Since February 3, 1976, when Ondo State was created from the then Western State, it has always been in a class of its own in politics, human and natural resources. In this interview, the Commissioner for Information, Hon. Kayode Akinmade, spoke on how Governor Olusegun Mimiko has boosted the profile of the state through infrastructural development. Raheem Akingbolu brings excerpts
The decision of Governor Olusegun Mimiko administration to embark on construction of a Dome generated debate few years ago, what do you think informed the project?
The dome was built principally by Mimiko administration to turn Ondo State to event destination. The state government conceived the idea of creating an international platform for events to attract the rest of the world and so came up with the construction of a standard Dome that could be of international standard.
In line with that aspiration, the state also thought there was a need to build urban centers that would make Ondo State a stop shop for conferences, shopping and hospitality. As I speak, the state is also talking to some partners who are working to provide a five star hotel, close to the Dome. The Hotel is important in the same vicinity so that it will serve the dome and attend to the needs of conferences holding at the Dome.
In the same way, the state conceived the idea of a shopping mall, which led to the building and inauguration of Shoprite recently. Therefore, the idea behind the dome is to draw all major events in Nigeria to Ondo State. What we have there can conveniently sit 2,500 guests at the same time. In addition to the main hall, we also have three other adjoining domes that can collectively accommodate 4,500 people at a time. What that translates to is the fact that if we have events that involve about 6000 or 7000 people in Nigeria, Ondo State is an ideal place for it. With it, it will be easy to convince potential guests that Ondo has the best place in terms of event packaging and procedures. The one that is ready is the one that can sit 2500. It also has two syndicate rooms that can sit 1000 and 650 participants, respectively with ease.
In the last few months, we have hosted two events; the Nigerian Society of Engineers, which attracted about 6500 Engineers across the country and The Best of Nollywood Award in December last year, which attracted artists nationwide.
Beyond the Dome, what are other things visitors to Ondo State stand to enjoy?
Before going to that let me quickly add that another thing we want to achieve with the dome is to bring out people from the boisterous atmosphere in Lagos to a more serene environment. Aside hosting events, Ondo State can also provide tourism opportunities for visitors. For instance, Idanre Hill Resorts is just a few kilometers from here. This place to Shoprite is about two kilometers and from here to our Habitat Heritage at Owena is about 16 kilometers. And to our medical village is about 22 kilometers. Now, Ondo State is not only providing hospital but we are providing one with the best facilities money can buy.
It is believed in some quarters that Governor Mimiko focuses more on the health sector, could that be because he is a medical doctor?
That Mimiko develops only the health sector is the figment of the imagination of those that hold that assumption. In the history of Ondo State, there is no government that has built 54 mega schools from the scratch. There is no local government you can visit that you will not see either the type ‘A’ or type ‘B’ or even Type ‘C’ of such schools. It is not however building for building sake but we are building for the need of the next generation. Our public schools in Ondo State are far better than private schools in the country with the best of facilities and the best human resources. Ondo State does not only meet the UNESCO standard, it surpasses it because UNESCO recommends 26 per class and ours is 25 per class. The teachers interact with students in Ondo Mega Schools with electronic billboards and we also have e-library. Students here can connect to the internet from the comfort of their classes. They can also access information that would enhance quality learning through the internet. Even as a researcher, one can enter any of our libraries and study extensively for PhD.
When we were young, we don’t have access to all these but we are creating this for the next generation so that our students will not look inferior to their counterparts in Ivy League Schools like Corona or The Vale College. It is only here that you see parents withdrawing their children from private schools to public schools. And it is only here that you see the child of a carpenter sitting side by side with the child of a commissioner or bank manager in the same class to learn. With this, we have bridged the gap between the rich and the poor because the quality is there and the standard is there. Governor Mimiko is doing all these to use the instrumentality of government to create a kind of equilibrium.
We also provide transportation by taking the children of the less privileged from their homes to school and come back every day at no cost to their parents. During a recent interactive session, one of the parents stunned our people when he said the state government saves him N800 everyday because he has four children, who would have required at least N200 each to go to school every day. If that is multiplied by 30, we can imagine how such parent would have saved per month. Beyond this, we are trying to change the psychology of the children in a way that they would feel the impact of government and will be willing to contribute their quotas in future.
