The Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, in this interview with THISDAY, situates his strategic vision as a politician, who is future-focused. From reforms in education, public service, agriculture, economy, he notes that he is not in politics for short-term benefits but to set the foundation for the rebirth of Edo State and to place it on good footing as a leading sub-national on the continent. Excerpts:
In the last six years, Edo has recorded significant progress and it’s evident. However, in the areas of education, resetting infrastructure for growth and human capital development, what would you say has been the most difficult decision you have taken so far?
I think almost all the decisions we have had to take have been very difficult because it’s like we’re trying to get a trailer, a heavy-duty truck to accelerate its pace of movement to be able to meander through difficult terrains. Every decision we have taken has been difficult because some of them were not understood when we took the decisions earlier and there was natural resistance or scepticism about why we took those decisions. But let’s just look at a few.
First was the issue of education and the need to retrain the teachers. If you recall, before my time, my predecessor actually attempted to deal with this issue but there was a huge backlash. You will remember the humiliating experience of a teacher not being able to read. So, for us, any attempt to try and start reform in that space was being suspected, and dealing with the unions was a problem. I believe we were able to overcome that challenge because we were able to build trust very early and trust in the sense that whatever we committed to, we came through. How did we deal with the issue of teachers when we adopted the EDOBEST model? When we said we needed to retrain teachers, we told them that the first batch of teachers we wanted to train was voluntary, it was optional and there was no compulsion.
It was after the very successful outcome of the training for the first set of 2000 teachers that the others began to see that there was something very positive for them; that now made it possible for us to get the buy-in from the other teachers. Like I said, every decision has been very difficult. In terms of governance, you’ve got to make choices: Do I put more money into building human capacity or infrastructure? If so, what type of infrastructure and who are those to benefit? There will be winners and losers in every policy decision you make and those who lose are not going to keep quiet; they are going to make trouble.
So, for us, on the scale, I think every decision has been difficult but one common thing is our ability to show commitment, earn the trust of our people, and this trust is built on our ability to show accountability. You know you can say anything about the Godwin Obaseki-led administration but nobody has ever accused us of stealing money; nobody has ever said we gave contracts that were inflated and took the money. In fact, on the other hand, people are always asking, ‘where and how are you getting the money to undertake these projects?’
In six and a half years, all the reforms you started are getting to a point of convergence. Are you satisfied with the results you are seeing?
I am happy; I won’t say I am satisfied. I am happy that things are finally beginning to make sense, but we are not where we should be. What we have done in six and a half years is to show that it is possible to reform and undertake meaningful transformation and gain the buy-in of the people. Reform and transformation take time and we are in the middle of most of the reforms of Edo State now. Take education, for instance. We started the EdoBEST transformation programme in 2017 and in five years, the children we started with are just in primary 5, but the foundation has been laid.
We won’t have time to see them through junior and senior secondary schools and all the other things they need to do. We are glad and I am happy. That is why I say, I am happy that we’ve been able to lay the foundation. I am not satisfied because we are not there yet. It’s when we get there, when we begin to see these children go through universities, get world-class jobs, that I can be satisfied.
Yes, but can you say with confidence that those children show a significant difference than it was previously, before the reforms?
Definitely! In fact, there are very objective criteria to evaluate learning outcomes and these are standard criteria. By the time a child has received instructions after a certain period, for instance, a child of 8 years, who is in primary 2 or 3 must be able to read a certain number of words per minute without any assistance and these are standards. And for us in Edo, our children are doing better, almost 75% more than the Nigerian average and when you benchmark them to global standards, they are slightly under what their peers are doing in Asia and Europe.
Coincidentally, this education sector is where you are getting the most accolades and comments from both within and outside the country. What is the one thing about the reform so far that gives you that joy, to say, ‘I got it right?’ Or has it gotten to that point where you can say ‘I actually got this right?’
I think we have made significant progress but I can’t say we have gotten it right completely yet. It is still in progress. What I can say is that one is impressed when you listen to these children. The way they speak – their diction, rationality and sense of logic, it gives you joy. I will tell you a story I have told so many times before. Two terms after we introduced EDOBEST, a parent came back to say, governor I am so glad about what you are doing in education. He said he has two children – two sons. One is 6 years old and the other 10 years old. The 6-year-old is in primary 1 and the 10-year-old is in primary 4.
