ICYMI

May 11, 2024

Obaseki Explodes: We can’t secure Nigeria from centre anymore

Obaseki

Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State.

•Let’s redesign the country or …
•Vows not to run for president or any elective office under the present structure
•Explains how FG can be made accountable to the people
•Why I hardly lose my battles

The Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Obaseki, has carved a niche for himself by being blunt, accentuating his opinion and always speaking truth to power.

The strong-willed governor hosted a crew from the Vanguard newspapers in Benin City, Edo State, last Thursday, and as usual, was in his elements. The Editor, Mr. Eze Anaba, led the team of Mr. Onochie Anibeze, Saturday Editor, Mr. Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, and Mr. Alemma Ozioruva-Aliu, Correspondent, to Obaseki’s domain.

He spoke on the state of the nation, his service to the Edo people and, among many other things, what he would be doing after leaving office. We serve you the first of the two-part interview today.
Excerpts:

Chief Edwin Clark and other Nigerians are talking about restructuring, and you have been very vocal about the economy, like the printing of money and all that, some people thought you exaggerated, did you?

I saw that the underbelly of Nigeria opened during the COVID-19 episode and after COVID-19. We were here, locked in, and could not go anywhere. I thought that was a wake-up call for us to maintain our distance and move ahead but I did not see it.
We printed more money like many countries did, as people did not work, but that added to our burden because, if you check, the federal government never fulfilled its budget in the last 20 to 30 years.

“They always spend more than they earn but under Buhari, it accelerated, particularly after COVID. COVID meant that you had to put money in the system, everybody in the world did it and everybody is suffering that now.

“That is why we have global inflation, but ours was excessive, so we have a normal problem under normal circumstances that we have to deal with. Inflation in the last 20 years, and then, COVID happened, we were still behaving the way we used to behave, that added to the COVID effect.

“That was why I panicked; it was like you people not seeing what I was seeing, that the amount of money you put in takes almost a decade to digest? That was why I raised the alarm and everybody started shouting at me.

Have things changed?

No, because it has become structural. Unless you redesign the system to earn more, if you are relying on crude oil, the system should allow you to produce more. Today, we are producing 1.2 million barrels per day, and it cannot keep us.
The only way you improve it is to say Edo State, you have 107 wells, and only 53 are producing, Mr. Governor, take, get people to explore, whatever you produce; keep this, give us that; will I not jump to it?

Zamfara State, you have these mining sites, go, own your licenses, and we will help you supervise this, will they not jump at it? Pay 60 or 40 per cent into the federation account, unless we grow to that, we will not increase our revenue. Even security will not grow, and you cannot secure this country from the center anymore, so our country needs a redesign urgently.

You seem to toe the line of restructuring
No, it is not restructuring but redesign, this design has expired, redesign.

Some people pushed this in our recent history, the late Bola Ige was one and he said all politics was local, and that he was first a Yoruba man before being a Nigerian. Late Vice President Alex Ekwueme talked about six regions so specifically, what do you think?

We are where we are now, we are 36 states, and we cannot do much about it, I am not sure Delta wants to join us again to be Bendel. No, we are 36 states. How do we now organize ourselves among the 36 states? The first thing is to devolve power to everybody. Let us now have a strong centre in a different way; let those who are strong enough be on their own, but we all must now contribute to the centre and not the centre taking it, and then saying, you, take this or that.

It should be the reverse; otherwise, we will not get the full potential of the country because this country is too rich.

Those in government, particularly the lawmakers, are not ready for this, so how can such change occur?

The contradiction will come to a head in some form, and we see it. Banditry has been with us, terrorism has been with us for some time but we are still using the same solution to try to resolve it, and it is not being resolved. I have served as governor. The other position I may want to aspire to will be president, but I cannot aspire to be president of Nigeria under this structure.

You attend National Executive Council, NEC, meetings with your colleagues, you are vocal and even recently, you spoke out. What is the NEC meeting like; this printing of money, did the council not castigate it?

This printing of currency, did the NEC not castigate me? Yesterday, we had a meeting where some people were saying no, I should not have jumped the gun to announce my minimum wage, but I said this is not a union; I felt that one year after such a fundamental economic shift, there should be something better for my people, they have suffered too much.

