‘The Biggest Problem in Nigeria is the Failure of Government Bureaucracy’

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Godwin Obaseki
Nseobong Okon-Ekong was among a group of journalists who interacted with Governor Godwin Obaseki on the sideline of the recent Edo Summit

What would you say is your greatest achievement?

You can split them in two broad categories. In education, we have been able to pull back a system we thought was lost. Within a short period of time, we recovered our education system. This has huge life implication across the board. It helps us with social policy and many things. Number Two is the institutional reorder, where we’re now able to say, ‘look, first, this is our reality: we are only earning N100, therefore we cannot spend N200. With this N100, we will distribute  based on the promises we made when we were campaigning.’ We’re going to put so much in education, we are going to put so much in health and get the system to work. It’s the biggest challenge. The biggest problem Nigeria has today is the failure of government bureaucracy. That’s why you say, ‘I want to build a road, you can’t because there are all sorts of interests’. Everywhere else in the world, they have interests, but they get things done.

What didn’t you know about governance that you only got to know when you became governor?

I had some kind of pre-knowledge of government having worked as the Chairman of the Economic team. I knew a lot. What I didn’t know is that at the end of the day, people in the society really know what is going on. If they see sincerity of purpose, they will support. The fear was, ‘oh, everything is bad’, no, it’s not true. The reason you are having this push back is that when you talk to anybody, they would say this governor is working; because they know how much money the state earns. They saw how governments had behaved in the past. It’s really a pleasant surprise that as long as you’re doing things in the interest of the people, they really know that you are working.

What didn’t you know about Oshiomhole that you only found out after becoming the governor – considering how both of you started?

This is someone who had been the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NCL) and governor two terms, why would being the chairman of a party make you play God? I hope it’s not true, but the evidence is strong – I never knew he would be involved in anything related to compromising on the will of the people. I would have fought anyone who told me he could compromise to influence decisions otherwise. But everybody is complaining. That is the greatest disappointment.

As part of the old Bendel State, Edo was famous for cash crops like cooca, rubber and  oil palm. Why have you not taken pragmatic measures to re-enact that era in the agricultural sector?

We have lost the culture of agriculture in the South, particularly the South-south. With the advent of crude oil, everybody just left. For two generations, people haven’t really farmed on a scalable basis. What we are doing is working very closely with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), taking all the initiatives; rather than just be tokenistic and just mouth agric. What are the real issues? Agric is business and in every business there are risks. The first thing you want to do is to understand those risks and try and reduce those risks. What we’ve done with the CBN with commercial agric, is the anchor borrower programme. We put together a team, let’s do maize; let’s start from the short term; let’s do the grains. Let’s do maize, let’s do rice, let’s do soybeans. We’ve gone in; some of the old farm settlements we had, we cleared them, mechanised them. We’ve some of the young men, you want to do agric.We’ll cluster you and give you lots of five hectares each. And some of the young men have picked up; we’ve seen some traction, particularly in areas in the north, where we are doing rice. Today, we have about 12,000 hectares which we are working on across the three senatorial districts but the big elephant in the room are the cash crops, particularly crops like oil palm, cocoa and rubber. What we noticed is that a lot of our forest reserves have been badly degraded. We have about 630,000 hectares of reserves that were being handed over to the state. Today, less than 135,000 hectares are real forest. What we’ve done is that we have to save our environment. We go to a place that used to be a forest reserve and all you see there is elephant grass; that will never be a forest again. We decided to de-reserve and make about 120,000 hectares of such land available for oil palm. We are doing it in a structured manner; we’ve gone out, we’ve done all the work we need to do. The goal is that within the next 18 months, we’ll have about 120,000 hectares of fresh land under cultivation, either for oil palm, rubber or cocoa. We have the largest plantations in Nigeria today; besides Cross River.

What would you say are the gains of the Edo Summit so far?

This never used to happen. Edo people now look forward to something every year. Everybody comes together to talk about the state, talk about issues, to look ahead and try and understand what  government is doing. It’s a platform to help us communicate with our people. More than that, it’s a platform we’re trying to utilise to engineer governance; because most times, government seems to exist on its own as government. We have realised that it can’t work.

Government now wants to partner with the private sector. Our educational revolution, Edo-BEST, is working because we have a private sector partner. On our own, we couldn’t do it. To make the kind of impact we did, we need to have constant collaboration and communication with the rest of society. That old paradigm of government said, then it happened’ doesn’t work anymore. In any case, how much money does government have? If you look at the financial structure of Edo, next to crude oil, remittances account for a large chunk of our revenues or inflows as a country, right? Last year, reports have it that about $25 billion came into Nigeria as remittances. Given the size of our Diaspora, we (Edo) will easily account for 10 per cent of that inflow. So, about $2.5 billion would have come into Edo. How much is my total budget? Total budget at best is about $500 million a year. So, here is a government that is spending $500 million, but in that same economy, private individuals bring in five times what government has to spend. Any smart government would create a platform where it can continuously interact and understand what those people want such that that $3 billion that’s in that economy can quickly be grown and utilised for investment to drive economic growth. That’s the thinking.

