Adibe Emenyonu dialogues with Mr. Taiwo Akerele, Chief of Staff to Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, about his recently published memoir on his upbringing, the interaction with influential personalities. He also explained that the quarel between Obaseki and his benefactor, Adams Oshiomhole is political
You wrote a book recently, what motivated that piece of literature?
I finished writing the book in 2016 shortly before I was appointed Chief of Staff but I had to hold on to the public presentation because I became extremely busy afterwards. Right now, I wanted to do public readings but due to the Coronavirus and the political tension I also have to reschedule again. But nevertheless the book is ready. The book is dedicated to my parents especially my mother, Late Modupe Akerele who thought us a lot of values and issues of life and of course my dad who died when myself and my twin brother Kehinde were just 13 years old. I was extremely close to my father and I was the last person that saw him and spoke to him before he died that fateful Sunday morning. The book is about my growing up years at Igarra, my student days at St. Paul now Anglican Grammar School in Igarra and University of Benin, life as a pro-democracy activist, a banker and development economist. The role of mentors like Prof. Utomi, Julius Ihonvbere, Godwin Obaseki, Adams Oshiomhole and others in my life and of course, I wrote a little on the principles of Ujamah and Ozoveshe (good neighbourliness, collective humanity and selflessness). I looked at economic growth, domestic racial discrimination in Africa, the evil of quota system and federal character and other issues.
Part two looks at my life as a development economist and my role working with the World Bank and the EU (European Union) to draw resources for the development of Edo State. I documented the various steps we took and the entire political economy of working with development partners in Nigeria. I thank Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state for his support, remember we were all in the June 12 struggle together, also Dr. Reuben Abati who contributed one of his articles to support the book, of course Prof. Pat Utomi of the Center for Values in Leadership who thought me the principles of deferred gratification.
How has life been working as Chief of Staff?
I am in my fourth year now and I will rather view the glass as half full than half empty. First, I thank his Excellency, Gov Godwin Obaseki for the opportunity given me to serve in this capacity. At a time most people thought I was the youngest until I started drawing their attention to some of my colleagues in other states especially Kaduna that I am older than with some years. It has not been rosy for me as Chief of Staff, everyday I wake up I always see it as the last day. Up till now when I am going on holidays I remove all my private items from the office because one can be relieved of this position anytime any day by the appointing authority. I told some of my friends in the civil society coalition in January that I am surprised I am still Chief of Staff for almost four years. I am surprised especially when you don’t have a godfather or godmother standing in the gap for you during crisis.
I really thank the Governor once again for the opportunity and my people of Akoko-Edo who had earlier been marginalized over the years. I also appreciate this golden opportunity but as I said this is not an elective position you can exit or be exited at anytime. One thing I am happy about is that my life remains the same, I am still who I am, I still eat my normal food, I go to Ogbelaka for lunch, I go to Etete for Pomo sauce, I drive myself as much as possible, I am happy I am still part of the larger society, as you can see I just drove into the NUJ to have one or two bottles with my men here. Honestly, it’s a major victory for me and I thank God. It’s not easy for godfatherless appointees to survive public service no matter how competent or educated or intelligent you think you may be and I am talking very honestly here. Combining the business of politics, administration and governance together is a major assignment for the Chief of Staff.
How well do you know Godwin Obaseki your boss the Governor?
He is a very versatile man, very experienced and we had worked together for eight years before he became governor. We were very close pals even though he is way older than us in the economic team then. He treated all of us equally along with Igbinidu Inneh who is chairman Internal Revenue Service a very intelligent fellow with an MBA from Imperial College, and Henry Idogun who is the MD of the Procurement Agency a chartered accountant and others. Godwin Obaseki is a highly detribalised Nigerian. He has worked with people from different ethnic groups from all over Nigeria. He is very much in touch with his native Benin/ Edo origin and I am always very happy when I hear him speak the Benin language very eloquently. He comes from one of the most educated, industrialized, enterprising and large family in the city. When he made up his mind to run as Governor we were among the first set of believers and we told him he would make a very good governor anytime any day we never doubted and we immediately started work on voluntary basis. When I first mentioned his name in my Local Government Akoko-Edo, I was looked at as a very unserious fellow. But today he is doing very well.
How do you see the current political differences between the Governor and National Chairman of the APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole?