I wake up every day seeing them suffering and unable to eat, and you expect me to say that I am waiting for somebody to finish his negotiation before helping my people? No, if you finish your negotiation, whatever it is, we will now align.

What is your relationship with Mr. President?

He is my president; I swore to uphold the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and I accept him as my president.

Can Edo be like Lagos?

The president has many challenges on his table, and for us to help him, every governor should focus on his state; try to make sure you do things right to make your state peaceful and orderly so that you do not add to his problems.
I talked about redesigning the country, those are the big issues he should be thinking about; how we can build consensus around that but if we disturb him every day with banditry here and kidnappings there, we are not helping the process.

When Mr. President assumed office, he removed fuel subsidies and then, the floating of the naira, we have more cash now, so, how has the country felt since then starting with Edo?

We have more cash, I can afford a higher wage. That is why I can afford to pay a higher salary to Edo workers. I have more and for the first time, I am balancing my budget, I pay contractors and I’ll leave office without any debt for my successor, but I can do nothing about the inflation.

I am paying you in the same naira that you worked a few years ago, but it is not the same value because of inflation. In Nigeria, we do not think in relative terms, even though I have just done N70,000 minimum wage, it is less in value than when I was paying N40,000.

What we are doing now in Edo state is investment; we do not have to wait for revenue from crude oil. We have land; we have given 70,000 hectares of land to about seven companies in the last three years, to do oil palm.

“We have them do the clearing, we have a global agency responsible for oil palm production so that whatever we produce in Edo can have acceptability at the international level, so these are what we are doing.

Another thing that has led to growth here is that we flew over Edo, and did our Geographical Information Service, GIS. If you apply for a Certificate of Occupancy, C of O today, it will only cost you N50, 000 and you will get it in less than 60 days. I have issued 10 times more C of Os in two years than the C of Os issued since the creation of Edo State. What is the implication of that, it means that everybody has some collateral and can source for money, so there is better capital formation.

After now, are you done with politics?

I will not say I am done with politics because, having led people, they will always look up to you but whether I will go for a national assignment with the structure of Nigeria today, I will not. I will only join any group of people who want to reform and change the political structure of this country.

How can you change the structure of this country by being aloof?

We will participate in the change from different dimensions. I would not want to go and sit in the Senate and say we are sitting to amend the constitution which will not be possible because it will negatively affect us, as we are today, who does that? I do not know how it will work, but clearly, the system is not moving us forward.

“To give you an example, one of the challenges we have here is the civil service, the more we drive down because we are carrying out huge surgical reforms, and you cannot digitize if you do not back the processes.

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“Now, the civil service we have is a British-mold civil service that supports a parliamentary system, we have not adapted this civil service to the kind of presidential system we have now chosen. Civil servants have confidence in a parliamentary system but don’t know when the government will end.

A permanent secretary is there to hold office, look at a years ago, how many prime ministers we had in England- about three in a short space of time, it did not affect the state, the government kept running, but under a presidential system, you know when the chief executive officer will come in, and the day he will leave.

Therefore, he is there, and he has to reign, so you cannot tell me you are permanent, I will sack you if I do not think you can help me to deliver; those are some of the contradictions I saw in this system.

Do you mean the people in government cannot effect the change we need?

The contradiction is nearing an end, you can see it; one day we will all have to sit down and say let us look at it because our biggest problem today is improving revenues. How can a country that produced 2.1 million barrels not produce 1.3 million barrels today? How?

The system seems to know the problem but cannot deal with it.

I will be very blunt here, the concept and notion of Nigeria is ideal because we have created this superstructure, and expect that everybody will fit into it, but it is not working. I must first feel that I am an Edo man; I belong to the Edo nation, which is my primordial identity. You cannot take it and erase me, as Edo is part of Nigeria.

However, I have to control my resources and determine how to train my children, but I know I am too small and need somebody to give me cover, then, I say okay, 40 per cent of whatever I earn in Edo, I take part to the centre. If everybody does that in Nigeria, the centre will now be strong but more accountable to us, who are contributing. Today, we have a centre that is not accountable.

The demands on that centre are huge, so, unless we redesign, we will face real trouble. Every month, states, and local governments have to wait for the sale of crude oil, so our economy waves around crude oil production, whereas you ask yourself what about smaller African countries that do not have petroleum, how are they surviving, how are their local governments working?

