•Says governor could not sleep after seeing mayhem against Nigerians
• Obaseki did not order the repatriation of natives in Italy’
BY SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN-CITY
Mr Taiwo Akerele is the Chief of Staff to Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State. In this interview, Akerele, who was, last week, honoured with the name, Omokhafe 1 (son that knows home) of Somorikaland, by the people of Somorika in Akoko Edo Local Government Area of Edo State, speaks on the plans of the state government for Libyan returnees.
The state government has been receiving large numbers of Libyan returnees. How is it coping with the pressure?
We have made adequate arrangement; the governor approved what we call ‘voluntary return framework’. There are two legs to it: there are people who voluntarily want to return home and there are people who are stranded in Libya that the Nigerian government is bringing back. The two groups, when they arrive, are collapsed into a component and the component is, receive them, bring them to Benin and accommodate them. We give them the initial accommodation, feed them, do what we call psychological counselling to ensure that they are not discriminated against and they themselves get back their lives. Now that they are back, the next thing is, ‘What do you want to do? Capacity building, skill training or you want to go back to your family’. Those of them who want to go back to their families, we hand them over to their families after collecting their data. Those of them who want to the trained, we train them. And that is why, two weeks ago, you saw the governor giving certificates to about 150 of them who were trained in agricultural skills. Edo State is ready to receive all our people in Libya who want to come back home. The Task Force Against Human Trafficking, headed by the Attorney General of the state, Prof. Omoregbe, has been given support to take care of this situation we found ourselves in. What we also want to do is to fast-track our investment in the Benin Technical College. A week ago, I was there to see the on-going work and I saw that work is going on well. We want to ensure that when we start enrolling our people there, they are secure. We are also building the capacity of the teachers there to ensure that they are able to deliver the courses to those who want to be trained in skills. We don’t want to see our people die in Libya any more. Let them come back home, we have solution to their problem. Sometimes the governor does not sleep well after seeing the mayhem against our people in Libya. It is really sad and that is why he is determined to make the economy of Edo the best in Africa not just Nigeria. As a financial guru, he has what it takes to achieve it. The governor is always very emotional when he sees sordid pictures such as we all have seen in Libya, so he is very passionate in changing their lives and we pray they all come home and work. But for the perpetrators, the traffickers, we are going after them. They have no hiding place anymore and we will fish them out and bring them to justice.
Religious leaders must play a role
Government is calling on religious leaders to help in the issue of illegal migration and human trafficking. People must say it in the churches, ‘don’t migrate illegally, don’t sell your land because you want to travel to Libya, don’t sell your father’s land; if you do so, you are going into slavery’. We have said it; anybody who wants to travel abroad must have valid documents. We are tired of our people being repatriated or being sold for 20 dollars in Libya. The governor has set up the Human Trafficking Task Force and they are doing well. And you can see from the confession of those people who came back, this is not the best route to follow. Let me also say, emphatically, that the governor did not order the repatriation of Edo people in Italy. I was there with the governor in Italy when we visited; the Speaker of the House of Reps, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, was there; there was never a time the governor said anything like that. And that was not our mission there. Our mission there was to enhance our cooperation on technical education, human capital development for our people and how we can collaborate to improve skill acquisition in Edo State. There was never a time the governor signed anything that Edo people in Italy should be repatriated. That allegation is coming from the opposition who are jealous about the achievements of this administration. So we are urging our people there to continue to do their normal business and ensure they don’t destroy the image of Nigeria.
But, is the returnees’ issue not additional burden? How is it affecting the state government and how has it been meeting the demands of payment of salaries and on-going projects?
It is about efficiency, prudent management of resources and optimization of what is available. Luckily, we have a procurement agency that has the details of the contractors working for the state and we just have to agree with them on what to do. Everybody knows there is no money but if you want to do business with us, we tell you what we can pay. Some of them agreed and, because of the confidence they have in us that we are not going to default, they are working and whenever there is money, government pays. This is how we have been able to work so far.
