* Says cash crunch worst since 1999
* ’My problem with fellow governors over minimum wage’
BY SIMON EBEGBULEM, Benin City
Why was Governor Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole of Edo State involved in a solidarity march organized by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Abuja to protest over minimum wage? He explains, in this interview, the reason, despite being a governor, he kept faith with Labour, his primary constituency. He raises the alarm that the Federal Government is killing the economy of states with irregular Federal Allocations, saying the situation poses danger to the nation’s democracy. Oshiomhole also speaks on the prevalence of kidnapping in his state among several other issues.Excerpts:
The nation just celebrated its independence anniversary, but many Nigerians believe there is nothing to celebrate. Are they right?
We have a lot to celebrate. I think it is important to celebrate. Those who don’t want to celebrate can at least mark the day because it is important in the life of our nation. For the fact that we have the right to govern ourselves, not to be treated as second class humans who are incapable of presiding over our own affairs, we need to celebrate. I know that there are a lot of deficit because of the situation we found ourselves in. Not celebrate the fact that there is no hunger in the land because there is hunger. Not celebrate the fact that all our young people are gainfully employed, no, many people deserve jobs that are not there. Not celebrate the fact that we have attained all our development potentials, no, there is still a huge gap between the rich and the poor. But as they say, if there is life there is hope. In any event, for all those who are disappointed and I am one of them, this occasion also offers us an opportunity to reflect on what is it that we have failed to do, why are we where we are so that we can make the future better. But no matter how you want to talk about our problem, I am one of those who believe that the Nigerian nation is much more than the sub-total of all the problems that we want to talk about. We have cause to celebrate.
We were surprised to see you protesting with NLC in Abuja over minimum wage. Why was Governor Oshiomhole protesting with Labour?
The mistake people make in life is to forget where they are coming from. I am conscious of the fact that I coming from the organized Labour, that the asset that I invested in my struggle to reclaim my victory for the governorship of Edo State was my labour struggles and the struggles of my colleagues and comrades in labour. And the promise of democracy is to improve on the quality of lives of the citizens. The primary purpose of all of us, 36 governors and one President is the welfare of Nigerians. If what we do does not translate to welfare, then our legitimacy can be questioned. And the responsibility of government everywhere in the world is to protect the weak from those who are extremely powerful. And the logic of the minimum wage is that for those workers who don’t have the muscle to organize strike, the government, the state should make a law to protect the most brutal employer from violating the basic right of the worker; that guarantees him a manageable pay. UK has a national minimum wage although it is hourly rate just like the US. If a government cannot protect the worker, what can it do? So, my point is that I was telling my colleagues that I will never agree with them on that issue and I will not only disagree quietly at the Governors Forum; that I will go publicly to disagree. As we speak, I am hired and employed by the Edo electorate, nobody in Abuja has hand in my election except those who registered here and who came to vote. Yet my salary is not fixed by Edo people even though Edo people pay it. My salary is fixed by the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission which is a Federal Government agency entrenched in the Constitution. So if Abuja fixes the pay of the governor, Abuja fixes the pay of the councilor, Abuja fixes the pay of the commissioner, Abuja fixes the pay of the Chief Judge, Abuja fixes the pay of the House of Assembly members, why should Abuja not fix the pay of the least paid worker? We cannot selectively apply the principle of federalism. If we have become such a federal state, that every state determines its own compensation structure, let’s begin with ourselves. There is no reason I should earn the same pay as Delta because Delta, though younger, is richer than Edo State. I should not earn the same salary as Akwa Ibom, because Akwa Ibom’s revenue, while we are talking about N3-4billion here, is about N35billion monthly. So, why should Abuja fix my pay as Akwa Ibom as if we earn the same allocation? Akwa Ibom people should determine what they pay, Edo people should determine what they pay their workers. My point is, this is hypocrisy; you cannot selectively apply the principle of federalism. When it has to do with the ruling class, we invoke federal principle; but when you have to deal with the labourers, the forgotten majority, you now say, ‘let everybody pay according to its ability’. But that should start with government; that should start with the Chief Judge.
