The air was still thick with celebration. It was the 20th anniversary of the creation of the state. The previous night, a grand banquet had held at the Government House to round off the anniversary activities which highpoint was awards investiture on prominent indigenes of the state that are icons in their various fields. But on this day, the Osun State Government House in Osogbo was still brimming with people. The Governor’s office was not any different. Some Islamic clerics had come to see the governor, so also were prominent politicians, which included members of the National Assembly, the governor’s associates in Osun and Lagos, senior journalists and some elders in the state. After his meeting and, I guess prayer session, with the Muslim clerics and an elderly man whom I met waiting to see him, Governor Rauf Aregbesola sent for me. By that time it was well after 2 pm and our interview appointment was for 12 noon last Sunday. The governor apologised profusely but I perfectly understood as I saw the situation clearly. Without much ado, we launched into the interview. Aregbesola is a fiery politician. He is also an activist. You cannot miss the activism in him when you broach issues about the country’s federalism and constitution, labour and governance among others. He talks with all the strength he can muster, speaking as if spitting fire. He is nicknamed Oranmiyan, the warrior son of Oduduwa, the deified progenitor of the Yoruba race. Governor Aregbesola is very articulate; he deploys idioms, anecdotes plus facts and figures to buttress his point. But his temper was rising and falling intermittently in the course of the interview. When a question gladdened his heart, you would notice a sudden gush of glow and radiance on his eyes, when another touched his raw nerves, he would be a different person, raising his voice, eyes red like fire, only for him to calm down and to apologise-“Rahman, Rahman, this is not targeted at you oo”. For instance when I asked why he was ruling Osun with one eye and another eye on Lagos, Governor Aregbesola’s eyes changed. He looked at me in the eyes and adjusted his seat as if wanting to be sure I was not ‘sponsored’ to do the interview as some politicians would wont to allege. To make my point, there were a couple of politicians some of them from Lagos in attendance during the interview, prominent among them is Cardinal (Dr.) James Odunmbaku, aka Baba Eto, a powerful leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria in Lagos West. Aregbesola acknowledged his presence; he even made reference to it saying, “They are here from Lagos with their problems which I must solve for them. I have associated with them for so long and cannot wish that away. As I am large in Lagos, I am larger even here”. Aregbesola, 53, was Commissioner for Works in Lagos State from 1999 to 2007. It was a no holds-barred interview during which Governor Aregbesola spoke on the reasons behind the nine-month delay in constituting his cabinet, his cancer and death rumour, his vision for the state, the recent workers’ strike over new minimum wage, governors’ opposition to the Sovereign Wealth Fund and of course his relationship with Lagos and former Governor Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, whom he called his leader, among other issues. Tunde Rahman fielded questions with the governor for over three hours in Osogbo, the state capital
QUESTION: On this occasion of the 20 years anniversary of the creation of Osun State, what is your impression of the state and what is your vision for the state going forward?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: A 20-year old state like human beings is just reaching the age at which he is ready to take on the world because at 20, if the progression is normal and successful, such an individual will be a grown up already. Rather than assess such an individual on the basis of attainment in terms of physical advancement, you assess the individual on the basis of preparation for life. It is on that basis that we say that hardly could anybody fault Osun. The state has the largest numbers of towns, over 500; historically it is ancient with developed culture. But the only period of some development was the period of Baba Akande (former governor, Chief Bisi Akande)- 1999 to 2003-, that was the time real progress was made in virtually all areas of human and social endeavours, which is a general impression. Osun is a state with potentials, dedicated people, positively inclined, impressionable, agrarian and enterprising, particularly the women; the people are industrious. In terms of state administration and management, the state has not fared well as to the ways it was handled by administrators, I don’t want to go into history and details but that is my general impression. As to the vision; the vision is to build a state that would be economically viable, self-sustaining and by that ensure the economic development of the people so that they will be independent, prosperous and happy in their individual engagements. That would mean that we will enhance their primary source of production, which is agriculture. We are focusing, in that regard, on food production and we will support that process directly and ensure access to the rural communities for the evacuation of farm produce. We will assist that process by identifying markets within and outside the state and support the process of production and distribution of agricultural produce, food particularly to the market here and in Lagos. With the economic turnaround, which means prosperity, we believe with our intervention the state will be viable. The wealth of a state should be directly proportional to the wealth of the people. With the people having surplus from their economic engagements, it is easy for the state to take its own due from such successful entrepreneurs.