The one who is 6 years who is now immersed in the EdoBEST reform comes back from school, does his homework, and is excited. He loves getting ready for school the next day. The one who is 10 years comes back from school and goes out to play ball. The one who is 6 years old wakes up early and wants to go to school because he wants his name to be on the Character Board and enjoys the other exciting things integrated into the EdoBEST programme. The parent said he could see the progress in the 6-year-old but can’t see the same in the 10-year-old because the younger one is reading better than the elder brother.
So, he asked, governor, what should I do? Can I bring the 10-year-old to come and join the brother in one of your schools? So, we had to come up with teaching at the right level. This was to help those who were in higher classes whose classes did not kick-off with the EdoBEST programme to adjust. Back to your question, it gives me a lot of joy to see the result when you benchmark the performance and outcome of these children with their peers. I am personally confident that if we continue at this rate, we will not have another generation of a large number of school dropouts.
Your tenure will end in the next one year and a few months. How do you ensure that the person who will take over from you shares this same passion, vision, purpose and commitment to take it to the next level? That should be a challenge for you.
Yes, you see, that’s why we worry consistently. At the end of the day, it’s about building institutions so that it doesn’t matter too much who comes. You know that certain things must happen. For us, we are optimistic that if we continue at this rate and deepen reforms to a certain level, no matter how bad the person who takes over is, the system will endure. For example, we believe that with what we have done today, in the next six or seven years, the teachers in our schools know that at a certain time in the month, they get their salary.
They know that there is a system that checks on the time they clock in, that there is a quality assurance team that goes round and checks them, that there is technology and you can’t run the school system without that technology that we have put in place. We hired a fresh batch of 5000 teachers who do not know another way of teaching except the EdoBEST way. So, even if we have someone who does not believe in our reforms, there is a huge audience of almost 300,000 children in the system. Just imagine their parents, then over 16,000 teachers, who are there, watching. You don’t want to hurt these people. If you are going to stay on top politically, you won’t ignore them.
Digital transformation is another part of the accolades you get. Edo is now seen as a technologically advanced state because you are trying to digitalise everything, including the C-of-O of land acquisition processes. How challenging has it been?
I think this has been one of our greatest challenges because you know the thing with technology and digitalization; it is a culture change, getting people to do things differently from how they are used to doing it. First, technology and digitalization bring a certain level of transparency and openness and therefore accountability sets in. This was not the norm in the system before we came in. There was natural resistance. The average age of civil servants when we came in was 47 years. Meanwhile, the mean age of the population of the State when we came in was about 19 years old. You can see the difference between the people running the civil service and the public.
At 47 years, it takes a bit of pain to adopt the use of technology. So, that was a real challenge and it continues to be a challenge. How have we been able to overcome it? We overcame it because fortunately for us, we saw that the civil service had not been adequately staffed. We found out that there were huge vacancies in the service. So, we have been able to bring in an army of young people who understand the culture of technology. With that, we have been able to adapt to the digitalized system rapidly and we have moved so far. In the last few years, we have digitalized our archives, almost 9 million records. So, it’s there. We built our own data centre in Government House. We have made all the major investments including the fibre optic connections that cuts across the entire State.
Talking about data, which is important for planning, Nigeria is notoriously known for not having proper data for different aspects of planning. But you are really pushing this in your state. What do you say to your fellow governors and even the federal government to put emphasis on data because you can’t plan without accurate data?
I think it all happens for two reasons: the whole world is moving digital. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the future, right? So, even if you are not deliberately or unwittingly collecting data, data is being obtained. By just holding your Android phone, we can just get data about your movement and all. By doing just that, your data is being gathered. The issue here is maybe we have not seen a successful model within our clime. So, what we have tried to do in Edo is real and it will then serve as an impetus to say if Edo has been able to do it, then why not any other State.
Then they will begin to make meaningful efforts. It’s not about money. It is not about funding. It is about commitment. That commitment comes from the part of you seeing the benefits. We believe that with these kinds of reforms at the national level, things will change. Now that they are removing subsidies and those measures that never created or allowed competition, many States today will now see that they have no option but to do things properly so that they can attract real private sector money.
Lest I forget, what about primary healthcare; how much have you done in this area?
For us, the emphasis has been on primary healthcare. Part of our whole healthcare strategy is hinged on four key factors. The first is healthcare financing. Somebody must pay, unlike in the past where everybody relied on government expenditure which just didn’t help our healthcare system. Most people now pay out of pocket. So, without the healthcare financing system, it will be difficult to sustain any healthcare system. What we have done is to launch the Edo State Health Insurance Scheme. We asked ourselves, with the government’s limited finances, where should the government spend its money? Is it in secondary care or primary care?
