Edo State Governor-elect, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, in this interview with select journalists in Benin City, the state capital, unveiled his plans for the state and how to tackle other challenges in appreciation of the people’s votes for him. Importantly, he said no member of the opposition will make his cabinet. Adibe Emenyonu was there. Excerpts:
Now that you have been elected governor of Edo State, how do you hope to reach out to the opposition?
I am aware and cognisance of the fact that as governor, I am governor of all Edo people and a section of the political spectrum. Therefore, I am going to reach out and fortunately many of the people on the other side are people who are known to us, some of them are family.
So, we will continue to reach out to them in terms of explaining how policies are and what we want to do for our people, but clearly, even as a government of unity, we are not going to accept anyone on the opposition as a commissioner in my cabinet. We will reach out to them in other areas for cooperation.
When do you intend to constitute your cabinet?
The whole advantage of continuity is that having been part of the outgoing administration, it has offered me the opportunity to interact with the political leadership and we have a plan we are running on. I can’t put timeline to it but the first thing we are going to do immediately I am sworn in is to prepare a budget for the House of Assembly, I am not sure if that will not be so time consuming, than to talk about cabinet. But I have a few days to think through to see which one is priority, preparing a budget immediately or putting together a cabinet or see if I can accomplish both within a two-week time frame.
What in specifics will be the focus of your government?
The focus will not change in terms of Education and infrastructure. The added focus will be on job creation and empowerment. That is why we will focus on the budget and get the appropriation to emphasise those social aspects, which I highlighted during my electioneering campaigns.
Yes, we will continue to build roads and refurbish our schools but more importantly is how we get people to work or put them to work.
How do you hope to address pension issue in the state?
Well, from what I know people took advantage of the electioneering and try to see if we will make a quick resolution. I wouldn’t call it blackmail but people had hoped that in anxiety to win election, there are issues that would have been resolved. The truth is that this government has been very responsible on pension issues. They are not as reported. There are two separate issues to pension: there are issue of pensioners in the State Civil Service and Pensioners in the local government service. The issue with the state pensioners is that we have four years of pensioners we have not been able to capture and pay, that is, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
For 2012, 2013, the vouchers are ready and we are hoping to get more savings to pay those ones. For 2014, 2015, we will plan the cash for them hopefully we should be able to see slight improvement from allocation in Abuja. The way it was painted by the opposition was as if we were not paying pensions. We pay our pensioners those ones that have been documented about 11, 700 pensioners. The people we have not been able to categorise and pay is under 700 and that is the reality.
In the case of the local government service, we will have to seat down with them and make them more fiscally responsible to reduce their cost as well as increase their revenues, so that they can make all their obligations including pensions and salaries on a regular basis.
Which of the roads will be your priority as governor?
We may not be able to build all the roads immediately but we may have to priorotize and ensure that we undertake traffic studies and that will inform us on which road we have to build first before others. I am sure that the study will reveal that in other to move traffic across the city. From the Western end to the Eastern or Northern end, you need things similar to a bypass. That is definite.
How do you intend to resolve the tax issues?
Fortunately, I once served as the chairman, IGR committee while I was chairman of the economic team. I also served as Chairman of the tax assessment review committee, so I have a fair knowledge of what the tax regime in the state is. What I don’t have visibility on is what people are calling taxes because I know from the legal point of view, the sort of payment due to the state and those payments are backed by law. From what I gathered, during the electioneering, we need to understand very robustly what those issues are and who is paying what because it is so cloudy.
If for instance someone decides to sell of her wares on the side walk which is illegal and there is an arrangement that she will come every day to lay her wares and pay something to somebody, first it a series of illegality, you are not supposed to trade on a side walk; its government that owns the side walk and even if any economic activities were expected in that side walk, it should come to government and it is legislated.
But as we speak today, people go in and collect money from those people and the blame is on government. From what I know, the market associations, the various trade unions are people we need to have conversation with to know what is going on, what is legal and what should be collected. If there is an agreement to be paid in a particular market, if it is legal, they should look for a civil way for it to be collected and accounted for.
I believe that is the way to approach it because right now, they have all sorts of people on the street doing what they like. So, we need to strengthen our law enforcement and make sure we get people who are affected and involved in the process rather than continue to complain.
At what point should Edo people owe you accountable for your electioneering promises?
Well, the only time you owe elected leaders accountable is when he is seeking another election and has not given account of what he has done. But we have a tradition to annually address the state on what we have done and what we have spent. That process is built-in already.
What I am not too good at is playing to the gallery and trying to impress people. There is work to be done. We need to think through and get them done. People will know when you are working.
How will grassroots women benefit from your empowerment agenda?