I have expressed my views on several occasions concerning this matter and I will just summarize by saying the governor remains the leader of the party in the state while Comrade continues to be father of all not only as a former governor but as current national chairman of the party. Adams Oshiomhole is our man anytime any day and he is best of friends with Godwin Obaseki what happened was a normal political disagreement which is settleable. Every other issue is subsumed under this sub issue. In any case, no matter the degree of war, dialogue and peaceful settlement remains the ultimate. Obaseki means well and he requires the support of all APC members and the electorate. I also want to use this medium to call on our colleagues who disagree with him to understand and forget whatever may have happened in the past. He is a man of peace and pro-development economist cum politician.
As a development economist what are your thoughts on the Nigerian economy?
Nigeria is an extremely poor country (simply divide your annual revenue by your population) but most people don’t understand when this statement is made simply because they see a few rich men here and there. But the quality of life of an average citizen is determined by the per capital income. Any country that is dependent on one source of revenue is doomed to always rise and fall and your GDP growth cannot be on the upward swing all the time. Especially when the price of our single product (crude oil) is determined by external forces such as the recent coronavirus pandemic, global recession, war or restiveness in the middle East etc and of course you don’t control OPEC. Even your domestic realities and fundamentals do not support maximum production capacity.
Until we begin to be serious about economic diversification, and I agree with Aliko Dangote on this in his recent interview, that we must take diversification seriously, (agric business, production, manufacturing, services, efficient maritime sector, organized diaspora engagement, meeting our domestic need) our people will continue to remain poor because economic opportunities are limited as a percentage of demand for formal engagement by the qualified and energetic youths. SMEs are largely informal and your data base for computation of indices is weak, infrastructure remains inadequate, population growth is not commensurate to economic growth. Nigeria credit system is still developing hence most people who are eligible for credit cannot access due to lack of reliable credit registry. Looking at our educational sector and curricula, we still offer outdated courses that are not relevant to modern day economic and industrial realities, our engineers are not encouraged, technology and science is treated with levity, our investment in mathematics, artificial intelligence, research and development is one of the lowest in the world. How much do we earn from cocoa, oil palm, cassava, yam, dairy products? And these are areas we have comparative advantage compared to other countries. But Izovida! Hence when the Governor of Edo state talk of investing in production centres, industrial hubs, agriprenuers business initiatives, solid mineral processing, oil palm and electricity in the state we know exactly what we are talking about and I am happy Mr Governor has not deviated from the trajectory of his mission.
How do you see government in Nigeria based on your almost 12 years of continuous work?
Government is not easy to run in sub Saharan Africa. I will not allow any of my loved ones to work in government especially my immediate family and of course in particular my children. There is nothing as demoralising as working so hard and receiving no commendation but continuous criticism. But for maturity and when you look at the impact you are making in the life of many people one would have long left the scene and of course one day very soon one still has to move on for others to come and continue. I mean we don’t have a system to calculate the intellect, man hour, energy and sleepless nights public servants spend and invest in the course of discharging their duties. Unfortunately for me I have not been able to adopt 100 per cent political approach to my way of doing things hence our work ethics is dictated by our orientation working with the World Bank, the European Union, DFID and other international bodies hence sometimes when you don’t get results (due to other people’s inability) after working so very hard, it is quite frustrating.
What are you most memorable experiences having spent over three years as Chief of Staff, after an equally eight years working either as SSA economic policy and planning, project coordinator for the World Bank and EU in the state?
I am extremely delighted to have worked with a team of dedicated professionals, politicians and young men and women who have passion for the development of Edo state. One of my key achievements is getting the World Bank to agree to support Edo state with budget support twice between 2013 and 2015 at a very young age and getting the National Assembly to approve was one of my happiest moments. Executing a lot of reforms spanning procurement, audit, budget, land, technical education and other key reforms efforts was satisfactory for me. In this I want to thank once again Godwin Obaseki, John Inegbedion, Clem Agba (now a Minister) and Mrs Yemi Keri former MD of ICT in Edo state who all insisted that this young man can do the job. As Chief of Staff, we have done well for our people and the records are there. I am rounding up a health care center we built with donations from friends for a very small community that lacked basic amenities five kilometers from Akuku Town. I always remember the governor told us from day one that we will be poorer than we came in which is okay by me. It’s a call to service. I enjoyed myself working with diverse set of people especially the political class, in Edo state we have a very intelligent political class, some of them lawyers, engineers, medical doctors, artisans, activists, farmers and foreign-based all committed to developing Edo state. I have learnt a lot working with them.