SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN CITY
Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State celebrated the seventh anniversary of his administration, last week. In this interview, Oshiomhole speaks on the achievements of his government as well as the challenges.
You just celebrated your seventh anniversary as governor of Edo State. How fulfilled are you looking back?
I feel quite fulfilled, to God be the glory. Seven years ago, the state was almost a one-party state and it was a state notorious for hosting god fathers and, inspite of the initial in roads of the ANPP in 1999, PDP became the ruling party. And, of course, every body told me that votes could not count in Edo as god fathers were in charge, and you had to be anointed and stuff like that to assume political office. Now it is from that background that we are where we are today.
The PDP was in control from the local government level to the federal. But, today, we have moved on to a situation in which the PDP is out in the local governments, in the state and at the federal level. So, my political mission is complete.
I have nothing more to prove. At that time, all the boisterous god fathers were saying ‘we will teach Comrade a lesson, he will soon find out that labour is different from politics’. But, today, they are my very poor students, they are not even among my brightest, they have all dropped out of school. So, God has been merciful. Today, not only have we dismantled their rigging machine, the game is over for them. You will recall that in 2012, two of the god fathers went to Okada. And one of them said they had declared war on Oshiomhole, ‘he will not be re-elected’, and I thundered back and said the war will consume them and, at the end, they were consumed. As we speak, they are down, we are standing.
And I think the pain they have is that even age is not on their side, so they cannot say tomorrow, because tomorrow does not belong to them. They will end up as miserable opposition leaders. The political sub structure has been rebuilt. I predicted that there will be ‘re-alignment of forces and people, out of free volition, will now associate on the basis of preference rather than fear.
And when you look at it today, every body that matters in the PDP has left, they are all now in the APC. And more interesting, those who left the APC for the PDP are precisely the evil forces that cannot cope with the rigours of change and they have returned to the PDP where they rightfully belong. They now concede that their god father is their god who they worship and we worship God Almighty. And while they go from one shrine to the other, slaughtering animals and goats, wearing funny colours, we are covered with the precious blood of Jesus. I have seen the infinite power of God in the life of this state; so, politically, there is nothing more to prove; they are finished, we are standing and we have consolidated and matching on.
Are you never scared of fighting these god fathers. Don’t you fear juju?
What I brought to this job is the power of conviction. You must have confidence in yourself, you must be convinced about your mission and be ready to apply yourself in full. I was exposed to abuse of power very early in life at the age of 17. I saw how economic power could be abused, how managerial power could be ruthlessly deployed to repress ordinary people and, of course, later in life, I saw how political power could ruthlessly be deployed to repress society. So, one has, from that age of 17, conquered fear; so where people see danger, I see opportunities, I see challenges to be overcome.
And no time to lament, no time to regret; every minute must be used to creatively mobilize, organize and strategize, identify your potential allies and target your clear opponents, identify their strengths and weaknesses and work on those strengths and, central to this is the power of communication. I know that the weakness of the god fathers and those who slavishly follow them is that, because they rely on ruthless deployment of power and money, they do not communicate and connect with the people.
And yet, in a democracy, it is your capacity to connect with the people that defines your space. In my trade union studies, any order that excludes the majority from a system can only thrive to a level that the people can only tolerate it; if the people decide to challenge it and they have a leader they can trust to provide leadership to that challenge, that order will crumble. That is the story of apartheid and the story of multi-party democracy and I know Edo’s own will not be different.
I came clear that Edo people were in that situation precisely because nobody was ready to provide the leadership to engage them. On the juju issue, my late father told me, once you accept Christ and, in his own case the Almighty God and the principles of Islam, there is no other God than Allah as far as he was concerned, therefore no evil no juju made by man, no secondary god can harm you.
He said to me, ‘You don’t go patronizing shrines in order to counter those who believe in it, if you do because that is their evil way, they are likely to be stronger and God, once you abandon him and subscribe to these small, fake gods, he will abandon you’. But once you choose the path of the devil, then the superior negative force will prevail. But if you insist and submit to the will of God, my own case, as a Christian, is that when you accept God and Christ as your Saviour, no weapon fashioned by man in the name of juju shall prosper. And I have seen it, I have fought battles, I was not even a governor when I knew that many persons subscribe to these things but they never worked.
How are you able to pay workers while other states are unable to do so?
Politics is a process of acquiring power and you use the power to authoritatively allocate resources, you define and decide who gets what and at whose expense; every public policy produces winners and losers. So it is clear that the responsibility of government is to decide who gets what.