How far has the administration gone about the much talked about urban renewal?
Urban renewal is something Mr. Governor has always taken serious. It is no more a dream but a practical intervention to change the face of Ondo State. That Akure appears more beautiful these days is not by accident. Looking back, Ondo State was created since 1976 and it has been on the master plan since then that Arakale should be dualised but no administration considered it necessary until Mimiko administration came on board.
Until 2009, no government had the political will to dualise Arakale, simply because of some myths that were built around a few trees or junctions. There had always been the belief that if a particular tree was uprooted, demons would appear and so past administrations got scared. But when Mimiko assumed office, he said government was created to make life easy for people. To this end, he went out and did reassessment of the area and spoke to the people on the need to move away from the past and got the place developed. He went there and conducted an inventory on the number of shops, houses and agreed on compensation for all of them. He went a step further by taking the assessment of the residents, including tenants, who would be displaced and went out first to see how these people would be compensated. It was after this that Bulldozer went into Arakale and guess what, when it eventually came, our people were simply clapping. From the beginning, they were carried along, government made them know that they mattered and that the development was for better. People living within may not appreciate this much but people who have left Akure seven or eight years ago, will recognize the facelift more. It took a proactive government to get that one done.
Another important point to note is that while we were taking the inventory of traders on the street, we realized the need to get befitting markets for our people. That was part of what led to the building of neighbouhood markets in all the local governments. In Akure alone, we have about six of such markets. In a way, these markets have also changed people’s perception and status. In the past our market women went to market in tattered clothes because they were bound to come home dirty because of the environment but now with convivial environment, they go to their markets as if they are going to party. Many of them have DStv and other devices in their shops. They get all these at minimal cost unlike some states, where these things are built for the bourgeoisie. All these are done through the intervention of government to better the lots of the people.
There are also micro credit schemes instituted by Mr. Governor to give traders soft loans at single digit interest. Traders were asked to organise themselves into groups –egbe alalubosa, egbe alata, egbe alaso and the rest and access the loan through their various groups. With this intervention, we have changed the practice of the past when women would go to the shylocks, who gave out money under very harsh conditions.
What has the administration done to engage the youths?
On assumption of office, Mimiko discovered there was a disconnection between the people and the government and quickly gathered some vibrant youths and trained them in various vocations. After this, he took them to community development ministry and cooperative societies where they were called changed champions. Along the same line, on assumption of office, Governor Mimiko sent a team of people to the nooks and crannies of the state to do need assessment of the people. Initially, people were skeptical simply because they had not seen that kind of government at work in the past. What they were used to was for government to decide alone and embark on projects. But because they were not part of the decision making process, they hardly protect these projects and in most cases, it might not be what they needed in their communities. As a result of such interaction, about 656 communities based projects have been constructed in communities. In some communities, they suggested town halls, some wanted cottage industries while some went for hospitals. That is why anywhere you get to; you see projects that align with the need of the people.
The administration was in the news few years ago as a result of its construction of a particular hospital that cared for women, what informed it?
When Mimiko came on board, the statistic we found indicated that Ondo State had one of the highest maternal mortality rates, what that means was that there was a chance that a particular percentage of women in pregnancy would die in Ondo State. Mimiko found it odd and declared that pregnancy shouldn’t be a death sentence to our women and he moved in with a health initiative to arrest the situation. He also identified the jeopardy of women in society; the discrimination against them, the motherhood and the struggle to keep their homes. He also observed that women in this part of the world grow older than their age because of the high mortality rate. It is here that you see a woman who is just 35, looking as if she is already 60. To this end, he came up with the Abiye project, which has entered the global lexicon when it comes to addressing maternal mortality issues.
It has not only won local recognition but also United Nations and the accolades of other international organisations as the best intervention in that regard in the whole of Africa that other governments could emulate to better the lots of their women and children. And how did we arrive at this? We connected our health facilities together; we connected the health centers in various towns and villages to the comprehensive health centers and connected them to the state specialist hospital. We also thought of the need to have a referral center that would take care of life threatening cases. That was what brought about the idea of Mother and Child hospitals; we currently have two; one in Akure and the other in Ondo town. Before the end of the year, we are planning to have another two in the South and Northern Senatorial districts. With this, we have been able to empirically prove that Ondo State is now leading other states in Nigeria in the area of checking maternal mortality issue.
