Oseloka Henry Obaze is a renowned international public servant. He served as the Secretary to the Government of Anambra State under governors Peter Obi and Willie Obiano before he voluntarily pulled out. In this interview select journalists, he spoke about his life as a public servant and why he is contesting to become the governor of Anambra State under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party. Peter Uzoho was there
Can you give us insight into your background?
I am a Nigerian citizen; and hail from Ochuche Umuodu in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State. I was educated in Nigeria, the United States and Europe, and worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before joining the United Nations system in New York. I returned to Nigeria in 2012 and served as the Secretary to the Government of Anambra State in the administration of Mr. Peter Obi. I also worked for the present governor, Chief Willie Obiano before separating from the services of the Anambra State Government on principle. In addition to writing on public policy matters, I run Selonnes Consult Ltd. A governance, policy, and management outfit in Awka.
What informed your voluntary retirement from the United Nations to join the Anambra State Government, which was like moving from the mountain top to a valley?
I do not see it that way. The highest point in my career as a public servant is the opportunity to serve my people. In the United Nations, I was fulfilled that I had a platform through which I served the entire world, but happier that at home I had the opportunity of giving a little back to where I started. Directly, I do not belong to the United States where I lived. I do not belong to over 65 countries I had travelled to trying to mediate in various crises. Despite my exposure, am at ease when I’m in my home town among the locals. So I belong to Anambra State, in the midst of my people and I derive the greatest pleasure by being among them and contributing whatever I can to their well-being and happiness. If you are true to self, a special joy goes with being amongst your people.
Was being among your people the sole reason you left the UN system?
During the Christmas season of 2010 and early part of 2011, the then governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi approached me to come back home and help in the re-positioning of the state as a frontline state in Nigeria. Initially, I was skeptical about the invitation; given the character of the generality of politicians in our country. Although I had kept abreast with his governance trajectory especially as it related to MDGs from afar, when he persisted with phone calls, I did further research about his public perception index. People that I spoke with were unanimous in asserting that he was genuine and totally committed to good governance. The feed-back suggested that he was one of the best governors striving honestly to transform the state for the better. Satisfied with that, we continued to discuss. He wanted me to join him immediately, especially after reading some special commendation about me from the UN Office. In essence, both of us, without knowing it, were conducting back-ground checks on the other. I cannot go into details, but after several meetings, I accepted his invitation to serve. It took me over one year to disengage from the services of the United Nations as I had been scheduled for some critical assignments to many troubled parts of the world for dialogue and mediation. Today, I am proud that I was part of Peter Obi administration.
With the benefit of hindsight since you returned to Nigeria, do you regret leaving the UN for local politics?
I believe I have provided some answers to this question. Properly understood, public service is the crown of one’s career as it offers one the opportunity to serve humanity. As a Christian, once you serve humanity following the precepts of the gospel, you are thereby serving God. The problem with some of us in Nigeria is that we hardly distinguish between serving self and serving the people. Be assured that the best part of my public life has been the time I spent serving the people of Anambra State. This is not necessarily in terms of remuneration, but with regard to contributing to the welfare of my own people. In the United Nations, I was comfortable and travelling across the world; but here in Anambra, one spends time cutting through the bush to some remote communities, wading through mud to access flooded communities, visiting erosion-devastated areas, and so on. In doing all these, one increasingly appreciates that service is mostly about those that really need it. Any action in that context adds value. Our people suffering in the villages are those that need quality service and that was what motivated me to seek the governorship of Anambra State.
By contesting, are you implying that the man there is not doing well?
Everybody has his or her God-given abilities. I believe the man is doing according to his ability, which does not necessarily translate into happiness for the people. Of course, there are many things he is doing which I will do differently, but again, it is a matter of priority and taste. Let me once more underline the point of departure and difference. I’ve been blessed and privileged to travel around the world and thus disposed to appreciating what good governance is all about. Good governance and service delivery is not about grandiose projects; it’s about small things that work seamlessly. The bottom line is efficiency, efficiency, be it in waste management, education, healthcare delivery or urban planning. We will strive for utmost efficiency in the most cost-effective ways. Contextually, I am very confident of my abilities; and my thrust is to tell the people what I will do for them and expect them to make informed decisions.
What would you do differently?