Given my own background and my primary constituency which is labour, there is no way I can subordinate the interest of the worker in favour of the interest of businesses. If the choice before me is either to pay the workers or pay a contractor N1billion, I will rather owe the big man rather than default in my obligation to salary earners. The real worker’s basic need is food, transparent to work; so because of the nature of his basic need, the way he spends is much more likely to impact on the domestic economy.
If you play back my campaign rhetoric in 2006, I did say that when I was in the NLC, if all that government entails is just to go to Abuja, collect cheque and come home to distribute to workers in the name of salaries, then all you needed is not a governor but an efficient cashier and a pay clerk.
The responsibility of a leader is to think and creatively put on your thinking cap and creatively look at all the options available to you and see how to tap into them. In 2008 when I assumed office, one of the first things I said was that, to fix Benin, we needed to take tough decisions which included removing illegal structures so that we could expand the roads. There was not one six-lane road in Benin, not one functional dual carriage way. And I said for us to expand to create a six-lane road, we needed to get rid of illegal structures and restore the right of way.
It requires courage to do those things, you remember the fight by the PDP then. And I said people had to pay tax; from the judiciary to the House of Assembly, the executive, people were not paying correct tax. Once we were done inwards, we went outside and asked other people to pay.
We also decided that we needed to strengthen our revenue board, reform it; we enacted a law to set up the Inland Revenue Service that allowed us to employ people of competence from various professional backgrounds outside the civil service to manage our revenue drive. And the result of that is that we are not now completely reliant on what comes from Abuja. If we depend exclusively on what comes from Abuja, there will be no miracle.
We identified the leakages in the system, we identified that we must move away from manual to computerized payment system. We made investments in ICT; rather than use consultants, we set up our own system, we employed people and developed it. That eliminated the possibility of ghost workers. It is laughable for any organization, including government, to keep talking about ghost workers with modern technology. In Edo, you will never hear me talk about ghost workers; our system is so reformed such that the last time some people in the ICT tried to play funny games, the system was triggered and we closed in on them and, as we speak, they are in Oko prisons. So if we were doing manual, we will be losing billions of naira every month. So, the whole thing is management.
The opposition PDP in the state says the Land Use Charge is targeted at people like Chief Igbinedion and that you have the penchant for insulting Bini elders?
First, on the issue of Land Use Act, whether true or not that a particular individual was targeted, I will say yes and no. Don’t forget I earlier told you that governance is not value-free, it is value-driven. I told you every public policy produces winners and losers, this is at the heart of governance. Now what defines the character of a government is who you seek to protect and at whose expense. Governance is a biased institution, it decides who to help and who pays. That is why in a mature democracy you have this huge debate, and central to electioneering campaign is tax policy. Government does not create wealth, what it does is to create the environment for citizens to create wealth; that is why they talk about private sector running and doing business.
It is through that process that they create wealth, generate income; then government uses state instrument to redistribute that wealth through taxation. So you can have a conservative tax policy, you can have a reactionary tax policy, you can have a progressive tax policy. What we have done falls in the realm of progressive tax policy which says the richer you are, the more you pay. And it is a conscious decision to design a Land Use Charge that is based on the more land you use, the more you pay. If you occupy 500 meters, you are not affected. If you occupy 1,000 square meters, then you have to pay tax.
If you occupy 20,000 meters, you pay double. Now, if you occupy 30,000 square meters like Chief Igbinedion, then you pay for the size of the land. After all, land belongs to God and He gave it to all of us to populate. No body can say I manufacture the land through our own industry.
I don’t pretend the Land Use Charge is to take from the rich in order to provide public infrastructures also for the rich but also for the poor. We have built six lanes road at Airport Road with street lights. Those who use the roads more are those with vehicles, not pedestrians. The law also exempted those who live in crowded neighbourhood, traditional family houses, those in poor neighbourhoods that need state support. I am a believer that the state must support the poor. But it must take from the rich in order to provide that support.
The other conscious decision I took was, if you look at this Government House, it is one of the oldest in the country. Some other governors have decided to build what they call state-of-the-art Government House. I did ask an architect to design a new Governor’s Lodge for me.
He did and, by the time he cost it, I looked at the figures. Thereafter, I visited the Central Hospital and I was shocked about what I saw: Pot holes inside hospital wards with broken roof and, when it is raining, water was dropping and mosquitoes were all over.
When I asked questions, I was told the hospital was built in 1903. I said we had to build a new hospital. I looked at the cost of a new hospital and a new Government House, the cost of the hospital was more or less the same with that of the Government House. I said I would rather build a hospital than build a new Governor’s Lodge. So this is a conscious choice.