We chose primary care. Then how should we approach primary care? We decided to approach primary care from two perspectives: primary care at the time had just buildings. We said no, it’s human capacity more than anything else that drives the healthcare system. Most of the primary healthcare workers we met were residents in the local governments, and because the local government structure was very weak and couldn’t support an efficient primary healthcare centre, it didn’t work. We had to set up a separate agency – the Primary Healthcare Development Agency. We moved the primary healthcare workers into that agency which we now share with the local governments.
With that, we have control of them. We now changed their conditions of service and scheme of service to create more incentives for them to do the work and ensured adequate capacity building. Lastly, we adopted technology. If you go into any primary healthcare centre, we know you have come there because the healthcare workers take your vitals, record them and the doctor can see from the backend the condition of that patient and then follows up. Our goal is to have 200 of these primary health care centres across the State with one in every ward.
Tell me why you are undertaking such an ambitious palm oil development project, when there seems to be a movement away from everything oil-related. I know palm oil is different from crude oil and gas. What’s the special interest in this particular oil?
If you think about this, palm oil is really indigenous to us here. We have seen people come here, collaborate with us, take materials from us and take it back to their country and see how they have used it to transform their economies. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, you know what Indonesia earns from oil palm. Don’t forget that oil palm is the most prolific edible fat in the world. You get more yield than groundnuts and others. For us, that’s the reason why we’ve been very keen on using oil palm as an agricultural product to attract huge investments. It will be difficult finding somebody that will give us half a billion dollars for cassava. But with oil palm, because of its very nature, it is easy to get investments. These investments are not only in terms of mechanisation, but skills – agronomic skills and other skills for proper farming practices. These are needed to help you develop your agricultural industry. The reason we have been very aggressive is that if we are able to bring in investment for oil palm, then we have brought in the business and investment to develop the entire agricultural sector. It’s very strategic and deliberate and this is going to impact the economy greatly. You know, we have given out up to 70,000 hectares of new lands in addition to what has been cultivated by the two major companies already investing in oil palm in Edo. Assuming for each hectare, you need 50 people to cultivate it, at 70,000 hectares, you already have how many jobs?
You don’t seem to be in a hurry to take credit or planning for the short term, but the long-term. Is that the case here today?
Yes, that is it. It has to be about the future. Why we are in politics is to create wealth and opportunities for the future, not for ourselves. If people like Awolowo, Enahoro and the rest acted only in self-interest, we would not have gotten the advantage that brought us to where we picked up from. You could say I am a politician who works for the next generation.
There appears to be a lot of interest in establishing processing companies in the state as seen with the ethanol and gas refinery plants. What does this mean for you?
Yet again, we are very fortunate in Edo State. Our land, apart from being strategically located, is also diverse. We have almost everything. We have good vegetation that sustains a wide variety of crops which serve as raw materials. We have some of the largest onshore reserves for gas which is an energy source. Outside of Kaduna and Zamfara, we have the largest number of mining licences.
We already have the basics for industrialization. We have agriculture and raw materials for industries; we have energy from gas and we have mineral resources. So, all we need to do is train our human capacity, which is the reason for the emphasis on education. We cannot continue to buy things from around the world, that’s our dilemma today. So, for us in Edo, we see ourselves as the industrial hub. It’s a very deliberate strategy. We want to build our own industrialization based on our natural resources.
You recently announced preferred bidder for the Benin port, tell us about that?
We have an empire that thrived for over five centuries ago. What is the reason? We believe it was the ability to trade with the rest of the world. So, the Benin Empire has always been global and that opportunity to trade is because of our access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Benin River. That river is still there today. From the Atlantic, the Apapa is about 15 nautical miles. So, with the necessary investments, we will become another option. The Benin Port is the closest path to the belly of Nigeria.
If you can move your containers to Benin, you are less than two hours from the main market in the East; you can get to Kogi in another 2 to 3 hours and through Ondo, you can access the South West. It will relieve the pressure. We went through a very open process to see whether it’s viable and whether it makes economic sense. That is why it took us two years to do the study for all things we need to do and open it up to investors to come and pitch. We had three major investors and from there, one emerged. We are close. We hope and believe that all things being equal, they should start construction in another 6 months.
You said recently that without emphasis on exports, the nation is not going anywhere, because the crisis is still present. Do you think the federal is listening? Do they really appreciate and recognise how important it is to get out of this crisis, especially now that forex is a big challenge in the country?