I have the privilege of working with the then governor, Mr. Peter Obi who laid a solid foundation for the sustained growth and development of Anambra State. I was happy to be part of that administration because justice and equity guided the conception and location of projects even as accountability and transparency were respected. He really endeavoured to institute a new order in the state. If I become the Governor, no matter how challenging the economic situation is, I will build on the savings Obi made for the state. Not to save is suicidal – for individuals, families, groups, organisations, state and countries alike. Interestingly, as he made the savings, he did not compromise on the development of Anambra State, through cutting the excessive cost of governance. I shall continue in this direction and also ensure that government appointments are based on need and not on patronage or nepotism. It must be stressed continually that good governance is about the deliverables to the people; basic needs and all, and allowing the people to use their God-given talents to flourish. Our people should not work for government; government must work for our people. Needless to say, there must be a secure environment and promises made must be redeemed. We must continue to draw lessons from history.
When Obi assumed office as governor in 2006, he started by completing 13 road projects inherited from his predecessor, Dr. Chris Ngige. On roads, I will do the same from where the incumbent stopped; though many of them are abandoned. Under my administration, the people of Anambra State will be informed of our various revenue sources, amounts and their utilisation.
As an insider, I’m aware that the Obi administration cleared its inherited arrears of salaries and did not default in paying public servants as and when due. Regular payment of workers’ salaries helps oil the wheels of governance. Taking care of public servants goes beyond giving them some rice at festivities and celebrating the gesture as if we have discovered a hidden truth. Under the current administration, how many civil servants are aware that government has since stopped paying its share of their contributory pension scheme, which has put their future at great peril. The unpaid pension contribution is being used to settle the high and low supporters of the government. What is the value in giving a 15 million Naira car to an individual who already had 10 cars, while the investment of 500 public servants due for retirement are not being meant. It’s a scandalous governance narrative.
In the area of health services, I am saddened that the erstwhile excellent partnership established by the Obi administration with the Church has been truncated. The last allocation given to faith-based and Mission health facilities in the state was even less than what the Obi administration used to grant to one hospital. Politics is politics but governance is about the people. I am aware that the funds in the MDG (now SDG) Account – through which the then Governor Peter Obi assisted mission-run health and educational institutions – have been diverted to the so-called “Security Vote”. This among other reasons why I decided to pursue the service option of contesting the governorship to do things right for the people of Anambra State. You will recall that in the latter part of 2016 I publicly proclaimed that Anambra has been high jacked. In my administration, government-owned health facilities will be given due attention, especially in equipment and health consumables. We must restore the health foundation laid by Peter Obi, and restore the health of our people.
How do we explain how the state regressed from debt-free status in Obi’s tenure to huge indebtedness to banks and contractors?
A study my team conducted reveals that with the current slide, the socio-economy of Anambra State will collapse in barely a decade’s time. We need to re-direct the path to sustainability and stability.
Every Anambra indigene must query the rationale for the claim by the current administration that it attracted over US$7.5 billion in investments. Why this deluge of lies and deceit? Though I’ve been out of government, I remain a member of the attentive public. Of this much I’m aware. Trading Economics of Nigeria reported not long ago that the actual foreign direct investment (FDI) that flowed into Nigeria in 2014 and 2015 were US$4.69 billion and US$3.06 billion respectively. The projected figure for 2016 is US$3.12, based on figures available from the first two quarters of 2016. So, if we accept that the Anambra State government attracted an estimated $7.5 billion in DFI in three years, it presupposes that more than half of the FDI that entered into Nigeria during the past three year are domiciled in Anambra. The inevitable question becomes: What of the other four viable states? As regards producing 230 metric tonnes of rice per annum, what this equates to is 20 ship loads of rice at 250,000 bags per ship, and 4.7 million bags overall. Where is such a huge production being warehoused? Those who are good in mathematics will have to figure that one out.
