the private sector had taken it over and locked it, we will reopen it. At worst, we will refund the money they paid and make sure it works. We will ask Dangote or whoever we believe can make it work to take over. We have fertilizer company, juice company, some solid minerals here and there, but the problem is that all these enterprises have closed down due to excessive government interference and because government agents were posted to mismanage them.
There is nobody in this state that I cannot look in the face and say, “look, you can’t do this.” The nature of my mandate is so clear that there is nobody who is able to stop us when we decide to move to revive these companies and recover what has been looted. We want them to open to create jobs, not help people.
Yes, there are challenges to be overcome, but they are not beyond us. In Edo State we do not lack competent professionals needed to overcome the challenges but you may not find them in the political parties and that is why we are looking beyond the parties for the purpose of sourcing the manpower we need to drive the change and the programmes we set for ourselves.
Q: You are in the business of governance and in a democracy, you cannot detach governance from politics. How are you going to handle the business of governance without hurting the politics of governance?
Adams Oshiomhole: It is a matter of definition, what is politics and who is a politician. Don’t forget that during the campaign, I was dismissed as an activist who would soon know the limit of activism in politics. By last week, this question was settled – who is a politician and who is more rugged. If they ask you now who is the most successful politician in Edo State, you know it is the activist. Who is the failed one, it is the career politician. The support I need, I already have. I have discussed with the Action Congress (AC) and the Labour Party and they are excited that they have a governor who has the will to do what needs to be done to make a difference, namely, seeing beyond the boundaries of the political parties. There are ways you can service your patronage obligations without sacrificing merit.
We must score the goals that need to be scored. In developed countries, there is patronage everywhere, but competently so. I remember when (Uffot) Ekaette was made Secretary to the Obasanjo government, he was not a member of PDP, he was appointed before he was told to pick party card. What does it take to be a politician, the conventional one is unemployed. I think the better politician is the one with more than one address. In other words, he is a professional in his own right who can walk out in his own right in which case you are sure that he would be guided by certain principles. I am not aware, for example that Okonjo-Iweala was a member of PDP, I am not too sure about el-Rufai. I can go on and on. Of course, some people won’t like it, but why should everybody like me. Those who benefited from status quo won’t want a change. The important thing is that majority of the people of Edo State will be happy. What is important is that everybody in AC, Labour Party is happy with this position and very soon, we will be able to demonstrate it. I have also said it to members of the House of Assembly and they are also excited.
Q: You have been an anti-establishment person, how do you reconcile this with now being a key part of the establishment? Then, you are very informal in your style, how do you now cope with demands of protocol?
Adams Oshiomhole: On the first, I think you are wrong to conclude that I have been anti-establishment. In some of my public lectures, I have argued that the greatest asset of the average citizen is the government. Even those who are pro-market have been purged of any doubt; that without government, market cannot function. So, that is now settled. I wasn’t anti-establishment but I was opposed to those who used state power to oppress the majority. I have always been pro-public welfare and when it is deployed to marginalize the majority for the benefit of the few, we fight. I have argued that every public policy produces winners and losers because the challenge of governance is to allocate resources depending on your own socio-economic values. It just happened that most of those who have wielded state power have used it to benefit the few at the expense of the majority. I have never questioned whether state power is necessary. It is, and I am not anarchist.
Second, you spoke about protocol. I have told my security people, and they are so many, that they have to adjust to my own style; that I define the style, not them. I have told my ADC that you don’t wear your uniform and stand behind me even when the only thing behind me is a wall. Everybody already knows that I am the governor. When I take my seat, he should also go and take a seat.
Q: What about your casual dressing-khaki?
Adams Oshiomhole: No, not casual. I dress very well. The colour may be khaki but good quality. You have not worked in the garment industry, I am the authority, not you. I told my SSS, “you don’t block me, because when did I know you. I ran the campaign without you and I was not attacked. Now you are here, even in a hall, somebody wants to have a handshake, suddenly, you block him, you can’t do that. I want to shake the hands so that people will know that it is still the same hand.” Have you seen a police or military officer standing behind President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. So, it is unnecessary. I also told the siren people not to use it. The siren also disturbs me, I cannot read the newspapers. They say I cannot wind down the window, and I wind down the window. So, you get the kind of security details that you want. I determine the character, not them. They say I am not just myself now but a public officer, but they are not the public, it is the people there. I don’t want to be cocooned out of reality. Back to the Khaki, it is the best cloth in town and I am talking to you now as a fashion person. In most organised societies, workmen, blue collar workers, and that is my background, are encouraged ed to wear their uniforms. Professors of Medicine wear their uniforms when they go to carry out operations. That does not make them common people. So, that is where comes this misconception that khaki symbolizes factory hands?. Now, I am saying to Edo people that governors are not super human, they are like workers in government. In my office, if I want to use red pen I use it, if I use blue biro to approve, it is enforceable, so what difference does it make. Is there a law that says if I sign a document with blue pen it is not valid? You see people who were ministers 20 years ago still using red ink today, all those do not in anyway add to the quality of governance. I had said during the campaign that we would demystify governance.
Shagari once said of Aminu Kano that if he were to be elected president, he would one day display placards protesting against his own government, forgetting that he is the president. Protest is not something reserved for only the weak. Presidents protest, people protest to President Bush that he is endangering the world. If the Edo State government is not working after putting everything into it, I will protest. I will put in a minimum of 12 hours a day, try to make myself accessible and give all directives and if the thing is not working, I will protest because it has to work.
Q: Even with placard?
Adams Oshiomhole: It’s not every protest you do with placards, but if it is the only way to convey it, why not? If at the end of the month the governor is not paid, I have to protest. If salaries are not paid and we workers are not paid on time, I will protest.