There is another argument that development in Ondo State is concentrated in the Central Senatorial District, what is your take on this?
Again, that view can only be shared by people who don’t go beyond a senatorial district. In Owo, the government has constructed a dual carriage way that is of world standard. Owo is an ancient town with historical antecedents because the formation of Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1954 was in Owo, the formation of the then Unity Party of Nigeria was in Owo, the first executive governor of Ondo State, Chief Adekunle Ajasin was from Owo, the ancient School, Imode College that has produced many prominent Nigerians is in Owo and a lot of other historical antecedents. We should not forget too that the late Ajasin, an Owo indigene, wrote the education policy of the then Western Region of Nigeria. Unfortunately, the town has been alienated for years in the area of infrastructural development until Governor Mimiko came on board. Today, if you enter Owo, what you see is asphalt laid beautiful road that makes the ancient town attractive and the people are excited. Again, on your way to Owo, there is a mega school built in Uso that can accommodate at least 1500 pupils. And within Owo town, there are two of such mega schools, while we are also working on another one in the Ijebu-Owo area.
In the Southern Senatorial District, many of these projects have also been extended there. As we speak, the dualisation of Igbokoda road is about 98 percent completed. Recently, the state government was in Irele to commission the Iyasa-Igbesa road. Same for the Riverine area, where we now have many roads under construction; there are some we inherited which we completed while we are also working on some new ones.
Despite the economic challenges facing the nation, Ondo State has three state universities, is this not a misplaced priority?
No, far from that, a state must know where its strength lies. In Ondo, our strength lies in quality education and it is not by accident that we are referred to as the intellectual power house of the country. For instance, Ondo State alone can proud of ten distinguished scholars that have won the coveted merit award meant for individuals who have distinguished themselves in the area of research and scientific discoveries. In the entire country, 100 scholars have been admitted into this hall of fame and we have 10 from our state. It used to be 60 until recently when it jacked up to 100. It will amaze you to know that there is a family in Ijare, Ondo State that produces two of such professors. Therefore, education is important to us and we don’t want to spear anything to fund it. As we speak, we have some countries that have no natural resources but rely on their intellectual investment to attract wealth. Japan is one of them and India is moving toward that level too. To achieve this, one cannot get it overnight but by planning and serious investment in education which is what Ondo State has done.
We have three universities and they are properly funded. In Akungba, something unusual is happening there, the tuition fee of our students is more affordable than those of other state universities –our students pay just N25,000. In some states, students pay as much as N200,000 to 250,000. Ondo does all these to make education affordable for the common people. The University of Technology in Okitipupa was established to drive the state’s technological base; we don’t want a situation, where our students who are technologically inclined will be denied admission. We also don’t want a kind of capital flight that can arise when we would have to look elsewhere to look for engineers. Above all, we are building the future and next generation of Ondo State through huge investment in Education.
The governorship election in the state is around the corner, how friendly is Mimiko’s administration towards politicians across different political divides?
The current administration is liberal when it comes to electioneering campaigns. We believe in democracy and we hold its tenet dearly. The governor has consistently said that you cannot get the best leader for the people if you don’t allow politicians to air their views and campaign. Moving round, one will notice the way posters are pasted in all the nooks and crannies and we are not moved. Even at the risk of blackmailers, we create a level playing field for people to campaign because it will be a disservice to the people if politicians are denied opportunities to campaign.
There was even a time, when some television and radio stations in the state took liberty for license to lampoon and undermine the current government but we never allowed it to distract us. The Ondo State Dome that has now become a pride of all was once labeled a ‘doomed dome’ but at the end, we achieved our aim and our people are now applauding us for it. In Ondo, we have discovered that truth will always be constant. At the appropriate time, our people will again take a decision and I trust them, they will not take a decision that will circumvent their progress and enslave them the more. Ondo people will never go back to Egypt.