As I see it, it’s either the policymakers in the present government are being economical with the truth or its media hands are being clever by half. Most recently the achievement highlight was the export of Ugu vegetable leaves worth over US$5 million. Whatever excitement there was of the news, on deeper reflection and analysis, I realised the claim was skewered. The hardheaded question Ndi Anambra must ask, is the same I asked myself: what does it take to grow, harvest, package, preserve and export Ugu of such an amount of US Dollars? In even the largest farm in the state, what could be the portion of land allocated to the cultivation of Ugu – a highly-perishable plant? The value chain for such huge export of a highly perishable commodity does not exist. So what does a government hope to gain by lying to the people? You cannot build a society on a foundation of lies, propaganda and deceit, because they have very short life-spans. But what is most worrisome is that if something is not done soon enough to check this trend, those creating this confusion would have disappeared before the enormity of their havoc is realised.
If you are elected governor, what will be your major priorities?
I was part of the team that designed the Anambra Integrated Development Strategy (ANIDS). Though I was not in government when it took off, I contributed a paper – for free – to the then Governor Peter Obi on what I think should be done so that our people will benefit from his administration. One of the things I suggested, which I was happy was adopted, was the main-streaming of the Millennium Development Goals into the framework of his programme of action for the state. Thus, it was possible to undertake successfully, projects and programme in all sectors simultaneously.
Besides developing all sectors, I shall concentrate in ensuring that we have potable water supply in the cities of Onitsha, Awka, Nnewi and Aguata in the first place. I added Aguata because we know the challenges they go through getting potable water. Water is one of the little things that matter in the lives of people. For instance, rather than wastefully commit N15 billion to the three fly-overs that ended up causing more traffic congestions, I would invest the sum in the provision of potable water to Awka and Onitsha. The impact of that investment on the lives of the people will far exceed that of the fly-overs, which have merely boosted the egos of those in the corridors of power.
If you say you are developing Awka, you have to start from little basic things of life such as water, electricity and health services. If you are sincere about developing Awka, the state capital, why did you evacuate over 50 per cent of the electricity supply meant for the city to other places – when you could have supported the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) to secure alternatives that will not affect supply to Awka?
Again, before Peter Obi left office, plans had been concluded to build an Awka, Greenwood Project at Agu-Awka. If the N15 billion frittered- away on unplanned fly-overs was committed to the project, it would have had better, more enduring effects.
If that N15 billion was alternatively used to complete the dual carriageway to Umunya, where Obi stopped, you are aware it will have more positive impact on the people of the state and re-imbursement by the federal government is guaranteed. Alas, this government constructed fly-overs without even the permission of the federal government– a willful waste of resources.
You mean you would not continue with what the present governor is doing?
I have not said so. Purposeful and adaptive leadership and governance, is about weighing options and determining what is most beneficial to the people. Certainly, good public-interest projects and programmes will be evaluated positively and further enhanced; others will be tweaked and mainstream or grandfathered with a view to yielding higher public interest dividend and return on investment.
Since we must adopt global best practices, I will also review projects and programmes commenced by the Obi administration which may have been abandoned. In the end, we shall settle for what is best for the people of Anambra State. It’s common knowledge that Mr. Peter Obi attracted some industries and gave others required support to start seamlessly. These included SABmiller, Krisoral, Innoson, among others. Before he left government in March 2014, Distell, another world giant, and Niemeth Pharmaceuticals had concluded arrangements to set up their facilities in the state. We shall revisit these investor programmes and ask pertinent questions why some became moribund and others sold to investors who did not follow through on their contractual obligations. Ultimately, our goal remains to attract foreign and domestic investors who like the industries Obi supported, stand ready to offer employment, directly and indirectly, to our people.
What is your message to the people of the state?
We are at the cusp of a new dawn in Anambra. I encourage Ndi Anambra to study scrupulously the bona fides and antecedents of those presenting themselves for election and make informed choices. Let the choices be predicated on known values; more so, the record of incumbent administration and tangible realities on ground, if any. Furthermore, interpersonal relations, justice, equity and an appreciation of the dynamics of good governance must serve a critical variables for any evaluation.
With all modesty, I understand fully what international development partners are looking for. Focus, transparency and results-based programmes remain imperative. As an interlocutor, agencies, funds and programmes in the United Nations common system, seeing me as one of their own, will be well disposed to offering Anambra State the assistance it may require. As a consultant, I have proffered options to federal and state governments. If I can do that for them, you can imagine what I can do for my own state. With my international connections, nobody is better placed than I to attract other international agencies to the state. I did it under Mr. Peter Obi and I will do it again – if I am offered the chance to serve.