BY EMMAN OVUAKPORIE
SENATOR Oserheimen Osunbor, former Governor of Edo State, two term Senator and erudite Professor of Commercial Law was for 18 months governor of Edo State on the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP between 2007 and 2008. A man of distinguished grace who in his time in the Senate became a reference on issues of law and decency, his gubernatorial era was, however, marked with political intrigues, infighting albeit with reports of infrastructure development.
29 months after the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin humbled him out of office, Prof. Osunbor broke his silence in an interview with Vanguard that covers a range of issues from the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Peoples, PDP, rumours of his alleged plans for another gubernatorial run among other issues. Excerpts:
Since you left Edo State Government House over two years ago you have not granted any interview to any media house. What could be your reason for this?
You are quite correct and this was deliberate. I remained silent principally for two reasons. First, I needed to reflect on why I was removed from office by Justices Umar Abdullahi, Isa Salami and their “trusted judges”. It was only after I was removed that I came to the full realisation that I had been a victim of a grand conspiracy involving people at the highest level of society, some of them top political office holders and some leaders of traditional and religious institutions.
Their arrowhead was a notoriously dubious politician from Lagos acting in connivance with some elements in the Judiciary who hatched the plot to remove me and other targeted Governors from office. They removed me in order to please man but by so doing they displeased God and incurred His wrath and vengeance. Nevertheless, it is my prayer everyday that God should have compassion on them. I am comforted by the fact that more and more people are now becoming aware of the truth behind my removal.
The other reason for my silence is that, I had been wrongly portrayed by some people as the problem of PDP in Edo State. My offence was that on my assumption of office as Governor, I decided to carry along all members of the PDP in Edo State in the belief that I must not single out any particular person or group as the only ones that voted me into office. Some people were not happy with me for this.
Again, with time and while I kept my peace, the public has become better informed about the origin, nature and source of the problem of PDP in Edo State. I can now say with confidence that I have become a rallying point for peace and reconciliation in Edo State PDP.
In my reflections about my removal, I came to the sobering realisation and confirmation of the popular saying that in Nigeria anything is possible. Black can become white and the loser can be declared a winner. It is now over two years and I have striven to put the past behind me. God is vindicating me.
How did you feel leaving office at the time you left? Were there projects you initiated that you feared for?
It is really very sad because we had set out with all sincerity to end the reign of government insensitivity to the plight of the ordinary man in Edo State. From my first day in office I set out to fulfil my campaign promise that by the December of 2007 every part of Edo State will have begun to witness development in one form or another.
Within my first 100 days in office, we had achieved so much and these were documented in a publication to mark the first 100 days. In one year we completed many road and water projects across the State which were at various stages of completion. Other social development and youth empowerment programmes were also in the pipeline. It is sad that these laudable projects have now been abandoned.
What is your take on the current crises in Edo State PDP?
The crises in Edo State PDP dates back almost to the very beginning in 1999 when, in breach of an understanding that Hon. Matthew Egbadon would occupy the position of Speaker of the House of Assembly, some leaders in a clandestine move conspired to make Hon. Thomas Okosun the Speaker. This exacerbated the mutual suspicions that was already there and set in motion a chain of impeachments of PDP leadership in the House of Assembly, the latest being in February 2010 after I left office. In my opinion, the underlying incompatibility among the top leaders of the PDP at the time sowed the seed of instability which the Party has not fully recovered from till today.
What do you think will lead to an enduring peaceful reconciliation of all the factions?
Briefly speaking, two things:- Internal democracy and sincerity especially at the various leadership levels.
As a former Governor, what are you doing to resolve the lingering crises?
I wish to place on record that without any prodding, I started off the process of reconciliation two weeks after my removal in November 2008 when I met with Dr. Ogbemudia here in Abuja. There were further discussions in an expanded group with Admiral Okhai Akhigbe, Senator Uzamere, Deacon Domingo, Barr. Alimikhena and others in attendance, after which, it was agreed that we should meet with the other group.
This led to our meeting with Chief Anenih at his residence on December 4, 2008 and follow-up meetings in Dr. Ogbemudia’s residence in Benin in January and February 2009. I also sponsored a fuller meeting of members of both groups in Rockview Hotel Abuja in July 2009 where the terms of harmonisation and reconciliation were agreed. Other efforts followed after this.
Although, the process was not 100% successful, I am happy that the process is continuing and many people who felt aggrieved by what happened to me and left the PDP in protest or were at the verge of leaving, have now seen the need to remain especially since, myself who ought to be the most aggrieved has remained in PDP and working for its victory in elections.
You governed the State for 18 months, what were your major challenges?
Actually, it was two weeks short of 18 months but within that period we achieved quite a lot. To start with, we patched up the craters that littered the major roads in Benin City and across the State; Upper Mission road, Ikpoba slope and many other roads became passable again through desilting of the drains; we cleared a backlog of years of pension and gratuity arrears totaling about N4 billion. I inherited a debt of N20 billion left by my predecessor but I only made this known to the media six months into my administration when we had collated the facts.