The permanent constituency that I can never divorce from is Labour. I can’t be alive in government and be a party to a group that met to remove the gains that Labour had achieved when I was in organized Labour. The point is none of my brother governors will be surprised because I told them I don’t agree with the logic, I do not agree with the argument and that I was going to publicly disassociate myself from that place. Government missed the point, this minimum wage of N18, 000 was not imposed by NLC; every state was represented but the truth is that many states were represented without necessarily consulting with their governors because the governors did not show much interest in the matter. If we show as much interest in the issue of minimum wage as we show on the issue of the Federation Account, our own representative would not have gone to make recommendation that we cannot live with. There were states whose representatives were ready to propose N40, 000, some N30, 000 and that was because the person representing the state never discussed with his governor or with his accounts people. But it shows that they did not place much premium on that issue. For me, it is about being consistent but don’t be surprised that there are many other things I will join in the protest if I think the welfare of the people is at stake.
This issue of Federal Allocations, many states today cannot pay salaries to workers. What actually is the problem? Is it that the Federal Government is broke?
I don’t know if the Federal Government is broke, but I know there is a serious financial crisis and it is unprecedented in the history of this country. That for the first time since 1999, allocations can no longer come as and when due to states is shocking. I have been involved in trying to understand what the reasons are and I have not seen anything yet. Two years ago, it was about the kind of money we were spending on subsidy. In no time, following series of probes and enquiries by the National Assembly and by the Presidency, they have since discovered the kind of money they stole as regards subsidy, all the people that conspired with them and I believe the EFCC is dealing with that. But just as we are dealing with that, now we begin to hear about the theft of our crude oil such that what is accruing to the Federation Account is not enough to meet budgetary provision. This year’s budget was based on 79 dollars per barrel, and about 2.4, 2.5million barrels per day. Now the bad news is that contrary to all the forecast, nothing is getting better. And it is sad that we are not doing enough to change things for the better, the challenge of government in any part of the world is to deal with the issues. If the economy is not doing well, you do certain things differently and recover. Well, it is no more a matter for debate, we are ten months into the year and oil has performed very well, at about one hundred and five, one hundred and ten dollars per barrel throughout 2013. This means that if we have budgetary provision of 79 dollars, we ought to have a surplus of about 30 per cent, which should be in the crude oil account. But rather than having this surplus, we are witnessing a situation where Federal Allocations no longer come as and when due, states can’t pay salaries. In Edo State, like the rest of our 35 states, part of our July allocations has not been paid. About a third of our August allocations have not been paid and nothing has been paid for September allocations. And it is the first time since 1999 that this thing has happened.
NNPC owes us explanation
The explanation by NNPC is completely watery. They collect 455,000 barrels per day for domestic refinery, but they also agreed that the refineries are not working, that at the very best, they cannot refine more than 100,000 barrels per day, so the question is what you are doing with the balance of 355,000? You take 455,000 barrels a day to refine, even when your refineries are not working. So, where is the money? If you multiply one hundred and nine dollars by 455,000 barrels per day, you will imagine the kind of money NNPC ought to be paying into the Federation Account. And from some of the figures that have been thrown around, NNPC is owing the Federation Account over N2.3trillion. And Edo has share of that amount that will run into several billions of naira. Last month, many states could not pay salaries, but in Edo we were able to pay with our IGR. Even the Federal Government could not pay salaries, I think they paid July salaries around the 14th of August. But we paid August salaries in August.