Without being immodest, the experiences I have gathered over the last one year has been quiet unique. Government operates in a very interesting way. As a government and a government official, you are expected to execute your government policies through the structure that is ministries, department and agencies. What I found interesting during the electioneering is that we also have an effective political structure on the ground and I am not sure how our ministries and agencies penetrate through that political structure at the grassroots.
So, if I talk about empowerment, I am not going to leave it for Ministry of Women Affairs. I am going to try and work with the party leadership in every community. That person will need to give information to the Ministry of Women Affairs on the number of registered women so that the empowerment programme can get to them directly.
What plans do you have for the youth especially street urchins?
One thing we are very weak on is documentation. We have a youth crisis, but I can’t tell how many are involved – how many people that are within the ages of 15, 19 to 35 live in our various cities, how many of those people have received education up to a certain level? The first challenge is to understand the size of the problem, document them and that way we will begin to provide opportunities quickly. If I know I have 200, 000 persons in Benin City, and I know what they are doing today, I know the qualifications they have, I can now say every month I need to look for training for 10, 000.
I am optimistic that given the economic situation and given the facts that opportunity exists today, I am of the view that if we can quickly document and understand the size of our unemployment problems, we can put in place an effective plan to be able to transit a lot of our young people from their current state into the opportunity that was created or will be created.
Are we expecting more women in your government?
In constituting my cabinet, I have to go back to my political party because it is the party that won the election. And I have to use the women resources in the party. I will not go elsewhere and ask people to call people to be part of my government and during my electioneering I didn’t see too many women in politics relative to the number of men. If you check the ward, out of 26 party officials, the maximum women you find is five.
So, except we begin to address the issue from the women participatory stand point, we are not going to change it quickly. But my plan is that if you focus on women empowerment and get them more politically conscious by reaching out to them, they will see the benefit of participating in their politics. They do now by going to vote but taking offices and being part of the way things are run even at their ward level is what we will encourage.
How grateful are you to the Edo voters?
I am truly grateful and I have every course to be grateful because for me, this is an unusual expression of trust. I am immensely grateful to them and to God but I believe that gratitude is best expressed by what you do rather than what you say. Yes, I can say thank you but beyond thank you I should express my gratitude by going to work for them tirelessly and doing those things I promised to ensure that their lives are improved so that the expression of trust translates to better life for them.
Do you subscribe to a big or small government?
When people participate in politics, they expect something, like appointments as a way of compensation. Unfortunately, today, I will not be able to guarantee that I will be able to even pay them if I give them those opportunities but I am under obligation to give benefits and we are going to strike a balance. I believe that the quicker we begin to open up the economic space, we will create an alternative opportunities outside government.
People want to get the benefit of participating in a government but that benefit doesn’t have to come expressly in appointment. We will look for ways to introduce them to those opportunities – recruiting teachers in all schools, education and on student bursary. First, government owes certain key obligation to us as a people. Free primary basic Education and our policy in Edo state is to make sure that basic education is qualitative. So, the first thing we have done is to try refurbishing the infrastructure particularly in our primary and secondary schools.
The next thing we are going to do is to ensure that we improve the quality of our teachers, train them so that if one has access to only primary education, that education should be sound enough to lay the basis of life. At what point do we begin to pay for anything in the society? I agree primary, secondary education is free and we must sustain that, but the contradiction is that we can’t make tertiary education free.
You are expected to contribute but as long as you have an admission into a university or a higher institution, and you want to have quality then we have to set up mechanism like bursary and loans for you to pay. That way it is guarantee that we have qualitative university education. What we are doing now is pretending to ourselves that the university is out of the reach of the poor and as such, people should not pay. What are the consequences? You are not able to pay the teachers, you are not able to get good quality teachers and therefore it affects the output.
Let us begin to move gradually out of the dependence syndrome. What we want to do is like we are building quality in our primary and secondary, we should build quality at the university level but in building quality because it is much more expensive there, you and I must contribute because it can’t be government alone.
I want to thank each and every one of you in the media for the support you gave to me particularly from last year when I started campaign for my primaries. You have been there for me. You have always reported balanced stories. I want to thank all of you who have been there for us, you have been great and my request to you today is that I am your creation, don’t abandon me because you can see how powerful communication is in politics. My opponents have used it very effectively but unfortunately on the negative side but we intend to work with you and put our positive and more inspiring communication to our people so that together we can take our state to the next level.
We will continue to reach out to them in terms of explaining how policies are and what we want to do for our people, but clearly, even as a government of unity, we are not going to accept anyone on the opposition as a commissioner in my cabinet. We will reach out to them in other areas for cooperation