I will not say we don’t realise it. I will say that it’s a structural problem with our economy. Sometimes, it’s quite difficult to change the structure underlying the fundamentals. What has happened over the last 4 to 5 decades is because we found crude oil and hydrocarbons to quickly sell and make money and get foreign exchange. It has not really encouraged us to do exports unlike the situation before we found oil. Also, the culture of building competitive goods is lacking. For you to export, you have to do something competitive, your price has to be better than the other person’s price.
Why would someone come and buy things from you if he can get them cheaper somewhere else? We need to now look at the entire chain and the process of production, what do we have an advantage in, outside our crude oil? Once upon a time, we had an advantage in cash crops like cocoa, oil palm, rubber, and today, we have advantage in energy and gas. The gas can be converted into energy and that’s what we want in Edo, to generate electricity that is less than 50 % of the cost in Europe. So, today, one-kilowatt hour of power in Europe will cost you as much as 30 cents per kwh. In Edo today, I want to be able to generate not more than 11 cents per kwh. So, from an energy perspective, I already have an advantage.
If I can have the same quality of manpower and all the other inputs, I should be able to produce competitively and then export. But that means somebody has to sit with me. That brings me to your question: do people in Abuja understand that they have to strip this whole process of all the corruption and wastes? I can’t be buying gas domestically at very high prices and yet you expect me to be competitive.
There is a problem of running a government and generating income to do infrastructure. What should Nigeria do? What does Abuja need to do to restructure and redirect Nigeria for profitability?
We have to look at the structure of the country. The design today is too huge to be efficient. Right, we need to first get the federal government to reduce its size significantly and just focus on those things that we can’t do for ourselves. The few policy things that will help us bring the country together, you don’t need 52% of the revenues coming in to do that. We need to significantly reduce the size of the federal government. It is too wasteful. Then, we need to allow competition among the sub-nationals so that you don’t have one point of failure. It’s better to have 36 points of failure and you know all of it will not fail. But today, once the centre fails, we all fail.
So, the structure needs to change. We need to introduce competition. That is the way people can breathe and the country can breathe. Right now, the country is choked. If the federal government does not build its roads, I cannot move goods and services across the States and can’t move my goods from Edo to Kogi, my neighbouring State. This is because what connects us is the federal road. You should fix your federal roads or have a collaboration between us, the States so that your roads across my State are a collaboration between us and I don’t have to wait for somebody in Abuja before I can repair it, whether it’s road or any other infrastructure.
For example, in Edo, digital infrastructure is not federally-controlled so I connected all my fibre across Edo State. So, if my neighbour is interested too, I just connect them. We don’t need anybody in Abuja to now begin to regulate us. So, what we need to do is to ensure that first, we let the centre reduce what it controls and do the things it is supposed to do very effectively and efficiently. What are the key issues? You need security and safety for people to encourage investments.
One reason why we have been able to encourage and attract the number of investments to Edo is because of the perception of security here. There is nothing wrong with policing at the federal, state level and local government levels. Nigeria is not going to break up. So, we shouldn’t have this attitude that you want to hold everything together, no. Nigeria is maturing. What we need is to change the structure and introduce this element of competitiveness. You will see different parts of the country thriving and then there will be more cooperation- interstate or inter-regional cooperation.
In other words, you are advocating devolution of power across the state
We cannot rule this country without restructuring power as it’s seen today.
But some people have also accused the state governments of choking the local governments and preventing them from functioning?
What we are saying is let there be 36 points of competition, not everybody would choke their LGAs. If you see that releasing or breathing fresh air to your local government helps your growth, maybe that’s the model you would like to adopt.
Talking about the airport project, what is happening to it?
We have made quite some progress. We have acquired the property, the land. We are finalising all the surveys and the studies. Experts are looking at all the things we need to do, all the technical things we need to make the airport safe. We are also talking to potential partners. We are not an aviation company so we don’t know how to build an airport. We need partners and we have one or two people who have indicated interest in partnering with the State. For us, just like the Benin Port, we have established viability from the initial economic studies on the route between Benin and Abuja and if we are able to build an airport in between, it will make a lot of sense. It’s an area with over 10 to 12 million population.
The state complained recently that the federal government was neglecting its responsibility; that the federal roads were in bad shape. What are you going to do about it, because it’s in your state and the federal government can stay away and not do anything. But the people will always point fingers at you, the governor? What are you doing? Are you engaging the federal government?