So what is the magic behind the success of your boss in the last one year that gave him the name, ‘Wake and See Governor?’
We thank the people of Edo for their support, maturity and the understanding they have demonstrated in the last one year of this administration. The governor, during electioneering campaign, was emphatic that he was going to continue from where our father and political leader, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, stopped. And true to that, on assumption of office, a lot of reforms that Comrade Oshiomhole started were continued. The governor tried to restore sanity in local government administration. He tried to attract investors to the state, partner international organizations such as the World Bank and that accounted for why he achieved so much in the area of infrastructure, revenue management and, of course, youth employment. Before we came in, most of the local governments were insolvent, but, today, due to the introduction of technology, especially the use of the ATM in the collection of revenue, as of November 2016, cumulatively, the total internally generated revenue of our local governments is N150million. Oredo, one of the biggest local governments, came first in terms of revenue collection. Governor Obaseki is trying to ensure that the 18 local governments in the state are able to pay their salaries without waiting for the federal allocation. On the investment climate, you saw what we did during our first anniversary when we launched the Alaghodaro Summit where we attracted thousands of investors across Nigeria and the world to share ideas on the areas they think they can invest in Edo. Consequently, the number of applicants for industrial land, agriculture land has increased and we are processing those applications.
We also launched our industrial park at Ikpoba Okhai after a study by experts and partners who took time to identify a location that will be investor friendly, where we have competiveness and comparative cost advantage in terms of production and access to the market. The Vice President came to help us flag off the industrial park which will be operated in conjunction with the private sector. Edo people will be the beneficiaries of that park because the park is going to generate over 100,000 jobs and it is going to bring sanity into the investment environment. The governor also emphasized that we are going to use technology in our financial management system. This was piloted under the administration of Oshiomhole but we have now improved on it. We have trained civil servants and from the ministries up to the governor’s office, everything is digitalized, everything is charted on oracle system and civil servants are excited because the turnaround in terms of processing transactions has reduced considerably. On industrialization, earlier in the year, we revived the Auchi fertilizer plant. Hundreds of people have been employed in the plant and our people don’t need to wait for fertilizer outside Edo before they use in the farm. Then of course we have brought sanity to the city. Edo State Traffic Management Authority has been revitalized, the personnel are civil, emphasize the rule of law.
Before now, land was a controversial issue in Edo. You may buy land, today, but by the time you are moving to site, they will tell you someone else has bought the land. Partnering with traditional rulers, particularly the Oba of Benin, government was able to set up a Private Property Protection Committee, headed by retired IGP Solomon Arase, and, today, our people abroad can confidently invest in land in Benin knowing fully well that the land will be there. When the governor said he was going to create 200,000 jobs, it was not mere political campaign gimmick. Auchi fertilizer plant has employed hundreds of people, the industrial park is there and we have harvested in the 450- hectare maize farm in Sobe, Edo South. We partnered a private sector company on agro cultivation, packaging and marketing. After that, we are moving to Edo Central and Edo North. We are going to expand our agricultural initiatives into other parts of the state.
Of course there were issues about security recently and the governor moved in and today anybody who is involved in kidnapping will know that Edo is no longer safe for kidnappers. We want to thank the police, the army, the DSS for their efforts to ensure that the state became safer again through their collaboration with government. Also, we are investing in human capital development. We opened a training centre where civil servants can go and learn how to use the computer; we developed a curriculum with our partners. And the governor knows that you cannot run government alone; that is why we have paid our counterpart fund to SEEFOR, to European Union, to stop gully erosion to improve employment and access to water in the state. Edo, under Obaseki, has become a destination for serious-minded investors. In the last one year, we have received almost 25 ambassadors of different countries the US, Britain and Italy to discuss how we can partner to create jobs and bring development. There were statistic published earlier in the year on states that can sustain themselves without waiting for the federal allocation and Edo state is among the first five and we are not a big revenue producer. We will build on these achievements.