By Owei Lakemfa
OLD friends, like old wine, are usually better than new ones. The Governor of the State of Osun, Ogbeni Rauf Adesoji Aregbesola is an old friend. The state he governs, like most in the country, has been financially challenged to the extent that it took a bail out from the Federal Government to pay salaries. Although almost all states in the country lie financially prostrate like Osun, Aregbesola, perhaps for his vibrancy, oratory and radical views has received the most bashing.
There has been a respite, but now, an upsurge is sprouting. I took time to read materials published about his administration, and decided to call him. Having come a long way back, and sharing some ideals, I thought we owed ourselves some moral duty, at least to discuss. He suggested I come over to the state, discuss, verify, move around and make up my mind.
The first matter agitating my mind, is why a non-urbanized state, facing financial crisis, will embark on building an airport? First, he explained that the project was initiated by his predecessor whom he had fought a bitter battle to replace; but he saw the merits and decided to continue. Secondly, that there is a signed agreement between his predecessor and the Federal Government to share equally, the project costs.
Thirdly, that contrary to claims that he reviewed the contract sum upwards to N15 billion and shared the money with the private contractors; the project is actually being executed by a public firm; the Aeronautical Engineering and Technical Service Limited (AETSL) owned and incorporated on February 11, 2001 by the Nigeria Air Force.
He gave reasons for continuing the project. It is partly historical as the site is the first place an aircraft landed in West Africa. Subsequently, the Control Tower which is still standing, will be the centre of an aviation museum.
Essentially, the airport is designed as a maintenance hob to take advantage of the huge number of aircraft in the country, rather than they having to go to Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, America or Europe. This he explains, is why the runway is as long as 3.6 kilometres with 2.4 kilometres of it already 55 percent completed. When we visited the site which straddles the capital, Oshogbo and the historic city of Ede, I was shown the valley-like depth from which the runway was filled. He also said it would be a cargo terminal which would make it imperative for firms like the international courier companies, to use Nigeria – their biggest market in the region – as sorting centre, rather than a neigbouring country.
He also argues that the airport would boost agriculture and tourism which the state, with famous festivals like the Osun-Oshogbo, is already noted for. Sheer vision and will power he argues, transformed Dubai into an internationally viable city and that even in poverty, a state should invest for the future.
But why should the governor of a poor state use helicopter for some travels? He chuckled ”First, the helicopter, unlike fixed wing aircraft, is a bumpy and even dangerous ride as it is low flying and vibrates a lot. Chief Obafemi Awolowo used the helicopter to facilitate his work in the 1950s,so what is the big deal? If I have to be in Lagos, why won’t I fly the helicopter, rather than spend seven hours on the road? It is not good to be poor in the mind”
On the solution to the salary challenge, he said after using the bailout funds to clear the arrears, government negotiated with the workers and agreed on how to use the funds accruing; to service the loan and commercial debts, pay workers and pensioners on Grade Levels 1-7, while Level 8 and above will receive salaries based on available funds. To facilitate this, a 16-person Committee made up equally of workers representatives and management staff under the chairmanship of veteran Labour leader, Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu meet monthly to verify the income of the state and determine the amount that goes to workers and government.
Education and youth development can be said to be his main achievement with the state building and running schools. Some new school structures I visited, compete favourably with the best in the world. There is also the feeding of 250,000 pupils in junior primary school, and the provision of electronic tablets to students in the final leg of High School.
He said when he assumed office “Students were learning under frighteningly depressing environment” and that the quality investment in education will be better realized when those who began schooling under his administration, begin to graduate.
He said most of the 40,000 youths who went through his administration’s voluntary service have been fully engaged and that the massive road construction which has been a hall mark of his administration will continue apace.
Aregbesola said he did not fail to plan: “The state was not under any distress when we planned these projects; we had enough money and our plans were funded within the resources available to us. We got our contractors to fund our projects with bank loans. But the problem came with the economic problem the country was plunged into”
I had read a publication which claimed that the Governor has become so unpopular that he might be stoned in public. From what I witnessed in the streets of Oshogbo, he has a cult-like followership, and would not need to rent a crowd for a rally, in fact, he may not need to give a notice; all he needs do, is walk down the main streets and the people will throng along.
I have been to many states with at least five times the monthly Federal allocation of Osun, and they have nothing visible to the eyes to justify their huge expenditure. So why is he subjected to such scurrilous attacks in the media and on the net? It is easy to conclude that some opposition is at work, but on the other hand, it could be an internal struggle within the Ashiwaju group in the APC; Africans say, the insect eating up the vegetable, lives inside it.