So, our tax policy, our Land Use Charge, our consumption tax are all designed to ensure that those who consume more pay more tax and the revenue is used to provide for public works as well as address the critical needs of poor forgotten communities. Look at the schools we built, they are schools the child of the poor and that of the rich can attend.
Today, government schools are the most beautiful buildings you can find in our rural areas. I am satisfied that the results of these schools are quite encouraging.
First, admission has doubled. I was talking to people about encouraging the girl-child and I told them that, in Edo, statistics showed that about 51 per cent of our pupils in school were girls. So we don’t have problem with girl-child. We have also recorded more than hundred per cent increase in public school enrolment and, in our overall performance in WAEC, we have moved from the 27th position to 3rd and, this year, we are 2nd. Again, we abolished school fees in all our senior secondary schools so that you have complete free education and free transportation for students and pupils.
You have been accused of abusing elders of Benin Kingdom. How true is the claim?
The question is, who are the Bini leaders I abused? The Oba of Benin is the father of all of us and no body can accuse me of showing disrespect, in any way, to not only the Oba but also the entire royal family. If anything, some mischief makers have accused me of being subservient, but I told them I prefer to be so. Politically, the most outstanding politician, who has made tremendous contribution to the growth of the state, is Dr Ogbemudia who is a PDP leader.
But even though he is in the PDP, I visit him from time to time; we are in good terms; he advises me all the time even on political issues. That is why some times he is misunderstood by his party members because he made generous statements about my stewardship. Infact, when some PDP leaders went to visit him in 2012 to beg him to support a PDP candidate, he asked them which road they followed on the way to his house.
They told him the road was beautiful with streets lights and he asked them who built it. They started scratching their heads. He told them it will be difficult for him to tell the people not to vote for a man who built the roads over 40 adjoining streets with street lights, that the people will think he was crazy.
He told them that, despite his membership of the Board of Trustees of the PDP, for ten years, no PDP government found it worthy to build a foot path to his house, but APC government came to do it. So if nobody has accused me of disrespecting the royal family, or the most outstanding politician in Edo, Dr Ogbemudia, who are the elders that I abused?
On the contrary, I will say that it is under my stewardship that some of the things that never accrued to the Binis started to occur and I am very proud of it. At least, for the first time, we have a Bini man as the National Chairman of a governing national party, the APC. The Binis have been struggling to have one of their own as Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin. I am on record as publicly denouncing the Federal Government for not appointing a Benin man and publicly expressed my support for a Benin man to be VC of UNIBEN and, today, it came to pass. As we speak, we have a Minister from Benin. So I wonder which of the elders I have abused. If you say I exchanged words with Chief Igbinedion, may be because some people don’t know Benin history from outside, they think Esama means king because of the way he carries himself; he is just one of the chiefs of the Oba.
When I assumed office as governor, the Oba of Benin suspended Chief Igbinedion and Chief Igbinedion and his son Lucky begged me to appeal to the Oba to forgive him so that the Oba could withdraw the suspension. And I appealed to many senior palace chiefs and to the Oba to please reconsider, and I remember vividly what the Oba said.
He said it was not the first time the Esama will be showing disrespect to the institution of the Oba and the person of the Oba. So I have no apologize whatsoever. If I were to govern this state ten times, I will maintain the policy that it is the end of exemption. The Esama told me that he is an exemption, but I told him all Edo people are equal before the law. After all he pays tax on his properties in London, Abuja and South Africa; so why is Edo an exemption. I understand his pains, he thinks he owns this state, which is strange really.
I have full respect for elders and the Benin people. I have enjoyed more support here than anywhere else and more than any politician before me. The amount of votes I won in Benin Kingdom, when Lucky Igbinedion contested election, he never got up to that. So I sympathise with them. So, no body can validly accuse me of being disrespectful to elders and I will never be disrespectful to our elders. If Chief Igbinedion wears red one million times, that red can only work against him not me. He wore it before in the 2012 governorship election and he boasted that I was gone but God over ruled him; the precious blood of Jesus is superior and will protest me from my human being. So I don’t have any fear at all.
My strength lies in the power of conviction. If you work for people, people will pray for you and their prayers will shield you from harm. That is the reason we are on and strong. The tax must be paid and; if they don’t pay, we will follow due process, prosecute them, and if we secure conviction, we will jail you; there is no question about that. No body except the Oba of Benin is exempted.