QUESTION: The last time I met you four or five months ago or so, you spoke about creating a mid-regional market that will make the state a hub of business activities. You said you would engage the railway in facilitating, how much progress have you made?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: We have been on it. It is part of our campaign promises. You are asking now about specifics of actualising the vision. We have gone very far, it is not just our style to celebrate programme that are not fully actualised. Yes, we signed an agreement with the Nigeria Railway Corporation in that regard and work has commenced at the Osun State terminal at Dagbolu in Ikirun. The place will serve as port for collection of agricultural produce from all over the state and from where the produce will be moved to the market of Lagos. The state government will be responsible for the cost of the freight of agricultural produce that are to be moved to Lagos. That will be our own incentive to producers of primary food produce. Just before you came in, I was discussing with one of our partners who is working with us on ensuring that nothing will disturb the process. So as we told you before, we are committed to the project. The platform in Dagbolu in Ikirun is ready; the Nigeria Railway Corporation has not yet completed its own part. As a government, we have met our own part. As soon as they are ready, we will roll out. The Dagbolu terminus is not only going to be a mere platform. We are not only going to be moving only agricultural produce, we are also going to move finished products from Lagos. We want to turn the state to a mid-regional market, not only people from Osun, people from Nigeria’s Middle Belt who hitherto would have to go to Lagos for getting their essentials will no longer have reason to do so. There will be a market here where all products for which people go to Lagos will be available at Lagos prices. We also expect conglomerates to partner with us like building warehouses.
QUESTION: Talking about specifics, when precisely will this happen?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: Within the next nine months, we should be through with our own input, which is majorly access link to the station (Osogbo–Ikirun) highway. What that means is that besides the terminus and the facility in the terminus which the NRC is building, which as far as we are concerned we have met all the requirements of the corporation, we must link that terminus to the existing major highway. We have already identified the site of this regional market, the only thing that is outstanding is the collaboration with those who will build warehouses; those who build will own their warehouses, but our incentives to them and the farmers is that it will not cost them a dime to move their goods from Lagos to here. We would be absolutely responsible for the freight for as long as we are in government.
You need people to assist you in making this vision a reality but it took you all of nine months to appoint your commissioners and special advisers and people were wondering how serious you were about this vision?
We assumed office on the 27th of November within the week. At that time, we had seven members in the state House of Assembly, the opposition had 19. So we were at the mercy of God and so by the end of the week that followed, the opposition had gone to work planning to impeach us. It was not a secret, the whole world heard of it. I addressed the world and mentioned three people that were actively involved in it. I mentioned Namadi Sambo (Vice-President), he never replied me; I mentioned David Mark (Senate President), and I mentioned Iyiola Omisore (former Senator). And I said that money was voted to get me out. Mark replied but whoever read his reply would know he didn’t deny it. He only said they invited the members of the House of Assembly because they are party members. One would wonder: how many legislators had they invited from PDP states? The fact that we are so popular here made it impossible. However, the Supreme Court ruled around the middle of December on a case that had been on for over three years- the legitimacy of those who were managing the local governments- and their term ended with that ruling. There was nothing to do than to appoint local government caretaker committees. We took that to the House and it was horse-trading. I will even call it giraffe-trading