Unless we go back there, it is a time bomb. I am hoping that we accelerate that process because today, we, as a country, are struggling to feed ourselves because it does not strike us that we are 200 million people and God gave us that advantage, we have a market that we are not developing.

You tried to assist the federal government on the deplorable Benin Asaba Road, what is the position today?

That is a challenge; it comes back to the issue of the design of our federation. The federal government takes 52 per cent of the money we earn monthly under the pretence that it would take care of these roads, connecting you and others. I have to do this and that and they give us about twenty-something per cent for 36 of us to share.

What we get compared to what the federal government pockets is several miles apart. Therefore, the federal government should fix roads connecting the states from the 52 per cent it takes. If you are not going to, why not give it to somebody else, the state, or some private persons to fix, maintain, and earn money from the service?

That is our argument, and unfortunately, because of location, the network of federal roads here is extensive. From the Ring Road to Agbor, Auchi, Sapele Road, Ugbowo to Lagos Road, and New Lagos Road, are all federal roads.

“We need to redesign this country, the design that took us here has expired; if we do not redesign the country. it will finish. What we need to do now is to say everybody go and do your own, Whatever you get, contribute this to the centre.

You survived all your fights with your predecessor, and persisted in the recent one with your deputy, what is the magic?
First, we must appraise these fights, what are they about? There are fights over principles, but they are not personal. For instance, in the struggle(not fight) with my predecessor, we agreed that we were coming to change the state from where we met it; where a few people just sat down and decided on who they would give what and what responsibilities in the state. That was what we came for.

We agreed, fought, succeeded, and that was the premise on which I came to power. I did not come to share money; I did not come to make money, I came to serve so I have been working the way I know to make life better for my people.
Then, some people came to tell me something else. I should do something else that will not allow me to achieve that goal. The option was to leave.

They said you need some compromises, and I retorted you could not compromise your core values, so if you prayed to God to allow you to serve your people, and He gives you, and you now want to come and serve yourself, or serve some people; for me, I do not see how God will be happy with me.

Therefore, whatever I do is based on principles; we are here in government not to enrich ourselves but to grow the entire society because in doing so if it is good for our people, it will be better for us. God favoured me because He knows that the fight I am fighting is not about me or how to make the next million dollars, it is about how to give assistance; how to help people. He has put in our custody, so He has always fought for me, and the people have always fought for me. That is why we have always won.

For my former deputy, I mean, this is somebody who had worked with me and we tried to run a state where everybody feels a sense of inclusion. We are a small state and our strength is in our unity, and you foster unity when everybody feels part of the whole and when everybody’s hand is on the plough.

Now came the time for transition; we had fought together. how do we transit? It has to be based on principles, and inclusion is key. Former governor, Senator Adams Oshiomhole hails from the same local government as you (my erstwhile deputy) in Edo North senatorial district. He served eight years; I come from Edo South senatorial district, and I have served eight years or almost finishing my eight years, the fair thing to do is to take it to the Central senatorial district, where they have only served as governor since 1999 for less than two years.

For me, If you do not allow equity and fairness, then, there is no basis for you to be governor because you hail from a minority group.

South is the largest senatorial district, so if you want it to be open and arbitrary, you do not even have a basis to contest. The South, where I come from, would have gotten it and continued, and how would that have been good for our state? Therefore, I said you were putting your interest before the general good.

Did he think that fighting could have paved the way for him?

It is part of it but he missed it because it was not Godwin Obaseki’s fight, it was to build a better Edo State. How does your ambition support building a better Edo State? People try to personalize the state; it is not about me.

It seemed you offered him nothing

Of course, we did. When the last National Assembly election came, we told him to go to the Senate, but he was afraid to take on Oshiomhole. Moreover, this thing, you do not just allocate it; you work for it.

What is the perception like in the state, do you think the people are with you?

If you were here on Labour Day, at least that was fairly representative of the people, the unions from different aspects of the economy, if you saw their reaction, appreciation, and gratitude, I felt very good that people could see that we have made progress from when I came in.

We had 30,000 boys and girls in Libya, but today, six years later, it is hard to find anybody trying to traffic anybody abroad. You have seen the growth in the economy, and the number of people coming into the state, two flights came from Lagos this morning, and the two of them were full. hotels are always fully booked, so that says something, if nothing is going on here, why are people coming in?
•Continues tomorrow