By Niyi Akinnaso
The immediate past Governor of Osun State, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, was by no means a typical governor. He once acknowledged his unusualness before a curious audience by asking them, “Do I look like a governor?” He was unusual in physique, in approach, and in governance style. Accordingly, he preferred Ogbeni to His Excellency; and he referred to his state as the State of Osun. He even once declared an unusual Muslim holiday.
Led by a leading newspaper, the press immediately pounced on him, and never let go until he left office. I was initially co-opted into the negative press corps, leading to my cautionary article, entitled “Ogbeni, softly, softly” (The PUNCH, November 27, 2012). However, the more I looked into Aregbesola’s activities and projects at close quarters, the more I realised that the press was wrong about him most of the time. This is not to say that he was above board. He surely deserved criticism for his excesses and failures, to which I will return later. Nevertheless, the baby need not have been thrown out with the bathwater.
However, my interventionist attempts (for example, Reporters and false reports, The PUNCH, September 9, 2014) to set the records straight were dwarfed by persistent press negativity, partly because Ogbeni reacted harshly to negative press; partly because he persisted in pursuing his goal with characteristic nonchalance; and partly because he carried his unusualness into many policy areas.
For example, he reorganised the educational system, reclassified schools, and merged some schools in the process. He even renamed some of them, including my alma mater of Ilesa Grammar School, to the discomfiture of some old students. Rather than purchase textbooks, he introduced Opon Imo, the Tablet of Knowledge, in which textbooks and other educational resources were stored. He quickly suffered the fate of innovators, by being attacked by opposition politicians and the press. There is nothing wrong in being critical of innovation. But something is wrong with not taking time to study it and identifying its advantages.
Besides, he embarked on massive infrastructural projects, focusing on township and rural roads, rural electrification projects, state-of-the-art school buildings and facilities, parks, extensive drainage projects, and a befitting shopping mall towards the end of his tenure.
Not done, he introduced a variety of social protection initiatives, which straddled many sectors of the economy. Steered by the Director General of Economic Development and Partnership, Dr. Charles Akinola, and supervised by the Chairman of Osun Social Protection Programmes Implementation Committee, Dr. Olalekan Yinusa, the programmes included the Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Programme; Osun Youth Empowerment Programme; Social Welfare Scheme for the Elderly; Rehabilitation Programme for the Destitute and Mentally Challenged; Empowerment Programme for Widows; Free Ambulance Services; and a variety of agricultural initiatives, encapsulated in the Osun Rural Enterprise and Agricultural Programme.
Virtually every project initiated by the Aregbesola administration was attacked by the press, mostly for the wrong reasons. For example, the reorganisation of the educational system to accommodate the feeding of vulnerable six-nine year-old kids in Elementary Grades 1-4, was wrongly viewed as a contravention of the nation’s 6-3-3-4 system, while the introduction of free school uniforms for easy identification of school kids was drowned by a politically motivated hijab crisis and an Islamisation agenda. Nobody cared about the Garment Factory and the employment it generated.
Not done, the press made Aregbesola the poster boy of non-payment of salaries at a time when at least 28 other states were owing salaries. No one cared to know the details of the modulated salary structure, by which workers on Levels 1-7 (72 per cent of the workforce) were paid in full. Only workers on Levels 8 and above got partial salaries-75 per cent for workers on Levels 8-12 and 50 per cent for those on Levels 13-17. By the time Aregbesola was about to leave office, the arrears and full salaries were already being paid.
Osun’s debt burden became another target of criticism, even where the Debt to GDP ratio was only 5.8 per cent, compared to the Federal Government’s 21 per cent and the internationally accepted standard of 40 per cent. As in the case of non-payment of salaries, Osun need not be singled out for its debt burden as there were many more states, even in the South-West, with a higher debt burden.
What was missing in the media coverage of the Aregbesola administration was the impact of the various social investments and infrastructural projects to which the loans were deployed. Fortunately, towards the end of Aregbesola’s tenure, those investments had begun to bear fruit (see, especially, Oyetola and the government of consolidation, The PUNCH, November 27, 2018).
Today, the combined findings by the National Bureau of Statistics, the United Nations Development Programme, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Institute, and Financial Derivatives Company Limited of Lagos, all show the tremendous progress of Osun State during Aregbesola’s tenure from 2010 to 2018. For example, by 2017, there had been a reduction in unemployment rate in the state by about 70 per cent. Within the same period, the poverty rate in the state went down from 37.5 to 10.9 per cent. Osun thus had the second lowest unemployment rate, as well as the second lowest poverty rate in the country. Similarly, Financial Derivatives ranked Osun the second lowest in Misery Index. Unfortunately, these statistics have been drowned by the cacophonies of critical voices from the opposition and a determined negative press.
The above statistics were corroborated by the tremendous growth in the state’s economy during Aregbesola’s tenure. For example, there was a 108.3 per cent growth in GDP from N191.1bn in 2010 to N398bn in 2018. Correspondingly, the number of micro, small, and medium enterprises grew by 182 per cent, from 481,451 in 2010 to 1,358,446 in 2018. What is more, Osun’s Internally Generated Revenue also improved significantly by over 300 per cent, from N3.4bn in 2010 to nearly N14bn in 2018.
The heavy investment in education has equally yielded fruitful results. The state’s educational outcome improved by 284 per cent in the number of pupils who passed in five subjects, including English and Mathematics, in the WASSCE between 2010 (15.68 per cent) and 2017 (44.59 per cent).
The integrated urban infrastructure and the Rural Access Mobility Project led to the construction of nearly 2,000 kilometres of roads throughout the state; thousands of boreholes; and the electrification of hundreds of communities. The multiplier effects of the RAMP and other infrastructural projects are felt in thousands of employment for construction workers, artisans, and food vendors; road access for over 25,000 smallholder farmers; increased yield of farm produce; and access to water and improved sanitation for over 30,000 rural dwellers and many more in the urban centres. Moreover, the construction of access roads to hitherto neglected areas in the urban centres instantly led to sharp increases in property value and reduction in vehicle maintenance costs.
To be sure, it was not all rosy for Aregbesola. He surely made a number of mistakes. He started out with unfathomable gullibility about the future of the economy, which led him to bite more than he could chew. It was difficult to cope, once the economy began a downward slope in 2014.
Besides, his boisterous approach and tenacity of purpose and opinion could be unnerving. No wonder he could not readily reconcile his over-enthusiasm for the development of Osun and the sacrifices he made with the level of criticism he encountered. His confession that he did not earn any salary as governor fell on deaf ears.
To him and others like him, who persisted in the face of adversity to impact the lives of their people in positive ways, I dedicate this valedictory piece of this column.