because as at the time of that idiom the horse was the most difficult animal to get. But now, giraffe is more difficult to get. So, it was giraffe-trading. We have to virtually share everything. It was in the news and there was nothing new about that. As if that was not enough, this Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme had been in our mind and we have promised people that within 100 days, we would do it. So again, that December we knew we needed money, that budget was never envisaged, there was no provision for such large numbers of youth volunteers -20,000. We had to therefore seek for separate appropriation for that programme, to approve the budget for OYES, there was giraffe trading. It would be stupid for any government to disregard such attitude by those who will ultimately approve commissioners for you and to go on as if it did not matter. That is that. Again, this state’s income as at that time was N1.8 billion, and the previous illegitimate administration had obtained a painful loan. They took a loan without considering what would happen to the purse of the state and your programme for the state. They withdrew the entire loan from the bank at the same time; what are you going to use N18.3 billion for all at once? Osun was forced not just to apply for the loan, but to withdraw it into its account in one day. What that means is that the burden of N18.3billion fell on the state in one day. Osun from that first day started servicing the loan at the cost of N650million every month and the total income of Osun was N1.8billion. Take 650million from N1.8billion! Approximately N1.1billion will be left; workers at that time were earning N800million, workers alone. We have not added pension and gratuity. So, the state had to take a short term facility of N1billion monthly to meet its commitment every month. Besides the hostile disposition of the House of Assembly was the economic factor which will not encourage anybody to consider having a cabinet. We were busy working on how to refinance the burdensome loan. Let me tell you this, I have not received a single salary from Osun, because there is even nothing to earn. My own focus at that time was how do we save the economy of this state. Having commissioners and special advisers will be adding to the burden of the financial state of Osun, but I must employ 20,000 youths within 100 days in office, because we had promised. Did we fail to deliver on our promise? The answer is No. I have not drawn a kobo for any official runs locally or outside, except for the trip to China and London. People don’t know this, of all the regional governments, the state with the lowest GDP per capital is Osun; whereas Ekiti is about 300 and something, Ogun is 200 and something, Oyo is 200 and something and Osun is 100 and something. When you put this entire factor and you are purposeful, you have a mission, a direction; you can’t just be acting as if there is nothing. You must act with clear knowledge of your environment and condition. So, I have not drawn a kobo as salary and I want you to note it. What I cannot vouch for is my aides, they are on their own; as long as their claims are legitimate, they must be paid. I went to Dubai for my daughter’s graduation. I went to India for medical check-up, I went to Saudi Arabia for Umrah and those are my own trips, funded absolutely by myself and by my friends.
QUESTION: You have mentioned the state of finances in Osun and some of the programmes you have embarked on, how do you intend to finance them?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: It is the grace of God, which summarises everything, even if I have intellectual wherewithal, what is the source of that intelligence? It is the grace of God, but I must add this to it now, the state which by November 26, 2010 was N18.3billion in debt now has as its own money about N10billion in an interest-yielding account. The local government fund that had no kobo before has in an interest-yielding account about N5billion. So, by the grace of God, I will do my entire project.
This question is in two parts. Let me take the first part first which is that it was alleged you have cancer and that was why you went for treatment in Saudi Arabia and not for Umrah as you claimed. The other is that some have criticised you, claiming that your travelling while the state was burning, while the workers’ strike was raging, was anti-Islam?