Just to say that whether we use the word broke or you deny the word broke, the truth is that there is financial crisis in Nigeria which has very serious national security implication because when we can’t pay salaries, Federal Government can’t pay salaries as and when due, and you can’t pay your contractors and your contractors will begin to retrench their workers, that is a recipe for national disaster. So I am hoping that NNPC should wake up and meet its obligation to the Federation Account, otherwise the integrity of government is at stake. If I can’t keep my promise, Federal Government can’t keep its promise, all other governors can’t keep their promise, the Nigeria electorate will be so disillusioned and it will be a disaster. So, I am hoping that NNPC recognizes that it cannot be business as usual and they have few cases to answer as far as I am concerned.
Kidnapping in Edo State is worrisome. What is the problem?
It is not only in Edo State but all over the country. In fact, Edo State is the safest in the South-south. This has to do with our national security and the Federal Government must do much more because they are in control of the security agencies, the army, the police, the SSS, NSCDC; none of these is under the control of the states. The ones we have is the one called vigilante group and it is prohibited by law. So it is important that Nigerians recognize the limitations of any state government. All we do is that from time to time we try to procure vehicles, communications gadgets, pay allowances to officers and men and have been doing very dangerous jobs to protect us, especially officers who lost their lives in security matters. Having said that, I want to also say that, unfortunately, the media is not helping matters because when you go publishing not just the fact that the person has been kidnapped, sometimes you write how much the kidnappers are also demanding. Even young innocent people are reminded that kidnapping is a lucrative business when they read the amount being demanded or paid. You also inform the public that people are protesting, carrying placard that the person must be released; I ask myself, are you appealing to the conscience of a criminal, does he have conscience?. Like when you people were writing that Ozekhome must be released, you were just endangering the life of the victim because the people now know this is an important person in the society that the entire community is demanding his release and therefore the stakes are higher for him. So if you are so important the ransom must be higher. So obviously when the media reports things like this, you become part of security challenges and you hike the stake, you enlighten the kidnappers or inadvertently sensitize the younger ones on the kind of reward you get in kidnapping.
What is happening to the law on kidnapping passed by the state House of Assembly?
We do have a law on kidnapping. But what we are trying to sort out is amendment. There are two types of kidnappers. We have the deadly ones, like those who kidnapped Ozekhome. They killed policemen; they were known to have killed a former deputy governor, so they are murderers, kidnappers and armed robbers. Even under the existing law, death penalty will be their portion if prosecuted. I also know that from my interaction with kidnappers who have been paraded, some kidnap their victims and free them after receiving the ransom.
The issue for me is that should the state kill someone who kidnapped somebody and collected N200, 000, should he have the same punishment with someone who kidnapped and raped someone? Should they get the same death penalty? That to me is the issue. My position is, in order to discourage murder, we should try and make a distinction between those who killed and those who did not kill. Those who did not kill, I think they should have a right to life, but those who killed and if you are caught, obviously you will be sentenced to death and I will append my signature. I have no sympathy for people who have resorted to killing. So, I am discussing with the House that we should make a distinction, kidnappers who did not kill their victims can bag life imprisonment, or any number of jail terms as the law prescribes, but those who kill, there is nothing to negotiate, if you are caught I will sign your death penalty.
I tell you this was the most difficult decision I have had to take. I really had to reflect on my oath of office and implemented the essential part of my oath of office which says that I shall not allow my personal interest to override public interest. I am very grateful to the people of Edo State across the 18 local government areas. I think I can boast that so far the only governor that has enjoyed the majority vote in each of the 18 local government areas, I am humbled by that gesture. In democracy, the state should be the most important source of protection for ordinary citizens because the rich can buy their private aircraft, build their private roads, they can fly overseas for treatment but the ordinary man cannot. Yes, Okada people are my people; they followed me throughout my campaign and supported me. Yes, I earlier said I will not ban Okada and I was honest with that. But what I didn’t know was that I was inadvertently inviting more people to come to Edo and use Okada. They banned Okada in Nasarawa, Delta and many other states and all of them were driving down to Edo because they have a comrade-governor. But I later discovered that it was posing serious security challenges. It was a very painful decision i had to take in the interest of the state.