The summit helps us to throw more light, create that communication, that bridge between what we are doing as government and the rest of the society. Our plan is to work before we begin to talk; because a typical model is that you you just keep talking and begin to commission things, so that people would say ‘he is working’. For us, we said no politics for the first three years. After three years, when election is ahead of you, you can begin to make the noise and play the politics.

When you win your second term, what and what should we expect from you?

We’ve laid a very solid foundation for growth. The country is in search of models that work. Lagos has worked, but people look at Lagos as an aberration: 16, 19 million people, port, a lot of private investment; so, it’s not like the rest 36 of us. But if Edo works; if we are able to drive IGR to be three, four times our receipt from Abuja; if we’re able to have a self-sustaining economy, it will be an example to many other states. You might find another 10 or 12 states that would say if Edo could do it, we should be able to do it. What I’m hoping is that we’ve made some significant investment in people (education), infrastructure; we’re building an industrial park down Sapele Road; it’s bigger than Agbara (in Ogun State).

What is significant about it is that the energy you need is already there. We’re working with the Chinese to build a river port. Hopefully, by the time we get the final things in place, Lagos is about five hours by water; so, on the Benin River, you can go into Lekki. And that would be the closest port to the belly of the country. Once you land, rather than truck goods 300 kilometres from Tin Can Apapa, you can barge them and move them here. Then, from Benin, you’re one hour from Onitsha, three hours from 70 million people. So, my second term is to consolidate on what we have achieved. By my second term, these children (current primary school pupils) will be going into JSS; so, next year I want to start by strengthening my junior schools, making them lift the hopes of the people who redesigned our educational system; for we’ve moved from the 6-5-4 system to the 6-3-3-4 system; but that has never really been implemented in real terms.

My aspiration is that by the time a child goes through the first nine years of learning in Edo, you’re ready for life. Even if you don’t have an opportunity to continue, you would have picked out something from your schooling system; because your first six years will consolidate your ability to learn. Then the next three years in junior school will expose you to life. And you must leave school with a vocation. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to continue to senior school or technical school, you don’t end up being a tout as the situation was here. At the end of the day, it’s about human capacity. Once you build the human beings, they make things happen.

What is your reaction to the plan by Pastor Ize Iyamu to return to the All Progressive Congress (APC)?

They have not approached me. As the leader of the party, I’ve not received any formal request. If you want to go into a party, you go through your ward. You ought to go through the leadership of your party, starting from your ward and say ‘look, I want to come in,’ and then the ward will now escalate it to your local government and say we have someone who has decided to join us and he’s going to be of tremendous benefit to us; he’s bringing money or bringing something to the party. I’ve not seen that; this is just newspaper speculation. He hasn’t called me to say he wants to join us.

One great achievement of former Governor Adams Oshiomhole was getting touts who used to disturb those who go to the South-east every time off the roads. But it is being said that the touts are staging a comeback. What plans do you have to avert the ugly trend?

He didn’t get them off the streets; I got them off. The fight you’re seeing today is essentially those guys fighting back. Once I came in, the first thing we did was to get them off the street. Before then, you couldn’t build a property. When I came in, if you were building, you would find some boys who would come and say they we’re the omo onile of this place, and you should pay – in GRA o! We dealt with that. Because of this Diaspora flow, they would sell one land to five, six people; you’re not here now, how would you know?

When I came in, I realised that for you to engender economic growth, to create an atmosphere for people to feel safe to bring money in, you have to dislodge them and look for an alternative for them. But some of them had become so stupendously rich that they would not even have a conversation with you about an alternative. Take my local government, Oredo; it’s like Etiosa Local Government (one of the richest local government areas in Lagos State). In 2016/2017 January, the total annual revenues of Oredo was N1.6 million; and the Chief Thug here, one of my cousin’s sons, celebrated his first one billion Naira, and one of these new generation banks came to give him a promotional car. I had to dislodge them. Today, Oredo, on a monthly basis, makes an average revenue of N80 million a month. So, what do you expect? Those guys are coming back because of the perception that, maybe, we can remove this governor so that we can have our freedom and peace again.

QUOTE:

In Edo, next to crude oil, remittances account for a large chunk of our inflow as a country, right? Last year, reports have it that about $25 billion came into Nigeria as remittances. Given the size of our Diaspora, we (Edo) will easily account for 10 per cent of that inflow. So, about $2.5 billion would have come into Edo. How much is my total budget? Total budget at best is about $500 million a year. So, here is a government that is spending $500 million, but in that same economy, private individuals bring in five times what government has to spend.