In the first instance, if you take the cancer story as their only vicious verbal attack on me, you will not be doing justice to all the campaigns of death against me. It is not just campaign of calumny but campaign of death, campaign of destruction that they waged against me. Do not forget that their first wicked insinuation about my physical fitness was about the time I travelled for the graduation of my daughter in Dubai. They are totally unintelligent, they do not even put things together, but because people are so engrossed because of their poor economic condition, they do not remember so many things to counter their lies. Their lies and falsehood are so unintelligent. I wonder where they got the energy to throw out those foolish things. People forgot that we ran a vigorous electioneering campaign from March to April, energy-sapping campaign which our enemies acknowledged. We did not just win over all the seats and the minds of the populace by sitting down, we campaigned so vigorously. I told people recently that the man you are looking at has never slept for more than four hours in a day. For the past 12 years, my work regime is 18 hours every day, and it is not that I get sedentary. You see how I am talking; do I talk like somebody that is sick? I talk with all my body, that is me; I work with my talk. I have been doing this for the past 12 years. After the rigorous campaign and I want you to know that I am not growing younger; it was obvious that I needed to rest. Yet, I ran to London to engage an Osun State indigene who is the Mayor of a Borough in London and who knew that he had a terminal illness and wanted to conclude an arrangement for Osun quickly before the illness terminates his life. So heartily, I had to go even though I needed a lot of rest at that time. It was while we were there that the man passed on, Mayor Shittu. But to God again, we were able to conclude what he dreamt of and wanted to actualise. It is a symbiotic relationship between the Borough and all the local councils in Osun State and I was involved, that is why I had to attend. I worked up until 3am on the day I was to leave for another trip, my colleagues were with me, I got home about 3.15am and we set out 3.30am that morning. Their first rumour was that I broke my leg and I was rushed out of the country to India, whereas I was in Dubai to felicitate with my daughter who was graduating, The lady insisted that no photograph should be in the media, that she is a private person. I could have circulated the picture to the media. Baba Akande was there on his own. From there I went to India; my doctor advised that medical check-up is cheaper in India. They used the soft sell to launch their cancer hoopla. I did not talk until it climaxed with the Compass Newspaper’s front page celebration of falsehood, misinformation and total media irresponsibility. To tell you it is not all those things I have mentioned, it is diabolical and sinister, and they put it on their website for 27 days. To further tell you that it is not just mere thing, they created a Facebook page with that page as the profile photograph; we do not belong to their realm. They have failed and will continue to fail.
As for the other part of your question, long before I dreamt of coming into any public service since 1994, I have been regularly secluding myself from any earthly thing in the last 10 days of Ramadan in strict adherence to the tradition of the Prophet in that regard. The only thing that changed was that 12 years ago when I became a public officer, because of the means I had; I upped that practice by doing it (Ramadan fast) where the Prophet recommended that it is best done, Medina and Mecca. The Prophet, for all the time he was in Medina till he died, did not fail to do istikaf (spiritual seclusion) and he was indeed a head of state of the region that was then faced with the worst form of threat, that did not deter him from spiritual seclusion, and he recommended it for all his followers. Rauf Aregbesola had been observing that tradition since 1994. I go to Umrah for spiritual seclusion. I have come into a commitment with myself and my God that as long as I live and have the resources I will be doing it. At the height of my travail when I was faced with one of the most challenging difficulties during the struggle, when I had a court case I demanded from the magistrate that I needed to go to Umrah. It was public knowledge. I went to that Umrah and part of my request from God was that if He allowed me to win this case, I will come back to give Him honour and glory. I had a covenant with God that nothing except death could stop me from going to Umrah. Finally, the Nigerian constitution, as weak as it is, allows no vacuum with the provision of a Deputy Governor. It is amazing to read two weeks ago from the same people who said I was a sole administrator in the same newspaper, claiming that I have abandoned the state when there is an acting governor in place and who really did very well. Where is reason in what they are saying; there is no rationality, truth and sense in what they are saying. What they are saying has no basis in religion, Nigerian constitution and logic and it is totally empty and purposeless.
QUESTION: Talking about the NLC strike, you set up a joint committee following which your government agreed to pay even above the N18.000 minimum wage for Level 1-7 workers, what was the problem again and are we sure the strike is over? What is the problem between you and NLC?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: My government has no problem with labour. I am an activist and a member of workers’ movement internationally. My orientation, development, social consciousness is informed by the struggle of workers worldwide. I believe that it is the working class that can give the world the political leadership that can settle all contradictions. The truth is economism that is benefit from salaries and wages are the primary concerns or interests of majority of leaders of the labour unions in Nigeria. Coming from that perspective, you cannot be annoyed with the workers. The leaders are only committed to wages and salaries, the political basis for societal structure does not border a section of labour leaders and they are the dominant section now. For that reason, I quite understand why this lasted for this long. What are we talking of, the bone of contention is ideological. The workers for who the minimum wage is meant for are those on Levels 01 to 06, but in Osun, we brought it to 07. They are the ones whose income cannot take them home. We all know what living wage is in Nigeria now. Whoever earns more than that living wage is not under threat, but because there is no commitment to serious working class consciousness and demand, everybody wants to render that wage act ineffective by saying that it affects all equally, of course not. We have acceded to their request, but we equally made sure that we patronise the real exploited and battered section of the labour, that was why we raised it to N19.000. It was a conscious decision which was informed by ideological position, and I pray that workers will understand the implication of that.