But we are procuring vehicles and I believe that every bike rider can easily become a taxi driver which is far better. They will become taxi owners; we are working that out with some banks.
People complain about multiple tax in Edo. What is your administration doing to streamline your tax policy?
First, I discovered of late that in some local governments, people masquerade as traffic controllers and are busy detaining people and hijacking vehicles, side by side with the state traffic management agencies. So you are dealing with local government traffic managers and state in addition with the Federal Road Safety Commission. We held a meeting with local government councils and we said the law is clear, local governments do not have the powers to impound cars and harass road users. I warned that if it continues anybody that is caught will be dealt with according to the law. So if you find anybody who is not from Edo State Road Traffic Management Agency who says he is working for a local government, it is illegal. Even for those who are with the Edo State Traffic Management Board, I have also directed the commissioner that they must discontinue harassing road users. Your duty is to ensure that traffic flows and that is why I feel embarrassed when people refer to them as Oshiomhole police. Oshiomhole does not behave like this. The whole idea is that they should ensure that people park at the right places. I told them if you know that the place is reserved for no parking, mark it so that somebody will not pack. But it is not when there is no sign there and someone parks you now want to harass the person. You must be civil when conducting your duties. We must treat people with utmost respect, but if the offender decides to go to prison by breaking the law, we will send him to prison.
As regards environmental levy, if you go to Mission Road and other roads, you will discover how dirty the places are, so the people operating there have to pay for people to carry the dirt, not paying to government. There is no way I will use tax payers money to manage your waste, you have to pay to manage your waste. Again, government is a huge organization; there are lots of things that all manner of people do in the name of the state. Some of them are totally illegal. But I think the problem too is that for a long time, Nigerians are not used to paying taxes. You will also understand the fact that our people feel that there is free money coming from the Niger Delta that they think you can share. But, as we are talking now, we have not seen anything from Abuja; last month, part of our money has not come; a month before, part of the money has not come. So we have to look inward to survive as a state.
Flooding/ pace of work in Edo
The truth is that during raining season, you cannot deploy bulldozers. During raining season, you can’t construct any road. So the contractors demobilize during raining season and remobilize during dry season. What you will find a responsible contractor doing could be working on the drainage and if you go to Mission Road you will find they are working on the side drain. So it is not true that we have been slow in the execution of projects; just like my first term, we are still firing from all cylinders.
On flooding, we all know the situation before we came into government, how Benin used to be each time it rained. But thank God we have been able to tackle it with our Benin water storm project; we have not been able to solve all the problems but we have found solution to many. Today you can no longer see flooding at 5-Junction and many other areas.
Edo was part of the old Mid-west, the only region created democratically on the basis of a plebiscite and thereafter every other state was created through military fiat. Our founding fathers believe and I believe, too, that we needed to free ourselves from external control. And if you look back, we can never question the wisdom of those who struggled for the creation of Mid-west Region and subsequently Edo State by military fiat. Even before I got here, a couple of achievements had been recorded.
When we came, the state was too poor to even pay civil servants, the roads were in bad shape, erosion was ravaging everywhere, rural areas, most of them inaccessible. There was no road in Benin that had street lights, none had functioning drainage, side drains. Just last week, chairman of Esan Professionals came to remind me that our first meeting in 2009, few months after my assumption of office, they shared with me their disappointment about quality of education, road network, water supply, etc, they thought I was going to be angry, but I told them I appreciated the catalogue of problems. When they came last week, some of them told me they were able to drive from Irrua all the way to Delta courtesy of the road that we have constructed in Esanland. When we started they said we were only planting flowers, later they said I was not doing anything in Edo North but the latest is that they said all the things I have been doing is in Edo North.
We don’t have much in the state but all we did was to seriously deploy the resources available to us as a state to do the best we can. Yes we have challenges if we had the kind of resources that some states have, we will triple the amount of development that we have here.