I did not make it an issue to be shouting from the roof top and lamenting that I met an empty treasury. To me that is unhelpful and sheer waste of valuable time by a Governor. The challenge before me was to overcome the debt burden and funding limitations that I inherited and focus on fast – tracking the development of the State. To me a State’s debt burden is a challenge to be overcome. It must not be an excuse for failure. See how Chief Obasanjo tackled the problem of Nigeria’s hitherto debilitating foreign debts that other administrations before him could not handle.
Apart from the inherited debt burden, other challenges I faced were the crisis in my party – the PDP; distractions arising from Election Petitions and insufficient commitment on the part of some government officials to my policy of putting the interest of the people before narrow personal interest or personal gain.
There are allegations that you left a debt profile of N10 billion while your predecessor left N4 billion. Can you explain how much your administration left behind?
As I just explained to you my predecessor left behind about N20 billion debt. In fairness to him some components of this consisted of debts, such as foreign loan, which he inherited from the previous military administrations. By the time I left I had paid off a substantial part of this debt such as pension and gratuities arrears and counterpart funding.
My administration took a bank facility of N10 billion for roads construction which we were liquidating through monthly deductions of N400 million from the State’s Statutory allocations from the Federation account. At the time I left, the balance remaining on this loan was N4.5 billion and this was verified and reported to the House of Assembly by the Commissioner of Finance under the present administration.
To the best of my knowledge this, together with unliquidated inherited debts from my predecessor, stood at N9.5 billion when I left. It would be interesting to know the current level of the State’s indebtedness. It is believed now to between N40 billion to N50 billion.
What have you been doing since you left office as Governor?
One of the things I missed most when I was in office as Governor, even as a Senator, was devoting enough time to studying the Holy Bible and being close to God. I always looked forward to when I retire from active service so that I can study the Bible more. I did not realise that this would happen sooner than I thought through my removal from office. I am happy that I now have time for devotion and understanding the word of God and through this I was able to quickly overcome the shock and worry about my removal from office and I now understand life better. People often tell me that I now look younger and fresher. I think the secret is that I have learnt more to cast stress and worry away and put my trust in God.
That apart, I am still active in politics and have been mostly involved in the campaign for the election of President Goodluck Jonathan/Sambo in the forthcoming general election as a member of his Presidential Campaign Council. As Chancellor of my Diocese, I get involved in Church work. I also do some legal research and writing.
Do you think that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan can take us to the Promised Land?
On the day he was sworn in as President I issued a statement expressing my belief that President Goodluck Jonathan will take us to the Promised Land. The statement was published by the Vanguard. I have not had any reason since then to change my mind. If anything, his performance in the past 8 months, in the areas of availability of fuel supply, modest improvement in power generation, equitable distribution in the siting of Federal Universities and government appointments, increased attention to road rehabilitation and construction, peace, security and efforts towards free, fair and credible elections among others, attest to the fact that the President will take us to the Promised Land.
Rumour has it that you have declared your intention to contest in the 2012 guber election in Edo State. Is it true?
I have heard the rumour too. It is not true that I have declared intention to contest for Governorship in 2012. Quite frankly, I think it is premature to become bogged down with 2012 when the 2011 elections have not yet been conducted or concluded.
If given opportunity will you take a shot at the Governorship in 2012?
To be sincere, I am always very happy when I hear people commending my achievements while in office and looking forward to my return. Such sentiments are encouraging and make me feel fulfilled. If Edo people want me to come back, I will have no choice but to respect their wish. But for the time being my thoughts and preoccupation are about how PDP will win decisively in the April 2011 elections. As for 2012 all I can say is that when we get to the bridge we shall cross it.
What is your expectation from the general elections commencing? In view of reports of violence here and there do you think the elections will be credible?
I believe the elections will be free, fair and credible. Mr. President and the National Assembly have left no stone unturned in their efforts to ensure transparent and credible elections. The President has reconstituted the Independent National Electoral Commission with a Chairman, Prof. Jega, that inspires the confidence of all.
New Resident Electoral Commissioners have been appointed for the States. Whatever funds INEC has requested have been passed by the National Assembly and released to them. People are now expressing confidence that with the new INEC set up, votes will count. But I must warn that it is not INEC or even the President that decides whether or not votes count. It is the Judiciary.
We have seen how “trusted judges” were used to cancel peoples votes, simply because red biro was used by polling clerks for accreditation, instead of blue biro, to cite one example from Ekiti. I am glad that the National Assembly recently passed into law in the Electoral Act, my proposal that Election Tribunals should no longer declare as winner a candidate who lost at the polls. They should go further to amend the Constitution accordingly.
The maximum the court should order is a re-run. I am also glad that another of my proposals that the National Judicial Council (NJC) should be involved in the selection and posting of Judges to the Election Petitions Tribunals has been adopted. But beyond these laudable steps the NJC must also insist that a President of the Court of Appeal should not sit on appeals in all respect of matters where the Court of Appeal is the final Court. Unless these checks are put in place, your votes may still not count, despite the best efforts of Prof. Jega and his team at INEC.