QUESTION: Can the state sustain that payment? Will it not affect developmental projects?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: I acted advisedly and consciously. Whatever I have done is within the limit but will definitely affect some of our operations but nothing will kill us.
QUESTION: Are you also opposed to the Sovereign Wealth Fund like your fellow colleagues? What exactly is the problem of the governors with the Sovereign Wealth Funds? Is it not wise to save for the rainy days?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: Do not let us forget the fundamentals of our nation. I will talk on two things. You must not allow anybody to bamboozle you into losing your right. The moment you forfeit your right, you are finished. We know some few things because of the means and methods by which we got our constitution; had it been that we got our constitution through the right process, we would not have this problem. I will start with the most mundane. What is the name of Nigeria? Nigeria is Federal Republic of Nigeria, that name defines the character of Nigeria. Nigeria is a federation and a republic. Thailand has no such comfort; it is monarchy; where nobody can talk ill no matter how wrong the king is otherwise such a person will go to jail. Somebody wrote a book about Thailand king outside Thailand, he didn’t know that they recorded him. He visited Thailand as a tourist and they promptly arrested and jailed him. We don’t even understand the meaning of a republic; a republic is a territory in which everybody is equal under the law, no special privilege. Nigeria is a federation, what does that mean? It means the constituent units are autonomous and independent. So, short of demanding for dollar income of Nigeria; every income that the Nigeria state earns must be shared according to whatever formula the nation approves to the constituent units, not three tiers. I will later come to the issue of three tiers; it is an old notion in the media. As a matter of fact, there should be a separate Accountant-General for the federation apart from the Accountant-General of the Federal Government. All the income must come to one account, including the sales of government houses and property. The Federal Government must have no separate account; the money belongs to us and therefore, must be shared by all. It is not possible for the Federal Government to say he is saving for the state government; Federal Government does not have such powers under the Nigerian constitution. You cannot operate the constitution in part, it’s a federal republic. The Federal Government can only in agreement with states, undertake projects, and profit-sharing will also be agreed on; and not that you are keeping our money for us, who are you? If we need to invest this money, we must all agree as to where you are going to invest it and what will be the return. These are some of the things that Obasanjo introduced to the Nigerian governing structure.
QUESTION: But the governors were not complaining when they were benefiting from the Excess Crude Oil funds which were saved?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: There is nothing like that, Nigeria’s wealth should be distributed; we are a federation. May be you do not understand it; do not go to all those things, when you are going to all those issues, you are still begging the question. In reality, as the money comes, it should be shared. The Federal Government wanting to be an authority over states is not done, there are other issues attached that I will not like to touch. Those who fought for our independence knew our differences to a point that if we cannot cherish and sustain it; we are not going to hold ourselves together. Already, we have been militarised. We are again forfeiting more of what is left of our federal character if we do not challenge it, even at the level of challenge and asking where they are going to invest it, what is the return that must be declared, it is our money. The second thing is that they are saying there are three tiers of government, pure lie! There is no federation in the world where you have three tiers of government. Only two tiers exist in all federations, the third tier is at the convenience and concern of the other tiers, because if it is that the local government is collecting money somewhere directly, that means nobody is controlling it then; whereas the constitution states that the state House of Assembly controls absolutely the local government. Why this issue arose was because in the schedule of the constitution, they named the local governments. So, we must demand for total removal of anything that has to do with local governments from the constitution but leave only the earlier section that states that political structure of local governments must be democratic. That is the only thing that should be left there. The choice is yours, and you can decide to have 1000 local governments. Nigeria is not just Nigeria like Ghana, Nigeria is a federal republic. We must struggle to uphold that character of Nigeria.