We are engaging with the federal government. We are engaging with some of the large users of these roads. Don’t forget that Edo is at an advantage because of its location. Relatively speaking, we have a larger federal road connection than most states because every major federal truck passes through Edo State. You know, the federal government gets 52% of the revenues and as a State, Edo gets less than 1% and I can build the roads if you give me more money. But even then, we think the companies are some of the main users of roads. We have two cement plants in our State with over 6,000,000 tonnes of cement being produced. They have tax credits. They have made the money available but the federal government is not efficient in the way they do their things. There is no transparency in the way they do business.
If you take the Benin-Auchi-Okene Road, for instance, that road has been awarded for over 20 years. It got so bad a few months ago and we got a company to fix it but they couldn’t because the road is already under contract. So, what do we do as a State? Do we take the Federal Government to court and sue them for not doing their work on their roads? What we are doing is building our own internal state roads and barricading them for the use of our people and that is the strategy we’re going to adopt until we are able to raise substantial amounts of money and then look for new alignments to build new roads to connect our people.
The Museum of West African Art is taking shape. How will it impact the local art scene and how will it change the narrative of Benin bronzes?
One unique advantage of Edo is its culture. Nobody else has it and the world recognises this. It has become even a lot more famous with all the controversies surrounding the return of the Benin artefacts. So, if the world has acknowledged and recognised these unique attributes, how do we as a State and as a people monetize it? How do we take advantage of it? How do we give it some touristic value? If people travel across the globe to see these things, how can we tell our story differently so that more people can come here to see them? These artefacts, our forebears created long ago. Those same creative instincts that led to all of these are still here with us. It is still the same blood that flows in our veins. So, what we’re doing is creating a similar environment that will support those creative instincts, the creative genius in our people to blossom. You can only do that when you have the supporting infrastructure to do these things. That’s where things like the pavilion we’re constructing, the museum and the display areas become important and necessary. So, it’s not just about the return of the bronzes.
The other issue is preserving them. How are we conserving them? If the work that we are asking to be returned were not preserved, will we find them today to be returned? For us, we see art as a fortune so we’re trying to create the environment including the infrastructure so as to create wealth. That is why the Museum of West African Arts (MOWAA) is important; that is why the pavilion is important, that is why we redesigned the city centre as a cultural centre where people can come in and see elements of this great kingdom. We are restoring parts of the moats so that people can come and see these moats and understand how they influenced our culture.
Your tenure is almost over as you have one year to go. It started with a dream and you have been able to achieve some of what you set out to achieve. In a nutshell, how has this journey been?
It’s been interesting but unfortunately, people remember more of the fight and ask why the fights. I mean, if we didn’t have them, we would not have been able to come this far. There were compromises that we just couldn’t make, which led to the fights but people are emphasising the fight, but don’t see the benefit of the fight. I believe that my successors will not have it as difficult as we had because we tried the new paradigm and people can see the benefit in this new way of thinking and doing things. Well, if you ask me if I would go the same path if I have to do it all over again, I will say yes because I don’t see how else I could have done it. It’s like asking me if you want to eat Omelette again, are you going to break some eggs?
About 17 people are gunning for your seat. Some people are saying PDP cannot retain the state. How optimistic are you that your party will retain the state? This is important because with all that you have done now, if another party comes in and does not share your vision, everything might go to waste. Therefore, your successor is very key to continuing the transformation you have started. How optimistic are you that your party can retain this seat?
I think you have asked a very deep question that we need to reflect on because there are very many aspects. The first question is, have we achieved what we have achieved based on a particular party manifesto? This is because we have been in two parties. We need to look more beyond party. It is also about the person – the qualities of the person that we pick to run for the office. The second is when you come back to the parties today, which is the dominant party in the state?
We have the most members in the House of Assembly from the last elections; you can tell clearly how it happened. We’re going for another local government election in a few weeks’ time and you know every politics is local. We have been campaigning hard and I would be surprised if we lose anything, maybe one or two across the state. We have that kind of domination; don’t forget people have now accepted PDP as the party for the state, except in one federal constituency. So, we are optimistic that with what we have done, our party will produce the next governor provided we come up with a credible candidate that reflects fairness, justice and inclusion.
Have you commenced the search? You know the onus is on you, you are the party leader.
We feel that the process is still too early because it could be distractive. We want to finish well. How well we finish will determine how confident our people are for our party to continue. So, I don’t want to be distracted now.