QUESTION: You are running a government in Osun and at the same time having an eye on Lagos State. Your opponents are asking why can’t you devote your attention to Osun?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: I can never leave Lagos and Lagos can never leave me. I am in Osun now, who are the people you see here? Lagos people! Let us not deceive ourselves and do not allow misdirected and irrational people to deceive all of us, because nature is not artificial, it is natural; it cannot be manipulated. Therefore; how can a man operate in a state for close to 30 years and just because he has been here since November 26, 2010 he will have nothing to do with that area. Is it naturally possible? Is it possible for a man to live in a place for 30 years, and then relocate to a place for just about 10 months and severe all relationships with where he had stayed for 30 years? It does not follow logic. Those who are peddling this think if they continue it, it would attract some sympathy for them, here again they have failed. Our people are reasonable; they understand the fact of life. If my 30 years seem far-fetched, let us look at what is obvious, I came into public limelight in Lagos with my appointment as Commissioner for Works in 1999, one thing that cannot be mistaken is that you cannot attain that height in any political setting without sufficient network at the grassroots; which means I must have had grassroots network before I emerged as a commissioner. Let us just put that at 5 years of work, and 12 years of service; that is 17 years of serious political work, where will the people in my network go?
QUESTION: But where does that leave the people of Osun State that you govern? Are they not being short-changed?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: Are they complaining? Does it in any way affect our operation in the state? It would be an issue if the presence of visiting Lagos people here affects my effectiveness as a governor, honestly it might be an issue. But the truth is that the state had not had it this good in recent past. I work 18 hours in a day. The last government closed from office 12noon every day. So, how can you compare us? I have organised myself so well that as I am large in Lagos, I am larger in Osun. Something has proved it beyond reasonable doubt, I have Alimosho in Lagos, we won, the opposition had no answer to us; and when we went for the rally, our strength again was shown by the turnout, and when I spoke there, the whole world knew that there was somebody here. To further demonstrate that Alimosho was not a fluke, we won all the seats contested in Osun State. We give the glory to God. President Jonathan won everywhere, but when he got here, he met a brick wall. We gave Nuhu Ribadu the state.
QUESTION: Is it your long association with Lagos that has made you introduce a seemingly strange model of government to the state, a model where the Chief of Staff has more powers than the SSG, a model whereby you as the governor also holds on to the Works portfolio?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: Let me tell you, we make some mistakes because of our attachment to convention and I want to beg you, you will help us and your generation by always attempting to go into the etymology of everything, don’t just take it as they present themselves. Go to the root, we introduced the office of chief of staff in the entire country and we understood what that office is. Go to Wikipediea, chief of staff is almost the governor, he controls the office of the governor; you cannot have chief of staff and have any other operation outside what we have given out there, but because those who copy this thing didn’t know anything, they didn’t seek knowledge, they just operated blindly. We are operating government as it should be, it has nothing to do with individual, it is simply a question of how government must be. Don’t believe me, search for knowledge. There is nothing Lagos about it, it is about if you are executive, what is the format, the chief of staff takes responsibility for the governor, in fact for the governorate including the deputy governor. We understood what we wanted for our administration and we structured it the way we want and it’s giving us the result that we want and you will see the impact. Our governance will totally be unconventional. Let me tell you one that has not even happened in Lagos, we created a Bureau of Communication and Strategy; no government has ever had anything like that. The best that was had was a Chief Press Secretary.
QUESTION: How would you describe your relationship with Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu?
GOVERNOR AREGBESOLA: I will simply say that Asiwaju remains my leader; you should know what leadership means. He is my leader for direction, inspiration, for guidance and motivation. We look up to him for mentoring among many others.